Worcester fieldwork

Griet and I are just back from two weeks of ethnographic fieldwork, exploring walking and cycling in Worcester. We stayed in a fantastic cottage in Lower Broadheath, a few miles west of the city centre. Called ‘Malvern View’, there was indeed a view of the Malvern Hills from the back windows and garden.

Beyond the city limits, we were right on top of some superb cycling lanes, which led to truly wonderful cycling country. So of course, I took advantage of the absence of many of the usual restrictions on my cycling, and got in a fair few miles, riding through Worcestershire and Herefordshire. I rode the climb of British Camp, onto the Malvern Hills, for the first time since I used to ride in this part of the world as a teenager, when I lived in south Birmingham and was a member of Shirley Roads Club. The tough climb of Ankerdine Hill was almost on our doorstep, so I got in a good few ascents of that. And I did my first century ride of the year, across to Broadway in the Cotswolds on a dry and sunny Sunday.

But of course, lest anyone should forget, we were there to work. We’d already made four or five shorter trips to Worcester. The main focus of our qualitative research is on the south-western part of the city, known as Lower Wick. We’ve used various methods to understand walking and cycling there – doing serious amounts of exploring on foot and by bike around Lower Wick, St John’s and Worcester ourselves; observing other people walking and cycling; travelling with people as they walk and cycle; and talking to as many people, and as many different kinds of people, as we can, about their experiences of and attitudes to walking and cycling.

(For those – probably the majority – of you who don’t know it, Worcester is cut in half, north to south, by the River Severn. Worcester city centre is to the east of the River, and the smaller centre of St John’s is to the west, with the largely residential area of Lower Wick directly to the south of St John’s. Although there is one bridge (and there are soon to be two, see below) specifically for walking and cycling across the River, there is only one bridge for motorised traffic, which leads to some, errrm, issues … – some would say ‘problems’, others ‘opportunities’ …)

Our aim with this longer visit was finally and really to get to grips with walking and cycling in Worcester, to finish our fieldwork there feeling like we’d got a good ethnographic understanding of how these sustainable modes of mobility variously figure (and don’t figure) in different people’s lives. I’ll write more about our experiences over on our research blog later. I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so it won’t be for a while (and straight after Easter, we’re jumping back into the field, this time to Leicester, and specifically Belgrave, which is the part of the city where the Hindu population is most concentrated). But I’m hoping that a week’s relaxation (on the little Scottish island of Colonsay, along with 50-odd other Lancastrians – an English invasion!) will be conducive to – amongst other things – slowing down and digesting our ethnographic experiences so far.

For now, there are just a couple of things I feel especially driven to mention …

The first thing which struck me in Worcester was how widespread is cycling on the pavement there. In my view all of this is entirely understandable and legitimate, although some of it is sanctioned by the authorities and some isn’t … One part of the city on which we have really focused, because it’s so clearly problematic for both walking and cycling, is St John’s centre. Nowhere in St John’s, to the best of my knowledge, is cycling officially permitted on pavements, but I’d guess (we’re qualitative, not quantitative social scientists, so when it comes to numbers guessing is what I do best …!) that perhaps 2 out of every 3 cyclists take to the pavement at some stage of their journey when moving through St John’s centre. (Some people continue to ride their bike on the pavement, others get off and push.) When you look at images such as this one, you might begin to see why ….

A second thing which struck me, during our time in Worcester, is how people tend to take-for-granted, and to accept, the conditions which – moving by bike or on foot – they ordinarily, every day, negotiate. This is in no way intended as a criticism. We all learn to live with the world-as-it-is, and it is to people’s great credit that they find ways of continuing to cycle – of making cycling work for them – when the world-as-it-is seems so thoroughly, utterly hostile to cycling. Pavement cycling is just one strategy which people use in order to make cycling work for them, in very adverse conditions which have determined that the vast majority of people have stopped cycling and/or can’t even begin to contemplate starting it.

For five years until recently, Worcester was a Sustainable Travel Town. Locally, the project was known (by those who know about it, at least) as – wait for it – Choose How You Move. As you can see, they’ve got some nice signage as a result.

But you know what? After two weeks in Worcester, I’m left thinking that those people who manage to walk and cycle there are like an endangered species, hanging on by the skin of their teeth.  I get the very strong feeling not that cycling and walking are being promoted (though of course I know that they are, to some degree), but that only the committed, the brave or the desperate walk and cycle, and that these people who do walk and cycle develop all kinds of strategies – including pavement cycling – which enable them to maintain these practices in the face of a callous indifference towards them.

In general, my strong sense is that these two most sustainable modes of mobility are still in the process of being driven off the streets of Worcester and St John’s (if not of Lower Wick, which by comparison is a backwater beacon of peace, quiet, conviviality and sustainability – though also, of course, home to many of the cars which cause many of the problems …).

In general, I try to be optimistic about the prospects for cycling. But sometimes I’m, shall we say, challenged …

On paper, promoting cycling in Worcester should be an absolute cinch – remarkably flat, relatively dry, reasonably contained, plenty of ‘easy-to-reach’ target groups. With the political will and the right policies, 50% of all urban journeys by bike within the next decade could easily be achieved. Oh, but the practice – well, as we know so well, that’s a very different story .. if also a depressingly familiar one.

Anyway, I won’t go on about our Worcester fieldwork here. If you want more detail and/or more nuance, pay a visit at a later date to Griet and my research site, which is bookmarked somewhere over on the right there …

But to finish on a brighter note, work on the Diglis Bridge seems to be coming along nicely. One of Sustrans’ Connect2 sites, when it’s complete (due date, June 2010) the Bridge will connect Lower Wick with parts of south Worcester to the east of the River Severn, and should also provide a very attractive walking and cycling route into the city centre. So, the revolution might just have begun, at least on summer Sundays when the sun is shining …

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