Posts Tagged ‘barriers to cycling’

7th Cycling and Society Symposium, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about cycling, in Dublin

May 17, 2010

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

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

Understanding cycling …?

April 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My immediate thoughts, re-reading this, are:

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

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

Worcester fieldwork

March 31, 2010

Griet and I are just back from two weeks of ethnographic fieldwork, exploring walking and cycling in Worcester. We stayed in a fantastic cottage in Lower Broadheath, a few miles west of the city centre. Called ‘Malvern View’, there was indeed a view of the Malvern Hills from the back windows and garden.

Beyond the city limits, we were right on top of some superb cycling lanes, which led to truly wonderful cycling country. So of course, I took advantage of the absence of many of the usual restrictions on my cycling, and got in a fair few miles, riding through Worcestershire and Herefordshire. I rode the climb of British Camp, onto the Malvern Hills, for the first time since I used to ride in this part of the world as a teenager, when I lived in south Birmingham and was a member of Shirley Roads Club. The tough climb of Ankerdine Hill was almost on our doorstep, so I got in a good few ascents of that. And I did my first century ride of the year, across to Broadway in the Cotswolds on a dry and sunny Sunday.

But of course, lest anyone should forget, we were there to work. We’d already made four or five shorter trips to Worcester. The main focus of our qualitative research is on the south-western part of the city, known as Lower Wick. We’ve used various methods to understand walking and cycling there – doing serious amounts of exploring on foot and by bike around Lower Wick, St John’s and Worcester ourselves; observing other people walking and cycling; travelling with people as they walk and cycle; and talking to as many people, and as many different kinds of people, as we can, about their experiences of and attitudes to walking and cycling.

(For those – probably the majority – of you who don’t know it, Worcester is cut in half, north to south, by the River Severn. Worcester city centre is to the east of the River, and the smaller centre of St John’s is to the west, with the largely residential area of Lower Wick directly to the south of St John’s. Although there is one bridge (and there are soon to be two, see below) specifically for walking and cycling across the River, there is only one bridge for motorised traffic, which leads to some, errrm, issues … – some would say ‘problems’, others ‘opportunities’ …)

Our aim with this longer visit was finally and really to get to grips with walking and cycling in Worcester, to finish our fieldwork there feeling like we’d got a good ethnographic understanding of how these sustainable modes of mobility variously figure (and don’t figure) in different people’s lives. I’ll write more about our experiences over on our research blog later. I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so it won’t be for a while (and straight after Easter, we’re jumping back into the field, this time to Leicester, and specifically Belgrave, which is the part of the city where the Hindu population is most concentrated). But I’m hoping that a week’s relaxation (on the little Scottish island of Colonsay, along with 50-odd other Lancastrians – an English invasion!) will be conducive to – amongst other things – slowing down and digesting our ethnographic experiences so far.

For now, there are just a couple of things I feel especially driven to mention …

The first thing which struck me in Worcester was how widespread is cycling on the pavement there. In my view all of this is entirely understandable and legitimate, although some of it is sanctioned by the authorities and some isn’t … One part of the city on which we have really focused, because it’s so clearly problematic for both walking and cycling, is St John’s centre. Nowhere in St John’s, to the best of my knowledge, is cycling officially permitted on pavements, but I’d guess (we’re qualitative, not quantitative social scientists, so when it comes to numbers guessing is what I do best …!) that perhaps 2 out of every 3 cyclists take to the pavement at some stage of their journey when moving through St John’s centre. (Some people continue to ride their bike on the pavement, others get off and push.) When you look at images such as this one, you might begin to see why ….

A second thing which struck me, during our time in Worcester, is how people tend to take-for-granted, and to accept, the conditions which – moving by bike or on foot – they ordinarily, every day, negotiate. This is in no way intended as a criticism. We all learn to live with the world-as-it-is, and it is to people’s great credit that they find ways of continuing to cycle – of making cycling work for them – when the world-as-it-is seems so thoroughly, utterly hostile to cycling. Pavement cycling is just one strategy which people use in order to make cycling work for them, in very adverse conditions which have determined that the vast majority of people have stopped cycling and/or can’t even begin to contemplate starting it.

For five years until recently, Worcester was a Sustainable Travel Town. Locally, the project was known (by those who know about it, at least) as – wait for it – Choose How You Move. As you can see, they’ve got some nice signage as a result.

But you know what? After two weeks in Worcester, I’m left thinking that those people who manage to walk and cycle there are like an endangered species, hanging on by the skin of their teeth.  I get the very strong feeling not that cycling and walking are being promoted (though of course I know that they are, to some degree), but that only the committed, the brave or the desperate walk and cycle, and that these people who do walk and cycle develop all kinds of strategies – including pavement cycling – which enable them to maintain these practices in the face of a callous indifference towards them.

In general, my strong sense is that these two most sustainable modes of mobility are still in the process of being driven off the streets of Worcester and St John’s (if not of Lower Wick, which by comparison is a backwater beacon of peace, quiet, conviviality and sustainability – though also, of course, home to many of the cars which cause many of the problems …).

In general, I try to be optimistic about the prospects for cycling. But sometimes I’m, shall we say, challenged …

On paper, promoting cycling in Worcester should be an absolute cinch – remarkably flat, relatively dry, reasonably contained, plenty of ‘easy-to-reach’ target groups. With the political will and the right policies, 50% of all urban journeys by bike within the next decade could easily be achieved. Oh, but the practice – well, as we know so well, that’s a very different story .. if also a depressingly familiar one.

Anyway, I won’t go on about our Worcester fieldwork here. If you want more detail and/or more nuance, pay a visit at a later date to Griet and my research site, which is bookmarked somewhere over on the right there …

But to finish on a brighter note, work on the Diglis Bridge seems to be coming along nicely. One of Sustrans’ Connect2 sites, when it’s complete (due date, June 2010) the Bridge will connect Lower Wick with parts of south Worcester to the east of the River Severn, and should also provide a very attractive walking and cycling route into the city centre. So, the revolution might just have begun, at least on summer Sundays when the sun is shining …

Snow and ice

January 5, 2010

Our street, today – 5th January 2010

Happy New Year! This is the street on which, with my family, I live. I’ve just a moment ago stepped outside to take the picture. As you can see, it’s been snowing.

I might leave my house through the front door, and go north along this stretch of road, if I’m walking somewhere. The only time I leave by bike this way is when one of my riding partners, Jon Barry, calls – he always comes to the front of the house and so then I go out the same way, on my road bike, which is stored indoors.

I mainly leave the house out the back. Like many people living in older housing in urban north England, we live in a terrace with a back alley.

Our back alley, today – 5th January 2010

Most of our household’s bikes, including my day bike, are stored in one of two sheds in our back yard. So this is the way I generally leave the house by bike. And unless Jon has called for me, I leave this way on my less regularly ridden road bike too. I also tend to go this way if I’m walking. You can see the tyre tracks of one of our neighbour’s cars in the snow, but Ray – ‘the culprit’ – is the only person with a car parked on this side of the terrace, so the back alley forms a virtually car-free start to any journey.

As a sociologist with a keen interest in how everyday lives get organised and reproduced, I’m fascinated by different routes into and out of houses, and the consequences of these ‘household permeabilities’. But that’s not my intended topic today, so let’s get back to the weather, and specifically the snow and ice, which was the reason why I took these photos just now.

Now I’m sure that for any Canadians and Scandinavians out there, this is just a smattering of snow, nothing to write a blog post about … But I’m writing from a UK perspective, and snow in Lancaster is not that common. And anyway we’ve not just had snow, we’ve had almost a month of very cold weather, which has resulted in lots of ice. And whilst particular societies and different individuals within those societies will cope with snow and ice in specific ways, it’s undoubtedly the case that snow and ice has a significant impact on many people’s desires and abilities to cycle.

It seems fairly safe to say that if the weather was always like this, we’d see less cycling. Snow and, especially, ice make cycling a more hazardous, scary prospect. But that said, snow and ice make any mode of mobility more hazardous and scary, except perhaps skiing, tobogganing and such like. So perhaps what we should instead say is that weather like this, in the absence of any attempts – whether individual (e.g. appropriate equipment, such as spiked tyres) or collective (e.g. gritting of cycling routes) – to deal with it effectively, will produce less cycling. But that situation is not inevitable. Indeed, if a society is serious about promoting cycling, it will continue to promote cycling even during such weather and road conditions. So that, actually, it’s perfectly conceivable that cycling could become more rather than less attractive at such times.

For myself, I’ve become very reluctant to get on my bike this past month. I did a beautiful 80 mile ride through the Yorkshire Dales with two friends, Will and Jim, on the 11th December. We left early, and just 5 miles out of Lancaster – at Caton – our wheels slipped slightly beneath us, so that we thought carefully about the wisdom of continuing. We did, and it was a beautiful day – full of sunshine, scenery and comradeship. Nonetheless, a vague but nagging nervousness accompanied me all day, to do with the ice and the potential to come a cropper. I’ve not done a proper ride since then.

I’ve become so frustrated with not getting out that a couple of days ago I did something I’d not even have contemplated a year or two ago, though it’s true that back then I was less preoccupied with being fit and going fast than I am now – I ordered a turbo trainer, so that I can ride indoors, and start to build my fitness for the coming season in spite of my fear of all this snow and ice.

The process of buying a turbo trainer has really illuminated to me how cycling is about so very much more than getting from A to B. It is that; it’s my main mode of daily transport – the way I get to the shops, to work, and to a whole bagful of destinations in the Lancaster and Morecambe district. But it’s so very much more than that too – it’s my exercise, my freedom, my sanity, my re-creation, a big part of my social life, my key way of spending time outdoors and in the countryside. Last year I rode 5,500 miles, but only 250 of them were ridden during December and during the second half of December I did not ride at all. I feel claustrophobic and flabby; the bike is my cure … I need to get out, on my bike …

Not everyone is so cowardly as I currently am. The Monday nighters’ plan for the Solstice was to ride 100 miles. What better way to celebrate – or is it perhaps to try to beat – the year’s shortest day? I had planned to go, but I saw the forecast (very cold and lots of snow) and bailed out. The others – more committed, braver – gave it a go. The snow made riding 100 miles impossible. But, despite the difficulties, they managed a ride, and – by switching to mountain bikes, except John who is now riding with spiked tyres and so didn’t need to – they still made it to the pub, the hard way.

With two young children and a fortnight’s Christmas holiday, the snow and ice have actually been wonderful – we’ve had some truly magical winter day’s out – walking, sledging, sliding and snowballing around Silverdale, Arnside and Windermere. Here’s my son Bobby on Orrest Head, above England’s longest lake, looking for all the world like he has that world at his feet.

But what effects do snow and ice have on mobility? Some of our elderly neighbours are struggling, both with getting out and with the social isolation which results from not getting out. Today in Lancaster, in many places we have fresh snow covering a layer of sheet ice. Conditions are potentially treacherous for everyone, and fewer journeys are undoubtedly being made by all modes. But what worries and angers me most is it’s the sustainable modes – walking and cycling – which are hardest hit, and who can say that journeys on foot or by bike are any less ‘essential’ than journeys by motorised modes?

Around here the bigger the road the more likely it is to get gritted. But of course, the bigger the road the less likely people are to want to cycle – let alone walk – on it (for even on the biggest roads the pavements lie untouched by the gritter’s mechanical hand). The pavements, like the off-road cycle routes, are ignored. Cycling and walking – these modes of mobility do not matter, people travelling on foot or by bike do not count. It’s that simple, that blatant, that unjust …

So people walking either stick to (or rather, don’t stick to, but slide along) the pavements and risk a fall, or walk in the road (where it’s astonishing to see a small minority of drivers, as if incensed by the pedestrians’ ‘intrusion’ into ‘their’ space, showing them not courtesy but contempt). Many people, of course, ‘simply’ stop walking – which might be fine for them if they’ve got a car. But it’s rubbish for them if they haven’t, and it’s rubbish for society either way.

Many people stop cycling.  Last winter I cycled the 4 miles into work and back every day, whatever the weather. I often got angry that, on icy roads, cars came past me as fast and as close as they might ordinarily do, seemingly oblivious to the extra risk which I viscerally felt. On such icy days I was forced into riding on the car-dominated A6 because the main cycling routes in this district are not designated by our Highways Authority, Lancashire County Council, as ‘essential’, and so they are not gritted and they become, as they have over the last few days, virtually impassable.

We have here a magnificent Millennium Bridge over the river Lune – it’s for people travelling either on foot or by bike, and it is immensely useful and extremely popular. Every year, when it gets icy people struggle to walk and to ride across it. Every year people fall from their bikes and people complain that it needs to be gritted. We are a cycling demonstration town, supposedly promoting cycling. Yet I suspect that most people need only to fall from a bike once to be seriously put off cycling, perhaps for life. You have to ask, exactly what kind of cycling promotion is it that fails to grit key routes on which people ride?

You can do as I tend to do, and ride on the main roads. But given most people would not dare to do that under ordinary circumstances, they’re unlikely to start doing so when it’s icy, slushy, dark and the roads are full of motorists who lack the skills and equipment to negotiate the tricky conditions effectively. Watching the cars skating over the ice, an Icelandic friend of ours today expressed serious concern at the lack of driving skills on display; another friend, having seen cars careering out of control on a patch of black ice at the junction outside his house, stood outside for two hours, warning motorists to take especial care.

Of course, I recognise that cold, snow and ice make life difficult for everyone. People are struggling either to maintain movement-as-usual, or else to cope with being unable to move as they usually do (which is something we’re all going to need to become better at, as our lives get re-shaped by the realities of a world transformed by climatic changes). I understand that to some extent we all need somehow ‘just to get on with it’. But I know that I’m not alone in finding the current situation, in which routes for cars and trucks are so clearly prioritised over routes for walking and cycling, really quite disgraceful.

For a while I’ve been thinking very vaguely about the notion of  ‘mobility inversion’. It’s an intuitive concept which I want to develop, not for its own sake, but because  it just might – in ways I do not and quite probably cannot know – be somehow useful. You just don’t know where ideas will go until you try …

UK towns and cities remain centrally designed around the car. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, the car gets the centre of the road, walking and cycling the margins. Routes for cars get priority, and walking and cycling routes are pushed into having to find their ways around them, having to negotiate the city of the car. When it comes to mobility, our towns and cities, in other words, are quite simply the wrong way round.

I’ll return to this example at another time, but it’s less than a kilometre, maybe half a mile, between our house and Lancaster city centre. Lancaster’s train station is about half way along this route. It’s an incredibly busy walking route, but I’d guess that motorised vehicles currently get about 90% of the available space and almost all of the priority whilst pedestrians must make do with rubbish pavements, limited space, and drivers who have been taught that they have the right of way. With no facilities to help them at all, cyclists simply have to survive – dodging the potholes. It’s atrocious and it’s where we live, but similar and worse situations are everywhere.

We need mobility inversion here. If motorised vehicles are allowed, they ought to make way for people on foot and on bikes. People on bikes and on their feet should not have to stop to make way for trucks and cars, the cars and trucks should make way for them. There should anyway be only minimal space for trucks and cars, and lots more space for people walking, cycling and simply hanging out chatting to their friends, acquaintances and neighbours.

In the current context – thinking about moving around during periods of snow and ice – the concept of mobility inversion can be applied equally simply. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe it’s not already being done. Grit the cycling routes and grit the pavements, but don’t grit the roads – rather than encouraging people who normally walk and cycle either to jump into cars or not to move at all, we can then encourage people who normally travel in cars to walk or cycle, or else to not move at all … and isn’t that exactly what we want?

Fear of cycling: article

November 27, 2009

I’ve just added my paper, Fear of Cycling, to the ‘Longer articles’ section of this blog. It’s a pre-publication version, so as not to cause copyright issues with Ashgate, who published a chapter of the same name in the book Cycling and Society, which I edited with Paul Rosen and Peter Cox (2007, Ashgate: Aldershot). I’m putting it up here because quite a few people have been asking after it, which suggests there might be a few more people out there who are struggling to get hold of it and who might quite like to read it in its entirety. (The book from which it comes, I feel duty bound to say, is still in print and available via Ashgate’s website, though I do know that its cost is prohibitive to many.)

There’s been a surge of interest in the paper following its five part serialisation (in edited form) on Copenhagenize.com. For that I would wholeheartedly like to thank both Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.com, and Marie Kastrup, who is organising Velo-city Global 2010 in Copenhagen, who I met at the last Cycling and Society Research Group symposium in Bolton in September, and who informed Mikael of both my and the paper’s existence. I feel that I ought to say that I regard this paper, like everything I’ve ever written I think, as very much work-in-progress. I wrote it a few years back now, and if I were to write it today (which I can’t imagine doing – time and inclination move on …), I’ve no doubt it’d turn out different. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with it, nor to try to absolve myself of responsibility for having written it – merely to flag up its imperfection, and to invite you – should you feel the urge – to contribute to the development and/or critique of the ideas which it contains ….

20’s plenty

October 22, 2009

Last night I went along to a public meeting at the Storey Institute in Lancaster. Organised by the local Green Party, it was aimed at building support for the introduction of 20 mph speed limits on all residential roads across the district.

20mph

John Whitelegg was I think the engine behind the meeting happening, and he opened it, speaking as articulately and persuasively as ever. Then Rod King, from 20’s Plenty for Us, very eloquently and authoritatively elaborated the case for 20 mph speed limits on our streets, and filled us in on recent promising developments across the country.

I am absolutely 100% behind 20’s Plenty for Us, and I suspect that anybody reading this will be too. So I don’t want to go over familiar ground here. But I do want quickly to mention a few of Rod King’s remarks which really stood out for me as I sat listening to him talk, on a street near where I live, last night.

Rod asked a question, which he called ‘a moral question’. “Is it right to be encouraging people to walk and cycle without first changing the conditions for walking and cycling?”. This question also strikes to the very heart of my job on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. Unsurprisingly, most of the people I’ve so far been talking to through that job are pretty clear that they would walk and cycle more, and let their children walk and cycle more, if – and only if – it was safer, and felt safer, to do so.

Straight from last night’s meeting, Griet and I walked away from Lancaster city centre, along Meeting House Lane, to chat with one couple who are part of our ethnographic fieldwork. Like Sue and me, they have an eight year old son who’s learning to move around a bit more independently. They are being brave in tentatively trying to give him a bit more freedom, he is being brave in beginning tentatively to exercise that freedom. Such processes wouldn’t of course disappear with the arrival of 20 mph speed limits, but they would probably be less stressful to negotiate.

Rod said other things which bear on our Understanding Walking and Cycling project. We are very interested in how people make decisions about how they move around. Rod said that typically, people make their decisions about the speeds at which they drive out on the roads, whilst they are in the process of driving and interacting with the road environment. He said that in contrast, decisions to comply with an urban wide 20 mph limit were made in the home. Although I’m not sure what evidence he has to back up this claim, if it is indeed the case, it is really very interesting.

It suggests to me that where communities have taken action to implement 20 mph limits, then individuals and families across those communities are then thinking about and reflecting on what streets are for, and the role which they themselves can play in producing and reproducing those streets in one way rather than another. It suggests that people might be imagining their streets as they want them to be, rather than merely reacting to them as they currently are. It suggests they are thinking morally ahead of their actions, which then become ‘moral actions’ (whereas thinking on the road, whilst driving, is likely to be more practical, and to produce ‘strategic’, and potentially more self-interested, actions). So if it is correct, this change in the location of decision-making processes over driving behaviour as part of a community getting-to-grips with the idea of itself as a place where traffic speeds stay below 20 mph is really significant, and great news.

Obviously, we urgently need radical and national government action to change the ways in which our streets are used, and the ways in which we move around. But that action, certainly at the widespread and structural level at which it is required, is still not forthcoming. One of the things which now seems to be happening as a result is communities, with the help of inspired and inspiring people such as Rod King, are beginning to fill the moral vacuum created by the lack of a strong governmental lead as to how our streets, towns and cities should be.

Rod seems confident that the time for widespread introduction of 20 mph speed limits across the streets where we live has come. What is required now is for people to push for them. People in places such as Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich and Leicester have pushed for them. Action is coming from the grassroots. The anarchist in me thinks that’s brilliant. But I also think that it shouldn’t have to be a battle to get 20 mph speed limits imposed where people live, work and play. Such a maximum speed limit should simply be recognised as a fundamental and indisputable right, and imposed.

Rod used an incisive, powerful phrase – he said that “speed becomes greed” when it adversely effects other people’s abilities to move around in ways which they would like. When the speed of motorised vehicles passing through our neighbourhood’s streets means that with heavy hearts and bruised souls we feel we must say “no” to our eight year old sons’ pleas to walk or cycle to school on their own, then the speed of those vehicles is greedy, wrong, and should be cut.

This isn’t just about kids, but I think that kids might be central to effective communication of the moral claims being made. Last night there was discussion about taking school children into meetings at which decisions about speed, about streets, and about the life and death of our communities are taken, often by politicians whose views seem too often to be formulated from behind a car’s steering wheel. Those politicians might do well to hear and to think about perspectives from the pavement; the perspective perhaps of a six year old girl walking to school.

Rod’s observations that we should get down to the height of a six year old child, and try to experience the urban environment from their perspective, see how big the lorries going past look from down there, made me think – about how my own six year old daughter experiences her journeys around the city, and about how in the Understanding Walking and Cycling project we should make sure we assemble video footage of such experiences, ready for when – later on – we’re talking to practitioners and policy-makers about the need for revolutionary changes to our urban environments.

Barriers to cycling: wind

October 6, 2009

I spent a long weekend with some of the Monday nighters, doing some hard riding around the north of England. On Friday we rode from Lancaster to Nenthead, high in the Pennines, via Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh, Appleby-in-Westmorland and Hartside. On Sunday we rode from Brompton-in-Swale, just to the east of Richmond, back home to Lancaster, via Redmire, Coverdale, Littondale and our usual last resting post, The Bridge Inn near Wennington. The sun shone on us, mainly, on Sunday. Here’s a stretch of road which runs along the south-east base of Pen-y-ghent, connecting Halton Gill and Stainforth. As you can see, we’ve got some pretty good cycling infrastructure in the Yorkshire Dales.Yorkshire Dales road

And here’s Colin and me consulting the map, with Pen-y-ghent looming behind.consulting the map at Pen-y-ghent

So we had plenty of hills. But it’s Saturday’s ride, when we also had the wind to contend with, on which I want to concentrate, briefly, here. We began the day riding north through Allendale, towards Hadrian’s Wall. Then Jules turned west, to Brampton and into the teeth of a strengthening gale, whilst Colin, John and I flew east past Hexham before veering south to Blanchland. I nipped into the village shop for flapjack there, and asked the storekeeper if she knew what the wind would be doing. “Getting stronger this afternoon”, she told me, “you’re not going up are you?” We were, over the moors to Stanhope.

As we began the climb we had some shelter. But as we climbed higher there was no escape from the wind. Towards the top, out on the moor, we were riding on the right-hand side of the road, so that when the wind took us, we had the road’s width in which to steady ourselves and remain upright. There was so little traffic, this was a sensible strategy.

Over the top and down the other side we accelerated into trouble. I could feel the wind lifting my wheels from the ground. It kept pushing me off the road, into the verge. John came past me, his body and bike tilted towards the wind, so he was riding at about 70 degrees to the tarmac. I entered a space of complete concentration. Not flow, I felt far too inept and clumsy for that. But I became completely preoccupied with battling the wind, and somehow making it through.

The next time I left the road I looked behind to see a car stopped alongside Colin, who was on the ground. I saw him struggling to his feet, then getting knocked back down again. From where I was, it looked like some kind of surreal comedy, so insanely slapstick that I could imagine it being a Laurel and Hardy sketch. Not silent of course, the wind roared. The wind, it has to be said, was just magnificent.

I tried walking back up the hill with my bike. Impossible. I dumped it in the ditch, and struggled back up to him. If we stood close and shouted, we could just about make ourselves heard before the wind ripped our voices away. He’d pulled over to let the car pass, which had left him with no room for manoeuvre. He’d gone head first over the handlebars, and the bike had landed on top of him. The couple in the car were concerned that he was OK. He was, but I think the incident had completed dented what little faith he may have had remaining in his ability to get down to the valley by bike.

I continued down, and reached the junction with the Edmundbyers-Stanhope road. There was more car traffic along here. Some of the drivers were very good – they were able to see, and respond appropriately to, the difficulties we were having. Others drove atrociously. Later Colin told me how one driver passing him blared his horn, gesticulated wildly, and mouthed obscenities. I guess, from where he sat, and without an ounce of empathy or solidarity with the cyclist’s condition,  it looked like we were holding him up. I guess, in a bizarre and rather ineffective way, we were trying particularly hard to assert our right to the road.

I developed a riding style (using that term loosely) that seemed to work. It involved desperately clinging onto my bike, with one foot clipped in and the other dangling near the ground, so I was ready to dismount every time I left the road.

A little further down, John was waiting. I told him that Colin had crashed, but was OK. John went back up to look for him. By now it had become a very weird drama, three men (as well as two mountain bikers, who I saw briefly, storm-blown statues frozen into the landscape, looking for all the world as though they were completely unable to proceed) stumbling slowly down off a mountain, seeking sanctuary in the valley below, a valley which seemed almost impossible to reach. But finally I got down to a cattle-grid, where I sheltered in the lee of a farm-house, and waited for the others to arrive.

Maybe five minutes passed. A car pulled up. The woman inside told me she’d taken Colin down to Stanhope, and had come back to see if either John or I needed help. A good samaritan! Suddenly the drivers who had passed too close and too fast, seemingly oblivious to our predicament, were trumped in my mind by a single person who’d been willing to help. Colin told me later that she stopped when she saw him lying beside the road, completely exhausted and devoid of a strategy for how to continue. He’d tried to stand up with his bike, his bike had been flipped into the air, he’d been knocked over and his bike had landed on top of him … This lightweight gear’s not all it’s cracked up to be, eh?

John and I had survived the hard bit, so were happy to ride the rest of the way down to Stanhope. What a contrast there! Stanhope’s a lovely little town, full of fine stone buildings. At lunchtime on Saturday it seemed outrageously calm, dignified, impervious to the elements.

Entering the cafe on Stanhope high street was even more surreal. Everything, everybody seemed normal, as if nothing had happened, which of course, for them, it hadn’t. It was like one of those non-stop adventure films where the action suddenly, rudely enters into other people’s everyday lives, destabilising business-as-usual and producing comedy out of the contrast between the intense pace of the action and the stillness of everything else. Couples were sitting quietly, sipping tea from old-fashioned cups which sat elegantly on their saucers. The civility of the tea-room forced us to compose ourselves, but still we must have seemed raucous, rowdy and ever-so-slightly wild.

I wouldn’t swap my place on a bike for the world, even on a day like Saturday. I was a bit scared, I was on the edge of my capacity to keep upright on a bike, and I was exhausted, but I was also exhilarated. The wind breathes life into you. The wind revives. It makes you feel alive …

Wind is seen as a barrier to cycling. But it is also massively constitutive of our cycling experiences. What we cannot avoid, we encounter, experience and embody. The wind makes us, as cyclists, as people who experience the world differently because we ride bikes.

If you ride a bike you know how powerful the wind can be. You sit on a bike. On a bike you’re exposed. In contrast, you inhabit a car, you’re enclosed, sheltered, including from the elements, including from the wind. I think we should celebrate this difference. Admittedly, our experience up in the Pennines on Saturday was a bit extreme, but in general I struggle to understand why we should see the way cycling exposes you to the elements, including the wind, as a problem. Riding in the wind can be hard. But it can also be inspiring. It’s also inevitable. We should see cycling as a way of making ourselves stronger, better people, and thus of making stronger, better cultures.

As with wind, so with some of the other so-called ‘barriers to cycling’, such as hills and rain. People who want to eliminate these ‘barriers to cycling’ want to fit cycling into the world-as-it-is, they want to bend cycling into an imperfect world, they want to make cycling ‘perfect’ so it can sustain imperfection. That’s so wrong. I’d rather people deal with, experience and perhaps learn the pleasures of these ‘barriers to cycling’, so that by cycling they contribute to the world-as-it-ought-to-be.

Fear of cycling

September 16, 2009

About five years ago now I presented a paper called ‘Fear of Cycling’ to a workshop at Lancaster University. There are so many different influences and serendipitous convergences in the processes of thinking and writing that it’s impossible to recall the origins of a paper exactly, but I do recall a few of the factors behind its emergence. First, it was pretty obvious to me that many people seem scared of the prospect of cycling. Second, a common response among cycling’s promoters to this fear – which is to try to convince people that, in actual fact, cycling is quite safe – struck me as slightly unsatisfactory, if obviously well-meaning. Third, I wanted to start fleshing out a straightforward idea, which is that one reason why people are scared of cycling is because we’re constantly being told – in various ways – just how dangerous it is. Fourth, it also seemed likely that a fear of cycling might involve more than a fear of danger as it’s conventionally understood, potentially extending to much more existential fears about being and becoming – via cycling – particular kinds of person. Fifth and finally (for now; as we know, thinking is never final …), then, I was interested in foraging further into media representations of cycling and ‘the cyclist’, because it seemed plausible that people might also be scared of cycling if ‘to become a cyclist’ (whatever that means) is to become someone who you currently are not, and thus – just possibly – a stranger to yourself.

My first stab at the paper drew some appreciative murmurs, which gave me the confidence to present the ideas again, but to a more cycling-literate audience, at the 2nd Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium, organised by Ben Fincham at Cardiff University in 2005. At the time I was editing (with Paul Rosen and Peter Cox) Cycling and Society, a tremendous collection of papers which grew out of the first Cycling and Society Symposium which I’d organised at Lancaster in 2004. My intended contribution to that collection was a paper on cycling and social movements, detailing the significance of the object of the bicycle and the practice of cycling over time to – variously – feminism, socialism, anarchism and environmentalism. But I wanted the arguments I was developing in ‘Fear of Cyclng’ to reach people interested in cycling, and who were committed to promoting it. So rather than it becoming lost in an academic journal, I decided it should become my contribution to Cycling and Society, which was published in 2007.

Very few people read academic journals. A few more might read academic books, but not many more – the publisher of Cycling and Society, Ashgate, printed 500 copies. So you will realise how absolutely delighted I was when, last week, Mikael Colville-Andersen from the wonderful Copenhagenize.com got in touch, to say he’d read and liked ‘Fear of Cycling’ and would love to run it in revised form and in five separate instalments on his blog. Copenhagenize.com has a considerably larger readership than the vast majority of my writing has enjoyed thus far. And today, I see the first instalment up there, and already attracting comment.

I’ve enjoyed re-visiting the ideas in ‘Fear of Cycling’. I’ve re-written the introduction slightly, to make it more blog-friendly, and Mikael is very kindly and expertly editing the rest of the article. My ideas have probably changed a little since I first wrote it (I’d be disappointed if they hadn’t), but the main thing is to see them out there, reaching a wider audience, being read, and – wow, yes! – provoking comment and discussion. The work I put into developing those ideas and setting them down on paper feels suddenly more worthwhile. So I’m immensely grateful to Mikael for offering me this guest-spot on his blog.

And, as I’m gradually trying to build my own little blog over here, destination unknown, I thought it’d be nice to re-visit the origins and development of ‘Fear of Cycling’, in order to highlight some of the processes involved – although the outcome of thinking might sometimes seem ordered and polished, the processes underpinning it are usually much more chaotic, accidental and collective. Whether or not they know it, many other people are always involved in my thinking, and I’m now following comments being posted on Copenhagenize.com, and they’ll be digested and no doubt gradually incorporated into my future thinking …

When we write it’s also impossible to know precisely, if at all, what the consequences of our writing might be (and those consequences are never of course under the control of the author). I guess that we all write in order to produce some kind of consequence, even if the consequence is to better understand, reflect on and develop our own thoughts; completely inconsequential writing would be, well, a waste of time!

So again, I’m happy that a piece of writing which a few days ago was somewhere in the shadows of university library bookshelves is suddenly radiating out from Copenhagen, and hopefully provoking, perhaps inspiring, a few more people to think about cycling …