Posts Tagged ‘cycling culture/s’

Copenhagen’s cycling silence – a hypothesis

February 10, 2011

There’s been something niggling at the back of my mind ever since I returned from Copenhagen a couple of months ago. I was really struck by how quiet cycling is there. It felt almost funereal, so it’s perhaps fitting that a certain perplexedness at the silence of Copenhagen cycling has since accompanied me almost like a haunting …

And then on my ride into work through the fog this February morning, I had one of those little light-bulb moments (I only seem to get these when I’m on my bike), a sudden realisation of why Copenhagen’s cycling procession is so silent. It seems obvious now I’ve thought it, but I posit it as a hypothesis here, because it remains just that – I’ve no evidence.

There were I think three main components to Copenhagen’s cycling silence.

First, and most obvious, was the complete absence of the ringing of bells. So many cyclists, but no ding-dings – how could that be? I’ll elaborate on this below.

Second, there is something to say about our always shifting and relative positioning in time and space, which makes places sound more or less noisy. Although I live in a city much smaller than Copenhagen, I’m accustomed to hearing the noise of motorised traffic when I ride on its urban roads. When I rode through the streets of the Danish capital it was between the rush-hours, and people on bikes easily outnumbered moving cars. To ride in so big a city with so little noise of traffic is something to which I’m simply not accustomed. I think that partly explains why the experience also felt slightly eerie and melancholy to me. I associate cities with noise, and am almost unsettled when my experience is otherwise (and rather ironically, this despite the quest for quieter cities being one of my political goals). I remember the same feelings from riding regularly through other big cities in my past, especially at night. (And one of the many reasons I so love cycling is because of how it both enables the evocation of such powerful and beautiful feelings and then provides the conditions to dwell in those feelings. But then, once I’m off the bike, they tend to evaporate – they belong to the bike.)

Third, and this I think is mainly why Copenhagen cycling felt funereal to me, in my ordinary, everyday experience it’s rare for so many people to be in such close proximity to one another and yet produce so little sound. I can think of only two similar situations: ‘pedestrianised’ town and city centres, but in such places people are often walking together, and so there’s a hubbub generated from the sound of voices; and Critical Mass, which we consciously and temporarily construct as a car-free space and where, funnily enough, I’m also often unsettled by the silence, and sometimes find myself making noise just to break it. In contrast to both ‘pedestrianised’ urban space and Critical Mass, Copenhagen’s cyclists proceed by and large in solitary fashion – they are strangers to one another, strangers who do not speak. So there are all these moving bodies, so many people going to so many different places – in silence. A truly weird and wonderful experience, and one which I guess will become more wonderful as it becomes less weird?

I’d be interested to know how Copenhagen cyclists understand and experience their sonic cycling environment. Of course there will be considerable diversity, but in general are Copenhagen cyclists proud of and/or otherwise attached to the collective silence which they together produce? Is that one of the reasons for the absence of bell ringing? From my very brief observations, people seemed not on the whole to be listening to music as they pedalled. Could that be another reason for the belllessness (I just made that word up I think, to see how it looked – you must forgive me, I’m a sociologist ;-))? If everyone’s paying attention, not pedalling to other rhythms but dwelling in the here/now, then the loud and jarring intervention of a bell is perhaps less necessary.

But my main hypothesis is this – bicycle bell-ringing thrives in conditions of unpredictability. A bell is a warning, an announcement of your presence. Britain likes bell-ringing cyclists because we’re not expected to be there; we’re an aberration; out-of-place. We must make ourselves known because if not we’ll make people jump – “I didn’t expect you there”.

Copenhagen’s cycling silence is a collective triumph, for a certain sort of cycling – predictable, ordered, separated cycling. In these conditions, to ring your bell is to suggest otherwise, to question and sabotage the correct etiquette of the Copenhagen city cyclist. Remaining quiet means you do what’s expected, and doing what’s expected means you remain quiet.

Silence is a mode of governance. It forces you to do only the expected, to know your place, and to stay there.

Ringing your bell would announce you as a rebel with a different cause.

Towards cycling culture/s …

February 9, 2011

Almost everything I’m doing right now seems related to the idea of cycling culture/s. A group of us is working towards making a two-day event, Building Cycling Culture/s, as big and successful as possible. And meanwhile, I’m wading through an enormous pile of transcripts from interviews undertaken during our fieldwork across four English cities over the past year, as part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. Many of the things people have said to us strike me as profoundly significant to our current quest for a broad and inclusive British cycling culture.

Take, for example, a conversation between my anthropologist colleague, Griet Scheldeman and a long-time resident of one of our research sites, Lance. Lance is in his 80s, and has lived in Little London, Leeds for half a century.

Although he lives in one of the most car-oriented cities in England, although the sounds of urban motorways are audible from his tower-block home, and although he earned his living through repairing them, Lance has never really known routinised car ownership and use. He has cycled though.

When, Griet asks, did he stop cycling?

“Erm, 1965 I think. That’s a long time since isn’t it?”

“So”, Griet asks, “do you miss cycling?”

“Ooh, I wouldn’t have done it for pleasure.”

“You didn’t do it for pleasure?”

“No, I just went to work on it, that’s all.”

How much it says, this short exchange! With his perfunctory, almost dismissive attitude to the bicycle and cycling, Lance sounds like someone from Groningen or Copenhagen speaking today – you don’t think about the bike, you merely use it for getting around.

But Lance’s experience of cycling was not in some northern-European cycling oasis, but in post-Second World War inner-city Leeds, Yorkshire, England. Vestiges of Lance’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the bicycle remain, but they are just that, vestiges. Cycling has today become too difficult to be so easily taken-for-granted.

Here are cyclists negotiating Sheepscar, a notorious junction in the part of Leeds on which we concentrated our ethnographic gaze.

To confront these kinds of conditions, you have to be committed. Urban cycling in Britain today is mainly for the fearless. We’ve lost a culture which saw cycling as ordinary, and replaced it with one which is so dominated by cars that to cycle is … what? Heroic? Foolish? Unthinkable? Perhaps even irresponsible?

From cycling culture to car culture.

And back again?

Something which strikes me, reading back through the countless conversations we’ve had over the last year or two, is how so many people in so many ways are trying to escape car culture. It’s incredibly hard to escape from something which not only surrounds you, but also very importantly and profoundly structures you – the way your world is, the places you go, the distances you traverse, the psychologies of people with whom you live, work and interact, even your own psychology; that’s why we need a structural shift – a paradigm shift – in how we see, think about, talk about, decide on, design, plan for, use, understand and judge our various means of moving around.

Still, in the absence of concerted action (by government, corporations, universities …) to shift those structures, many people are doing it for themselves. For example, Donald and Penny are a retired couple who recently moved to Lancaster from a remote, rural location. They did so mainly to become more accessible to key services (shops, cinema, and, most especially, the train station – which makes the rest of the country more accessible to them, and them more accessible to people who might want to visit). And they sought this increased proximity to the train station and other services in order to reduce their dependence on the car. Today they have one car instead of two and make most journeys on foot, by bike, or by train. Their car is sometimes used, but not in the city – cities are no place for cars. Donald and Penny are British pioneers of the northern European way – it’s fine to have a car, but it makes no sense to use it in the city; save it for those rare trips hard to make by other means.

It’s not yet a tide, but it’s more than a trickle. People are actively giving up on car culture; and more would undoubtedly like to, but can see ‘no way out’.

By building cycling culture/s we can develop some of the routes out from car culture we so badly need, and which people want.

Today’s pervasive and poisonous car culture looks like a solid totality, but it was built incrementally and relatively slowly, over the ‘long century of the car’.

We dismantle it by slowly, incrementally, but surely building cycling culture/s to take its place.

Building Cycling Culture/s

January 14, 2011

As a sociologist, I’m aware that all of us, all of the time, are involved (indeed, inevitably and unavoidably implicated) in the production of culture – whether we’re watching live football or The X Factor on TV, buying a newspaper or reading one on-line, riding or refusing to ride a bike, we’re all the time contributing to cultural shifts in one direction or another; we’re all agents of change, if also simultaneously structured by wider forces which make us likely to act in some ways more than others. It’s at this most fundamental level – sociology’s simple but profound recognition that we’re all social actors being shaped by but also helping shape our world – that I love my discipline.

But sometimes we more actively commit to the production of culture, and that’s the case for me with an event I’m helping organise – Building Cycling Culture/s. I’m not entirely clear how the event was born. I’m involved in one project exploring cycling in England and Rachel Aldred, another of the event’s organisers, is involved in another. Between these two projects, over the last couple of  years intensive, unprecedented research into the current state of cycling has been taking place across eight English cities – the Understanding Walking and Cycling project on which I work has concentrated on Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester; whilst Rachel’s Cycling Cultures work is focusing on Bristol, Cambridge, Hull and London (Hackney).

Given the convergences in subject matter, it makes sense to build conversations between the projects, and as they move into their final stages, to start thinking about what they’ve found and the implications of those findings. We sense that between them the projects have some useful things to say about how in England we could build a broad, inclusive cycling culture.

I tend to talk about ‘a cycling culture’, in the singular. But on the graphic below you’ll see we refer to ‘cycling cultures‘, and in the title of this post I’ve hedged my bets by introducing a slash, giving the option of both at the same time – ‘cycling culture/s’. Although it might look like it, this is not mere post-modern intellectual tom-foolery; it points to a tension in the debates behind the event, and which will hopefully be provoked by it. On the one hand we want to explore how in the UK we build a cycling culture in which everyone feels welcome, so that cycling becomes mainstream; wherever they live, whatever their journey, and whatever time of day, week, month or year, people of any age, class, gender, ethnicity and physical ability will find it perfectly acceptable, and feel able, to hop on a bike. But on the other hand, we recognise that within any culture there lies a plurality of (sub)cultures, and that people will ride bikes in different ways and for different reasons, and that’s something to welcome, indeed celebrate.

In other words, I think we want to find a route for English cycling promotion which aspires to the ‘mass cycling cultures’ found in places such as the Netherlands and Denmark, but without denying the vitality given to cycling by people embracing it in distinctive ways which make sense to them. This is perhaps having your cake and eating it too! Many people working for cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark seem so concerned to elevate cycling as ordinary and unthought that they deny it might have heightened meaning for particular groups of people. In societies such as the US and UK, meanwhile, the existence of distinctive cycling (sub)cultures seems sometimes to be regarded as a barrier by those who want to promote cycling as ordinary.

Most of all we want to promote debate and inspiration, in the belief both are necessary to the production of a healthy future for cycling. And we want the event to embody its main message, and the reason we do what we do; namely, that cycling is a wonderful practice, and its obvious potential to become both mainstream and inclusive is one which we work towards differently, but together.

We’re not designing it as a standard academic event, then, although we hope it will appeal to the many academics out there with interests in mobility, sustainable transport and cycling. We’re planning it to include campaigners, practitioners and cycling enthusiasts as well as academics (and we recognise that in cycling worlds such categories are anyway frequently blurred). And we’re planning for it not only to debate and collaboratively explore the prospects for building cycling culture/s, but also to recognise and celebrate those that already exist.

The event’s two other main organisers are crucial to how it’s taking shape – as genuinely inclusive, locally-relevant, highly vibrant. Andy Salkeld is Leicester City Council‘s Cycling Officer; the most imaginative, energised, enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious local authority cycling officer I know, he’s worked for cycling in many ways for many years. Although he might not thank me for it, I’d call him a ‘cycling entrepreneur’. He’s been massively helpful in facilitating our recent research in Leicester (where we’ve worked across the city, but most intensively with south Asian communities in and around Belgrave), and is an important voice on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project’s Advisory Board.

John Coster is another hugely energetic Leicester-based cultural entrepreneur. He’s fiercely proud of the city, a  highly respected journalist, and Editor of Citizens’ Eye. John’s involvement will ensure real community engagement in the event, both locally, and also – via the use of digital technologies – further afield.

With the recent high-profile launch of the ‘Boris bikes’ scheme, and in the long run up to the 2012 London Olympics, the time is right to bring fresh ideas and energies to the cycling promotion table. In England, and the UK more generally, progress towards developing a cycling culture remains painfully slow. My hope is that in the current climate, a well orchestrated and inspiring event exploring the state of and prospects for cycling will develop insights into what needs to be done, and generate fresh energies to do it. Together, we can build cycling culture/s!

The event is taking place on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011, at Phoenix Square, Leicester’s Film and Digital Arts Centre. Whether you live locally or far away, whether you’re simply curious, an academic, activist, practitioner, policy-maker or some combination of those, there will be something for you. Our intention is that, whoever you are, you’ll certainly feel welcome. Obviously we’re still in the process of planning the event, but to register your interest and receive further announcements, please go here.