Posts Tagged ‘fear of cycling’

20’s plenty

October 22, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of cycling

September 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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