Archive for the ‘CYCLING PROMOTION’ Category

Forgetting Cycling

July 11, 2013

For six years, between 2005 and 2011, I lived in a Cycling Demonstration Town. Supported by central government, my hometown was one of an initial six that received increased funding for cycling, to get – to follow Cycling England’s mantra – ‘more people cycling, more safely, more often’.

Cycling_Town_Logo

Locally, the project described itself as ‘Celebrating Cycling’. It centred on infrastructural improvements, but also included a wide range of promotional activities, such as maps and brochures, events, led rides, maintenance classes and cycle training.

In an Autumn 2006 publication delivered to households across the district, the City Council said:

Not only do we want to increase cycling in our district but more than that we want to create a real culture change that will not only see cycling become a mainstream and popular way for people to travel locally but that will also see the community understand, positively embrace and celebrate cycling’s vital role in the sustainable future of our district.

(Lancaster City Council, 2006: 11)

Based on various surveys, official pronouncements, anecdotal evidence and ethnographic observations, it’s clear the project produced some gains – a raised profile for cycling locally, improvements to cycling infrastructure on the ground, and increased levels of cycling activity.

So albeit slowly and not on a scale likely to achieve mass cycling anytime soon, change was happening. Building a bicycle system takes time and the project rightly had a long-term focus. In 2009 the Department for Transport published a report containing preliminary findings from the first six demonstration towns. It concluded that:

a sustained and well-designed programme of investment in cycling at about the level of £10 per head of population was sufficient, in every one of the Cycling Demonstration Towns, to achieve an increase in cycling.

It is worth emphasising that this is in some ways a surprising conclusion. It is commonly supposed that past failure to increase cycling levels is proof that it is not possible to increase cycling in Britain. In fact, the Cycling Demonstration Towns have demonstrated, in every case, that it is possible to increase cycling, even in towns which almost completely lack a ‘cycling culture’.

(Sloman et al, 2009: 26)

This report recognised much more still had to be done, but finished on the upbeat note “that the six towns have achieved ‘lift-off’ for cycling” (Sloman et al, 2009: 26).

So change was underway but this was seen as only the start of a longer-term process. The Cycling Demonstration Town project aimed to explore the impact of sustained investment in cycling. Another Department for Transport report noted how the level of funding for cycling in the first six Demonstration Towns was

comparable with the annual investment in cycling in towns that have successfully increased cycling in mainland Europe, which over about 20 years of investment have achieved continued growth in urban cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 17, my emphasis in bold)

It’s now 2013 and I don’t live in a Cycling Demonstration Town any more. I haven’t moved, institutional commitment to cycling has. The Cycling Demonstration Towns project was abandoned with Cycling England’s dismantling in 2011, and Lancaster City Council’s commitment to cycling has declined ever since.

At the Project’s beginning, with ambitions at their highest, signs were erected at each of the District’s road boundaries:

These signs welcomed people with the programme’s logo and the words ‘celebrating cycling in our city, coast and countryside’. They acted as a permanent advert for Lancaster’s commitment to cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 60; my emphasis in bold)

Celebrating Cycling sign

Those signs have gone, the official endorsement of cycling they seemed unambiguously to announce left barely a trace. (In an hour’s trawling of the Internet, the image above is the only one showing the ‘Celebrating cycling’ road signs I found). That we ever were a Cycling Demonstration Town is being erased.

Why? Are we embarrassed that we might once have celebrated cycling, and imagined things could be different? Or was cycling’s celebration only a momentary blip for so long as the money lasted, and we’re now back to business- (and motoring-) as-usual?

And who’s responsible for this local institutional erasure of cycling? Central government pulled the plug prematurely on what always needed to be a long-term process. Local government was unable to develop and institute effective strategies to support cycling once centralised funding ended. Also, what seems an obvious prerequisite for long-term success, the development of broad and deep civil society support for cycling through building links at grassroots level, was never an important objective of the Cycling Demonstration Towns project.

It’s not just that the project has ended; some of its minor gains are now being eroded. One casualty is cycling children. Through cycle training, improved facilities (especially bike parking, which had been ripped out of many British schools as it became seen as irresponsible to cater for, let alone encourage, something so ‘dangerous’ as cycling), and promotional activities, the Cycling Demonstration Towns won quick increases in schoolchildren’s cycling. But without continuous encouragement, cycling to school along roads hostile to cycling is impossible to sustain.

It’s ironic that the ‘Celebrating Cycling’ signs welcoming people (people driving, mainly) to the district were on roads, because it is those roads where the project spectacularly failed to change conditions in cycling’s favour, and those unchanged roads are the reason why the small gains made for cycling during the project’s lifetime are now so easily being lost. The car’s centrality to the local transport system was never even questioned, let alone challenged. Even in a Cycling Demonstration Town cycling had to fit in with, never displace, the car.

Still, the signs that demonstrated a brief and fragile institutional commitment may have gone, but cycling of course remains. It’s two years since we stopped ‘celebrating cycling’, but the last week has been dry, warm and sunny – perfect cycling weather – and people are out and about on bikes, though fewer than you might imagine given how recently the push for cycling has ended.

Of course many of the people cycling have been here all along; people like us. Unlike our governing institutions we don’t forget cycling, and alongside our enjoyment of it, at least part of our collective grassroots task remains, to help others remember it again.

References

Department for Transport (undated but 2010): Making a Cycling Town: a compilation of practitioners’ experiences from the Cycling Demonstration Towns programme, Qualitative Survey, 2005-2009.

Lancaster City Council (2006): Your District Council Matters, Issue 9, Summer/Autumn, 8 page pull-out guide – ‘Celebrating Cycling in City, Coast and Countryside’.

Sloman L, Cavill N, Cope A, Muller L & Kennedy A (2009): Analysis and synthesis of evidence on the effects of investment in six Cycling Demonstration Towns, Report for Department for Transport & Cycling England.

Fun Cycling

July 3, 2013

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

Fear of Cycling: a summary

June 26, 2013

After presenting on ‘Fear of Cycling’ to the Velo-city Vienna conference recently, I was asked to summarise my talk for the post-conference magazine. It’s lost some nuance and complexity but I’ve got the argument down to 1,000 words, and post it below for anyone interested. I do so because Velo-city reminded me how ‘live’ is the issue of helmets, particularly – helmets look set to become mandatory in Spain, and already are in Australia – where next year’s Velo-city takes place, in Adelaide; so it seems not everyone yet knows how huge an impediment to mass cycling is helmet promotion, let alone compulsion.

Helmet promotion

Introduction

Cycling is so good, yet many people still don’t cycle. Why? We must start by recognising how cycling conditions remain so generally poor; to do otherwise is naïve. Most people simply don’t want to, and won’t, cycle along roads dominated by fast, motorised traffic; the thought of riding amongst or close to big, heavy vehicles is one they find very scary. Nobody wants to get hurt and, rightly or wrongly, people feel getting hurt is more likely if they move by bike.

For anyone who wants to see more cycling, the instinct here is to try to persuade people that cycling is actually, really safe. We might explain how cycling is:

  • objectively safe – the chances of a crash when cycling are very slim;
  • relatively safe – for example, there is more chance of being injured when cooking than when cycling;
  • much safer than not cycling – the health benefits of cycling, it’s said, outweigh the risks by 20:1.

Better still, we might try not only to encourage people to ride despite their fears, but meanwhile also push for substantial – radical – improvements to current conditions for cycling. But the question remains: why is cycling – something which perhaps gives us pleasure and benefit – in the minds of other people so worrying? Yes, people might overstate cycling’s risks. Yes, more must be done to make cycling (feel) safer. But might there also be cultural and political processes at work which make cycling seem dangerous, more dangerous than it is, and which produce fear of cycling? And if this was the case, and we identified those processes, couldn’t, shouldn’t we intervene, to stop them?

Emotions can be, and are, constructed. Cycling is not inherently dangerous and a fear of cycling is not inevitable. We need only look to the Netherlands to see that – cycling there is so normal that people barely even think about it. But across most of the world cycling is more problematic, with many people reluctant to cycle because they think it’s dangerous.

How is fear of cycling produced?

So let’s examine how fear of cycling is produced. There are three clear ways in which cycling is made to seem more dangerous than it is. Ironically they all purport to be responding to cycling’s danger and to be making cycling safer, but instead they produce cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus contribute to fear of cycling; they do, in other words, the opposite of what they intend.

1. Road safety education

Road safety education teaches everyone, but particularly children, that moving around is risky, roads are dangerous, and they ought to be very careful, especially when walking and cycling. You know the kind of thing – leaflets telling children to keep out the way of cars. Such ‘information’ reinforces driving as the normal means of moving around, and makes cycling seem difficult, awkward and dangerous; it usually puts responsibility for safety squarely on the (child) cyclist’s shoulders – it’s up to you to devise a quiet route (however long), to wear hi-viz clothes and (of course!) a helmet. Road safety education doesn’t make places safer; it makes driving more normal and cycling more dangerous; and it seems often deliberately designed to instil fear of cycling.

2. Helmet promotion

In a context marked by widespread fear of cycling, promoting helmets – or even making them mandatory – can seem like an easy, obvious, quick and sensible thing to do. Which is why it’s done. But this is no way to promote cycling, because promoting helmets depends on associating cycling with danger, and will therefore inevitably increase fear of cycling. Like road safety education, helmet promotion puts responsibility onto the wrong people; and instead of making streets safer, makes cycling more dangerous. To promote helmets is to promote car use and to repress cycling.

3. New (safe) spaces for cycling

If fear stops most people riding, an obvious solution is to change cycling’s place. And in the short to medium term this might be a necessary step to overcoming fear of cycling, getting more people riding, and building a mass culture of cycling. But can you see how the logic here remains similar to the previous two examples? We try to make cycling safer without tackling the root problem, the danger imposed by fast motorised traffic. And with similar results – the impulse to take cycling off the road inevitably increases people’s fear of cycling on the road, and also makes those who remain cycling on the road a bit more ‘strange’.

So all three attempts to make cycling safer actually make cycling (seem) more dangerous, and produce a fear of cycling whilst failing to change how most people, most of the time, move around (which across most of the world, is increasingly by car). And so cycling remains in the minority, and the cyclist remains strange.

Conclusion

But we’re trying to promote cycling aren’t we? Yes, apparently, and we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s discomfort about (even resentment and resistance towards) the push for cycling – because by inviting people to cycle we’re asking them to become different. However, cycling would be more successfully promoted if we stopped making it seem dangerous and difficult, and worked instead to make it the simplest, easiest thing in the world. The sooner we make cycling normal, the sooner people will stop feeling cycling is a strange thing to do.

So finally then, how do we combat fear of cycling and make cycling normal?

  • From the bottom-up – by grassroots empowerment, communicating cycling’s benefits, and helping people insert cycling more effectively into their lives. The more people cycle, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From the top-down – by explaining to our governing institutions how cycling remains much too difficult and dangerous, and requires radical political re-prioritisation. The more cycling is prioritised, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From everywhere – by shifting away from the misguided attempts to make cycling safer discussed here (with the caveat that high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure is often now a necessary step to mainstreaming cycling), and concentrating instead on making motorised traffic less dangerous – by for example increasing restraints on driving, slowing speeds, and enforcing careful driving. The more we recognise the real danger to be driving, the safer cycling becomes.

Fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must work to make it so.

Velo-city Vienna

June 19, 2013

Velo-city at Vienna City Hall

Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference. I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.

Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.

This doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently round town later, I don’t.

Cycling in Vienna

Vienna contraflow

Central city cycle circle

Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike. Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These current and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.

The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some re-prioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.

But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.

Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).

Vienna bike lane

Cycling in traffic, Vienna

Skinny wiggly Vienna bike lane

Vienna cyclist

Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base. One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It helped me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.

By the River Danube

But the best vision of mass cycling came on the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mix of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation; I suspect many Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was talking about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and enables the city visibly to announce its support and ambition for cycling. Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.

Mass bike ride, Vienna

Blossom

May 15, 2013

Blossom

It’s only once it starts waking up again that I realise quite how asleep the world has been; and although it’s not got much warmer, these last couple of weeks it’s really come alive. Yesterday the blossom, which is late this year, was particularly fine. The verges have sprung to life too, and are full of flowers.

You don’t need to go for a ride in the countryside to notice how everything’s growing so fast, and how much colour is emerging. One of the great things about blossom especially is it tends to follow where people live, so it’s all around us, even in a relatively treeless town such as Lancaster. But to ride out and get the full sensory assault of this flourishing flora is a great pleasure of cycling at this time of year.

Yesterday I kept mainly to little lanes on a northerly loop from Lancaster. I rode over Hutton Roof and round Farleton Fell to Natland, just short of Kendal, then west to Brigsteer and round Whitbarrow, on to Levens, and back home via the Yealands and Kellets. This is a more peopled, pastoral route than many of my favourites – it doesn’t roam over moors and fells but moves between hamlets comprising stone farmhouses surrounded by trees. But it makes a more colourful ride – aware it won’t be long before the blossom’s blown away and the countryside goes completely green, I wanted to enjoy it whilst it lasts.

For mid-May it wasn’t warm; I was stung by a storm of hail stones as I climbed out the Kent Valley. But warmer than it was a month or so ago, the birds remain busy, and it’s beginning to smell properly of spring now; especially through the woodlands the air’s heavy with the scent of wild garlic.

Blossom tree at Yealand

Winster Valley

Under Whitbarrow

Towards Crosthwaite

Witherslack Woods

Road cycling is often seen as involving hard effort, long miles and tough climbs. Professional cycle sport and increasingly popular styles of riding such as sportives tend probably to perpetuate such an image. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons rural road cycling is dominated by men? (I’ve not seen studies on this but my own experience supports other anecdotal evidence – when riding outside the city, I’ll maybe see one woman for every ten men.) But road riding can be, should be, is (has always been?) so much more than this; and yesterday– to offer a little example – I was reminded of how it lets you move through (indeed become part of) a multi-sensory floral kaleidoscope.

As with cycling in general, for road cycling to become more popular (and there are good reasons it should) we need to watch for it getting constructed in one way to the exclusion of others. So let’s keep sight (and smell!) of road cycling’s different meanings. Indeed, let’s reflect on, discuss and promote them.

And whilst all this proliferating vegetation can be experienced via other modes, there’s no better way – I’d aver – than by bike.

Blossom

Bluebell woods

Verge 1

Verge 2

Heading home

Get Britain Cycling?

May 8, 2013

Get Britain Cycling

The sun’s out, the temperature’s rising. Spring seemed to take forever to arrive but suddenly now it’s here; everything’s going green, and yellow, and blue – colour everywhere! At this time of year riding should really take precedence. But – even if I sometimes forget precisely why – it continues to be important to encourage others to cycle.

And hey … there’s a petition to sign! Should we have to petition Government to take cycling seriously? It’s easy to be cynical. We’re petitioning for a Parliamentary debate on cycling – for politicians to discuss the just-published Get Britain Cycling report. We’re asking British politicians to start talking seriously about cycling. We can laugh, scorn or mock, but this is the situation we’re in, and pushing for a Parliamentary debate on cycling is our best hope of building top-down support for cycling.

For the report and recommendations from the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry to get debated in Parliament, the petition needs 100,000 signatures. 54,084 people have signed so far; with I think the petition in danger of demonstrating what we already know – cycling, particularly belief in cycling as a major means of urban transport, is marginal (which is precisely why we need enlightened governance and political leadership). So please, sign the petition, and ask others to do so too.

But realise that cycling isn’t in the news because of Government action; it’s in the news because of Government inaction. So more important than signing this petition is maintaining the broader, grassroots agitation for change which has led to it, and which is also applying political pressure in other ways.

Even if we do get the Parliamentary debate, I’m afraid we must expect it – and any Governmental response – to be inadequate. It’d be naïve to expect a Parliamentary debate on cycling to make serious cracks in the dominant car system, though it’s cracks we need; more likely is continuing tokenistic support for cycling of the kind which keeps car use-as-ordinary undisturbed. Cycling politics is resurgent partly because it was repressed during a period of grossly ineffective cycling policy. (We might date this from the 1996 launch of the National Cycling Strategy (which aimed to increase cycling 400% by 2012) until the demise of Cycling England fifteen years later, in 2011.) During that period it felt like ‘things were being done for cycling’, though we know now they weren’t, really. Cycling levels didn’t quadruple; they stayed the same, whilst car use for even the shortest journeys became more widespread, habitual and acceptable.

Freed from constraints imposed by the hegemony of ‘realistic cycling policy’, in the last couple of years many of us have felt liberated to think cycling differently; we’ve stepped up our ambitions for cycling, and have started to talk about cycling as capable of challenging the car’s obese sense of entitlement to especially urban space. We don’t necessarily know anything new. It’s more that we’ve found our voice, one repressed whilst dominant players within the cycling promotion industry enjoyed a cosy if ineffective relationship to Power. We’re learning to contest established cycling promotion orthodoxies, to be bold and audacious. About time really! After all, we’re only saying what everybody else – ‘ordinary people’ who’d quite like to cycle – already knows! But until now it’s been remarkably difficult to say simple, obvious things.

We must be sure to hold tightly onto our new, bigger, bolder, better ambitions for cycling when responding to emerging Government rhetoric, policy and action. Because we don’t want a bit more cycling, we want mass cycling; and because some established players – cycling’s traditional representatives – will likely be too easily satisfied.

In the meantime we must keep pushing from the bottom-up. Of course we must seek greater representation of cycling within ‘anti-cycling’ systems; but if we also cycle more, encourage others to cycle more, and support small, local projects aimed at getting still others to cycle more, then we simultaneously build the grassroots base which cycling needs in order to be politically more powerful and resilient.

Irrespective of whether or not it triggers a Parliamentary debate on the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry’s report, this petition will indicate to politicians how much support there is for cycling. Less than 100,000 signatures demonstrates we’re still small – still a movement pushing at the outside rather than a voice to incorporate on the inside; still marginal, not mainstream.

Part of me tires of trying to get other people to take cycling seriously. Part of me thinks ‘sod it! Just enjoy your own cycling’. But then I remember the reasons cycling matters – its important contributions to local and global social and environmental dignity. Still, it’s hard to keep pushing cycling when people don’t want to listen, and when even those who do so often respond inadequately.

But then, things do change; and we need to create opportunities to help make them change. So we must be sceptical optimists. We must keep hope that things can change dramatically in cycling’s favour. The ambitions of government towards cycling must surely rise sometime; just maybe, this could be the time!

100,000 signatures would give hope that Government might hear our audacious ambitions for cycling, ambitions which would genuinely start to crack the grossly dominant current car system. So please, if you think that’s important, sign the petition here. But know too that whatever Government does, it won’t be enough – we must become used to advocating cycling for a long time yet.

In the meantime, every body matters, so cycling and encouraging others to cycle remains the really important political work. Get out there and enjoy riding through Spring! It’s brilliant!

Cycling 2050

April 10, 2013

Below I outline three possible scenarios for cycling’s global role in 2050. I then extrapolate current major trends to conclude with what I consider to be cycling’s most likely role in the world of 2050.

1. Mass velomobility

Widespread concerns about health, climate change and livability have translated into advocacy for and implementation of a radical set of policies, re-shaping the transport environment, and especially cities, away from motorised modes and towards cycling. Massively increased fuel prices combined with high levels of tax on both ownership and use of motorised vehicles have accelerated social and cultural change towards sustainable modes of mobility. These processes started first in the world’s most prestigious cities – such as London, New York, Berlin and Paris; but caught on quickly and spread across the globe, including to cities which in 2013 had been leaving cycling behind.

Little motorised traffic penetrates urban space, which is characterised instead by parks, trees, and people meeting, walking or cycling. The benefits of these changes have ensured they are embraced, encouraging still further change. The private car is extinct and has disappeared as a status symbol. Short journeys are walked, but cycling is the normal mode of transport for almost everyone for journeys beyond two kilometres but less than ten kilometres: some people use e-bikes to help with lack of fitness, steep hills or longer distance; some people (particularly young children) and freight are transported locally by load-carrying (often electrically-assisted) velomobiles. High quality public transport systems exist, but within cities their use is considered inferior to making journeys by bike.

Urban space is pervaded by a spirit of community, neighbourliness and conviviality. Release of space from parked and moving cars has ensured plenty of room for walking and cycling to mix without conflict. A new understanding of cycling has developed – as a practice which has helped safe-guard human well-being on the planet; cycling is therefore considered fundamental to ‘the good life’ and is rarely seen as difficult. History books and children’s stories tell of ‘the time of the car’, but the youngest generation scarcely believes it; imbued with an ethic of living sustainably on a finite planet, it takes for granted the localised, resource-lite, energy-efficient lives which are now normal.

2. Going Dutch

Increasing concerns about health, fitness, pollution and climate change have led to re-shaping of urban space away from the car and towards the bicycle following the lead shown by (and the best practice pioneered in) the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Growing public demand and government support for cycling form part of a broader desire for less car-centric cities in which people choose between different modes, with cycling favoured for shorter journeys beyond walking distance.

Cycling is generally regarded as ‘a good thing’, but partial resistance to it remains across areas of the world which had previously embedded car use as normal (north America, Australasia, much of Europe) or which adopted a culture of car ownership and use more recently (Latin America, Africa, Asia). Levels of cycling vary greatly: continuation of pro-cycling policies in many northern European countries means cycling usually accounts for over half of urban journeys; elsewhere cycling (including assisted cycling) typically accounts for between 10 and 30% of all urban journeys.

Cycling is still being actively promoted by government and other institutions, and remains in competition with other modes (trams, buses, trains and cars – whether privately or collectively owned). It is designed into the urban fabric in various ways: in central urban areas, which are now generally car-free, it tends to share space with (and give way to) pedestrians; further out it tends to be separated from other modes along bigger, busier roads but to mix with them on quieter residential streets, where speeds are below 30 km/hr. Cycling is typically afforded priority over motorised modes within urban space, but this priority is challenged across suburban space, and reversed across rural space (where cycling remains predominantly a leisure practice).

As urban cycling levels have increased, people have gradually re-organised their values, attitudes and lifestyles around it, so that whilst some groups remain resistant to actually doing it, hostility to the idea of cycling has declined, and it is widely accepted as a normal means of moving around. However, the bicycle’s status is highest and cycling as a mode of transport most popular amongst affluent, educated urban groups (and very popular amongst retired people as an active, healthy mode of (mainly rural) leisure). Attempts to sell ‘the Dutch model’ of cycling have expanded to all parts of the world, including India and China.

3. Business-as-usual

Levels of cycling remain relatively high across parts of northern Europe, reaching 50% of all journeys in a select few Dutch, Danish and German cities. Elsewhere there are some ‘cycling beacons’ (often hyped by short-lived institutional efforts to boost cycling in particular places), but levels of cycling remain generally negligible, at a few per cent of total urban trips. Countries where cycling was once common, such as India and China, have become more organised around the car; problems associated with transport congestion and pollution have grown dramatically.

Cycling continues to be seen in some places as a potential solution to assorted problems but it remains a struggle to convert positive rhetoric into more utility cycling; in other places cycling has become a discredited ‘solution’ – past efforts to promote cycling have failed, so the search for solutions has moved on to other ‘eco-friendly’ transport projects which fit better the interests of neo-liberal capitalism, such as new generations of ‘smart cars’, car-sharing schemes, and high-profile public transport projects.

Outside the few places where utility cycling is ‘normal’ it continues to be seen as a fringe activity of small, inconsequential sub-cultures; many people from these sub-cultures still advocate cycling as the most efficient, healthy and sustainable means of urban transport but their advocacy fails to make much impact, either on public opinion or governmental and other institutional agendas and policies. However, cycling does attract small, isolated pockets of funding for little local projects aimed mainly at children or ‘hard-to-reach’ groups.

Conclusion: cycling futures

The least likely of these scenarios is surely the last, ‘business-as-usual’. Culture and society change continuously; nothing stays the same; so the idea that things 37 years from now might remain much as they are today is unrealistic.

Three major trends likely to have an impact on people’s willingness to cycle are underway:

  1. Climate change and its unintended and serious consequences is established scientific fact. But without strong institutional intervention, lifestyle changes in response to the realities of climate change will be highly uneven, both geographically and socially;
  2. Amongst the world’s richest people, the car’s status is in decline, the bicycle’s on the rise. These look like long-term trends, not short-term fads;
  3. Cities across much of the ‘rich’ world are becoming susceptible to ideas (and associated re-shapings) around livability – no longer mainly places to escape, they are being re-made into desirable places to live, work and play.

This suggests two potential futures for cycling:

1) Based on cycling remaining an elective practice

The urban rich embrace cycling as a genuine response to anxieties around climate change as well as a marker of a new, middle-class lifestyle which prioritizes livability. Urban governments will increasingly respond to and seek to capitalise on cycling’s rising status, both with public bike schemes and more cycle-friendly spaces. But poor people will be pushed out from cities and, together with rural populations, will be less inclined as well as less able (because of longer distances and less hospitable conditions) to cycle.

2) Based on cycling being increasingly structured into the urban environment

Here an urban elite institutionalise their increasingly favoured practice of cycling, and – if they can do so across urban space generally – there is a chance they might also democratise it. This ‘democratisation’ will occur both because improved infrastructure for cycling will enable people from beyond the urban elites (temporarily) to gain its (diminishing) status effects, and because the ‘colonisation’ of urban space by this ‘elite infrastructure’ will coerce people into using it. (I’m not shying away from the difficult language of coercion and colonisation here, but would note that it just as easily and equally applies to on-going processes which result in car-centric cities and lifestyles.)

Of these two potential futures (I’m not talking about the three earlier scenarios now), the first seems more likely but the second is more desirable, especially if it can be facilitated and made more palatable by informed, critical and progressive cycling advocacy. It is the second which would best ensure 2050 is characterised by mass velomobility.

Skills for Sustainability

April 5, 2013

Sustainability isn’t simply a concept; it’s more importantly a practice, or set of practices, one of which is cycling. And sustainability won’t just happen; it must be taught. If we don’t teach children to cycle many simply won’t learn. Raised by car-dependent people in a car-based society, they’ll be more likely to perpetuate than to challenge and change that society.

Cycling is a practice of sustainability. Teach a child to ride a bicycle and we teach her how to make an effective contribution to a different future, a sustainable planet.

A society serious about making cycling the normal mode of short-distance travel must teach cycling. The best place to teach cycling is in schools. That way every child learns how to ride; just as important, it sends a clear signal that cycling is serious – taken seriously by government and to be taken seriously by citizens.

The Department for Education is currently consulting on reform of the school curriculum. With cycling’s profile riding high, this provides an excellent opportunity to push cycling onto the curriculum, so every child learns how to cycle.

Bobby and Flo approaching junction

Would this be putting the cart before the horse, encouraging all children to cycle before conditions are made more conducive to cycling?

Everyday cycling needs to become systematically embedded in society. That includes giving everyone the capacity to cycle through teaching everyone how to do it – How should a bike be set up? Why and how do you change gear? What’s the best position to take at junctions? How can you interpret what other people around you are likely to do? How do you decide which route is best for cycling?

Of course cycle training must occur alongside infrastructural changes that make cycling easier. We know the current cycling environment is badly deficient and we know many ways it could and should be made better. Such improvements in actual cycling conditions are necessary but they don’t preclude (and quite possibly in some respects depend upon) improvements in cycling skills and confidence.

Wherever they cycle, under whatever kinds of conditions, people need to know how to ride safely, sensibly and confidently. And as with most things in life, it’s better to learn at an early age and from experienced and thoughtful teachers than it is to muddle through (picking up bad habits) by yourself.

Teaching people how to ride makes them more likely to ride; and more cyclists are a civilising force on the urban environment and could pave the way for less experienced cyclists who might currently be too timid to give cycling a go. More cyclists will also give cycling a stronger voice for further changes. So teaching cycling is an essential part, if not the only part, of making cycling genuinely ‘for all’.

Motoring organisations such as The Automobile Association (AA) and IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) – as well of course as the various cycling organisations – support the push for cycle training’s inclusion on the National Curriculum, a push being led by the Association of Bikeability Schemes (TABS). If you want to see and/or use TABS’ submission to the Department for Education’s consultation, which closes on 16th April, go here.

You can email your response to: NationalCurriculum.CONSULTATION@education.gsi.gov.uk

Bobby & Flo riding in line

Shifting away from short-distance travel by car and towards sustainability assumes that today’s children will incorporate cycling into their lives and across their lives, instigating a long-term trend towards urban space governed less by cars and more by bikes. But with cycling literacy still so low and so few cycling parents around to help, this new orientation to cycling won’t just happen. It must be manufactured; children must be given the resources to ride from someplace outside the home. This is surely what education’s all about – to change the world for the better, not merely reproduce it as it inadequately is?

I love it that my kids cycle; but they’ll be much more likely to keep cycling if other kids cycle too. And if all kids cycle they’ll keep one another cycling, and together they’ll build cycling as a mainstream activity, create a society organised more around cycling, and contribute to a sustainable future. I know this, you know this, but does the Department for Education know this? Possibly not, unless we tell them.

Indoor Cycling

March 28, 2013

I feel reckless writing about indoor cycling; like it’s embarrassing – both to admit doing it, and to imagine it could be worth thinking about. But I’ve been doing it a lot this week. Spring felt almost here but suddenly slipped away; strong and icy winds from the east have blown away my interest in riding outside. Yet the racing season’s arrived and I’ve some (modest, personal) goals I’m keen to achieve. Turbo training’s the answer.

Actually it’s clear that many people prefer indoor to outdoor cycling; if you see cycling less as a way of moving around than as a route to improved fitness, indoor cycling’s perhaps best. Anyway indoor cycling is still cycling, isn’t it? So thinking about it might be illuminating.

Going nowhere?

Although in my own mind indoor cycling isn’t ‘the real thing’, furiously pedalling nowhere does have advantages:

  • it minimises washing – just a pair of socks, shorts and towel. In contrast, outdoor riding at this time of year generates endless laundry;
  • my bike stays clean;
  • it’s quick – in ninety minutes I can set myself up, do an hour’s quality training, clear away, and shower;
  • I can ride to music – something I never do on the road. This is a treat; each of the last four days I’ve used Last FM to select tunes centred around, respectively, Julian Cope, The Four Brothers, Dinosaur Jr, and Fela Kuti, which has been ace!

Indoor cycling builds fitness; given urban cycling in Britain undoubtedly gets easier the fitter you are, I’m surprised there aren’t cycling promotion projects encouraging indoor cycling as a way of equipping people for outdoor cycling. (I’m not seriously suggesting this – it’d be much better to make conditions conducive to slower cycling.)

Tuning out?

So why does indoor cycling make me uneasy? To ride indoors is to cycle in order to improve health and build fitness. Indoor cycling is attractive because it brings the fitness benefits of cycling without incurring what are widely perceived to be cycling’s costs – principally the need to ride in a motorised environment. Participating in an indoor cycling class probably brings additional social benefits; even if the pain is personally felt, the group can bond in shared suffering. I don’t know participation figures (there’s need for research), but indoor cycling is clearly an important industry; classes are popular and reach many people (especially perhaps women?) who might be reluctant to ride on the road. But whether done individually or socially, indoor cycling is a reduction of cycling as we’ve come to know it.

Obviously, for those who prefer indoor cycling this reduction is good  – why suffer the difficulties and indignities of ‘real cycling’, when you can stay at home or drive to the gym and pedal ‘comfortably’ (if also painfully and sweatily) in an ‘acceptable’ way? From this perspective it’s outdoor, not indoor, cycling that’s strange.

I think my worry is based on fear that the idea of cycling as a health & fitness practice might gain too much ground.

Cycling practitioners are understandably excited about the UK Government Department of Health’s current enthusiasm for cycling; this represents a new (or revived) discursive push (‘cycling to health’), with new money for cycling. This is well and good, so long as cycling simultaneously becomes more central to – rather than deflected away from – transport discourse. We know cycling can satisfy multiple public policy goals so that cycling for transport ticks many health boxes too, but give cycling for health too much emphasis and we could end up with more enthusiasm for riding inside than out.

Most people who love cycling probably have their own sectional interest/s – for transport cycling, cycle sport, recreational cycling, cycle tourism, cycling for health, cycling as a form of social inclusion, and so on. On the one hand this is great; cycling contributes to many things and it’s good it has champions in different spheres. But on the other hand I think it’s clearly transport cycling about which people most need persuading and which most needs championing; so we need to remain alert to the possibility that by becoming more about health and fitness (or sport, or anything else) some of the current impetus towards transport cycling might dissipate. And I think that’s the concern at the root of my unease about indoor cycling. As part of a wider cycling lifestyle, it’s fine. But too great an emphasis on health and fitness and too much riding indoors risks the imprisonment and impoverishment of a practice capable of changing the world.

All cyclings are good, and in building a cycling system it’s important that at central government level cycling is pushed not only within and by the Department for Transport but also within and by the Departments for Culture, Media & Sport; Health; Energy & Climate Change; and all the others too. But some cyclings are better than others; and it’s pushing cycling as transport (at the car’s expense) which is key to building a better, fairer society.

So tomorrow, whatever the weather, I’m going to break out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere, by bike!

Mainroading Cycling

March 21, 2013

Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.


The cycle lane ends

A6 southbound

What's going on here?

Is this good enough?

Worn away by cars

Enough space?

A good place to ride?

Plenty of space for who?

Adequate provision?

Pulling out?

Clear road

Leaving the city

Speeding up

Fast road

Still with me?

The joys of the open road?

Almost there

How much road do you want?

Lancaster University

Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.

It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.

For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.

As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).

Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.

Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).

The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?

So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?

For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others  less like me.

The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.

Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).

With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.

So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.

So what are we to do?

For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.

How do we get these changes?

By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.

 

Who should be squeezed?

Parked cars or moving bikes?