An Ethnography of Everyday Cycling

This paper summarises the results of ethnographic research exploring attitudes to and experiences of everyday cycling in four English cities – Lancaster, Leicester, Leeds and Worcester. The strength of ethnography is its in-depth focus on specific places and people, but I believe these research findings, and their implications, are more generally (though not universally) relevant. Fieldwork formed part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, which ran from 2008 to 2011.

A revised (and improved!) version of this paper, which includes a lot more illustrative data than here, forms one chapter of a book, ‘Promoting walking and cycling: new perspectives on sustainable travel’, authored by Colin Pooley with Tim Jones, Miles Tight, Dave Horton, Griet Scheldeman, Caroline Mullen, Ann Jopson, and Emanuele Strano (Bristol: Policy Press, 2013). The book is comprehensive in a way which this paper is not, so please consult it if you want to know more about the context of the project, its findings, and their implications (it’s £21.59 direct from the publisher).

It’s long, over 8,000 words, and it’s full of some very long paragraphs; so if you want to read it but not here, as ever drop me an email (see my brief biography for my address) and I can send it to you in different form. I assume my co-authors and the publisher won’t have any problems with my putting this up here (personally I see it as a bit of advance publicity for the book, due to be published in August), but if they do I will take it back down.

Why people cycle

First, it is important to stress that most people do not cycle. Second, we should note that most of those people who do cycle do not engage in the kind of urban, utility cycling with which we – as well as transport planners and policy-makers – are primarily concerned. On the contrary, most people cycle only under a quite specific set of conditions, including being at leisure, in daylight and fine weather, and removed from motorised modes. These conditions tend not to prevail in urban centres. However, it is also clear that many people do enjoy cycling when they choose to ride, and they do so for a wide range of reasons, but mainly to do with health, fitness and the opportunity to unwind. For example, Dick, a middle-aged sales representative from Leicester, described with unselfconscious enthusiasm his love of a summertime bike ride at the end of a day’s work (which usually entails much driving): he gets home, gets changed, and pedals out into the nearby countryside, to clear away the stresses of the day, feel the fresh air, enjoy the wildlife, get some exercise and work up an appetite for dinner. He never rides towards the city centre, nor does he undertake any of his more necessary journeys by bike, but regular bike rides, especially in summer, are for him constitutive of a particular image. He wants to keep himself in shape and not drink too much: ‘I mean it keeps me a bit fit. I don’t want to get old and unfit.’ He has a couple of regular mainly off-road routes, each about ten miles long, and which get him into good bird-watching territory: ‘One of my hobbies is bird watching…so, yeah, I like to get out and do something.’ His cycling, though, is contingent on his mood:

I’ve got to be very disciplined with my cycling…So I have to come home from work, take my suit off, get my shorts on, get my tee shirt on, go out to the garage, get my bike out and go off before I’ve really thought about it. If I don’t do that I won’t do it.

(Dick, Leicester)

We met people in all four towns who spoke positively about their personal experiences of cycling, especially when that cycling was a leisure practice over which they had a good deal of control in terms of when, where, how and with whom it took place. However, people who enjoyed recreational cycling rarely considered, let alone found similar pleasures in, utility cycling. The most common exception to this was when and where such utility cycling shared some of the characteristics of leisure cycling. For example, we spoke to people who enjoyed cycling to the local shops to buy a newspaper early on a Sunday morning, when the roads were especially quiet, or who would cycle between their home and allotment because the entire route was along quiet back roads, and they made the journey at quiet times of the day.

However, we did meet people in all four towns who enjoy urban cycling, people who ride regularly in order to accomplish the different tasks of everyday life: cycling to work, to shops and to other activities. Although these people could provide reasons to explain their cycling they had established it as an ordinary means of moving around, so it was something they simply did, and largely taken-for-granted: cycling had become for them as habitual and ordinary as driving has become for the majority of people. The comments of Kyle – a keen cyclist from a committed cycling family – were typical: ‘it’s just the obvious way of getting around; for me the question is not “why do I cycle?”, but “why do other people not cycle?”’ (Kyle, Leicester). When such cycling enthusiasts were pushed to account for their cycling, the motives most commonly recited were based around concepts of autonomy and control, health and fitness, saving money, and fresh air and direct contact with nature.

Unlike most people we met, for this group current urban cycling conditions did not prevent enjoyment of a wide range of benefits from cycling. Cycling for short trips was for these cyclists more ‘obvious’, because they tended not to see the equally ‘obvious’ barriers that others did. Indeed, as Kyle’s question above demonstrates, many of these cyclists struggle to understand why more people do not cycle, believing that if they can do it, then surely everyone else can, too. We would argue that the collective failure of experienced and enthusiastic cyclists to recognise their accomplishment, to cycle successfully in the city, is today one of the barriers to developing strategies that would get many more, rather than a few more, people onto bikes for ordinary, everyday journeys, in ways that do not demand the development of a strong cycling identity. Yet strikingly, and somewhat paradoxically, these enthusiastic urban cyclists did mention the difficulties of urban cycling: problems that in some cases (such as storage solutions, and best routes) they had overcome; and in others (such as motorist behaviour, and poor infrastructure) they had learned to negotiate and/or tolerate. Their tolerance and acclimatisation to current urban cycling conditions meant that such conditions had to them become ‘normal’, and to some extent acceptable. For instance, on his return home from work, Peter rides downhill towards the city centre along a narrow stretch of main road; during a go-along he described to the researcher how he had twice been knocked off and had had several more near-misses along this part of his journey, but that it was ‘best to get your head down, take your space, and get it done quickly’ (Peter, Worcester). Peter was tenacious, and had developed an assertive riding style in the face of conditions that most would perceive as far from conducive to cycling. We would suggest that his negative experiences had directly contributed to the development of a powerful cycling identity. However, many experienced cyclists (understandably) do not consciously recognise how their travel identities have become constituted through their urban cycling experiences. This ensures that at the same time as they espouse the advantages of cycling as an ‘ordinary’ mode of transport, they inadvertently develop and perpetuate their identities as ‘elite’. We argue that the main reason why many cyclists continue to cycle, despite what we see as widespread difficult cycling conditions, has to do with identity, however this is formed.

Many times during fieldwork we were struck by the lengths to which people went as part of their work in ‘becoming a cyclist’. For example, Nadia enjoys cycling and rides to work in Lancaster regularly. During our time with her, however, we learnt that Nadia’s husband worries about her riding to work, and is particularly concerned about the stretch of her journey along a big, fast, busy and exposed road, which often carries heavy goods vehicles. Rather than not ride because of her husband’s concerns, Nadia agrees to him sometimes (especially when it is windy) taking her and her bike in his van for the first half of her journey, to a point where she can continue, largely off-road for the rest of it: ‘It’s a kind of a compromise because he’s not very happy with me on the bypass.’ Nadia also described how she is seen as something of an eccentric by other parents in the school playground, when dropping off her children and wearing her cycling attire: ‘Everyone in the playground, this is how they usually see me in my cycling stuff and they’re all, “Why do you do it on the bike? How can you put up with it?”’ (Nadia, Lancaster). Another participant in Lancaster had only recently returned to cycling following a break of three years, after being knocked from his bike by cars twice in quick succession. In the second collision Fabian had been badly injured, and he had developed a fear of bicycles and of cycling. He had managed to pursue a claim for damages which resulted in compensation, which he had used for therapy to re-build his confidence to cycle:

It made me feel sick to be near a bike so it was quite a few sessions of just going into a bike shop and saying ‘Hello’ to the guys who were in there and saying, ‘Right, I’m just going to stand with a bike again’ and spend 15, 20 minutes in a bike shop and then go again, and then, it was like, right, can I just hold on to one of the bikes, held on to the rack, sat on one of the bikes, week by week building that up until it was a case of, right, I think I can do this.

(Fabian, Lancaster)

To summarise, most people are only willing to cycle under quite specific conditions. When those conditions do not hold, most people we spoke to are simply unprepared to cycle. The main reason people refuse to cycle short urban journeys is the requirement to ride in conditions dominated by fast, motorised modes of traffic. Time and again during our qualitative fieldwork in all four cities people told us either that they had once cycled but had now stopped because they found it too scary, or that they cycled away from roads, but would not cycle on roads, and certainly not urban roads. An example of the former is provided by Catrina from Lancaster during an interview:

I used to bike, I did really enjoy biking… But once, I was biking in the road and a car beeped at me and it really put me off. I didn’t do it much after that, it was one of my last times I think, because I really didn’t like that. I lived in a little town and the pavements are really narrow so people don’t like you biking on the pavements, but people don’t like you on the road either, so I had to be in the road and I didn’t like it, I don’t like cars being behind me, and having to stop when cars stop and all that…I don’t want to do it on these roads, there’s no chance.

(Catrina, Lancaster)

People’s enjoyment of cycling for leisure in ‘traffic-free’ environments came across strongly and consistently, but this preference is of course contrary to the intentions of much current government policy, which aims to encourage utility cycling in order to reduce car travel, rather than recreational cycling, which so often depends upon the car to reach the start of a ride. We return to current urban conditions as the key barrier to utility cycling later.

Some people we met through the research cycled out of necessity. This was the case for recent immigrants with whom we conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Leicester. The most common scenario was lack of a car, combined with a workplace beyond comfortable walking distance, and a pattern of shift-work that made use of public transport not just expensive, but awkward. The people who cycled out of necessity still spoke of its other benefits, but their style of cycling was distinct from the ‘voluntary’, and usually more obviously committed cyclists whom we met. These ‘forced’ cyclists tended to ride relatively cheap machines, to have little knowledge of how best to maintain them, and to ride on the pavement, both because they perceived it as safer and because they felt they should stay out of the way of cars, which had a greater right to road space. These people, then, are as reluctant to cycle in currently dominant urban conditions as the rest of the population – but their specific circumstances give them very little option: the choice that they do have some control over is where to ride, and for the most part they choose to do so off the roads, on the pavements. That these attitudes and practices were widespread beyond the people we met was confirmed by broader ethnographic observation of cycling in, especially, the Leicester neighbourhood, where many young men of south Asian origin could be seen moving around by cycle, but almost never on the road. The cycling of this group seemed particularly fragile. For example, people we spoke to did not know how to inflate tyres to the correct pressure, nor how to fix a puncture; consequently their cycling experience seemed likely to be both sub-optimal and short-lived. These people tended also to live in high-density terraced housing, with no designated area for cycle storage; their bicycles occupied already crowded and precious living space. The issue of cycle storage is particularly pressing in inner-urban areas, where housing tends not to have garages, where gardens or yards tend to be non-existent or very small, and where security and theft of cycles are significant issues. Our research confirms earlier findings that secure and convenient residential cycle parking is a key requirement of high-density housing areas in particular. In general, however, lack of car ownership did not result in an increased likelihood to cycle, and our research supports recent findings that levels of cycling are highest among car owners.

There were clear differences in both attitudes towards and practices of cycling across our four ethnographic study areas. In the middle-class area of Lancaster cycling was seen as ‘a good thing’. However, the majority of people we spoke to there, although they owned a bicycle, cycled only occasionally, and then as a leisure-time activity, typically along one of the car-free cycle routes that follow the River Lune out from Lancaster into the surrounding countryside. Cycling, then, was a predominantly weekend activity, particularly on sunny days in the summertime. A few people living here did cycle to work and for other everyday journeys, but such utility cycling was exceptional, with the majority of people expressing deep concern – often incredulity – about the city centre roads as places to cycle. These people rarely expressed concern that this situation should be otherwise; rather they accepted current conditions, while describing them as inappropriate for cycling. Despite this neighbourhood lying within what is widely considered to be ‘ideal cycling distance’ of the city centre, that journey was much more likely to be driven or walked than it was to be cycled. Interestingly, Lancaster was the place that we found to have the highest degree of reflexivity about car use, and awareness that to reduce car use, and even to reduce the number of cars owned by the household, was a worthwhile thing to do. To give just one example, Anthony says about his household’s car use: ‘it’s always consciously done…we do try to manage our car use consciously’ (Anthony, Lancaster).

The situation in the suburban middle-class neighbourhood of Worcester was broadly similar, although the increased distance between it and shops and services, combined with a flatter topography, theoretically make cycling a clearer option for more journeys here. Again, however, we found very few people made everyday journeys by bike, rather more enjoyed cycling on nearby car-free routes such as the River Severn path as a form of fine weather leisure, and most people lived lives firmly centred on the car as the ordinary, default, means of moving around even locally. In general, the car was firmly entrenched and accepted in the patterns of everyday life of almost everyone we met and spoke with in Worcester, although as in Lancaster there was also often recognition of the problems cars cause. During the day, a few retired people could be seen cycling the quiet and wide residential streets between their homes and the nearby parade of shops, but during the morning and evening rush-hours, especially, such cycling seemed simply to disappear under the sheer weight of cars. Probably the key difference between our Lancaster and Worcester ethnographic field sites on the one hand, and those in Leicester and Leeds on the other, was in attitudes towards cycling. Most of the people we met in our middle-class neighbourhoods understood cycling’s significance as a more sustainable alternative to the car, even while they continued for the most part to make their own journeys by car. In our Leicester and Leeds communities, however, this sense of cycling as a ‘sensible’ and ‘sustainable’ mode of transport was largely absent: government policies promoting urban cycling seemed not to have registered at all and cycling was mainly seen as trivial and/or irrelevant. Bicycle ownership was in these places lower; partly this can be attributed to lack of storage, but it can also be attributed to the bicycle’s very low status among most adults, who correspondingly have little incentive to own one.

In Leicester we worked mainly with people of south Asian heritage. Here, car ownership and use were high, and – perhaps what is more important – aspirations towards the car were still very powerful. To own and drive a car demonstrates that you’ve ‘made it’, in one key respect at least. In contrast, aspirations towards the bicycle seemed almost non-existent. The bicycle seemed especially stigmatised among the older generation of south Asian households in Leicester; for them the bicycle often seemed synonymous with poverty, and riding one a particularly visible way of announcing one’s poverty. Of those we met, some people could understand cycling as a healthy practice, and there was very limited uptake of it as a recreational activity or for health reasons. More commonly cycling was an indoor health practice, done away from the public gaze, at home or in a gym, on a static bicycle. To ride a bicycle in order to get somewhere communicated something bad; it demonstrated to others in a particularly clear way that you were unable to afford a car. As we have already noted, this understanding seemed borne out by the number of people who seemed mainly to cycle out of necessity and whose cycling is very different from the kind of fast, confident, fully-equipped commuter cycling that a few of our respondents in Lancaster and Worcester practised; the person seen cycling in our Leicester field site tends to wear their ‘normal’ clothes (perhaps supplemented with a helmet and hi-viz vest, but no more than that), and their cycling tends to involve the bare minimum of equipment (so, for example, luggage is carried in a plastic bag swinging from the handlebars rather than in a pannier attached to a rack), to be much slower, and to take place primarily on the pavement rather than the road. Ironically, it is of course something akin to this style of cycling that needs to be encouraged if cycling is to become a more mainstream mode of urban mobility. Two obvious ways to make such cycling more plausible are the provision of appropriate space for cycling, and an improvement in the quality of bicycles that people ride: together these would do much to improve people’s overall cycling experience. Across younger generations in Leicester, attitudes towards cycling did appear generally more positive, although unlike Lancaster and Worcester, there did not seem to be even an embryonic construction of a culture of ‘the bicycle as a good thing’.

Cycling barely registered among the people we spoke to in our Leeds fieldwork neighbourhood. A place of sometimes acute deprivation, most people here have much more pressing concerns than thinking about how they move around, so talking about cycling was obviously well down their list of priorities. That said, cycling was still visible in three main ways. First, some children from the area rode around locally, mainly on BMX bikes. We spoke to some of these children – their main issue was having their bikes stolen, usually under force by older children while they were actually riding them; they did not use locks, or any extra equipment of any kind. This use corresponded to how most people talked to us about cycling, as a childhood activity to be left behind with adulthood. Second, a few men – mostly young or middle-aged – could also be seen riding bikes; however, there is an obvious and significant stigma attached to such riding, given how often people we met talked about cycling as the preferred mode of transport of drug dealers and the criminal fraternity. Men riding a bike clearly risked being categorised in these ways. Third, lycra-clad commuters who lived outside the locality could be seen pedalling through the area, mainly during the morning and afternoon rush-hours; these people corresponded to local people talking about cycling as something that other people do. Overall, cycling had an ‘othered’ status – it was something that certain kinds of people did, but none of these ‘others’ were considered worthy of emulation; indeed cycling was for children, delinquents, or eccentrics.

How people cycle

People incorporate cycling into their lives to very different extents, and in very different ways. People also ride bicycles in different ways – the machines they ride, the clothes they wear, the equipment they feel they need, the routes they take, the distance over and speed at which they travel, where and when they are and are not prepared to cycle, all these things vary. This section explores in more detail the various ways in which people cycle. For the small minority of committed cyclists we met, cycling is almost a way of life, or lifestyle. Any journey that can be cycled will if at all possible be cycled. Fred from Lancaster, for example, said:

It’s my normal mode of transport. If I want to go somewhere, my first thought is I go on a bike. Shopping, going to see friends, whatever…It’s mainly convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want…I just prefer going on my bike…I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.

(Fred, Lancaster)

Distance was less of an obstacle than time for such people. Indeed, for a few of the cycling enthusiasts we met, the struggle was how to fit more cycling (as training) into their busy schedules; ideally they would like to ride further than they do. People belonging to this group clearly participated in a ‘culture of cycling’. They recognised themselves, and could recognise others, as ‘cyclists’. They had strong cycling identities. Most spoke fondly of belonging to this group, and some actively participated in it by reading relevant magazines, holding club memberships, taking part in organised rides and so on. Belonging to a more dispersed cycling culture is probably important in sustaining a person’s commitment to cycle in the face of local indifference or even hostility. Indeed, we would argue that one reason why these people have such strong cycling identities is due to the harassment and intimidation that they systematically suffer at the hands of motorists. By riding on the roads at all, they are asserting their right to the road, but as we will see more clearly later when looking at pavement cyclists, this right is not widely recognised even by people who ride bikes.

For a much larger, but still relatively small, group of respondents, cycling is an occasional means of moving around. People in this group still identify with, and speak fondly of, cycling. Although they might ride primarily for leisure, they nonetheless make some of their everyday journeys by bike. Their decisions to do so, however, are much more influenced by external conditions than is the case for more committed cyclists, whose internal drive to cycle tends usually to outweigh external circumstances. People in this category find ways of coping with an urban environment that is generally hostile to cycling, through making both spatial and temporal adjustments. Stella from Worcester provides an example of this kind of more ‘conditional cyclist’. She is in her early 70s, lives with her husband, and has two grown-up children who live elsewhere. Stella moves around locally by bike – cycling to her part-time job as a charity shop volunteer in Worcester, and to the local shops in her neighbourhood. She also cycles for pleasure with her husband. Stella is a keen and confident cyclist, but there are things about cycling that she does not like. Most significantly, she dislikes cycling in traffic, but her relatively relaxed daily schedule means she can avoid busy times, and she also is happy to dismount from her bicycle and push it along pavements. She also selects routes that keep her away from the busiest and most intimidating roads. She is less likely to cycle at night, but then she has little need to do so. She will cycle in most weathers, although does not like to ride in icy conditions. Her more leisurely semi-retired lifestyle, and particularly the flexibility it affords, means that Stella can make cycling work for her. Busy and potentially scary road conditions are less of a disincentive to cycling for Stella than they might be for many other people. Her preference for cycling and her lifestyle have also co-evolved, however, so that cycling has helped to shape the contours of her life, in which cycling is correspondingly relatively easy. She has always cycled, and it continues to be her preferred mode of travel for all short trips within the urban area, including travel to work; but cycling has not become a rule, and Stella will use other modes of transport when she feels that it makes more sense to do so. Among her stated reasons for cycling are its being good exercise, environmentally-friendly, practical and convenient. Cycling is clearly an important part of her identity. In her own words:

I’ve never not ridden a bike. I mean, I never stopped as a teenager, so that I’m used to riding a bike. I cycle into town; I’m afraid I use the pavements an awful lot when, you know, I mean obviously if there are people walking on the pavement then I just push, get off my bike and push it.

(Stella, Worcester)

Off-peak cycling is one strategy by which people make cycling work for them; people who are able to tend to choose to make journeys by bike at quieter times. Carole in Lancaster, for example, notes: ‘Because I have to use the A6 for a few metres, that’s one of the reasons I prefer to go (to work) quite early because it’s quiet. A bit later, the cars tend to get so close, you can almost knock on their windows’ (Carole, Lancaster). Similarly Jason, a regular cyclist in Leicester, takes advantage of flexible working hours to cycle to and from work:

I tend to time my journey to miss most of the traffic…It’s lovely that I have the flexibility of my job at least sometimes, on some days, to travel after 9 o’clock in the morning on the way into work, and after at least 6 o’clock in the evening in order to miss the main traffic on the busier sections.

(Jason, Leicester)

Such contingent cycling was common across our research areas: people were prepared to cycle if conditions were right, or could be made right, but not otherwise. Ideal conditions tended to be off-road, in good weather, for sociable, recreational purposes. The further from such an ideal conditions became, the less likely were people to cycle. Furthermore, the majority of people do not have the privilege of being able to adjust the temporal and/or spatial aspects of their day to fit in cycling.

As we have seen, by far the biggest group of contingent cyclists is formed by people who are happy to cycle for leisure, or under leisurely conditions, but not for everyday journeys that require them, either alone or with others, to negotiate the urban transport environment by bike. Overall, our research suggests that over the last few decades, as car ownership and use has expanded, cycling has become more powerfully framed and cemented as a leisure rather than as a utility practice. People utilise bicycles not in order to reproduce everyday life (through, for example, cycling to the shops, to school or work), but in the construction of healthy, productive and enjoyable leisure time. The incorporation of cycling as a break from the everyday, rather than as part of that everyday, was nowhere more apparent than in Worcester, where we spoke to many people about the (then under construction but since completed) new walking and cycling bridge across the River Severn at Diglis Basin. Almost everyone we spoke to welcomed the bridge, but always because it gave them extra options for leisure walking and cycling around their local area. We met no one who planned to use it either to facilitate their current utility cycling journeys, or to encourage new utility trips by bike. The weather, daylight and seasonality are also important factors affecting cycling. Sometimes these effects can be contradictory: for example, many people are happy to cycle during daylight but not after dark, and Carole does not cycle into Lancaster at night because she worries about her bike being stolen; yet Cari considers cycling to be a safe night-time form of transport:

Cycling, from a woman’s point of view, is much safer than walking home…Women will say, ‘Oh, I feel safer in my car’, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Well, you’ve still got to park your car somewhere and walk to it and get in it’, and if it is a slightly dodgy area or you’re feeling a bit, you know, whereas with a bike you can literally park it outside wherever you are, or even inside.

(Cari, Worcester)

For the greater proportion of people participating in our research, cycling is barely considered at all. Or rather, it is more likely considered to be an irritating practice that others do, often on the pavement, rather than as a practice that they might themselves one day adopt. Most strikingly in our Leeds and Leicester ethnographic neighbourhoods, cycling is almost invisible. In these places particularly, to ride a bike involves visibly stepping (or pedalling) outside of local norms and expectations, something it is hard both to imagine and to do. Cycling is here much more likely to expose a person to ridicule than to positive affirmation. So any incorporation of cycling into everyday life requires active effort. It is not something that is automatically done, but rather something people must want to do, and which takes effort to make part of their lives. Because of its differential status effects, to do this work is more plausible in our Lancaster and Worcester ethnographic fieldwork sites than it is in the Leeds and Leicester communities studied in detail. Wherever someone cycles, and to whatever extent, to do so means going a little against the grain, however. To the extent that a person incorporates cycling into their lifestyle, then, they tend also to develop a cycling identity. Meanwhile, most people ‘simply’ drive – to drive is the norm, it requires little if any active effort; and there is less decision-making involved. Until the same is true of cycling, it will continue as a mode of urban transport to have the marginal status that we have described here.

The barriers to cycling

Previous sections have hinted at the difficulties and barriers that people confront when cycling in the city. This section examines these in more detail, using examples from all four towns studied. We focus on five main themes: problems associated with the urban infrastructure; issues of safety and risk; constraints imposed by families and lifestyles; the impact of weather and topography; and the influence of culture and image. Together, we argue, these factors contribute to making cycling both difficult and unpleasant for most people for most of the time. Those few people who cycle regularly do so despite, not because of, the conditions that exist.

Although they remain restricted mainly to leisure cycling, designated off-road cycle facilities – paths that might be shared with pedestrians but from which motorised vehicles are excluded – were easily the most favoured cycling environment. Such provision is not without problems; it can create conflicts between cyclists and other users, particularly pedestrians, and most particularly dog owners. Such provision is typically what people think of, and talk about, when contemplating good places to cycle, however. We found designated beside-road and on-road (as opposed to off-road) cycle routes to be much more problematic. Such routes have been increasingly installed across the UK over the last two decades in an attempt to create space for cycling, particularly along bigger and busier roads. Beside-road cycling infrastructure typically converts what was formerly a pavement for the sole use of pedestrians to a space that cyclists can share; sometimes such use is divided by means of a white line, with cyclists supposed to keep to one side, pedestrians the other.

Experienced cyclists invariably saw such provision as irrelevant to their journeys. They disliked it because they tended to feel it created an expectation in the minds of motorists that they should be using it, and so be off the road when they wanted to stay on the road because to do so best facilitated their journeys. Such cyclists looked a bit more kindly upon on-road cycle lanes, but still tended to resist what they felt to be an imposition of a correct cycling position; on-road cycle lanes indicate to other road users where cyclists ought to be, without always reflecting where these experienced cyclists actually wanted to be. These attitudes towards beside-road and on-road cycling provision tended to be reversed for less experienced cyclists and non-cyclists, who saw on-road cycle lanes (which in the UK very rarely provide any sort of physical separation from flows of motorised traffic) as not giving them the kind of protection that they felt they needed to cycle safely and comfortably. These cyclists and non-cyclists looked more kindly upon beside-road provision, but typically considered such provision to be far too piece-meal to be useful. Roads with no designated space for cycling are accepted, and sometimes even preferred, by committed cyclists who, rather than being put into a particular part of the road, can instead adjust their road position according to the speed, scale and their sense of motorised traffic; but they present real difficulties for others, especially on bigger and busier roads. Rick from Lancaster, for example, cycles regularly, including to move around as part of his job as a peripatetic carer of housebound elderly people. He cannot face cycling along the main road which forms an important part of the route for most of his journeys, as he finds the road too intimidating; to negotiate this section of his journey, he gets off his bike and pushes it along the pavement.

In the tradition of ethnography of the street, we spent long periods making detailed observations of people negotiating urban space, and particularly junctions, by bike. More than anywhere else, it is clearly junctions, and especially complicated junctions, where cyclists feel confused, at risk and on their own. More confident cyclists might approach and negotiate the junction in the same way as would a motorist, but like Stella and Rick, many cyclists effectively become pedestrians, getting off and pushing their machines, while others take to the pavements without dismounting. In Worcester we made multiple observations of one stretch of road linking our ethnographic neighbourhood with the shopping centres of St John’s and central Worcester. This stretch is narrow, with very limited carriageway widths, and is usually congested with motorised traffic. We noticed early on in the fieldwork that the number of cyclists taking to the pavement along this stretch of road was unusually high, and repeated observations made clear why they did so. To remain on the road meant sharing very limited space with long queues of motorised traffic, including heavy goods vehicles and buses, and it also required extreme vigilance in moving through this traffic as vehicles turned on to or off the road at many different junctions. Suffice to say, there is no dedicated space or special provision for cycling at any point. As Rhys, a hardened cyclist who rode a bike for sport as well as for commuting to work, said: ‘St John’s centre as a cyclist is a bit of a nightmare’. Like the minority of experienced and confident cyclists, however, Rhys stuck to the road when negotiating this stretch; it was the majority of less experienced and less confident cyclists who felt compelled to develop a range of alternative strategies. By far people’s greatest fear, whether in contemplating cycling or in actually moving around by bike, was the fear of co-existing with motorised traffic which, they felt, did not or would not account sufficiently for their vulnerabilities as a cyclist. These fears held for a large majority of adults we spoke to, but they were even more powerfully articulated by parents when contemplating the prospects of their children cycling.

When accompanying people on their cycling journeys we were struck time and again by the ways in which people shifted from the road to the pavement and back again, according to the requirements of making their journeys as safely and smoothly as they could. This jumping around of cyclists between different infrastructures within the urban environment clearly demonstrates how for many people riding bikes there is, quite literally, nowhere obvious to go and stay. We know how pavement cycling is a major concern for many pedestrians. All the people we spoke to who rode on the pavement understood and appreciated this, but felt they often had little alternative. Many were unable to see how they could possibly negotiate many junctions on the road: it was not simply that the prospect seemed daunting; it seemed impossible. Others thought it was possible, but were unwilling to do it because it seemed so dangerous. It was not only junctions that persuaded people to ride on the pavements. As we have indicated already, many people we spoke to also saw fast, busy roads as inappropriate for cycling. While riding along a main road in Leicester, one research participant commented ‘You can see why people would choose to ride on the pavement, because you are constantly pressured by the traffic. On the busier roads in Leicester it kind of feels like it’s always on your shoulder, trying to get past, about to come past’ (Kyle, Leicester). Many people we spoke to saw cycling along such roads as impossible: they pointed to the domination of the carriageways by trucks, buses and cars, and could see no space for cycling; some of these people were incredulous at the very idea they might cycle on the road. Other people understood that cycling on the road was practically possible, but trusted neither themselves (‘too wobbly’) nor motorists sufficiently to feel safe putting themselves into those kinds of spaces.

Many people felt guilty and apologetic about cycling on the pavement, but nonetheless rode there because they felt they had no alternative. This arguably suggests significant repression of cycling: if cycling had a clear and coherent place within the transport infrastructure, many more people who currently either do not contemplate cycling at all, or else think about cycling but are reluctant actually to do it, might be encouraged to do so. If the majority of people who do ride bicycles have quite literally been pushed off the road, what does this say about the state of cycling more generally? There are also many ideal cycling short-cuts along which cycling is theoretically prohibited. To cycle however respectfully along such routes, which often form important connections between stretches of quieter road and so constitute important resources to urban cycling, is to risk being seen as ‘deviant’. We argue that the prohibition of cycling along these stretches contributes to a generalised (if also overlooked) discrimination against urban cycling; although some people do manage successfully to incorporate such routes into their cycling journeys.

Another major barrier to regular cycling for utility travel, and one that occurred more-or-less ubiquitously across all groups and study areas, was the difficulty involved in getting multi-person households – often including people of different ages, interests and abilities – to make their individual and collective ordinary journeys by bike. Chief among these is probably storage and maintenance in a roadworthy state of (for a family) multiple machines, so that they are ready-to-ride at any time. For safe and smooth cycling, these machines need to be equipped with lights, locks, racks, panniers and mudguards; and the kind of wet weather gear that makes walking more of an option is also required for cycling. We met families who moved by bike, and who had organised their homes and their lives in ways that facilitated regular and routine cycling, but they represented a tiny minority of all those people who participated in our research. In Leicester, for example, Kyle and Sashi live with their children, Ray, who is 15 and Tania, who is 11. All the family are keen cyclists, and make most of their everyday journeys by bike. Cycling has become for this family the habitual way of moving around, in the same way that most families use the car. They have a large shed full of different machines, which emerge according to requirements. For example, if Tania needs to be dropped somewhere but will get a lift home later in a friend’s family’s car, Kyle and Tania will ride the family tandem, on which Kyle can return alone. The family is a musical one, and play an assortment of instruments, so they have a bike trailer, on which even the largest (a cello) can be transported. Only in exceptional circumstances does the family’s car get used; but in a world organised predominantly by and around the car, this family is exceptional, and continues to cycle in the face of its unusual status. For them to become normal, the world, and so other people’s lives, needs to become different.

Added to these barriers at the material level are a range of potential physical, psychological and emotional barriers. The various family members, who are required to cycle in order to get around, need similarly to be ready-to-ride; fit, strong, fresh and enthusiastic enough to make a journey requiring both some physical exertion and technical competence. Additionally, if moving by cycle is rarely practised, it never becomes habitual and will remain difficult and awkward. If one or more is available, the car remains the default option, and the ‘good sense’ of using it is continuously, perhaps many times daily, reproduced. Of course if cycling could be routinely done more sedately in safe surroundings then these fitness factors would become less important. We have already cited examples of quite elderly people cycling, and cycling has very high ergonomic and energy efficiency.

When talking about cycling, perhaps surprisingly, people expressed concerns about wet weather and hills much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. Unless they were competitive sports cyclists, people who cycled for leisure tended to cycle only in fine weather, and to choose reasonably ‘easy’ routes that included few, if any, hills: canal towpaths, sea-front promenades (such as Morecambe, near Lancaster), river and estuary paths, and disused railways – many of which have been converted to walking and cycling use by Sustrans – were all especially popular (many commuter routes used for everyday cycling also take advantage of such flat and traffic-free corridors). More regular cyclists, however, were rarely put off by rain or hills; this is because by-and-large they rode bicycles with a good range of gears that could cope with even severe climbs, and over time they had developed a level of fitness that sustained cycling. They also invested in good quality waterproof clothing that kept them warm and dry in even the wettest and coldest weather. The conditions most likely to put off these committed cyclists were snow and ice. Even the most committed cyclists admitted to finding cycling much easier and more pleasurable in the longer, lighter and warmer days of summer than during the short, dark and cold days of winter. People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention the weather (and especially rain), and topography (and especially any steep local hills that they knew of) as reasons why they would be unlikely to do so; but our general and strong impression was very much that weather and hills are not the most important reasons why people do not cycle. In Lancaster, which is perhaps the wettest and hilliest of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. As with walking, weather and local topography might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but we argue that the effect of these (fixed) factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control.

The various barriers to cycling ensure that it remains a very marginal means of urban travel. Outside of specific times and places cycling is unusual, and so are those who do it. Everyday cycling is in a self-reinforcing and downward spiral, in which barriers to cycling ensure it remains unusual, and its unusual status deters and/or sabotages efforts to make it more normal and mainstream. If fear was the biggest barrier to cycling in our Lancaster and Worcester study neighbourhoods, in the communities to which we got up close in Leicester and Leeds issues of image and identity were more significant. It was as though most people in these places had not really contemplated the idea of themselves cycling, and so had not yet thought about how afraid they might be to do so. Cycling simply was not contemplated as a potential practice by most of the people we spoke to in these places; it was so stigmatised that the idea of practising it was faintly absurd. In many communities cycling is quite simply not taken seriously as an ordinary, everyday mode of mobility. We agree that under present road conditions such an attitude makes sense, reflecting as it does the still dominant wider attitude towards cycling and the ways in which motor vehicles dominate our streets. We have, however, seen that some people, including families, do establish cycling as a habit, so that cycling successfully connects and integrates the different aspects of their ordinary, everyday lives. We argue that the existence of such individuals and families amply demonstrates that wider cycling-based lifestyles are possible, and could be more widely encouraged.

Conclusions: building cycling cultures

Cycling is a relatively popular form of recreation across contemporary Britain, but as a mode of urban transport it is virtually irrelevant. In line with established trends, only a very small minority of the people who participated in our research used a bicycle as a means of making their ordinary, everyday urban journeys; but we know that other European countries have much higher levels of urban cycling. It thus seems reasonable to suggest that levels of urban cycling in Britain could be a great deal higher. How, however, do we get from here to there? How do we build a mainstream culture of cycling? Many people like cycling and would like to cycle more, but feel hampered by what they perceive as a real lack of a cycle-friendly urban environment. Other people, and particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and who are much less versed in the concept and importance of sustainable transport, are indifferent towards cycling, although we would argue that this indifference is born in large part from that same lack of a cycle-friendly urban environment. People are unlikely to want to cycle if the message they receive from their wider environments (not just the urban transport environment, but also the ideological environment, including media discourses, government policies and everyday talk) is that cycling is not taken seriously. Whatever views to the contrary might emerge from time to time from national and local government, our research indicates that rather than feeling encouraged to get on a bike, most people are discouraged from urban cycling.

Over the last half century most people living in urban Britain have become used to living their everyday lives in car-heavy environments. The car’s dominance over urban space (whether those cars are stationary or moving) has proceeded gradually, and people have adapted to it, almost to the extent that they do not notice. The car’s taken-for-granted centrality to urban life will become both more obvious, but probably also more cherished, only as it is challenged; but our research clearly indicates that in order to create more cycle-friendly urban environments challenged it must be. What a few people are able to achieve at the individual and/or family level requires, if it is to be achieved at a societal level, some very big changes: changes of a scale and significance that the majority of people have never personally experienced. However, we argue that such changes are both possible and desirable.

One Response to “An Ethnography of Everyday Cycling”

  1. Anthony Says:

    Excellent article…

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