Towards a bicycle system

I’ve just OK’d the proofs of an article I’ve written with Professor John Parkin of London South Bank University. It’s the concluding chapter to Cycling and Sustainability, a collection of papers examining different aspects of cycling, written by an impressive set of authors from across the globe. John has been working for cycling both within and outside academia for a long time, and he’s done a magnificent job in making the book happen. (I’m sorry about the price – this is academic publishing. But please, if you think it looks interesting and/or useful but find the cost prohibitive, consider ordering it for your local library.)

Partly to announce the book, which will be published next month, and partly because I’m still thinking through our contribution to it, I’m here re-visiting and summarising just part of our conclusion, where we advocate for a global bicycle system. We argue that such a system is required for cycling to make a fundamental contribution to sustainability.

John will present a paper based on the chapter – so long as our abstract is accepted – at the ninth Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium  at the University of East London in September; and I might end up talking about it at the second Building Cycling Cultures conference in Leicester in June (we’re having a planning meeting towards this event on Friday, so more details should be available soon).

Cycling remains massively marginal as a mode of everyday urban mobility across the globe but its low status is beginning to change, and even to result in actual gains. Some of the world’s most prestigious cities – for example, New York, Paris, Barcelona and London – are beginning slowly to be re-made away from the car and towards the bicycle, and in the process the everyday lives and travel practices of residents and visitors are being re-made too.

In particular, cycling is becoming established as a key marker of a middle-class inner-urban lifestyle. In societies which have become saturated with cars, where inner-city living has become de rigueur, and where health and fitness have become key indicators of ‘a good lifestyle’, cycling has new kudos. Cycling is becoming ‘cool’ and experiencing a ‘renaissance’, particularly amongst affluent, white, middle-class, inner-urban professionals.

There is hope here, that the bicycle is finally being re-made as a (potentially) global cosmopolitan icon of sustainable urban life.

Isn’t this ‘the moment’ we have been waiting for – the bicycle’s second, this time sustainable, coming?

Yes, but we must turn this trend – which might otherwise be ‘a fashion’ or ‘a fad’ – into something durable; we must take advantage of cycling’s current popularity. After all, who knows how long the car would have lasted – perhaps only a few decades – had we not re-designed and re-built our cities around it?

Also, how democratic is the current rise in cycling’s status?

At the end of the nineteenth century cycling was the preserve of the rich and leisured classes in northern Europe and north America. Bicycles only became accessible to those less affluent when the rich jumped from them, into cars. Rarely in the history of cycling have rich and poor ridden side-by-side, yet for the sake of sustainability this is what we now must do.

But whilst the rich might be returning to cycling, the poor – when they have any choice in the matter – are not.

Whether you are poor in the ‘rich world’ or the ‘poor world’, whether the bicycle is perceived mainly as a ‘toy’ or a ‘tool’, it tends – even if it can be afforded – not to be a vehicle which is sought after, but rather one which is enforced and/or to be left behind. So the bicycle’s potential as a tool to mend our broken cities and build globally more sustainable lives risks remaining unfulfilled.

The bicycle’s capacity to infer distinction on the middle classes of prestigious global cities also depends on its continued exclusivity. The new-found status of cycling among urban elites is thus antithetical to its democratisation – loss in exclusivity will erode its appeal. The elite abandoned cycling once and could do so again, as soon as its capacity to infer and communicate distinction declines.

The bicycle’s popularity amongst one elite (the hardcore minority who currently cycle) and its growing popularity amongst another elite (the inner-city middle classes who are turning to it) cannot be translated into mass cycling unless we remove the logic of choice at an individual level by creating structures which impose it at a collective level. That is, we make cycling not just for some, but for everyone.

Only a system can achieve this social solidarity in cycling, because only a system can structure and institute practices which are independent of – or at least reasonably resilient to – individual psychologies and whims, cultural fads and fashions.

The indisputable benefits to travelling by bicycle within a bicycle system would not only enable the democratisation of cycling beyond an intellectual middle class elite, but also reduce the risk of this elite’s abandonment of cycling once its status as a privileged practice has been lost.

There is too much talk about giving people the ‘choice’ to cycle. This rhetoric of ‘choice’ constrains cycling; it gives the illusion that we can ‘nudge’  people towards cycling, when what’s actually required is much more wide-ranging and fundamental.

Modal choices aren’t chosen so much as structured, and they exist in systems which structure them. That’s why in a society such as the UK, so many more people drive than cycle, even when “it makes no sense to drive so short a distance”, and “it’s a journey which could so easily be made by bike”.

Most people in societies such as the UK and USA do not choose to drive a car. Over the last half century modal ‘choice’ has been eliminated as the car has become increasingly structured into people’s everyday lives as the ‘normal’, ‘default’ option. People drive because they’re part of a car system.

The dominance of this car system also explains why so few people in the UK and USA cycle. Many more people cycle in China and The Netherlands than in the UK or USA because the Chinese and Dutch have installed better bicycle systems, which embed cycling as a routine, everyday practice.

To embed cycling globally, then, we need a global bicycle system.

Overriding the capacity for individual choice, a bicycle system can convert what might be a current undemocratic ‘fashion’ into durable collective cycling practice. It can make, at least for short urban journeys, cycling the default; whilst driving becomes the deliberative, active, more difficult ‘choice’, the option requiring people to ‘be hardcore’ and ‘go against the grain’.

The tentative elite embrace of ‘ordinary’ cycling in some of the world’s most prestigious cities is a geographically and historically specific ‘moment’, one which provides us with an unprecedented opportunity – for the sake of both cycling and sustainability – to institute, and so make more democratic and sustainable, this minority turn to cycling – to make a ‘revolution’ from what might otherwise be a ‘fashion’.

Two quick points about the worldwide institutionalisation of cycling via a global bicycle system:

First, a bicycle system includes very many things – just like the ‘object’ of the bicycle itself. Such multiplicity is the fundamental and most important characteristic of a system. Any thing in isolation will have minimal, if any, effect; changes must be systematic. Within a system, no one thing is made to do too much work; there is no ‘silver bullet’. Rather all the components of the system work synergistically, together, to create a sum in excess of its parts. Building such a system takes time; it is an incremental project, but also a principled and a collective one;

Second, more incidentally, but something which is very much a ‘live’ issue in the UK – the question of whether we should adopt an ‘integrationist’ or ‘segregationist’ perspective when building for cycling loses much of its significance under the more encompassing task of building a global bicycle system. Of course, this larger task still requires us to consider, decide and lobby, in context-specific ways, for cycling’s ‘proper place’, but that ‘proper place’ becomes part of a far bigger picture, with the objective of getting everyone eventually moving by bicycle. Different places will devise and install different solutions – with different life-spans – in the process of incrementally building cycling’s centrality into the urban mobility system.

The development of a global bicycle system is a major collective project in which we all can, indeed must – even if only by riding a bicycle – be involved. (If you’re reading this blog post I’m sure you already are.) For anyone who loves cycling, these then should be exciting times.

Everywhere there is so much work to be done, for the sake of human viability on our planet, to contribute to a bicycle system. The ‘push for cycling’ must be broad, confident and powerful. We need new cycling infrastructure; new cycling stories; new cycling thinking; new cycle shops, new cycle repair services, and cycle hire services; new cycling-oriented maps, guides and websites; new cycle parking; more cycle-friendly schools, colleges and workplaces; new cycling-oriented cafes, restaurants and hotels; better integration of cycling and other modes of mobility, especially buses, trams and trains; stronger connections between cycling and other spheres of life, including business, politics, television, film, music and other media. We need people to cycle, and people to help, support and encourage others to cycle. Whoever and wherever we are,  whatever we do, we can contribute to the new bicycle system required to build a broader and better culture of sustainability.

In this bicycle system the ‘choice’ to cycle is not an individual choice, it’s a social choice – it’s been made elsewhere, by complex, overlapping systems making it the sensible – logical, rational, enjoyable – way of moving around.

We need such a system to make the bicycle the global vehicle of urban mobility, a vehicle not only of and for a new global elite, but irrespective of where someone lives, their social position, and their attitude towards sustainability.

We need such a system to make cycling democratic and sustainable

We need such a system for cycling to fulfil its massive potential contribution to urban sustainability.

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10 Responses to “Towards a bicycle system”

  1. brianingreenvillenc Says:

    I agree with you pretty much 100%, but…

    I’m trying to imagine how to bring your ideas into practice in the US, where “individual choice” is enshrined as the greatest good and “major collective project” is one of the most blasphemous terms one can utter. It seems impossible. In this country, at least, we do need to maintain the idea of individual choice — but we need to provide genuine alternatives.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      I don’t disagree with you Brian, but I think part of my argument (although I’m thinking off the top of my head here) is that we might do well to become more self-conscious (and collectively conscious) about what it is we’re doing – attempting to build a bicycle system by simultaneously working on many different fronts. I think this might help us – as advocates for cycling – when governments and/or other agencies do “something good for cycling”, to applaud, but also to say “that’s not enough; unless such efforts are consciously embedded in wider efforts, they’ll have very little effect”. Perhaps the most important thing I’m saying is ‘let’s lift our horizon, let’s be more ambitious for cycling, let’s become more angry about always accepting 2nd or 3rd best (because we figure that’s better than nothing), and start demanding much more’.
      All the best, Dave

  2. LoveloBicycles (@LoveloBicycles) Says:

    Very interesting, I would like to hear more about the rich/poor divide, I think there are some economic class issues that aren’t spoken about much.

    PS, I may not be held responsible for my actions if you use the term ‘synergistically’ again! If you aren’t careful you’ll be talking about a creating a paradigm shift to a holistic approach which will empower cyclists.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Sorry about ‘synergistically’! It just kind of slipped out – the sociologist seems occasionally to need to reassert himself 😉 But a paradigm shift to a holistic approach which will empower cyclists – now you’re talking!!
      On the rich cyclist/poor cyclist thing, there’s so much to be said here (and some people are beginning to say it; for example, Gail Jennings from Cape Town, South Africa, has done some very useful work on the contrast in that city between rich recreational and sports cyclists on the one hand, and poor utility cyclists on the other). If we are to start more consciously talking, thinking and working towards cycling as a genuinely global response to poverty/injustice/(oil-based) conflict/environmental devastation, then figuring out how to ‘democratise’ cycling in a world which is so often so sharply divided between haves and have-nots is a key task.
      Cheers, Dave

  3. David dansky Says:

    Love the vision Dave. And do I sense a certain optimism from you?

    From the bottom come the voice of dissent and militant bicycle actions, the indignant intolerance of car driver caused death, of reluctance to ride and to tolerate conditions that mean people opt out of the fun through fear. And diverse exclamations of joy where pockets of cycling culture make it normal and superb. And drivers angry in defeat and more tolerant and understanding yet still blood on the road

    And from above the murmerings of support for the economy, for our health and mental well-being, for the planet and for the joy of it, and for the money innit

    So tomorrow we launch a summer of cycling as hi viz daffodils fill our parks waving their heads while hi viz riders rush past with nodding heads and a smile on their faces.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Yes David, for sure a sense of optimism. I’ll refrain from “things can only get better” and instead opt for “the only way is up”! After kicking a car and badly hurting my foot at the tail-end of last year, I have resolved to never do such a silly thing again (! – really, (if you haven’t already) don’t try it – cars are much harder than they look, unfortunately …), and instead to get much better at re-directing my (otherwise more-or-less perpetual) frustration, indignation and anger towards strategies more likely (maybe?) to leave positive rather than negative traces and possibly to contribute towards sustained changes in the right direction. I’m not for a minute suggesting people who ride, try to ride or want to ride don’t remain very pissed off (that’s both an inevitability and also a ‘duty’), but it does strike me that if we could more effectively channel those constant, daily energies, well – where might we get to? As John Lydon so rightly said, “anger is an energy” … Look forward to seeing you Friday, Dave, x

  4. Paul M Says:

    Perhaps the approach of the urban rich and the poor to the car speaks of self-confidence, or lack thereof. Just as -counterintuitively – drivers of ostentatiously expensive, powerful cars often drive quite sedately, because they know they don’t need to prove how fast their car is, rich people don’t need a car to prove they have “arrived” but poor people still see it as a badge of upward mobility. The richest person I know (wealth measured in 8 figures) goes to work on a bus and owns a VW Golf.

    I take your point about the need to introduce real influence factors rather than simply permit “choice” but does the influence of the wealthy have a part to play? As I understand it, our system of hard surfaced roads was lobbied for by the cyclists of the day – the early, wealthy middle class pioneers – to improve the cycling experience, but the result was the demise of mass cycling because the same roads made the motor car possible. If we were a bit cuter about it, could we harness the interests of inner city professionals – bankers etc – to agitate for a major re-think of road hierarchies and use of space, the “network assurance” agenda etc?

    Or, a somewhat different proposition, what about mobilising the young? Anyone under 18 is by definition not a driver. Less than a third of young adults (18-20) has a driving licence, and presumably passng the test remains a minority position for a couple of years after that. At the same time, the burden of student loans, the high cost of housing especially to buy, and the paucity of good job opportunities at present must surely render driving something which is only undertaken out of desperation (rural areas) or indulgent daddies, and is low on most young people’s priority lists? They surely should be mad as hell about opening the silver drawer and finding their parents’ generation has pawned it, so they can have final salary pensions, cheaply bought houses, free higher education and, of course that new car every three years, while they struggle with crap public transport and roads not safe to cycle?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Paul, all great comments and insights. Just to add a few thoughts which yours raise:

      First, I guess the trick is to make it as attractive for the ‘poor man’ to cycle through the outer-suburbs from home to work and back, as for the ‘rich man’ to ride the short journey from his inner-city pad to his inner-city gym. But sure, I agree that it’s probably easier (in terms of status) to ride a bike when you know (even if those who see you don’t) that you’ve got an expensive car parked at home; for those who cycle (partly) because they can’t afford a car I think cycling can feel like an injury, a continuously inflicted and very classed one (and if they’re riding in crap conditions, which they likely are, the injury is and feels much worse).

      Second, yes absolutely, the influence of the wealthy must have a part to play, but one task of ‘a bicycle system’ (if you can assign tasks to systems) is to convert that elite power and influence into democratic gains across the system as a whole. To put it simply, if the elite are riding in Islington, great, really great. But we don’t just want improved cycling conditions in Islington, we want them in Brent and Barnet too; and nor do we just want them in London, we want them in Leeds and Liverpool too; and then we don’t just want them in England, the UK, and Europe; we want them across the world. So part of the task is transforming what might start as self-interested into global demands. (I’m being deliberately ambitious here, and could quite rightly be told to ‘be glad for the gains we seem to be making, and to take it one step at a time’.)

      Third, for sure we need to educate, and (as good education should do) prod, raise and change consciousness. I know through experience of teaching how difficult it can be to challenge and crack the normality of the car, when the rest of economy, politics, society and culture is continuously constructing the car as precisely normal. When young people stop aspiring to the car, stop seeing it as the normal way in which as adults they will move around, and start asking questions – of their parents (why do you drive such short distances? Why do you not give me more independence to move around by myself?), and of their society (why have we created a society in which cars so dominate our lives?), and of themselves (do I want to inherit and reproduce this normality, or rather to challenge it?) – then we’ll be making good progress, but importantly such questions need to be getting asked within an overall mobility system which is simultaneously re-orienting itself away from the car and towards the bicycle. There is not enough anger in the system right now, and there should be. Well-directed anger – as we’ve seen with The Time’s ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign – is what should be driving it. What’s great to see is this anger growing in London, and producing some tangible outcomes (e.g. the bike ride planned for Saturday 28th April) and some real effects. But the anger has to be sustained, if politicians are not to get away with some momentary waffle, but for that waffle to start getting converted into actions.

      Thanks for making contact, and all the best


    Great post! Very intriguing as well…
    As far as I can experience in my everyday life in London and the constant contact with friends and bike lovers/activists from Brazil (mostly Sao Paulo), cycling is growing, not only as a culture and economical activity, but also as a form of taking a political position, demanding the right to the use (and not just use, but use with safety) of the “veins of mobility”. In this sense, is very important to keep working and fighting (not physically, please) together for a global raise of awareness towards a fairer and more sustainable way of living in urban centres.

    There are two topics that I have spotted in discussions and articles related to cycling lately and would like to share with you:

    1) Cities such as London have been investing an expressive amount of money in road improvements and adaptations for cyclists as well as advertising and encouraging the use of the bicycle as a way of transport. In Sao Paulo, for example, cyclists still struggle to be noticed in the chaotic traffic of the city, which has very few kilometers of bike lanes and lack of bike lanes in key roads such as Avenida Paulista, Nove de Julho, Avenida Brasil etc. Despite differences of mentality and the way the governments see the potential of the bicycle as an alternative, healthy, enjoyable and environmentally friendly, both cities have been facing a similar problem. The growth of cyclists in the streets are growing rapidly, but this hasn’t been followed by the level of education of drivers (and riders as well), which result in accidents (about three weeks ago a cyclist from Sao Paulo was killed by a bus in the Avenida Paulista and, around one month ago, a cyclist was also killed in London, in very similar circumstances). So how can cyclists ensure they are actually seen by other vehicles? What kind of educational strategies could be adopted to better inform road users?

    2) In relation to cycling and wealth/poverty, well, I don’t really know much about the trends of London (would be great if you could share some numbers Dave), but there is an interesting about the type of users in Sao Paulo. Usually bike riders are middle-class members with either a inclination towards a healthier life-style or an interest about more sustainable ways of transport, but they could easily buy a car (and many of them have one). But there is a key factor that contributes for this tendency: people with more money tend to live in areas that are closer to the centre of the city, therefore easier to be reached by bike. People with low-income have to travel long distances to reach their work, very often been obliged to rely on the (much worse than London’s) public transport. What is even more ironic is that when the government of Sao Paulo develops a cycle lane, is usually in central areas and areas of high concentration of capital (such as the new bike lane of the neighbor of Moema, one of the most well known middle to upper-middle class neighbors of Sao Paulo.
    Perhaps this topic leads to deeper discussions about “who the city is made for” in addition to the very frequent question (and one of the ones that most interests me) “WHAT is the city made for”.

    I personally love cycling and use the bicycle not only as my way of transport but also as tool for my work as an artist and urban explorer. The question I ask myself and other cyclists everyday is How to keep the momentum and make it a permanent reality not a current trend? How to make pressure on the government to stop working only in favour of wealthier classes and reflect on the city as a truly collective environment?

    Thanks for reading my rather long post, hope it helps the debates.


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Raphael

      Thanks very much for making contact, and for your insights into cycling in Sao Paulo, and London. In relation to your point 1), of course we need to train people how to ride more safely (which probably means much more assertively) and how to drive more safely (which probably means much more deferentially), but I also think we shouldn’t become too overly reliant on training as ‘the’ way to tackle the problem; because the most effective ways of changing behaviours are likely to be more structural – namely, changing the conditions under which people drive and ride. My ideal (and nothing wrong with saying it!) would be that all urban roads have a universally respected maximum speed limit of 20kph (about 12mph), and that all drivers of bigger vehicles demonstrate a real duty of care towards more vulnerable others, so that the kinds of civility we expect and get in, for example, museums, art galleries and most other public places come also to obtain on the equally public places of our streets. Practically, there’s an issue of how we move towards that kind of (longer-term) scenario – currently, because it seems most likely to succeed, I’m favouring the separation of cycling from motorised modes and pedestrians on the biggest and busiest urban roads as the best way of generating the kind of very big jump in levels of cycling required to generate new kinds of cyclists, and new kinds of political demands, and so start to shift the foundations for future debates. But I completely understand, respect and to a large extent agree with those who prefer to advocate the continued mixing of cycling with motorised modes, but in environments which have become very much more civilised through, for example, 30kph (about 18mph) speed limits on most streets and changes to liability laws to put more onus on drivers of motorised vehicles to take care of pedestrians and cyclists. And I also think that if we can start framing our demands differently, by articulating both strategies as just part of the changes required to build an increasingly coherent, complex and connected bicycle system, then they lose a bit of their current (in the UK at least) ‘either/or’ status.

      On your second point, I’m afraid I don’t have numbers to hand, for London, and that (rather reckless?) claim is based on some of the chapters I have read which form part of John Parkin’s book on ‘Cycling and Sustainability’, which is also where some of the ideas in this blog post come from. But, for example, levels of cycling in London have over the last decade increased most dramatically in inner-London, and particularly in Hackney (the Cycling Cultures project, which has done intensive fieldwork in Hackney, can say much more about this); and you are I think absolutely right, Raphael, to note how the inner-city is (across the world perhaps, if it’s also true of Sao Paulo?) being re-colonised by the rich, and it is the inner-city where the shorter distances to which cycling is most suited are likely to make most sense of people’s everyday lives. The poor, who are also often the car-less, are being pushed to the edges, to the margins, and to dispersed lives (especially, from an economic and political perspective, between home and work) into which it is much more difficult to insert the bicycle. So as you say, new urban cycling infrastructure is serving the rich rather more than (if indeed at all) the poor. We cannot, must not, escape these fundamental (and quickly shifting) issues of equity and justice; so yes, please, the questions you raise are not just interesting, they’re also very important!

      It sounds (perhaps because you’re asking what are to me at least the ‘right’ questions) like you’re doing fantastic work for cycling, and sustainable/convivial cities – thanks, and keep it up! And sorry that my response is equally as long as yours – but yours has certainly helped the debate from my perspective!

      I hope our paths cross at some point, especially given you’re (currently?) in London.

      Best wishes, Dave

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