Archive for the ‘CYCLING STRUGGLES’ Category

Cycling Struggles – a summary

May 23, 2013

“I found though, when you’ve passed your test and you get a car, you just automatically get lazy, do you know what I mean? … My brother used to say, ‘you’ll use the car just to nip to the shop’; I was like ‘no, I’d never do that’. But you do.”

(Sandra, Leeds, group discussion)

“What would make me cycle more? I think if there was more of a culture of cycling, if lots of people were doing it, I would too probably. I’d be a sheep and I’d do it. I’ve told you about my love of crowds. Being a football fan, I’m terribly susceptible for doing what is the common thing to be done, and if everybody in this street was all getting on their bikes and nipping off somewhere then I would probably be doing it as well. But when you are the only person doing it, and everyone notices you doing it, then it doesn’t have the same appeal.”

(Brian, Leeds, interview)

Cycling accounts for 2% of all trips in the UK. Just over the North Sea in the Netherlands, the figure is 26%. The Dutch have made cycling normal in a way we have not. Between 2008 and 2011 a major Government-funded research project, Understanding Walking and Cycling, investigated the reasons for UK cycling’s continuing abnormality as a short-distance mode of city transport, in order to learn how to make cycling normal. Between October 2012 and February 2013 I published nine Cycling Struggles based on the research. This summary of the series is overdue, but first let’s recall the stories:

  • Rick (Cycling Struggles, 1) recently returned to city cycling after becoming frustrated with the congestion he confronted whilst driving. But along main roads and through bigger junctions – even those supposedly made ‘cycle-friendly’ – he gets off and pushes his bike. He’s not growing more confident at dealing with difficult cycling conditions, he’s refusing to engage with them. Although he’s enthusiastic, Rick’s city cycling is partial and fragile.
  • Much to her surprise Nadia (Cycling Struggles, 2) is a recent convert to cycling. Her story partly demonstrates how individual agency can win out over anti-cycling structure; despite a route which has a stretch  hostile to cycling and a husband who worries about her riding it, she has negotiated a cycling to work habit by sometimes accepting a lift over that worst part of her journey. Nadia’s story demonstrates how cycling is importantly mediated by the love of others.
  • Fabian (Cycling Struggles, 3) stopped cycling after being knocked off his bike twice in quick succession, but three years later he’s returned to regular riding. Fabian’s story demonstrates how committed people must be to persist in cycling through anti-cycling space.
  • In the abstract Holly (Cycling Struggles, 4) sees cycling as a good thing, but in practice she considers it much too dangerous and won’t ride until it’s made safe.  Some of her friends cycle but current conditions prevent Holly joining them. Just seeing others cycle, let alone the thought of cycling herself, makes Holly feel uncomfortable, leading to a benign hostility to cycling which is I think widespread.
  • In the deprived inner-city (Cycling Struggles, 5) cycling feels irrelevant. Affluent people might see the bicycle’s relevance as a mode of transport even as they ride almost exclusively for leisure, yet the sea of cars which these more privileged people’s everyday movements creates obliterates any view of cycling – either as transport or leisure – for people marooned in the inner-city. A few inner-cities are being gentrified and re-made for cycling, but the majority inner-city experience remains one of oppression by other people’s cars in which the bicycle’s potential is drowned.
  • Cycling’s status is low within Britain’s south Asian community (Cycling Struggles, 6). As elsewhere people here have been working hard to incorporate cars and driving increasingly into their lives. How darkly ironic if now, mission almost accomplished, the game changes and they’re told the car is no longer King, Bicycles Rule! Alas no such message is being received here; so firmly in the car’s grip, why would anyone choose a practice so weird as cycling?
  • Pavement cycling (Cycling Struggles, 7) is extremely easy to comprehend but highly problematic to the future of cycling. It indicates a lack of cycle-friendly infrastructure, and huge suppressed demand for cycling (if some people cycle despite having to ‘break the law’, how many more would surely do so if they could ride both comfortably and legally?). Pavement cycling tells a truth: cycling is not being promoted when people have nowhere to ride except illegally on the pavement.
  • Family cycling in cities (Cycling Struggles, 8) is a margin of a margin. Cycling alone is difficult enough; encouraging children to cycle, and riding together, almost impossible. A phenomenon that ought to be central to healthy, livable cities is virtually extinct, cycling families abnormal almost to the point of deviance. That there’s so far still to go in making cities fit for cycling is underlined by the difficulty of imagining five people who currently (and invisibly) make a trip by car instead travelling together on five separate bicycles.
  • Committed cyclists (Cycling Struggles, 9) are I suppose the kind of people we want everyone to become – willing and able to ride anywhere and everywhere, and certainly make local trips by bike; but they manage to do it now, in cities full of buses, trucks and cars. They have problems, but they’re not cowed by motorised traffic – they’ve learned to negotiate it, usually successfully. But these people are highly unusual in exercising such freedom of the city by bike. They are a minority because what they do is difficult; and they tend inevitably to develop strong cycling identities in the process of surviving and sustaining something so difficult to do.

Making Cycling Normal

This Cycling Struggles series has tried to paint a portrait of contemporary urban cycling. It’s neither perfect nor exhaustive, but I’d like to think it reasonably accurately reflects the present situation not just in Britain, but perhaps also other economically affluent, low cycling countries.

All the material I’ve used originated in the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. A book containing the project’s full findings is about to be published by Policy Press, as Promoting walking and cycling: New perspectives on sustainable travel’. I’ve added an abbreviated version of the book’s chapter detailing findings from our qualitative work into cycling to this blog’s articles, as An Ethnography of Everyday Cycling.

To conclude I’ll say things I’ve probably said before, here and also elsewhere – on Bike Hub and in Cycle magazine back in 2011, on The Guardian’s Bike Blog earlier this year, and with John Parkin in the concluding chapter to 2012’s Cycling and Sustainability.

Things are certainly changing. The profile of cycling, including transport cycling, is growing. The cycling lobby appears to be winning more media exposure, political clout, and influence. Cycling levels are increasing in some cities, particularly central London. Cycling’s status appears finally to be going up.

(Integrated) cycling in London 2011

But how significant and how durable are these trends? Here there are two conversations which sometimes get confused:

  • Recognising how more people are cycling, the first conversation is optimistic. Here change is coming from the bottom-up, one person at a time. Efforts to promote cycling are working;
  • But the second conversation is pessimistic: the brutal realities of life on the streets mean that the thought of cycling is repeatedly being knocked out of people who might cycle; this situation won’t change without a top-down paradigm shift in transport policy and practice. Efforts to promote cycling are not working.

Neither conversation is right or wrong and both are useful. For example the first makes sense when trying to encourage people to cycle; the second when we’re trying to persuade decision-makers of the need for change. The first can recognise, empower and sustain the multiplicity of grassroots projects so significant to British cycling; the second is better when arguing for huge resource reallocation in cycling’s favour.

Both conversations are required to make cycling mainstream. The first conversation needs the second because without fully embracing a more ambitious discourse oriented to everyday mass cycling it will tend towards doing what we’ve already been doing, and thus ensure cycling’s reproduction as marginal. If we only keep doing what we’ve so far been doing, cycling will remain abnormal a long time yet. Believing that cycling is inevitably on the up stops the ramping up of criticisms, ambitions and demands required to break out this trap, and make cycling normal. But the second conversation needs the first because a paradigm shift in cycling’s favour won’t happen without support from existing cycling organisations and cyclists. Those organisations and individuals have ensured cycling’s survival and have constructed the rudiments of a bicycle system which needs now to be radically improved, deepened and extended.

Final thoughts

No space for bicycles

Over the last half century urban Britain has grown used to living everyday life in and around cars. The car’s dominance over urban space has proceeded relentlessly but gradually, and people have adapted, such that they almost don’t notice. Acquiescence to the car has produced a rejection of the bicycle as an urban mode of transport. Given this context, normalising cycling requires the denormalisation of driving.

Despite occasional glimmers of hope cycling remains stuck in a vicious downward spiral:

  • dire conditions make urban cycling unappealing, and more short trips get made by car. With little demonstrable demand, cycling is a low government transport priority and gets minimal funding. This lack of investment in cycling results in dire conditions …

But we could so easily switch to a virtuous upward one:

  • a big boost in cycling funding alongside constraints on car use leads to a radical improvement in cycling conditions, which results in more people cycling and fewer journeys by car, leading to growth in cycling funding and further constraints on car use, encouraging still more people to cycle  …

Many people like cycling and would cycle more were conditions conducive. Other people are indifferent towards cycling, but this indifference stems in large part from lack of a cycle-friendly urban environment. For urban cycling to become normal it needs to be taken seriously. Government might like us to believe it is taking cycling seriously, but it is not; it is instead still ensuring cycling is driven off the streets and remains a minority activity which can as such continue to be treated tokenistically, where/when it cannot be ignored.

Taking cycling seriously means creating environments in which cycling makes more sense than driving. Towards that end, we should be removing cars from cities; if cars ‘can’t’ be removed (this is a political rather than inevitable ‘can’t’, and one which will therefore shift over time) their number should be reduced and their speed slowed; if reducing and slowing cars ‘can’t’ be done, cycling should be prioritised by giving it sufficient space to make it obviously more attractive to cycle than to drive, so that those left driving are only those who ‘have to’. In this way we’ll make cycling normal.

Cycling struggles, 9

February 5, 2013

Have I painted too bleak a picture in this series of insights into the current state of British cycling? Have I made things seem worse than they are? Because we know many people – me and perhaps you included – happily cycle in British cities. Why haven’t I looked at them? The last in the series, in this post I focus on people who make cycling work. These people cycle regularly and routinely; they show utility cycling is possible. But do they show utility cycling is probable? And does their cycling make mass cycling more or less likely?

Please note, I’m not interested in further stigmatising the urban cyclist; quite the contrary. But as a sociologist concerned with how we produce a mass cycling culture, I want to investigate the potential unintended consequences of the minority of people who currently make cycling work for them.

9. A committed cycling story

This post merges the cycling stories of three committed cyclists. These cyclists are of a type, and I admit I’m brushing aside some of the diversity amongst ‘everyday cyclists’ here. By concentrating on three assertive male cyclists I’m suppressing the experiences of others, such as older, often female, cyclists who if you look carefully enough you’ll see riding in many British towns and cities. Jo’s a good example. In her seventies, she says:

“Very, very regularly I use the bike. I would say I use it just about every day really.

“I cycle to save a bit of time. I don’t do any cycling for pleasure, because I’ve only got an old Raleigh sit-up-and-beg bike, with the basket, with three-speeds – and they are a bit dodgy (I’ve never had a new bike, I can tell you that. I got it second-hand). I’ve discovered – keep your fingers’ crossed – that it doesn’t get pinched; if I take it into town it’s not attractive to anybody is it? All my life, not that particular one, but all my life I’ve had a bike.

“So I really use it to get to places more quickly, to make me less tired, and to save getting the car out, because [her husband] isn’t involved in quite a few of the things I do [and she doesn’t herself drive]. So that’s why I use the bike. I don’t use it for going out on bike rides.”

“Because I’m 72 now, you see, I’m getting a little, not nervous, but as the traffic gets worse on the roads to the city I tend to try and keep obviously to the little cycle ways and the alleys and keep out of the way of the busy roads.”

Jo tries to take direct routes and if they get too busy, and especially where there are lots of parked cars, she moves onto the pavement

“because it just isn’t fair on the buses and the other cars that are trying to move, to be honest … I’ve found it safer from everybody’s point of view, if there aren’t any pedestrians, because there just isn’t room for everybody. I’m not a nervous person but I do try to be sensible.”

Push bike

Like many people who cycle, Jo is happiest when her routes are clear and straightforward. When they become ‘messier’, and particularly when they become full of motorised transport (whether mobile or immobile) any sense of entitlement to limited space is diminished, and she feels she should give way. So Jo is an everyday cyclist, but unlike many everyday cyclists, she doesn’t have a strong cycling identity. She might move around by bike, but she’s not a cyclist. In this post I’ll be (implicitly) suggesting that she’s not become a cyclist because when it gets difficult to ride she stops riding; she’ll dismount and/or take to the pavement. The moment someone keeps riding when/where others wouldn’t dare, that’s the moment they become a cyclist.

I’m uncomfortable suppressing the voices of those like Jo; they’re already too silent and marginal. But I do so for a reason. I want to foreground assertive male cyclists because they have the strongest influence on cycling discourses; it’s their identities I want to examine and to some extent problematize. I’m silencing women like Jo, as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), and which makes – I’m afraid – women like Jo ‘a dying breed’. Jo is the kind of cyclist we should be producing but who instead we are losing. The cyclists we’re currently producing are like me and those I’ve chosen to focus on here. This is no way to get Britain cycling.

Committed cycling

Three committed cyclists

Fred is in his sixties, and retired. He lives a couple of miles from his city’s centre. He rides a Dawes Galaxy. In recent years he’s done some long-distance touring, but he also rides around town. He says:

“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 … I ride mainly for convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want … I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.”

Rhys is in his early fifties. He’s a teacher. He rides regularly to the shops, to his allotment and to work.

“I always go to work on my bike, whatever the weather.”

Peter is in his mid-thirties. He’s always cycled and is a keen mountain biker. He rides to work, and deliberately uses his commute as a way of staying fit.

Fred has one bike. Rhys has two. Peter has three which are ready to ride and others in various states of assembly.

The style of committed cycling

For Fred, Rhys and Peter city cycling is relatively straightforward. They ride competently and confidently.

I accompany Fred on a shopping trip. We ride from his home towards the city centre. It’s cold and raining hard. Fred takes direct routes, and rides assertively. Here we’re negotiating a big roundabout near the city centre. Please as you read think about how likely it is that most people could be persuaded to do the kind of riding I’m depicting:

“We’re on the outside of the line of standing traffic, going down, riding towards oncoming traffic. Fred’s slowed down to do this. We were probably riding at 14 mph but we’re down to 10/11 mph. He’s being vigilant, watching out for movements, being careful of cars coming towards us. A car’s turning out of a side road. Fred’s seen it and has waited for it, to let it come through. We’re getting close to the roundabout now. Fred’s still on the outside edge; he might decide to move in – let’s see. Coming to the roundabout, there’s a tanker on the left, we’re just going past it and into the right-hand turn lane. Out onto the traffic island now, staying on the right-hand edge of the lane so that we can get back onto the outside of the vehicles as we head into the city. Overtaking buses, trucks, a long line of cars. The traffic’s speeding up now. Fred’s obviously very confident doing this. We’re riding in amongst the traffic, it’s now picked up to probably 20 mph and we’re just riding with it coming down to the lights, and now cutting back through to the inside, and onto the newly laid red tarmac as we get to the lights, going on the inside and up to the advanced stop line.”

And later

for a lot of the journey today it’s felt like we’re the fastest, most fluid moving vehicles on the road.”

Rhys describes the stretch of his commute along a busy main road:

“It’s a bit of a battle except that most times the traffic’s not moving very fast and so I’m going a lot faster than the traffic. So I’m going on the outside of the traffic and riding up the middle of the road basically, passing all the traffic for a lot of the way.”

Such riding is normal for committed cyclists, something which is done day in, day out. There are risks (such as the car pulling out in front of Fred, above), but through experience cyclists learn to negotiate them. And there are (admittedly grim) pleasures too:  the satisfaction of gliding past a standing line of motorised traffic; sometimes weaving in and out to maintain momentum.

Although they tend to have greater awareness of alternative routes, these cyclists are more likely than occasional cyclists to take direct routes along main roads. They are less frightened of doing so.

Confident road riding

Peter says:

“Main roads are a necessity if I’m late for work. I’ll take a nicer route if I’ve got plenty of time, because it’s five minutes longer, because it’s a mile and a bit more; if I’ve got time I’ll do it but if I haven’t I’ll go straight up the main road because it’s quick – that’s why main roads are main roads.”

Rhys could take one of two routes between home and work: one involves a dedicated cycling route alongside a main road, with controlled crossings to get across the major intersections; the other is through the city centre on road. He chooses the latter; as we examine the map together he says of the former:

“I don’t actually like this route. It’s not a pleasant route. It’s very exposed, and it’s got these irritating bits at the roundabouts where, for a cyclist, it just seems to disrupt your flow.”

So Rhys avoids this ‘stop/start’ route on his commute. But he’ll use it as a quick way of getting out of town for a long ride on his road bike; but then he’s moving fast and will ride and negotiate the roundabouts on the road (“especially when I’m on my road bike I don’t want to be stopping and starting, I want to keep moving”).

Cycling’s right to the road

All three cyclists insist on their right to the road. Rhys says:

My view is that even if there is a cycle track I’ve got every right to be on the road on my bike, just as much as a car or anybody else really.”

Peter says:

“I always claim my space in the road. I see some cyclists who stick to the kerb, right until the last minute and then put their arm out and go. And I’m thinking, ‘oh no! Why?’; I’m thinking ‘30 yards before, check behind you and go for it; if you’re changing lanes, go for it’.”

They particularly avoid off-road infrastructure if it will slow them down (as in Rhys’ commute) and/or is likely to bring them into conflict with pedestrians. I follow Peter along a stretch of dual carriageway busy with cars travelling fast. When I mention he could have ridden on the adjacent pavement, which has been converted to shared-use, he says:

“Yes I know, but at that time of day there are too many pedestrians, and even though I know I can ride through there and also through town – you can ride through there now too – I still think they’ve got right of way.”

Right to the road

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step one

For these men, riding on the road is normal, but it’s not always easy. Fred, Peter and Rhys have learned how to cope on the roads but the difficulties of road cycling haven’t disappeared; those difficulties are embedded within the prevailing road environment and will inevitably sometimes be confronted, and not always effectively negotiated.

In negotiating these difficulties by bike people develop identities as ‘cyclists’. This is a two-step process. The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions.

Rhys says “I’m a confident cyclist so I’ll do battle with the traffic.”

About half of Rhys’ journey to work is along a busy main road on which it’s easy to get squeezed, so effective cycling depends on asserting yourself and riding in what is usually called ‘primary position’ – taking up the same sort of space as would a car, and making it impossible for motorists to get past. (When as a cyclist you consider it safe for following cars to pass, you move out of primary and into secondary position, to let them through. It’s a key riding technique (indispensable for fast and fluid city cycling in the UK, I would argue) which all three men use.)

Peter describes his journey to work:

I admit I’m quite quick. I can accelerate to 20, 25 mph and in the mornings when it’s bumper-to-bumper I can keep up with the flow of traffic.

“There’s a lot of turnings, and the amount of times cars come round, you’re coming up to a junction on your left, and they just ‘verumphhh’ – swing it –  instead of waiting two seconds for me to go … It’s bloody annoying. I do shout at people.”

Talking about mixing with motorised traffic, Rhys says:

“Obviously you’ve got to be pretty careful, you’ve got to be pretty sharp and pretty aware. I’m almost expecting somebody to do something stupid. I don’t ride and expect everybody to do what they should do. I always ride expecting they are going to get in my way or I am going to get in their way … It’s not the best thing. It’s not what you’d want to do.”

An element of difficulty and danger is normalised amongst these regular road cyclists. It’s a fact of life which they’ve learned to accept and cope with. Rhys again:

“I’ve had the odd time when I’ve been cut up by buses, things like that. You get the occasional time when people come in too close when they are going past you, even when they don’t have to be so close, but I think that’s just a general thing about people not having an appreciation of cyclists and about how much room you should give cyclists when you are going past. “

So in this first part of the process of building a cyclist identity, the kinds of experience which stop most people cycling are simply taken-for-granted and tolerated as the cyclist’s lot. And these bad experiences are typically put into the context of overall good experiences.

All three men also own cars and drive, but they don’t identify themselves as motorists in the same ways they do as cyclists because driving is easy and normal, merely something they do. They identify more strongly with cycling because they have to struggle to cycle, and struggles build identities.

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step two

The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents. In fact, often part of the process of building a cyclist identity is to convert these incidents into resources; I don’t want to overstate this – it’s a bit too ‘sensational’ – but for the resilient urban cyclist they become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honour’.

So conflicts, near-misses and getting knocked off are experiences which become part of ‘a cycling career’, stories in the building of a cycling biography. Obviously this is not inevitable; whilst some people tend to reinforce their cyclist identities via such experiences, others simply stop cycling, becoming ‘ex-cyclists’. The effects of these bad experiences underlie why cycling is so subject to ‘churn’ (people taking it up but soon stopping) and why the tiny minority who persist are so resilient.

Rhys tells me:

“I do have an occasional shout at some people. Like there was one occasion a few weeks ago, I was at the roundabout and I wanted to go round, so I was in the middle of the road, and some van driver came up behind me and told me I was getting in his way, from him wanting to go straight on. So we had a kind of little discussion about whose road it was and who had the right to be on the road.”

Such incidents could easily put someone off cycling, but Rhys is used to it.

Peter had many cycling stories, partly because he’s done so much riding, and partly because we worked with him more intensively than we did with either Fred or Rhys. You may find that Peter’s stories (below) sound a bit extreme; I think this is at least partly due to where we are ‘forced’ or ‘choose’ to ride. I don’t ride regularly in Peter’s city but I know it’s a much less forgiving cycling environment than my own city of Lancaster. And of course we must be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’.

During one conversation Peter and I shared experiences of riding the ‘End-to-End’, probably the most significant British long-distance ride in terms of ‘earning your spurs’. Peter was forced to abandon his ride after a few days with a suspected heart attack, which turned out to be a series of panic attacks. He describes his experiences the day before his abandonment:

“I nearly got hit three times.

“One was on a long ascent, a long crawl. There were these long artics [big trucks] coming down the hill, and I could hear this thing bombing behind me and there was a Range Rover towing a caravan, and he was trying to get in front of me before the lorries came.  And he cut in and I virtually had to force myself off the road.

“Then about twenty miles down the road, an artic this time. It was on a nice, perfect, straight bit of road – flat – with a good two foot past the white line so I was in, like, a cycle lane. And this lorry come past and I thought ‘that was a bit close!’. And also I could hear a second one coming. That time I had to jump off the road. Because what was happening, there was a car behind the two lorries overtaking them, and the bloke in the second lorry was paying more attention to him than to me and he was kind of steering to the left as he was going past me.  And that got within like 8 inches of me, that arctic did.  And he was fully loaded, he was carrying logs.

“And about 20 miles later, this car actually clipped my bar end. Just, it was like a millimetre, you just felt that [banging his hand on his bar end].”

For experienced cyclists such negative cycling experiences are brief moments which puncture longer durations of cycling pleasure, but that doesn’t make them inconsequential. They are hugely consequential; they stop most people cycling, and they ensure the minority who continue cycling develop powerful identities. By sharing them, we align ourselves with others who have had similar experiences. Have you ever enjoyed – almost thrived on – swapping cycling experiences (the good as well as bad), almost as though you’re feeding on/off them? In doing so we’re forging powerful identities and sub-cultures of cycling. I’ll be honest, these sub-cultures are part of the reason I love cycling – I know I can go anywhere in the world, find and meet fellow cyclists, and quickly build rapport, solidarity and friendship with them. Peter is doing this kind of work here; we’re standing in his garage, surrounded by his bikes, talking about the thing we share in common – love for cycling. It’s brilliant! I love fellow cyclists because our recognition and appreciation (in a word, identification) of each other is so strong. But if we’re serious about getting more people cycling we’d be foolish to be blind to the potential consequences of such powerful in-group formation.

In another cycling story, Peter says:

“I have been hit a few times. I’ve actually gone over the bonnet of a car before … It was partly my fault. Well, it was 50/50. It was at night. My lights weren’t effective enough. The battery was dying. He said he didn’t see me. He pulled out and I had my head down. I looked up and it was too late. I had no time to hit the brakes.

“Luckily I hit the front of the wing and cleared the bonnet, Superman over the bonnet! If I’d hit the door I think I would have been dead because I hit him at about 30 mph; and destroyed my bike in the process.

“I’ve been hit on about four or five occasions. That was the worst one. Sometimes a car’s just pulled out, never saw me and last minute hit the brakes, and just nudged me sort of thing, and I’ve had a bit of a wobble. ”

The obvious question to ask anyone who continues cycling despite such incidents is ‘why?’ Here’s my conversation with Peter:

“Why do you keep riding when things like that happen to you?”

“You’ve got to get back on haven’t you?”


“If you don’t get back on you never will!”

“Why do you want to get back on?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

“What do you enjoy about it?”

“Well you saw me coming downhill. I love downhills.”

Of course I accept Peter’s explanation; it’s what came into his head when pushed, and he clearly finds riding fast downhill tremendously thrilling. But as a sociologist I must add identity as an explanatory factor: Peter keeps cycling because he’s become a cyclist; and he’s not just built that identity, he’s earned it.

Attachment to a cyclist identity

A cyclist identity is earned by riding in places where others fear to pedal. Cyclists who survive the difficulties and dangers of urban British cycling have earned their cyclist identity by insisting on, then defending, and finally surviving their right to the road. Understandably then, they’re not going to give this right up lightly. But in insisting on their right to the road, do these cyclists make cycling a more difficult route for others to follow? Do they ensure their own identities remain exclusive? Do they perpetuate the status quo of a tiny minority of people cycling through prejudicial cycling conditions in an anti-cycling environment? Do they impede the creation of the kinds of conditions which are required for other people, people much less prepared to go through the journey which they have taken, to cycle? Unfortunately I think the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And I think the sooner we face up to that – individually as people who care about cycling and collectively as ‘cyclists’ voice’ –  the sooner we’ll develop and insist on strategies which can genuinely get many more people cycling, much more safely, much more often.


The key point is that strong cycling identities – which can then find expression in and through some (by no means all) cycling advocacy – result from conditions which keep cycling marginal. The strong identity of ‘cyclist’ and cycling as a marginalised and difficult practice are co-produced from the same stuff. Unless we as cyclists are reflexive about this, our advocacy will risk reproducing the situation (the institutional conditions as well as the actual environment for cycling) which keeps cycling so marginal. Unless we’re reflexive, as cycling advocates we’ll reproduce rather than challenge the status quo.

As regular cyclists cycling seems easy. We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around. It might sound patronising to insist that many people won’t do something which we ourselves do, but better that than down-playing the difficulties of cycling and insisting it’s easier than people think. What we fail to realise is that by succeeding in cycling we have become different, and that such difference makes a difference.

Today cycling is ordinary to the few and extraordinary to the many. It’s not mainstream. Getting Britain cycling requires making it ordinary to the many (which might well be at the cost of making it extraordinary to those of us who currently ride).

Cycling struggles, 8

January 16, 2013

Domestic cycling system

The previous cycling struggles have all in different ways demonstrated the victory of anti-cycling structures over people’s everyday travel decisions. But I hope they’ve also shown people’s agency too – that although it’s difficult to cycle in urban Britain today, people do nonetheless manage to do so. People, in other words, can and do exercise (cycling) agency in the face of hostile (anti-cycling) structures. Such agency is perhaps at its highest in this cycling story; I show how not just individuals but whole families can embrace a cycling lifestyle, and move around regularly by bike. These are families for whom the bicycle forms an important means of everyday transport for every family member. It’s a story which demonstrates that even here, even now, families do cycle in urban Britain.

I encountered two such families during fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and merge their stories here. Obviously such ‘cycling families’ are exceptional; so whilst on the one hand their existence gives us hope, on the other that they’re exceptional proves the rule – that it’s much too difficult regularly and routinely to cycle ordinary journeys across urban Britain today. There are similarities between the families: both are white, middle-class, educated, and could be characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘green’; both comprise two parents who work, and two school-aged children, a boy and girl. But there are differences between them too: they live in different cities; one family owns a car that’s used for longer journeys and/or when cycling is too difficult, but all family members tend to cycle daily, whilst the other family has no car (though both parents can drive) and uses trains for longer journeys, but – mainly because of a residential location proximate to key destinations – walking not cycling is the main means of day-to-day travel.

8. A family cycling story

All four parents have long experience of cycling. In one family, the mother, Sashi, comes from a cycling family. She commutes three days a week by bike and train. The father, Kyle, cycles to work. His past commutes have been as long as 14 miles each way, but his current commute – which he’s been doing for ten years – is around three miles each way. He also uses his bike during the working day. Both Sashi and Kyle ride whatever the weather, including snow, and are confident road cyclists. Like most regular cyclists, Kyle says “I don’t mind riding in traffic, though I’d prefer it if there was none.” In the other family, Doug and Sara have never owned a car. They’re both keen cyclists, for leisure and holidays as well as utility. Cycling forms part of an alternative lifestyle. When asked why they don’t have a car Sara says:

“I don’t really feel the need for one, I wouldn’t want to spend the money on one, I don’t particularly like driving. And I think I’d probably become lazy if we got a car. I’d probably stop using my bike so much. And I can’t imagine it being so easy to get the kids to cycle if we had a car sat outside.”

In both families a lot of shopping’s done by bike. The parents have bikes with front and rear racks, capable of holding four panniers which provide enough capacity to do a sizeable shop. Doug does a big weekly supermarket shop by bike, supplemented by small shops as necessary:

“It was easier when the kids were little and we had a cycle trailer which I could load up”, he says. “These days I fill the panniers, and also take a rucksack for light stuff like cereals and bread. People are always amazed at how much stuff I can carry – it’s a big topic of check-out conversation!”

Family-friendly utility bike

Children’s cycling in a cycling family

With cycling parents, all four children learnt to ride before starting school, have been on bike rides and cycling holidays for as long as they can remember, and have been taught to ride competently and confidently on the road. Part of families in which cycling has been normalised, they take cycling for granted. This makes them different from most of their friends, but perhaps because three of them at least are still relatively young, that doesn’t seem to be a problem; cycling’s simply something they do.

As cyclists themselves none of the parents is naïve about the cycling situation, and they think long and hard about giving their children more cycling freedom. Only Sashi and Kyle’s son, Ray, who is 15, is allowed to ride on roads unaccompanied. Sara and Doug’s son, Ben, who’s 11, is currently allowed to ride alone only under specific conditions, though Sara thinks he’s almost at the point where they’ll let him ride with less constraint. “I’ll feel a bit worried when he goes off by himself”, she says, “but we know he’s a good rider.The problem is we can’t be sure how other road users will treat him. But then that applies when I’m riding too.”

These parents understand, but resist, the sentiments of other parents we met during our fieldwork, parents such as Brian from Leeds who, when talking about his two teenage children who had cycled occasionally when they were young, said:

“Neither child ever asked to cycle to school, so we never had to sort that out. And from my own point of view I was really pleased that they didn’t want to, because I find cycling around here incredibly dangerous … I was quite pleased that they never particularly wanted to cycle, I never encouraged them cycling, and eventually neither of them cycled … it just sorted of fizzled out.”

Brian is in the majority of parents who’d prefer their children, on the whole and given present conditions, not to cycle. But the parents in the cycling families value cycling in general, and the independence it can give their children in particular. Kyle says: “We don’t really believe in molly-coddling them; that’s not good for their independence, for their own selves.”

Of the four children Ray is the only one who rides regularly to school. He rides a hard-tail mountain bike with wide knobbly tyres. His Dad thinks his touring bike would be more appropriate, but it’s not, I suspect, nearly so cool.

Ray may not always choose to use his most appropriate bike, but the machines used by these families have been fully equipped, with mudguards, racks, lights and, often, kick-stands and mirrors; they’re fit for purpose. The children’s bikes are not the cheap, heavy machines typically given to British children, but good quality lightweights; the three youngest children ride Islabikes, a British manufacturer whose mission is to produce decent but affordable bikes for children.

Children's Islabike

Tania is in her final year of primary school. She sometimes walks, sometimes runs, and sometimes cycles to school, either on her own bike or on the back of a tandem. If she makes the trip on foot she does so solo, but if by bike she’s accompanied. She’s the least enthusiastic cyclist in her family, and, says Kyle, “can get a bit moan-y at times” In the other family Ben and Frances also walk to school. Frances walks the ten minute trip to the nearby primary school, Ben about twenty minutes to a secondary school slightly further away; both walk with friends. When they were younger Sara would walk with them, but if Doug was taking them he’d encourage them to go by bike. He says:

“I always used to cycle with the kids, because it was a chance to get them cycling as much as anything else. On the bikes we’d go a slightly longer, but also slightly nicer route which didn’t include any really nasty bits. But Sara walked it because cycling took longer probably – to get the bikes out of the shed, then cycle, then lock them up at school – than it does to walk.”

It’s worth noting that the mobilities of the car-less family are sometimes enabled by the cars of others. This is particularly the case with the children, who in order to participate in child-oriented social life such as birthday parties and trips out with friends’ families, quite often jump in their friends’ parents’ cars. This is not because those journeys necessarily require a car, but because the car has become for everybody else the default option, such that in order to be sociable you must ‘jump in’ too.

The kids travel by car much more often than we [Doug and her] do”, says Sara. “We try to resist their getting lifts to things which are only a few minutes’ walk away, but I have to admit it’s also very handy sometimes to have our kids taken places by other parents rather than have to do a cycling trip.”

Even these cycling families – and particularly the children – would cycle more of their journeys were cycling conditions to improve. As Doug says, “if we lived in the Netherlands, or even Germany, Ben and Frances would have full independence by now, I’d be happy for them to travel around town by bike alone. But not here, not yet anyway”.

Cycling system at the micro-level

From micro cycling system to macro anti-cycling system

These cycling families have created a cycling-friendly world at the micro-level. They’ve assembled domestic cycling systems – effective storage for many bicycles and their multiple accessories, libraries of maps, and wardrobes of appropriate clothes. And for now the parents’ own pro-cycling psychologies remain intact, and they have successfully (though of course children always moan!) instilled them in the next generation. So cycling feels normal, until you step outside. The normalisation of cycling at the domestic level is challenged and undermined out on the streets, at every level (social, cultural, infrastructural, political) beyond the household.

Concern for their children’s welfare leads to parental concern with cycling conditions and route choice. Car free routes are strongly favoured, big junctions and dangerous driving are key anxieties. I accompany Ray on his journey to school of around two and a half miles, which takes about 15 minutes. His route is busy with rush-hour traffic and involves negotiating some big junctions, but Ray’s a strong and competent rider, and has gradually adjusted to such difficult riding as he’s grown older and gained experience. At one point on our journey a car turns right across his path; we’re travelling faster than the motorised traffic and the offending driver simply hasn’t anticipated or seen us (a reasonably common experience in UK rush-hour riding, unfortunately). Ray has his wits about him, brakes hard, and his back wheel goes into the air; if he’d not seen the car or not braked so hard, he’d have gone over its bonnet. Ray seems fairly calm following the experience; he says they’re reasonably common. He gets angry, he tells me, at how drivers act as if cyclists aren’t there, but seems to see that as inevitable, a fact of life.

The parents have many stories to tell of altercations with motorists whilst cycling with their children, though they also prefer not to dwell on them – to do so would function as an impediment rather than affordance to continued family cycling. They keep riding, and keep their children riding, out of sheer conviction it’s the right thing to do, and a refusal to let prevailing conditions see them sacrifice cherished values and pastimes.


As I said at the start, such cycling families are exceptional. With things as they are, they will only ever form a tiny minority of families, for whom cycling is most probably part of a vaguely counter-cultural lifestyle. Both sets of parents have imposed cycling on their children. This is not an accusation; it’s no different to how most parents impose (sedentary, unsustainable and, I’d argue, civility-destroying) car use on theirs. However, car-based kids are in synch with broader culture in a way which cycling kids are not; if you travel by car your (parents’) transport choices are continuously validated by the world as it is. In contrast, the children here live within a pro-cycling bubble which risks being punctured by contact with the anti-cycling world.

Leaving it to the most pro-cycling parents to instil cycling in their kids is no way to produce cycling in the next generation, nor to build a cycling culture. Yes, these families prove cycling can be done, but they’re going against the grain. In effect, the whole family is holding out against a broader culture designed to make them take the car. We can’t leave the work of building a cycling culture to individuals (and families) alone. Without broader, deeper structural affordances to movement by bike, cycling will remain in a marginal, unsustainable place.

Cycling struggles, 7

December 20, 2012

This is a post in defence of vulnerability. First, it defends the vulnerability many cyclists feel, and which sees them taking to the pavement. Second, it defends the vulnerability many pedestrians feel when confronted by the pavement cyclist.

Both directly and indirectly it’s also about disability. Directly, I examine how people with disabilities experience pavement cycling. Indirectly, I suggest we’ve all become disabled by the car.


The last two posts examined the (intersecting) relevance of class and ethnicity to attitudes to and practices of cycling. By doing so, we’ve moved away from the ‘dominant model’ of the cyclist. This model prevails across contemporary British cycling discourses, permeating much thinking, writing (including policy documents) and advocacy around cycling. It assumes the cyclist as middle-class, middle-aged, male, white, able-bodied, competitive, and fit. Within policy discourses especially, it also often assumes the cyclist travels alone, and is probably commuting. One danger of this model’s dominance is that it begins to define what cycling is and can be. It can influence what we see, think, know, even dream.

As we move away from the dominant conception of ‘the cyclist’ we become more likely to encounter the pavement cyclist. Whilst many British cyclists are – through force of circumstance – pavement cyclists from time to time, the most committed pavement cyclists tend not to fit the dominant model of ‘the cyclist’. The male pavement cyclist is much more likely than the model cyclist to be working-class, young, and/or non-white; whether male or female, the pavement cyclist is less likely than the model cyclist to be competitive and fit; and the pavement cyclist might be accompanying children.

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, by ‘pavement’ I mean ‘sidewalk’ – space conventionally regarded in many (but by no means all) cultures as the preserve of pedestrians.

Pavement cycling

7. A pavement cycling story

This story comprises two stories. It starts by examining why people cycle on pavements. It then explores pavement cycling from a pedestrian perspective, looking specifically at the experiences of people with various disabilities. Finally it offers thoughts on a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy.

Pavement cycling

A cyclist perspective

Cycling on pavements is a normal way for many people to cycle. This normality is obfuscated by a dominant representation of the urban cyclist as a white, middle-aged, male, geared-up, and competent commuter.

People cycle on the pavement when they feel unable to cycle on the road. If we want cycling on roads, we must make roads cycle-able. Or, if we want cycling off pavements, we either make roads cycle-able, and/or give cycling its own space.

Cycling on pavements isn’t restricted to novice cyclists. Even long-time, regular cyclists do it. But it’s perceived as ‘the wrong way to cycle’ because of the ideological and discursive dominance of ‘the model (if still highly problematic) cyclist’ and ‘the right way to cycle’.

The following quotes show how different people, all of whom would generally be considered respectable and respectful, talk about their pavement cycling.

Hazel’s in her fifties. Cycling is her main means of transport:

“I cycle everywhere! … I don’t like the main roads – far too dangerous … You can get most places by using side roads. Occasionally I resort to the pavements if they’re not too busy, but I think you have to be sensible about this. But I will go on the pavement.”

Dev’s a British Asian man in his forties, and a professional. He’s very enthusiastic about cycling, but rides only occasionally for health and pleasure, and to accompany his young daughter on trips to the park:

“I only choose routes where there are not many pedestrians. And if there’s a lot of people coming walking towards me I’ll get off my bike. I never go through little gaps or cause any distress to pedestrians.

“Nobody’s ever said anything … I don’t know whether they understand or not [why I’m riding on the pavement]. I hope they do.

“I see a lot of people riding on the pavements, a lot. They are riding on the pavements for the same reason, they are conscious of the safety issues.

“I think there should probably be a proper lane for cyclists .. Sometimes I do go on the roads, provided it’s quiet and there are not many cars. But I would definitely not ride on [the local main road]; any road like that is no good – the cars come too close and you’ve got to get out of the way. It’s a bit risky.”

Dick is in his fifties. He rides mainly for pleasure, particularly in summertime after a day’s work which involves a lot of driving:

“Some roads I’m comfortable riding on, yeah. But others, you know, with the speed of the traffic and the state of some of the driving I wouldn’t be happy riding on some roads. I wouldn’t … I do have a tendency to ride on the pavement I must admit, but what I do is, you’ve got to understand, I’ll be very polite, people let me by and I say ‘thank you very much’.”

Ruby is an experienced cyclist in her late forties. She’s ridden all her life and cycles to work every day:

“I ride probably 60% on the road, 40% on the pavement. It depends on the time of day. Before 7 in the morning there’s very little traffic so I’m quite happy on the road, because I can be in the middle of the road and I’m not holding up the traffic. When I come home at 3:30pm then I’m more likely to be on the pavement because the traffic just gets too cross and silly.“

“I think it probably is fear of the traffic [which explains my pavement cycling] because people don’t seem to take any account of the fact that you’re going to wobble around a pothole. And I would say I’m a fairly confident cyclist. I kind of think ‘well sorry, you’ve got to wait for me, I’m here, I’m a road user’, you know, ‘tough’ kind of thing. But some drivers are not very happy with that point of view. I wouldn’t ever be bolshie about that, but some drivers don’t seem to like the fact that cyclists are on the road. On the other hand of course they don’t like the fact that cyclists are on the pavement either. You can’t win, can you? It doesn’t matter where you are, someone is going to moan about it.”

Ruby goes on to talk about her sons’ cycling:

“I suspect they all ride on the pavement rather more than I do. I think our youngest, certainly, rides on the pavement – probably 90% of the time … I’m pretty sure he’s on the pavement more than he is on the roads. I do tell him that he needs to make allowances for pedestrians. And when I’m a pedestrian I don’t like cyclists whizzing by, because you kind of jump don’t you? So as a cyclist I try to, you know, you’re kind of working out which way is the pedestrian going, and I’m aware that I’m on the pavement and I didn’t really ought to be.”

I’ve spoken to many people who ride on the pavement because they feel they’ve no choice, if they’re to keep cycling. It’s strange that people see pavement cycling as so reprehensible when it’s also so clearly comprehensible. But that’s not to say it’s unproblematic.

Pavement cycling

A pedestrian perspective

Pavement cycling has consequences. Its consequences for cycling are dire. Most people don’t want to cycle on pavements but they don’t want to ride on roads either, so they just don’t cycle. Those that do cycle are individually stigmatised and vilified for doing so, and cycling as a whole is constructed as a problematic, anti-social practice. As someone who passionately believes quite the opposite, I find this hard to swallow.

But what about pavement cycling’s consequences for pedestrians? Pavement cycling jeopardises the independent mobility of the most vulnerable people. Evan is blind. He says simply, “pavement cycling is the main problem for blind people. Well, for most disabled people”. People with disabilities struggle to move around cities more than most. The conversation below takes place amongst a group of people with various disabilities. Fred is profoundly deaf (and communicates with the rest of the group via a British Sign Language interpreter); Sheila has balance problems; both Tony and Janet are partially sighted.

Fred: “I don’t really understand why people cycle on the pavements because it’s really dangerous, especially for deaf people as obviously we can’t hear them.”

Sheila: “This is a big issue. I was actually knocked over yesterday. I’ve got a balance problem … [Pavement cycling] impacts on where you can go and how you feel about walking. It becomes less of a pleasure. [Pavement cycling] is certainly a major problem.”

Tony: “I’m blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Cyclists for me on a pavement suddenly appear on my blind side. I find that difficult.”

Janet: “There’s just a few of us [here], but we have got so many friends that have been knocked over and then told ‘why didn’t you look where you were walking?’ And they’ve got things like this [waving her cane], ‘oh a cane! Does that not indicate that there is a problem?’ But we are at wrong. And [incensed] we’re not at wrong! We’re walking perfectly sensible, because we have to. And then we get told we’re in the wrong. But it’s the cyclists that are in the wrong when they do create problems.”

(Incidentally, the call – which I’d never really understood – for registration of bicycles arises here; it’s based on a desire to be able to report and identify people whose cycling causes harm to others, in much the same way as I want, as a cyclist, to be able to identify and report bad driving.)

Pavement cycling is problematic not only because of the proximity between pedestrian and cyclist, but also because of the cyclists’ unpredictability. Because the cyclist is out of place there are no rules for his or her correct behaviour. Pedestrians can’t guess what he or she will do next. This unpredictability of movement also makes ‘shared space’ problematic. Talking about her city’s centre which works on the principle of shared space, Sheila says:

“Now, when you get bicycles coming down there, it’s such a wide area and they’re going anywhere and you’ve no idea where they’re going. Even if you can see them coming towards you, you don’t know whether they’re going to the left of you, the right of you. And that’s what I find impossible. I’ve just stopped using it” [my emphasis].

Although people with disabilities have real problems with cars parking on pavements, they tend generally to see bicycles as more problematic than cars. Why?

First, it’s true that many people with disabilities are hugely car dependent. So maybe they have an ideological blind-spot. But of course, they’re partly so car dependent because walking and cycling are currently so difficult for them, even more so than for other people, to do.

But second, as Fred says, “you know where the cars are … it’s having unexpected things happen that’s such a problem, and that’s why cyclists are a problem”.

If people with disabilities seem overly concerned about relatively ‘minor’ incidents such as a collision with a cyclist consider that the impact of a fall varies according to who you are. If you’re already frail, both the risks and consequences of falling are greater, so fear of falling will be greater too. For someone who’s already vulnerable, a fall (or fear of a fall) can spell the beginning of being house-bound.

We can try to relativize these risks and fears by comparing them to the risks imposed on pedestrians (and cyclists) by motorised traffic, but doing so won’t make the problems go away, and nor – by failing to empathise – will it win cycling friends.

Sharing space responsibly

The difficulty of responsible cycling

How do you know how much space to give someone if you don’t know what their tolerances are? How loudly do you ring your bell for the person who’s deaf? How much time to move do you give the person who can’t see? How slow is slow enough? Tony, who’s partially sighted, provides a sense of the potential for difference in perspective between pedestrian and cyclist:

“I crossed over from one side of the road to the other, and two cyclists were coming along and I had to jump out of the way. And the gentleman in front is going ‘ha, ha’, you know, all very jolly. But it wasn’t so jolly to me.”

‘Responsible cycling’ to us could be ‘irresponsible cycling’ to others, and good citizenship requires such recognition. When I’m cycling on roads, some motorists give me insufficient space to feel safe. How can I justify, then, imposing the emotional discomfort I feel about that onto others when I’m cycling and they’re walking? Based on my own experiences shouldn’t I be empathising with them, rather than (mindlessly?) repeating the discomfort I experience at the hands of others?

There are structural reasons why considerate cycling’s hard to do. I don’t want to excuse cyclists completely, but it’d be just as wrong to expect cyclists to behave in ways which are very difficult to achieve. The currently dominant transport order almost enforces styles of cycling which are antithetical to the calm, unhurried orientation towards pedestrians which would in a civilised society be normal. To survive, city cyclists often need to hurry. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling almost primed to fight by my experience of city cycling. A refusal to engage in such ‘fighting’ is of course one of the reasons people take to cycling on pavements; but the fight remains, only the terrain and actors change.

Cycling’s in a fix. Mixing with cars pushes us to ‘hurry up’; mixing with pedestrians compels us to ‘slow down’. There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities.

Sharing space responsibly

Towards a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy

A big majority of people who cycle, as well as the (very, very many) people who don’t currently cycle, and most pedestrians (but especially pedestrians with disabilities of various kinds) need the same thing – much more dedicated space for cycling. This is mainly the case along busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated; these roads feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians (as well as street furniture and other ‘obstacles’).

Rather than feel uncomfortable and guilty about what they’re doing, people who ride on pavements should voice demands for the sort of space through which they’d actually like to ride;

Rather than suffer in silence or demonise the pavement cyclist, pedestrians should voice demands for cycling to have its own space off their pavements;

Rather than simply not ride in cities, non-cyclists and sometime-cyclists should stand up for their right to city cycling, and voice demands for the kind of urban space they require in order to ride;

Disputes between pedestrians and cyclists result from deep and continuing institutional discrimination against both modes. Rather than us their advocates facing towards each other and bickering amongst ourselves, we must learn to face outwards in solidarity against the monster still devouring far too much urban space, the car.

And rather than – whether deliberately or inadvertently – continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.

Pavement cycling

Sharing space

A couple of final points to ponder, particularly for advocates of cycling.

First, completely pure space for either walking or cycling is of course unrealistic and undesirable. Cycling and walking sometimes have to mix. A good society is about brushing up against each other in respectful and tolerant ways more than it is about pretending other kinds of people and modes of mobility don’t exist by separating ourselves from them altogether.

Second, following from the first, cycling needs to change. If the world is starting to move around cycling, so too – inevitably and necessarily – must cycling move.

Here’s a suggestion for how people with cycles might move, from members of the group whose views we heard earlier.

Fred: “One idea would be, if it’s a pedestrianized area, then for people to actually get off their bike and walk it through the street instead of dodging in and out between people and knocking people down. I think if a cyclist actually got off their bike and walked with their bike … it’s only for a little time. And then they get back on their bike and cycle away … when there are not so many pedestrians, then get back on your bike and cycle.”

Paul: “I think on that last point, teaching people to push a bike should be part of cyclist training. Because lots of cyclists find it very difficult to push a bike.”

Fred is articulating a common sense strategy which we all probably use. But does he perhaps sound a bit extreme, a bit ‘anti-cyclist’? My instinct, at least, is to react against what he says, perhaps partly because I’m accustomed to defending a generally beleaguered cycling, and partly because I see myself as responsible and best able to judge when and where to dismount and remount – ‘I don’t need to be told’.

But in a sense, cycling moves below us, and we can’t afford to be fixed in what cycling means, whether that’s our own cycling, ‘good cycling’, or cycling in general. To be radically pro-cycling today is to know that cycling must change, and be part of that change. Our cycling repertoires need to broaden.

Challenges lie ahead for people who’ve kept riding through the time of the car. Speaking for myself, I’ve become used to riding fast and assertively, but such riding will become less and less appropriate. I need to broaden my repertoire of styles of riding in the city, learning to enjoy slow and sedate as much as fast and furious!

At the individual level the requirement is for ‘flexible cyclists’ able to cycle slowly, or even get off and push, when conditions (and not simply our own reading of those conditions) require it. At the societal level, new forms of governance of cycling must inevitably emerge, and – although of course we’ll negotiate them – we must be careful not automatically to oppose them.

Too fixed an idea of what cycling means is antithetical to a healthy future for cycling. To become established and better integrated into the fabric of the city, to become normal and democratic, cycling must change. New opportunities for the governance of cycling will emerge. So going back to Fred’s suggestion, for example, it should become possible for city centre pedestrian flows to be measured in real time, and signs indicating the appropriate behaviour of cyclists (to ride below a certain speed, or to dismount and push) to be adjusted accordingly. A paradigm shift requires everyone to think differently, everyone’s behaviour to change; those of us who cycle now aren’t immune, and if we think we are, I fear we become part of the problem, rather than its solution.

Cycling struggles, 6

December 10, 2012

We know some groups are more likely to cycle than others; but we rarely stop to examine this situation, to interrogate why. But we should do so, if ‘the cycling call’ is not to remain premised on white, middle-class (perhaps male, perhaps suburban) conceptions and assumptions.

This post examines attitudes to and practices of cycling within one of Britain’s South Asian urban communities. I’m calling it a ‘minority cycling story’ with some irony. The community whose attitudes and practices are reported here is conventionally understood as a ‘minority’ group. Yet their attitudes and practices towards cycling might be better typified as ‘majority’ ones. It is unfortunately those who cycle ‘ordinarily’ that remain in the minority.

6. A ‘minority’ cycling story

Off familiar territory

The area

During the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, Dr Griet Scheldeman and I spent three months in a largely non-white urban area. The local population is mostly of South Asian origin (many of East African Asian heritage). Besides English the main language spoken is Gujarati, and the largest religious group Hindu.

The area’s class profile is not straightforward; Census data suggests it is very deprived. There are certainly pockets of deprivation, but also considerable local variation. Many people who might have moved out remain in the area because of bonds based around ethnicity, culture, language and faith; the children and grandchildren of these first generation immigrants might disperse residentially, but they themselves often stay put. As we’ll see, and in contrast to the community depicted in Cycling struggles 5, many people here can afford to own and run a car.

The community is between one and two miles from the city centre, and consists mainly of residential streets of late-Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing. Many of the commercial establishments on the main road through the community cater for the south Asian population, and – especially at weekends and during festivals – draw people from further afield. There’s a good range of local facilities, including temples, supermarket, library and park. The area feels busy and vibrant.

Local shop

The main road is big and busy; its pavements are wide, but there’s no dedicated provision for cycling. Despite its proximity, the neighbourhood feels isolated from the city’s centre; severed by an inner-ring road, and a resulting sizeable zone of land which feels neglected and unpeopled. There’s a way-marked cycling and walking route between the neighbourhood and city centre; this is along back streets and through green spaces and is seen as the best walking and cycling route by the city’s transport professionals, if not by most local people we spoke with.

Typical residential street

Our research methods

The city’s sustainable transport practitioners were hugely helpful in getting us locally oriented. But to actually break into South Asian networks we utilised local community and health professionals, and local politicians. We ran focus groups in local community centres to build up contacts, and gradually managed to develop research relationships with specific individuals and families. We spoke with people in their homes, travelled with them, and– as best we could – tried to see the world from their perspectives. We also explored the area intensively on foot and by bike; undertook structured observations of many streets (both main roads and back streets) and junctions; spent a lot of time ‘hanging out’ in local spaces (cafes, restaurants, swimming pool, library, park); and spoke with people wherever we went.

Corner shop

Attitudes to cycling

Positive attitudes to cycling are shaped most by discourses of health and fitness. Obesity, diabetes and coronary heart diseases are major concerns, especially amongst older generations, and people know exercise is important. But as we’ll see the focus on cycling for health rarely translates into utility cycling, and only occasionally into leisure cycling.

Cognisance of the relevance of cycling to good health (if not actual cycling) grows with age. As people become more susceptible to health problems, they perhaps become more receptive to healthy lifestyle messages.

People tend to like the idea of cycling for leisure, and particularly the health and fitness benefits; but most have little conception of cycling as a mode of transport, and no real sense that they should do.

The categorisation of cycling, in other words, is here:

cycling = toy +/or leisure +/or health and fitness;

cycling ≠ transport.

For many people the bicycle is like a rowing boat, something worth trying if/when the opportunity arises, but not part of ordinary life. Cycling might take place on a static cycle inside the home or at a gym, or else on a hire bike.

Bicycle ownership is low. Most houses are poorly equipped for parking (or rather storing) bikes, but lack of storage is not a barrier to cycling.

Local cycling advocates report enthusiasm for cycling amongst local primary school children. We also saw people teaching children to ride in the local park, and we talked to many people with fond memories of either themselves or their children sometimes riding there. But this enthusiasm is for the bicycle as a toy, and cycling is a childhood activity best left behind. Here as elsewhere we spoke to parents who were glad – relieved mainly – their children had ‘grown out’ of cycling. It meant they didn’t have to worry so much about them.

By teaching children to cycle we might think we’re giving them a serious transport option, but most parents think their kids are gaining a life-long skill that’ll be used only occasionally. Cycle training is equivalent to swimming lessons, with the prospect of future days out in the country substituting for visits to the swimming pool and annual family holidays on the beach. If parents thought we were intending their kids to ride on roads, I think they’d respond as if we told them swimming lessons were to enable their children to go swimming by themselves in the local river; not necessarily a bad thing, but quite different to swimming under supervision in a controlled and protected environment.

So children learn to ride bicycles here (although those bicycles often have to be borrowed from the school in order for learning to take place), but no one we met had any intention of their children riding for reasons of utility in the existing transport environment.

Learning to ride

The bicycle is not taken seriously as an ordinary mode of transport because the car is the form of urban transport, its use remarkably unquestioned.

We’ve got so used to cars”, says Anju. “It’s just literally, if it’s ¼ of a mile, say a ten minute walk, we’ll drive. I think it’s a habit.”

“Same with me”, adds Meera. “From here to my bank, even if it’s good weather, if the car is in the car park, then I will think ‘OK, let me get my car, it will be quicker’. And sometimes it is the same time because you drive the car, you get the parking, again walk to the bank and come back, it will be the same time. But still, as he says, it’s a habit. You think ‘let me get the car, it will be quicker and costs tuppence’.”

The car is not just a form of transport; it is also a status symbol – and if you don’t have one, you aspire to one. A car demonstrates success. Until you have a car, you are ‘lacking’. Once you have it, you use it as much as possible; other travel ‘options’ disappear.

I’m talking to two young women, sisters, Alisha and Pooja:

Alisha:   “My mum cannot live without her car, she doesn’t walk anywhere. I don’t remember the last time she ever caught a bus in her life. She needs her car.”

Dave:    “Are you saying every journey she makes, pretty much, is in the car?

Pooja:   “Yeah.”

Alisha:   “Yep, she could go to the post office which is literally about a 3 or 4 minute walk. She won’t [walk]. She’ll take the car and come back.”

Almost every adult aspires to a car of their own as soon as they’re able. Neela is a young woman currently learning to drive. A regular bus user, she nonetheless sees the car as the default option, even for the shortest local journeys; it’s just that, for now, she’s excluded from driving herself. As she said, “obviously every teenager wants to pass the driving test and get a car of their own and just zoom everywhere”.

Many households are multi-generational and comprise more adults than is normal amongst white families. Many households have two, three, or more cars. The majority of these homes are relatively modest terraces. The residential streets are dense. All this means that the key ‘car problem’ here is finding place to park.

Off-street parking

For people who don’t drive (other than those who are too young, this is mainly older people, and especially women), a culture of chauffeuring is widespread, even over very short distances. People are regularly driven not only by family members, but also by fellow temple-goers. Local social capital feels strong. Chauffeuring shows you care, and it also shows your car.

From our own white, middle-class, liberal perspectives, we were struck by how the car is so part of people’s lives in this area when so much seems to be against it: the difficulties of finding car parking space; the costs; the remarkably small distances of most car journeys. As elsewhere, but perhaps more clearly here, car use has become ‘irrationally’ embedded in many people’s everyday lives.

The car as status symbol

Attitudes to cyclists

If the car is the vehicle for transport, and cycling is seen only as a very occasional leisure activity, what are people’s attitudes towards the people we did see moving around by cycle?

As a mode of transport cycling is embarrassing; it reveals you don’t have a car. We could put this more strongly, that the bicycle is an injury to status. I’d like to reduce the strength of this claim by delimiting the attitude to older generations, but I can’t; the bicycle’s status is perhaps lowest, and the car’s highest, amongst young British Asian men. (A caveat – young men were particularly hard to reach (probably because they were off in their cars!). So until someone does further qualitative research amongst young British Asian men specifically, looking at their attitudes to and experiences of cycling, I don’t have total confidence in the claim that cycling is particularly stigmatised amongst them.

Similarly, it might easily be argued that the car’s significance is so great amongst Asian young men because: i) a gendered conception of male autonomy is particularly strong within their communities; ii) it offers an escape from domesticity which is perhaps felt particularly strongly as they commonly live in close proximity to often multiple generations of family members; and iii) if they attend higher education, they are more likely to do so nearby and to remain living at home. But although these ideas seem worth airing (and so potentially opening for better insights/discussion), I’m unable to provide sufficient evidence for them; they remain assumptions.)

Within a group discussion, Devaraj gives this anecdote:

“When the elderly are riding a bicycle the young ones make fun of them. I’ve seen it, I don’t know if anybody’s seen it when elderly people are riding bicycle, young ones make fun of it.”

Such cycling tends to be taken as evidence that you don’t have a car; it is a visible sign of low status. Devaraj told us:

“I’ve got a car and I’m proud of my car. And then all of a sudden if I park the car on one side and I’ve got a bicycle it’s like from up there I’m down here, I’ve been degraded … To me, to go out there on a bike now, I’ll think ‘what will people think of me?’.”

Ajay is a successful semi-retired businessman. The car is clearly massively important to his ordinary mobility and his sense of his self. Nothing unusual there, but he was unusual in imagining the bicycle accruing some status as a recreational vehicle, “if it’s on the back of a BMW or Merc”.

Here then we got no sense that the bicycle could ever be chosen above the car as a vehicle. We know that is not more widely the case; indeed, recent evidence shows a higher incidence of cycling amongst people with access to a car than those without.

Utility cycling

Who cycles then?

More recent immigrants have arrived from India in the last decade or so. They tend to have a different orientation to the car to that which prevails amongst longer established migrants, their children and grandchildren. These people tend to have less money, they may not be able to drive and/or don’t have a UK license, and their priority may be to save money with which to return home and/or send home. For this group, a bicycle is affordable and drive-able in a way a car is not.

People from this group tend also to have recent experience of cycling, in India; however most find the roads here terrifying, and stick to pavements (as the comments in the previous post of Amini, originally from Morocco but who came to the UK via the Netherlands, also demonstrated, cycling almost gets ‘knocked out of them’ by Britain’s streets). I’ll describe rationales for pavement cycling in more detail in the next story. For now suffice to say even regular cyclists genuinely cannot imagine cycling on some local roads; for example, referring to the local main road, Sundara says:

if you look at it there’s no way to cycle, because there is a dual carriageway and then there are pavements, but there is no cycle lane. So you definitely cannot do it … You cannot cycle on the road where there are cars. The cars are very close to the pavement so where would you then cycle?”

This predominantly pavement cycling is also fragile because of limited bicycle maintenance and repair skills. In India a puncture is quickly and cheaply repaired at one of the many cycle shops; as Sanjay says “if you got a puncture in India there is a person who does it, and it’s very cost effective, so you don’t worry about it”. But the nearest cycle shop here is far enough away that a puncture can spell the end of someone cycling.

A few people cycle for leisure, but amongst those we met this was mainly in response to specific schemes. A couple of years previously, a local temple had organised a charity bike ride among young women, and I spoke with some who had taken part. They’d enjoyed the experience but most had borrowed bikes in order to participate and no longer cycled. Neela is an exception in that she owns a bicycle and still occasionally rides it, but really, she says, “cycling is just a one-off thing”. These young women are exceptional in having given cycling a go at all. In three months of intensive fieldwork I can’t recall seeing a non-white woman cycling in the area. Hindu women don’t cycle, we were told often, because they wear saris, which make riding impractical.

Utility cycling

How to tackle cycling’s low status

Transport cycling has been wiped off the streets, and wiped from people’s imaginations. Ajay put it in this way – “the bicycle is not respected. It has been pushed out by the car.” Car use has been institutionally and ideologically embedded, in people’s hearts and minds just as much as in political power structures and decision-making processes. To paraphrase Raymond Williams, ideology is lived as culture, and culture is ordinary.

The majority of South Asian immigrants moved to Britain during the second half of the twentieth century, precisely the period during which car use was becoming firmly instituted as the urban British means of moving around. Quick learners and eager to participate in British society, they picked the idea up well. (Many are now personally suffering the health consequences, and it is not their children but they themselves who best recognise the virtues of cycling.)

As Ajay asks, “why would anybody want to cycle when everything’s geared around the car?”.

This community’s time in Britain has been the time of cycling’s removal. Transport cycling in their part of the city is rarely seen, and when it is seen and noticed it is noticed as a problem. The occasional cyclist is not somebody to emulate, but to be pitied. The institutional, spatial and cultural eradication of transport cycling have occurred simultaneously, and are connected. Make something sufficiently unusual and it might become attractive to a minority but it becomes abnormal to everyone else, and perhaps especially those working hardest to subscribe to dominant cultural conventions.


Cycling’s locally low social status results from (though is not wholly determined by) its nationally low political and spatial status.

Even people who would like to cycle feel currently unable to do so. Cycling’s low status, as a practice you’d do only if you have to, is thereby fixed in place. The interaction below captures this:

Jim: “I would love to ride a bike … But it is very unsafe.”

Amar: “Yeah, it’s unsafe.”

Jayne: “I wouldn’t ride on the roads. No way. But you see then you’ve got people moaning about it being on the pavements, but what do you do when you feel unsafe on the road?”

Mr Raj: “Cyclists haven’t got their own security to drive on the road because it has too many traffic. That’s why they drive on the footpath. Footpath is a danger for people who are walking. So give them some road for the cyclist.”

Any practice people feel they have no place to practise will remain at best peripheral and more likely ignored and avoided. This is what’s happened to cycling here. The exceptions are either people who have arrived recently and are therefore more socialised to cycling and less acculturated to the car, or those who have no alternative – mostly young men who can’t afford a car. They’ll ride on roads where they feel able, and on pavements where they don’t. Although they’re barely noticed, their presence does nothing to challenge, only cements, cycling’s low local status.

That cycling could be normalised even here is demonstrated by the following exchange. A group of local residents is discussing cycling. As usual a strong consensus is quickly (almost automatically) reached that cycling is far too dangerous. So what, I ask, needs to change?

Hua: “Cycle paths!”

Halina: “Yeah, completely separate cycle paths. These things that they put on the roads that stop and start – cars park on them. They’re no use. They’re a waste of time. You need separate – either a separated path with pedestrians, off the road. Or a cycle path, cycle route.”

Kanaka: “Over there in Holland [her son  lives in Holland] my daughter-in-law was pregnant and for nine months she was on the bike. And I used to tell her ‘don’t! Don’t!’ And she said ‘here it’s safer than going in the car’. She came on the bike from the hospital to home!”

Jun: “But they have separate bike lanes there. Not like here. Here you have a half way, stop and then start again.”

At another point in our conversation, I ask Kanaka whether her son also cycles:

“Oh everywhere! I’m the only one who goes on the tram, and feels embarrassed.”

I don’t need to spell out the inversion that’s happened here, do I?

Putting the bicycle at the heart of things

Final thoughts

It seems a dangerous game to play, doesn’t it? To provide dedicated space for cycling where so few people do it and its status is so low?

It’s a bit like what’s happening across much of the world today, and what happened across societies such as the UK during the second half of the twentieth century – building for cars in the absence of widespread, democratic culture of driving and motoring.

If the main determinants of the bicycle’s lowly status are spatial and structural, and I think they are, then re-structuring space is the most obvious way forward (though obviously as part of a much broader package of complementary pro-cycling measures). We’ve done the same for cars – indeed, we are still doing it across most of the planet for cars – so why not do it now for bikes? Or are they still, and so all the people riding them or potentially one day riding them, second-class?

Building for cars wasn’t/isn’t about giving people choice. It was/is about a world premised on unlimited oil and endless growth. With a future now framed by the need for resilience in the face of unstable and unpredictable climates and the importance of sustainability, isn’t it time to build for bicycles instead? If political decisions centre cycling, and the design and planning of space centre cycling, then cycling’s status will inevitably rise, and people’s lives will (variably but steadily) centre cycling.

Cycling struggles, 5

November 26, 2012

The first four cycling struggles have been middle-class ones.

Britain’s urban middle classes are striving – though struggling and mainly failing – to incorporate cycling into their everyday lives. They know cycling is ‘a good thing’, and would like to ride.

Like Holly, whose story I told last time, many people have yet to take up (or return to) cycling. But others are learning to cycle in partial ways. Leisure cycling is the most common form of partial cycling, because it allows people to exert maximum control over their cycling conditions – riding when and where they please. The UK’s favourite cycling is thus sociably on sunny, summer Sundays, away from roads – conditions diametrically opposed to the monadic on-road cycling through smelly, dirty and noisy rush-hour congestion which various ‘authorities’ most want.

If the prospect of cycling for leisure has broad appeal, that of making ordinary journeys by bike does not. The British urban middle-class realises it ought to cycle for utility as well as pleasure but it can’t, because it’s scared to ride under prevailing conditions. In conversation, people typically first express this fear of cycling in vague and general terms. But probing reveals a set of specific anxieties, including but not limited to:

  • having to share roads with cars;
  • lack of respect towards cyclists among motorists;
  • apparently chaotic provision for cycling – with a widespread perception that specific cycling facilities often exist where they’re least needed, and disappear where they’re most needed;
  • being squeezed (and poor quality riding conditions in the gutter – debris, drains, broken glass etc);
  • excessive speed (both rule-abiding and rule-breaking) of motorised traffic;
  • the apparent vulnerability of those cyclists who do use the roads;
  • dangers presented by roundabouts and junctions; and
  • not being seen (especially after dark, and on fast roads with poor sight-lines).

Across the urban middle classes, then, utility cycling is regarded as something it is good but too hard to do. People realise the car has become king, with most drivers – including themselves – feeling entitled to drive when and where they please. In fact, many people feel they have no choice but to drive. Car use is today imposed on them, and cycling is not an option. Choice has been extinguished. People know this, though struggle with it. Jan from Leeds is an habitual driver; she says “I think my problem is that I’m really anti-heavy traffic, but I’m contributing towards it. It’s very hypocritical isn’t it?” Elisa, also from Leeds, notes what we all know – “to avoid the cars people get in their car.”

Cars run riot, and people can’t face the idea of ‘sharing space’ with them on a bicycle. But understandably, people feel powerless to change the situation they and their loved ones must daily confront – of car use run rampant and cycling discriminated against. So they muddle on. This is a key reason why many people drive even short urban journeys, and a key reason people support dedicated cycling provision.

But a caveat about method here – many people who participated in the Understanding Walking and Cycling research first responded to a questionnaire survey, and then agreed to take part in a follow-up encounter, either a face-to-face qualitatively oriented interview or a go-along (on foot or by bike). People taking these steps are likely to be suburban middle class, and above averagely positive about sustainable travel.

So unsurprisingly, ‘the suburban middle class’ perspective on cycling is not an universal one.

This cycling story and the next focus on experiences of and attitudes towards cycling which were harder to discover. In search of these perspectives, I and my colleague, the Flemish anthropologist Dr Griet Scheldeman, did ‘good, old-fashioned’ ethnography – we hung out, we spoke to people on the streets, in shops, pubs, cafes and at bus stops. We worked with schools, community workers and activists, health practitioners, and city council officers and elected members to find people who might talk to us, either individually or as part of a group. The people we met weren’t interested in our research, but our research was of course interested in them. It was often hard to get them to talk about cycling; it’s not the kind of thing people usually talk about. But we persevered, and I think produced some useful data.

Below I focus on cycling perspectives within a deprived inner-city area; and next time I’ll look at cycling perspectives from a non-white urban area; in other words, this story and the next begin to explore the relevance of class, ethnicity, and their intersections to understanding cycling.

5. A poor cycling story

This is a story of experiences of and attitudes to cycling on a deprived inner-city local authority housing (much of it high-rise) estate. It’s the kind of place which can be found in most British cities. Today it’s peopled by a mix of long-standing mainly white residents, and more recent immigrants from across the world, many of whom are seeking asylum.

The area has known ‘ordinary cycling’. Now in his eighties, Lance has lived in the area all his life; and in one of two tower blocks (the first was demolished) for fifty years. He’s a retired garage mechanic. He stopped cycling in “1965 I think. That’s a long time since isn’t it?” He got off his bike at the same time as the city as a whole climbed into its car – the Transport Ministers of the early- to mid-1960s, first Ernest Marples (Conservative) and then Barbara Castle (Labour), believed cities needed to be rebuilt around the car.

Inner ring roads simultaneously facilitated car use and inhibited cycling. Today people living here are literally surrounded by roads and cars – mostly of course other people’s cars, using roads which constrain rather than enable their own everyday mobilities.

What do people living here think about cycling?

The first thing to note is that, in contrast to the suburban middle classes who are relatively adept at thinking and talking about cycling, these inner-city residents hardly think about cycling, and have little to say about it. Awareness that cycling is being promoted is largely absent – most people here are still aspiring to climb into cars, not trying to climb out of them. (Car use here tends to be problematic in ways quite different from middle class suburbia: there, cars cause social and environmental problems and make people feel slightly guilty; here cars are problematic mainly at the individual level – because one cannot be financially afforded, or – if it can – because they are so expensive to run.)

Second, the bicycle is viewed as a toy much more than as a vehicle. Although for the children who ride one the bicycle can be an important means of moving around, the adult perspective is that it’s a play thing, not to be taken seriously.

Karen has lived in the area for almost 40 years. She cycled as a child:

Oh yeah, I loved it when we were kids. We used to go out on bikes riding all over. Oh yeah, them were the days”.

Why doesn’t she ride now?

Well to be perfectly honest it’s not something I’ve ever tried since. I’ve grown up and sort of left my bike back there.”

Cycling belongs to childhood. It’s something kids do. Many women we spoke to simply laughed at the idea that they might cycle; some of the younger white women said they would look (and feel) stupid riding a bike.

Third then, adult cycling is low status. Such cycling within the area falls into two separate categories, which quite effectively (if crudely) epitomise a class divide in British urban utility cycling.

In the one category are the commuters who can be seen in the morning and again in the early evening pedalling in and out of the city centre on the road running through the area. These cyclists tend to be male, to ride on the road rather than the pavement, and often to wear specific cycling gear, such as Lycra shorts, helmets and hi-viz bibs; to the residents of the inner-city which they ride through, they are ‘alien’.

In the other category are a few young and middle-aged non-white men who ride cheap mountain bikes on the pavements. Our overall sense is that in the absence of a car, and quite often working shift patterns which render public transport useless, a bicycle is a cheap and effective way for these men to move around. They tend to ride on the pavement because they perceive roads to be too dangerous and really only for cars.

But there’s also a localised perception that cycling is the drug dealer’s favoured mode of transport. Here’s another status barrier to cycling at the local level; such a perception, especially if it’s shared by the police, further stigmatises (almost criminalises) cycling.

Overall, we see that from a deprived inner-city perspective cycling becomes something ‘other people do’. Moreover, these ‘other people’ are not role-models; quite the contrary. And ‘negative encounters’ with cyclists – most likely as a pedestrian on the pavement – are likely to see cycling/cyclists constructed as a (very specific) ‘problem’ much more than as an (abstract) ‘solution’.

But for most of the day cycling is invisible on the inner-city streets. Originally from Jamaica, Lily has lived in the area for fifty years.

I don’t see any adults on bikes”, she says, “just kids”.

Lily figures that this is because “they can’t face the roads, going on the roads on a bicycle”.

Pavement cycling tends to be treated – even by pedestrians – as normal (if not, obviously, as desirable). Lily says,

it’s to do with the traffic; they’re safe on the pavement … They need some cycle lanes really. They’ve got a few lanes but I think they’re rubbish myself”.

Overall, in this part of the city cycling feels irrelevant. It’s low status and stigmatised. To cycle is not on most people’s agenda. This is understandable: people have more pressing issues to deal with than whether or not they should be thinking about cycling; many of the people we met, for example, were living with young children in high-rise flats with no heating and broken windows. But just because they don’t orientate to it doesn’t mean cycling is unimportant, only that it’s been made to be unimportant in these people’s daily lives.

Amini is originally from Morocco. She lived in the Netherlands for ten years, before coming to Britain, where she’s lived for eight years. In the Netherlands, she cycled regularly, but although she still has a bike, and so too do her children, she never cycles in Britain.

Everybody”, she says, “from Holland cycles. But the roads there are not like here. There you have got special roads for the cycle. Here you haven’t got always the cycle path. That’s why I can’t do it here. But I did do it a lot in Holland.” Her children “use [their bicycles] just in the playground, because it’s not safe for them to take them on the [road] here”.

There’s nothing inevitable about people living here not cycling. There are reasons why they don’t cycle. Lack of provision is important: people see the roads as unfit for cycling; and there’s a lack of residential cycle parking. But the barriers are cultural as much as infrastructural – to cycle here is to communicate something negative about yourself. To cycle is to be an embarrassment.

There are important issues of justice and equity here. Increasingly people with cars are cycling, but people without cars are not – the car-less are not sick of the car, so much as sick of other people’s cars. These cars – used by people who like to drive into the country and hop onto their bikes on sunny summer Sundays – form a powerful barrier to inner-city cycling by the car-less who live there; the domination of inner-city space by other people’s cars makes it both hard and unusual to cycle in the city.

I got angry seeing people effectively marooned (especially after dark, when many are afraid to go outside) in a sea of other people’s cars. Surrounded by those cars, from which here there’s no escape, no suburban retreat, they have of course come to feel ‘normal’ in precisely the same way that the bicycle has disappeared from view and come to feel ‘abnormal’. The powerful ways in which a culture of car use – even when that’s other people’s car use – as normal has co-constituted a culture of cycling as abnormal was a consistent theme across our fieldwork. In re-making our cities for cycling we must be sure to think not only of those we’re keen to get out of cars, but also those whom the car has left behind.

Cycling struggles, 4

November 8, 2012

Why don’t people cycle?

The last three posts showed how three different people cycle despite atrocious cycling conditions; this one shows how one person has decided not to cycle because of those conditions. Of course she’s not alone – indeed, this story was the one most frequently heard during the three years I spent understanding cycling.

It was a privilege to hear Holly’s story, and others like it; to listen to someone thoughtfully articulating their concerns about cycling. We need more people – and especially, of course, those with most power to implement change, to listen to stories such as these, and to hear the reasons why people don’t cycle, and what it will take to get them cycling.

4. Holly’s cycling story

For her everyday journeys, Holly either drives or walks. In recent years, partly out of environmental concerns, partly to stay fit and healthy, she has transferred more of her shorter trips from car to foot. She now walks almost all journeys of less than two miles. Utility walking makes sense for Holly. It provides training for the recreational walking she loves to do. A medical practitioner, she is also aware of the importance of walking to mental and physical health. And she knows how much money she’s saving, particularly in car parking costs.

But it could make more sense for Holly to cycle. As she says, “obviously in terms of time it would make sense to cycle the journeys that I do on foot.” And saving time is clearly important to her; she leads a busy life – juggling work, study, and an active social life.

And of course, not only could she save time by cycling some of her longer walking trips; its greater range means that cycling could replace more of her car trips – increasing her fitness, saving more money, and further reducing her environmental impact.

She can cycle.

I did my cycling proficiency at primary school, and I took a bike with me when I first went to University.”

But she is scared to cycle.

“I’m a complete coward when it comes to cycling on roads.”

She elaborates on her ‘cowardice’ (a word commonly used by people explaining their reasons for not cycling):

“Everybody I know who does a considerable amount of cycling at some point has been knocked off and hurt themselves in some way.

“As a driver, cyclists on the road just seem so vulnerable that I just don’t want to join them.”

Holly appreciates there are some off-road routes she could use for some of her ordinary journeys, but “even so you can’t avoid cycling on the road at some point, and if not cycling on the road then cycling on pavements which isn’t legal and does expose pedestrians to risk, which I can’t justify. So it’s just not something that I’d consider.”

Holly recognises there are more barriers to her cycling than fear of motorised traffic. She goes on:

“There are other factors as well, like what do you do with the bike when you get to wherever you’re going. If you can rely on somewhere safe to put it, then all well and good, but if you can’t then it’s something else you have to factor.

“You’ve got your cycle helmet, possibly reflective gear, which you’d have to then carry about with you. Or leave them with the bike, but for security reasons you wouldn’t do that either.”

But listen to what she says immediately after this:

“My ideal would be if it were possible, transport wise, for cycle paths to be absolutely physically removed from roads as in a proper kerb separating cyclists from traffic so that cyclists didn’t have to use the pavement but weren’t sharing the road with cars. Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling. But as it is, with cyclists having to mix with traffic, it just seems crazy.”

Some people might say that Holly is like many people, generally fearful. Indeed, I have in the past suggested that fear of cycling is just one manifestation of a broader, fearful culture. But Holly isn’t generally timid. She walks regularly and widely, including alone after dark along routes away from roads. When I ask directly if her walking is circumscribed, she responds: “I don’t really think about personal safety very much.”

Holly is fit, active, healthy, and environmentally concerned. She’s not afraid to walk. But she is afraid to cycle. Yet it’s clear to me that if conditions were different, she’d probably do so. And of course, she’s not alone. In fact, she’s in the majority, a big one.

Let’s look more closely at Holly’s idea of appropriate cycling infrastructure.

The current idea of cycling infrastructure, she tells me, “is to paint cycle paths on the road. But that’s just not going to do it, because there’s no physical barrier between the cyclists and the traffic.”

I mention some local examples of off-road infrastructure. “That’s ideal. That’s fine. That’s really good. If that could be extended it would be brilliant.

“But you still have to get there. At the moment it’s just not joined up. So it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.”

This is something I heard time and again, across all four cities.

That’s the key message here – the big majority of people won’t cycle in an environment dominated by motorised traffic.

But there’s another issue my conversation with Holly brings up, which although it seems tangential is actually connected and worth mentioning. Although she’s uncomfortable telling me so, Holly has issues with the presence of cyclists on rural roads.

“It’s terrible, but in one respect, I actually feel that it’s not right that cyclists are on those roads.

 “But at the same time they’ve got just as much right to use those roads as car drivers.

“It doesn’t feel right in terms of my philosophy, about what’s right in terms of the environment and personal health and fitness, but just because of how dangerous [cycling on rural roads] is, I feel uncomfortable about it.

The presence of cyclists on rural roads upsets her, as a motorist.

“It’s country roads in general. It just, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. It’s not good.”

If you do much rural road riding you’ll probably have come across people who are incredulous that you do so. And you’ll almost certainly have come across drivers who treat you as if you don’t belong there, and have no right to be there. Holly’s perspective is a benevolent rather than malevolent form of this attitude, and I think it’s widespread.

I think her discomfort about the presence of cyclists on rural roads is connected to her discomfort about the idea of herself cycling on urban roads, and that both are based on a sense that cyclists are anomalous, because bicycles and cars don’t mix, and as cars so dominate road space, cyclists have no place – no obvious place, no safe place, anywhereexcept when they’re separated from those vehicles which can (and of course do) kill them.

Of course, we can say that cycling’s place is everywhere – I do say that, I do think that, and (unless I’m with my children) I do act that way. But the big majority of people simply don’t agree. We can say cycling’s place is everywhere until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t build a culture of mass cycling. We cyclists will continue to have the good bits of cycling infrastructure more or less to ourselves, and we’ll continue to survive/thrive in the hostile conditions which prevail in its more general absence. And Holly won’t cycle.

The solutions are as simple and radical as they are obvious. We must undermine motorists’ current monopolisation of road space. We must fundamentally challenge motorists’ sense of entitlement to that space. We must pursue a radical programme of civilising motorised traffic. And if/where we’re not as a society prepared to do those things, we must build separate space for cycling.

Cycling struggles, 3

October 26, 2012

This is the third case study in the ‘cycling struggles’ series. It pedals slightly different ground to the previous two – raising issues around identity; but it again shows the consequences at the individual level of ignoring cycling at the societal level; and it again demonstrates– in a striking way – the lengths people go to make cycling an ‘ordinary’ (for which, read ‘extraordinary’) part of their lives.

I’m heading off on holiday for a week, and will be off-line. Please comment, and it’d be great if you talked amongst yourselves! But that’s why I’ll not respond immediately.

3. Fabian’s cycling story

It’s really quite busy. It feels like a lot of motorists aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt on a night like tonight. This is the kind of road environment where I don’t really trust cars at all, and you have to be watching out all the time.

(Fieldnotes, audio-recorded whilst cycling into the city centre along an A road behind Fabian)

I know this description reflects the reality of urban commuting for many. But it’s remarkable given the cycling journey of the person I’m riding with, Fabian.

Fabian was off his bike for three and a half years – “it’s only been since March this year that I’ve actually got back on my bike and since then I’ve cycled every day”. There’s a story behind Fabian’s lengthy cycling hiatus: “I was knocked off twice by car drivers, three months apart, but the same sort of incident. One of the drivers left the scene, left me there crumpled in the road.

On both occasions a car overtook Fabian and then tried turning left in front of him.

“The first [motorist] claimed he was indicating and the police said [to Fabian] ‘you’d put yourself in a dangerous position by being at that point in the road’. But since then there’s now a cycle track and a red blob [advanced stop line] at the traffic lights to actually [encourage you to] go on the inside there.

“The second [motorist] was on a really wide road and I had, it wasn’t yellow, but a bright blue cycle jacket on, and they just passed me and turned. There’s not an awful lot you can do as you’re going downhill, if someone’s not seen you.”

Initially, this second motorist claimed “they hadn’t seen me. They didn’t believe the accident happened”.

Then “it was my fault because I was cycling on the inside of them as they were trying to turn. So again, I’d [apparently] put myself in a dangerous position out of their visibility – when clearly they had to have passed me to get into a position to turn”.

This motorist was convicted, but appealed. “But she then withdrew the appeal at the eleventh hour, as myself and three witnesses were waiting to go and give evidence.”

How did Fabian get back cycling, after these incidents?

“Whether I actually felt like I could ever get back on a bike again was a major issue.

“Whether I could actually be near bikes was also an issue.

“So part of the stuff that came back from the second accident, when they caught the driver, was therapy – getting the idea of being back on a bike, and making it happen. Because it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, it was just the fact that it made me feel sick to get 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 the bikes again’, spend fifteen, twenty 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 one. Then, ‘right, can I sit on one of the bikes?’ Week –by-week building it up until it was a case of ‘right, I think I can do this’.

Fabian then borrowed a bike and went out with a group, “getting used to the fact that ‘yes, I could ride’ again. It wasn’t the fact that I physically couldn’t do it. It was the fact that I mentally had fear about being on the roads, about being near bikes.

“There were some hairy moments where we’d come off a cycle path, and I’d think ‘hold it, there are cars here, there are roads, we’ve got to negotiate a roundabout here, I am going to get off and walk’.”

You might wonder why Fabian was so committed to getting back on a bike.

He received compensation for his injuries. “I didn’t see the value in saying ‘oh well that will pay for a new car, that will pay for this, that and the other’.

Instead, Fabian wanted his compensation to do appropriate work. “I needed to make it show that there’s actually a benefit from it. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my lifestyle and it’s going to help me pay for that change in lifestyle; it’s going to help me get back into the lifestyle I had before, or as near as I could.

“My determination to get back on my bike was part of that. And the [therapist] said, ‘if you get back on a bike or not, at least you can be around them, you are not going to have sleepless nights, you are not going to be worried about driving near cyclists’, because I was.”

Getting knocked off twice in quick succession by cars didn’t – as might seem likely – make Fabian scared of cars. It made him scared of bikes.

“I’d have to give cyclists, when I was driving, a majorly wide berth.”

‘That’s good!’ you might think.

But Fabian’s sensitivity towards cyclists as a driver was – within an ideological and infrastructural environment governed by cars – paralysing. Our road system isn’t set up for motorists to give the level of consideration he wanted to give cyclists.

“It was a case of ‘hold it, I really can’t negotiate this’.

“I’d be driving behind a cyclist at an incredibly stupid speed until there was a place that I really could give them enough space. I was almost driving on the opposite side of the road to give them that space.

“And groups of cyclists were just terrifying.

“I was aware of where the cyclists were, how many cyclists had passed, what they were doing. I was really hypersensitive to people on bikes while I was driving.

“Part of the therapy was about not being too sensitive. Yes, you still need that awareness of where other people are on the road, but gone are the times when I count how many cyclists have passed, what they were doing, and the fact that they weren’t wearing helmets.”

“I probably am still quite sensitive, but not as bad as I was.”

It’s remarkable Fabian has returned to cycling; more so that – as we’ll see – he cycles on main roads through congested city centre streets at peak times, including after dark.

Of course, most people who have suffered what Fabian has suffered will ‘simply’ stop cycling. But Fabian’s tenacity in the face of bad experiences is (depressingly, or inspiringly?) common across the minority of long-time, ‘hardened’ ‘cyclists’. Indeed it’s via such experiences (often retold as ‘atrocity tales’) that one becomes a ‘cyclist’, although intriguingly Fabian doesn’t present a strong cycling identity; perhaps rather, by demonstrating commitment beyond what (‘ordinary’) others (in a car-centric society) might consider sensible, he inadvertently ‘earns’, or has foisted upon him (including potentially here, by me), such an identity.

Our treatment on the roads has become something we put up with, in order to keep cycling; part of the cycling background, an almost taken-for-granted part of ‘what cycling is’. Does, I wonder, the invisibility of the strategies we use to keep going play a part in the reproduction of the dominant transport order?

I ride Fabian’s evening commute with him, back home from work.

His bike’s parked in open stands close to his work place entrance; “it’s secure, just because of where it is [visible from the workplace reception]. But it’d be better if it was covered and lit because when I am putting the panniers on, or trying to unlock in the dark, it is through memory and touch rather than being able to see.”

Fabian covers his saddle with a plastic bag during the day, to keep it dry. (Or alternatively, if the saddle is already wet, he’ll put a plastic bag on to it before riding, to keep the seat of his trousers dry.) “It [the plastic bag] goes on and comes off. So tomorrow morning, if it’s been raining, I’ll put a dry plastic bag on the saddle.”

Fabian wears a helmet and a hi-viz jacket. (Although I personally tend to wear neither in the city, I always carry them with me when doing fieldwork and if someone with whom I’m riding puts them on, then I will too.) His bike has a rack and panniers. He uses clip-less pedals and cycling shoes.

We leave at 5pm to ride a couple of miles into the city’s centre, through it, and then out its other side; a journey of around four miles. It’s damp, cold, dark, and rush-hour.

Impatient traffic, main roads, lots of junctions; it’s a journey requiring constant vigilance. The conditions force me mainly to follow Fabian, rather than ride alongside him. He moves at a brisk pace, around 15 miles per hour.

We ride quickly towards the city centre. The traffic is heavy; it’s sometimes fast-moving, and some drivers come close. If you’re not used to this kind of rush-hour commuting, it’s disconcerting; if you are, it becomes second-nature, and it can even be exciting, though Fabian doesn’t find it so. When I ask him later if he enjoys this journey, he says:

“I don’t think I’ve quite got to that point yet, where I can enjoy it. I’m actually just glad to have got home on the bike safely. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly pleasant journey, because you’re just going through a city commute.

“I’ve got to get to work for a certain time, and I just want to get home as soon as possible … There’s a purpose to that journey … and I think some of the enjoyable journeys don’t have a purpose – you’re just out there and enjoying being in the fresh air, or in the rain really.”

We’re sometimes squeezed. Some cyclists, mainly proponents of vehicular cycling, talk of adopting the ‘primary position’; they’d ‘take the lane’ on roads like these. Fabian doesn’t, and whilst I understand the concept of primary position and sometimes adopt it, nor would I here. Doing so would make me effectively a mobile, easily damaged, traffic-calming device. Riding primary requires boldness, and an unwavering conviction that you’ve a right to occupy the space; theoretically I agree we do, but practically I worry both personally, that I’ll get mown down, and more generally, that such a position poisons the hopes of cycling for all. We’re forced to move out and to take what’s left of the lane in order to pass a long line of parked cars, however; and when we do, the vehicles behind – which are anyway travelling not much faster than us – wait.

Approaching the city centre gyratory, Fabian sees traffic ahead is stalled. Rather than find his way through it, he nips up back streets to skirt it, much as a car driver might. Later, he tells me “I think I do cycle a lot like I drive, and sometimes I’ll end up cycling a route I drive, rather than thinking ‘I could actually have gone that way instead’”.

When we eventually find our way back to the gyratory, the newly marked (but not segregated) cycle lane enables us to move up the inside of stationary traffic. For Fabian, this is a clear improvement, making it less likely that his journey will be interrupted by congestion (though he notes how similar but longer-established cycle lanes he uses on his morning journey are frequently blocked by queuing vehicles – “I can’t get past them, although I do think about knocking on windows and pushing past”).

Fabian approves of good quality dedicated cycling infrastructure, seeing it as substantially enhancing his cycling journeys. But he wants it, and will only use it, on main roads enabling direct journeys; “I want a direct route, I want to get there and I want to get back safely.”

Arriving home, Fabian pushes his bike into his backyard, accessed via a passage directly from the front of the house. “I do need to get an outside light, it would make life a whole lot easier.” He locks it to a washing prop with a coil lock. “If they really wanted to nick it, they’d have to just lift it over the top.” He takes off his panniers, and enters his house by the backdoor.

Inside, he takes off his overshoes, cycling shoes, and over-trousers. He pulls wet gear from the morning’s commute out of his panniers and puts it straight into the washing machine. He keeps a dry set of clothes at work, but doesn’t shower there. “In the morning it’s all downhill; I have a shower when I get back from work, because I’m sweaty from cycling up those hills, and I’ve been a day at work.”

Fabian owns a car. So over a cup of tea, I ask why he doesn’t drive to work.

“Well traffic’s a nightmare, getting through town …  it takes as long to drive to work as it does to cycle and it can take longer to get back in the car because of the way traffic is. So it [cycling] is very practical.

“And before I’d had the accidents that set me off cycling I was doing a longer commute by bike, every day. It’s just better – whether it’s healthier or quicker or whatever, just a nicer way to travel, although I do like driving. [Laughing] I get a lot of enjoyment driving – just going through the city centre isn’t necessarily the nicest of things; I just want to get home.

“Parking’s a nightmare as well. If you get in after say twenty-five past eight you are hunting for a parking space. So you’ve got to be in before 8.15 really, to get a parking space in the car park. Then you’re on the side roads or the main road, and yet there’s hardly enough.”

Despite his setbacks, for Fabian the bike continues to make sense.

When we met in November he was hoping to keep riding through winter, but “I don’t know how icy it’s going to get in the winter. Anything that I can do to stop coming off again is a bonus.”

He has invested in cycling. He is committed to it. It makes sense. Still, “… I don’t know whether the next thing that happens is going to spook me again.”

Cycling struggles, 2

October 16, 2012

Here’s the second story from fieldwork conducted during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. It’s a story demonstrating the significance of – and need for – a cycling system, in which the different aspects of everyday life complicit in someone choosing to drive or cycle all point in the cycling direction. I’ll return to the importance of seeing cycling systematically in my overall analysis of these case studies, at the end of the series. But it’s also a story which, like Rick’s (story 1), underlines the significance of quality cycling infrastructure within such a cycling system. You’ll see again, below, the lengths people are prepared to go to compensate for the failures of current cycling provision.

I really appreciate the excellent comments made in the light of Rick’s story. It’d be great if we continue to deliberatively and collaboratively figure out what, collectively, these stories mean about cycling in contemporary Britain. I’m extremely happy to hear what you think, and what you think will inform what I think.

2. Nadia’s cycling story

Nadia is in her late twenties, married and with three small children. Her family lives in a comfortable home on a recently built housing estate, close both to the children’s school and child-minder, and to her husband Dom’s workplace. Most of the household’s journeys are made either on foot or by car. In bad weather, Nadia generally persists in making short trips with her children on foot; but Dom is more likely to bundle them into the car.

Dom doesn’t cycle much, “He does have a bike and he does have best intentions … he did say to me, because I’ve been doing it more, that he would like to start doing it more too … I just wonder whether he’s going to be more of a fair weather cyclist though.”

Nadia loves cycling. “I must admit I’ve really got into the cycling bit.” However, there’s only one journey which she regularly makes by bike – to work. She’s a cycle commuter. After she’s dropped off her children, the youngest with the child-minder, the others at school, I ride her commuter journey with her. It’s a journey of around seven miles.

Nadia always takes the same route. The first few miles are along a bypass connecting the village where she lives with the town where she works. It’s an open, exposed stretch of road, which carries a lot of high-sided lorries, and which has a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. Soon after the bypass ends, Nadia joins an off-road shared-use path, which takes her another two miles. Leaving this, she rides the final mile to the office where she works as a secretary via a mix of deliberately designed (by the planning authorities) and cobbled together (by her) links. She rides a Halfords’ Carrera bike. It has no mudguards.

Usually when I discuss with someone accompanying them on one of their cycling journeys, any arrangements tend to be dependent on the weather. But not with Nadia, who cycles whatever the weather. Despite snow, ice, and a couple of falls, she rode through the previous winter, and is fully intending to do the same again this year. “I hate going in the car. I think because by the time I drop the children off it gets to just after nine o’clock, and as soon as I get to Asda it [the traffic] is backed right up and it’s the frustration of being sat in traffic. So I much prefer just shooting in the whole way on the bike really.”

Things haven’t always been like this. In fact, Nadia is relatively new to cycling. Like Rick (story 1), Nadia’s cycling was instigated by traffic congestion.

“I started by accident actually. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to have gone on a bike. It just wouldn’t have been my first choice of transport at all. But a wagon went over in town, near the town centre, and I’d only just started work, because I’ve taken four years out you see with the children. So I’ve only been back at this job for a year. And this friend rang me and said ‘you’ve no chance of getting in this morning’. And I was meant to be meeting someone, to have an induction. So of course panic, panic, panic! I got the kids to school and I borrowed a bike, and it was a man’s bike, so it wasn’t ideal but it was the only way I could think of getting to work quickly.

“And after I did it, number one it struck me how unfit I was and I’d always thought I was fairly fit but I wasn’t at all. And just, actually, how easy it was and I’d built it up to be this really big hard difficult thing that no way I could do, but then when I actually did it I thought ‘hey, I can do this!’. So it built up gradually. I do it every day – four times a week, because I work Monday to Thursday. So I do it every day now, but for the first two months I’d come in the car a little bit, go on the bike a little bit, and I’ve built up to doing it all the time. I can’t bear going in the car now!

“If I have to go to another office, which is not often, if I have to go in the car, it’s awful. It’s just more hassle. And I can do it faster on the bike in the morning than I can in the car … it takes me fifteen minutes to do the bypass and fifteen minutes then along the cycle track, so half an hour. It’s got a lot shorter –   it used to take me nearer an hour at the beginning, so it has got a lot quicker.

“I had so many barriers I wouldn’t have considered it, you know.  But then when I was forced to do it, it was a different story. So it was just really challenging those barriers that you think are so big that there’s no way over and round and under them, but then actually, ‘no, you can do it’.”

It was a specific disruption to motoring-as-usual which got Nadia cycling. She’d also only recently started a new job, so had yet to entrench car driving as her habitual way of commuting. But encouragement to cycling was also provided by both her local authority and her new employer.

“I think the last time I rode a bike I was twelve! [The local council] did me a favour at the beginning you see. Because I was so clueless on cycling, and [the information and support provided by the council, and particularly a specific cycling officer] was basically how I got started – I didn’t know what equipment, what kind of bike, nothing. And so my confidence and my fitness levels were shot completely.”

Nadia regards her employer as supportive of cycling.

“They’re really trying to encourage cycling; obviously they’ve got a carbon footprint pledge they’ve got to try and work to, they’ve got targets.  And they’ve got terrible parking so obviously the more people you get out of the car park the better for them as well, but yeah, they’re a very good employer when it comes to cyclists … They just spent out on a proper cover for the bike racks – it’s more of a shelter. That’s a positive thing.”

“They’ve got changing facilities, showers, lockers.  I know they’re trying to get more lockers in place as well, because we’ve been short of those”.  She has a shower at the end of her outward journey, at work; she doesn’t think she’d cycle to work without that provision, as she wouldn’t want to sit feeling dirty all day.

“I think that makes all the difference. If I was going to have to sit and feel festering all day I think that would make a huge difference. I’ve often thought about that actually, because I think that is a valid reason to not want to cycle, because you can feel all horrible and not want to sit next to anybody all day. My job’s fairly solitary as well because I’m a secretary so I’m just sat with a computer most of the day, but still, I still like to have a shower when I get in, just so I feel better, you know, better able to face people when they do come in. So I do think that makes a big difference.  I wouldn’t be bothered if there were no lockers, I wouldn’t be bothered if there was no shelter, I’d always find somewhere to lock my bike up, but that [showers] is quite a big factor for me I think, yeah.”

Her employer also paid for Nadia to undergo cycle training. “That was fantastic.” Training is compulsory for anyone who wants to be able to use one of the two workplace pool bikes (one a standard bike, the other a folder); Nadia knew she’d be unlikely to use these, but registered her interest in order to access the free cycle training. “I thought it was too good a chance to pass up, to go on proper bike training. Then at least I knew I was keeping myself safe.”

Nadia’s relatively recent cycling conversion means that both she and the people around her are still getting used to her new status.

For Nadia herself, cycling to work has become a key part of her unfolding biography – “I love it … my confidence levels, my energy levels, they’re all much higher than they used to be.  And I say to a lot of people ‘I do my best thinking on a bike in a morning’. And I can de-stress. You know, from me running around with the kids in a morning, this is just completely selfish time for me. It’s something I’ve not really had before, you know, with having children so close together. It’s always been really busy.” For Nadia, her cycle commute is a time during which she can prioritise her own needs. As part of this she uses her ride to work as an opportunity for a work-out; “I mean I’m not a gym person.  I don’t have the staying power to go to a gym.”

Nadia’s children are proud of her cycling; and Nadia sees her story as demonstrating how, if they want to, they too can achieve things.

“They’re really proud of me in the playground, yeah they are. And that’s been really nice. I like to sort of show them that you can do anything, if you want to do something. You have to be really positive I think with them and just say ‘if you want to do that you can do it’. And they’ve not got to the stage where they’re embarrassed that mum stands there in bright yellow yet. I think that’s probably coming with [the eldest].”

Of course, not everyone is convinced:

“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?’ And I say, ‘it’s really positive, I feel a lot better for cycling and if you just gave it a go, just built it up slowly like I did … Well it’s either your thing or it’s not’, I say. But I think unless you try something, you don’t know, do you, if it’s your thing?”

Nadia’s husband Dom is proud but worried. “He likes the fact that I’ve found something that I enjoy and will support me no matter what. But he does have reservations over the safety of it.”

Dom’s reservations provide an intriguing and important detail in Nadia’s commuting story, one which I think strikes to the heart of UK cycling provision, or lack thereof.

“If it’s particularly windy, if it’s blowing onto the carriageway … he throws the bike on the bike rack and drops me off at [start of off-road cycling route, about half-way from home to work] … It’s a kind of compromise because he’s not very happy with me on the bypass, whereas I’m quite happy with it now, you know, I don’t worry half as much as I used to. But I think he’s always a little bit concerned about just how busy that road is.”

This doesn’t happen every day. As Nadia says, it depends on the wind, and also on her husband’s shift patterns. “It’s alright when the wind’s behind me. And I mean if Dom’s at work obviously I cycle no matter what.” But it applies equally to her return journey, from work to home, too:

“Because he doesn’t like me on the bypass, if he’s around – like he’s done his ‘early’, say it’s three o’clock or two o’clock – and I’ve finished work, he’d prefer to pick me up at [same point as outward journey] so that I don’t have to do the bypass bit. I don’t mind it [riding the bypass] now. But I think it’s a compromise.”

“It’s more Dom’s preference to be honest. He worries about the speed of the road. I think it’s generally for his peace of mind; then he knows at least he’s cutting down the amount of time I spend on the bypass.”

But you can see the ambivalence which Dom’s concerns produce in Nadia. On the one hand, “these last few mornings, when it’s been really gusting, I’ve been quite happy to put it [the bike] on the back of the car and get dropped at the end, you know?” On the other hand, “I do like the bypass because it’s so green round and about. When there are no cars around you, it’s very peaceful. It’s very solitary in a way.”

So let’s look at Nadia’s journey to work. We’ll start by getting on to the bypass.

To start with, the speed limit is 50 miles per hour. It goes up to 60 once the built-up area is left behind. There’s no specific provision for cycling.

“On the whole I find wagon drivers tend to be a lot better than car drivers on the bypass. They tend to be a bit more considerate – now whether that’s because of the higher seating position and seeing me a lot earlier.”

“It tends to be car drivers. In fact I wrote a letter in to the [local newspaper] which I’d not done before but it was just really because I was that shocked at how many people buzzed me on the way past and got that close that it was a bit nerve-racking.”

“On this road, car drivers and some wagon drivers seem to think this white line is a brick wall. And they can come as close to it as they like because it’s not going to affect you because you’re on the other side of it. They seem to have this feeling like, you know, you’re untouchable if you’re on this side of the line. And some people come so close you know. They’ve made me wobble enough to think ‘oh blimey!’ You know, I thought their wing mirror was going to hit me.”

Nadia is not alone in riding this road. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest settlements. It’s also the kind of road which cycling advocates can easily overlook – the carriageway is wide, so that cars and trucks overtaking cyclists can generally leave a big gap. It might be easy, therefore, to think ‘there’s no big problem here; let’s concentrate elsewhere’. But the speed of that overtaking traffic, together with its proximity, is a massive barrier to making cycling ordinary.

At one point riding along the bypass, a car blasts its horn at us. Nadia responds by telling me “That’s what you have to put up with, unfortunately. They don’t seem to like cyclists on this stretch.”

Nadia has some suggestions as to how things could be improved. She has raised these ideas recurrently with local council officers. “I’ve said ‘there’s a nice level verge on here, which is kerb sided. And I know a lot more people would feel happier, even if they could just sort of level out one side. I know it’s a huge budget commitment and that but, [given increased attention to cycling both nationally and locally] it’s never been a better time for something like this’. And I said, ‘even if it was cyclists just using the one side, you didn’t have to do both’.  I said ‘it would just give a much safer feel to the cycle in of a morning for a lot of people’.”

At the end of the bypass, Nadia ‘cobbles’ her way past two traffic islands, and onto some segregated provision which is shared with (few) pedestrians.

In order to turn right, she crosses the road before the roundabout. “I won’t go round the roundabout because people  have just come off a 50 limit, you take your life in your hands to go round that one.”

And then goes ‘the wrong way’ for a short stretch.

Half-way through her journey, Nadia reaches an off-road route which is dedicated to cycling and walking. “It’s just nice once you get off here. This is the most enjoyable part. Once I’m on the pavement and I’m away, I’m much happier.”

“I said [to the local council] ‘can you not do a park and cycle scheme from here?’ Because from my point of view, the bit from here is really easy, it’s the easiest part of my journey. And so I just think for a lot of people who maybe don’t have road confidence, or women cyclists who just don’t want to go on the road, or whatever, if they could park up here, pull the bike off or even loan a bike, then you know, you’re encouraging people to at least try it. And then it builds from there, hopefully.”

The last stretch of Nadia’s journey to work is quite ‘messy’, but by using various bits of (often very good) cycling infrastructure she manages to stay away from the busy town centre roads, and to wend her way through some back streets, across a car park and to her final destination.

Among other things, Nadia’s story shows how the ‘decision’ to cycle is never simply a personal one; it is embedded in webs of social relations, and significant others form part of the ‘decision-making’ apparatus. Less prosaically, I think Nadia’s story shows how it’s less that people don’t cycle because they’re scared, and more that people don’t cycle because they’re loved. And until cycling advocates get their heads around that, they’ll continue to be by turns puzzled by and patronising towards many people’s reluctance to go by bike.

Cycling struggles, 1

October 2, 2012

This is the first in a series of short case studies examining how different people do and don’t move around English cities by cycle. (With luck and a tailwind, I aim to do about ten between now and Christmas.) Like those which will follow, it comes from fieldwork I conducted as part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, which ran between 2008 and 2011.

People’s own words are always within speech marks and italicised. I’ll sometimes add words in […], [like this], in an attempt to clarify potentially unclear meaning. I have changed people’s names, and am not drawing direct attention to locations (partly in a bid to make it harder to identify people, and partly because I believe the issues I’m trying to raise are not specific to place, but are much more general – certainly across urban Britain, and I think further afield too).

Most of the data I’m using comes from either a sit-down interview (which usually took place in people’s own homes); or from conversations and observations undertaken before, during and after riding alongside (and/or behind) people making one of their usual journeys by bike.

1. Rick’s cycling story

Rick is in his forties. He lives with his wife and dog in a modest but comfortable terraced house about a mile out of the city centre. He and his wife have a car and a bike each. Rick works as a peripatetic care worker, moving between the homes of disabled clients, who – with his help – live independently. Although he uses a car for many of his other journeys, and walks extensively, Rick has recently switched from driving to cycling as his main way of getting around at work.

“For the last two months I’ve been going round by bike. I got sick to death of the traffic, absolutely sick to death, especially with the road works when they were doing them. It drove me crazy. I just got sick to death of it; you’re stuck in traffic and you can’t get round quick enough. And now it’s actually quicker.”

His decision to start cycling for work can be dated: “6th October I made the decision. Stuck in traffic for an hour. Gridlock. I was just angry and also, you can’t get to people; I’m going to see diabetics who need regular feeding, regular insulin and regular tablets; if you are late for them it’s dangerous.”

His employer has been “quite supportive”, allowing him to shift his workload towards a set of clients within an area small enough to be cycled. He carries stuff in a ruck-sack (he has considered, but decided against, at least for now, panniers).

A big problem is finding somewhere to park his bike outside clients’ homes – “it’s not a posh bike, it’s not worth a tenner, but that is a problem”. (At home he stores his bike in the backyard; his wife’s bike, stored in the cellar, “doesn’t get used very much at all.”)

Nonetheless, he does feel a certain stigma. “There is a down side to it though. People do think you are somehow poor – ‘you’ve not come in a car?’, ‘you’ve not driven?’ As though it’s a little bit weird … Certainly for some people in the office it’s a bit of an odd thing to do, to choose to do it, because you are also given a [car] mileage allowance.”

There’s no mileage allowance for cycling journeys; only those made by car. This allowance normalises car use amongst his colleagues, and renders his choice to cycle less ‘logical’. Perhaps strangely, Rick doesn’t mind not getting a cycling allowance: “Fair do’s I suppose; there’s no cost to it, it’s the bike that I actually had when I came [to this town] so it’s 15 years old. What’s a helmet and a few batteries?”.

Rick cycled more regularly in the past, but for ten years until recently he’d become an occasional leisure cyclist – he’d go on a ride, perhaps with his wife, on a sunny summer’s day. As he says, it was local traffic congestion which got him more regularly back in the saddle, but he’s also aware that cycling is saving him money and could help combat growing middle-aged spread:

“I have felt a lot better, an awful lot better this last couple of months … I actually feel a lot healthier, I’ve lost 6 pounds which is bound to go on over Christmas, but it’s best to lose it then put it on again, rather than have it on all the time; I’ve felt a lot younger actually strangely enough and I’ve had a warm self-satisfied ‘I’m doing my bit’ glow to myself. So it’s worked quite well”.

He enjoys cycling “big time, but I’m not evangelical about it.”

The weather hadn’t put him off thus far. He started cycling regularly in October, which “was nice wasn’t it? … I got into it. And then the rain came in November. I thought ‘oh well, I’m hard, I used to be hard, it didn’t used to bother me. Just do it’.”

Talking to Rick about how he connects his clients’ homes by bike, I’m struck by how skilled is his route planning; “Well I walk the dog so I use the same routes as for walking, walking the dog”.

A new walking and cycling link through the hospital and over the canal is “a boon to me, because you can go from here to [another area] without going on the main road … and it’s flat and it’s safe and it’s doable for me.”

Rick’s figured out how best to keep off the main roads. He knows all the quietest routes; he utilises bridleways (“mud’s nothing to me”). Some of his methods are ingenious; “When I’m around [particular suburb], instead of using the main road there are lots of alley ways; although they are cobbled it keeps you off the road and that’s the one thing I am really worried about.”

But of course, Rick’s routes aren’t always coherent; they can’t always get him where he needs to go. So, what happens then?

“I don’t like going on the road, particularly [name of road, very close to his home], which I find the most dangerous, frightening experience, especially the pinch points round by the post office and the fish shop because you get the traffic there, the narrow lanes, you get parking either side, you get the wagons [trucks] which have been sent through town.”

“The buses and wagons thunder past, and the number of times I’ve had to pull in off the road on to the pavement because they don’t seem to give a monkey’s.”

So Rick avoids riding on these bigger local roads. But he’s not a pavement cyclist. When he’s forced onto the pavement, he dismounts and pushes his bike.

He also pushes his bike up the sharper short hills in the district – “you do use the gradient; it works”.

Rick avoids this traffic island (photo below) too (although since talking to him, it has undergone changes in an effort to make it more legible and welcoming to cyclists unwilling to negotiate it by road); “I’ve had a couple of run-ins there … I’m frightened in that respect.”

His basic position is clear, and something he reiterates at various points during our conversation: “I don’t feel safe. Cars and bikes don’t always mix. Particularly, it’s the big wagons and the big buses. I don’t want to get killed or knocked off”. At his age, he says,you do think about it, you don’t have the same blasé attitude to it.”

But still, he rides …

There’s a deep – and I think very revealing – irony to Rick’s story. The ‘final straw’ which got him cycling was road-works at a key local junction, which for a while caused serious congestion, and made it difficult for him to make his usual journeys by car. These road-works were aimed at re-designing the junction in cycle-friendly ways. The works represented a big and high-profile investment in cycling.

Yet Rick still won’t cycle through this junction.

“This sounds quite cowardly but at [name of junction] I’ll get off my bike and walk it through because I don’t like going through that amount of traffic. I’d much rather stay off the road and away from the vehicular traffic.”

Have the recent changes not improved things?

“I don’t see any difference at all. I really don’t, because having the red bits at traffic lights in front of cars, I don’t feel confident enough and I don’t think many people do, to go out in there. You want to be at the side, cyclists generally tend to do that. It seems they’ve spent an awful lot of money and there’s been absolutely no improvement for anybody. I’d rather go under the canal or get off and walk there.

Rick gets off and walks his bicycle across other junctions, such as the one below, which has also been rendered ‘cycle-friendly’. (You can see that Rick is not alone in taking to the pavement here, though some riders don’t dismount.)

What would Rick like to see?

“Proper cycle paths – separate or on the quiet roads. There are little bits of red and it’s no good having them, because as soon as you come to the difficult points and the pinch points where the cars are parked, you have to go out … these little stop, start ones – stop, start, stop, start.”

“Separate cycle tracks, they’re the big thing, because you feel a lot more safe.”