Posts Tagged ‘inner-city cycling’

Cycling struggles, 7

December 20, 2012

This is a post in defence of vulnerability. First, it defends the vulnerability many cyclists feel, and which sees them taking to the pavement. Second, it defends the vulnerability many pedestrians feel when confronted by the pavement cyclist.

Both directly and indirectly it’s also about disability. Directly, I examine how people with disabilities experience pavement cycling. Indirectly, I suggest we’ve all become disabled by the car.


The last two posts examined the (intersecting) relevance of class and ethnicity to attitudes to and practices of cycling. By doing so, we’ve moved away from the ‘dominant model’ of the cyclist. This model prevails across contemporary British cycling discourses, permeating much thinking, writing (including policy documents) and advocacy around cycling. It assumes the cyclist as middle-class, middle-aged, male, white, able-bodied, competitive, and fit. Within policy discourses especially, it also often assumes the cyclist travels alone, and is probably commuting. One danger of this model’s dominance is that it begins to define what cycling is and can be. It can influence what we see, think, know, even dream.

As we move away from the dominant conception of ‘the cyclist’ we become more likely to encounter the pavement cyclist. Whilst many British cyclists are – through force of circumstance – pavement cyclists from time to time, the most committed pavement cyclists tend not to fit the dominant model of ‘the cyclist’. The male pavement cyclist is much more likely than the model cyclist to be working-class, young, and/or non-white; whether male or female, the pavement cyclist is less likely than the model cyclist to be competitive and fit; and the pavement cyclist might be accompanying children.

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, by ‘pavement’ I mean ‘sidewalk’ – space conventionally regarded in many (but by no means all) cultures as the preserve of pedestrians.

Pavement cycling

7. A pavement cycling story

This story comprises two stories. It starts by examining why people cycle on pavements. It then explores pavement cycling from a pedestrian perspective, looking specifically at the experiences of people with various disabilities. Finally it offers thoughts on a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy.

Pavement cycling

A cyclist perspective

Cycling on pavements is a normal way for many people to cycle. This normality is obfuscated by a dominant representation of the urban cyclist as a white, middle-aged, male, geared-up, and competent commuter.

People cycle on the pavement when they feel unable to cycle on the road. If we want cycling on roads, we must make roads cycle-able. Or, if we want cycling off pavements, we either make roads cycle-able, and/or give cycling its own space.

Cycling on pavements isn’t restricted to novice cyclists. Even long-time, regular cyclists do it. But it’s perceived as ‘the wrong way to cycle’ because of the ideological and discursive dominance of ‘the model (if still highly problematic) cyclist’ and ‘the right way to cycle’.

The following quotes show how different people, all of whom would generally be considered respectable and respectful, talk about their pavement cycling.

Hazel’s in her fifties. Cycling is her main means of transport:

“I cycle everywhere! … I don’t like the main roads – far too dangerous … You can get most places by using side roads. Occasionally I resort to the pavements if they’re not too busy, but I think you have to be sensible about this. But I will go on the pavement.”

Dev’s a British Asian man in his forties, and a professional. He’s very enthusiastic about cycling, but rides only occasionally for health and pleasure, and to accompany his young daughter on trips to the park:

“I only choose routes where there are not many pedestrians. And if there’s a lot of people coming walking towards me I’ll get off my bike. I never go through little gaps or cause any distress to pedestrians.

“Nobody’s ever said anything … I don’t know whether they understand or not [why I’m riding on the pavement]. I hope they do.

“I see a lot of people riding on the pavements, a lot. They are riding on the pavements for the same reason, they are conscious of the safety issues.

“I think there should probably be a proper lane for cyclists .. Sometimes I do go on the roads, provided it’s quiet and there are not many cars. But I would definitely not ride on [the local main road]; any road like that is no good – the cars come too close and you’ve got to get out of the way. It’s a bit risky.”

Dick is in his fifties. He rides mainly for pleasure, particularly in summertime after a day’s work which involves a lot of driving:

“Some roads I’m comfortable riding on, yeah. But others, you know, with the speed of the traffic and the state of some of the driving I wouldn’t be happy riding on some roads. I wouldn’t … I do have a tendency to ride on the pavement I must admit, but what I do is, you’ve got to understand, I’ll be very polite, people let me by and I say ‘thank you very much’.”

Ruby is an experienced cyclist in her late forties. She’s ridden all her life and cycles to work every day:

“I ride probably 60% on the road, 40% on the pavement. It depends on the time of day. Before 7 in the morning there’s very little traffic so I’m quite happy on the road, because I can be in the middle of the road and I’m not holding up the traffic. When I come home at 3:30pm then I’m more likely to be on the pavement because the traffic just gets too cross and silly.“

“I think it probably is fear of the traffic [which explains my pavement cycling] because people don’t seem to take any account of the fact that you’re going to wobble around a pothole. And I would say I’m a fairly confident cyclist. I kind of think ‘well sorry, you’ve got to wait for me, I’m here, I’m a road user’, you know, ‘tough’ kind of thing. But some drivers are not very happy with that point of view. I wouldn’t ever be bolshie about that, but some drivers don’t seem to like the fact that cyclists are on the road. On the other hand of course they don’t like the fact that cyclists are on the pavement either. You can’t win, can you? It doesn’t matter where you are, someone is going to moan about it.”

Ruby goes on to talk about her sons’ cycling:

“I suspect they all ride on the pavement rather more than I do. I think our youngest, certainly, rides on the pavement – probably 90% of the time … I’m pretty sure he’s on the pavement more than he is on the roads. I do tell him that he needs to make allowances for pedestrians. And when I’m a pedestrian I don’t like cyclists whizzing by, because you kind of jump don’t you? So as a cyclist I try to, you know, you’re kind of working out which way is the pedestrian going, and I’m aware that I’m on the pavement and I didn’t really ought to be.”

I’ve spoken to many people who ride on the pavement because they feel they’ve no choice, if they’re to keep cycling. It’s strange that people see pavement cycling as so reprehensible when it’s also so clearly comprehensible. But that’s not to say it’s unproblematic.

Pavement cycling

A pedestrian perspective

Pavement cycling has consequences. Its consequences for cycling are dire. Most people don’t want to cycle on pavements but they don’t want to ride on roads either, so they just don’t cycle. Those that do cycle are individually stigmatised and vilified for doing so, and cycling as a whole is constructed as a problematic, anti-social practice. As someone who passionately believes quite the opposite, I find this hard to swallow.

But what about pavement cycling’s consequences for pedestrians? Pavement cycling jeopardises the independent mobility of the most vulnerable people. Evan is blind. He says simply, “pavement cycling is the main problem for blind people. Well, for most disabled people”. People with disabilities struggle to move around cities more than most. The conversation below takes place amongst a group of people with various disabilities. Fred is profoundly deaf (and communicates with the rest of the group via a British Sign Language interpreter); Sheila has balance problems; both Tony and Janet are partially sighted.

Fred: “I don’t really understand why people cycle on the pavements because it’s really dangerous, especially for deaf people as obviously we can’t hear them.”

Sheila: “This is a big issue. I was actually knocked over yesterday. I’ve got a balance problem … [Pavement cycling] impacts on where you can go and how you feel about walking. It becomes less of a pleasure. [Pavement cycling] is certainly a major problem.”

Tony: “I’m blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Cyclists for me on a pavement suddenly appear on my blind side. I find that difficult.”

Janet: “There’s just a few of us [here], but we have got so many friends that have been knocked over and then told ‘why didn’t you look where you were walking?’ And they’ve got things like this [waving her cane], ‘oh a cane! Does that not indicate that there is a problem?’ But we are at wrong. And [incensed] we’re not at wrong! We’re walking perfectly sensible, because we have to. And then we get told we’re in the wrong. But it’s the cyclists that are in the wrong when they do create problems.”

(Incidentally, the call – which I’d never really understood – for registration of bicycles arises here; it’s based on a desire to be able to report and identify people whose cycling causes harm to others, in much the same way as I want, as a cyclist, to be able to identify and report bad driving.)

Pavement cycling is problematic not only because of the proximity between pedestrian and cyclist, but also because of the cyclists’ unpredictability. Because the cyclist is out of place there are no rules for his or her correct behaviour. Pedestrians can’t guess what he or she will do next. This unpredictability of movement also makes ‘shared space’ problematic. Talking about her city’s centre which works on the principle of shared space, Sheila says:

“Now, when you get bicycles coming down there, it’s such a wide area and they’re going anywhere and you’ve no idea where they’re going. Even if you can see them coming towards you, you don’t know whether they’re going to the left of you, the right of you. And that’s what I find impossible. I’ve just stopped using it” [my emphasis].

Although people with disabilities have real problems with cars parking on pavements, they tend generally to see bicycles as more problematic than cars. Why?

First, it’s true that many people with disabilities are hugely car dependent. So maybe they have an ideological blind-spot. But of course, they’re partly so car dependent because walking and cycling are currently so difficult for them, even more so than for other people, to do.

But second, as Fred says, “you know where the cars are … it’s having unexpected things happen that’s such a problem, and that’s why cyclists are a problem”.

If people with disabilities seem overly concerned about relatively ‘minor’ incidents such as a collision with a cyclist consider that the impact of a fall varies according to who you are. If you’re already frail, both the risks and consequences of falling are greater, so fear of falling will be greater too. For someone who’s already vulnerable, a fall (or fear of a fall) can spell the beginning of being house-bound.

We can try to relativize these risks and fears by comparing them to the risks imposed on pedestrians (and cyclists) by motorised traffic, but doing so won’t make the problems go away, and nor – by failing to empathise – will it win cycling friends.

Sharing space responsibly

The difficulty of responsible cycling

How do you know how much space to give someone if you don’t know what their tolerances are? How loudly do you ring your bell for the person who’s deaf? How much time to move do you give the person who can’t see? How slow is slow enough? Tony, who’s partially sighted, provides a sense of the potential for difference in perspective between pedestrian and cyclist:

“I crossed over from one side of the road to the other, and two cyclists were coming along and I had to jump out of the way. And the gentleman in front is going ‘ha, ha’, you know, all very jolly. But it wasn’t so jolly to me.”

‘Responsible cycling’ to us could be ‘irresponsible cycling’ to others, and good citizenship requires such recognition. When I’m cycling on roads, some motorists give me insufficient space to feel safe. How can I justify, then, imposing the emotional discomfort I feel about that onto others when I’m cycling and they’re walking? Based on my own experiences shouldn’t I be empathising with them, rather than (mindlessly?) repeating the discomfort I experience at the hands of others?

There are structural reasons why considerate cycling’s hard to do. I don’t want to excuse cyclists completely, but it’d be just as wrong to expect cyclists to behave in ways which are very difficult to achieve. The currently dominant transport order almost enforces styles of cycling which are antithetical to the calm, unhurried orientation towards pedestrians which would in a civilised society be normal. To survive, city cyclists often need to hurry. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling almost primed to fight by my experience of city cycling. A refusal to engage in such ‘fighting’ is of course one of the reasons people take to cycling on pavements; but the fight remains, only the terrain and actors change.

Cycling’s in a fix. Mixing with cars pushes us to ‘hurry up’; mixing with pedestrians compels us to ‘slow down’. There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities.

Sharing space responsibly

Towards a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy

A big majority of people who cycle, as well as the (very, very many) people who don’t currently cycle, and most pedestrians (but especially pedestrians with disabilities of various kinds) need the same thing – much more dedicated space for cycling. This is mainly the case along busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated; these roads feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians (as well as street furniture and other ‘obstacles’).

Rather than feel uncomfortable and guilty about what they’re doing, people who ride on pavements should voice demands for the sort of space through which they’d actually like to ride;

Rather than suffer in silence or demonise the pavement cyclist, pedestrians should voice demands for cycling to have its own space off their pavements;

Rather than simply not ride in cities, non-cyclists and sometime-cyclists should stand up for their right to city cycling, and voice demands for the kind of urban space they require in order to ride;

Disputes between pedestrians and cyclists result from deep and continuing institutional discrimination against both modes. Rather than us their advocates facing towards each other and bickering amongst ourselves, we must learn to face outwards in solidarity against the monster still devouring far too much urban space, the car.

And rather than – whether deliberately or inadvertently – continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.

Pavement cycling

Sharing space

A couple of final points to ponder, particularly for advocates of cycling.

First, completely pure space for either walking or cycling is of course unrealistic and undesirable. Cycling and walking sometimes have to mix. A good society is about brushing up against each other in respectful and tolerant ways more than it is about pretending other kinds of people and modes of mobility don’t exist by separating ourselves from them altogether.

Second, following from the first, cycling needs to change. If the world is starting to move around cycling, so too – inevitably and necessarily – must cycling move.

Here’s a suggestion for how people with cycles might move, from members of the group whose views we heard earlier.

Fred: “One idea would be, if it’s a pedestrianized area, then for people to actually get off their bike and walk it through the street instead of dodging in and out between people and knocking people down. I think if a cyclist actually got off their bike and walked with their bike … it’s only for a little time. And then they get back on their bike and cycle away … when there are not so many pedestrians, then get back on your bike and cycle.”

Paul: “I think on that last point, teaching people to push a bike should be part of cyclist training. Because lots of cyclists find it very difficult to push a bike.”

Fred is articulating a common sense strategy which we all probably use. But does he perhaps sound a bit extreme, a bit ‘anti-cyclist’? My instinct, at least, is to react against what he says, perhaps partly because I’m accustomed to defending a generally beleaguered cycling, and partly because I see myself as responsible and best able to judge when and where to dismount and remount – ‘I don’t need to be told’.

But in a sense, cycling moves below us, and we can’t afford to be fixed in what cycling means, whether that’s our own cycling, ‘good cycling’, or cycling in general. To be radically pro-cycling today is to know that cycling must change, and be part of that change. Our cycling repertoires need to broaden.

Challenges lie ahead for people who’ve kept riding through the time of the car. Speaking for myself, I’ve become used to riding fast and assertively, but such riding will become less and less appropriate. I need to broaden my repertoire of styles of riding in the city, learning to enjoy slow and sedate as much as fast and furious!

At the individual level the requirement is for ‘flexible cyclists’ able to cycle slowly, or even get off and push, when conditions (and not simply our own reading of those conditions) require it. At the societal level, new forms of governance of cycling must inevitably emerge, and – although of course we’ll negotiate them – we must be careful not automatically to oppose them.

Too fixed an idea of what cycling means is antithetical to a healthy future for cycling. To become established and better integrated into the fabric of the city, to become normal and democratic, cycling must change. New opportunities for the governance of cycling will emerge. So going back to Fred’s suggestion, for example, it should become possible for city centre pedestrian flows to be measured in real time, and signs indicating the appropriate behaviour of cyclists (to ride below a certain speed, or to dismount and push) to be adjusted accordingly. A paradigm shift requires everyone to think differently, everyone’s behaviour to change; those of us who cycle now aren’t immune, and if we think we are, I fear we become part of the problem, rather than its solution.

Cycling struggles, 6

December 10, 2012

We know some groups are more likely to cycle than others; but we rarely stop to examine this situation, to interrogate why. But we should do so, if ‘the cycling call’ is not to remain premised on white, middle-class (perhaps male, perhaps suburban) conceptions and assumptions.

This post examines attitudes to and practices of cycling within one of Britain’s South Asian urban communities. I’m calling it a ‘minority cycling story’ with some irony. The community whose attitudes and practices are reported here is conventionally understood as a ‘minority’ group. Yet their attitudes and practices towards cycling might be better typified as ‘majority’ ones. It is unfortunately those who cycle ‘ordinarily’ that remain in the minority.

6. A ‘minority’ cycling story

Off familiar territory

The area

During the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, Dr Griet Scheldeman and I spent three months in a largely non-white urban area. The local population is mostly of South Asian origin (many of East African Asian heritage). Besides English the main language spoken is Gujarati, and the largest religious group Hindu.

The area’s class profile is not straightforward; Census data suggests it is very deprived. There are certainly pockets of deprivation, but also considerable local variation. Many people who might have moved out remain in the area because of bonds based around ethnicity, culture, language and faith; the children and grandchildren of these first generation immigrants might disperse residentially, but they themselves often stay put. As we’ll see, and in contrast to the community depicted in Cycling struggles 5, many people here can afford to own and run a car.

The community is between one and two miles from the city centre, and consists mainly of residential streets of late-Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing. Many of the commercial establishments on the main road through the community cater for the south Asian population, and – especially at weekends and during festivals – draw people from further afield. There’s a good range of local facilities, including temples, supermarket, library and park. The area feels busy and vibrant.

Local shop

The main road is big and busy; its pavements are wide, but there’s no dedicated provision for cycling. Despite its proximity, the neighbourhood feels isolated from the city’s centre; severed by an inner-ring road, and a resulting sizeable zone of land which feels neglected and unpeopled. There’s a way-marked cycling and walking route between the neighbourhood and city centre; this is along back streets and through green spaces and is seen as the best walking and cycling route by the city’s transport professionals, if not by most local people we spoke with.

Typical residential street

Our research methods

The city’s sustainable transport practitioners were hugely helpful in getting us locally oriented. But to actually break into South Asian networks we utilised local community and health professionals, and local politicians. We ran focus groups in local community centres to build up contacts, and gradually managed to develop research relationships with specific individuals and families. We spoke with people in their homes, travelled with them, and– as best we could – tried to see the world from their perspectives. We also explored the area intensively on foot and by bike; undertook structured observations of many streets (both main roads and back streets) and junctions; spent a lot of time ‘hanging out’ in local spaces (cafes, restaurants, swimming pool, library, park); and spoke with people wherever we went.

Corner shop

Attitudes to cycling

Positive attitudes to cycling are shaped most by discourses of health and fitness. Obesity, diabetes and coronary heart diseases are major concerns, especially amongst older generations, and people know exercise is important. But as we’ll see the focus on cycling for health rarely translates into utility cycling, and only occasionally into leisure cycling.

Cognisance of the relevance of cycling to good health (if not actual cycling) grows with age. As people become more susceptible to health problems, they perhaps become more receptive to healthy lifestyle messages.

People tend to like the idea of cycling for leisure, and particularly the health and fitness benefits; but most have little conception of cycling as a mode of transport, and no real sense that they should do.

The categorisation of cycling, in other words, is here:

cycling = toy +/or leisure +/or health and fitness;

cycling ≠ transport.

For many people the bicycle is like a rowing boat, something worth trying if/when the opportunity arises, but not part of ordinary life. Cycling might take place on a static cycle inside the home or at a gym, or else on a hire bike.

Bicycle ownership is low. Most houses are poorly equipped for parking (or rather storing) bikes, but lack of storage is not a barrier to cycling.

Local cycling advocates report enthusiasm for cycling amongst local primary school children. We also saw people teaching children to ride in the local park, and we talked to many people with fond memories of either themselves or their children sometimes riding there. But this enthusiasm is for the bicycle as a toy, and cycling is a childhood activity best left behind. Here as elsewhere we spoke to parents who were glad – relieved mainly – their children had ‘grown out’ of cycling. It meant they didn’t have to worry so much about them.

By teaching children to cycle we might think we’re giving them a serious transport option, but most parents think their kids are gaining a life-long skill that’ll be used only occasionally. Cycle training is equivalent to swimming lessons, with the prospect of future days out in the country substituting for visits to the swimming pool and annual family holidays on the beach. If parents thought we were intending their kids to ride on roads, I think they’d respond as if we told them swimming lessons were to enable their children to go swimming by themselves in the local river; not necessarily a bad thing, but quite different to swimming under supervision in a controlled and protected environment.

So children learn to ride bicycles here (although those bicycles often have to be borrowed from the school in order for learning to take place), but no one we met had any intention of their children riding for reasons of utility in the existing transport environment.

Learning to ride

The bicycle is not taken seriously as an ordinary mode of transport because the car is the form of urban transport, its use remarkably unquestioned.

We’ve got so used to cars”, says Anju. “It’s just literally, if it’s ¼ of a mile, say a ten minute walk, we’ll drive. I think it’s a habit.”

“Same with me”, adds Meera. “From here to my bank, even if it’s good weather, if the car is in the car park, then I will think ‘OK, let me get my car, it will be quicker’. And sometimes it is the same time because you drive the car, you get the parking, again walk to the bank and come back, it will be the same time. But still, as he says, it’s a habit. You think ‘let me get the car, it will be quicker and costs tuppence’.”

The car is not just a form of transport; it is also a status symbol – and if you don’t have one, you aspire to one. A car demonstrates success. Until you have a car, you are ‘lacking’. Once you have it, you use it as much as possible; other travel ‘options’ disappear.

I’m talking to two young women, sisters, Alisha and Pooja:

Alisha:   “My mum cannot live without her car, she doesn’t walk anywhere. I don’t remember the last time she ever caught a bus in her life. She needs her car.”

Dave:    “Are you saying every journey she makes, pretty much, is in the car?

Pooja:   “Yeah.”

Alisha:   “Yep, she could go to the post office which is literally about a 3 or 4 minute walk. She won’t [walk]. She’ll take the car and come back.”

Almost every adult aspires to a car of their own as soon as they’re able. Neela is a young woman currently learning to drive. A regular bus user, she nonetheless sees the car as the default option, even for the shortest local journeys; it’s just that, for now, she’s excluded from driving herself. As she said, “obviously every teenager wants to pass the driving test and get a car of their own and just zoom everywhere”.

Many households are multi-generational and comprise more adults than is normal amongst white families. Many households have two, three, or more cars. The majority of these homes are relatively modest terraces. The residential streets are dense. All this means that the key ‘car problem’ here is finding place to park.

Off-street parking

For people who don’t drive (other than those who are too young, this is mainly older people, and especially women), a culture of chauffeuring is widespread, even over very short distances. People are regularly driven not only by family members, but also by fellow temple-goers. Local social capital feels strong. Chauffeuring shows you care, and it also shows your car.

From our own white, middle-class, liberal perspectives, we were struck by how the car is so part of people’s lives in this area when so much seems to be against it: the difficulties of finding car parking space; the costs; the remarkably small distances of most car journeys. As elsewhere, but perhaps more clearly here, car use has become ‘irrationally’ embedded in many people’s everyday lives.

The car as status symbol

Attitudes to cyclists

If the car is the vehicle for transport, and cycling is seen only as a very occasional leisure activity, what are people’s attitudes towards the people we did see moving around by cycle?

As a mode of transport cycling is embarrassing; it reveals you don’t have a car. We could put this more strongly, that the bicycle is an injury to status. I’d like to reduce the strength of this claim by delimiting the attitude to older generations, but I can’t; the bicycle’s status is perhaps lowest, and the car’s highest, amongst young British Asian men. (A caveat – young men were particularly hard to reach (probably because they were off in their cars!). So until someone does further qualitative research amongst young British Asian men specifically, looking at their attitudes to and experiences of cycling, I don’t have total confidence in the claim that cycling is particularly stigmatised amongst them.

Similarly, it might easily be argued that the car’s significance is so great amongst Asian young men because: i) a gendered conception of male autonomy is particularly strong within their communities; ii) it offers an escape from domesticity which is perhaps felt particularly strongly as they commonly live in close proximity to often multiple generations of family members; and iii) if they attend higher education, they are more likely to do so nearby and to remain living at home. But although these ideas seem worth airing (and so potentially opening for better insights/discussion), I’m unable to provide sufficient evidence for them; they remain assumptions.)

Within a group discussion, Devaraj gives this anecdote:

“When the elderly are riding a bicycle the young ones make fun of them. I’ve seen it, I don’t know if anybody’s seen it when elderly people are riding bicycle, young ones make fun of it.”

Such cycling tends to be taken as evidence that you don’t have a car; it is a visible sign of low status. Devaraj told us:

“I’ve got a car and I’m proud of my car. And then all of a sudden if I park the car on one side and I’ve got a bicycle it’s like from up there I’m down here, I’ve been degraded … To me, to go out there on a bike now, I’ll think ‘what will people think of me?’.”

Ajay is a successful semi-retired businessman. The car is clearly massively important to his ordinary mobility and his sense of his self. Nothing unusual there, but he was unusual in imagining the bicycle accruing some status as a recreational vehicle, “if it’s on the back of a BMW or Merc”.

Here then we got no sense that the bicycle could ever be chosen above the car as a vehicle. We know that is not more widely the case; indeed, recent evidence shows a higher incidence of cycling amongst people with access to a car than those without.

Utility cycling

Who cycles then?

More recent immigrants have arrived from India in the last decade or so. They tend to have a different orientation to the car to that which prevails amongst longer established migrants, their children and grandchildren. These people tend to have less money, they may not be able to drive and/or don’t have a UK license, and their priority may be to save money with which to return home and/or send home. For this group, a bicycle is affordable and drive-able in a way a car is not.

People from this group tend also to have recent experience of cycling, in India; however most find the roads here terrifying, and stick to pavements (as the comments in the previous post of Amini, originally from Morocco but who came to the UK via the Netherlands, also demonstrated, cycling almost gets ‘knocked out of them’ by Britain’s streets). I’ll describe rationales for pavement cycling in more detail in the next story. For now suffice to say even regular cyclists genuinely cannot imagine cycling on some local roads; for example, referring to the local main road, Sundara says:

if you look at it there’s no way to cycle, because there is a dual carriageway and then there are pavements, but there is no cycle lane. So you definitely cannot do it … You cannot cycle on the road where there are cars. The cars are very close to the pavement so where would you then cycle?”

This predominantly pavement cycling is also fragile because of limited bicycle maintenance and repair skills. In India a puncture is quickly and cheaply repaired at one of the many cycle shops; as Sanjay says “if you got a puncture in India there is a person who does it, and it’s very cost effective, so you don’t worry about it”. But the nearest cycle shop here is far enough away that a puncture can spell the end of someone cycling.

A few people cycle for leisure, but amongst those we met this was mainly in response to specific schemes. A couple of years previously, a local temple had organised a charity bike ride among young women, and I spoke with some who had taken part. They’d enjoyed the experience but most had borrowed bikes in order to participate and no longer cycled. Neela is an exception in that she owns a bicycle and still occasionally rides it, but really, she says, “cycling is just a one-off thing”. These young women are exceptional in having given cycling a go at all. In three months of intensive fieldwork I can’t recall seeing a non-white woman cycling in the area. Hindu women don’t cycle, we were told often, because they wear saris, which make riding impractical.

Utility cycling

How to tackle cycling’s low status

Transport cycling has been wiped off the streets, and wiped from people’s imaginations. Ajay put it in this way – “the bicycle is not respected. It has been pushed out by the car.” Car use has been institutionally and ideologically embedded, in people’s hearts and minds just as much as in political power structures and decision-making processes. To paraphrase Raymond Williams, ideology is lived as culture, and culture is ordinary.

The majority of South Asian immigrants moved to Britain during the second half of the twentieth century, precisely the period during which car use was becoming firmly instituted as the urban British means of moving around. Quick learners and eager to participate in British society, they picked the idea up well. (Many are now personally suffering the health consequences, and it is not their children but they themselves who best recognise the virtues of cycling.)

As Ajay asks, “why would anybody want to cycle when everything’s geared around the car?”.

This community’s time in Britain has been the time of cycling’s removal. Transport cycling in their part of the city is rarely seen, and when it is seen and noticed it is noticed as a problem. The occasional cyclist is not somebody to emulate, but to be pitied. The institutional, spatial and cultural eradication of transport cycling have occurred simultaneously, and are connected. Make something sufficiently unusual and it might become attractive to a minority but it becomes abnormal to everyone else, and perhaps especially those working hardest to subscribe to dominant cultural conventions.


Cycling’s locally low social status results from (though is not wholly determined by) its nationally low political and spatial status.

Even people who would like to cycle feel currently unable to do so. Cycling’s low status, as a practice you’d do only if you have to, is thereby fixed in place. The interaction below captures this:

Jim: “I would love to ride a bike … But it is very unsafe.”

Amar: “Yeah, it’s unsafe.”

Jayne: “I wouldn’t ride on the roads. No way. But you see then you’ve got people moaning about it being on the pavements, but what do you do when you feel unsafe on the road?”

Mr Raj: “Cyclists haven’t got their own security to drive on the road because it has too many traffic. That’s why they drive on the footpath. Footpath is a danger for people who are walking. So give them some road for the cyclist.”

Any practice people feel they have no place to practise will remain at best peripheral and more likely ignored and avoided. This is what’s happened to cycling here. The exceptions are either people who have arrived recently and are therefore more socialised to cycling and less acculturated to the car, or those who have no alternative – mostly young men who can’t afford a car. They’ll ride on roads where they feel able, and on pavements where they don’t. Although they’re barely noticed, their presence does nothing to challenge, only cements, cycling’s low local status.

That cycling could be normalised even here is demonstrated by the following exchange. A group of local residents is discussing cycling. As usual a strong consensus is quickly (almost automatically) reached that cycling is far too dangerous. So what, I ask, needs to change?

Hua: “Cycle paths!”

Halina: “Yeah, completely separate cycle paths. These things that they put on the roads that stop and start – cars park on them. They’re no use. They’re a waste of time. You need separate – either a separated path with pedestrians, off the road. Or a cycle path, cycle route.”

Kanaka: “Over there in Holland [her son  lives in Holland] my daughter-in-law was pregnant and for nine months she was on the bike. And I used to tell her ‘don’t! Don’t!’ And she said ‘here it’s safer than going in the car’. She came on the bike from the hospital to home!”

Jun: “But they have separate bike lanes there. Not like here. Here you have a half way, stop and then start again.”

At another point in our conversation, I ask Kanaka whether her son also cycles:

“Oh everywhere! I’m the only one who goes on the tram, and feels embarrassed.”

I don’t need to spell out the inversion that’s happened here, do I?

Putting the bicycle at the heart of things

Final thoughts

It seems a dangerous game to play, doesn’t it? To provide dedicated space for cycling where so few people do it and its status is so low?

It’s a bit like what’s happening across much of the world today, and what happened across societies such as the UK during the second half of the twentieth century – building for cars in the absence of widespread, democratic culture of driving and motoring.

If the main determinants of the bicycle’s lowly status are spatial and structural, and I think they are, then re-structuring space is the most obvious way forward (though obviously as part of a much broader package of complementary pro-cycling measures). We’ve done the same for cars – indeed, we are still doing it across most of the planet for cars – so why not do it now for bikes? Or are they still, and so all the people riding them or potentially one day riding them, second-class?

Building for cars wasn’t/isn’t about giving people choice. It was/is about a world premised on unlimited oil and endless growth. With a future now framed by the need for resilience in the face of unstable and unpredictable climates and the importance of sustainability, isn’t it time to build for bicycles instead? If political decisions centre cycling, and the design and planning of space centre cycling, then cycling’s status will inevitably rise, and people’s lives will (variably but steadily) centre cycling.

Cycling struggles, 5

November 26, 2012

The first four cycling struggles have been middle-class ones.

Britain’s urban middle classes are striving – though struggling and mainly failing – to incorporate cycling into their everyday lives. They know cycling is ‘a good thing’, and would like to ride.

Like Holly, whose story I told last time, many people have yet to take up (or return to) cycling. But others are learning to cycle in partial ways. Leisure cycling is the most common form of partial cycling, because it allows people to exert maximum control over their cycling conditions – riding when and where they please. The UK’s favourite cycling is thus sociably on sunny, summer Sundays, away from roads – conditions diametrically opposed to the monadic on-road cycling through smelly, dirty and noisy rush-hour congestion which various ‘authorities’ most want.

If the prospect of cycling for leisure has broad appeal, that of making ordinary journeys by bike does not. The British urban middle-class realises it ought to cycle for utility as well as pleasure but it can’t, because it’s scared to ride under prevailing conditions. In conversation, people typically first express this fear of cycling in vague and general terms. But probing reveals a set of specific anxieties, including but not limited to:

  • having to share roads with cars;
  • lack of respect towards cyclists among motorists;
  • apparently chaotic provision for cycling – with a widespread perception that specific cycling facilities often exist where they’re least needed, and disappear where they’re most needed;
  • being squeezed (and poor quality riding conditions in the gutter – debris, drains, broken glass etc);
  • excessive speed (both rule-abiding and rule-breaking) of motorised traffic;
  • the apparent vulnerability of those cyclists who do use the roads;
  • dangers presented by roundabouts and junctions; and
  • not being seen (especially after dark, and on fast roads with poor sight-lines).

Across the urban middle classes, then, utility cycling is regarded as something it is good but too hard to do. People realise the car has become king, with most drivers – including themselves – feeling entitled to drive when and where they please. In fact, many people feel they have no choice but to drive. Car use is today imposed on them, and cycling is not an option. Choice has been extinguished. People know this, though struggle with it. Jan from Leeds is an habitual driver; she says “I think my problem is that I’m really anti-heavy traffic, but I’m contributing towards it. It’s very hypocritical isn’t it?” Elisa, also from Leeds, notes what we all know – “to avoid the cars people get in their car.”

Cars run riot, and people can’t face the idea of ‘sharing space’ with them on a bicycle. But understandably, people feel powerless to change the situation they and their loved ones must daily confront – of car use run rampant and cycling discriminated against. So they muddle on. This is a key reason why many people drive even short urban journeys, and a key reason people support dedicated cycling provision.

But a caveat about method here – many people who participated in the Understanding Walking and Cycling research first responded to a questionnaire survey, and then agreed to take part in a follow-up encounter, either a face-to-face qualitatively oriented interview or a go-along (on foot or by bike). People taking these steps are likely to be suburban middle class, and above averagely positive about sustainable travel.

So unsurprisingly, ‘the suburban middle class’ perspective on cycling is not an universal one.

This cycling story and the next focus on experiences of and attitudes towards cycling which were harder to discover. In search of these perspectives, I and my colleague, the Flemish anthropologist Dr Griet Scheldeman, did ‘good, old-fashioned’ ethnography – we hung out, we spoke to people on the streets, in shops, pubs, cafes and at bus stops. We worked with schools, community workers and activists, health practitioners, and city council officers and elected members to find people who might talk to us, either individually or as part of a group. The people we met weren’t interested in our research, but our research was of course interested in them. It was often hard to get them to talk about cycling; it’s not the kind of thing people usually talk about. But we persevered, and I think produced some useful data.

Below I focus on cycling perspectives within a deprived inner-city area; and next time I’ll look at cycling perspectives from a non-white urban area; in other words, this story and the next begin to explore the relevance of class, ethnicity, and their intersections to understanding cycling.

5. A poor cycling story

This is a story of experiences of and attitudes to cycling on a deprived inner-city local authority housing (much of it high-rise) estate. It’s the kind of place which can be found in most British cities. Today it’s peopled by a mix of long-standing mainly white residents, and more recent immigrants from across the world, many of whom are seeking asylum.

The area has known ‘ordinary cycling’. Now in his eighties, Lance has lived in the area all his life; and in one of two tower blocks (the first was demolished) for fifty years. He’s a retired garage mechanic. He stopped cycling in “1965 I think. That’s a long time since isn’t it?” He got off his bike at the same time as the city as a whole climbed into its car – the Transport Ministers of the early- to mid-1960s, first Ernest Marples (Conservative) and then Barbara Castle (Labour), believed cities needed to be rebuilt around the car.

Inner ring roads simultaneously facilitated car use and inhibited cycling. Today people living here are literally surrounded by roads and cars – mostly of course other people’s cars, using roads which constrain rather than enable their own everyday mobilities.

What do people living here think about cycling?

The first thing to note is that, in contrast to the suburban middle classes who are relatively adept at thinking and talking about cycling, these inner-city residents hardly think about cycling, and have little to say about it. Awareness that cycling is being promoted is largely absent – most people here are still aspiring to climb into cars, not trying to climb out of them. (Car use here tends to be problematic in ways quite different from middle class suburbia: there, cars cause social and environmental problems and make people feel slightly guilty; here cars are problematic mainly at the individual level – because one cannot be financially afforded, or – if it can – because they are so expensive to run.)

Second, the bicycle is viewed as a toy much more than as a vehicle. Although for the children who ride one the bicycle can be an important means of moving around, the adult perspective is that it’s a play thing, not to be taken seriously.

Karen has lived in the area for almost 40 years. She cycled as a child:

Oh yeah, I loved it when we were kids. We used to go out on bikes riding all over. Oh yeah, them were the days”.

Why doesn’t she ride now?

Well to be perfectly honest it’s not something I’ve ever tried since. I’ve grown up and sort of left my bike back there.”

Cycling belongs to childhood. It’s something kids do. Many women we spoke to simply laughed at the idea that they might cycle; some of the younger white women said they would look (and feel) stupid riding a bike.

Third then, adult cycling is low status. Such cycling within the area falls into two separate categories, which quite effectively (if crudely) epitomise a class divide in British urban utility cycling.

In the one category are the commuters who can be seen in the morning and again in the early evening pedalling in and out of the city centre on the road running through the area. These cyclists tend to be male, to ride on the road rather than the pavement, and often to wear specific cycling gear, such as Lycra shorts, helmets and hi-viz bibs; to the residents of the inner-city which they ride through, they are ‘alien’.

In the other category are a few young and middle-aged non-white men who ride cheap mountain bikes on the pavements. Our overall sense is that in the absence of a car, and quite often working shift patterns which render public transport useless, a bicycle is a cheap and effective way for these men to move around. They tend to ride on the pavement because they perceive roads to be too dangerous and really only for cars.

But there’s also a localised perception that cycling is the drug dealer’s favoured mode of transport. Here’s another status barrier to cycling at the local level; such a perception, especially if it’s shared by the police, further stigmatises (almost criminalises) cycling.

Overall, we see that from a deprived inner-city perspective cycling becomes something ‘other people do’. Moreover, these ‘other people’ are not role-models; quite the contrary. And ‘negative encounters’ with cyclists – most likely as a pedestrian on the pavement – are likely to see cycling/cyclists constructed as a (very specific) ‘problem’ much more than as an (abstract) ‘solution’.

But for most of the day cycling is invisible on the inner-city streets. Originally from Jamaica, Lily has lived in the area for fifty years.

I don’t see any adults on bikes”, she says, “just kids”.

Lily figures that this is because “they can’t face the roads, going on the roads on a bicycle”.

Pavement cycling tends to be treated – even by pedestrians – as normal (if not, obviously, as desirable). Lily says,

it’s to do with the traffic; they’re safe on the pavement … They need some cycle lanes really. They’ve got a few lanes but I think they’re rubbish myself”.

Overall, in this part of the city cycling feels irrelevant. It’s low status and stigmatised. To cycle is not on most people’s agenda. This is understandable: people have more pressing issues to deal with than whether or not they should be thinking about cycling; many of the people we met, for example, were living with young children in high-rise flats with no heating and broken windows. But just because they don’t orientate to it doesn’t mean cycling is unimportant, only that it’s been made to be unimportant in these people’s daily lives.

Amini is originally from Morocco. She lived in the Netherlands for ten years, before coming to Britain, where she’s lived for eight years. In the Netherlands, she cycled regularly, but although she still has a bike, and so too do her children, she never cycles in Britain.

Everybody”, she says, “from Holland cycles. But the roads there are not like here. There you have got special roads for the cycle. Here you haven’t got always the cycle path. That’s why I can’t do it here. But I did do it a lot in Holland.” Her children “use [their bicycles] just in the playground, because it’s not safe for them to take them on the [road] here”.

There’s nothing inevitable about people living here not cycling. There are reasons why they don’t cycle. Lack of provision is important: people see the roads as unfit for cycling; and there’s a lack of residential cycle parking. But the barriers are cultural as much as infrastructural – to cycle here is to communicate something negative about yourself. To cycle is to be an embarrassment.

There are important issues of justice and equity here. Increasingly people with cars are cycling, but people without cars are not – the car-less are not sick of the car, so much as sick of other people’s cars. These cars – used by people who like to drive into the country and hop onto their bikes on sunny summer Sundays – form a powerful barrier to inner-city cycling by the car-less who live there; the domination of inner-city space by other people’s cars makes it both hard and unusual to cycle in the city.

I got angry seeing people effectively marooned (especially after dark, when many are afraid to go outside) in a sea of other people’s cars. Surrounded by those cars, from which here there’s no escape, no suburban retreat, they have of course come to feel ‘normal’ in precisely the same way that the bicycle has disappeared from view and come to feel ‘abnormal’. The powerful ways in which a culture of car use – even when that’s other people’s car use – as normal has co-constituted a culture of cycling as abnormal was a consistent theme across our fieldwork. In re-making our cities for cycling we must be sure to think not only of those we’re keen to get out of cars, but also those whom the car has left behind.