Different Worlds

Mona Caron - Different Worlds

Most people don’t cycle, and it’s easy to assume they’re indifferent, even hostile to cycling. But that’s not true; even as they describe, explain and justify their car-locked lives, many people view cycling as something they’d love to do, just not in this world.

When people talk about driving and cycling they often talk about two quite different and separate worlds. There’s the world they know best, full of cars including theirs, the world they must – simply to function – learn, accept and deal with. This world is physical and psychological, ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’, and so taken-for-granted it’s negotiated almost without thinking. Bicycles occupy another world – slower-moving and sunnier, if confined in most people’s imaginations to leisure, holidays and wishful thinking. People struggle to fit the idea of themselves cycling into the first world, but easily can in the second. So interviews about cars and bicycles tend to slip between describing everyday car-based hustle and bustle and reflecting on the occasional or imagined delights of, for example, a weekend off-road ride in the countryside.

So what happens when you, the interviewer, introduce into the conversation the idea of utility cycling? Typically people express their unwillingness to cycle because it looks and feels too scary; next they mention how the cycling facilities they’ve seen don’t join up, and look unfit for purpose; but these ‘facts’ out the way, so long as you keep them in this ‘what if..?’ territory, interesting things happen. You get glimpses of a third world based more around bicycles than cars. You see this world in the injection of pace, the change in demeanour, the glint in the eye, the flash of a smile, and the burst of enthusiasm that emerge as someone briefly considers the prospect of more cycling – as what’s usually on the margins or just under the surface comes momentarily into view; it’s like sunshine bursting suddenly through the clouds, as someone savours a little taste of how life could be. Then reality reasserts itself, the gate slams shut, and that third world is gone. (Here we see how individual psychology mirrors dominant ideology as performed through governmental discourses – almost complete and unwavering commitment to the car cracked by little rhetorical tweets and policy gestures looking in a more bike-friendly direction.)

As the interviewer it’s hard to trust your senses here, and the cold ‘facts’ of the transcript don’t easily reveal what you witness – the optimism injected as someone momentarily dwells on individual and societal cycling futures (questionnaires might capture these inchoate dreams of a different life better than less structured interviews). But we know the appetite for this third world is there. A recent British Social Attitudes survey found

‘widespread support for the idea that everyone should be cutting down on their car use, and most people disagree that individual action is pointless. Two-thirds of drivers say they are willing to cut their car use and three in five would be able to shift from using the car on short journeys to cycling, walking, or taking the bus … the overall climate of public opinion can … be described as favourable towards a reduction in car use.’

(Stradling et al, 2008: 153)

Other surveys show people want 20 mph speed limits, and want cycling (and walking) prioritised over the car. That people want change is unsurprising – the car system structures their world and many are forced against their deepest desires and aspirations to drive. In a sensible discussion I’m sure almost everyone would agree Britain’s being choked by cars and wishes it could stop.

Utility cycling remains a remote but real possibility despite the twin, related processes of people feeling disempowered from doing it and urban space practically eliminating it; people are dreaming even now, even here, among all the cars, of being in a better, happier place, by bike. Change from cars to bicycles is closer than we think; it just needs to be triggered, if not in the ways we’re trying to trigger it. The biggest barrier is not lack of desire, it’s cynicism – dreaming of a cycling future’s one thing, getting there quite another; why get excited about something you can’t imagine happening?

People glimpse a better cycling future, but remain in perpetual fug over the driving present. The car contributes to a de-skilling and disembodiment of everyday life. People’s capacity to move through the world without a screen to protect them has been eroded, as has the relationship to their own bodies that develops through physical activity. Talking to people about their reliance on the car, you get the impression we’ve collectively sleep-walked into the current state of transport, and on pausing to think about it they momentarily awaken and slowly shake their heads, struggling to comprehend how the car’s taken over life. Even the most car-centric of people feels this; Jeremy Clarkson’s tremendous popularity is surely based on his ability temporarily to extinguish people’s growing ambivalence towards the car, so they can still sometimes bathe for a short sweet while in its unalloyed celebration.

So cycling sits in an alternative future even as current conditions occlude it. Cycling here is importantly symbolic. If in the present people have lost control of their bodies, homes and lives, in the cycling future they retake control of those bodies, take back those homes from the car, and reassert autonomy over those lives. The thought of cycling gives people a sense that things, and most importantly they themselves, could be different. Cycling’s power is as the pivot around which life rotates away from a darker towards a brighter future. But it’s unwise to show unambiguous support for something with such dodgy prospects, so enthusiasm for cycling is muted, constrained by the understandable (if also incorrect) sense that ‘things don’t change – driving’s what we do’. For now, people figure, we’re stuck with the car.

You might think this other world lying just beneath the cars is so clearly against vested interests, it’ll never happen. You might say it’s much easier for car-dependent people to romanticise cycling than it is to get them on a bike. But don’t those responses keep cynicism the biggest barrier to cycling? I think we should see the truth in people’s hesitant, halting visions of a better life, and make ways to encourage and convert them into action, though precisely how we do so is another question.

Another world is possible, and cycling is not just part of it, it’s a route to it. Cycling is repressed but barely; it lies close to the surface. This is why, as I tried to say in a recent post, I think we need to create more seductive visions of the cycling future, to help people get more than a glimpse – to help them get a sustained view – of the world that cycling, including their own cycling, will create.


Stradling, Stephen, Jillian Anable, Tracy Anderson and Alexandra Cronberg (2008): ‘Car Use and Climate Change: Do We Practise What We Preach?’, in Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips, Mark Johnson and Elizabeth Clery (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 24th Report, London: Sage, pp. 139-59.

Tags: , , ,

25 Responses to “Different Worlds”

  1. Karl Says:

    Reblogged this on Jaunty Angle and commented:
    Very interesting post. Driving a car is simply taken for granted and something people are supposed to aspire to. Yet, cities, towns and indeed villages are being clogged by more and more traffic. Utility cycling, using a bike for anything but leisure, is a real alternative, but most people express a real unwillingness to do “the other.”

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers Karl. Until we civilise our villages, towns & cities most people won’t ride; but it’s getting people riding that’s the best way of civilising our villages, towns & cities. We’re beginning to find multiple routes through this ‘Catch 22’; the future’s looking (a bit) more rosy. But I don’t think there’ll ever be a time when we don’t need huge numbers of people working for cycling in many different ways; that’s why we ‘cultural workers for cycling’ aren’t simply one of the routes to the cycling future, we’re an essential part of that future!
      Thanks very much for contributing

      • Karl Says:

        I think it will take something fairly big to make the transition or to reach the tipping point. I keep praying for another petrol tanker strike :o) but something like that is probably needed. I don’t think even that is sustainable but may make more people see a different way to travel and increase the demand for different kind of infrastructure.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Mmm, yes. But I think crises reveal as much as they create, or perhaps they do both simultaneously – they create windows of opportunity for people finally to put into practice something they’ve been wanting to do but also worrying about. Unfortunately, a whole series of crises is coming our way, if (as any scientist would) you believe climate science. So cycling might be embraced first in the face of disruption, and perhaps only later as part of a more coherent strategy of resilience and adaptation to the threat of further crises.

  2. Derek Says:

    “More seductive visions…”
    Maybe like Vienna’s RadJahr 2013 marketing campaign? The slogan was ‘Setzt Freude in Gang’ (‘Sets joy in motion’).

    Sorry I can’t find English site that had more examples.
    Poster: http://www.flickr.com/photos/katsdekker/8875361231/
    Video: http://www.fahrradwien.at/alltag-am-rad/lebensgefuhl-radfahren/radfahren/ (in German)

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Derek. Yes, that’s the kind of thing – though it has to be more than glossy posters. We need to explore and portray in images, but also explore through words and stories and – perhaps most importantly – speech the kind of worlds where the bicycle will be central, and how much better those worlds are/will be than where we are right now; and how IT’S GETTING ON A BIKE that gets us from here to there.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Best wishes

  3. crubenacker Says:

    You are absolutely correct “we need to create more seductive visions of the cycling future”. Apple – created an entire culture around the iphone. Let’s create our own iBike culture.

  4. crubenacker Says:

    Reblogged this on Bicycle-Culture.com and commented:
    The blog post ‘Different Worlds” by Thinking About Cycling: is an insightful look into bicycling possibilities. I agree ” we need to create more seductive visions of the cycling “……

  5. Geoff Turnbull Says:

    Dave, I enjoy reading your articles.

    For me the key issue is that whilst cycling is clearly a feature of a better world, I am not certain that cycling is a route to a better world.

    I believe a more fundamental political upheaval is needed based on concepts of equality, civility and health.



    • Dave Horton Says:

      Yes, but the bicycle is also the vehicle of/for a revolutionary politics. Every ride runs a crack through the car system, and the car system is a key component of the unequal, uncivil, unhealthy societies we’ve created. So cycling is resistance AND prefiguration. Objects are important to ‘fundamental political upheavals’ and I go for ‘bikes not bombs’ ‘-)

  6. skippyaustralia Says:

    Have both Car and BIKES ! Car sits so long between use that the cold drains the battery , but keep backup in house for the Jump Start needed !

    Fact is the car is only used for the longer trip , over 50mile return , why would you drive when the sun is out and the roads are dry ?

    Checkout : Facebook.com/RightofWayAustralia


    Plenty of material there to consider rather than rehashing here ?

    Will be plagerising some of the above material , GOOD Food for thought !

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Belated thanks Skippy (I’ve gone off the blogging boil of late). I’ve just been checking out your adventures with interest – that’s a very nice blog, and good on you for raising issues around the behaviours of road users (and especially the widespread contempt shown towards cyclists). We’ve a way to go, but social attitudes are always changing and I’m confident they’ll gradually turn in cycling’s favour.

      Feel free to take whatever you want from here, and good & safe cycling!

  7. samsaundersbristol Says:

    It’s tantalising. Here in Bristol it feels as though we might be on (or at least somewhere near) the cusp, We have a 20mph speed limit spreading across the city, with real talk about a cycling network and leadership from a City Mayor who wants sustainable travel. It could happen,

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Sam.

      It sometimes feels like we need somebody/something to do for British city cycling what Dave Brailsford/Sky did for British sports cycling, eh? Ever since I was a kid, British pro cyclists have had the potential to be up there among the world’s best (and occasionally against all the odds someone made it). But it took a big step change in ambition, resources, belief and strategy – with Sky – to turn the potential into major and solid-looking (i.e. sustainable) success – to move from the occasional success to systematic success.

      These days wanting to see more British city cycling is much like being a fan of British cycle sport through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – always scouring around for positive signs of ‘something about to happen’, and getting tremendously excited by the odd success (indeed, isn’t success so much sweeter when it’s less expected? I think I got more excited, back then, by for example Malcolm Elliott winning a stage of La Vuelta, or Chris Boardman winning a Tour prologue, than I do these days when success has become more reliable!).

      So we await a Sky-like total systems approach to city cycling. Maybe Bristol will get there first, then everybody else will want to copy?!

  8. Derek Says:

    In case it’s any good to anyone, I found the bigger case study of Vienna. It’s a PDF of a lecture called ‘From the Brand to the Campaign: Effective Marketing to Promote Cycling’ by Martin Blum – about halfway down this page: http://velo-city2013.com/?page_id=6241
    Haven’t been there but groups like Critical Mass and authorities seem to have put in a lot of work.

    Sam: you’re right to mention leadership, the lack of it undermines many efforts in the UK.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Derek, there’s a lot of very seductive imagery in there, and barely a helmet in sight! I blogged about Vienna earlier this year, after I took part in Velo-city there; it’s an interesting example of a car-centric city getting quite serious about boosting cycling.

      On a slightly critical note, I’d point out the exclusivity of this pro-cycling imagery; I think everyone in that PowerPoint presentation is white; almost all are slim and look pretty affluent. Maybe such representations sell cycling to some, but do they do so at the expense of others? Certainly in 21st Century Britain, I’d hope more people – irrespective of ethnicity, ‘ability’, size etc – could see themselves in positive images of cycling.

  9. Tim Millar Says:

    It strikes me there is a lot of talk about cycling and the future of our cities if you care to look. The trouble is this talk stays within the bubble of interested parties (cycletopia is a good example here). There is a distinct lack of positive imagery or seductive ideas that make it into wider consciousness.

    Where wider debate does happen it seems to centre around conflict on the streets or negative aspects of cycling and pedestrian safety. Even the commendable Times campaign spends too much time stuck in this ‘news’ agenda.

    Advertising is limited in impact because the money spent on it will always be infinitesimally small compared to the amount spent by the car industry. In addition, the narrow remit of cycle advertising (e.g. safety) seems to reinforce the unhelpful lines of the existing debate.

    As someone that works in advertising I’d be interested to know your opinion on two things
    1) what alternative initiatives cycling and pedestrian advocates can embark on that may help change the terms of the debate in the mainstream?
    2) what the brief would be for the ideas and imagery that might uderpin these initiatives?

    Here are some suggestions of other ways that might raise the profile and shift terms of the debate e.g.
    – The mayor could run an international architectural competition to replan city streets around people
    – The Barbican could host and tour a major ‘future cities’ exhibition where alternative visions for cities are explored by artists, architects, children etc
    – There cycle industry of Great Britain (manufacture and retail) could pool resources to promote the joys of cycling
    – There could be more car free days in towns around the country to give people a taste of life without cars choking roads

    These are things I’ve made up on the spot and I’m sure you’d have better Ideas. The point is to introduce positive visions of cities that don’t begin in the narrow circles of cycling advocacy or repeat the narrow terms of the debate as it is currently played out in mainstream media.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Exactly Tim, exactly!

      However, I admit that your ideas are better than my own as to how we go about broadening the terms and scope of debate. But I think there are at least 3 closely inter-connected and worthwhile tasks:

      1. Work that continues the positive changes we’re sometimes now beginning to see (‘business-as-usual’ for advocates);
      2. New work to popularise the idea of post-car, people-friendly cities;
      3. New work that puts bicycles and cycling at the heart of these future urban visions.

      One task is to encourage (rather than simply wait for) people and organisations in all walks of life to mainstream cycling within their own practices. I know some such work has been going on a long time, but in a sort of vision-free way (which makes such work less effective).

      I think the arts & culture (broadly defined) have a big role to play in filling out (making more real) the visionary-vacuum. In other words, we need to tell stories (visual as well as verbal) about mass cycling to help make it ‘real’, and help make it happen.

      One reason the idea of mass cycling hasn’t taken popular hold is because it’s being spoken about – as you say – in a very small world of (mainly) advocates and academics. We need others to jump on board to make it more compelling and more likely.

      • samsaundersbristol Says:

        Lacking a trumpet, perhaps I can rasp my own kazoo a bit here. Using Twitter and Flickr I have found that a positive-looking photograph or two might add a grain to the general culture of how good cycling can be: some sort of antidote to the YouTube Horrors that hog webusers’ attention. I have been collecting “Positive Images Of Cycling” from my own snapshots and putting them on Flickr, It’s all here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samsaunders/sets/72157633370527869/ and can be viewed as individual images, a slideshow, a panel or whatever Flickr is up to at present,. By declaring them all to be copyright free, I have found that from time to time someone adopts one for some other project.

        Maybe YouTube as well? I put this up a while ago without telling anyone: http://youtu.be/gKy12Z5rR2A

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Splendid stuff Sam – keep it up!

  10. Jonathan Says:

    Hello Dave, I had a very enjoyable dinner with your wife last week over which we discussed most everything BUT cycling. Anyway, it did make me think that I hadn’t seen a Thinking About Cycling blog post for a while. For some reason I seem to have stopped receiving the automatic notifications. Not to worry – I will re-register.

    A propos this particular post (Different Worlds, 7January) I thought that you might find this article from Tuesday’s Guardian Sustainable Business section of interest http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/reasons-business-leaders-danish-style-cycling?CMP=new_1194.

    We always hear about Denmark and Switzerland and the Netherlands. Nice to see some real developments across the pond. I’ve always thought, when watching the ‘box’ that American roads are so wide you could stick dedicated cycle lanes down either side and not lose any functionality.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Jonathan, and I look forward to catching up again face-to-face sometime soon, now the cycling season’s here again! It’s felt like far too long …

      Thanks for the link to that article. Yes, I think the bicycle is being enrolled into a powerful, vibrant new discourse of ‘liveable cities’ much more in the US than here in Britain.

      I’ve rather lost the blogging bug these last few months, to be honest. Partly that’s conscious, as I wonder where I’m going next and start trying to get there; partly it’s unconscious – based I think on my itch for figuring out how we get people cycling having (temporarily?) abated.

      My current plan is to do only a few blogposts this year, whilst I re-direct my energies to other things.

  11. Dave Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/11/truth-about-cambridge.html

    and whilst I broadly agree. I don’t think it’s as easy as just building it the Dutch way, because building it the Dutch way is politically very difficult in the UK.

    e.g. http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11134475.Lendal_Bridge_traffic_ban_is_axed/?ref=mr



    which takes me back to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o

    but we’re not in oil shock 1970’s Holland…

    post Bradley Wiggins the political climate in the UK is the most positive it has ever been… even the Times is on side… but there’s still plenty of potential for us to frack it up and return to business as usual / roads to prosperity.

  12. 7 years, 4 months and 18 days | At War With The Motorist Says:

    […] it I try to tie together a few disparate strands that I had been thinking about, using as a theme the imagined “different worlds” that Dave Horton talked about and the real different worlds that have come about, in surprisingly short time, in the Netherlands […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: