Posts Tagged ‘activism’

City Cycling – book review

November 21, 2013

I’m posting below the review of City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, I wrote earlier this year for the journal World Transport Policy and Practice. It’s long but hopefully of interest to those concerned about prospects for city cycling across the world; and the more people who read and think about, and then act on these issues, the better.

City Cycling book cover

A tricky balance must be struck in thinking about cycling’s prospects as an ordinary mode of urban transport. On the one hand, it’s good not to be all doom-and-gloom, but to offer hope that the urban world should and could make most of its daily trips beyond walking length by bicycle. But on the other hand it’s important to emphasize that cycling as a mass mode of planetary mobility isn’t inevitable and that making it happen requires ambition, commitment and work. Overall, this book gets that balance right. Sure, there’s easy talk of ‘cycling’s renaissance’ across cities such as London, Paris and New York, talk which seems premature, too uncritical and rather naïve. But then it’s more important to show things can change, even if they’re changing far too slowly, than to lose hope that cycling will ever effectively be centred in our political institutions, towns, cities, and everyday lives.

No one has done more than John Pucher and Ralph Buehler to popularise the cause and possibility of city cycling, using what is elsewhere to advocate what could be at home – in north America, but also Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Over the past decade and more, Pucher and Buehler have argued that the English-speaking world should follow the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany in becoming cycle-friendly; and they have investigated and shown how it can be done. City Cycling continues this project in an impressive way. It’s academic, drawing together an international, cross-disciplinary collection of researchers who set out what needs to change for cycling to become mainstream; but it’s unquestionably advocacy too. The case for cycling has already been made but it needs making again and again, and it is made persuasively here. It is glib but true to say that if every politician, policy-maker and practitioner with any responsibility for the organisation of urban life read and acted on this book, we could move rapidly and radically towards a socially and environmentally much brighter future.

Overall the book argues for cycling to be systematically embedded into global economy and society in the same way as driving a car has over the past half-century been systematically embedded within north American, Australian and much of European economy and society. Of course this ‘centering’ of cycling must be at the car’s expense, and here it sometimes feels like the ambition of City Cycling’s lead editor and chief contributor, Professor Pucher, is ahead of the book’s other contributors. For example, there is some but on the whole too little interrogation of the role of the car’s continuing dominance – ideologically, structurally, spatially – in impeding cycling. Cycling visions, strategies and actions never take place in a vacuum; they emerge from and are shaped by the context of car domination. Much current action in the name of cycling – because it is insufficient for the job of mainstreaming cycling – therefore risks merely perpetuating cycling as a marginal mode of mobility and cyclists as a sub-cultural ‘out-group’. Minor support for cycling reproduces cycling as a minority mode, and isn’t good enough. Only major resource re-allocation away from the car and towards the bicycle can break cycling out from its current marginalisation at the car’s expense. The better chapters here make clear that cycling thrives in places where driving is not just ‘civilised’ but more importantly deterred.

But there’s no ‘magic bullet’. City Cycling argues effectively that consistent, coherent support for cycling across all sectors of society is required in order to develop a bicycle system which makes cycling, not driving, the obvious mode of short-distance urban travel. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are well advanced over north America and Australia in every important respect – from allocation of transport spending on cycling, to development of cycling infrastructure, to land use and planning rules, to driver awareness and cycling education.

Nevertheless and for good reason, issues of infrastructure loom large. It now seems evident to the point of obviousness that new city cycling cannot be produced without the provision of a dedicated network of cycling routes of a quality sufficient to appeal to everyone. Pucher and Buehler’s previous research demonstrates this as the key difference between countries with high and low levels of cycling. So whilst its message is undoubtedly broader, City Cycling’s biggest impact might be in pushing us closer to consensus (a consensus which is I think established across the scientific community, but lagging across advocacy) that the two main means of mainstreaming cycling are infrastructural; first, the taming of motorised traffic to speeds which make cycling plausible even for those (the vast majority of people) nervous about sharing space with it; and second, wherever that is not (for transient reasons of political will) done (most likely on bigger and busier roads) cycling’s separation from and prioritisation over motorised traffic.

Whilst the contrasts between cycle-friendly northern Europe and car-centric Anglophone countries seem to cry out for strong critique of the latter, the book is unfailingly polite in tone. Given its intended readership needs to be persuaded rather than offended, this is probably good diplomacy. It does sometimes feel, though, that the passion which surely animates advocacy of more cycling – and which helps explain that advocacy – has gone AWOL. So one cost of diplomacy is a certain tediousness in both description (“the Netherlands is like this, the US is like this …”) and analysis (“the Dutch prioritise cycling, but north Americans don’t …”). The book’s impetus to convince more than explain also leaves some questions unasked (“But why do the Dutch prioritise cycling, whilst north Americans don’t? What are the ideological and institutional blocks and barriers, and how might they be overcome?”). For similarly understandable reasons the book is generally upbeat (“look how cycling is growing, and look how easy it is to grow it faster!”), yet we know this is only one side of the story. There are certainly good news stories, but let us not be blind to the fact that across most of the world levels of cycling are either negligible and static, or else quite high but rapidly declining (and in those places cycling needs rescuing, not promoting).

City Cycling belongs to an emerging paradigm shift, from a paradigm that sees cities built for and around the car, towards one which sees cars as inappropriate and bicycles as far more appropriate vehicles for cities. There’s material useful to this transition here. It’s good to see Kristin Lovejoy and Susan Handy’s exploration of cycles and cycle accessories, for example. We know that many bicycles are not really fit for the purpose of city cycling, and it’s refreshing to see that recognised. Also good are three chapters exploring cycling in different sized cities – the small, medium and mega. Cycling is sometimes dismissed by critics as more appropriate to smaller than to bigger cities, whose populations (they say) should travel by transit not bike. So it’s a neat bit of advocacy as well as analysis to break cities down by size, and discuss prospects and strategies for cycling at each scale.

The most fascinating glimpse into cycling is provided by the penultimate chapter exploring cycling in four ‘mega cities’, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. The first three have seen much pro-cycling hype (and sometimes hysteria) and large increases in cycling, albeit from very low bases. In contrast cycling in Tokyo seems prey to benign neglect, yet it’s by far the most successful ‘cycling mega city’, with relatively high modal share (16.5% of all trips we are told), demographically relatively evenly spread. This chapter correspondingly begs the more detailed kind of cultural investigation which is necessarily absent from the book, but which is nonetheless well worth pursuing. One of the book’s big policy pushes is towards dedicated cycling infrastructure, something now being pursued in London, Paris and New York but not Tokyo. So that using Tokyo as a model of best practice in this chapter might almost undermine the main advocacy push of the book as a whole. (It would be a shame, but unsurprising, if the case of Tokyo were used by opponents of dedicated cycling infrastructure.)

Tokyo’s apparent ‘success’ suggests the importance of closer study of how cycling is actually practised – how do people cycle there? How fast do they tend to go? We know quite a lot about cycling policy and practice in north America, Australia and Europe, but what about cycling policies and practices elsewhere, including Japan about which it seems we know too little? Furthermore the book is silent on the two countries which arguably matter most for the future both of city cycling and our planet – China and India. That’s fair enough –  City Cycling makes no claims to inclusivity or universality. But the more global perspective which the case of Tokyo provokes raises potentially disturbing questions; ‘just what is cycling?’; and ‘what do we want it to become?’.

City Cycling’s desire to persuade more than explain is both its biggest strength and its greatest shortcoming. Thus my hope is that it’ll be read more by people who need persuading of the case for cycling than those seeking to understand it. But even were that to be the case, I have some concerns. In its rush to show how cycling’s promotion is compatible with a range of bureaucratic policies, and how inserting cycling effectively into the city is mainly about technocratic expertise and practice, there’s an evacuation of politics from City Cycling. There are two elements to this evacuation of the political: first, it prevents the book asking some tough questions (to do with continuing neo-liberal capitalism) about why cycling continues to be so marginalised despite it making so much sense; and second, what disappears from most chapters is what I would assume is the authors’ beliefs in the bicycle’s capacity to make the world a better place.

To finish let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.

First, if cycling is so good, why aren’t we all cycling yet? If the arguments are so strong and persuasive, what’s stopping us? Answering such questions requires political, economic, social and cultural analyses both of continuing car (and oil) dependency and of cycling’s continuing marginality. Across the USA, Australia and UK it remains the case that the advocacy of cycling is tolerated, and demands for greater investments in cycling are granted, only so long as they don’t threaten the car’s centrality to everyday life and/or they fit with emergent neo-liberal discourses around livable (for the white, affluent, middle-classes) cities. So only outrageous, extraordinary demands for cycling – demands which test the limits of the car system – have hope of breaking us (even cycling’s advocates) out of unwittingly reproducing cycling’s marginality. Until we learn to do this, mass city cycling – cycling as the main vehicular means of urban transport – remains a pipe-dream.

Second, should cycling promotion become a technocratic exercise, simply about inserting more cycling into the city-as-it-is for the latest, most fashionable set of policy reasons? Is cycling’s main contribution to make our bodies, businesses, streets and economies more ‘effective’ and efficient? Is more cycling enough, or do we want something more? I don’t know about you, but I want something more. Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is not ‘merely’ a bureaucratic and technocratic insertion into the city as it is, with all its injustices and inequalities (to do with class, gender, race, age, ability, locality and so on). Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is also potentially, at least in part, a disruption to that city, and so something which enables the city to be re-made in more socially and ecologically just ways. So demands for city cycling should not only be ridiculously bold but also unapologetically critical. Who are we encouraging to cycle? White, male, middle-aged commuters? Not good enough! What about – for example – kids, people who need to ride wider-than-average machines specifically adapted to their needs, people travelling as a group (who’ve every right to travel as sociably as people within a car)? I think people advocate for cycling because they recognise its capacity to improve the world in a strong, qualitative way; I agree; and I think that we shouldn’t sell either ourselves or cycling short.

All this is perhaps less a criticism of the book than a critique of what cycling might become if left purely to the work of books such as this. This book is important, but it’s not enough. It can form only part of a broader struggle. City Cycling should push city cycling, and is to be very highly commended for that, but it raises more questions than it answers for future cycling research. This is no bad thing; cycling research, much like cycling advocacy, is part of the cycling system we need to establish and maintain in order to first make and then keep cycling normal.

Cycling advocacy and the global future

November 8, 2013

There is no global cycling policy and globally cycling’s future will emerge from multiple and intersecting trends, including: responses to big planetary challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap oil, and the growth in diseases induced by sedentary lifestyles; patterns of car ownership and use, especially across the world’s fastest-growing economies; changes in cycling’s profile, particularly in globally iconic cities; and the possibilities of new technologies (including e-bikes and public bike schemes) to re-define current meanings and practices of mobility. But cycling’s future and so also the globe’s will be importantly shaped by its advocates’ views of what cycling is for.

Why advocate cycling? Simply so it becomes easier for us as cyclists to move about by bike? Or is there a bigger vision of what everyone’s lives, relationships, places, and world should be and feel like? I think the latter – the bicycle is both symbolic of, and a pragmatic path to, another way of life, and this is why so many of us believe in cycling, and want to make it bigger.

The bicycle isn’t yet the iconic vehicle to and of a brighter world, but it could and should be – there’s an empty space in the global imagination awaiting it to fill. Though the idea of the bicycle achieving globally iconic status might seem ridiculous, a hundred years ago the same might have been said about the car, and the bicycle’s deeply loved by people everywhere.

If we want a different world organised around the bicycle not the car, it’s our business to make it. Cycling’s global future depends partly on how successfully its advocates build and sell cycling as core to a better world; and for that we need bold and powerful visions. Yet in Britain at least, no cycling advocacy organisation obviously and proudly struts an alternative global vision (the small, grassroots, activist-initiated Bicycology perhaps comes closest). CTC – the national cycling charity – endured the time of the car, and has (understandably) found ways of co-existing with it, though its recent ‘Cycletopia initiative seemed a tentative step in a more visionary direction. Sustrans gives tantalising glimpses of cycling as a route to a better world in its publicity material, but doesn’t really deliver more. A new organisation, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is less constrained, more impatient and ambitious, but has yet to develop a really compelling and inspiring vision of why transport cycling is worth fighting for. And although it’s become more common, even acceptable, to aim not for 2 but 25% of journeys by bike, it’s still unclear why.

This absence of big and persuasive stories about why we want more cycling is a problem for two reasons.

First, it means the value of cycling gets colonised by institutional agendas and ambitions. Institutions embracing cycling is no bad thing, but is it generating a bland, pragmatic and in the long-run counter-productive view of cycling? Is the dominant trope becoming of cycling fitting this world, rather than creating a route out, towards a better one? In projecting the idea that cycling belongs to the same world as today’s driving one, institutionalised cycling promotion prevents our getting somewhere else, cycling’s potential sold short and stymied.

Second, it’s hard to motivate and inspire without a vision. As advocates we should help people cycling feel part of something big and transformative – a movement changing the world for good. Then they won’t be ‘merely’ cycling; they’ll be on a mission, and might get more involved. But the absence of global and national visions for cycling is felt locally – cycle campaigns everywhere struggle against a tide of indifference when they could and should be trail-blazing vibrant, radical and inspiring visions for their districts.

At this local level, in Britain and elsewhere two styles of cycling advocacy tend to co-exist, often uneasily. In one, advocates view themselves as ‘cycling’s representatives’ and make suggestions for things that ought to be done (usually by others, mainly local government) for cycling, and complain about schemes (so many!) that fail to value cycling. Here, cycling is done to us, by those we lobby and to whom we protest; however much we love cycling, it becomes something given us by others. With respect to everyone who engages in such work (and I’ve done my share), such advocacy gets cycling a few crumbs from transport’s table and achieves little beyond reproducing itself as marginal; it’s jaded, lacks vision and disempowers both ourselves and others. The other style of cycling advocacy is more obviously vision-led. Cycling is not done to us, we do cycling. Although it rarely finds its way into mainstream cycle campaigning this style of advocacy can be found in grassroots projects, often workers’ co-ops, across the world; and it’s one to learn, adopt and adapt more widely.

How? I’m not sure; the necessary work is neither obvious nor easy. But articulation of a global vision could start in our own backyards and involve two main tasks: the priority is to develop and strive to popularise a local vision based around the bicycle – we need to open to and convince not just others but also ourselves of a future where cycling is the practical, ethical and aesthetic glue joining things together; this could entail shifts to advocacy in artistic, literary and educational directions, to produce locally-pertinent and collectively-owned stories about cycling’s relevance to a fair and sustainable global future; the next step is to direct energies into projects making these locally-owned visions real. Like everything, the way to proceed is through practice, and to try to have fun! (Advocacy can be dreary, but it could be exciting, and so much more effective.)

Critical Mass

It’s time to reclaim cycling for a cause more noble than getting people to work on time, time for visions inspiring more people to ‘really get cycling’ (by which I mean not just doing cycling, but having reasons why, reasons dictated not by government policy priorities but real thirst for change). Cycling advocacy influences cycling’s future, and so too the globe’s, so we must be bold and visionary. Dream and demand too little and we’ll get less than cycling deserves – how depressing if more cycling doesn’t, when it so obviously could, change the world? So let’s work for a ‘cycling revolution’ which is no chimera, but real.

This post is based on a talk I gave on 23rd October 2013, at the AGM of Dynamo, Lancaster and District’s Cycling Campaign. Thanks to Dynamo for having me speak, and to those who attended for stimulating discussion. The art work is by Mona Caron – whilst I’m sure not alone, she’s the only artist I know of who has done work that embodies a clear vision of cycling-based futures.

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.


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


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!”

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop

April 2, 2012

I’m a fairly incompetent and very low in confidence bicycle mechanic. Between us Sue and I manage to keep our family’s growing stable of bikes on the road for most of the year, fixing punctures, changing tyres, replacing cables and fettling with gears and brakes. But our bikes occasionally go elsewhere to be given more fundamental overhauls, and/or to have the kind of work done which we feel less able to do – for example, the bottom bracket of my winter training bike crumbled recently, and I got straight on the phone to Colin Stones, a great local bicycle mechanic we’ve known for years, who collects your machine in his van, takes it away to do the necessary repairs, and returns it to you restored to its former glory.

I aspire to be more technically competent however. After all, one of the supposed beauties of bicycles is that they are an appropriate and relatively transparent and participatory technology – because they are easier to understand and maintain than a car, our use of bicycles should be less reliant on outside experts, and more open to the DIY ethic. That’s the theory anyhow. I also predict that as a family we’ll acquire more bikes as Bobby and Flo get older – for example Bobby hasn’t got a mountain bike yet, but I don’t think it’ll be too long before he’s desperate for one (especially if he keeps watching clips of Danny Hart winning the 2011 World Championships downhill on YouTube!), and then I’ll maybe join him, and so too might Sue and Flo  – so we can enjoy off-road adventures together. (Without a car and with most mountain biking venues awkward to reach by public transport, this branch of cycling is probably the most difficult for us to experience.) The more bikes we get, the more sense it makes to take complete care of them ourselves.

It’s also impossible to teach Bobby and Flo bike mechanics if I’m no good at doing it myself. Bobby had his Redline BMX nicked from our back garden at the end of last year, but that cloud had a silver lining … the local police invited him onto a bike-building workshop, run by local bike recycling project Pedal Power. Danny from Pedal Power sourced a fantastic BMX to replace Bobby’s stolen steed, and over five winter Thursday evenings, Bobby stripped it down and re-built it himself, finishing not just with a ‘new’ bike, but with knowledge and skills which should serve him well. But he and Flo will need support and encouragement from Sue and me if they’re to develop their bike maintenance and repair skills. Like most kids today, I didn’t have parents who were interested in or knew anything about bikes. The little I know I had to find out for myself. I never messed about with bikes as a kid, and so I never learnt how to look after them properly  – I expended my efforts fleeing into the countryside on my bike, and – mainly I think through lack of support – struggled and got seriously frustrated whenever I actually needed to fix it.

I’ve a partner and a son who are more mechanically minded than I am, we’ve an expanding stable of seemingly ever more expensive bikes, and I’ve a guilty and growing sense that I should develop a technical literacy around cycling to match my reasonable social, cultural and political literacy.

So I’ve joined The Tool Club at Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop.

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop is a co-operative enterprise of three women – Aurora, Hollie and Sarah. At the end of a Lancaster terrace close to the city centre, they’ve set up a friendly and airy space with all the tools you need to work on your bike yourself, with at least one of them always around to lend a helping hand should it be needed.

In a mature and properly sustainable bicycle system there’d be a place like Freewheelers on every corner. Your neighbourhood, every neighbourhood, would have one. But it is Lancaster’s first. It answers three major barriers to self-sufficient cycling which, aside from what I’ve mentioned already, my own household confronts.

First, a real lack of space to do our own bicycle maintenance; we live in a terraced house with no garage or other out-buildings save sheds with space to store, but not to work on, bicycles. So we work on bicycles in our downstairs dining space, particularly in winter, when it’s too cold and/or dark to do such work outdoors but – because of the harsh riding conditions – such work is also more likely to be required.

Second, we lack many of the required tools. Lack of appropriate tools is one reason why we’re happy changing tyres and cables, but balk at removing freewheels and servicing bottom brackets and hubs. Tools for those kinds of jobs can be expensive, and there’s also a vicious circle here – you’re unlikely to buy tools which you don’t know how to use, but you won’t learn how to use such tools until you’ve got access to them, and in today’s capitalist economy that typically means buying them.

Third, we lack a more experienced and competent person to call on, when we get to those tricky and potentially very frustrating moments, when we suddenly realise we’re not fully in control of what we’re doing, and could be about to balls it up, sometimes big time. I’m sure it’s true of all DIY, not just bike maintenance, but I have known many times when a supposedly straightforward and quick job rapidly escalates into a panicky, stressed episode and potential mechanical catastrophe.

I’ve never owned a car, have always ridden bicycles, already know a fair bit about them, and am strongly committed to the development of bicycle-centred societies. So if all these barriers to bicycle mechanical confidence and competence are true of me, and even accepting that I’m more than averagely mechanically incompetent, how much more true must they be of the majority of the population? We need better spaces in which people can cycle, we need people to be taught how to cycle, but we also need spaces in which people can learn about bicycles, how they work, and how to repair them. People today know so little about bicycles – even seemingly simple things such as appropriate seat height and tyre pressure, which can make all the difference between  enjoyable and excruciating (so excruciating they may never be repeated) experiences. Over the last few generations we’ve lost a great deal of cycling knowledge and skill, and these resources were anyway always already heavily gendered.

Now I’m a member of their Tool Club, when I’m confronted by a tricky job which I could but really shouldn’t hand over to somebody else, I’ve no excuse not to do it myself; all I have to do is get across to Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop, and in a supportive environment with all the tools (including importantly access to the internet and book-based manuals) have a go at doing it myself. (Very sensibly and appropriately, what you pay reflects whether or not you need additional support when working on your bike. I know that for myself, there are some jobs which I could, using the space, stands and tools provided by the Tool Club, do independently; but for others I’ll need to call on Aurora, Hollie or Sarah’s help, and will happily pay a little extra for it.)

It is significant that Freewheelers is the achievement of three women. In the UK cycling remains a male-dominated practice, and the cycling industry – including retailing – is similarly male-dominated. It’s so obvious it barely needs saying, but for women to cycle as readily as men (and indeed for many more men to cycle) we need cycle shops and services to which people are attracted and where they feel comfortable, and women as well as men need to be empowered to fix bicycles when they’re broken.

For people who do want to be taught how to fix their bike, Freewheelers offers a range of maintenance courses, everything from servicing your bottom bracket (that’s one for me!) to adjusting brakes, and removing and fitting cables. It’s also a bike shop, selling all manner of spares and accessories. And Aurora, Hollie and Sarah also receive unwanted bikes, to repair, recycle and bring them back to life.

For the sake of cycling, we need new spaces in which people can learn in safety the vocabulary of cycling and build healthy, active relationships with bicycles.

For the sake of a sustainable economy and society, we need these spaces to privilege re-cycling, repair and re-use, and to encourage people to think about, and perhaps to revise, their attitudes to the appropriate relationship between production and consumption – learning how to fix your bike yourself can crack acceptance of passive consumption.

For the sake of thriving local community and democracy, we need such spaces where people live, so they can foster face-to-face interaction and contribute to convivial bike-based neighbourhoods. And for the sake of social justice, we need them to be spaces which appeal to and cater for constituencies beyond the current ‘cycling market’, so that new groups have a stake in cycling, and begin to reproduce the bicycle system as something qualitatively and quantitatively bigger and better than it already is.

I’m guilty of gross hypocrisy here; I often use on-line cycle retailers because they’re cheap and convenient – I can buy what I want in the comfort of my own home and have it delivered to my doorstep a few days later, and it costs less than buying it from a local bike shop. But each time I use an on-line retailer I’m supporting one kind of bicycle economy and denying another, the kind best represented by Freewheelers, the kind I actually believe in. Aurora, Hollie and Sarah are three women trying to create a space for more people to feel welcomed into and to take up cycling, they’re busy building a core part of a sustainable bicycle system in their own – and my own – backyard, at the grassroots, and they’re hoping – just maybe – to make a bicycle-based living by doing so. But they quite probably depend on people like me siding with them over Wiggle.

It’s the same each time I shop at a supermarket rather than the local wholefood co-op; I affirm the wrong kind of world and make the attainment of the alternative I’d actually prefer that little bit harder. It’s too easy for me to do ‘the bad thing’ and too hard to do ‘the good’. But shouldn’t this send a strong signal to me that I need to re-evaluate and re-organise my own life so that doing the right thing becomes easier and doing the wrong thing becomes harder?

There are deep structural issues here, which make elevation of the individual’s capacity for agency potentially naive. Certainly, whatever lifestyle changes we ourselves make, there’s also need to push for broader and more fundamental economic, social and political re-organisation. But I think it’s time we start thinking more consciously about not just creating an increasingly bicycle-based society, but the precise kind of bicycle-based society we want to create. And here surely, places like Freewheelers are part of the society we want?

Like more standard bike shops, Freewheelers offers repairs and servicing. To come here you don’t have to get oily fingers; you can simply be a customer, and have your bike fixed for you, albeit  – and unusually – by a team of women who have organised themselves and their business cooperatively and ethically, which is a strong enough reason in itself to support them.

Freewheelers forms part of a growing grassroots bicycle system which if it spreads sufficiently can re-work cycling as a genuine vehicle of sustainability; not just because cycling replaces trips by car whilst leaving everything else unchanged, but because cycling becomes more rooted in and contributes to a system which is committed to more fundamentally re-organising economy and society, production and consumption, in ecologically and socially sustainable ways.

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop is a new kind of participatory and democratic space, of the kind required to re-skill and re-tool society in convivial and sustainable ways. There are similar workers’ co-operatives and grassroots bike projects elsewhere, such as Birmingham Bike Foundry, Cranks in Brighton, Pedallers Arms in Leeds, and Oxford Cycle Workshop. If there’s such a venture close to you, I urge you to search it out, visit and support it. By being not merely about cycling, such places help us see how the push for cycling is no blind push; it’s a push for a fundamentally different kind of society, much better – fairer, greener and more democratic – than the one we’ve currently got.

Huge thanks to Aurora, Hollie and Sarah for showing me around the workshop, and answering my questions. And please, if you’re in or around Lancaster, support their co-operative business – and so a truly sustainable future. You can find all the details you need, including opening times and costs of courses, on Freewheelers website.

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