Archive for the ‘CYCLING THINKING’ Category

Indoor Cycling

March 28, 2013

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

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

Going nowhere?

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

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

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

Tuning out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling around Lisbon

March 15, 2013

In traffic

I was working in Portugal last week. Initially I was reluctant to go so far for what was essentially a one-day workshop. But when João Bernardino, who’d invited me, offered use of a bike whilst I was there, and said Lisbon’s community of cycling activists would like to meet me, it became more attractive. It was a fantastic experience, the hospitality of everyone I met truly exceptional.

Ana Pereira greeted me at the airport. Ana is one of the founders of Cenas a Pedal – not ‘just’ a bike store or workshop, but a more total project striving to sell everyday cycling in a place where such cycling is still rare. It’s the sort of pioneering place every city needs, and which will multiply and prosper as cycling’s popularity grows.

Ana, on the way to the ferry

Ana rode a pedelec –the sort of bike perhaps most likely to democratise cycling in a hilly, low-cycling city such as Lisbon. She guided me out of the airport and along some big and busy roads to the city’s 1998 Expo site, and from there into a fierce wind along the Tagus River to the ferry at Cais do Sodré where we met João.

Joao

A true gentleman, João rode his wife Filipa’s bike and gave me his own. From Cacilhas on the Tagus’s other side we rode south towards the remote monastery where the workshop was to take place. The roads were full of cars; the dedicated cycling infrastructure was sometimes good, but too discontinuous to be really useful.

Joao en route to the monastery

Punctured!

The Arrábida Monastery sits high above the Atlantic Ocean on the wooded slopes of the Arrábida Natural Park to the south of Lisbon. It’s a stunning place which feels a world away from the capital.

Arrabida Monastery

With a free day before the workshop’s opening dinner, I rode east along the coast to the port city of Setúbal. I set out in thick fog but the road was quiet, it was a lovely ride, and the air cleared as I dropped towards the sea. It was the first time since October I’ve ridden without gloves, and the warmth made me impatient for spring – alas my first ride back home saw me battling through a blizzard!

Above the beach

Setubal cafe

The workshop was part of a European project investigating the long-term future of transport. We were discussing and developing scenarios based on the ‘mega-trends’ considered likely to shape people’s mobile lives over the next half century. One ‘expert’ amongst others from different fields and around the world, I felt like ‘the cycling guy’. It’s important cycling’s represented in such spaces if it’s to have hope of moving from the margins, so it was good to be there and I was happy to play that role.

But the highlight of my trip was Friday night; the workshop over, I shed my suit and had some fun! From my hotel Hercules, Ana Santos, João and I rode to Cenas a Pedal where we met more people and rode together – “a mini-Critical Mass!”, as Ana from Cenas a Pedal described it – to the book store, Ler Devagar, where I was to speak. This is a vast anarcho-dream of a place – evidence of its former life as a printworks is everywhere, bicycles dangle from above, books are of course piled high, and then there’s beer, wine, coffee, music, and lots of signs of the space’s centrality to alternative social and political networks; to me it felt like heaven!

Hercules, Ana and me in Lisbon

Talking in Lisbon

Ana Pereira began the evening’s conversation by explaining the work of MUBi, the Portuguese association for urban cycling. MUBi advocates urban cycling as an ordinary means of moving around. Car ownership and use have exploded across Portugal over the last generation, and whilst it’s on the up, levels of utility cycling remain very low. Mário Alves of MUBi told me that the proportion of commuter trips made by cycle in the city is currently 0.6%. There’s some dedicated cycling infrastructure and some of it’s pretty good, but it’s woefully disjointed and there’s too little actual cycling for that dedicated space to be consistently recognised and respected by pedestrians. On the roads cars dominate, and whilst I was impressed by the patience of drivers, it felt a harsh and unforgiving cycling environment. Like so many other places, to ride here you’d have to be either committed or desperate.

Lisbon intersection

Lisbon cycle path

Committed cycling

This is the context in which MUBi is working, and – with minimal resources – doing an extremely impressive job. But besides MUBi’s various projects aimed at promoting cycling, MUBi campaigners themselves – some of whom I met on Friday night – are crucial to the struggle for cycling. Passionate about the bicycle and clearly recognising the difference more cycling would make, they are cycling’s keepers, continuing to shine a light through the darkest days of automobility, actors of the greatest importance to future life.

This bears on one topic of my talk at Ler Devagar. We need strong sub-cultures of cycling to sustain our favourite practice through the darkest times (though from a sub-cultural perspective these can also of course be the best of times too). And as cycling’s staunchest advocates we’re the ones who are best placed to speak and work for more cycling. From what I saw MUBi is clearly doing a magnificent job on both these counts.

But there may come a time – and probably Lisbon is a long way from it, and in the UK we are closer – when activists would do well to examine their strategies for popularising cycling, and ask whether those strategies result from the identities they’ve developed in order to sustain cycling through bleak times, and whether they might at some point come to stand in the way of –rather than facilitate – making cycling a more normal practice in which identity is a less central factor. As I say, I think cycling’s current marginality in Lisbon society makes such questions remote. And MUBi is well equipped to deal with them when the time comes. I know some people disagreed with what I said at Ler Devagar, but their willingness to hear, and to respond so constructively and respectfully sent shivers up my spine. Wherever I go, I’m struck by how cycling’s in such safe hands.

I’m a lucky man to be made welcome in strange places. In particular I have to thank João Bernardino for inviting me to Portugal in the first place, and also Ana Pereira, Ana Santos and Mário Alves for their extraordinary hospitality whilst I was there. Ana Santos and Mário are organising this year’s International Cycling History Conference. It was an honour to share their company for the evening, and to get a taste of Portugese social life. Such community is our strength, and power.

At the airport

Hey! I returned home to the clearest news yet of the urgently needed paradigm shift away from the car and towards the bicycle as an urban mode of transport. As an unrepentantly critical sociologist I’ll always find problems, but the promised changes to London over the coming decade are good news indeed (and reassurance to many of us that perhaps we’ve not been so idealistically deluded after all!). As my new friends in Lisbon might say, “Viva a velorution!”

Bicycle Bridge

February 12, 2013

Millennium Bridge

The struggle to make this thing happen, the fights fought, the controversies generated, are gone. In their place, testament to powerful visions and hard work, is a beautiful bridge, almost completely taken-for-granted by those who use it, its beauty unappreciated for the best reason – eclipsed by its practical value. It has radically improved the quality of many people’s journeys; and it has imperceptibly but surely created many more, including those of my family and me.

Sue crossing the Millennium Bridge

It’s called the Millennium Bridge, although it didn’t open for use until February 2001.

The Millennium Bridge

How did it happen? Who was responsible? Perhaps in its early days those whose lives were changed by it asked such questions, but no more; our local cycling and walking bridge has slipped gracefully into the landscape, becoming part of our ordinary travelling environment, forming the backdrop to our lives. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary.

Millennium Bridge Signpost

Twelve years since its opening I can scarcely imagine the difficulties once involved in crossing the Lune by bike. If you were strong and fearless you could carry your bike up and down concrete staircases and along the quiet, high, hemmed-in corridor running beside the west coast mainline.

Railway bridge

Or else you could use one of two road bridges: both carry large volumes of motorised traffic including many HGVs and buses; both are multi-lane and one-way. Going against the flow forced you onto the pavement with equally beleaguered pedestrians. Even travelling in the same direction as the motorised traffic most cyclists would retreat to the pavement (and you can see from the photo below, still do). A few rode on the road; at rush hour this involved making your way through fuming drivers stuck in slow-moving nose-to-tail traffic, at other times it entailed trying to hold a pace and space sufficient to prevent getting swallowed and squeezed.

Road bridge (northbound)

Pavement cycling

That’s like a bad dream now. We often cycle across the Lune; a couple of days ago the four of us rode to Salt Ayre Sports Centre for table tennis, and yesterday Bobby, Sue and I went across to do some training around the cycle track. Such trips are easy, obvious, convenient. We don’t even think about how hard they would once have been. But when Sue and I first moved to Lancaster seventeen years ago cycling across the river was awkward and difficult even as committed, experienced cyclists without children.

A new normal has been created for us here. We need to create a new normal for everyone everywhere.

Bike on the bridge

Cyclist on the bridge

Riding across the bridge

Last week I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into how we get Britain cycling. This process must lead to strengthened political commitment for cycling. The need for such commitment is obvious but not inevitable – we must keep pushing to make it happen. Getting Britain cycling requires bold vision and lots of money (not new money, merely money taken from elsewhere). We need to make cycling normal, and making cycling normal requires the sort of change the Millennium Bridge brought to some people’s patterns of mobility everywhere, for everyone.

Parliament

It’s crude but also obvious: let’s say 2% of transport spending for cycling will keep cycling at 2% of all journeys. Is that what we want? Are we satisfied with continuing to reproduce cycling as a marginal mode of mobility – something few will do and most won’t contemplate? The Inquiry’s title, ‘Getting Britain Cycling’ sounds more ambitious than that to me; so how about, for starters, talking about 20% of all journeys by bike, and us as cycling’s advocates learning to demand 20% of total transport spending to match?

Would we cycle across the River Lune were our bridge not there? As a family I doubt it. Riding together requires the sort of conditions which remain almost completely absent here, as elsewhere in urban Britain. The need to re-design our cities for group cycling was part of the written evidence I submitted to Wednesday’s Inquiry, and which Peter Walker published in that day’s Guardian. But it’s a sign of how far we’ve still to go that demanding facilities conducive to group cycling is probably seen by some as unreasonable or greedy; this despite our cities suffering so much under the volume and speed of so many cars, most of which have enough seats to embed car-based sociality as a principle and a right (even if most of those seats are usually empty). We’ll have made solid progress towards cycle-friendly cities when the idea that a group of four people should be able to cycle comfortably together is seen as more legitimate than the idea of those people travelling together by car.

Dusk falls over the bridge

The Millennium Bridge gives a tantalising glimpse of this cycle-friendly future; indeed it enables a family riding together to embody, perform and so start to reproduce it. But as we found time and again on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, because they inhabit a car-centric world most people (often far from voluntarily) continue to embody, perform and reproduce a car-centric perspective; this despite the benefits of cycling being increasingly recognised by both themselves and the politicians and policy-makers seeking to govern them.

This is what we want

Our bicycle bridge offers a vantage point onto a fresh perspective. It helps us appreciate how atrocious and intolerable were conditions for cycling. How did we put up with them for so long? Why did we put up with them for so long?

Those dreadful conditions have just here become redundant, but they persist and prevail elsewhere.

To talk of ‘getting Britain cycling’ against such a backdrop is simply deluded. Looking back on the River Lune, it’s obvious that what’s happened here must happen everywhere. We need the equivalent of our bicycle bridge for everyone.

If we demand the impossible it’s just possible that a generation from now we’ll look back on cycling today and wonder how on earth we managed … And we’ll look around and smile at the sight of Britain cycling.

When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

September 25, 2012

I was in Bristol to take part in the City Council’s Inquiry into Cycling Safety last week. I’d been asked to give evidence from the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, into the question “what can the Council and its partners do to improve safety for cyclists in the city?” It’s great these kinds of question are now being asked in Britain’s city halls, and a privilege to be part of the process – we just need to work together to make sure they translate into bold and concrete actions which make cycling simultaneously bigger and safer.

It was great, too, to see so many people riding in Bristol. The parts of the city centre I rode felt relatively hospitable to cycling, and hugely better than here up north in Lancaster. I’d say that Bristol has done relatively well in re-making its central spaces away from cars and towards people. The section of dedicated cycling space in the photo above is directly outside the City Council’s offices on College Green where the Inquiry took place; I was told that this lovely green space was partially reclaimed from motorised traffic in the 1990s. I suspect – as is the case with most big cities which have enjoyed recent gains in cycling – the major challenges now lie elsewhere, further out from the city centre.

And out there be hills! Bristol is unquestionably a hilly city. Mmmm … I admit to feeling slightly awkward when hills are raised as a potential problem to creating a culture of cycling as ordinary. The discussion typically goes as it did at the Inquiry into Cycling Safety in Bristol: Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, gave a splendid overview of best-practice cycle provision, based mainly on the Netherlands. (It was wonderful to see the work which Jim and others have done – to promote a paradigm shift in thinking about British cycling – recognised by Bristol City Council. Like mine, I take his invitation to Bristol’s Council House as welcome – if tentative – evidence of a ‘turning-point’ in UK cycling policy, planning and provision.) Then came the typical question – ‘isn’t it the case that the Netherlands has a huge advantage, when it comes to getting people cycling, that it’s pan flat?’

Forget the superb provision for cycling – making it the easiest, most convenient and obvious way of moving around Dutch towns and cities – which Jim’s presentation had just evidenced; when it comes down to it, this line of thinking asks, isn’t the difference between a country with high levels of cycling and one without down to topography?

My awkwardness here reminds me of the awkwardness I feel when discussing whether or not cycling’s safe, whether or not people are inherently lazy (and so unlikely to get on bicycles), or whether segregation or integration is the way ahead for UK cycling. It’s an awkwardness based on awareness that both ‘sides’ have a point, but both are sometimes ill-prepared to hear the others’ (put philosophically, we forget to look for a synthesis of the thesis and its antithesis; put psychologically, we’re better at denial and repudiation than exploration and understanding).

As Jim did, I might point out that rates of cycling can be high in hilly places, such as Swiss cities; I might point out that the winds which often blow across the Netherlands are as hard to push against as many hills; I might (following Professor John Parkin) take the ‘engineer’s line’ that hills can usually be mitigated through sensitive planning of cycle routes (reducing gradient by increasing length, basically) or even (as in Trondheim, Norway) through ‘bike-lifts’; or they can be dealt with at the point-of-purchase through electric bikes; or I might suggest that much of Britain is flat (even most of the routes in a supposedly ‘hilly city’ such as my home town of Lancaster are actually surprisingly flat), and even if rates of cycling tend to be a bit higher across the flatter (and drier) eastern side of Britain, they remain far below typical Dutch rates of cycling.

In other words, we can and do make the case that we can successfully override topography through infrastructurally and/or culturally providing for cycling in ways likely to make it normal. But how persuasive is our case? And anyway, my awkwardness remains, a little niggling, nagging uneasiness. For reasons I find hard to identify, I still somehow feel I haven’t successfully answered the question. Perhaps, however well we answer the question, it’s hard (and even perhaps unwise) to evade a fundamental truth? Because we all know, don’t we, that it’s easier to cycle on the flat than in hills? (In much the same way, we all know, don’t we, that it’s actually more pleasurable to cycle in the absence than the presence of motorised traffic?) It may be less exciting, less fun and less interesting to cycle up hills than on the flat, but it’s certainly (all else being equal) easier.

This makes me think I should change tack, when asked such questions in future. First-of-all, up-front, fair-and-square, agree that ‘yes, it’s easier to cycle when it’s flat, and this almost certainly helps to explain why – when it comes to the ‘rich world’ – the Dutch and Danes are most likely to cycle’.

But then second, to insist that:

  1. places are often flatter than realised;
  2. that people often cycle even in hilly places;
  3. our task nonetheless remains – for all the very good reasons which we already know – to get many more people cycling in all places, including hilly ones; and
  4. what we mean by ‘cycling’ isn’t fixed, but can and will change.

When we spoke to people about cycling during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, perhaps surprisingly, they expressed concerns about hills (and wet weather) much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. (And looking through the evidence it presented to Bristol City Council, I note that Bristol Cycling Campaign found a similar story when it surveyed rail commuters at the city’s Temple Quay station; over 70% of them identified ‘stressful cycling conditions’ as a reason for not cycling; far above hills and weather.)

People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention topography (especially any steep local hills they knew of) and weather (especially rain), as reasons why they’d be unlikely to do so. But our overall impression was that hills (and weather) are far from being the most important reason why people don’t cycle. In Lancaster, perhaps the hilliest (and wettest) of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. Topography and weather might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but the effect of these fixed factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control. That said, I do think that seeing motorised traffic as being more of a barrier to cycling than hills is a function of the cycling which most people currently do. Either they ride exclusively for leisure, in which case they find terrain (and weather conditions) to suit – that usually means flatter ground, alongside rivers, canals and coastlines, or along disused railways. Or else they are relatively ‘serious’ cyclists, for whom hills (and wet weather) aren’t really an issue – they’ve long since equipped themselves with the equipment (range of gears, waterproof clothing) and physical and mental competences to cope.

But in a place which is closer to building a culture of cycling as ordinary, such as Bristol, hills become more of an issue. These places are producing a new kind of cyclist – someone who doesn’t belong either to the ‘hardcore’ and ‘committed’ minority or to the much more sizeable ‘cycling only sociably on summer, sunny Sundays’ contingent. Bristol dubs itself ‘Britain’s first cycling city’. Partly funded by the now defunct Cycling England, it has in recent years enjoyed substantial support for cycling. There are far more cyclists on its streets than I’m used to seeing at home. I believe the current level of cycling is around 8% of all journeys; the target is 20% of all journeys by bike by 2025. That will require cycling to become ‘ordinary’, and given its topography, that will require cycling uphill to become ‘ordinary’.

So how do people – including those who aren’t necessarily super-fit, who aren’t necessarily riding high-quality machines with a good range of gears, and who aren’t necessarily inclined to get sweaty – move around a hilly town successfully by bike?

Exploring the city once my work was done, I saw a pub with big plate glass windows at the top of Park Street – exactly the kind of place I like! I got a table in the window and spent a happy couple of hours watching people outside. I was struck by the numbers of people walking their bikes up Park Street, away from the city centre and towards the University.

Please excuse and indulge my naivety here, because I’ll admit to not having noticed so many people pushing their bicycles uphill in an urban environment before. I’m used to the idea of people sometimes pushing their machines up hills when cycle-touring, and occasionally here in Lancaster I’ll see someone get off to push, usually as they head over the canal into the city’s hilly eastern suburbs, or as they approach Lancaster University, which sits on higher ground to the city’s south. But, perhaps because I’ve never really stopped to notice (and stopping to notice is an important strategy when exploring and understanding urban cycling) I’ve never before seen so many people dismount to push their bikes up the same hill.

However, I think this is less about the hill than it is about the place; the main issue to do with ‘ordinary cycling’ and its approach. In Lancaster we’ve not reached ‘ordinary cycling’; people ride mainly for leisure and tend to avoid hills (and – as much as possible – roads), or else they belong to the ‘hardcore’ minority who (almost unthinkingly?) pedal up the hills. Bristol, in contrast, is building a culture of ‘ordinary cycling’. This ordinary cycling will meet hills, and I’m interested to know what happens when it does. The ‘established’ cultures of ordinary cycling developed by the Dutch and Danes haven’t had to tackle this. We can follow them in providing for cycling in most other respects, but not necessarily when the road rises. We’re entering another dimension …

So next morning I abandoned my plans for a long ride around Bristol and set off to the foot of Park Street instead. The road rises from the docks and heads out of the city towards Bristol University. As it runs adjacent to College Green and the Council House, there’s a dedicated cycle lane. A bit further, and this gives out, near the bottom of the hill.

It’s (deliberately?) ambiguous, what you do here. Riding alone, I would take to the road. Riding with my kids, I’d stick to the (shared space?) pavement (or sidewalk). But as you continue up Park Street, it’s increasingly obvious that cycling’s ‘proper place’ is on the road. And though the pavement remains wide, most people I saw were indeed cycling on the road.

I imagine that it’s about now that you clearly feel you’re on a climb. The gradient ratchets up a notch, you can see the road stretching ahead of you, and you know you’re in for a work-out.

A bit further along, the pavement narrows again, and it’s become obvious by now that cycling should be on the road. As the gradient kicks in, hitting (I’m guessing) around 10%, people respond in different ways.

Some rise out the saddle, but on the whole I was surprised by how many people don’t. There is obviously more stuff to say about types of bikes and ranges of gears here, but I’m not going to (I’ve rambled on enough already) … I will note, though, that I saw a few guys (only guys, and two of them were I think messengers) riding fixed-gear up Park Street (no photos, I’m afraid), but none riding down – did I miss them, or do they descend via a different route?

Researching this piece, I find there’s been a hill climb on this section of road in the last couple of years, though one which doesn’t take place at the traditional ‘roadies’ hill climb time of year, which is autumn, but in February. Riders use different kinds of machine to tackle a 250 metre stretch of the hill – it looks an ace evening’s entertainment!

I’m sorry to generalise in such ugly sociological fashion, but my guess is that different ‘types of people’ ride the hill at different times of day. The previous evening, sat in the pub at the top, more people seemed to be pushing their bikes, and looked to be returning home from work. In the morning, I’d guess many riders to be students and/or lecturers, and a higher proportion of them – in fact, the majority – rode. Indeed, most people seemed to be riding up quite comfortably.

A few people rode Bromptons. Unsurprisingly, given they don’t have the same range of gears as more ‘standard’ bikes, most of their riders were pushing rather than pedalling, though here’s an exception …

The line of riders going up was fairly continuous. Some rode faster, some slower.

The photo below gives a sense of the climb’s length. Certainly, it’s not a climb you can bludgeon your way over – it lasts long enough that you must decide how you’re going to engage with it, the attitude you’re going to take. You can see there’s no specific provision for cycling; the carriageway is sufficiently wide, and cycling speeds sufficiently low, that this didn’t seem to cause any problems. (I’d expect inter-modal conflict to be more common, and more a problem, going down.)

But it would be surprising if everyone rode up this hill, and of course they don’t. A lot of people get off and push. I saw some people do this almost from the foot of the hill, but more often people rode until the hill ramped up, and dismounted there, at the steepest section.

Following people as they pushed their bicycles up the hill, it struck me that here is a simple, rational and straightforward way of tackling ‘the problem’ of hills. The people I saw didn’t look tired, stressed or embarrassed by their ‘decision’ to dismount; they walked uphill with their bikes in a composed way, as if it was entirely normal, which of course it is. So perhaps their strategy doesn’t recognise ‘a problem’ at all? Pushing is something you simply do when you don’t want to ride. (There are questions arising from this preliminary observational work which could only be tackled through stopping to talk with people – how do they experience the act of stopping pedalling and starting to push?)

The one pre-requisite, you’ll perhaps notice, for this pushing strategy to work is a broad pavement (or sidewalk), which Park Street has.

These people demonstrate how hills aren’t a barrier to cycling; they’re only a barrier to a particular, and rather fixed, conception of cycling. ‘Ordinary cycling’ can adapt to hills in different ways, and perhaps in the process challenge and change our understandings of what it means to move around cities by cycle.

To see people dismount to push their machines through junctions or along stretches of road which have effectively ‘designed-out’ cycling is one thing; it is to see evidence of active discrimination against cycling on the part of politicians, transport planners and engineers. I have talked to many people who push rather than ride their machines through difficult junctions and along busy roads, and they do so because they are terrified by the thought of pedalling through those hostile conditions. But this doesn’t mean that any time people are ‘forced’ to dismount there’s a problem. And to see people dismount in order to negotiate a hill which they consider too steep to ride is a different matter. People push their machines for many reasons: to accompany friends on foot; to negotiate pedestrian-dominated space; to browse from shop-to-shop along a high street. The bicycle’s size and easy manoeuvrability gives its user a flexibility unavailable to people travelling by car.

We should I think then celebrate, rather than unduly concern ourselves with, the fact that here is a machine which – if ever the ground rises too sharply and the going gets too tough for our liking – can be pushed as well as pedalled. Where we should concern ourselves is first, with ensuring pavements are sufficiently wide to accommodate not only pedestrians but also those who choose to dismount, and second, with ensuring an openness and tolerance towards different styles of cycling sufficient to ensure no-one feels maligned and marginalised.

As ‘ordinary cycling’ grows the visibility of the current ‘hardcore’ who tend to ride hills come-what-may will steadily diminish. Their (our) way of cycling will gradually become just one possible way of cycling. And that’s good. We want cycling to be ‘ordinary’ (easy, convenient and obvious) not only in flat places, but in hilly places too. And that is perfectly possible. There’s no ‘failure’ in walking a bike up a hill; only ‘success’ in another person making another journey by/with bicycle.

My happy morning of sociological fieldwork took a turn for the even better whilst I mooched around near the top of Park Street, where who should I bump into? The most straightforward – and I think perhaps the best – sociologist I’ve ever known, Dr Ben Fincham, also on a short visit to the city and caught here in the act of parking his bike. Ben’s doctoral work comprised a fascinating (almost ruthlessly unromantic) ethnography of bicycle messengers, and he is one of the founders of the Cycling and Society Research Group. Whenever we talk – which is alas too little – I am always bowled over by his ability to cut through stultifying academic convention and speak honestly but still sociologically from the heart. It was fantastic to so unexpectedly bump into him, and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in his company.

Back on Park Street, I had a train to catch, and headed down to the city centre. Yet of course, I’ve told only half the story, the uphill half (and only a small part of that, based as it is solely on observation. Any Bristol-based sociology or cultural geography students out there, looking for a research project?). I watched riders fly down Park Street at 30 mph or more. A couple of times I flinched. With motorised traffic, including HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) and buses, many parked cars and a fair few side streets, this is an ‘interesting’ environment to be riding so fast, and the other side of the ‘hilly coin’. For starters I’d suggest hilly cities are not only more demanding of people’s physical capacities going up, but also of their psychological capacities going down. But how ‘ordinary cycling’ might adapt to them, and they to it, are questions for another day (unless there are people out there (and I’m sure there are) who can already tell us something about ‘ordinary’ downhill riding in hilly cities?).

Finally, apologies for the blurriness of my photos – I’m technically inept and, Sue tells me, had the camera set up for portraits. Whoops!

Where do the children ride?

September 3, 2012

This is Flo. She’s my daughter. She’s nine years old. I think and I hope she’s learning to love cycling. The question I ask in this post, in my convoluted way, is what are the prospects of her becoming, over the next few years, an ‘ordinary’, ‘regular’ cyclist – a young woman who uses a bicycle in order to stitch the different aspects of her everyday life together?

We’re just back from a three-week cycle-camping trip to Bavaria. It was Flo’s first cycling holiday riding her own bike. Two years ago we made this same transition with Bobby, who’s now 11, by heading to south-west France. He took to solo riding brilliantly, and he continues to be on the whole enthusiastic, if not fanatical, about cycling. But Flo is a less keen cyclist; this year she has done the occasional race, and if we’re going for a cycling day out she will come along (and enjoy herself), but on the whole I get the sense that she rides only because the rest of us ride, and because – as part of a family without a car – she sometimes simply has to, if we’re to get where we want to go.

In other words, cycling for Flo is normal, but it’s not actually desirable. She has yet – I think – to discover her own love for cycling. I know there’s no guarantee she ever will. If she doesn’t that is of course fine – she’ll find her own ways to live. But in the short and medium-terms, as she is part of a family which lives without a car yet thrives outdoors, it feels important that we continue to try to cultivate her ability and desire to cycle.

Encouraging Flo’s cycling feels more of a challenge than does Bobby’s. Why? I guess partly we’re a gendered family. I’m (a bit) more passionate about cycling than Sue; I get out on my bike more; and most of the cycle-sport we follow (and so talk about) is male. Nurturing a love for cycling in Flo is also perhaps more difficult because we’re part of a gendered world – we tend to follow male cycle-sport because it dominates the cycling calendar, it’s what gets shown on TV, and it’s what gets reported in the press. (I’m perhaps privileging this concern with sporting role-models in  children’s imaginations and interests because we’ve returned home from Germany to find a nation – including many of our own friends – obviously still in the grip of (albeit now gradually eroding) Olympic, and especially cycling, fever; although in terms of gender politics the Olympics fares much, much better than does the rest of cycle sport.)

However, I think the main difference between Bobby and Flo, though still heavily cultural (and so heavily gendered), is more embodied. Basically, and maybe this has only happened over the past couple of years and Flo is set to follow, Bobby has learnt to be comfortable with – and perhaps even sometimes started to thrive on – bodily discomfort, and I think this ability is indispensable to becoming happily and sustainably active.

(Broadening my argument, I’d suggest that the embodiment of such a disposition is necessary in order to build active lifestyles more generally, and so too a culture of mass, everyday cycling; if an activity requires some degree of physical effort, for it to become normal the physical effort it requires must also become normal. It was interesting in Bavaria, how many of the (mainly older) recreational cyclists we saw would get off and push their machines up even the slightest inclines – I may be wrong, but my impression is that Bavaria has successfully built a (lucrative) culture of recreational cycling, in which many older people participate, but if those people are ever in a hurry, they surely jump off their bikes, straight into cars (BMWs, Audis or Volkswagens).)

The Olympics show us women and men pushing bodily discomfort beyond the limit, and perhaps – being so visible and so emotionally moving – that is an important and lasting legacy. Watching people exceed themselves is tremendously inspiring, and perhaps the kind of thing able to prod generally inactive people into sporting action. (Some people will note that utility cycling is precisely not a sport – nevertheless, it’s surely true that for people to start cycling they must to some degree become comfortable with using their bodies, in public; and that to do so they will need to overcome not just political, social and cultural resistance, but also overcome bodily sensations resulting from physical resistance too.)

Before our time in Bavaria, Flo didn’t seem comfortable with the uncomfortable bodily sensations which arise from hard physical effort. I don’t want to succumb to lazy stereotypes of ‘how boys and girls are’, but it does sometimes seem that she gets too much cultural (and gendered) support to maintain this ‘comfortable’ position – particularly from a culture of ‘young girl-ness’ which seems to be threatened rather than validated by sport. Flo and her girl friends prefer to play (remarkably imaginatively and cooperatively) indoors more than out, and tend not to challenge one another to take physical risks in the way that Bobby and his boy friends seem to do (and they’ve both moved much more firmly into gendered social worlds over the last couple of years). And she gets insufficient support to be otherwise – whilst we encourage her to be active, and we have wonderful local cycling and athletics clubs to help, there are strong counter pressures encouraging sedentary inhabitation of the private sphere.

So planning a cycling holiday which depended on Flo’s ability and desire to ride – and to keep riding – her own bike was a gamble. But I’m glad to say it’s one which paid off – Flo thrived on cycling in Germany.

Over the three weeks, she amazed me with her tenacity, endurance and skill. She sped across loose gravel surfaces over which in the past she’d have ridden with trepidation. Often coaxed by her older brother, she dug into and excelled on hills which I’d have thought might make her cry, and she looked thrilled with herself when she reached their summits. And often she and Bobby forced the pace, leaving Sue and I struggling behind – laden donkeys on the racecourse.

What Flo made me realise is that if only we could take away the factors which constrain our children’s desires and abilities to cycle, they’d be able to attain a freedom, independence and grace we can nowadays scarcely even begin to imagine.

Rid of the barriers which operate back at home, Flo was free to fly. These barriers include ‘typical’ ‘girls’ activities’, and TV (or in our case – as we don’t have a  TV – the probably slightly less invasive iPlayer) and computer games. They include a socialized aversion to the bodily discomfort which physical exercise produces.

But we all know, don’t we, the overwhelmingly significant (I’d be tempted to call it the ‘determining barrier’, were that not likely to see me regarded as a bit too crude and somehow ‘unreconstructed’) barrier? Although key players within (what in my more cynical moments I’d label) ‘the cycling promotion industry’ sometimes seem intent on denying it, the major barrier to all cycling, but children’s cycling especially, relates to space, and how amenable or not it is to cycling.

In my admittedly limited and partial experience, Bavarian cycling infrastructure varies, but almost everywhere it puts British cycling provision to shame. And where facilities are less cycling-oriented, driving seems to have been civilised to the extent that it doesn’t matter. We certainly didn’t find a cycling paradise, but we did find ‘a cycling situation’ far ahead of the one in which we’re mired here in Britain. I now understand why my friend and colleague Tim Jones considers Germany more relevant as country which Britain could emulate than the Netherlands or Denmark – whether we were riding along dedicated cycling routes running parallel to big and busy main roads, or pedalling on the road through traffic-calmed town centre streets, I often thought how these quality cycling experiences could relatively easily be reproduced back home.

Cycle-touring is very popular in Bavaria. We felt normal! ‘Ordinary’, utility cycling is also unremarkable, although I personally found one sight quite remarkable – in a small town somewhere south of Munich, as we sat in the shade eating lunch and chilling out, we watched a girl of maybe four or five pedal up and back down the main street, several times. She rode completely independently. She looked happy. She looked free.

I’m angry about my children being barred from riding where they live. Seeing their own taste for freedom and the freedom which other children enjoy when we go somewhere such as Bavaria helps me to see what’s possible, and thus helps me feel more optimistic. But the clear fact that we’re not moving any closer in the UK towards achieving what’s been achieved in Bavaria makes me angrier still.

Each time we’ve travelled overseas to go cycling as a family it has felt to me as though we’ve taken a little step into the unknown. Of course, we know the different reputations for cycling which countries have. We know and talk to people who have cycled in these places. We read guidebooks and websites, and buy maps. But still, we don’t really know what a place will be like – particularly for children’s cycling – until we’ve been there.

I’ve heard far less about cycling provision in Germany than I have the Netherlands or Denmark, but to be both blunt and blithe, we found Bavaria to have almost as good provision for cycling as the Netherlands, but with the advantages (for us as camping holiday-makers) of higher temperatures and better scenery!

We experienced a wide variety of cycling environments. This included dedicated cycle routes alongside many bigger roads, signed cycle routes on very quiet rural back roads, and – within towns – lots of space shared (with no obvious conflicts) with pedestrians. Our upland rural itinerary also included lots of forest tracks – these would often start out (near to a village) as a surfaced lane, before switching to a loose gravel track through forest, and reverting to a smooth tarmac surface ‘on the other side’, as we approached another village.

Uncertain as to how Flo would cope with hills, we’d anticipated staying on flatter ground to the north of the Alps. But it quickly became apparent that she was up to any challenge we might throw her way so long as we kept daily distances appropriate to her age – our longest day was around 55 km (or 35 miles) and most days we rode more like 35 km (or 20 miles). So we rode into the heart of the Bavarian Alps, into Austria and out again.

Flo’s surprising and unwavering appetite for cycling forced me into realising how children – including our own children – are capable of so much more than we usually imagine. Provide them with appropriate opportunities and support to do something, and they can and probably will do it.

So I think the moral of this cycling tale is this – provide children with safe and supportive places to cycle, and of course they will (love to) ride.

During three weeks we had only one day off the bikes. We’d expected to have more, but even when we camped at the same place for a few days, we’d use the bikes to get around – visiting nearby towns such as Bad Tolz, Mittenwald and Fussen.

Bavaria lacks a coastline. Nonetheless, water’s everywhere – and people know how to make the most of it; in the summer heat they flock to the region’s lakes and rivers, and we did too. But guess what, on our rest day, the kids wanted to do? Ride surf-bikes!

By the last week Flo was riding in ways I’d have no thought possible only a few weeks before – descending hills at 30 miles per hour, climbing up them with both grit and composure, and handling her bike over rough, rocky roads.

Over three weeks she rode 400 miles. And in all that time there was not one close and/or uncomfortable encounter with a motorised vehicle. Holidays are different from everyday life; often we are in less of a hurry, we are keen to see ‘the best side’ of people and places, and we tend to go to places we think we’ll like.

Holidays can also sow seeds of dissatisfaction with ‘ordinary life’; they throw new light on ‘things as they usually are’. This is something we badly need in Britain – more people (including, but not only, so-called ‘decision-makers’; we’re all decision-makers) seeing what cycling elsewhere is like, and thus what it can be like, even here. Then agitating to make it happen.

That our idyllic Bavarian cycling holiday experience could be replicated anywhere in today’s Britain is utterly inconceivable to me: there isn’t the provision to keep cycling separate from fast-moving motorised vehicles; and not enough courtesy, care and consideration towards cycling and cyclists has been structurally embedded in ordinary driving practices where motorised vehicles and cycling do co-exist.

So back home in Lancaster, England, Flo’s freedom to ride has been curtailed. She moves around independently on foot in the immediate neighbourhood (and Bobby moves around independently by bike further afield, but only to quite a specific and limited set of places). But she’s no longer routinely using her bike to move around. Although she’s become a great little cyclist, we’re refusing her that independence.

A nine-year old girl moving around an urban area independently by bike? It seems outlandish, doesn’t it? But it’s not outlandish across much of the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In a small town south of Munich, I know for a fact that it’s not outlandish for a girl a good deal younger to be moving independently by bike.

Flo should be moving towards independence over the next few years. As part of that move, I aspire to her being able to move around her town by bike. But how many teenagers do you see cycling where you live? How many teenage girls? The outlandishness of the idea of young people cycling independently is a sign both of how badly we’ve lost our way in organising our urban spaces for movement, and of how far we’ve got to go in creating sustainable, democratic and convivial urban space.

Yes, I know there are rare exceptions, and I’ve little doubt that I will be told about them. But I don’t want exceptions; I want norms! I don’t know what I feel more angry about – the fact that young people don’t cycle, or the fact that even competent and accomplished cyclists such as Flo are unable to cycle in our cities. (Of course, I am equally angry about both, because they are connected, symptoms of the same problem.)

I want to make clear what I mean here; I am not barring my children from cycling. I encourage them to cycle all the time, and they are both fantastically good cyclists, Flo much more so after three weeks of ‘fast-tracking’ in Bavaria. It is the conditions out there which bar them from using their bikes when they want and where they want. As adults and parents with a duty of care over them, Sue and I respond appropriately, by refusing them the freedom to cycle.

There is no choice here.

The language of choice, in which many people who say they are promoting cycling continue to engage, is poisoning cycling’s future. We must move away from it, because it is a lie – when it comes to children’s cycling, we have exterminated agency. Until we recognise and rectify this, we will have no democratic culture of everyday cycling, let alone children’s cycling, in Britain.

We are an extremely pro-cycling, and fairly adventurous family – unusually so, I’d say, without wanting to appear arrogant, proud or pious. If we don’t let our kids ride through streets which they know by bike, I don’t think anyone (in their right minds) will. But of course, as someone who loves cycling and wants his children to cycle, I am very unhappy about this situation – unhappy, frustrated, angry and sad.

How lovely it was to see my nine-year old daughter, at the end of our holiday, pedalling amongst Munich’s early morning commuters. For three weeks she’d participated in a mass culture of recreational cycling; now she was tasting an urban culture of mass utility cycling for the first time, and you could see the thrill and delight coursing through her cycling body.

So the moral to this tale is obvious, and it’s one which I’m pleased to hear being repeated regularly and in many places right now. If we’re serious about accomplishing a cycling culture, we must create environments in which people can accomplish cycling and become accomplished cyclists.

But I have come across this moral tale so often lately that I’m also beginning to find it a bit worrying. So many of us are saying the same thing, yet still so little is being done.

Bradley-based momentum and Olympic excitement can’t last forever; we need to take advantage of them, with actual gains – gains which extend beyond the backwards-facing incrementalism which we’ve all become so accustomed to; gains which reach towards that radical re-structuring which so many of us recognise is really needed – NOW.

At the end of a summer which has seen so much British women’s cycling success, the project of encouraging Flo to continue cycling goes on. For now she’s thriving on the new-found sense of herself as fit and feisty Flo. On Thursday evening down at our local cycling circuit, Salt Ayre, she lowered her two-mile time trial personal best.

But Sue and I know, even if Flo herself does not, that bigger forces are set against her. I don’t know how much longer Flo will pedal, but I do know that the answer is for now very largely out of her, or (as her parents) our, hands. The answer depends on what is done for cycling, by people who she’s never met and via processes which she doesn’t understand.

Her mobility future, her health and well-being – just like the mobility future, health and well-being of her entire generation – lie in their hands. It shouldn’t be the sole and it’s probably not the most sophisticated strategy, but at some level I trust that if only we can keep shouting, they might just start hearing.

Heroes of British cycling: Bradley Wiggins and the pavement cyclist

July 23, 2012

I loved Bradley Wiggins’ victory punch as he crossed the line on Saturday’s final time trial. To launch his fist like that, from an incredibly fast-moving and twitchy machine, having just ridden it all out for 64 minutes and 13 seconds, was no mean feat. But then nor was winning the Tour de France …

The clenched fist is a potent symbol, perhaps because it’s ambiguous. Triumphant? Defiant? Both? Wiggins’ powerful finishing pose reminded me of the work of the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, through whose hands the human hand is made to mean so much. This is a self-portrait …

Images are open to interpretation, but Wiggins’ closed and punching fist seems to express defiance as well as triumph. He wasn’t ‘just’ winning the Tour; he was also achieving – executing – his potential; and he was answering his critics and responding to nay-sayers too. As seems so often to be the case with Wiggins, the celebration seemed real and honest precisely because there was a touch of anger about it.

Will anger and defiance now broaden, as many more people feel inspired to get onto bikes in the wake of British cycle sport’s success?

I think it might, as people who have until now shown little interest in cycling sit up and notice Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, and look forward to seeing more cycling at the Olympics. I think it might, more importantly, as they pull bicycles from sheds, fix them ready to ride, and think about where to go.

This is the hope, isn’t it? That the phenomenal success of British professional cycle racers will translate into more people climbing onto bikes. Chris Boardman – a man whose cycling exploits certainly inspired me – made this explicit connection during post-Tour analysis and comment on ITV4 this past weekend.

During Wimbledon, tennis courts across Britain are suddenly in demand. Following the London Marathon, more people get out running. But cycling is different, because the majority of the environment in which cycling occurs has other things in it – and roads are especially full of cars.

Thrilled by Bradley’s success? Moved to ride? Then get outside and … and confront (and perhaps truly notice for the very first time, because now it matters to you, personally) the brute reality of roads full of speeding cars and trucks, a fair proportion of whose drivers act as if they have very little – if any – concern for your well-being.

Compared to tennis or running, then, there is for cycling a more complicated translation from inspiration to action. You might have seen the Tour, you might have been inspired, you might feel ready to ride. But where do you go?

We must beware the gap here, which only critical thinking can fill. It’s great that we’ve got a buzz around cycling, and we must certainly seek to capitalise on it. But it’s just naive to imagine that euphoria around cycling will automatically convert to a big boom in everyday cycling journeys. For that to happen, other things need to change, or rather be changed.

Velodromes and sportive riding away from the city can to some extent cater for people keen to try cycle sport. Canal towpaths, sea-front promenades and converted railway lines can cater for those wanting to experience the cycling buzz in a leisurely and rural way. But I’m also wondering whether the pavements of our towns and cities will start to teem with cyclists, trying their best simply to get around using the machine about which there is – quite rightly – currently such a hubbub.

Pavement cyclists aren’t seen as heroes, but perhaps they should be. (To be clear here, by ‘pavement’ I mean what in other countries is called the ‘sidewalk’; a space which is traditionally considered the preserve of the pedestrian (although there’s a longer story to be told there). So in Britain we are taught that pavement cycling is a problem and that it’s wrong; though in truth it is neither.) Today, Bradley Wiggins is the great hero of British cycling, and I hope he enjoys all the adulation he richly deserves. But in the meantime, the great unsung heroes of British cycling –  pavement cyclists – bravely pedal on, or try to any which way they can. They are not celebrated; they are seen as deviant, and are demonised.

Because the vast majority of people feel there is nowhere safe to ride, everyday cycling across the UK is being very effectively and very systematically blocked. Much premature talk of ‘a cycling revolution’ conveniently ignores the fact that a big majority of people are afraid to cycle, and will not start anytime soon unless something fundamentally changes. In the meantime, in most places most of the people who do ride a bicycle do so (either always or mainly) on the pavements. They ride either because they have no alternative – for example, needing to get to shift work (rendering public transport infeasible) at a location beyond walking distance – or because they actually like cycling but they just don’t like cycling in roads full of cars, trucks and buses.

I have no figures to back this up (I don’t think any exist), but I’m sure that pavement cycling is also subject to a huge amount of what transport researchers call ‘churn’, which means the life of a pavement cyclist tends to be brief. This is because to pedal through the disapproving and hostile gazes of society is difficult to do. People who want or need to cycle but who have nowhere safe to go are made to feel guilty. And cycling guiltily is no way to make cycling stick, or big, or inclusive, or aspirational. For cycling to be embraced big-time, the cyclist needs to feel welcomed, not apologetic. (The resilient cyclists – those who do stick with cycling over the longer-term – are those, like me and perhaps like you, who ride on the road, but we form a very small proportion of all cyclists, and an absolutely tiny proportion of the whole population.)

But even though pavement cycling demonstrates a huge repressed demand for cycling, it is seen as a problem rather than a potential.

We badly need to invert the standard moral tale here. According to that tale, people who ride on pavements are committing a crime.

No, no, no. These people are heroes. Any crime is in endorsing cycling but then providing nowhere for people to ride. Any crime is showing how magnificent is cycling, inspiring people to give it a go, but then dashing their opportunities to do so under half-way decent conditions – conditions which the ‘average person’ regards as acceptably safe, comfortable and enjoyable.

I hope and expect that right now, at the start of the summer holidays, there are thousands upon thousands of children across Britain who have noticed and been touched by British cycle sport’s current success. But what a travesty that the very big majority will be unable simply to jump on bikes and discover the delights of riding for themselves? Long days of summer spent exploring their neighbourhoods, let alone further afield, have been closed off to them by an increasingly car-centric society. To taste the joys of cycling, they’ll have to wait until they’re somewhere their parents deem it’s acceptable to ride. And they’ll probably be taken there by car.

There’s something deeply sad about this, isn’t there? We have rafts of policy and pronouncements in favour of cycling. And to add to this we now have a superb and historically unprecedented collection of role models – led by Bradley Wiggins, but including many other remarkable men and women – inspiring people to give cycling a go. And then we have towns and cities which are so dominated by speeding motorised vehicles that we’ve eliminated people’s ordinary habitat as a place to ride.

If we’ve got the ‘crime’ wrong, so also the punishment.

Instead of scolding and/or fining people for riding bicycles on pavements, we should be congratulating and rewarding them for giving cycling a go at all. Meanwhile, this Government should take the lead on making the changes required for people to cycle safely from their front doors, and punish any local authority which fails to adopt those changes quickly enough. Such changes include reducing the amount of urban space devoted to parked and moving cars, radically slowing down the cars which remain, and building top-quality cycling infrastructure where for whatever reason cycling needs (for the time being, at least) to co-exist with other (whether faster or slower) modes of mobility.

The Tour and Olympics combined should encourage many more people onto bikes, before realising there’s really nowhere safe to go.

Rather than giving up before they’ve even got started, which is what tends to happen, we must hope that many will find ways to cope with currently atrocious cycling conditions and – like many of the people I saw cycling during three years of research towards the Understanding Walking and Cycling project –  at least sometimes take to the pavements. (The danger is that because cycling on pavements is hard to do, most people who are inspired to cycle will not do so – they might cycle ‘invisibly’ on a Sunday morning somewhere safe, but their cycling – and more importantly their desire to cycle – will be easy to miss; their invisibility can then be used as evidence by Government that “there’s no demand for cycling, so we cannot justify spending money on it”.)

There are obvious ways to make our cities fit for cycling, but they are not being done. London journalists might believe things are changing fast, but they should get on a bike in Leeds or Worcester or Lancaster or pretty much anywhere outside of the capital. In most of these places, what we have is a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. I’ve recently been trawling through transport policy documents produced at different levels of UK Government. Reading these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a sustainable transport revolution – in which walking and cycling dominate our towns and cities and short journeys by car become practically obsolete – is just around the corner, about to happen.

The (excellent) aspiration of one local authority, for example, is “to make it easy to get from any part of the city to any other part of the city without using a car. Pivotal to achieving this is making sure that, when any plans are considered, pedestrians and cyclists are considered first”. But this kind of progress at the discursive level is, so far, completely unmatched with any notable changes on the ground, the place where we actually live out our day-to-day, intensely mobile, lives. We’ve had decades of empty rhetoric about sustainable urban transport, yet politicians remain intent on driving a massive, new and hugely unsustainable road through my home town.

Hordes of people suddenly cycling on Britain’s pavements might be the most effective route to building the pressure to get something done, to create safe space for cycling. If British cycling’s sporting success brings this massive tension – created by encouraging something which it is so hard to do – to a climax, we’ll have its stars and orchestrators to thank. But from where I’m currently sat, that’s a big ‘if’.

I think what’s most likely to happen is lots of fine words, rhetorical flourish, and vague and vacuous pronouncements of ‘a cycling revolution’, accompanied by very little change in the ideological and material structures which currently underpin and reproduce our society in car-centric ways. We need to do what we can to prevent this from happening, and instead make these potentially pivotal moments stick, whether it’s out of respect for cycling, respect for the health of ourselves and our neighbourhoods, respect for our towns and cities, or respect for our planetary home, the one which cycling rather than driving helps make viable.

As a tribute to Bradley Wiggins and Mod I’ll finish with the words of Mod revivalists Secret Affair, “this is the time, this is the time for action”.

Cycling and Sustainability

June 25, 2012

I just received my contributor’s copy of a new book, Cycling and Sustainability, from the publisher, Emerald. It’s a hefty and impressive volume, with contributions from different disciplines and across the globe crafted together by my research colleague and friend, Professor John Parkin of London South Bank University.

I first met John in 2004, when I organised the first of what’s become an annual Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium (the book will be launched officially at the 9th Symposium, at the University of London, in September). John’s a chartered civil engineer and professor of transport engineering, but – although I suspect he’s sometimes felt slightly like a fish out of water – he’s always been admirably happy to extend himself well beyond his discipline, and to engage with the range of social sciences, and this book is testament to his broad and deep interest in cycling, and the ways it can contribute to a more sustainable world.

I felt honoured and privileged when John asked me to co-author the volume’s final chapter. This meant that I needed carefully to read all the chapters which went before, so I can say from first-hand experience that it contains some important contributions to our understandings of cycling.

In our conclusion, ‘Towards a Revolution in Cycling’, we try to summarise the key arguments of the book, and also to demonstrate how the different chapters provide strong evidence for how we might re-make the world in cycle-friendly and sustainable ways. So we are self-consciously ambitious and ever-so-slightly polemical in this chapter, calling for cycling to be given far greater opportunities to contribute towards a healthier, happier planet. It’s well past the time when all the rhetoric as to cycling’s incredible potential needs assertively and earnestly to be converted into concrete actions, which enable it to enter the mainstream as an ordinary, mass mode of transport.

I’m copying details of the book below, so you can see the kind of ground it covers, and decide whether you want to find out more. It’d be great if a copy could be found – not only by yourself but also by others – in your local library.

Cycling and the politics of time

May 30, 2012

Something that struck me time and again, talking to people during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, was the interconnections between cycling and time. I’ll begin with two observations about how the availability (including lack) of time influences people’s cycling.

First, people who typically feel busy sometimes cycle as a way of reclaiming time for themselves; so for example, I met a middle-aged chap in Leicester who spent far more of his time than he’d like driving all over the country by car, but who relaxed once he got home by taking to his bike for a leisurely evening ride, to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many people described cycling in such ways – as about quality ‘off-time’; in fact, based on our fieldwork I’d argue that this ‘leisurely cycling’ is the dominant experience of cycling in Britain today. In other words, if you’re ‘time poor’ cycling represents quality down-time, in which to relax and be restored.

Then second, people who have more leisurely lifestyles find it easier to integrate cycling as part of their ordinary, everyday lives; so for example, an older semi-retired couple in Worcester cycled for many of their local journeys. They felt able to do so because they never felt in a rush, and could schedule their lives as they liked, rather than having to fit into the demands of others. In other words, if you’re ‘time rich’ cycling can work as a way of organising and connecting different aspects of your everyday life.

There’s a contradiction here, between how cycling works for most people today, and how transport policy would like cycling to work.  On the one hand, our research suggests cycling might be encouraged by making life in general more leisurely and relaxed. This would also probably promote sustainability, by making life slower and more locally-rooted (and, I’d argue, more enjoyable and convivial).

Yet on the other hand, cycling’s increasingly promoted through attempts to speed it up. This trend is clearest in initiatives such as Copenhagen’s ‘green wave’, whereby traffic signals on the popular arterial cycling route of Nørrebrogade are synchronised to enable continuous movement for people riding at 20 kilometres per hour.

Copenhagen is the city of efficient cycling par excellence, and there at least, judging by its high and rising modal share, ‘efficient cycling’ seems popular. Understandably, if also problematically, we’re speeding cycling up to fit the world-as-it-is, rather than attempting to slow the world down, so cycling-as-it-is fits into it better. My main question here is: do we want cycling to be made efficient?

My reason for asking this question: what happens to cycling in the drive towards making it more efficient? Speeding up cycling makes it more competitive, and thus potentially more attractive, vis-à-vis other modes. But what’s lost by these gains in time?

I’m not disputing that cycling can be fast and efficient, and that’s sometimes why we ride. If I want to get from home to Lancaster University, 4 miles away, cycling is – for me – much quicker than any other means of getting there. But that’s not the only reason I choose to cycle, and to ‘sell’ cycling because of its speed is, I think, overly to instrumentalise it.

The instrumentalisation of cycling risks killing its inherent value. Writing of the emergence of train travel in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin said:

“The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable.”

Ruskin goes on:

“No one would travel in that manner who could help it – who had the time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges instead of through tunnels and between banks … The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man [sic] from a traveller into a living parcel.”

I invoke Ruskin to suggest there’s a trade-off: incorporating ever more efficient cycling into an ever more efficient society probably takes some of the sheen off it; it risks turning cycling from freedom to chore. As cycling becomes more integral to the world-as-it-is, it becomes less able to transform that world for the better.

Instrumentalisation of cycling in the name of efficiency is everywhere: using cycling to make cities less congested and polluted; using cycling to make people’s bodies more healthy and less obese; using cycling to bring tourist cash into the local economy; using cycling to announce our city as a truly ‘progressive’ place.

We should be wary of attempts to encourage people to cycle because cycling is good for something else. For starters, I’m not sure it works. But also, cycling becomes something else to be marketed and sold, often by people who are selling and marketing it not because they love it, but because it’s their job.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Copenhagen café during a winter’s day spent exploring the city by bike, I made these field notes:

“I’ve ridden here, there and everywhere, breathing in and drinking up the city. It might have a lot to do with the time of year and the freezing conditions, but I’m struck by how utilitarian cycling in Copenhagen feels. Everyone rides as if they’re going somewhere, which of course they are. I’d like to return to ride in summer, to see how it differs, but what’s missing in my early December experience is the slow, lazy, loitering style of cycling which might actually build solidarities, communities and social capital.

“It feels ironic that this is the city where Gehl Architects are located. Through work such as Life Between Buildings and Cities for People Jan Gehl helped teach me the significance of walking and cycling to civilising cities, challenging and transforming the dominant rhythmicities of cities. Yet here in his city of Copenhagen, people ride bikes like automatons. Often, I feel as though I’m on a conveyor belt I can’t get off. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, and they’re going there. They’re taking no prisoners, they’re not slowing down.

“It’s the opposite of the cycling city as the relaxed, unhurried, people-centred city; this is the cycling city as the functional, efficient city, keeping the cogs of capitalism whirring round. I feel as though I’m on a capitalist treadmill; the bicycle keeps this city going, and it’s a capitalist city. Cycling here is about efficiency. It makes me want to rebel.

“And they ride so fast! Maybe they’re trying to warm themselves up. OK, I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not used to riding such a clunker, but I’m not accustomed to being so regularly overtaken, and to overtaking so little. There’s no dilly-dallying here. And they come so close! The cycle lanes already feel narrow, perhaps because the snow and ice have encroached. But when a faster cyclist approaches from behind, there’s little room for manoeuvre. A few times I brush shoulders with an overtaking cyclist. After a while it feels less alarming, almost normal.

“And I’m so hemmed in. (It feels like) there’s no escape. Cyclists are so numerous, yet so constrained. Strange …

“I’ve also fulfilled a dream, to visit Christiania … and here I leave the fast, one-track efficient city and move into the slower, multi-tracked and more textured city, Gehl’s city. Suddenly there’s room to loiter, to look up (or rather, to look over my shoulder behind me, to see there are no cyclists approaching fast, and I can relax, breathe deep, find my own pace, take my own line, and simply ride ….).”

Copenhagen embodies the dilemmas of contemporary cycling – particularly what it’s for. I’ve returned since, continue to find it stimulating, and continue to worry about the possibility of slow cycling. What happens to the slow cyclist – perhaps the older person pottering on her or his bicycle, or the idler, going nowhere in particular – in the rush to get more people to school, college and work more quickly? What happens to cycling as a ‘political’ tool of resistance to the society we’ve got, once the society we’ve got learns to use the bicycle to more effectively reproduce itself?

I don’t want fast cycling eliminated. We need multiple rhythms of cycling in the sustainable city; not one monotonous cycling speed. Unlike cars, bikes are skinny, so there’s sufficient space within urban environments to cater for and cope with them travelling at multiple speeds.

The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that in the UK cycle lanes are needed to enable people who don’t want to ride fast and furiously (on ‘faster’ bikes) to instead ride slowly (on ‘slower’ bikes) along big and busy roads. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen cycle lanes seem oriented to making people ride not slower, but faster. This throws up questions about what dedicated cycle lanes are for, and why.

In both the UK and Copenhagen it’s ridiculously hard to cycle sociably. In both places cycling conditions forcibly reduce the cyclist to the individual level, and reproduce cycling as a strictly utilitarian practice. This must change. Sociable cycling challenges instrumentalising logic, showing cycling can be more than getting from A to B as fast as possible. A civilised city would enable people to talk as they cycle alongside one another; a sustainable city would see it as unjust if people can do this when travelling by car, but not by bike.

Everywhere there’s cycling (and cycling is almost everywhere) we should resist imposition of single speed solitary cycling; single speed solitary cycling is – effectively – what we’ve created in the UK and it stops many people cycling. And the instrumental logic behind cycling’s promotion in Copenhagen irons out and renders less and less visible any difference, and imposes single speed solitary cycling there. Only resistance – in the name of multiple speed, sociable cycling – will enable cycling to be democratised across differences of age, fitness, gender, and motive.

Greater incorporation of cycling into urban space, at the car’s expense, potentially but not inevitably alters the character of that space. To see bicycles as no more than ‘skinny green cars’ is to reproduce the city much as it already is, and to miss cycling’s radical potential to change the world fundamentally for the better. Bicycles enable inhabitation of urban space in ways radically different to cars. Let’s not lose this difference. The bicycle shouldn’t simply be a substitute for the car, but a vehicle for re-working and re-shaping the city in broader sustainable ways; only then can the potential ethics (cycling’s contribution to the good life) and aesthetics (cycling’s contribution to pleasure) of the bicycle be fulfilled.

Finally, three questions:

1. On waiting: what do we want to do about bicycles and waiting? Should waiting be extinguished? Does it reflect lack of accommodation of the bicycle in the urban transport environment? Or is the rush to erase waiting a symptom of an impatient, accelerating society? Should cycling reclaim waiting? Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?

2. On cycling experience: when you cycle, are you moving through empty space? Or (to polarise) are you making your place in the world? Are you sometimes doing more of one and less of the other, and if so, why? Is cycling a neutral means of making your way in the world, or by cycling are you creating something? If so, what?

3. On cycling’s potential: do we want more cycling? Do we want cycling to change the world? Are they the same question? If ‘yes’, why? If not, why not? Should institutional efforts to boost cycling always be applauded and/or supported? Of course there’s a relation between the two, but have we been seduced by quantity (increasing the number of cyclists) and risk losing sight of the importance of quality (cycling’s contribution to a better society)?

Cycling in south-west Ireland

April 27, 2012

Earlier this month we had a great trip to County Cork, Ireland, to visit Sue’s brother, Mike, his wife, Helen, and daughter, Yola.

Mike, Helen and Yola live in Schull, a delightful village on the Mizen peninsula, one of south-west Ireland’s ‘fingers’, which stick out into the Atlantic ocean. The coastal scenery in their part of the world is  spectacular, and we were blessed with fine weather in which to enjoy it.

Superb hosts in every way, Mike and Helen sorted bikes for us to ride whilst we were there; nothing flash, but good enough to get us around. Actually, although I jokingly referred to it as ‘a farmer’s bike’, the machine Mike borrowed for me from his mate Matt was great.

And Bobby, who normally rides either his road bike or BMX, loved riding a mountain bike.

Without our usual cycling gear we rode in ordinary clothes and managed fine, although on longer rides I sometimes wished I’d got a pannier to put my waterproof and/or jumper. I found it refreshing to be reminded, through the circumstances, how it’s perfectly OK to ride 25 or 30 miles in jeans, shirt and jumper. (In the past Sue and I have cycled thousands of miles, often through very hot places, wearing ‘ordinary clothes’ – including fully covered legs and arms, for both modesty and sun protection, in countries such as India and Nepal; but more recently this has given way to ‘lycra-as-normal’.)

One day Mike and I rode out to Mizen Head, where the Irish end-to-end either starts or finishes. On another, Mike, Sue and I rode up Mount Gabriel, at 407 metres the highest point on the peninsula.

And Bobby and I took bikes over to Ireland’s most southerly island, the beautiful and rather romantic Cape Clear.

I’ve cycled in this part of the world a lot in the past, but not for a few years. And I was struck by how different it felt to cycle here, compared to England. The following observation is based only on nine days’ riding in which I covered only around 150 miles; nonetheless I noted it sufficiently often to feel confident it’s not groundless.

As someone on a bike in this part of Ireland, you clearly belong to the ‘road community’. Initially, I noticed this through the ways we were generally treated –  drivers stopped or slowed down when approaching us from the opposite direction; if they approached from behind, they didn’t try to force their way past, but waited patiently for an opportunity to pass courteously (or for us to pull off the road and out of their way, if that made sense). Such behaviour is quite unlike that I’ve come to expect when riding in England, where drivers rarely either slow down and/or make any other obvious concessions for you; it’s much more similar to behaviour we’ve experienced in France and The Netherlands.

Only later did I start to notice how my presence as a cyclist on the road was actively acknowledged by most drivers. Typically this ‘salute’ takes the form of a raised finger from one hand, off the steering wheel. A small gesture, but a significant one. It’s active recognition of you as a person, and validation of your presence on the road – as I said, a sign that you’ve a right to be there, that you belong to the community of road users.

In England I much more often feel I’m an ‘outsider’ on the roads. This outsider experience stems mainly from the lack of respect often demonstrated towards me through the behaviour of other road users. Occasionally I’m treated well, and I tend to think “they must be a cyclist too”. More occasionally I’m treated so badly that I fear not only for myself, but for everyone else – though especially of course other cyclists – who has to share the roads with such behaviour. My most common experience, however, isn’t of hostility but of absolute indifference towards me, almost as though I’m not there. This is close to, but not, the kind of civil inattention described by the sociologist Erving Goffman as required to live comfortably in close proximity among strangers; civil inattention is not cold and indifferent, but a deliberate inattention in the interests of living together anonymously yet respectfully.

It’s perhaps closer to what another sociologist Georg Simmel characterised as ‘the blasé attitude’; a kind of de-civilising (or certainly anti-communitarian) process brought about by the scale, pace and density of metropolitan life (Simmel was writing at a time of rapidly industrialising and expanding cities across Europe). This results in a disregard for others who are seen as not belonging to your own community. Speed, scale and proximity definitely have an effect on levels of civility on our roads; on quiet country lanes you’re more likely (for most of the year, even in tourist areas) to be cycling among ‘locals’ in ‘a neighbourhood’, but as roads get bigger and busier you’re more likely to be riding amongst strangers who are moving faster, live further apart, and have less time and inclination to acknowledge one another. The shift from ‘familiar to strange’ is generally a distancing (and for the cyclist a dangerous) one.

Certainly, and loosely following the work of another sociologist, Norbert Elias, the delegitimisation of the cyclist as a figure on our roads during the last half-century of runaway and increasingly taken-for-granted automobility has on the UK’s roads led to a retreat in the ‘civilising process’, and a return of a repressed animosity towards ‘the other’, an animosity which needs now urgently to be re-civilised.

Why are motorists more civil towards cyclists in south-west Ireland than in north-west England? It’s possibly to do with style of dress and style of cycling. When cycling the lanes of north-west England I’m usually wearing lycra and helmet, riding a road bike, often with others, and going quite fast. In south-west Ireland I wore ‘normal’ clothes, no helmet, and rode an ‘ordinary-looking’ bike not very fast, and if I wasn’t riding alone I was riding with other people (Sue, Mike, Helen, Bobby and Flo) who also didn’t look like ‘proper cyclists’.

It also possibly has to do with the numbers of cyclists and profile of cycling in general. In north-west England cyclists are asserting their presence on rural roads, particularly on weekends in good weather. Some motorists, maybe, don’t like that – cycling’s presence antagonizes them. In rural Ireland my sense is that cycling remains for now lower in profile and popularity, so that cycling hasn’t become constructed as adversarial to driving in the same way.

Those analyses would implicate (but not blame) the behaviour and/or dress of ‘road cyclists’ in their own (and cycling’s more generally?) marginality, and anyway, I’m not sure they’re quite right. (Although as I wrote in ‘Fear of Cycling’, I do think we’ll see more conflicts emerge around cycling as it becomes more significant a mode of mobility.) They certainly don’t tell the full story.

I think the answer has more to do with broader social and economic conditions. I think motorists in south-west Ireland are less hurried, more accustomed to slower-moving vehicles (such as tractors) and delays on the roads, and more patient. I also think there’s a clear link (though not one which has to the best of my knowledge been proven by rigorous research) between the age and size of a car and its drivers subjective sense of ‘a right to the road’. Older cars make up a far greater proportion of all cars in south-west Ireland than they do in north-west England, and I think the drivers of older cars tend to be more careful of cyclists than do the drivers of new, expensive cars. Finally, I think that in south-west Ireland the person hasn’t eclipsed the mode of transport as a source of identity and (mis)recognition, so whether you’re riding a bike or in a car you still belong to the broad community of persons, rather than fall into one or other smaller communities defined by transport mode (motorist or cyclist).

I’m not saying south-west Ireland is cycling nirvana; far from it. I’m saying I felt a qualitative difference in the way I was/we were treated by motorists there compared to back home in north-west England – especially on the smaller, quieter roads (what we call ‘lanes’). And I think it’s worth wondering why this might be. As I’ve said, a partial potential explanation is how I/we looked – ‘ordinary people’ riding bikes. Here’s Mike and me at Mizen Head …

And Bobby riding on Cape Clear Island …

To reiterate, we look like ordinary people riding bikes, and are perhaps then seen as such – as belonging to the community of persons. In contrast, when I ride in lycra and helmet on a road bike, whether alone or with others, I wonder whether I/we ‘disappear into a category’ – ‘the cyclist’. As such, I/we stop being identifiable as fellow members of the road community, and it’s easier for us to be treated with impunity. I’m not condoning this treatment, but nor do I want to deny its plausibility out of some misplaced sense of political correctness. (I am attempting to establish the situation, not make judgements.)

But I think there’s a wider (albeit inter-connected) story here, too – about changing attitudes and behaviour towards others, about who counts, why and when. This story has more to do with broad, gradual and difficult-to-grasp changes in culture, and related norms of civility. It’s a story which recurs often in sociological literature; the version I know best (because it was influential during the process of my doctoral studies) is the story told by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, although a more poignant version is elaborated by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Basically, crudely and for the sake of my argument, as our lives become busier, more dictated by the needs of a global capitalist economy and more stressed, our identities become fractured and the long-term development of character becomes more difficult to accomplish. It is such character – and the civility towards others which it tends to nourish – which we need on our roads; and which can still in my experience be found on the back lanes of south-west Ireland, but less so on the (more commuter- and/or consumer-dominated?) lanes of north-west England.

Finally, then, how do we re-embed (or perhaps embed for the first time, because there is almost certainly no lost ‘golden-age’ here) a civility of the road?  How do we get motorists to show more care towards cyclists?

One ‘shallow’ answer (because it doesn’t deal with the deeper, historical, structural issues) might be awareness-raising campaigns – for example, TV adverts which attempt to inculcate greater understanding of cyclists’ experiences, and greater respect towards people riding bikes.

Absolutely. But a ‘deeper’ answer needs to recognise how discourteous treatment of cyclists by motorists is an outcome of motorists’ (more theoretical) sense of ‘a right to the roads’ (whether rural or urban) and (more practical) experience of having domination of those roads; so this deeper answer needs to challenge both theoretical and practical sense of entitlement to something (the space, time and rhythm of the road) which ought to be much more democratically, and sustainably, held.

If cyclists truly have a right to the road, we urgently need a range of practical initiatives (such as slower speeds, reallocation of road space away from motorised modes, and a general de-privileging of the car’s ‘right to roam’, as well as awareness campaigns) to demonstrate that fact. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.

Segregation v integration: which way now for UK cycling?

April 12, 2012

Recent UK research concludes most people are unlikely to take up city cycling unless conditions improve dramatically. For anyone interested in seeing many more people on bikes and our towns and cities transformed, this begs the question: how do we best promote urban cycling?

There are two schools of thought. They’re often seen as incompatible, even opposed, though we’ll see here how that’s not true. First, ‘integrationists’ argue for cycling’s place in the existing road network. For them, cycling is best promoted by teaching people to ride effectively and safely on the roads, and by making those roads more hospitable through, for example, slowing down motorised traffic. Second, ‘segregationists’ argue cycling be separated from other modes. For them cycling is best promoted by giving it infrastructure of its own, separate from motorised vehicles on the one hand, and pedestrians on the other.

Britain is finally taking the bicycle seriously as an ordinary mode of urban transport. Cycling’s profile is rising fast, and it’s finding advocates in some unlikely places; The Times newspaper, for example, is running an ambitious ‘Cities fit for cycling’ campaign. Cycling’s urban revival is bringing the segregation v integration debate to the boil. Following a vote of its 11,000 members, London Cycling Campaign recently launched a ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign. One aim is clear space, Dutch-style, for cycling along major roads across London. With city cycling in the spotlight, and people questioning the way ahead, which route should UK cycling take? Will more people ride if we improve the on-road environment, or if we build separate infrastructure for cycling?

Recent attention centres on London, where cycling is growing especially fast, but also where concerns about its safety are most pronounced. We’ll look elsewhere, but with the Olympic Games so close and all eyes on England’s capital, and with what’s happening there likely to impact on other places, let’s start there.

David Dansky is Head of Training & Development at Cycle Training UK, an independent provider of on-road cycle training. ‘London’, he says, ‘is a model of good integration. Cycling has doubled in the last decade, and more than 8% of inner-London’s commuting journeys are now made by bike; all with little if any segregation.’

London has actively promoted the sharing of its limited road space and encouraged people to ride through measures such as training and marketing: ‘The more people on bikes the safer the streets become, and the easier it is to get still more people cycling – it’s a virtuous circle’, says Dansky. He says there’s more work to be done, especially around driver education, but still sees the capital as providing a model for other cities: ‘What’s been achieved here can be achieved elsewhere.’

If cycling is doing so well, why has the London Cycling Campaign launched its ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ initiative? Chief Executive Ashok Sinha says ‘many people are now cycling, but cycling levels remain far below their potential. Conditions remain intimidating, and we believe far more people will ride when they’re improved. Concern about sharing road space with congested or fast-moving motor traffic is the number one reason why Londoners don’t take up cycling or cycle more often. Our ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign is a response to the deep worries that existing and potential cyclists have about safety, and calls for a radical new approach to street design, as well as for greater priority in general to be given to the safer movement of cyclists and pedestrians.’

If segregating cycling is the key to getting people on bikes, haven’t we been here before, and failed? Look at Milton Keynes – a comprehensive network of segregated cycle routes, but very little cycling. Dr Tim Jones is an expert in urban planning and sustainable mobility at Oxford Brookes University, and a keen cyclist. When it comes to segregation, he says Milton Keynes is a red herring. ‘It appears to provide for cycling, but was designed for cars, not bikes’, says Jones. ‘Driving in Milton Keynes is quicker, easier and more convenient than cycling which is consigned to paths through areas devoid of life – a relic of a zoning system where activities are separated and spread out. Segregating cycling only works if at the same time it’s hard wired into the existing street network where you typically find activities and people, and of course, it’s made easier and more convenient than driving.’

Milton Keynes has given segregation a bad name. So too have the sorts of ‘facility’ you probably know all too well, the ridiculous bits of so-called ‘cycling infrastructure’ you can see on Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘facility of the month’ webpages, and which inspired a book fittingly titled ‘Crap Cycle Lanes’. You know the kind of thing – truly rubbish bits of cycle lane which might be hilarious, were we not expected to ride on them. Cycle paths which suddenly disappear or stop at every junction aren’t just inconvenient, they’re dangerous too. Bad segregation makes cycling more difficult. It hinders cycling, both our own and that of others. It certainly doesn’t help people who want to cycle actually do so. Segregation done badly is something we definitely don’t want.

If we know what we don’t want, how do we get what we do?

Newcastle Cycling Campaign last year ran a ‘Loopy Lanes’ campaign, highlighting the awful quality of cycling provision across the city. Unlike London, there’s no sign yet of a ‘cycling revolution’ taking place here. Campaign Chair Katja Leyendecker is an advocate of cycling for all, and this, she says, requires a transformation in existing conditions. ‘I don’t see how cycling will grow in the absence of segregated cycling on big, busy main roads.’ Have there, I ask her, been attempts to segregate cycling in the city?

‘Some attempts at making cycling safe on main roads have been made over the past 20 years or so, in dribs and drabs. But they still leave cyclists woefully exposed at junctions. There isn’t one example where cycling has priority over driving.’

Leyendecker says a new standard of segregation is essential if Britain is to get on its bike. ‘We must follow neither past nor current practice in the UK, but look elsewhere: to the Dutch, Danes and Germans. The UK has never built cycling facilities which actually advantage cycling over other modes, but if we want to get more people on bikes, hopefully women too this time, for an inclusive cycling revolution so to speak, that’s what we must do. Segregation’, she says, ‘is about integration, really, and inclusion.’ New improved segregation would make cycling continuous; giving the cyclist priority over drivers turning across her path. It also requires taking space from cars, both parked and moving.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a new organisation inspired by Dutch cycling. It sees quality segregation as vital. Sally Hinchcliffe, its Secretary, says ‘it seems obvious that cycling won’t become mainstream until something’s done to make it feel safer. Clearly, we aren’t calling for separated tracks everywhere, but if you look at our main roads, they just look dangerous, especially if you don’t already cycle. Even sticking to back roads, there’s usually a nasty stretch of road that’s off-putting to all but a minority.’

‘Nobody’s going to let their children out on bikes where they have to negotiate heavy traffic or lorries, even slow-moving ones. Properly designed Dutch-style cycle tracks and networks make cycling easier as well as safer, allowing everyone to go at their own pace.’

For Tim Jones, greater separation of cycling from motorised traffic would enable a different culture of cycling to emerge:

‘Riding a bicycle shouldn’t require someone to become ‘a cyclist’. People shouldn’t have to wear specialist clothes and protective gear, or ride a sporty bike. Because segregated routes enable people to remain themselves whilst cycling, they allow a culture to flourish which is currently the preserve of the equipped – physically, mentally and materially speaking.’

A leap of faith’s required here. Because we’ve never done segregation well in the UK, we can’t predict precisely what its effects will be. What we can do is take seriously the consistently stated concerns of people who’d like to cycle but currently don’t, and respond accordingly – and that’s to build dedicated cycling routes on big, busy roads. We can also look to the higher levels of cycling wherever it is effectively segregated. And we can note how current integration, although it’s clearly substandard, simply isn’t making city cycling a normal thing to do.

London shows that some people will cycle without segregation. Other cities such as Cambridge and York have relatively healthy levels of cycling, achieved through integrating more than segregating it. Leicester and Sheffield have both won impressive recent gains without much segregation. Segregation isn’t everything. It’s not a cure-all. There’s more to building a broad, democratic cycling culture; for example, more effective integration via widespread 20 mph limits, and legislation and enforcement to promote greater respect and courtesy between cyclists and drivers. We need to work on two fronts: civilising our streets where we can; and separating cycling from flows of motorised traffic where we can’t, or at least not yet. The big challenge is to ensure any segregation is up to scratch – wide, well designed and maintained routes, with priority at junctions giving cycling an advantage over motorised modes. Quality segregation is not about getting cyclists out of the way; it’s about making cycling for everyone, viewing it as a more sensible way of making short urban journeys than the car. The struggle for safer integration must also continue alongside a push for more and better segregation, as part of efforts to get people cycling: cycle training results in more competent riding, irrespective of where that riding occurs; reduced speed limits and driver education encourage safer, more considerate driving and a more civil society.

Tim Jones says the way ahead requires quality segregation but as part of a broader package of measures: ‘Segregation’s a vital but insufficient ingredient.  Underpinning the success northern European cities with higher rates of cycling are strong policies that promote compact urban form and a land use diversity such that a range of activities are accessible close to home, but importantly, all this is complemented by restrictions on private car use. This creates an environment where travel by car is exceptional and cycling unexceptional and obvious. Dedicated cycle systems embedded within this context (including segregation and separate junction signals for cycles) render cycling safe, civilised and easy whether you’re 8 or 80, travelling alone or together.’

Only quality segregation will do, and only alongside integration. Both approaches work together, boosting cycling towards the mainstream. Many campaigners agree. Dave du Feu of Spokes, the Lothian Cycle Campaign, says ‘a pragmatic approach which blends elements of segregation and integration is the way forward. This defines Spokes’ current strategy in its work in and around Edinburgh.’ There’s no conflict between segregation and integration; we need both, done well. So should we drop these terms, and talk instead of re-building our cities for cycling? Building ‘cities fit for cycling’ means being bold and ambitious for cycling, prioritising it over the car to build cities for everyone. Better segregation and better integration go hand-in-hand, promoting cycling and putting it at the heart of the twenty-first century sustainable city.