Posts Tagged ‘cycling futures’

New cycling stories

March 20, 2014

The world is missing our wisdom.

Mass cycling

In your work for cycling, do you sometimes attend meetings? If so, have you ever sat through a meeting with the growing, gnawing feeling you’re talking at cross purposes with the other people present? Have you ever left a meeting utterly dejected, feeling you might as well give up because ‘people just don’t get it’?

Meetings about cycling inevitably involve different agendas and compromise. But is our struggle to make cycling mainstream so difficult because we – it’s strongest advocates – still haven’t learned how to speak about it? Are we yet to find our voice? If so, other people, understandably, would struggle to hear it. So perhaps ‘people don’t get it’ because we’ve yet to tell them?

Partly, we’ve inherited a problem. Cycling advocacy for the past half-century has been on the back foot, so busy complaining, criticising and protesting it never paused to build – let alone proselytize – progressive visions of an alternative society with the bicycle at its heart. Yet isn’t that what we must do if we’re to convince others that cycling matters?

Why don’t we have compelling visions with which to convince ourselves and others of cycling’s value? Partly, as I’ve said, because our tendency has been reactive, not pro-active. But partly also, cycling advocacy has become pragmatic, maybe too pragmatic. We have learned how to fit cycling into other agendas rather than develop agendas of our own. We try particularly to sell cycling in ways most likely to resonate with institutional agendas – ‘cycling cuts congestion, pollution and carbon emissions’; ‘cycling increases health and fitness, and reduces obesity’. We try to make cycling make sense to others, but at what cost?

We advocate for cycling despite never having stopped to build compelling cycling visions. Then when we argue for cycling we get this unsettling feeling that ‘other people don’t get it’. That’s because their ambitions for cycling don’t match the visions we have, but which we have repressed and can’t express.

We have jumbles of ideas, impulses and convictions around cycling’s worth. But we lack the confidence to develop these jumbles into coherent visions, because they’re about bicycles, and bicycles don’t count. Personal and collective development of mass cycling visions is immature because we have internalised the cycling shame of the last half-century. This shame got forked on bicycles as the car became everyman’s vehicle (and gradually every woman’s too). So now we are embarrassed to say we believe in bikes, believe in society re-organised away from cars and towards bikes. As many people today are embarrassed to think of themselves as people who might cycle, we are embarrassed to advocate boldly for their cycling.

We work towards visions we can’t articulate, and we are shy in sharing our ambitions for cycling. Our private thoughts don’t find public expression; they don’t cohere into comprehensible speech. We are silenced. And so the world misses our wisdom. How powerful is the dominant ideology that it stops us articulating even to ourselves, let alone asking for, what it is we really want! This our silence contributes to cycling’s continued repression.

Cycling city

So? So we need to develop our visions and move beyond the shame of speaking them. Find our voice. Of course we must compromise – to make cycling big requires working with others, and that inevitably entails compromise. But unless they know what we really stand for, those others can’t know by how much we’re compromising.

We believe bikes should replace cars. We think half of all journeys could easily be made by bike. We see a bicycle-based society as better than a car-based one. We look forward to the time when bicycles proliferate as cars disappear and die. People won’t know these things unless we tell them, so we should tell them. We need to make our stories, to help make sense of the changes we’re calling for.

Just one example – the conversion of two lanes of a dual-carriageway’s four into top-notch space for cycling. Howls of protest, obviously. But the prospects of such change have to be higher the more people see them as forming part of an ongoing societal project to re-design our cities away from cars towards bicycles. The more people can see and understand the bigger picture, the more supportive they will be. That’s why we need vision, narrative and discourse elucidating change, helping people make sense of, rather than react against, it.

Airing these things will facilitate not sabotage progress. It’ll transform cycling from ‘a special interest’ into a public good. It’ll break us free from being seen as ‘a self-interested culture of cranks and hobbyists’. And others will finally see what it is we’re going on about – ‘they’ll get it’. And at the very least, if still too little changes, politicians and policy-makers will be able to see that – from our perspectives –not nearly enough is being done, and that’s why we’re angry and keep demanding and expecting more.

Others lack visions for cycling because we’ve not even tried to sell them ours. Until we do, cycling will keep getting incorporated – where it gets incorporated at all – in trivial, tokenistic ways – in ways that make sense to those without visions of mass cycling. They’ll keep giving cycling at most a little because they have learnt and assume that a little is enough. And we as advocates will continue to feel that cycling’s being sold seriously short.

If you want a society based on cycling, start talking about a society based on cycling. Like everything else, the way to develop, refine and sell our cycling visions is to practise – and as we get better at telling the new cycling stories, others are more likely to hear, believe and start telling them too.

Different Worlds

January 7, 2014

Mona Caron - Different Worlds

Most people don’t cycle, and it’s easy to assume they’re indifferent, even hostile to cycling. But that’s not true; even as they describe, explain and justify their car-locked lives, many people view cycling as something they’d love to do, just not in this world.

When people talk about driving and cycling they often talk about two quite different and separate worlds. There’s the world they know best, full of cars including theirs, the world they must – simply to function – learn, accept and deal with. This world is physical and psychological, ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’, and so taken-for-granted it’s negotiated almost without thinking. Bicycles occupy another world – slower-moving and sunnier, if confined in most people’s imaginations to leisure, holidays and wishful thinking. People struggle to fit the idea of themselves cycling into the first world, but easily can in the second. So interviews about cars and bicycles tend to slip between describing everyday car-based hustle and bustle and reflecting on the occasional or imagined delights of, for example, a weekend off-road ride in the countryside.

So what happens when you, the interviewer, introduce into the conversation the idea of utility cycling? Typically people express their unwillingness to cycle because it looks and feels too scary; next they mention how the cycling facilities they’ve seen don’t join up, and look unfit for purpose; but these ‘facts’ out the way, so long as you keep them in this ‘what if..?’ territory, interesting things happen. You get glimpses of a third world based more around bicycles than cars. You see this world in the injection of pace, the change in demeanour, the glint in the eye, the flash of a smile, and the burst of enthusiasm that emerge as someone briefly considers the prospect of more cycling – as what’s usually on the margins or just under the surface comes momentarily into view; it’s like sunshine bursting suddenly through the clouds, as someone savours a little taste of how life could be. Then reality reasserts itself, the gate slams shut, and that third world is gone. (Here we see how individual psychology mirrors dominant ideology as performed through governmental discourses – almost complete and unwavering commitment to the car cracked by little rhetorical tweets and policy gestures looking in a more bike-friendly direction.)

As the interviewer it’s hard to trust your senses here, and the cold ‘facts’ of the transcript don’t easily reveal what you witness – the optimism injected as someone momentarily dwells on individual and societal cycling futures (questionnaires might capture these inchoate dreams of a different life better than less structured interviews). But we know the appetite for this third world is there. A recent British Social Attitudes survey found

‘widespread support for the idea that everyone should be cutting down on their car use, and most people disagree that individual action is pointless. Two-thirds of drivers say they are willing to cut their car use and three in five would be able to shift from using the car on short journeys to cycling, walking, or taking the bus … the overall climate of public opinion can … be described as favourable towards a reduction in car use.’

(Stradling et al, 2008: 153)

Other surveys show people want 20 mph speed limits, and want cycling (and walking) prioritised over the car. That people want change is unsurprising – the car system structures their world and many are forced against their deepest desires and aspirations to drive. In a sensible discussion I’m sure almost everyone would agree Britain’s being choked by cars and wishes it could stop.

Utility cycling remains a remote but real possibility despite the twin, related processes of people feeling disempowered from doing it and urban space practically eliminating it; people are dreaming even now, even here, among all the cars, of being in a better, happier place, by bike. Change from cars to bicycles is closer than we think; it just needs to be triggered, if not in the ways we’re trying to trigger it. The biggest barrier is not lack of desire, it’s cynicism – dreaming of a cycling future’s one thing, getting there quite another; why get excited about something you can’t imagine happening?

People glimpse a better cycling future, but remain in perpetual fug over the driving present. The car contributes to a de-skilling and disembodiment of everyday life. People’s capacity to move through the world without a screen to protect them has been eroded, as has the relationship to their own bodies that develops through physical activity. Talking to people about their reliance on the car, you get the impression we’ve collectively sleep-walked into the current state of transport, and on pausing to think about it they momentarily awaken and slowly shake their heads, struggling to comprehend how the car’s taken over life. Even the most car-centric of people feels this; Jeremy Clarkson’s tremendous popularity is surely based on his ability temporarily to extinguish people’s growing ambivalence towards the car, so they can still sometimes bathe for a short sweet while in its unalloyed celebration.

So cycling sits in an alternative future even as current conditions occlude it. Cycling here is importantly symbolic. If in the present people have lost control of their bodies, homes and lives, in the cycling future they retake control of those bodies, take back those homes from the car, and reassert autonomy over those lives. The thought of cycling gives people a sense that things, and most importantly they themselves, could be different. Cycling’s power is as the pivot around which life rotates away from a darker towards a brighter future. But it’s unwise to show unambiguous support for something with such dodgy prospects, so enthusiasm for cycling is muted, constrained by the understandable (if also incorrect) sense that ‘things don’t change – driving’s what we do’. For now, people figure, we’re stuck with the car.

You might think this other world lying just beneath the cars is so clearly against vested interests, it’ll never happen. You might say it’s much easier for car-dependent people to romanticise cycling than it is to get them on a bike. But don’t those responses keep cynicism the biggest barrier to cycling? I think we should see the truth in people’s hesitant, halting visions of a better life, and make ways to encourage and convert them into action, though precisely how we do so is another question.

Another world is possible, and cycling is not just part of it, it’s a route to it. Cycling is repressed but barely; it lies close to the surface. This is why, as I tried to say in a recent post, I think we need to create more seductive visions of the cycling future, to help people get more than a glimpse – to help them get a sustained view – of the world that cycling, including their own cycling, will create.


Stradling, Stephen, Jillian Anable, Tracy Anderson and Alexandra Cronberg (2008): ‘Car Use and Climate Change: Do We Practise What We Preach?’, in Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips, Mark Johnson and Elizabeth Clery (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 24th Report, London: Sage, pp. 139-59.

Cycling 2050

April 10, 2013

Below I outline three possible scenarios for cycling’s global role in 2050. I then extrapolate current major trends to conclude with what I consider to be cycling’s most likely role in the world of 2050.

1. Mass velomobility

Widespread concerns about health, climate change and livability have translated into advocacy for and implementation of a radical set of policies, re-shaping the transport environment, and especially cities, away from motorised modes and towards cycling. Massively increased fuel prices combined with high levels of tax on both ownership and use of motorised vehicles have accelerated social and cultural change towards sustainable modes of mobility. These processes started first in the world’s most prestigious cities – such as London, New York, Berlin and Paris; but caught on quickly and spread across the globe, including to cities which in 2013 had been leaving cycling behind.

Little motorised traffic penetrates urban space, which is characterised instead by parks, trees, and people meeting, walking or cycling. The benefits of these changes have ensured they are embraced, encouraging still further change. The private car is extinct and has disappeared as a status symbol. Short journeys are walked, but cycling is the normal mode of transport for almost everyone for journeys beyond two kilometres but less than ten kilometres: some people use e-bikes to help with lack of fitness, steep hills or longer distance; some people (particularly young children) and freight are transported locally by load-carrying (often electrically-assisted) velomobiles. High quality public transport systems exist, but within cities their use is considered inferior to making journeys by bike.

Urban space is pervaded by a spirit of community, neighbourliness and conviviality. Release of space from parked and moving cars has ensured plenty of room for walking and cycling to mix without conflict. A new understanding of cycling has developed – as a practice which has helped safe-guard human well-being on the planet; cycling is therefore considered fundamental to ‘the good life’ and is rarely seen as difficult. History books and children’s stories tell of ‘the time of the car’, but the youngest generation scarcely believes it; imbued with an ethic of living sustainably on a finite planet, it takes for granted the localised, resource-lite, energy-efficient lives which are now normal.

2. Going Dutch

Increasing concerns about health, fitness, pollution and climate change have led to re-shaping of urban space away from the car and towards the bicycle following the lead shown by (and the best practice pioneered in) the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Growing public demand and government support for cycling form part of a broader desire for less car-centric cities in which people choose between different modes, with cycling favoured for shorter journeys beyond walking distance.

Cycling is generally regarded as ‘a good thing’, but partial resistance to it remains across areas of the world which had previously embedded car use as normal (north America, Australasia, much of Europe) or which adopted a culture of car ownership and use more recently (Latin America, Africa, Asia). Levels of cycling vary greatly: continuation of pro-cycling policies in many northern European countries means cycling usually accounts for over half of urban journeys; elsewhere cycling (including assisted cycling) typically accounts for between 10 and 30% of all urban journeys.

Cycling is still being actively promoted by government and other institutions, and remains in competition with other modes (trams, buses, trains and cars – whether privately or collectively owned). It is designed into the urban fabric in various ways: in central urban areas, which are now generally car-free, it tends to share space with (and give way to) pedestrians; further out it tends to be separated from other modes along bigger, busier roads but to mix with them on quieter residential streets, where speeds are below 30 km/hr. Cycling is typically afforded priority over motorised modes within urban space, but this priority is challenged across suburban space, and reversed across rural space (where cycling remains predominantly a leisure practice).

As urban cycling levels have increased, people have gradually re-organised their values, attitudes and lifestyles around it, so that whilst some groups remain resistant to actually doing it, hostility to the idea of cycling has declined, and it is widely accepted as a normal means of moving around. However, the bicycle’s status is highest and cycling as a mode of transport most popular amongst affluent, educated urban groups (and very popular amongst retired people as an active, healthy mode of (mainly rural) leisure). Attempts to sell ‘the Dutch model’ of cycling have expanded to all parts of the world, including India and China.

3. Business-as-usual

Levels of cycling remain relatively high across parts of northern Europe, reaching 50% of all journeys in a select few Dutch, Danish and German cities. Elsewhere there are some ‘cycling beacons’ (often hyped by short-lived institutional efforts to boost cycling in particular places), but levels of cycling remain generally negligible, at a few per cent of total urban trips. Countries where cycling was once common, such as India and China, have become more organised around the car; problems associated with transport congestion and pollution have grown dramatically.

Cycling continues to be seen in some places as a potential solution to assorted problems but it remains a struggle to convert positive rhetoric into more utility cycling; in other places cycling has become a discredited ‘solution’ – past efforts to promote cycling have failed, so the search for solutions has moved on to other ‘eco-friendly’ transport projects which fit better the interests of neo-liberal capitalism, such as new generations of ‘smart cars’, car-sharing schemes, and high-profile public transport projects.

Outside the few places where utility cycling is ‘normal’ it continues to be seen as a fringe activity of small, inconsequential sub-cultures; many people from these sub-cultures still advocate cycling as the most efficient, healthy and sustainable means of urban transport but their advocacy fails to make much impact, either on public opinion or governmental and other institutional agendas and policies. However, cycling does attract small, isolated pockets of funding for little local projects aimed mainly at children or ‘hard-to-reach’ groups.

Conclusion: cycling futures

The least likely of these scenarios is surely the last, ‘business-as-usual’. Culture and society change continuously; nothing stays the same; so the idea that things 37 years from now might remain much as they are today is unrealistic.

Three major trends likely to have an impact on people’s willingness to cycle are underway:

  1. Climate change and its unintended and serious consequences is established scientific fact. But without strong institutional intervention, lifestyle changes in response to the realities of climate change will be highly uneven, both geographically and socially;
  2. Amongst the world’s richest people, the car’s status is in decline, the bicycle’s on the rise. These look like long-term trends, not short-term fads;
  3. Cities across much of the ‘rich’ world are becoming susceptible to ideas (and associated re-shapings) around livability – no longer mainly places to escape, they are being re-made into desirable places to live, work and play.

This suggests two potential futures for cycling:

1) Based on cycling remaining an elective practice

The urban rich embrace cycling as a genuine response to anxieties around climate change as well as a marker of a new, middle-class lifestyle which prioritizes livability. Urban governments will increasingly respond to and seek to capitalise on cycling’s rising status, both with public bike schemes and more cycle-friendly spaces. But poor people will be pushed out from cities and, together with rural populations, will be less inclined as well as less able (because of longer distances and less hospitable conditions) to cycle.

2) Based on cycling being increasingly structured into the urban environment

Here an urban elite institutionalise their increasingly favoured practice of cycling, and – if they can do so across urban space generally – there is a chance they might also democratise it. This ‘democratisation’ will occur both because improved infrastructure for cycling will enable people from beyond the urban elites (temporarily) to gain its (diminishing) status effects, and because the ‘colonisation’ of urban space by this ‘elite infrastructure’ will coerce people into using it. (I’m not shying away from the difficult language of coercion and colonisation here, but would note that it just as easily and equally applies to on-going processes which result in car-centric cities and lifestyles.)

Of these two potential futures (I’m not talking about the three earlier scenarios now), the first seems more likely but the second is more desirable, especially if it can be facilitated and made more palatable by informed, critical and progressive cycling advocacy. It is the second which would best ensure 2050 is characterised by mass velomobility.