New cycling stories

The world is missing our wisdom.

Mass cycling

In your work for cycling, do you sometimes attend meetings? If so, have you ever sat through a meeting with the growing, gnawing feeling you’re talking at cross purposes with the other people present? Have you ever left a meeting utterly dejected, feeling you might as well give up because ‘people just don’t get it’?

Meetings about cycling inevitably involve different agendas and compromise. But is our struggle to make cycling mainstream so difficult because we – it’s strongest advocates – still haven’t learned how to speak about it? Are we yet to find our voice? If so, other people, understandably, would struggle to hear it. So perhaps ‘people don’t get it’ because we’ve yet to tell them?

Partly, we’ve inherited a problem. Cycling advocacy for the past half-century has been on the back foot, so busy complaining, criticising and protesting it never paused to build – let alone proselytize – progressive visions of an alternative society with the bicycle at its heart. Yet isn’t that what we must do if we’re to convince others that cycling matters?

Why don’t we have compelling visions with which to convince ourselves and others of cycling’s value? Partly, as I’ve said, because our tendency has been reactive, not pro-active. But partly also, cycling advocacy has become pragmatic, maybe too pragmatic. We have learned how to fit cycling into other agendas rather than develop agendas of our own. We try particularly to sell cycling in ways most likely to resonate with institutional agendas – ‘cycling cuts congestion, pollution and carbon emissions’; ‘cycling increases health and fitness, and reduces obesity’. We try to make cycling make sense to others, but at what cost?

We advocate for cycling despite never having stopped to build compelling cycling visions. Then when we argue for cycling we get this unsettling feeling that ‘other people don’t get it’. That’s because their ambitions for cycling don’t match the visions we have, but which we have repressed and can’t express.

We have jumbles of ideas, impulses and convictions around cycling’s worth. But we lack the confidence to develop these jumbles into coherent visions, because they’re about bicycles, and bicycles don’t count. Personal and collective development of mass cycling visions is immature because we have internalised the cycling shame of the last half-century. This shame got forked on bicycles as the car became everyman’s vehicle (and gradually every woman’s too). So now we are embarrassed to say we believe in bikes, believe in society re-organised away from cars and towards bikes. As many people today are embarrassed to think of themselves as people who might cycle, we are embarrassed to advocate boldly for their cycling.

We work towards visions we can’t articulate, and we are shy in sharing our ambitions for cycling. Our private thoughts don’t find public expression; they don’t cohere into comprehensible speech. We are silenced. And so the world misses our wisdom. How powerful is the dominant ideology that it stops us articulating even to ourselves, let alone asking for, what it is we really want! This our silence contributes to cycling’s continued repression.

Cycling city

So? So we need to develop our visions and move beyond the shame of speaking them. Find our voice. Of course we must compromise – to make cycling big requires working with others, and that inevitably entails compromise. But unless they know what we really stand for, those others can’t know by how much we’re compromising.

We believe bikes should replace cars. We think half of all journeys could easily be made by bike. We see a bicycle-based society as better than a car-based one. We look forward to the time when bicycles proliferate as cars disappear and die. People won’t know these things unless we tell them, so we should tell them. We need to make our stories, to help make sense of the changes we’re calling for.

Just one example – the conversion of two lanes of a dual-carriageway’s four into top-notch space for cycling. Howls of protest, obviously. But the prospects of such change have to be higher the more people see them as forming part of an ongoing societal project to re-design our cities away from cars towards bicycles. The more people can see and understand the bigger picture, the more supportive they will be. That’s why we need vision, narrative and discourse elucidating change, helping people make sense of, rather than react against, it.

Airing these things will facilitate not sabotage progress. It’ll transform cycling from ‘a special interest’ into a public good. It’ll break us free from being seen as ‘a self-interested culture of cranks and hobbyists’. And others will finally see what it is we’re going on about – ‘they’ll get it’. And at the very least, if still too little changes, politicians and policy-makers will be able to see that – from our perspectives –not nearly enough is being done, and that’s why we’re angry and keep demanding and expecting more.

Others lack visions for cycling because we’ve not even tried to sell them ours. Until we do, cycling will keep getting incorporated – where it gets incorporated at all – in trivial, tokenistic ways – in ways that make sense to those without visions of mass cycling. They’ll keep giving cycling at most a little because they have learnt and assume that a little is enough. And we as advocates will continue to feel that cycling’s being sold seriously short.

If you want a society based on cycling, start talking about a society based on cycling. Like everything else, the way to develop, refine and sell our cycling visions is to practise – and as we get better at telling the new cycling stories, others are more likely to hear, believe and start telling them too.

Tags: , , ,

18 Responses to “New cycling stories”

  1. Dave H (@BCCletts) Says:

    Part of the process is I’d suggest not turning up at those meetings in cycling gear but normally dressed like the the others present.

  2. Kevin Hickman Says:

    Brigitte comes along to many of the bike related conferences, meetings and talks I go to – not always willingly – and to date one stands out as being far and away the most engaging and enjoyable from her point of view.

    It was Mikael Colville-Andersen’s ‘Back to the Future’ talk in Chelsea.

  3. David Says:

    Advocates should share a vision of how places where we live would be transformed if most people walked or cycled. A vision of cleaner, quieter safer places where the sound of people talking laughing and playing wouldn’t be drowned out by engine noise. Where there would be less danger in the environment, where kids play in the streets and people move around freely.

    Driving should be made hard, expensive and considered anti-social, and drivers would always be held responsible to look out for and give way to people out of cars.

    There are few places where streets are being reclaimed for people even in the big metropolis, London. Places where driving is discouraged, streets where drivers are forced to drive slowly and considerately through design and traffic calming. Even streets closed off to people in cars. Where such bold interventions are done over a wide network the effects are noticeable. Many more people cycling, carrying young people to school on bikes, delivering goods on cargo bikes, people of all ages taking to 2 wheels.

    This unfortunately takes time and strong political will. It takes advocates with vision who know how to talk to local politicians, to woo them with positive visions and offer practical help and expertise.

  4. David Mckeever Says:

    Thank you for writing such an inspiring and inspired manifesto.

  5. Kevin Hickman Says:

    What caused you to “get it” Dave?

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Kevin – I don’t know: a childish naivete that never went away? A *faith* – unquestioned and that I feel in my bones – that cycling is the answer (even though I often don’t know the questions). More psychologically and/or sociologically, a need always to be on the outside, and an inability (also lack of desire) to move inside (and so stop ‘getting it’ for the pragmatic reasons other people probably who once ‘got it’ gradually stop ‘getting it’). But also .. Critical Mass, sociology (especially interest in the architectures of everyday life), the Netherlands, anarchism, utopianism, and simple love for the bike. Also, more recently, awareness there are others who think similarly (people in Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, obviously), and so a sense of hope, solidarity – which is why what we’re doing, really, and need to keep doing, is building a movement. You?

      • Kevin Hickman Says:

        Looking back, it took a long time.

        I was a roady at the turn of the century – long club runs, audax, fast commute, usual MO – and then a couple of physical problems had me down to about 5 to 10 miles a day for the best part of a year. The plus side was my wife and daughter would come out with me, to wait at the top of the hills.

        I bought a Brompton around about that time. Can’t quite remember why, but not being able to llift a bike onto a roof rack anymore may have been a factor. Anyway, I took it Copenhagen on a business trip; what an eye opener that was.

        I ended up having two operations in succession in 2004, one planned, one not, and I signed up to do a charity LEJOG in 2005 as a means to get me back where I’d been in terms of cycling fitness. That year my work also took me to Germany and because taking my car would create extra expense at home and hiring an adapted one there wasn’t an option, I took the Brompton. I used it for training, and for everything else as well.

        I did LEJOG but couldn’t do the big miles, >100k, comfortably anymore and went back to Germany carrying on pretty much as before but without the training. Except I also got to grips with riding with my prosthesis.

        In 2006 I was back in the UK living in a halfway house between lycra-clad roady and civvy-street bike user. Until the floods in 2007 when my car was written off and the hassle of replacing it made me stop and think about my new mobility preference. I was more mobile with a folding bike than I was with a car, plus I’d trialled that lifestyle already in Germany. When I realised I qualified for a bus pass and a disabled railcard that sealed it – I hung up the lycra and became a carfree crip with a bike as a mobility aid.

        Of course, it’s a lot less bike freindly here than where I was in Germany, and that’s the point at which I became a cycle campaigner. But that’s by the by, the I’m mentioning all this is to demonstrate how long it took until I began to ‘get it’, and the serendipitous choices that led to it. It’s quite difficult to fit all that into a meeting agenda in a roomful of mindsets that if you’re lucky have some recollection of actually riding a bike!

        And the language. That’s changed for me too. In fact sometimes it can feel… uncomfortable/disloyal/confrontatoinal, being a bike enthusiast, which I obviously am, and being a bike user who no longer gets changed to ride or uses any special equipment. I know the languages of the cycling evangelist and the bike user but I’m not sure I always pick the right words for a given situation, and if I do I’m not sure they necessarily mean the same message to the listener.

        To ‘get it’ isn’t enough. Telling people the answer isn’t a solution. I think you need to tell a story in small installments over a longer time than you might like, and offer opportunities to experience what we’ve experienced, until there’s a common understanding of the words that make up the language.

        Kinda like what you’re doing :o)

        Oh, and you mentioned a movement. When I was talking to Brigitte about positive campaigning she said why not call it a movement rather than a campaign? It conveys a sense of moving forward to something better.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks so much Kevin; it’s great to get your (always wonderful) thoughts and experiences.

        I agree with Brigitte on the ‘movement’ over ‘campaign’ thing, and actually – for me – thinking like that is liberating; it gives a sense of the long-run, reduces my sense of frustration and impatience, and takes some of the pressure away from feeling the need to make quick gains. It reminds me that social change takes place at the level of culture and the everyday. It involves life and love and land, and it involves language, ideas, and how we see the world …

        To me, now, this feels where ‘the real work’ must be. So I’m trying to teach myself to write, and to contribute to the shaping of thought through language.
        I’m surprised, but pleased, people are still stumbling across my blog despite my recent neglect of it!

  6. kevinmayne Says:

    Great post.

    Where I disagree with your analysis and agree with David in comments is to ask whether there is a pressing need to talk cycling as a distinct case at all.

    I do believe our greatest success is when in our shared visions we have people who want a strong economy, great public spaces, healthy clean air, places for kids to play………. I don’t think that is a betrayal of cycling, I think it is where the rest of the world is way ahead of the UK and even the US will maybe overtake the UK because their advocacy community is breaking free of special interest status at last.

    The people we need to reach only need to talk or even value cycling when it is a means to these ends. I may be fanatical about cycling and the power of cycling, but I my highest resentment is saved for when I am portrayed as someone who doesn’t have the highest regard for my fellow citizens well-being, only those of my clique.

    If we recognise that the only towns and cities bucking a deteriorating trend in quality of life happen to also have cycling as part of their mix then we are working with a remarkable coalition.

    Sadly there are far more public officials who truly value these things in power outside the UK than within. So we have for years been stuck with reverting back to cycling as the topic on the agenda at any given time because that is when the cycling movement gets invited into the room.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Kevin. I don’t disagree with you, or David Dansky (and I’m sure Rod King would agree with you both, and argue that this is precisely how 20’s Plenty is achieving its notable successes across Britain), but I think we need to be careful not to disappear cycling out of that ‘liveable city’ mix, perhaps out of that misplaced sense of shame that I’ve argued is a reason for cycling’s continuing repression.

      But regardless, if we are getting more politically savvy, getting better at ‘smuggling cycling in’ as part of broader efforts to civilise the city, I still think equally important work has to be done to build these ‘new cycling stories’ – cycling has to become part of the collective cultural consciousness, the popular imaginary, in ways that haven’t happened so far, *partly because* cycling retains these ‘cranks’ and ‘mavericks’ connotations. So we need fundamentally to re-shape popular understandings of cycling, and that won’t happen by sneaking it in, and/or pretending it doesn’t exist.

      • ddansky Says:

        Dave, you say that you “think equally important work has to be done to build these ‘new cycling stories’ “. And there are many positive new cycling stories that are a result of new improved urban space stories, as you know.

        Some advocates tend to ignore such positive stories and explain away such phenomena (like the mass increase in cycling in parts of London, for example) as aberrations or as a result of a certain demographic or topography. Rather than recognising the real positive engagement of advocates with an authority. Some insist on continued dangerising cycling through their campaigning messages.

        Of course vastly improving infrastructure and making driving much harder is crucial to get mass cycling but we also need to keep actively promoting cycling as a low risk benign activity that ordinary people are doing and can do now in the prevailing conditions.

  7. Cycle campaigning - Page 26 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed Says:

    […] Another thought provoking post from Prof David Horton about campaigning…cling-stories/ […]

  8. psychobikeology Says:

    Two comments. First, in terms of ‘vision’ it’s still hard to top that famous quote from Richards bicycle book

    Second, and at the risk of being placed in green pseuds-corner, I think that in this post you are touching on some deep stuff. As we know ‘the car’ is tied up with notions of power, autonomy, access and ‘progress’ – these are the things that give motor-hegemony what you might call its spiritual traction. It could be argued that these feelings about the personal car are what led to the deliberate promotion and fostering of car-culture – the feeling that car-driving is a plain and simple Good Thing – that more people should do it, that it will produce greater happiness, equality, prosperity or whatever you want. Now, after decade upon decade of car promotion, we do have the longed-for Motor Society. Lifting our eyes from the road for a second, choking in a jam, chained to the school-run, we might notice that the promise of universal automobility looks a bit tarnished. But we are unable to lift our eyes from the road for long – too dangerous – because we seem to be locked-in to the Motor-world – it feels like a fact of nature.

    People like – no love – bikes for similar reasons to those that create auto-love. Using a bike gives you very direct feelings of power, autonomy and access. Your envisioned Bike Society would have, in terms of happiness, equality and prosperity all the stuff that Motor Society promised, with one exception. The bike doesn’t sell as “progress”. Because the bicycle works by amplifying one’s existing body it reminds us of limits. It enforces acceptance of physical reality (even though being able to amplify one’s own strength is a truly wonderful and clever thing) whereas with the car we can hang on to the fantasy that anything at all is possible.

    Perhaps another way of saying this is that, in the immediate personal act of using it, the car makes a very convincing promise to give you everything but that seductive promise cannot be fulfilled. Whereas the bike gives you less but what it does give you is real.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Splendid stuff Psychobikeology.

      It feels like what you’re saying (and what Richard Ballantine seems to be saying, and what I think I almost always think, even if I don’t always say) is in our imaginations and in our practice the bicycle – certainly when used as an ordinary means of moving around – symbolises an alternative to the dominant conception of societal progress, which remains for now (if ever more anachronistically) still symbolised by the car. And I think we need to become more ‘out’, overt and ‘proud’ about this (yes, I’m deliberately adopting the language of other struggles). I don’t want to become churlish about increases in cycling wherever there are increases in cycling, but I’d quite like the stories (personal and political, individual and collective) around these ‘wins’ to at least have the chance of being inserted into alternative narratives and visions to those shaped by neo-liberal discourse, because then they and cycling have hope of meaning something more.

  9. Promises « Psychobikeology Says:

    […] the meantime, here is part of a comment I just left in response to Dave Horton’s latest […]

  10. ddansky Says:

    Hi Dave,
    Not sure if you follow twitter.
    Have you picked up the #replacebikewithcar hashtag (

    It has been picked up by many advocates of all persuasions
    It is clearly ironic but really highlights the different and perverse double standard between society’s attitude to motoring and cycling and communicates a lot of your themes about cycling marginalisation and struggles in 149 characters.

    Here are a couple of examples:

    Beer and catch up soon perhaps?


  11. Bob Shanteau Says:

    Do you think of bicycles as vehicles and bicyclists as drivers, with the same rights to use traffic lanes as other drivers? After all, every lane is wide enough for a bicycle. If bicyclists used lanes like other drivers, then bicyclists would pass left turning cars on the left (UK), or wait behind, thus avoiding the dreaded left hook crash, which is often fatal.

    Or do you think of traffic lanes as “car lanes” and bicyclists as interlopers? Do you think that bicyclists should be able to pass left turning cars on the left and that left turning motorists must have the burden of avoiding colliding with undertaking bicyclists?

    I think the fundamental difference between those two views is critical to the future of bicycling. Basically, it comes down to whether we want bicyclists to integrate into the current road system as cooperative road users or to be segregated from the current road system with motorists having the duty to avoid collisions.

    Personally, I think it is better to integrate with cars, as I simply don’t trust think we should put our trust in people who cannot see us when they are turning left or otherwise crossing paths with me. Besides, wouldn’t it be better for the environment to use the current road system rather than having to build a complete segregated network for bicyclists?

  12. Julia Raskin Says:

    4th World Bicycle Forum “Ciudades para Todos – Cities for all”

    The World Bicycle Forum is the biggest citizen lead global event to promote bicycle in cities. The 4th edition will take place in Medellín, Colombia from 26 February to 1 March 2015.

    The theme for the 2015 edition of the World Bike Forum is “Cities for All”, relating to ideas geared for humans and living spaces. The forum will discuss how cities can be organized to the benefit of all it’s citizens. After all, it is not just an event for cyclists, but for the entire population.

    While societies in the entire world are urbanizing they face environmental as well as social challenges. At the same time the bicycle is gaining momentum as a serious transportation option and catalyst for creating better living spaces for all humans. In this process, cycling advocacy and citizen engagement play a crucial role in employing the bicycle as a vehicle for social change and urban equity. It is time for the bicycle to take a leading role in shaping an equitable and sustainable city for all!

    The forum will be celebrating and furthering the work of various stakeholders (individuals, groups, NGOs, businesses, or government agencies) working together to bring about positive change on all levels: individual, local, regional, national and global. Collectively, we will discuss, think and plan solutions so that bicycles, pedestrians and motorists can coexist in harmony. And the more thinking heads, the better – and merrier!

    More Information:

    Call for Proposals – 4th World Bicycle Forum “Cities for All”

    We invite bike enthusiasts of the world to submit their contributions to the discussion on how the bicycle is becoming a catalyst for shaping equitable and sustainable cities for all.
    Join the conversation at the 4th World Bicycle Forum and help form part of the program. Share your ideas, work, research or vision with the global cycling community. Choose a conference format, create an engaging activity and share your knowledge!
    Once all proposals have been compiled, the Program Committee will create the conference program aiming at a productive, diverse and hands-on World Bicycle Forum in Medellín.

    The core topical tracks of the World Bicycle Forum (#FMB4) are:
    Cycling Advocacy
    Bike Organizing
    The Politics of Cycling
    Cycling Art and Culture
    Cycling Societies
    Bicycle Urbanism
    Communicating Cycling
    Cycling and Public Health

    Please submit your proposals here:

    We are looking forward to welcoming you at the 4th World Bicycle Forum in Medellín, Colombia!

    26 February – 1 March. Medellín, Colombia

    Deadline for abstracts, proposals:
    30 November 2014

    Contact person:
    Florian Lorenz


    Event Address:
    Plaza Mayor
    Calle 41 # 55-80, Medellín, Antioquia

    Program Team – World Bicycle Forum – Foro Mundial de la Bicicleta
    ¡The next forum will be in Medellín, Colombia. 2015.02.26. – 2015.03.01. !
    Follow us on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: