Cycling and the politics of time

Something that struck me time and again, talking to people during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, was the interconnections between cycling and time. I’ll begin with two observations about how the availability (including lack) of time influences people’s cycling.

First, people who typically feel busy sometimes cycle as a way of reclaiming time for themselves; so for example, I met a middle-aged chap in Leicester who spent far more of his time than he’d like driving all over the country by car, but who relaxed once he got home by taking to his bike for a leisurely evening ride, to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many people described cycling in such ways – as about quality ‘off-time’; in fact, based on our fieldwork I’d argue that this ‘leisurely cycling’ is the dominant experience of cycling in Britain today. In other words, if you’re ‘time poor’ cycling represents quality down-time, in which to relax and be restored.

Then second, people who have more leisurely lifestyles find it easier to integrate cycling as part of their ordinary, everyday lives; so for example, an older semi-retired couple in Worcester cycled for many of their local journeys. They felt able to do so because they never felt in a rush, and could schedule their lives as they liked, rather than having to fit into the demands of others. In other words, if you’re ‘time rich’ cycling can work as a way of organising and connecting different aspects of your everyday life.

There’s a contradiction here, between how cycling works for most people today, and how transport policy would like cycling to work.  On the one hand, our research suggests cycling might be encouraged by making life in general more leisurely and relaxed. This would also probably promote sustainability, by making life slower and more locally-rooted (and, I’d argue, more enjoyable and convivial).

Yet on the other hand, cycling’s increasingly promoted through attempts to speed it up. This trend is clearest in initiatives such as Copenhagen’s ‘green wave’, whereby traffic signals on the popular arterial cycling route of Nørrebrogade are synchronised to enable continuous movement for people riding at 20 kilometres per hour.

Copenhagen is the city of efficient cycling par excellence, and there at least, judging by its high and rising modal share, ‘efficient cycling’ seems popular. Understandably, if also problematically, we’re speeding cycling up to fit the world-as-it-is, rather than attempting to slow the world down, so cycling-as-it-is fits into it better. My main question here is: do we want cycling to be made efficient?

My reason for asking this question: what happens to cycling in the drive towards making it more efficient? Speeding up cycling makes it more competitive, and thus potentially more attractive, vis-à-vis other modes. But what’s lost by these gains in time?

I’m not disputing that cycling can be fast and efficient, and that’s sometimes why we ride. If I want to get from home to Lancaster University, 4 miles away, cycling is – for me – much quicker than any other means of getting there. But that’s not the only reason I choose to cycle, and to ‘sell’ cycling because of its speed is, I think, overly to instrumentalise it.

The instrumentalisation of cycling risks killing its inherent value. Writing of the emergence of train travel in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin said:

“The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable.”

Ruskin goes on:

“No one would travel in that manner who could help it – who had the time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges instead of through tunnels and between banks … The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man [sic] from a traveller into a living parcel.”

I invoke Ruskin to suggest there’s a trade-off: incorporating ever more efficient cycling into an ever more efficient society probably takes some of the sheen off it; it risks turning cycling from freedom to chore. As cycling becomes more integral to the world-as-it-is, it becomes less able to transform that world for the better.

Instrumentalisation of cycling in the name of efficiency is everywhere: using cycling to make cities less congested and polluted; using cycling to make people’s bodies more healthy and less obese; using cycling to bring tourist cash into the local economy; using cycling to announce our city as a truly ‘progressive’ place.

We should be wary of attempts to encourage people to cycle because cycling is good for something else. For starters, I’m not sure it works. But also, cycling becomes something else to be marketed and sold, often by people who are selling and marketing it not because they love it, but because it’s their job.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Copenhagen café during a winter’s day spent exploring the city by bike, I made these field notes:

“I’ve ridden here, there and everywhere, breathing in and drinking up the city. It might have a lot to do with the time of year and the freezing conditions, but I’m struck by how utilitarian cycling in Copenhagen feels. Everyone rides as if they’re going somewhere, which of course they are. I’d like to return to ride in summer, to see how it differs, but what’s missing in my early December experience is the slow, lazy, loitering style of cycling which might actually build solidarities, communities and social capital.

“It feels ironic that this is the city where Gehl Architects are located. Through work such as Life Between Buildings and Cities for People Jan Gehl helped teach me the significance of walking and cycling to civilising cities, challenging and transforming the dominant rhythmicities of cities. Yet here in his city of Copenhagen, people ride bikes like automatons. Often, I feel as though I’m on a conveyor belt I can’t get off. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, and they’re going there. They’re taking no prisoners, they’re not slowing down.

“It’s the opposite of the cycling city as the relaxed, unhurried, people-centred city; this is the cycling city as the functional, efficient city, keeping the cogs of capitalism whirring round. I feel as though I’m on a capitalist treadmill; the bicycle keeps this city going, and it’s a capitalist city. Cycling here is about efficiency. It makes me want to rebel.

“And they ride so fast! Maybe they’re trying to warm themselves up. OK, I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not used to riding such a clunker, but I’m not accustomed to being so regularly overtaken, and to overtaking so little. There’s no dilly-dallying here. And they come so close! The cycle lanes already feel narrow, perhaps because the snow and ice have encroached. But when a faster cyclist approaches from behind, there’s little room for manoeuvre. A few times I brush shoulders with an overtaking cyclist. After a while it feels less alarming, almost normal.

“And I’m so hemmed in. (It feels like) there’s no escape. Cyclists are so numerous, yet so constrained. Strange …

“I’ve also fulfilled a dream, to visit Christiania … and here I leave the fast, one-track efficient city and move into the slower, multi-tracked and more textured city, Gehl’s city. Suddenly there’s room to loiter, to look up (or rather, to look over my shoulder behind me, to see there are no cyclists approaching fast, and I can relax, breathe deep, find my own pace, take my own line, and simply ride ….).”

Copenhagen embodies the dilemmas of contemporary cycling – particularly what it’s for. I’ve returned since, continue to find it stimulating, and continue to worry about the possibility of slow cycling. What happens to the slow cyclist – perhaps the older person pottering on her or his bicycle, or the idler, going nowhere in particular – in the rush to get more people to school, college and work more quickly? What happens to cycling as a ‘political’ tool of resistance to the society we’ve got, once the society we’ve got learns to use the bicycle to more effectively reproduce itself?

I don’t want fast cycling eliminated. We need multiple rhythms of cycling in the sustainable city; not one monotonous cycling speed. Unlike cars, bikes are skinny, so there’s sufficient space within urban environments to cater for and cope with them travelling at multiple speeds.

The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that in the UK cycle lanes are needed to enable people who don’t want to ride fast and furiously (on ‘faster’ bikes) to instead ride slowly (on ‘slower’ bikes) along big and busy roads. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen cycle lanes seem oriented to making people ride not slower, but faster. This throws up questions about what dedicated cycle lanes are for, and why.

In both the UK and Copenhagen it’s ridiculously hard to cycle sociably. In both places cycling conditions forcibly reduce the cyclist to the individual level, and reproduce cycling as a strictly utilitarian practice. This must change. Sociable cycling challenges instrumentalising logic, showing cycling can be more than getting from A to B as fast as possible. A civilised city would enable people to talk as they cycle alongside one another; a sustainable city would see it as unjust if people can do this when travelling by car, but not by bike.

Everywhere there’s cycling (and cycling is almost everywhere) we should resist imposition of single speed solitary cycling; single speed solitary cycling is – effectively – what we’ve created in the UK and it stops many people cycling. And the instrumental logic behind cycling’s promotion in Copenhagen irons out and renders less and less visible any difference, and imposes single speed solitary cycling there. Only resistance – in the name of multiple speed, sociable cycling – will enable cycling to be democratised across differences of age, fitness, gender, and motive.

Greater incorporation of cycling into urban space, at the car’s expense, potentially but not inevitably alters the character of that space. To see bicycles as no more than ‘skinny green cars’ is to reproduce the city much as it already is, and to miss cycling’s radical potential to change the world fundamentally for the better. Bicycles enable inhabitation of urban space in ways radically different to cars. Let’s not lose this difference. The bicycle shouldn’t simply be a substitute for the car, but a vehicle for re-working and re-shaping the city in broader sustainable ways; only then can the potential ethics (cycling’s contribution to the good life) and aesthetics (cycling’s contribution to pleasure) of the bicycle be fulfilled.

Finally, three questions:

1. On waiting: what do we want to do about bicycles and waiting? Should waiting be extinguished? Does it reflect lack of accommodation of the bicycle in the urban transport environment? Or is the rush to erase waiting a symptom of an impatient, accelerating society? Should cycling reclaim waiting? Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?

2. On cycling experience: when you cycle, are you moving through empty space? Or (to polarise) are you making your place in the world? Are you sometimes doing more of one and less of the other, and if so, why? Is cycling a neutral means of making your way in the world, or by cycling are you creating something? If so, what?

3. On cycling’s potential: do we want more cycling? Do we want cycling to change the world? Are they the same question? If ‘yes’, why? If not, why not? Should institutional efforts to boost cycling always be applauded and/or supported? Of course there’s a relation between the two, but have we been seduced by quantity (increasing the number of cyclists) and risk losing sight of the importance of quality (cycling’s contribution to a better society)?

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5 Responses to “Cycling and the politics of time”

  1. fonant Says:

    I don’t want cycle facilities that allow me to cycle “as fast as possible”, but I’d like cycle facilities that allow me to cycle “as fast as I wish”. People on bicycles have as many varied needs for different speeds as people on foot.

    What IS important, is that cycling is only efficient (and it’s an incredibly efficient mode of transport) when you can keep your momentum. Every time you have to stop you waste significant amounts of energy getting going again. Your average speed is also mostly affected by time spent stopped, more than your maximum speed. So cycle facilities should enable people to ride bikes with the minimum need to stop along their journey. That’s why the “green wave” idea is popular: the only problem is that it can only work for a single design speed (unless the junctions are evenly spaced, in which case half the design speed would also work). General priority for cyclists over motorised traffic is a MUCH more useful thing than green waves, and cheaper to implement too.

    On waiting: waiting on a bicycle is fine, and a nice way to relax, catch your breath, observe your surroundings, etc. The critical thing is that waits should be few and far between, lots of waits on a cycle ride, even very short ones, require stopping and starting which is a big effort.

    On experience: cycling makes you much more connected to the world you’re passing through than driving, where you’re insulated from sights, smells, sounds and the scale of places. On a bike you’re IN the world, and can feel hills, the weather, etc. In a car, the world is outside, and disconnected.

    On potential: more cycling is inevitable as energy becomes more expensive. Yes, we do need more cycling (and walking) and fewer people taking 1.5 tonnes of glass and metal with them wherever they go. Unless we can replace fossil fuels with an energy source as cheap and as convenient, the world will almost force us to cycle more. I don’t think institutional efforts to boost cycling will ever work unless they make cycling more pleasant and unless they make it feel safe and ordinary. So yes, we need to focus on quality of the cycling experience, and the quantity of people will follow when the experience is good. People decide whether to ride a bike for a particular journey based on their direct experiences, not on what other people say they should think.

    It’s not so much about more or less cycling, which is an eminently human-scale activity, but more about what we do with the over-use of motor vehicles: things that are most definitely not human-scale.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      It’s a right honour to have such incredibly thoughtful and intelligent comments on my post – thanks very much!

      I’ve returned to Ivan Illich recently (indeed, re-reading ‘Tools of Conviviality’ and ‘Energy and Equity’ inspired this post), and forty years on, his insights remain (by and large – there’s some ‘funny stuff’ in there too) so very spot-on. I particularly like his (sophisticated) arguments that a ‘cycling speed’ of 15mph becomes the maximum speed of movement, and that some cars will be continue to be required (for those unable to move by other means) but they should move more slowly than everyone and everything else, including pedestrians. I can’t help feeling that if more people read Illich, we might develop a set of more radical claims and proposals around ‘appropriate technologies’ for urban mobility (albeit ones with substantial repercussions for re-structuring of society and economy).

      I don’t disagree with your comments about maintaining momentum when cycling, but I remain interested in the potential for radical re-framing of ‘the wait’ in a time-rich society (and partly as a potential strategy in the pursuit of such a society). When I dream of the kind of society which I want to be working towards, it probably includes less ‘momentum’ and ‘acceleration’ than we have today (albeit very predominantly of lethal metal objects), and more ‘interruption’, ‘lingering’ and ‘interconnectedness’ of people on foot and people on bikes; the kinds of exchanges which Jan Gehl’s work describes so very persuasively. I know we often ‘just need to get somewhere’, but in my idealised, more compact, smaller-scale, grassroots future, the bicycle acts as a vehicle enabling elegant rhythmic shifts between dwelling (in-place) and movement (between-place). I’ll probably lose you in my opaque imaginings here, but for some reason I’ve got the image of a Saturday morning farmers’ market in my (urban, male, white, middle-aged, middle-class) head! I look forward to being there (at the market, meeting people, buying healthy local produce, reproducing everyday life), but I know also that it’s an experience which is necessarily (spatially and temporally) limited, which can’t last forever – nonetheless that’s maybe the kind of society I aspire towards, and the bicycle is the right vehicle to get me there and back!

  2. snibgo Says:

    “In both the UK and Copenhagen it is remarkably, ridiculously hard to cycle sociably.”

    Cities can learn much from villages. In my own, most cycling is sociable, so we chat with each other and pedestrians, mixed in with faster cyclists going shopping, commuting or on a training run. We have no cycling facilities but nor do we have many daytime motorists, and this is the key. Outside peak hours, the streets are for dwelling, not travelling.

    The social capital gained by cycling isn’t easily measured, but I’d hope that residents can recognise it when they see it so they might trade off motorist permeability for a better place to live in.

    “Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?”

    Yes, it matters. I’m happy to wait for people but not machines — whether the internet, traffic lights, or big lumps of metal on the roads.

    On experience: fonant has nailed it but I’d also assert that cyclists (compared to motorists) create a better experience for other people. More relaxed, quieter and less aggressive as a rule, though we could do without louts terrifying pensioners on pavements.

    “Do we want more cycling?” Yes.

    “Do we want cycling to change the world?” Yes, but I don’t think it can. Sorry. I have argued that we need a push away from motoring, because a pull towards cycling is insufficient. Institutional efforts have a habit of trying to get cyclists out of the way of motorists, improving the experience of motoring. This has the opposite effect of what (I think) we need.

  3. Simon B Says:

    I think the speed thing varies over the life course. I have always cycled fast in the city and was rarely overtaken. Keeping momentum, therefore, has always been paramount in re-engineering cities to be cycle-friendly. Stopping at traffic lights and junctions is just dead time, and your heart rate drops too.

    I think even Copenhageners feel this – remember for most is is just a means of transport and not idolised. However as I reach 50, I do get overtaken, and have now slowed down. I am not enjoying this much, but it does give time to observe. Unfortunately I observe the microgeography of the cycle provision and see all the multiple flaws in it, much more clearly.

  4. Wuppidoc Says:

    I never looked at cycling as a speed thing, a health thing or a style thing. I cycle because I want to get from A to B and I choose the bicycle that fits to my journey. I live in the German city of Bremen with 500.000 inhabitants. Bremen never abolished its cycle paths (so they are getting a bit old now), and we have a modal split of 26% of cycling which we want to increase. So cycling is something that is done by old and young, female and male, poor and rich and middle class. Nobody stares at a cyclist and car drivers are used to them, most of them cycle as well when they are not in their tin boxes.

    I also lived in a 100.000 inhabitants’ town in England, called a Cycling Town, but with a modal split of 3% (which still is quite good for this country), and cycling is a constant effort against motorists behaviour, pot holes, pinch points because of idiotic road engineers’ work (blessed islands for pedestrians that stops them and us instead of putting a zebra crossing for pedestrians in one go over the whole road – daring). Cycling in England is pure stress for me, I still do it, but I cannot enjoy it, and I am always happy to be back in German cycling civilization (sorry to be so harsh).

    Copenhagen is another world, a lot more cyclists but also loads of wide cycle paths. They converted whole cars lanes to cycle tracks to give cyclists space. I cycled there in August, but I did not feel stressed by the other cyclists. They are clear as where and how they want to go, they have a hand sign system that tells you what they intend to do next, and counter flow cycling does not exist. Their cycling is very disciplined and easy going if you come from a busy but a bit undisciplined cycling city (yes, Germans can be very undisciplined!). Nobody in Copenhagen stressed me because I was not cycling as fast as the main stream.

    When you ponder about the speed of the Copenhagen cyclist you should remember that they use their bikes to get to work, to school, to appointments. It is pure utility cycling. And of course there can be happy relaxed leisure cyclists but they cycle alongside the water coasts and/or at weekends. Cycle on a Sunday up north along the Öresund and you will find your Copenhageners loitering along. In Bremen and in Copenhagen cycling is not a holy cow, it is normal.

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