Posts Tagged ‘barriers to cycling’

How best to boost urban cycling?

November 26, 2013

I’ve run out of time to do the post I’d intended this week (tomorrow I travel to Bavaria to take part in what looks like a stimulating Active Mobility workshop), so will instead simply note that a debate between David Dansky, head of training and development at Cycle Training UK, and me is today published on the Mobile Lives Forum (a site well worth checking out in its own right). David and I discuss why urban cycling matters, how it can best be encouraged, and differences in encouraging cycling between urban and suburban areas. (We were given tight word limits, which is why our responses are so brief.) On the same site there’s a video-conference with the sociologist Rachel Aldred from Westminster University exploring London’s ‘bicycle revolution’, so if you feel so inclined you can get a real sociological cycling fix!

Read my discussion with David (who has consistently been among the most interested, thoughtful and respectful respondents to the (somewhat contentious) Understanding Walking and Cycling research with which I was involved) here.

Bicycle Bridge

February 12, 2013

Millennium Bridge

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

Sue crossing the Millennium Bridge

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

The Millennium Bridge

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

Millennium Bridge Signpost

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

Railway bridge

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

Road bridge (northbound)

Pavement cycling

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

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

Bike on the bridge

Cyclist on the bridge

Riding across the bridge

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


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

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

Dusk falls over the bridge

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

This is what we want

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

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

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

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

Cycling struggles, 6

December 10, 2012

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

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

6. A ‘minority’ cycling story

Off familiar territory

The area

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

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

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

Local shop

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

Typical residential street

Our research methods

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

Corner shop

Attitudes to cycling

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

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

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

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

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

cycling ≠ transport.

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pooja:   “Yeah.”

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

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

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

Off-street parking

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

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

The car as status symbol

Attitudes to cyclists

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

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

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

Within a group discussion, Devaraj gives this anecdote:

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

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

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

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

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

Utility cycling

Who cycles then?

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

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

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

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

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

Utility cycling

How to tackle cycling’s low status

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Amar: “Yeah, it’s unsafe.”

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

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

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

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

Hua: “Cycle paths!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the bicycle at the heart of things

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

Cycling struggles, 5

November 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. A poor cycling story

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

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

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

What do people living here think about cycling?

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

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

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

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

Why doesn’t she ride now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling struggles, 4

November 8, 2012

Why don’t people cycle?

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

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

4. Holly’s cycling story

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

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

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

She can cycle.

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

But she is scared to cycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But listen to what she says immediately after this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling struggles, 2

October 16, 2012

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

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

2. Nadia’s cycling story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nadia regards her employer as supportive of cycling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, not everyone is convinced:

“Everyone in the playground, this is how they usually see me – in my cycling stuff – and they’re all ‘why do you do it on the bike? How can you put up with it?’ And I say, ‘it’s really positive, I feel a lot better for cycling and if you just gave it a go, just built it up slowly like I did … Well it’s either your thing or it’s not’, I say. But I think unless you try something, you don’t know, do you, if it’s your thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling struggles, 1

October 2, 2012

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

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

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

1. Rick’s cycling story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, he rides …

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

Yet Rick still won’t cycle through this junction.

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

Have the recent changes not improved things?

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

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

What would Rick like to see?

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

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

When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

September 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then second, to insist that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do the children ride?

September 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no choice here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumnal cycling in north-west England

September 27, 2010

I love the weather in north-west England, and the last two weekends I’ve been lucky enough to experience it in all its magnificent diversity.

Last Saturday, following the brilliant (he says immodestly) Bicycle Politics workshop, I rode across to Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, to join up with Colin, Jim and John, who’d been there since Thursday, getting lots of quality miles in. They’d enjoyed a couple of dry and sunny days, but on Saturday the weather changed, so that when I met up with them outside the youth hostel at 6pm, we were all pretty soggy. Sunday was forecast to be wet, and indeed it was – it started damp and drizzly, and got wetter, and wetter, and wetter from there …

But not once during that long wet day did I feel miserable. It helped that it was relatively warm; it’s when wet combines with cold that I sometimes really start to question the wisdom of being out on the road. And it helped that I was in such fine company; riding roads with people who also love to ride those roads, and who recognise themselves as similarly privileged in being able to do so – that’s real privilege!  Although there is banter and piss-taking in other regards, when during one or other of our rides one or other of us pauses to reflect on our intensely good fortune, he is never met with macho scorn and ridicule, but always with a shared sense that we must indeed be the luckiest men in the world … there is no price for what we experience out there on our region’s roads …

Last Sunday we rode from Wharfedale over to Bishopdale and then west through Wensleydale for coffee in Bainbridge. We crossed the valley to Askrigg and climbed over Cross Top to Muker in Swaledale. North-west from there, over Birkdale Common and then the long descent into Nateby, for a generous welcome and lunch at the Black Bull Inn, where Jim showed me how to dry your track mitts by treading them into a carpet, and where I hope no one had to sit where we sat for a good few hours after … South up the ever-beautiful Mallerstang, then fast west down the always-pleasureable Garsdale into Sedbergh, where, having checked the cafe’s seats were wooden and immune to saturation by our sodden clothes, we enjoyed afternoon tea. Down Garsdale the rain had become much heavier, and it continued as we rode south along the west side of our Lune towards Kirkby Lonsdale, and on for tea at the Bridge Inn. There the four of us squeezed into the gents’ toilets, and emerged in dry clothes like new men to devour our tea and drink our beer before, late into the night, setting off again to get one final drenching along flooded roads on our way back home to our beds. 90 miles, a couple of thousand metres of climbing, huge amounts of rain – the kind of day which makes me glad to be alive and able to enjoy that kind of day.

If I’d been at home last Sunday, I’d have probably on several occasions looked out the window and failed to find the motivation to get outside. No matter how exhilarating cycling through difficult conditions can be, it’s still hard to force yourself out there to do it. Comfort too often, too easily, wins out over the potential to feel exhilarated.

This weekend was different. The forecast was dry for Saturday, and – with Bobby and Flo happily off with Sue, Paddy, Ben and Rachel for the weekend – Sue and I pedalled north through the Yealands, over the River Kent, around Whitbarrow and up the gorgeous Winster valley, to drop down to Bowness-on-Windermere a few very happy hours later.

Yesterday we took the ferry across Windermere and rode up through the Sawreys and down to Esthwaite Water, before riding south into another little south lakeland gem of a valley, the Rusland. The sun continued to shine, and we arrived home after 2 days and 100 miles pedalling through north-west September England as dry as we had left. The dryness of the weekend was all the more enjoyable because of the previous weekend’s damp, and the dampness of that weekend stands out because such dampness is not entirely typical. Here in autumnal north-west England there is no typical, and the uneven climate combines with the uneven topography to produce an extra-special slice of the cycling universe.

So here’s my little thought for the next time you’re thinking about making a cycling journey, and you check the forecast or look outside, and you realise that if you go by bike then you’re in for a soaking – go for it anyway. Experiences do not stand alone; they speak to, and so importantly make, each other. And of course, in making each other, they are also making us …