Posts Tagged ‘Cycling and Society Research Group’

10 years of Cycling and Society

September 13, 2013

I’m just back from the 10th annual Cycling & Society Symposium, hosted this year by the University of Central Lancashire at their outdoor campus, Ty’n Dwr, near Llangollen in mid-Wales. It was superbly organised by Richard Weston, and pulled together around 35 of us face-to-face, as well as Jennifer Bonham in Adelaide, Australia via Skype.

As someone who’s been around since the start, I was invited to say a few words about where as a research community we’ve come from, where we might go, and how in the wider world cycling is changing. I decided to start by telling the cycling story of my daughter, Flo, who like Cycling & Society is 10 years old.

Flo was born into a bubble structured by cycling; her parents love cycling and live without a car. For a decade she has developed through that structured space, into a skilled and experienced cyclist. At the start she had to be physically carried or pulled …

Sue & Flo in the Netherlands

But she soon learnt to propel herself, initially on a balance bike, then through a series of pedal-driven machines; the bikes grew bigger and she became stronger, faster and more independent.

On Morecambe Prom

Racing at Salt Ayre

Flo BMXing in Silverdale

For so long as her friends were the children of our friends, cycling remained normal. But then slowly, inevitably, she has through school developed friends of her own, friends whose lives are not based around the bicycle but the car. And cycling is steadily becoming less ‘natural’; it’s becoming more unappealing. We’ve taught Flo to cycle, but it’s getting steadily harder to make her cycle in a world which mainly doesn’t. Her agency is being structured less by us her parents, and more by the world outside. For now she’s riding slowly away from us, towards the car. Her transport preferences are becoming normal. In her own little, sweet and innocent way, Flo shows how far we remain from a cycling world.

The personal and the social are inextricably, complexly connected. I struggle with but also accept Flo’s resistance to cycling; she’s finding her way in the world, and wants to fit in. We’ve helped her – and some of her friends – to understand more about cycling, but they’re all part of a car-centric society in which ‘being normal’ matters. In the world as it is her reluctance to cycle is part of learning to be sociable. So our challenge as parents is changing; if over the last decade we’ve taught and encouraged our kids to cycle, over the next one I hope we’ll teach them to navigate and negotiate a world of multiple and sometimes clashing visions and values – in other words, politics. We’ll explain cycling’s significance to a healthy, peaceful, happy, just, and green world, and we’ll try to nudge them some ways more than others, but they’ll figure things out for themselves, including what role cycling, if any, should play in their own lives.

But this next decade is crucial, either to cycling’s continued marginalisation or else to its normalisation. A decade ago cycling was ignored and/or treated as irrelevant by most academics, including those with expertise in transport and sustainability; today, in contrast, there’s a steady stream of peer-reviewed journal articles about cycling, major research funding for cycling projects, and more respect shown to those who argue for cycling’s importance. Cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of academia is an effect but also a cause of cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of society in general; both trends are tentative but have the potential to develop significantly between now and 2023. So I look forward to the 20th Cycling & Society Symposium in 2023, and hope I might have good news to report there on Flo’s cycling trajectory over the coming decade,  as she moves into adulthood. By then cycling could be much more normal, and Flo and her friends might perhaps be cycling, and less self-consciously.

Llangollen was a cosmopolitan affair. There were people from Brazil, China, Poland, Romania, Denmark, France, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary and the UK, as well as Jennifer from Australia. I find this truly inspiring and encouraging – the thirst for new cycling knowledge, like the push for cycling, is now happening almost everywhere.

Tim on Horseshoe Pass

The beautiful, rural and remote location provided good opportunities for riding. Many participants got out and about by bike during the event; for myself, I rode over to Llangollen from Crewe with Tim Jones (above) – who gave a super presentation about the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) phenomenon – and Cosmin Popan (below) – who’s recently started a PhD on cycling at Lancaster University. And after a full day spent listening to twelve diverse but uniformly excellent papers, the three of us rode with Peter Wood – who’s close to finishing his PhD on cycling at The Open University – up Horseshoe Pass.

Cosmin on Horseshoe Pass

It’s a huge privilege to hang out with researchers such as Peter and Cosmin who, compared to Tim and me, are starting out on their journeys into cycling research. The energies and enthusiasms of others who love cycling are infectious. And there’s still so much to know, both about cycling per se, and about how best to promote it.

Cosmin, Tim & Peter on Horseshoe Pass

Seeing in Llangollen the continuing passion for and growing expertise in cycling, it strikes me that thinking about cycling is in a pretty healthy place, and that it’ll continue to make important contributions over the next decade.

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.

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.

8th Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium

June 27, 2011

Nicholas Oddy, organiser of this year’s Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium, has just announced the programme, which I’ve copied below. The Symposium takes place on Monday 5th September 2011, at Glasgow School of Art. (We also have a meeting the following day, which anyone interested in cycling research is welcome to attend.)

On Monday there will be ten presentations spanning a broad range of topics (though all of course in some way or another to do with cycling!).

The event is free, but registration is essential. To register, contact Nicholas (n dot oddy at gsa dot ac dot uk)

We’re a friendly bunch, and our annual gatherings are informal and relaxed. So whatever your background, it’d be great to see you there!


Dave Horton

Cycling in Britain: historical roots, current state, future prospects


Sarah Leonard

Understanding the image of cycling in the UK: a social marketing case study


Henrietta Sherwin, Kiron Chatterjee and Juliet Jain

What counts as ‘social influence’? pondering the complexities of social influence and cycling






Justin Spinney

Lost in the crowd: video, affect and the (re)production of an urban bike messenger identity


Rachel Dilley & Katrina Brown

The role of mobile video methods in the (re)production and disruption of gendered subjectivities in cycling






Tim Jones

Understanding everyday cycling in cities: identities,  practices, experiences and visions


Alan J Munro

Ushering in banality: cycling as infrastructure and the infrastructure for cycling




Cathy Jarvis

Oh, what a feeling! cycling, space and safety


Richard Mann

The seven ages of cycling: How Oxford’s middle classes have adapted an English city – and themselves – for cycling


Plenary and tea


Andrew Millward

Cycling and tobacco



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.

Cycling and Society Research Group

September 9, 2009

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Bolton, at the 6th Cycling and Society Research Group symposium and annual meeting. The organiser, John Parkin, bravely managed to cram 14 papers into Monday’s schedule. This would be a big mistake at many academic meetings, but it worked wonderfully well in Bolton, because of the participants’ shared enthusiasm for the topic and the fantastic diversity within that topic – in terms both of the content of the papers (to give a taste – cycling and citizenship, bike-sharing schemes, shared space …), and the backgrounds of those presenting (sociologists, geographers, transport planners, NGO activists, engineers, consultants …). It was the kind of day that from time-to-time I need in order to keep faith in the importance of thinking, sharing and developing ideas, and working collectively towards a more cycle-friendly, better world.

I think it’s fair to say that over the last 6 years the Cycling and Society Research Group has pioneered and championed the importance of more cultural approaches to cycling. Of course, many disciplines can make important contributions to our understandings of cycling, and it’s wonderful now to see sociologists, cultural geographers and anthropologists talking and thinking with planners and engineers, as well as policy-makers, activists, consultants and other cycling practitioners, at our annual gatherings.

Marie Kastrup, who is involved in organising the programme for next year’s Velo city conference in Copenhagen, was in Bolton, and she gave a great paper on the role of national identities in producing and reproducing cycling cultures, paying particular attention to the Danish case. I’m hopeful that her involvement in the proceedings, and her own clear cultural orientation to cycling, mean that ‘the cultural turn in cycling studies’ will have a somewhat higher profile at Velo-city 2010 Copenhagen than it did at Velo-city 2009 Brussels. Cycling, non-cycling, perceptions of cycling, attitudes to cycling – all these things are always cultural; and it’s only by getting stuck into and trying to get to grips with culture, that we can hope to understand more about cycling, including who cycles and how, who doesn’t, why, with what effects …