Posts Tagged ‘bicycle system’

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.

City Cycling – book review

November 21, 2013

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

City Cycling book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morecambe Prom

March 4, 2013

Cycling on the prom

What kind of place is Morecambe prom?

And what does cycling on the prom say about cycling more generally?

Cycling welcome

Morecambe prom is between the local and the global, nature and culture; and cycling is a key actor here.

The promenade exists between nature and culture

Until 2006 you weren’t meant to cycle the prom, though we did – a little defiantly (“how ridiculous! So much space!”) but uncomfortably too, with one ear listening for disapproving remarks. But now we can. I spoke to the City Council meeting which voted to change cycling’s status. I stressed the prom’s potential as a utility route – it lines the coastal edge of a linear town. But it was easier in this seaside place to insist on its relevance to tourism. Our prom, I said

“is a potentially very major tourist draw, and we should be able to sell it as such … Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Deal, Dover, Exmouth, Hartlepool, Hastings, Margate, Maryport, North Tyneside, Poole, Saltburn, South Shields, Sunderland, Swansea. All welcome cycling on their proms. All recognise cycling’s importance, not least to the local tourist economy.”

Morecambe prom

Riding the prom is to trace a boundary. The land to one side and bay to the other keep changing, but your place between them stays constant; you the cyclist the moving point between nature and culture. The low steady rumble of traffic is occasionally broken by high-pitched trills of seaside birds feeding on the shore. The wind blows you sideward within metres of buildings full of lives oblivious to the weather. Shoreline smells of salt and seaweed combine with those of buses, chips and bacon butties. You look out towards hills, mud, water and sky, and in towards playgrounds, pubs and streets full of cars.

Man on a bike on the prom

Morecambe’s placed between two identities. Signs of the twin forces of dereliction and regeneration are everywhere. Two of the town’s landmarks are equally but contrastingly symbolic – the Polo Tower stands forlornly waiting for the return of excited kids and candy-floss, the Midland Hotel brings in suited conference delegates by day, and well-heeled migrants from far away for a night or two.

The Polo Tower and Midland Hotel

Resort towns must make something of themselves, persuade people they’re worth a visit. Morecambe developed from the railway. Among Yorkshire mill-workers it was ‘Bradford-on-Sea’. The town’s newspaper, The Visitor, aimed not at locals but holiday-makers; initially it was published only in summer. Back then everybody wanted a sea view and the town stretched out accommodatingly round the bay. But Britain’s urban industrial  workforce melted, and these days people prefer aeroplanes to warmer climes above trains to here. Those who can have abandoned Morecambe for exotic elsewheres, whilst some of those who can’t have moved in, and become trapped.

Morecambe’s flat and poor, so shouldn’t cycling prosper here?

On yer bike Eric!

Woman and child on Morecambe Bay

The town stretches round the bay. Bird life teems across the tidal reach. The views are amazing, sunsets spectacular. Optimistically seen still as a tourist town, regeneration projects aim to develop Morecambe’s ‘USP’, its vantage point, its prom.

Birds on the bay

The unfolding panorama afforded by traversing the long, smooth but otherwise marginal promenade makes the bicycle the obvious twenty-first century vehicle choice. Proms were made for walking but promenading’s a lost art, and these days the prom is made for cycling.

Bird art on the jetty

Nature and cycling are the regenerative forces for a middle-class culture. Though they ride the line between the two, people come here in cars to ride their bikes round a bay full of birds, not a town full of problems. Cyclists on the prom can enjoy the coast and bury their heads in the sand about the problems lying just inland.

Bird and bike

The prom belongs to the cosmopolitans in whose hands the town’s hopes of regeneration mainly lie, not locals.

Birds in front of The Midland Hotel

It’s easy to imagine and construct the prom as a leisure cycling route. So cycling stays a practice other people – people not from here – do. It’s not seen as something local people do or might do even though seeing it that way would contribute to a different, better, stronger, more sustainable regeneration.

That the prom is global more than local makes its current lack of integration with the town easier to overlook. But how likely is it that the prom could become an ‘ordinary route for ordinary people making ordinary journeys’? Clearly, the problem isn’t simply infrastructural. On the back streets of Morecambe you see people cycling. Most ride cheap bikes; they jump from them at the last minute before disappearing into shops, the back wheel still spinning on the pavement outside. But to ride a bike beyond necessity, you’ve got to:

  • want to bike;
  • get a bike;
  • keep a bike;
  • maintain a bike;

and if cycling’s not normal, these things are hard.

Lack of interest in cycling is inevitable consequence of a social, political, cultural and economic environment with neither cues nor props to cycle. In such an environment it will be mainly privileged people who choose to cycle, perhaps partly to communicate their privilege.

The problem of mass non-cycling is not simply infrastructural, but its solution must be infrastructure-led. People won’t cycle in numbers if they can’t cycle easily. Smooth and wide, the prom is a super novice-friendly cycle route but without a car it’s impossible to reach without riding on roads where cars rule. Along the prom sign-posts to other places are excellent, but road conditions in places from which people without cars must ride to the prom are dire.

Good signs, good routes?

Morecambe’s prom is a slim glimpse of the cycling facilities people want, but like cycling itself it lies on the margin, lining a coast to which birds flock but people don’t. Cycling’s been entertained here because space existed and re-making it for cycling brings tourists, not because it serves the local journeys of local people. Morecambe prom is a cycling bypass, of both the town and the lives of most of the people who live there. And that’s a pity.

Letting cycling onto the prom, it turns out, was only the start. The next chapter involves getting local people cycling here. Making Morecambe prom for local cycling would be to follow a bolder, more distinctive path to regeneration; and one which could help the town thrive without depending so much on the tourist potential of its natural setting. It’d involve re-making the whole town, not just its prom, for cycling.

Cycling struggles, 8

January 16, 2013

Domestic cycling system

The previous cycling struggles have all in different ways demonstrated the victory of anti-cycling structures over people’s everyday travel decisions. But I hope they’ve also shown people’s agency too – that although it’s difficult to cycle in urban Britain today, people do nonetheless manage to do so. People, in other words, can and do exercise (cycling) agency in the face of hostile (anti-cycling) structures. Such agency is perhaps at its highest in this cycling story; I show how not just individuals but whole families can embrace a cycling lifestyle, and move around regularly by bike. These are families for whom the bicycle forms an important means of everyday transport for every family member. It’s a story which demonstrates that even here, even now, families do cycle in urban Britain.

I encountered two such families during fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and merge their stories here. Obviously such ‘cycling families’ are exceptional; so whilst on the one hand their existence gives us hope, on the other that they’re exceptional proves the rule – that it’s much too difficult regularly and routinely to cycle ordinary journeys across urban Britain today. There are similarities between the families: both are white, middle-class, educated, and could be characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘green’; both comprise two parents who work, and two school-aged children, a boy and girl. But there are differences between them too: they live in different cities; one family owns a car that’s used for longer journeys and/or when cycling is too difficult, but all family members tend to cycle daily, whilst the other family has no car (though both parents can drive) and uses trains for longer journeys, but – mainly because of a residential location proximate to key destinations – walking not cycling is the main means of day-to-day travel.

8. A family cycling story

All four parents have long experience of cycling. In one family, the mother, Sashi, comes from a cycling family. She commutes three days a week by bike and train. The father, Kyle, cycles to work. His past commutes have been as long as 14 miles each way, but his current commute – which he’s been doing for ten years – is around three miles each way. He also uses his bike during the working day. Both Sashi and Kyle ride whatever the weather, including snow, and are confident road cyclists. Like most regular cyclists, Kyle says “I don’t mind riding in traffic, though I’d prefer it if there was none.” In the other family, Doug and Sara have never owned a car. They’re both keen cyclists, for leisure and holidays as well as utility. Cycling forms part of an alternative lifestyle. When asked why they don’t have a car Sara says:

“I don’t really feel the need for one, I wouldn’t want to spend the money on one, I don’t particularly like driving. And I think I’d probably become lazy if we got a car. I’d probably stop using my bike so much. And I can’t imagine it being so easy to get the kids to cycle if we had a car sat outside.”

In both families a lot of shopping’s done by bike. The parents have bikes with front and rear racks, capable of holding four panniers which provide enough capacity to do a sizeable shop. Doug does a big weekly supermarket shop by bike, supplemented by small shops as necessary:

“It was easier when the kids were little and we had a cycle trailer which I could load up”, he says. “These days I fill the panniers, and also take a rucksack for light stuff like cereals and bread. People are always amazed at how much stuff I can carry – it’s a big topic of check-out conversation!”

Family-friendly utility bike

Children’s cycling in a cycling family

With cycling parents, all four children learnt to ride before starting school, have been on bike rides and cycling holidays for as long as they can remember, and have been taught to ride competently and confidently on the road. Part of families in which cycling has been normalised, they take cycling for granted. This makes them different from most of their friends, but perhaps because three of them at least are still relatively young, that doesn’t seem to be a problem; cycling’s simply something they do.

As cyclists themselves none of the parents is naïve about the cycling situation, and they think long and hard about giving their children more cycling freedom. Only Sashi and Kyle’s son, Ray, who is 15, is allowed to ride on roads unaccompanied. Sara and Doug’s son, Ben, who’s 11, is currently allowed to ride alone only under specific conditions, though Sara thinks he’s almost at the point where they’ll let him ride with less constraint. “I’ll feel a bit worried when he goes off by himself”, she says, “but we know he’s a good rider.The problem is we can’t be sure how other road users will treat him. But then that applies when I’m riding too.”

These parents understand, but resist, the sentiments of other parents we met during our fieldwork, parents such as Brian from Leeds who, when talking about his two teenage children who had cycled occasionally when they were young, said:

“Neither child ever asked to cycle to school, so we never had to sort that out. And from my own point of view I was really pleased that they didn’t want to, because I find cycling around here incredibly dangerous … I was quite pleased that they never particularly wanted to cycle, I never encouraged them cycling, and eventually neither of them cycled … it just sorted of fizzled out.”

Brian is in the majority of parents who’d prefer their children, on the whole and given present conditions, not to cycle. But the parents in the cycling families value cycling in general, and the independence it can give their children in particular. Kyle says: “We don’t really believe in molly-coddling them; that’s not good for their independence, for their own selves.”

Of the four children Ray is the only one who rides regularly to school. He rides a hard-tail mountain bike with wide knobbly tyres. His Dad thinks his touring bike would be more appropriate, but it’s not, I suspect, nearly so cool.

Ray may not always choose to use his most appropriate bike, but the machines used by these families have been fully equipped, with mudguards, racks, lights and, often, kick-stands and mirrors; they’re fit for purpose. The children’s bikes are not the cheap, heavy machines typically given to British children, but good quality lightweights; the three youngest children ride Islabikes, a British manufacturer whose mission is to produce decent but affordable bikes for children.

Children's Islabike

Tania is in her final year of primary school. She sometimes walks, sometimes runs, and sometimes cycles to school, either on her own bike or on the back of a tandem. If she makes the trip on foot she does so solo, but if by bike she’s accompanied. She’s the least enthusiastic cyclist in her family, and, says Kyle, “can get a bit moan-y at times” In the other family Ben and Frances also walk to school. Frances walks the ten minute trip to the nearby primary school, Ben about twenty minutes to a secondary school slightly further away; both walk with friends. When they were younger Sara would walk with them, but if Doug was taking them he’d encourage them to go by bike. He says:

“I always used to cycle with the kids, because it was a chance to get them cycling as much as anything else. On the bikes we’d go a slightly longer, but also slightly nicer route which didn’t include any really nasty bits. But Sara walked it because cycling took longer probably – to get the bikes out of the shed, then cycle, then lock them up at school – than it does to walk.”

It’s worth noting that the mobilities of the car-less family are sometimes enabled by the cars of others. This is particularly the case with the children, who in order to participate in child-oriented social life such as birthday parties and trips out with friends’ families, quite often jump in their friends’ parents’ cars. This is not because those journeys necessarily require a car, but because the car has become for everybody else the default option, such that in order to be sociable you must ‘jump in’ too.

The kids travel by car much more often than we [Doug and her] do”, says Sara. “We try to resist their getting lifts to things which are only a few minutes’ walk away, but I have to admit it’s also very handy sometimes to have our kids taken places by other parents rather than have to do a cycling trip.”

Even these cycling families – and particularly the children – would cycle more of their journeys were cycling conditions to improve. As Doug says, “if we lived in the Netherlands, or even Germany, Ben and Frances would have full independence by now, I’d be happy for them to travel around town by bike alone. But not here, not yet anyway”.

Cycling system at the micro-level

From micro cycling system to macro anti-cycling system

These cycling families have created a cycling-friendly world at the micro-level. They’ve assembled domestic cycling systems – effective storage for many bicycles and their multiple accessories, libraries of maps, and wardrobes of appropriate clothes. And for now the parents’ own pro-cycling psychologies remain intact, and they have successfully (though of course children always moan!) instilled them in the next generation. So cycling feels normal, until you step outside. The normalisation of cycling at the domestic level is challenged and undermined out on the streets, at every level (social, cultural, infrastructural, political) beyond the household.

Concern for their children’s welfare leads to parental concern with cycling conditions and route choice. Car free routes are strongly favoured, big junctions and dangerous driving are key anxieties. I accompany Ray on his journey to school of around two and a half miles, which takes about 15 minutes. His route is busy with rush-hour traffic and involves negotiating some big junctions, but Ray’s a strong and competent rider, and has gradually adjusted to such difficult riding as he’s grown older and gained experience. At one point on our journey a car turns right across his path; we’re travelling faster than the motorised traffic and the offending driver simply hasn’t anticipated or seen us (a reasonably common experience in UK rush-hour riding, unfortunately). Ray has his wits about him, brakes hard, and his back wheel goes into the air; if he’d not seen the car or not braked so hard, he’d have gone over its bonnet. Ray seems fairly calm following the experience; he says they’re reasonably common. He gets angry, he tells me, at how drivers act as if cyclists aren’t there, but seems to see that as inevitable, a fact of life.

The parents have many stories to tell of altercations with motorists whilst cycling with their children, though they also prefer not to dwell on them – to do so would function as an impediment rather than affordance to continued family cycling. They keep riding, and keep their children riding, out of sheer conviction it’s the right thing to do, and a refusal to let prevailing conditions see them sacrifice cherished values and pastimes.


As I said at the start, such cycling families are exceptional. With things as they are, they will only ever form a tiny minority of families, for whom cycling is most probably part of a vaguely counter-cultural lifestyle. Both sets of parents have imposed cycling on their children. This is not an accusation; it’s no different to how most parents impose (sedentary, unsustainable and, I’d argue, civility-destroying) car use on theirs. However, car-based kids are in synch with broader culture in a way which cycling kids are not; if you travel by car your (parents’) transport choices are continuously validated by the world as it is. In contrast, the children here live within a pro-cycling bubble which risks being punctured by contact with the anti-cycling world.

Leaving it to the most pro-cycling parents to instil cycling in their kids is no way to produce cycling in the next generation, nor to build a cycling culture. Yes, these families prove cycling can be done, but they’re going against the grain. In effect, the whole family is holding out against a broader culture designed to make them take the car. We can’t leave the work of building a cycling culture to individuals (and families) alone. Without broader, deeper structural affordances to movement by bike, cycling will remain in a marginal, unsustainable place.

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 and Sustainability

June 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Freewheelers Bicycle Workshop

April 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a bicycle system

March 13, 2012

I’ve just OK’d the proofs of an article I’ve written with Professor John Parkin of London South Bank University. It’s the concluding chapter to Cycling and Sustainability, a collection of papers examining different aspects of cycling, written by an impressive set of authors from across the globe. John has been working for cycling both within and outside academia for a long time, and he’s done a magnificent job in making the book happen. (I’m sorry about the price – this is academic publishing. But please, if you think it looks interesting and/or useful but find the cost prohibitive, consider ordering it for your local library.)

Partly to announce the book, which will be published next month, and partly because I’m still thinking through our contribution to it, I’m here re-visiting and summarising just part of our conclusion, where we advocate for a global bicycle system. We argue that such a system is required for cycling to make a fundamental contribution to sustainability.

John will present a paper based on the chapter – so long as our abstract is accepted – at the ninth Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium  at the University of East London in September; and I might end up talking about it at the second Building Cycling Cultures conference in Leicester in June (we’re having a planning meeting towards this event on Friday, so more details should be available soon).

Cycling remains massively marginal as a mode of everyday urban mobility across the globe but its low status is beginning to change, and even to result in actual gains. Some of the world’s most prestigious cities – for example, New York, Paris, Barcelona and London – are beginning slowly to be re-made away from the car and towards the bicycle, and in the process the everyday lives and travel practices of residents and visitors are being re-made too.

In particular, cycling is becoming established as a key marker of a middle-class inner-urban lifestyle. In societies which have become saturated with cars, where inner-city living has become de rigueur, and where health and fitness have become key indicators of ‘a good lifestyle’, cycling has new kudos. Cycling is becoming ‘cool’ and experiencing a ‘renaissance’, particularly amongst affluent, white, middle-class, inner-urban professionals.

There is hope here, that the bicycle is finally being re-made as a (potentially) global cosmopolitan icon of sustainable urban life.

Isn’t this ‘the moment’ we have been waiting for – the bicycle’s second, this time sustainable, coming?

Yes, but we must turn this trend – which might otherwise be ‘a fashion’ or ‘a fad’ – into something durable; we must take advantage of cycling’s current popularity. After all, who knows how long the car would have lasted – perhaps only a few decades – had we not re-designed and re-built our cities around it?

Also, how democratic is the current rise in cycling’s status?

At the end of the nineteenth century cycling was the preserve of the rich and leisured classes in northern Europe and north America. Bicycles only became accessible to those less affluent when the rich jumped from them, into cars. Rarely in the history of cycling have rich and poor ridden side-by-side, yet for the sake of sustainability this is what we now must do.

But whilst the rich might be returning to cycling, the poor – when they have any choice in the matter – are not.

Whether you are poor in the ‘rich world’ or the ‘poor world’, whether the bicycle is perceived mainly as a ‘toy’ or a ‘tool’, it tends – even if it can be afforded – not to be a vehicle which is sought after, but rather one which is enforced and/or to be left behind. So the bicycle’s potential as a tool to mend our broken cities and build globally more sustainable lives risks remaining unfulfilled.

The bicycle’s capacity to infer distinction on the middle classes of prestigious global cities also depends on its continued exclusivity. The new-found status of cycling among urban elites is thus antithetical to its democratisation – loss in exclusivity will erode its appeal. The elite abandoned cycling once and could do so again, as soon as its capacity to infer and communicate distinction declines.

The bicycle’s popularity amongst one elite (the hardcore minority who currently cycle) and its growing popularity amongst another elite (the inner-city middle classes who are turning to it) cannot be translated into mass cycling unless we remove the logic of choice at an individual level by creating structures which impose it at a collective level. That is, we make cycling not just for some, but for everyone.

Only a system can achieve this social solidarity in cycling, because only a system can structure and institute practices which are independent of – or at least reasonably resilient to – individual psychologies and whims, cultural fads and fashions.

The indisputable benefits to travelling by bicycle within a bicycle system would not only enable the democratisation of cycling beyond an intellectual middle class elite, but also reduce the risk of this elite’s abandonment of cycling once its status as a privileged practice has been lost.

There is too much talk about giving people the ‘choice’ to cycle. This rhetoric of ‘choice’ constrains cycling; it gives the illusion that we can ‘nudge’  people towards cycling, when what’s actually required is much more wide-ranging and fundamental.

Modal choices aren’t chosen so much as structured, and they exist in systems which structure them. That’s why in a society such as the UK, so many more people drive than cycle, even when “it makes no sense to drive so short a distance”, and “it’s a journey which could so easily be made by bike”.

Most people in societies such as the UK and USA do not choose to drive a car. Over the last half century modal ‘choice’ has been eliminated as the car has become increasingly structured into people’s everyday lives as the ‘normal’, ‘default’ option. People drive because they’re part of a car system.

The dominance of this car system also explains why so few people in the UK and USA cycle. Many more people cycle in China and The Netherlands than in the UK or USA because the Chinese and Dutch have installed better bicycle systems, which embed cycling as a routine, everyday practice.

To embed cycling globally, then, we need a global bicycle system.

Overriding the capacity for individual choice, a bicycle system can convert what might be a current undemocratic ‘fashion’ into durable collective cycling practice. It can make, at least for short urban journeys, cycling the default; whilst driving becomes the deliberative, active, more difficult ‘choice’, the option requiring people to ‘be hardcore’ and ‘go against the grain’.

The tentative elite embrace of ‘ordinary’ cycling in some of the world’s most prestigious cities is a geographically and historically specific ‘moment’, one which provides us with an unprecedented opportunity – for the sake of both cycling and sustainability – to institute, and so make more democratic and sustainable, this minority turn to cycling – to make a ‘revolution’ from what might otherwise be a ‘fashion’.

Two quick points about the worldwide institutionalisation of cycling via a global bicycle system:

First, a bicycle system includes very many things – just like the ‘object’ of the bicycle itself. Such multiplicity is the fundamental and most important characteristic of a system. Any thing in isolation will have minimal, if any, effect; changes must be systematic. Within a system, no one thing is made to do too much work; there is no ‘silver bullet’. Rather all the components of the system work synergistically, together, to create a sum in excess of its parts. Building such a system takes time; it is an incremental project, but also a principled and a collective one;

Second, more incidentally, but something which is very much a ‘live’ issue in the UK – the question of whether we should adopt an ‘integrationist’ or ‘segregationist’ perspective when building for cycling loses much of its significance under the more encompassing task of building a global bicycle system. Of course, this larger task still requires us to consider, decide and lobby, in context-specific ways, for cycling’s ‘proper place’, but that ‘proper place’ becomes part of a far bigger picture, with the objective of getting everyone eventually moving by bicycle. Different places will devise and install different solutions – with different life-spans – in the process of incrementally building cycling’s centrality into the urban mobility system.

The development of a global bicycle system is a major collective project in which we all can, indeed must – even if only by riding a bicycle – be involved. (If you’re reading this blog post I’m sure you already are.) For anyone who loves cycling, these then should be exciting times.

Everywhere there is so much work to be done, for the sake of human viability on our planet, to contribute to a bicycle system. The ‘push for cycling’ must be broad, confident and powerful. We need new cycling infrastructure; new cycling stories; new cycling thinking; new cycle shops, new cycle repair services, and cycle hire services; new cycling-oriented maps, guides and websites; new cycle parking; more cycle-friendly schools, colleges and workplaces; new cycling-oriented cafes, restaurants and hotels; better integration of cycling and other modes of mobility, especially buses, trams and trains; stronger connections between cycling and other spheres of life, including business, politics, television, film, music and other media. We need people to cycle, and people to help, support and encourage others to cycle. Whoever and wherever we are,  whatever we do, we can contribute to the new bicycle system required to build a broader and better culture of sustainability.

In this bicycle system the ‘choice’ to cycle is not an individual choice, it’s a social choice – it’s been made elsewhere, by complex, overlapping systems making it the sensible – logical, rational, enjoyable – way of moving around.

We need such a system to make the bicycle the global vehicle of urban mobility, a vehicle not only of and for a new global elite, but irrespective of where someone lives, their social position, and their attitude towards sustainability.

We need such a system to make cycling democratic and sustainable

We need such a system for cycling to fulfil its massive potential contribution to urban sustainability.