City Cycling

Yesterday Sue and Flo went shopping.  They went first into the city centre, from there to a supermarket, and finally back home; a round trip of a couple of miles. Because Sue planned to buy heavy groceries at the supermarket, she decided they’d cycle – it’s easier to let her bike carry weight, in two rear panniers, than to put it into a rucksack and onto her back.

Sue pulled panniers along with a couple of locks from the bike cupboard next to our back door. She also grabbed Flo’s helmet; neither of us has a firm, fixed perspective on helmet use, so whether our kids wear helmets for a particular trip often feels like an arbitrary or intuitive decision. And we’re lucky that at least for now both of them do as they’re told! Then Sue pulled their bikes out from the sheds; Flo’s bike was in one, hers in another (we’ve quite a few bikes between us).

They set off to town. Here they are about half-way there. Sue rides behind and out from Flo; this is how we tend to ride with the kids, in order to slow – and shield them from – passing traffic.

Flo and Sue cycling in the city

They’re stopped by the traffic lights just before reaching Lancaster’s pedestrianised zone; when the lights change they head straight into it.

Approaching the city centre

From car-oriented to pedestrian-oriented space

They could park their bikes here; cycle parking is sensibly located where the pedestrianized zone starts. But they plan a looped route so it makes more sense to keep their bikes with them. So Flo scoots and Sue pushes through the city centre, busy with shoppers on a Saturday afternoon. It’s market day and with the stalls there’s less space than usual, but this is as busy as Lancaster gets.

City centre cycle parking

Pushing through the city centre

Flo chats away. They reach the cycle parking stands outside the city library and Sue locks their bikes there. I leave them here. As I said, they’ll continue through town to a supermarket, and then back home. It’s just an ordinary bicycle journey. City cycling.

Bikes at the city's heart

Locking up

And so is this, a book about city cycling, called ‘City Cycling’.

City Cycling

Recently published, it tracks the supposed renaissance of city cycling, and advocates for more. It’s co-editors, chief contributors, and guiding forces are John Pucher and Ralph Buehler. They, and Professor Pucher in particular, have been relentless champions of everyday cycling. For over a decade their work has compared and contrasted the cycling situation in North America and Australia with the cycling situation in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In doing so they illuminate what the former can learn from the latter, to make city cycling normal.

This book continues that project, using a wider cast of contributors. I’m writing a detailed review of it for the next issue of the journal, World Transport Policy and Practice. I won’t rehearse here what I’ll say there, but I will note two things which struck me as I read it. First, it’s an important and hopefully influential achievement to pull together in one place state-of-the-art thinking, based on actual practice, about how to make cycling mainstream. It has academic credibility but the book’s heart is clearly advocacy; and I hope it’ll be widely read, and acted upon, by politicians, policy-makers and practitioners. This book contains all the knowledge necessary to make the kind of journey taken by Sue and Flo yesterday the norm across towns and cities everywhere.

But second, I struggled with the book because it makes cycling seem so boring. Although strange and unsettling, this is a significant accomplishment. The effect built, chapter on chapter, is that city cycling is and/or ought to be nothing special. Humdrum. Like Sue and Flo’s little trip. As I say, this is an accomplishment, and a compliment not a criticism. But I find it disquieting. Does cycling inevitably become less interesting as it becomes more normal? Or is it, rather, advocacy that strips cycling of its (more interesting) meanings, or at least denies those meanings for a ‘greater cause’? The book leaves me with a feeling similar to one I get when discussing cycling with Dutch or Danish academics and advocates for whom cycling is much more ordinary. For them, thinking about cycling correspondingly seems a largely technocratic exercise, about planning and providing effectively. Cycling’s richness gets lost in the business of getting more bums on saddles.

But if more bums on saddles makes city cycling boring, the sooner we make city cycling boring the better. Bring on boring city cycling!

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18 Responses to “City Cycling”

  1. janehopresearchlog Says:

    I don’t think boring cycling stories have, necessarily to be boring to relate – it’s surely about concentrating on the detail both practical and emotional. Flaubert and Proust comes to mind! Nearly all my cycling are utility trips to the train station, the shops, the cinema, the library etc. etc. but every time I push off I am immediately reminded of my first childhood unaccompanied cycle ride – sixty years ago. That initial flutter of excitement, anticipation and sense of freedom never ever leaves me.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Jane, good points, taken; and similar ones to those made by my mate Cen, who tried and failed to respond directly to my blog post, but couldn’t, so I’ll paste what he says here:

      “City cycling boring – I don’t think so, I think you have just lit on the difference between writing about city cycling and cycling in the city. I had to go out three times yesterday on wee chores, to buy eggs, butter and milk (Ciara has a sudden burst of baking enthusiasm!). Each time it struck me how exciting it is to get on my bike – suddenly released from the house, wind in my hair, feeling the heart rate go up even with a small burst up the hill towards Spar, the tricky decision whether to cycle up the cobbles or take the long, smooth way round. For a cyclist like me these experiences never pall.

      “I think you are right, that it is inevitable that the technical side of journey times, infrastructure cost/benefit analysis, health benefits, accident rates simply is a drier thing than cycling itself. I’m sure even the most ardent petrol head doesn’t necessarily find roundabout planning and design that thrilling.

      “For cycling advocates, whether professionals like yourself, or enthusiasts like me, the question of tone often arises. Should we present cycling as mundane, ordinary, dull, something that should be so normal as hardly necessary to comment on, as opposed to something new and exciting, probably because dangerous? Alternatively, should we express our feelings of joy and excitement generated even by the shortest journey, even though this may put off those who haven’t quite got it yet? I tend towards the latter, putting my faith in the ability of the bike to transform people’s experience.”

      Thanks Cen!

      And here’s to happy cyclists, and many, many more of them, everywhere!
      All the best

  2. Ian Says:

    Most cycling should be ‘boring’ – unexciting, just a way from get to work or the shops or the library or whatever. No more exciting than driving there in fact. The excitement should come from the scenery on a country trip, or a fast-paced training, or the company on a club run. It shouldn’t come from the adrenalin of doing battle with cars.

    So yes please, lets celebrate more boring mundane everyday cycling.

  3. Mrs S J Wilson Says:

    This seems boring because it is about logistics and overlooks the chatting and observing that you get when cycling. You get much more human interchange on a bike than you do in stuck in a car. It ranges from a simple ‘thank you’ as you pass someone to a long gossip as you ride with a friend.

  4. psychobikeology Says:

    “Is it inevitable that cycling becomes less interesting as it becomes more normal? Or is it, rather, relentless advocacy of cycling which strips it of its meanings, or at least denies those meanings for a ‘greater cause’?”

    Here’s a quick bit of metaphor-mongering for you. At present cycling is like fighting – we want to make it like farming. Yeah, sure, fighting is “interesting” and farming is “boring” (if you’re a ten-year-old), but which one, taking everything into account, would we rather spend our lives doing?

  5. samsaundersbristol Says:

    So, an inter-library loan request goes straight into my local library! The value of a good public review (as opposed to a scholarly critique) is that it persuades a reader that the book needs to be read.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Sam (and double win, in supporting libraries too!). Just to let you know, though, that World Transport Policy and Practice, whose chief editor is Professor John Whitelegg, is not your normal academic journal, and very well worth checking out – it’s activist as much as academic, consciously committed to the promotion of humane, sustainable transport, and is freely available on-line – it really is a splendid enterprise. So long as John is happy with my (yet to be written) review, it should be in the issue due to be published at the end of March.
      Thank you very much for your continued support. It’s hugely appreciated.
      Best wishes

  6. Don Says:

    I wonder if promoting cycling as ordinary, mundane, unthreatening and mainly a matter of planning and logistics might make it easier for some UK politicians to accept?

    Whilst cycling is seen as unusual, different and ‘elitist’ in some ways, I imagine it’ll never be fully embraced by the majority.

  7. The Ranty Highwayman Says:

    I guess part of the issue is that “they” in the UK keep referring to using a bike as away to get fit. Now, it is, but for me the main reason is that journey times are very predictable (OK and cheaper than petrol!). I am a tiny minority here in Outer-London, but just a few colleagues in work are starting to understand journey reliability when stuck in traffic. Most of my cycling for work is under 5 miles and it is so easy.

    • Mark Reilly Says:

      I think you have exposed on “issue” with cycling promotion, it is so good for so many reasons
      * health
      * reduced Pollution
      * reduced Traffic
      * recreation

      but I doesn’t *solve* any particular problem fully, just adds to a solution as part of the mix.
      Unfortunatley Government (who at the end of the day will be the main enabler) is organised in departments with a limited brief.
      So cycling get overlooked, by Transport, Health, Education, fact the only area to take it really seriously are the Sports authorities which saw it’s potential to *solve* the defciency in Olympic medals

  8. fonant Says:

    FWIW it looks rather like Flo is wearing her helmet incorrectly – it’s too far back on her head to be of any use in any frontal impact. It should be well forward and low over her forehead, straps tight enough to prevent it slipping when hit.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks for pointing that out – will take action! (Although I’m not at all being defensive in saying that (I think like many parents) we’re probably more committed (but still not very committed!) to Flo wearing a helmet because of the moral censure (usually implicit, occasionally explicit) we sometimes get for being ‘bad parents’ if we don’t than because we think it’s likely to help her out if a car piles into her (but of course, if she’s going to wear a helmet – even if only when we’re feeling ‘weak’ – she may as well wear it properly!; though of course a proper sociological deconstruction and problematisation of the difficulties and complexities of ‘proper fitting’ is also probably in order!!).
      Thanks for speaking out; much appreciated.
      Best wishes

      • fonant Says:

        Sorry for breaching a taboo subject, but I thought you’d take it the right way 🙂

        It amazes me how everyone apparently knows that “cyclists must wear helmets” (we’ve even had complete strangers shout “where’s your helmet” across a street!) and yet very few people actually wear them properly according to the instructions. It’s more common to see them worn wrong (usually too far back, with loose straps) than correctly, even in “official” photographs. The polystyrene can’t absorb any energy if it’s in the wrong place on impact, or if the straps are so loose it gets pushed out of place.

        And even “the authorities” get it wrong, and miss the point. I once entered a HPV race which had a helmet requirement (for safety, apparently, although I was riding a low trike on a closed seafront promenade) – I borrowed a polystyrene hat from a friend with a smaller head, and balanced it on mine. Although it was obviously far too small to be of any use whatsoever I was allowed to race because I was “wearing a helmet”.

        I’ve love to know why it’s perfectly socially OK to shout at a stranger on a bicycle about their lack of cycle helmet, but completely taboo to even gently criticise someone else’s driving habits. Do people really believe that failing to don a polystyrene hat on a bicycle will lead to certain death? In the same way that only other people drive badly? I’ve a strong suspicion that there is a strong subconscious understanding by everyone that driving is sometimes unexpectedly lethal, so drivers get sympathy and their possible victims are told to protect themselves.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        I think what we’re both saying is that the moral pressure to wear a helmet is stronger and more significant than pressure from any (more rational?) ‘safety’ perspective, which is maybe obvious but also very interesting. We can and should speculate, but I’d like to know more about what might be going on here. I don’t disagree with your strong suspicion, but I’d also suggest there’s something about our general (cultural) discomfort with apparent vulnerability here. Obviously this discomfort is very partial/selective; it doesn’t extent, for example, to motorists feeling the need to slow down because they’re driving parallel, and very close to, people (including children and older people) walking on the pavement (but it possibly would, if those people were encouraged to wear helmets, so that those who didn’t wear helmets started to look more vulnerable). Is it also a bit like clothes: people look naked because we’re so used to everyone wearing clothes; if cyclists *ought to* wear helmets then the cyclist with a bare head starts to look undressed, naked, and a bit deficient.

        I know you know this, but I suppose I ought to make clear here, for anyone else who might be reading, that (whilst I personally choose to wear a helmet when ‘being a roadie’) pressurising people to wear helmets is putting pressure on the wrong group to change its behaviour; and is a very big own goal for cycling promotion.

  9. Michael Frearson (@mcfrearson) Says:

    Boring for whom? Not for children! In 2010 Cycling England commissioned Ipsos MORI to find out (amongst other things) what words children in years 5 and 6 use to describe how they think about cycling. Here’s what they said, unprompted:

    Fun 89%
    Exciting 44%
    Good for me 31%
    Makes me healthy 30%
    Fast 18%
    Stunts 10%
    Wheelies 7%
    Skids 6%
    Dangerous 5%
    BMX 5%
    Hard/difficult 4%
    Mountain biking 3%
    Boring 2%
    Other 2%
    Don’t know 1%

    I think this reveals children’s remarkable resilience in the face of all the anxieties, barriers and dangers thrown by adults around cycling, groan-up things that could make cycling ‘dangerous’, ‘hard/difficult’ and ‘boring’ but evidently don’t for most children. Adults may do their best to make cycling boring (or worse – shouty, hazardous, scary, tiring), but if we listen, children will remind us what cycling is really about. Lets no loose sight of that.

  10. Language #3 Cyclists v People-who-ride-bikes « Psychobikeology Says:

    […] example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current […]

  11. Rosalind Says:

    One of the best things for me about cycling is that it is exercise with a practical point to it. Gym: boring. Chopping wood: great! Yes, both things get you fit, but at the end you gain something, ie a pile of logs for the fire. Same with cycling – I just wouldn’t like it so much if it wasn’t a mode of transport. Yes, I like a bike ride for its own sake from time to time, but even then it’s really an excuse to explore. I couldn’t bear a canal-boat holiday, but when we had to deliver a canal-boat from Derby to the Medway that was a *task*, and became absorbing and purposeful. Hmm, maybe there’s just not enough purpose in the rest of my life!

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