Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Cycling struggles, 1

October 2, 2012

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

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

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

1. Rick’s cycling story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, he rides …

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

Yet Rick still won’t cycle through this junction.

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

Have the recent changes not improved things?

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

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

What would Rick like to see?

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

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

The state of cycling in England

June 15, 2011

I wrote an article for BikeHub a few days ago, based on the preliminary findings of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project on which I work, and the presentation I made at the recent Building Cycling Cultures event in Leicester. I’m linking to it here, because otherwise some of you won’t find it.

It was quite ‘painful’ to write. I made myself write quickly, so I could send it off to Carlton Reid, BikeHub’s editor, before I had second thoughts. (My thanks to Carlton for giving my analysis greater publicity than it would otherwise have got.) It represents a shift in my thinking, which has come about because of the fieldwork across four English cities I’ve been doing these last couple of years. I’m currently wading through the data that fieldwork has produced, and trying to make sense of it all; the BikeHub article is part of that sense-making activity.

Some conclusions of our research contradict what I previously thought. So part of the analytical process has entailed, for me personally, thinking carefully about my responsibilities as an academic, and also about what matters most, both to me and the world. I’m convinced we need to step up our ambitions for cycling, to fundamentally re-make our cities around the bicycle.

Building Cycling Culture/s – programme

April 15, 2011

How big can cycling get, and how do we get there? How might the size of cycling affect what cycling looks like?

As we work to make cycling bigger and better than it currently is, Building Cycling Culture/s aims to

  • celebrate cycling
  • explain and explore findings from two big recent research projects into cycling
  • invite reflection and discussion about how big cycling in Britain can get, what that cycling might look like, and how we can best get from here to there

On Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June, Building Cycling Culture/s takes over Leicester’s Phoenix Square Media Centre for talk, debate, film, artwork, bike rides, children’s activities, networking and ideas for change.  The venue has all facilities including café, bar, and loads of meeting space

Whether you come for the day or choose to make a weekend of it, please join the urgent business of building cycling culture/s …

Pre-conference events

Saturday 4th June, 5pm ‘til late: Launch Event and Party

Join us for an evening of events, including relaxed discussion regarding progress towards building cycling culture/s on both sides of the Atlantic

  • In conversation – with special guests Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation) and Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle, New York)
  • Along with bike films, live music, bike photography exhibition & community media hub

Sunday 5th June, 9am to 12noon: Breakfast & Bike Rides

Including – Bike Recycling Projects Tour, Cycle-friendly Pedestrian Zone, Western Park MTB Trails & Connect2 Watermead Park Project

Conference schedule

Sunday 5th June

12noon to 12.30pm: Registration & buffet lunch

12.30pm to 1.30pm: Welcome & keynote speeches

  • Andy Salkeld (Leicester City Council)
  • Kevin Mayne (Chief Executive, CTC)
  • Dr Rachel Aldred (UniversityofEast London): Key findings from the Cycling Cultures project
  • Dr Dave Horton (Lancaster University): Key findings from the Understanding Walking & Cycling project
  • Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation): Building Cycling Culture/s – Tales from New York

1.30pm to 2:15pm: Break for browsing and talking

  • A chance to look around stalls including: Bicycology, Bike It, Cyclemagic, Bikes 4 All, Future Cycles, Leicester Cycle Challenge, Bike Film Festival, and others to be confirmed (among them Bikeability, Cycle-Derby’s Scootability Project, Leicester Critical Mass, Beech Holme Tandem Club (Hull), Cambridge Cycling Campaign (Cambridge), and Bristol Bike Project)
  • A chance to participate in events taking place in and around the Phoenix: bike try-outs and much more …

2.15pm to 3.15pm: Workshops round 1

3.30pm to 4.30pm: Workshop round 2

Choose 2 from the following workshops:

A – ‘Recycling Communities’

Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle – Bikes, Art & Social Enterprise): From bike recycling to bike art, sustainable environmental education, training and jobs

B – ‘Inclusive Cycling’

Elizabeth Barner (CTC Cycling Champions Project) & STA Bikes Hackney (tbc): How cycling cultures might address issues of inequality and exclusion

C – ‘Re-cycling Peak Car Cities’

Iain Jaques (Photofinale & Leicester Architecture Festival ): Re-imaging cities and neighbourhoods for walking, cycling and sustainable transport

D – ‘Cycling Networks & New Media’

Ian Nutt and Rob Martin (Leicester Forest Cycling Club & Critical Mass) & Cambridge Cycling Campaign (tbc): Using social media to build social cycling networks

E – ‘Building Cycling Culture/s – where do we put the car?’

Bicycology: Exploring the difficulties of tackling car culture head on

F – ‘Cycling Cultures’

Dr Rachel Aldred and Dr Kat Jungnickel (University of East London): Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

G – ‘Understanding Cycling’

Dr Dave Horton and Dr Griet Scheldeman (Lancaster University): What needs to change to get Britain on its bike? Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

H – ‘Bike Hire Schemes’

Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transport): The future for ‘bike sharing as public transport’ in New York and elsewhere

4.30pm to 5:30pm: Question Time

5:30: Conference close


Phoenix Square is fully accessible for all abilities, see

Children welcome; a crèche is available

The cost is £10, including food. Prior registration is essential. To do so, please visit:

This event is being generously supported by CTC, Leicester City Council, Citizens’ Eye, the University of East London and Lancaster University

Building a British cycling culture: can Copenhagen show the way?

January 12, 2011

My thoughts following my recent trip to Copenhagen have been posted on the international, collaborative blog, On Our Own Two Wheels. But given I’m committted to those thoughts and the discussions which they provoke gaining maximum exposure and input, I’m also copying them here. Although I have not asked their permission I anticipate the co-operation of both Ezra Goldman at On Our Own Two Wheels and Richard Lewis, and thank them heartily for their contributions. So, what follows is, in order:

It makes for a rather long post, but you’ll see how it’s broken up into those three separate blog posts.

1. Experiences and thoughts on cycling in Copenhagen

I was in Copenhagen last week, for a meeting of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Ezra, who works on the project, kindly sorted a bike for me to ride around Copenhagen the next day, so I could get a cyclist’s view of the city.

And what a beautiful day I had! Cold, sure – very cold (especially my feet, despite packing my best cold weather socks – woolie boolies), but blue sky and sunshine bathing the Danish capital in glorious light. I don’t usually ride this style of ‘sensible’ bike, but straightaway I liked how suited it felt to the ‘difficult’ conditions. It felt solid and chunky moving over the ice, and the step-through frame gave me confidence that, should I slip, I’d be able quickly to dismount.

A big difference between the UK and Copenhagen is the treatment of cycling infrastructure. In the UK, cycle routes are very rarely cleared of snow and ice. This means that, in conditions such as those we’ve been having recently, people who ordinarily cycle either stop cycling and find some other way of making their journeys, or they are pushed into using the main roads. It’s a different story in Copenhagen. Some of the back streets weren’t clear, but all of the main arterial cycle routes I rode were.

Apparently there were far fewer people cycling than would usually be the case, even in early December. But again, from an English perspective, huge numbers of people were riding bikes. I stopped often, to watch them flowing through junctions; a beautiful sight, graceful in its silence and wintery light.

People cycling in Copenhagen rarely use their bells! I’d be fascinated to know how this particular mass cycling (non-)behaviour has come about. Mixed with the cold and the drab colours (all the leaves are now gone), the silence gave the cycling procession a funereal quality, which I rather liked (though it also produced a melancholy which made me want to find a warm and cosy cafe and sip hot coffee whilst reading Kierkegaard, whereas my mission was to stay out in the cold and see as much of the city by bike as possible …)

But yes, the numbers of people cycling … very many. I knew it already, but participating in it is another thing – Copenhagen has developed a ‘mass cycling culture’. Cycling is ‘mainstream’ here. I’ve no doubt that the kinds of people you see cycling will vary according to the part of the city and the time of day and week. Where and when I was riding I seemed mainly to be surrounded by younger people, more women than men; many students, I assumed. I stayed behind and followed some, not as a stalker but as a sociologist! Others I overtook, many more overtook me.

It was partly because I was new in the city and unclear on where I was going, and partly due to riding an unfamiliar bike, but along the main arterial routes into and out of the central city I felt I was pedalling a treadmill (to mix a metaphor!). Once I was on one of these cycle lanes which aim flat and straight, it felt hard to get off again. The snow had narrowed them, and people overtake, coming past really quite close, which increased my sense of being ‘hemmed in’.

There are important and intersecting tensions here, between ‘freedom’ and ‘confinement’, and between ‘the mass’ and ‘the elite’. It is crucially important how we negotiate these tensions across the world, as we move towards producing cycling as a major means of urban mobility.

Personally, I don’t like feeling part of a mass, feeling so regulated and restricted in my cycling movements. I don’t like feeling I’m ‘merely’ playing my part in the rhythmic, quotidian reproduction of urban space in the name of the continuation of a neo-liberal capitalist economy. Rather, I like to explore and conquer the city through cycling, to be an urban rebel. (Sure, most people might think me a jerk, but when I’m drinking freedom on my bike I really don’t care …)

But my elitist orientation to cycling in the city is antagonistic to (my ambitions for) cycling as an ordinary practice – one we need huge numbers of people to embrace in order to move towards a planet on which human habitation is viable over the long-term.

So I am in conflict both with my self and with Copenhagen. Luckily for me, that’s an OK place to be. Though of course, I am slightly worried that through my academic work I’m arguing for the kinds of place (cities with high modal shares for cycling, such as Copenhagen) in which I personally wouldn’t want routinely to cycle. (Down with Kierkegaard, up with Nietzsche?)

I have two highlights from my day spent pedalling around Copenhagen. The first is that I spent a day pedalling around Copenhagen (which maybe makes it a longlight ..). The second is getting to visit Christiania, a place I’ve long wanted to go.

Christiania is of course the home of Christiania bikes. I love cycling and I love all those who work in creative ways towards alternative, progressive, socially and ecologically liberated futures. So this is my kind of place!

I’m also a sociologist, and although I recognise that I’m not always – or even often! – very good at it, I like to think critically. I am fond of Denmark and the Netherlands, I love cycling in both countries, and I love how useful and stimulating they are to thinking about cycling and cycling futures. Heaven help us if we didn’t have their shining examples.

But I’m sometimes puzzled how the Dutch and Danes seem resistant to opening up their cycling practices to critical scrutiny. Amongst many of the Dutch and the Danes whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting, cycling’s something people simply, unproblematically just do.

Sociology cracks open and scrutinizes such taken-for-granted, common-sense perspectives, not to reveal them as false but in order to understand better the complex processes through which they’re constructed, maintained and,  yes, routinised.

So what I most love about Christiania and its bikes is how as a concrete place it provides evidence, both ‘actually’ (materially, in the form of a factory) and symbolically (culturally, in the form of the production and reproduction of particular ethics, aesthetics, sensibilities) of how a cycling culture gets built.

2. Response from Richard Lewis

Very interesting post, David. I am struggling a little with the contrast between what you say here (in which you essentially like Copenhagen’s cycling culture even if it’s not for you) and what you infer in your five part article regarding the fear of cycling, published on

My questions are, (aside from your dislike of being ‘constrained’) do you on balance actually like Copenhagen type infrastructure or not, and if you do, then can you see it happening, albeit to a limited extent, in the UK–on condition of design excellence and other conditions as you see fit? From your professional perspective, can you see dedicated infrastructure (as opposed, for example, to networks of streets with ‘filtered permeability’ as in London) having a significant effect on levels of cycling? Do you think we have reached a stage where the fear of cycling in society, and indeed public and media ‘aggression’ towards cyclists as an ‘out group’ is now so embedded that only dedicated infrastructure can produce the ‘next wave’ and the ‘normalisation’ of cycling?

For my part, I was one of those people who was ‘anti-segregation’ for the reasons you’ve outlined until I visited Copenhagen, and now I’m unsure. I thought the approach taken in the Netherlands was somewhat ‘gold plated’ and therefore unlikely to be achieved in the UK. Copenhagen appears to demonstrate a highly achievable example: the design of infrastructure is simple and continuous, and features the repeated application of simple design principles. I particularly like the treatment at many junctions (share the right-turn lane with motors), which minimises conflict without adding extra signal phases. And I can see the system being implemented on selected major routes into and around Central London and outer London town centres, subject to some design improvements for pedestrians.

However, on the other hand, I also agree with the ‘Bikeability’ cycle training approach, which trains cyclists to ride in vehicular fashion, sharing the carriageway with motors, and to overcome their fear of motors (a fear that is highly embedded in our society). I’m unsure of the long-term benefits of this: certainly riders become more confident and it’s been shown that they ride in a wider variety of contexts (progressing from all off-road to riding on quieter streets, for example). But should they find themselves being intimidated or in a close shave once too often, might that confidence ebb again, especially if there is an intervening break in cycling?

My suggestion, which I would like you to consider, is that good infrastructure for cycling in the UK is a mix of all things: where cyclists ride the streets and roads with motors, then motor traffic speeds should be reduced, enabling fearless sharing; where direct arterial road routes provide the shortest link to key destinations (and the alternative routes are indirect, perceived as unsafe at night, or difficult to follow), then Copenhagen-style infrastructure should be provided where there is sufficient width and measures should be taken to increase the relative convenience of cycling compared with other modes, by introducing networks of ‘modal filters’ (road closures with gaps for cyclists) to maintain direct access for cyclists and reduce route options for drivers.

The key thing in any event, it seems to me, is good design of public spaces. I don’t think we should consider ‘cycling’ or indeed ‘walking’, ‘using public transport’ or ‘driving’ in isolation–movement is not an end in itself. I like the Copenhagen philosophy that actually ‘quality of life’ is what should drive policy development and decisions. It’s a holy grail, of course, since the problem we have in the UK is a cultural ‘silo’ mentality of ‘functionality of space’ and humans as the ‘units’ that ‘require mobility’. When the functions of planners, transport planners, designers, and so on are properly linked, by an enterprising political leader perhaps, as in Copenhagen, then perhaps you might agree real progress towards a cycling society can be achieved in Britain.

3. My response to Richard

Hi Richard

Thanks very much for such a thoughtful response to my observations of Copenhagen, and for so considered a set of questions.

I will try to respond directly to your three specific questions.

1) Do I like Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure?

Not really, no. But whether or not I like it seems slightly irrelevant. My main consideration is whether or not it transforms – or has the potential to transform – the city. And here my response is ambivalent. Currently I do not think Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure is transformative, and before talking to a range of experienced and knowledgeable people in Copenhagen I doubted the potential for the city’s approach to cycling infrastructure progressively to de-centre and displace the car. But now I am less sure of myself – precisely, I have more optimism that Copenhagen’s approach (the provision of segregated space for cycling, which means people are effectively pedalling down narrow urban corridors – in relative ‘safety’ but also in relative ‘confinement’) contains both the ambition and the capacity to move beyond the model of the corridor, and incrementally to re-colonise ever more urban space for people, and thus de-privatise it from the grip of parked and moving cars.

2) Would, in the UK context, dedicated cycling infrastructure increase cycling?

Yes, I think so. For the last year my colleagues and I have been doing extensive and intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four English cities, and we have talked to many, many people who say (and I believe them!) they would like to cycle but are too afraid to do so under currently dominant cycling conditions. The provision of dedicated, segregated cycling infrastructure is an obvious mechanism for helping such people cycle. But I would emphasise, it is only one such obvious mechanism. Such provision should be just one of the tools in our kit for getting Britain on its bike. Here I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that such provision makes most sense along wider, key arterial routes, and should comprise part of a cycling network which embraces the existing – but hugely civilised (through for example slower speed limits and changing cultural sensibilities and legal responsibilities across different mobility users) – road network.

3) Because of the precarious state of cycling, is dedicated infrastructure the only realistic way of triggering a step-change in cycling in the UK?

My response to this question depends on my capacity to imagine a set of British politicians prepared to bite the bullet, and instigate – and then survive – a broader and sweeping portfolio of progressive changes to Britain’s transport environment. Because if UK government is capable of civilising the car, then no, we do not need a comprehensive dedicated cycling infrastructure (there will always be a case for some, selective, such infrastructure) – Copenhagen has such infrastructure because it was not prepared so to civilise the car, although clearly it has managed to ameliorate some of the car’s worst effects.

However, adopting a (slightly!) more pragmatic perspective, then yes, I think the installation of very high quality segregated cycling infrastructure along key arterial routes within and between British cities, alongside a range of other measures, is perhaps the way most effectively and quickly to reach a tipping point for cycling, which can trigger its elevation to a qualitatively different level (in terms of both practice – say, 20% of all urban journeys across the UK by 2025 – and perception – so that cycling becomes a perfectly acceptable and unremarkable thing for anyone at all to do); i.e. the ‘normalisation’ of cycling. This range of other measures would include the implementation of slower speeds (30 km/hr) across the rest of the road network, and would be aligned with other changes; infrastructural (such as modal filters, as you suggest), legal (such as stricter liability rules), and cultural (such as the adoption of cycling amongst high-profile charismatic individuals, and the consignment – and commensurate stigmatisation – of ‘cyclist-baiting’ to the most reactionary fringes of the gutter press).

In general, I seem increasingly to be moving towards what I’d call a ‘messy vision’ for cycling in the UK. By this I mean that getting Britain moving by bike will require many different interventions, which produce multiple (and potentially unpredictable) synergies, which together ‘spin’ us into a qualitatively new transport culture. Relatedly, I seem also increasingly to be adopting a position marked less by fixed adherence to some model over another (which when it comes to debating ‘the proper place of cycling’ (on or off road; integration or segregation) in the UK might be seen as a hindrance to debate about progressive cycling futures), and more by recognition that a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous ‘cycling system’ might be the inevitable and best outcome of our current and future efforts.

But going back to the thrust of your questions, I think increased provision of specific and segregated cycling infrastructure might be key to getting the velorution rolling. The current and massive problem with otherwise wonderful initiatives such as Bikeability (a UK cycle training scheme, not to be confused with the Danish research project of the same name!) is that, given the existing cycling environment, we’re destined to lose the vast majority of those we train. However well we train them, only the hardy minority will stay on their bikes for long. We have strategically to crack, and then mine, the current dominance of car-based urban automobility, and the establishment of cycling corridors – a la Copenhagen and (in a fashion) London – on key, highly visible arterial routes seems one way of doing so.

Finally, can I alert you to an upcoming event designed to explore these kinds of question? ‘Building Cycling Culture/s’ is taking place at The Phoenix Digital Arts Centre in Leicester on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011. I’m co-organising it with Rachel Aldred, who leads the ‘Cycling Cultures’ research project at the University of East London, Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council, and John Coster of ‘Citizens’ Eye’. We’ll be announcing further details soon, but suffice to say our vision is both to recognise and celebrate the myriad ways in which many people are currently working for cycling, and also to explore and debate what now needs to be done to produce in the UK a broad and inclusive cycling culture.

They’re some thoughts pretty much off the top of my head – but I hope they clarify my views (though as I hope I’ve suggested, my views are always under construction and in formation ….), and that we have more debate over these and similar matters into the future.

All the very best


Cycling in Copenhagen

December 9, 2010

Last week I went to Copenhagen, for a meeting of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. I’ll say more, and particularly about my experiences of and thoughts on cycling in Copenhagen, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wrote something for a great collaborative blog, initiated by Ezra Goldman with the intention of gathering experiences of urban cycling from across the world, On Our Own Two Wheels. It’s well worth checking out (the blog as a whole, not necessarily my particular post!).

7th Cycling and Society Symposium, Oxford

September 10, 2010
  • Was it the venue – the prestigious University of Oxford?
  • Was it the marvellous organisation of Tim Jones?
  • Is it that research into cycling is really on the up?
  • Is it a reflection of cycling’s growing popularity?

Whatever the reasons, this year’s Cycling and Society Symposium, which took place earlier this week, was the biggest yet.

Far more paper abstracts were submitted than could possibly be squeezed into a one-day programme – which was the first sign that the event’s appeal had broadened. Tim invited me, along with Henrietta Sherwin from the University of the West of England and John Parkin (who I think we can call the UK’s first ‘Professor of Cycling’!) from London’s South Bank University, to help him review the abstracts. It was hard to turn down so many submissions, given that they all sounded interesting and covered important topics. But on the upside, I think we came up with a blistering programme, which included researchers at very different stages of their careers (including I think I’m right in saying our first ever presentation from an undergraduate – Samuel Johns’ excellent exploration of the fixie phenomenon), from varied backgrounds (with Andy Cope, head of Sustrans’ Research and Monitoring Unit, giving the day’s last paper – which I took as a call for us academics to try harder to make our research really count), from around the world (Jennifer Bonham is over from Australia, and Peter Pelzer came across from Amsterdam), and orienting to an eclectic mix of highly pertinent themes (interactions between cycling/cyclists and others; gender, and the lifecourse; cycling cultures and sub-cultures; theory into practice).

More people came than ever before too. Around 50 of us, crammed into a splendidly light and airy room at the University Club, overlooking the cricket pitch (I was last in this room for an advisory board meeting of the project I work on, which unfortunately coincided with the opening match of this year’s World Cup, between South Africa and Mexico – supporters of those teams had congregated to watch the match in the room below, and we upstairs valiantly struggled to make ourselves heard above the irrepressible cacophony of vuvuzelas). Although I am obviously favourably predisposed to say such a thing, I think the Cycling and Society Symposia have become – in my experience – among the more inclusive spaces within academia; cycle campaigners sit alongside university lecturers, local authority practitioners next to Masters and PhD students – and everyone seems to get along famously and to be able to make their voices heard. For a perspective from one first-time attendee, you can check out the account composed by Kevin Hickman, Chair of the Inclusive Cycling Forum, on the Sustainable Witney website.

Congratulations and thanks to Tim and his Oxford team for a really magnificent event. Here’s the lovely man himself – I can say that because we know each other pretty well, having first met at the event I organised in Lancaster back in 2004, having both stuck with research into cycling since then, and now finding ourselves working together on a ‘proper project’.

Although it’s far from cycle-friendly, Oxford is the most cycle-friendly city to so far host the Symposium (previous venues being Lancaster, Cardiff, Chester, Guildford, Bristol and Bolton), and I enjoyed pedalling between the train station, the Symposium venue and Tim’s house, where I stayed the night. It’s the second time I’ve cycled in and around Oxford this year, and I have two main, obvious and blunt observations.

First, the number of people on bikes is striking. Lancaster, where I live, is seen as a relatively good place to cycle, and it has been one of Cycling England’s ‘cycling (demonstration) towns’ for five years now; yet I never feel part of a steady stream of cyclists – and so I never feel ‘normal’ – in the way I do when riding around Oxford. The students aren’t back yet, but the number of people moving around by bike is staggeringly high relative to Lancaster. Of course, it could be much higher – all I want to note here is how the experience of cycling is so qualitatively different in such a place. I don’t feel out of place, I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a point. Much more than I ever do around Lancaster, I consciously feel like I’m simply riding a bike.

Second, the increased prevalence of cycling clearly translates into altered behaviour among drivers of motorised vehicles. I want to say much more about this in the context of our recent family cycle-touring holiday in south-west France when I get the chance, but … I think there’s a discernible difference in the way in which car drivers interact with cyclists between Oxford and Lancaster. I want to stress that it is a minor difference, but a minor difference which nonetheless translates into a major qualitative leap in my sense of cycling ease, comfort and security. Cycling in Oxford I was still vigilant; I still often felt hemmed in and threatened by cars; cycling with Tim two-abreast down a quiet and narrow one-way back street with a 20 mph limit, I still felt vaguely discomforted and harassed by cars approaching from behind – almost as if we were doing something wrong; I still felt cars had priority and that I was fitting in as best I could around the edges. But I also felt noticed; I felt that motorists recognised my presence; and I felt that motorists were prepared to – and did – alter their behaviour because of my presence. Of course motorists in Lancaster also do all these things, but sitting on my bike in Lancaster, it doesn’t feel like they do these things, whereas sitting on my bike in Oxford, it does feel like motorists there do. I suspect it comes down to very small changes – a few miles per hour knocked off the motorist’s speed as they approach you, a few extra centimetres clearance as they come past, a few extra seconds willingness to wait, rather than steer into your path – but, especially when they’re taken together, from the cyclist’s point-of-view these very small changes really matter.

I’m sure cyclists in Oxford take this extra little recognition and courtesy for granted, which of course they should. And they should also be expecting much, much more. But for me the lesson of this little comparative study between Lancaster and Oxford is clear, and it pretty much follows CTC’s Safety in Numbers campaign – our road environment can be civilised, and every little step we take in civilising our road environment will result in a noticeable improvement in the quality of the cycling experience. There’s a chicken-and-egg here; the number of cyclists in Oxford has over time altered the behaviours of motorists, but how do you alter the behaviours of motorists when you don’t have the cyclists to help? To me, it looks like we need a few more rules and regulations in advance, to legislate for the kinds of behaviours which have emerged more organically, more culturally in a place like Oxford. It could be a failure of my imagination, but I can’t see how we can make the behaviour of motorists more generous and civilised towards cyclists without, for example, introducing urban wide speed limits of 20 mph, and without changing liability rules to put greater responsibilities on motorists in the event of collisions with more vulnerable others. Introduce those things and I’m fairly confident we’d need the quantity of cycle parking in Lancaster which they currently enjoy in Oxford, and in Oxford they’d need the quantity of cycle parking which the citizens of Dutch cities currently enjoy; in other words, we’d see a step-change in levels of cycling across the UK.

Bike Politics, across time …

September 8, 2010

With Aurora Trujillo I’m busy working towards next week’s Bicycle Politics workshop, which we’re holding at the Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University. And this morning I’ve received a timely reminder of the significance of bicycle politics, in the form of a lovely little article in the latest edition of Huck, which is a cool lifestyle magazine, focusing in this issue on counter-cultural stuff. (The illustration above, by Stevie Gee, comes from the article.) Olly Zanetti interviewed me for his piece, which is why I know about it, but he writes much better than me, and in remarkably few words crafts a beautiful story of the bicycle’s ongoing contribution to re-making our world for the better. Some of the things which across much of the world we now take pretty much for granted, from women’s ability to dress as they see fit to the good sense of public bike hire schemes, were once fiercely fought for by people, using bikes. I like to think that next week’s workshop will play its own little part in continuing that process, so that – for example – one day we might take almost completely for granted cities devoid of cars but full of bikes and life and love and laughter …

(Just in case anyone out there likes the look of it, I should say that I’m afraid the workshop is now full and registration closed, but I’ll report on it here in due course …)

Thinking about cycling, in Dublin

May 17, 2010

(Shameless bit of self-publicity, but ….) I’m off to Dublin in a couple of days, to deliver Dublin Cycling Campaign’s Annual Cycling Research Lecture. As part of my preparation, I’ve been reading about the current state of cycling in Ireland’s capital city; it looks as though there have been some interesting, and encouraging, developments there recently. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to ride around the city whilst I’m there, and aim to find time to reflect on the experiences when I’m back in the UK. Next week feels like the first week in months when I have no plans to travel beyond Lancaster (except, of course, by bike), and I can hardly wait. Among my plans are to blog about some of the things which I’ve been doing and thinking about recently …

If you want to find out more about cycling in Dublin, the Dublin Cycling Campaign is probably the best place to start. We’ll have to wait and see whether they want to thank me for going across the Irish Sea to talk to them, but sincere thanks from me to them, and especially Damien o’Tuama, for inviting me over there.

Understanding cycling …?

April 14, 2010

I realised earlier today that we’ve just passed the half-way stage of the project on which I’m currently earning my living, Understanding Walking and Cycling. This prompted me to look back at a short piece I wrote for our local cycle campaign’s newsletter, at the start of the project, and to reflect a little on the extent to which the reality, 18 months into the project, matches my expectations back then. Here’s what I wrote, 18 months ago:

Tory leader David Cameron emerges from his house with his bike, and sets off on his cycle to work. Perhaps he wears a helmet, perhaps not. Perhaps a ministerial car takes his papers, perhaps he carries them himself. What’s clear is that he’s made a commitment to ride his bike, and is doing so.

But what conversations, discussions, negotiations and decisions have taken place behind the closed doors of the Cameron household to enable him to make that journey by bike? Does Mr Cameron make all such journeys by bike, or only some? If only some, why those rather than others?

It might surprise you to learn that we don’t know much about the specific processes which get people onto bikes and out riding. Similarly, although we know that the vast majority of people –famous and not-so-famous, young and old, men and women – do not ride bikes, we have little understanding of the processes which result in all these people not getting on their bikes, and moving around in other ways.

There’s a very visible world of transport, and then there’s a massive invisible world underneath it, producing the visible. We can see people moving about, in cars, on bikes, in trains, on foot. What we can’t see is the processes which got them there.

A new research project based at Lancaster University aims to change that. It’s called ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. I’m working on the project over the next 3 years.

A sceptic might say that we don’t need to understand walking and cycling, we need actions to promote them. By funding research into walking and cycling, Government can defer such actions. So long as the Department for Transport is awaiting evidence of ‘what really works’ in getting people out walking and cycling, it can avoid doing some of those things we already know would get more people walking and cycling – widespread 20 mph speed limits, closing streets to cars, widening pavements, building high quality off-road routes.

Of course, spending a bit of money on thinking is an awful lot cheaper, and politically less difficult, than spending a lot of money on doing. But there is a sound logical basis to the project. We want to understand how different kinds of people make decisions about which mode of transport to use for short, local, urban journeys. These are journeys which we know could easily be made by bike or foot. Our task is to figure out the many, varied and complex reasons as to why different kinds of people do and don’t make such journeys by bike or on foot.

We’ll be finding out how people do things through actually getting involved in their lives, and attending to the details of their ordinary routines. We’ll be hanging out in their houses, accompanying them on journeys, discussing their reasons for doing this rather than that, probing their relationships to things (car keys, umbrellas, ‘sensible’ shoes, waterproofs, bikes, timetables, maps ….) which help or hinder them from moving in particular ways. Getting behind Mr Cameron’s front door, in other words. 


My immediate thoughts, re-reading this, are:

  • what I wrote back then still makes sense to me, which gives me some confidence that both I personally and the project more generally are at least being reasonably consistent … (which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing, but I’ve also been led to believe that ‘proper academic projects’ are supposed to deliver what they promised at the outset to deliver …)
  • but much more importantly, also that a suspicion I had back then has only grown stronger, actually much stronger – namely, that we cannot understand cycling only (or even mainly) by seeking to understand what goes on behind the ‘closed doors’ of households. There is something out there which – my sociological tongue-in-cheek – we might call ‘actually-existing realities’; and to understand cycling we need very consciously and explicitly to observe those realities, and critically to consider the ways in which they might be inhibiting or facilitating people’s decisions to cycle, or not to cycle. So as I mentioned in my recent post about our Worcester-based fieldwork, Griet and I have been paying much more ethnographic attention to conditions out there in the transport environment. Our (preliminary, non peer-reviewed) conclusions will not come as much of a surprise to you, indeed will strike most of you as statin’ the bleedin’ obvious (namely, those conditions for cycling absolutely suck). But I must confess to feeling very privileged to be a sociologist getting paid to stand on street corners (a la William Foote Whyte, one of my key sociological influences), from where I can pay very serious attention to actually-existing conditions for cycling, observe how people negotiate their ways through those conditions, and move slowly towards a position, perhaps a year from now, when Griet and I, along with our colleagues, will be reporting and discussing our findings, hopefully with multiple and diverse audiences. Half-way through the project, and half-way through our qualitative fieldwork, I’m feeling pretty confident that our calls for fundamental change to currently dominant conditions – if we’re serious about promoting walking and cycling (and how serious different ‘stakeholders’ really are about that does of course throw up a whole set of different questions …) – will have very firm bases in empirical realities.

Incidentally, please don’t take my use of David Cameron and his cycling here as some kind of indication that I support the Tories. For my own conscience, I feel the need to say: I have never voted Tory, and I have no intention of ever doing so. Should anyone be in the slightest bit interested, my vote on May 6th will be for Gina Dowding.

Bicycle Politics: symposium and workshop

April 12, 2010

Bicycle Politics

Symposium and workshop

Thursday 16th – Friday 17th September 2010

Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

The major role and relevance of bicycles and cycling to future life seems increasingly unquestionable. On the ground, projects across the world are committed to promoting cycling and/or cycling-oriented subcultures. In both theory and practice, there’s a real energy and vitality to think about cycling differently, to carve out alternative possibilities around the bicycle.

But if cycling is enjoying a renaissance, it is also under fire. Whilst almost everywhere people are pushing for cycling, it also seems that almost everywhere cycling is deeply problematic – contentious, oppressed, discriminated against.

Bicycles, cycling and cyclists seem to invoke love and hate in equal measure …

Bicycle Politics, a two day event hosted by the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) at Lancaster University, UK, aims to explore bicycles and cycling politically. By thinking creatively and critically, its political project is to help push bicycles and cycling further into the hearts of our cities and societies, to improve the possibilities for cycling to re-make our world, to assist cycling’s obvious potential to contribute to alternative, sustainable mobility futures.

To this end, we are calling for critical explorations of the political, social, cultural and economic barriers to current and future cycling, as well as for critical investigations of the ways in which bicycles, cycling and cyclists are currently framed.

We welcome all proposals for papers which fit under the broad heading of Bicycle Politics. Such contributions might examine:

•     Cycling and political economies and ideologies

•     The politics of cycling ‘promotion’

•     Critiques of cycling

•     Cycling and discriminations

•     Cycling and inequalities

•     Cycling, social control, freedom and deviance

•     Cycling, space and the politics of space

•     Cycling, social movements and social change

•     Cycling and identity

•     Cycling and the politics of representation

•     Feminist perspectives on cycling

•     Cycling and the law

The precise structure of the event will be decided later. But we anticipate the first day comprising paper presentations, with the second day given over to deeper explorations of the papers and ideas presented the previous day. Our intention is to produce an edited collection, Bicycle Politics, from the event.

If you wish to present a paper, please send title and abstract, by Wednesday 5th May 2010, to both:

Dave Horton – and Aurora Trujillo –

We aim for the symposium and workshop to be free and open to all. However, spaces could be limited. So if you would like to participate, but do not plan to present a paper, please email us to reserve a place.