Posts Tagged ‘Lancaster’

Forgetting Cycling

July 11, 2013

For six years, between 2005 and 2011, I lived in a Cycling Demonstration Town. Supported by central government, my hometown was one of an initial six that received increased funding for cycling, to get – to follow Cycling England’s mantra – ‘more people cycling, more safely, more often’.


Locally, the project described itself as ‘Celebrating Cycling’. It centred on infrastructural improvements, but also included a wide range of promotional activities, such as maps and brochures, events, led rides, maintenance classes and cycle training.

In an Autumn 2006 publication delivered to households across the district, the City Council said:

Not only do we want to increase cycling in our district but more than that we want to create a real culture change that will not only see cycling become a mainstream and popular way for people to travel locally but that will also see the community understand, positively embrace and celebrate cycling’s vital role in the sustainable future of our district.

(Lancaster City Council, 2006: 11)

Based on various surveys, official pronouncements, anecdotal evidence and ethnographic observations, it’s clear the project produced some gains – a raised profile for cycling locally, improvements to cycling infrastructure on the ground, and increased levels of cycling activity.

So albeit slowly and not on a scale likely to achieve mass cycling anytime soon, change was happening. Building a bicycle system takes time and the project rightly had a long-term focus. In 2009 the Department for Transport published a report containing preliminary findings from the first six demonstration towns. It concluded that:

a sustained and well-designed programme of investment in cycling at about the level of £10 per head of population was sufficient, in every one of the Cycling Demonstration Towns, to achieve an increase in cycling.

It is worth emphasising that this is in some ways a surprising conclusion. It is commonly supposed that past failure to increase cycling levels is proof that it is not possible to increase cycling in Britain. In fact, the Cycling Demonstration Towns have demonstrated, in every case, that it is possible to increase cycling, even in towns which almost completely lack a ‘cycling culture’.

(Sloman et al, 2009: 26)

This report recognised much more still had to be done, but finished on the upbeat note “that the six towns have achieved ‘lift-off’ for cycling” (Sloman et al, 2009: 26).

So change was underway but this was seen as only the start of a longer-term process. The Cycling Demonstration Town project aimed to explore the impact of sustained investment in cycling. Another Department for Transport report noted how the level of funding for cycling in the first six Demonstration Towns was

comparable with the annual investment in cycling in towns that have successfully increased cycling in mainland Europe, which over about 20 years of investment have achieved continued growth in urban cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 17, my emphasis in bold)

It’s now 2013 and I don’t live in a Cycling Demonstration Town any more. I haven’t moved, institutional commitment to cycling has. The Cycling Demonstration Towns project was abandoned with Cycling England’s dismantling in 2011, and Lancaster City Council’s commitment to cycling has declined ever since.

At the Project’s beginning, with ambitions at their highest, signs were erected at each of the District’s road boundaries:

These signs welcomed people with the programme’s logo and the words ‘celebrating cycling in our city, coast and countryside’. They acted as a permanent advert for Lancaster’s commitment to cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 60; my emphasis in bold)

Celebrating Cycling sign

Those signs have gone, the official endorsement of cycling they seemed unambiguously to announce left barely a trace. (In an hour’s trawling of the Internet, the image above is the only one showing the ‘Celebrating cycling’ road signs I found). That we ever were a Cycling Demonstration Town is being erased.

Why? Are we embarrassed that we might once have celebrated cycling, and imagined things could be different? Or was cycling’s celebration only a momentary blip for so long as the money lasted, and we’re now back to business- (and motoring-) as-usual?

And who’s responsible for this local institutional erasure of cycling? Central government pulled the plug prematurely on what always needed to be a long-term process. Local government was unable to develop and institute effective strategies to support cycling once centralised funding ended. Also, what seems an obvious prerequisite for long-term success, the development of broad and deep civil society support for cycling through building links at grassroots level, was never an important objective of the Cycling Demonstration Towns project.

It’s not just that the project has ended; some of its minor gains are now being eroded. One casualty is cycling children. Through cycle training, improved facilities (especially bike parking, which had been ripped out of many British schools as it became seen as irresponsible to cater for, let alone encourage, something so ‘dangerous’ as cycling), and promotional activities, the Cycling Demonstration Towns won quick increases in schoolchildren’s cycling. But without continuous encouragement, cycling to school along roads hostile to cycling is impossible to sustain.

It’s ironic that the ‘Celebrating Cycling’ signs welcoming people (people driving, mainly) to the district were on roads, because it is those roads where the project spectacularly failed to change conditions in cycling’s favour, and those unchanged roads are the reason why the small gains made for cycling during the project’s lifetime are now so easily being lost. The car’s centrality to the local transport system was never even questioned, let alone challenged. Even in a Cycling Demonstration Town cycling had to fit in with, never displace, the car.

Still, the signs that demonstrated a brief and fragile institutional commitment may have gone, but cycling of course remains. It’s two years since we stopped ‘celebrating cycling’, but the last week has been dry, warm and sunny – perfect cycling weather – and people are out and about on bikes, though fewer than you might imagine given how recently the push for cycling has ended.

Of course many of the people cycling have been here all along; people like us. Unlike our governing institutions we don’t forget cycling, and alongside our enjoyment of it, at least part of our collective grassroots task remains, to help others remember it again.


Department for Transport (undated but 2010): Making a Cycling Town: a compilation of practitioners’ experiences from the Cycling Demonstration Towns programme, Qualitative Survey, 2005-2009.

Lancaster City Council (2006): Your District Council Matters, Issue 9, Summer/Autumn, 8 page pull-out guide – ‘Celebrating Cycling in City, Coast and Countryside’.

Sloman L, Cavill N, Cope A, Muller L & Kennedy A (2009): Analysis and synthesis of evidence on the effects of investment in six Cycling Demonstration Towns, Report for Department for Transport & Cycling England.

Mainroading Cycling

March 21, 2013

Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.

The cycle lane ends

A6 southbound

What's going on here?

Is this good enough?

Worn away by cars

Enough space?

A good place to ride?

Plenty of space for who?

Adequate provision?

Pulling out?

Clear road

Leaving the city

Speeding up

Fast road

Still with me?

The joys of the open road?

Almost there

How much road do you want?

Lancaster University

Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.

It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.

For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.

As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).

Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.

Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).

The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?

So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?

For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others  less like me.

The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.

Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).

With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.

So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.

So what are we to do?

For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.

How do we get these changes?

By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.


Who should be squeezed?

Parked cars or moving bikes?

City Cycling

February 18, 2013

Yesterday Sue and Flo went shopping.  They went first into the city centre, from there to a supermarket, and finally back home; a round trip of a couple of miles. Because Sue planned to buy heavy groceries at the supermarket, she decided they’d cycle – it’s easier to let her bike carry weight, in two rear panniers, than to put it into a rucksack and onto her back.

Sue pulled panniers along with a couple of locks from the bike cupboard next to our back door. She also grabbed Flo’s helmet; neither of us has a firm, fixed perspective on helmet use, so whether our kids wear helmets for a particular trip often feels like an arbitrary or intuitive decision. And we’re lucky that at least for now both of them do as they’re told! Then Sue pulled their bikes out from the sheds; Flo’s bike was in one, hers in another (we’ve quite a few bikes between us).

They set off to town. Here they are about half-way there. Sue rides behind and out from Flo; this is how we tend to ride with the kids, in order to slow – and shield them from – passing traffic.

Flo and Sue cycling in the city

They’re stopped by the traffic lights just before reaching Lancaster’s pedestrianised zone; when the lights change they head straight into it.

Approaching the city centre

From car-oriented to pedestrian-oriented space

They could park their bikes here; cycle parking is sensibly located where the pedestrianized zone starts. But they plan a looped route so it makes more sense to keep their bikes with them. So Flo scoots and Sue pushes through the city centre, busy with shoppers on a Saturday afternoon. It’s market day and with the stalls there’s less space than usual, but this is as busy as Lancaster gets.

City centre cycle parking

Pushing through the city centre

Flo chats away. They reach the cycle parking stands outside the city library and Sue locks their bikes there. I leave them here. As I said, they’ll continue through town to a supermarket, and then back home. It’s just an ordinary bicycle journey. City cycling.

Bikes at the city's heart

Locking up

And so is this, a book about city cycling, called ‘City Cycling’.

City Cycling

Recently published, it tracks the supposed renaissance of city cycling, and advocates for more. It’s co-editors, chief contributors, and guiding forces are John Pucher and Ralph Buehler. They, and Professor Pucher in particular, have been relentless champions of everyday cycling. For over a decade their work has compared and contrasted the cycling situation in North America and Australia with the cycling situation in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In doing so they illuminate what the former can learn from the latter, to make city cycling normal.

This book continues that project, using a wider cast of contributors. I’m writing a detailed review of it for the next issue of the journal, World Transport Policy and Practice. I won’t rehearse here what I’ll say there, but I will note two things which struck me as I read it. First, it’s an important and hopefully influential achievement to pull together in one place state-of-the-art thinking, based on actual practice, about how to make cycling mainstream. It has academic credibility but the book’s heart is clearly advocacy; and I hope it’ll be widely read, and acted upon, by politicians, policy-makers and practitioners. This book contains all the knowledge necessary to make the kind of journey taken by Sue and Flo yesterday the norm across towns and cities everywhere.

But second, I struggled with the book because it makes cycling seem so boring. Although strange and unsettling, this is a significant accomplishment. The effect built, chapter on chapter, is that city cycling is and/or ought to be nothing special. Humdrum. Like Sue and Flo’s little trip. As I say, this is an accomplishment, and a compliment not a criticism. But I find it disquieting. Does cycling inevitably become less interesting as it becomes more normal? Or is it, rather, advocacy that strips cycling of its (more interesting) meanings, or at least denies those meanings for a ‘greater cause’? The book leaves me with a feeling similar to one I get when discussing cycling with Dutch or Danish academics and advocates for whom cycling is much more ordinary. For them, thinking about cycling correspondingly seems a largely technocratic exercise, about planning and providing effectively. Cycling’s richness gets lost in the business of getting more bums on saddles.

But if more bums on saddles makes city cycling boring, the sooner we make city cycling boring the better. Bring on boring city cycling!

Bicycle Bridge

February 12, 2013

Millennium Bridge

The struggle to make this thing happen, the fights fought, the controversies generated, are gone. In their place, testament to powerful visions and hard work, is a beautiful bridge, almost completely taken-for-granted by those who use it, its beauty unappreciated for the best reason – eclipsed by its practical value. It has radically improved the quality of many people’s journeys; and it has imperceptibly but surely created many more, including those of my family and me.

Sue crossing the Millennium Bridge

It’s called the Millennium Bridge, although it didn’t open for use until February 2001.

The Millennium Bridge

How did it happen? Who was responsible? Perhaps in its early days those whose lives were changed by it asked such questions, but no more; our local cycling and walking bridge has slipped gracefully into the landscape, becoming part of our ordinary travelling environment, forming the backdrop to our lives. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary.

Millennium Bridge Signpost

Twelve years since its opening I can scarcely imagine the difficulties once involved in crossing the Lune by bike. If you were strong and fearless you could carry your bike up and down concrete staircases and along the quiet, high, hemmed-in corridor running beside the west coast mainline.

Railway bridge

Or else you could use one of two road bridges: both carry large volumes of motorised traffic including many HGVs and buses; both are multi-lane and one-way. Going against the flow forced you onto the pavement with equally beleaguered pedestrians. Even travelling in the same direction as the motorised traffic most cyclists would retreat to the pavement (and you can see from the photo below, still do). A few rode on the road; at rush hour this involved making your way through fuming drivers stuck in slow-moving nose-to-tail traffic, at other times it entailed trying to hold a pace and space sufficient to prevent getting swallowed and squeezed.

Road bridge (northbound)

Pavement cycling

That’s like a bad dream now. We often cycle across the Lune; a couple of days ago the four of us rode to Salt Ayre Sports Centre for table tennis, and yesterday Bobby, Sue and I went across to do some training around the cycle track. Such trips are easy, obvious, convenient. We don’t even think about how hard they would once have been. But when Sue and I first moved to Lancaster seventeen years ago cycling across the river was awkward and difficult even as committed, experienced cyclists without children.

A new normal has been created for us here. We need to create a new normal for everyone everywhere.

Bike on the bridge

Cyclist on the bridge

Riding across the bridge

Last week I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into how we get Britain cycling. This process must lead to strengthened political commitment for cycling. The need for such commitment is obvious but not inevitable – we must keep pushing to make it happen. Getting Britain cycling requires bold vision and lots of money (not new money, merely money taken from elsewhere). We need to make cycling normal, and making cycling normal requires the sort of change the Millennium Bridge brought to some people’s patterns of mobility everywhere, for everyone.


It’s crude but also obvious: let’s say 2% of transport spending for cycling will keep cycling at 2% of all journeys. Is that what we want? Are we satisfied with continuing to reproduce cycling as a marginal mode of mobility – something few will do and most won’t contemplate? The Inquiry’s title, ‘Getting Britain Cycling’ sounds more ambitious than that to me; so how about, for starters, talking about 20% of all journeys by bike, and us as cycling’s advocates learning to demand 20% of total transport spending to match?

Would we cycle across the River Lune were our bridge not there? As a family I doubt it. Riding together requires the sort of conditions which remain almost completely absent here, as elsewhere in urban Britain. The need to re-design our cities for group cycling was part of the written evidence I submitted to Wednesday’s Inquiry, and which Peter Walker published in that day’s Guardian. But it’s a sign of how far we’ve still to go that demanding facilities conducive to group cycling is probably seen by some as unreasonable or greedy; this despite our cities suffering so much under the volume and speed of so many cars, most of which have enough seats to embed car-based sociality as a principle and a right (even if most of those seats are usually empty). We’ll have made solid progress towards cycle-friendly cities when the idea that a group of four people should be able to cycle comfortably together is seen as more legitimate than the idea of those people travelling together by car.

Dusk falls over the bridge

The Millennium Bridge gives a tantalising glimpse of this cycle-friendly future; indeed it enables a family riding together to embody, perform and so start to reproduce it. But as we found time and again on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, because they inhabit a car-centric world most people (often far from voluntarily) continue to embody, perform and reproduce a car-centric perspective; this despite the benefits of cycling being increasingly recognised by both themselves and the politicians and policy-makers seeking to govern them.

This is what we want

Our bicycle bridge offers a vantage point onto a fresh perspective. It helps us appreciate how atrocious and intolerable were conditions for cycling. How did we put up with them for so long? Why did we put up with them for so long?

Those dreadful conditions have just here become redundant, but they persist and prevail elsewhere.

To talk of ‘getting Britain cycling’ against such a backdrop is simply deluded. Looking back on the River Lune, it’s obvious that what’s happened here must happen everywhere. We need the equivalent of our bicycle bridge for everyone.

If we demand the impossible it’s just possible that a generation from now we’ll look back on cycling today and wonder how on earth we managed … And we’ll look around and smile at the sight of Britain cycling.

Wind Power

January 26, 2013

Wind turbine

Wind farms and bicycles – two technologies appropriate to a sane, sustainable future. But more than that, they’re symbolic of that future; there are surely no objects better symbolising the age towards which we’re moving, too slowly, but surely. For me the aesthetics of technology is ethical. I love wind turbines like I love bicycles because they’re good, pointing in the right direction.

Bicycle and wind turbine

Of course I know both bicycles and wind farms are hugely, strangely controversial. They’re sometimes ridiculed, but it feels like both are gradually becoming accepted as necessary. And though not nearly enough, both are proliferating – wind turbines off our coasts and over our hills, and bicycles … well, where exactly? A Parliamentary Inquiry is currently investigating how to get Britain cycling. Pay attention to our London-centric media and you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re on the brink of ‘a cycling revolution’. Use of the bicycle is probably rising across some towns and cities, yet so slowly it’s barely a trickle.

My own hunch is that bicycles are proliferating most in people’s imaginations and aspirations. For many Brits their status has upped a notch, and the idea of cycling is less outlandish than it was a year or so ago. And cycling has moved a tiny bit further towards the centre of our collective cultural ideals of good lives and good cities. There’s a zeitgeist to convert, and we’re waiting for politicians to convert it, because the main changes necessary to get Britain cycling must be made at national level with huge reallocation of resources away from the car and towards the bicycle.

Lancaster Cathedral and Town Hall

It’s because I love cycling that I’m involved in debates about cycling’s future, but it’s because I love riding that I’ve some immunity from the emotional roller coaster that involvement in those debates can bring. Sure, I’d like everyone to have cycling in their lives, but at least in the meantime I can enjoy having it in mine.

But I’ve still no road bike. It’s still cold and icy. My world has shrunk. I’m feeling hemmed in. Parts of north Lancashire and Cumbria close to the coast are clear of snow, but the world a short way inland remains white. Unable to go farther afield, today I jumped on my mountain bike to explore little known places close to home. I’ve lived and cycled here 15 years, but there remain roads and tracks within ten miles I’ve rarely been.

I rode east across the city, up past the Town Hall and Cathedral, up past Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, up over the M6 and onto the Forest of Bowland’s north-westerly fringe as it falls unevenly towards the River Lune. (There is no forest by the way – the Forest of Bowland is in fact a vast moorland.)

Ashton Memorial, Williamson Park

Right onto Little Fell Road, then down Stock-a-Bank towards Littledale. Past Baines Cragg and sharply down to Artle Beck. When my kids were tiny and driving me crazy, these lanes – quiet yet close – formed my escape route; an hour away from the house, out here, would lift my spirits and send me home closer to sanity

Ahead the wind turbines’ slowly rotating blades strike brilliant white in the low winter sun. Their slim white lines have the elegance of the egrets we sometimes see at Leighton Moss, a short way north on Morecambe Bay. Depending on my position the turbines seem sometimes close, at others distant. Sometimes they take me by surprise, their blades appearing suddenly above, disturbing the point at which land and sky meet. I love riding this compact, complex topography.

Wind turbine blade

To reach the wind farm I drop down almost to Brookhouse before climbing up again on a lane I’ve not taken in years. It rises steadily to Caton Moor, the wind farm all the while drawing closer. Up here the drifted snow is deep in places.

Wind turbine blades

Sheep with wind turbines

This was one of the UK’s first commercial wind farms. When it came into service back in 1994 it produced 11% of the UK’s total wind energy. Wind technologies have developed fast, and in 2005 its original ten turbines were replaced with the current eight. Their combined capacity is 16 MW, enough energy to power 10,000 homes.

Wind turbines in the snow

I ride reverentially between the white giants standing in the snow. They’re so high (55 metres) they make me and my bike feel puny. Standing next to one I turn my head to see its blades (35 metres long) tumbling one at a time down from the sky toward me. It’s like staring into the heights of a great cathedral, but better. I feel giddy, overawed.

Wind turbine from below

Cyclists know the wind’s power. We feel its pull and push. When it lends a hand the world seems easier. When it’s in our faces we hunker down and push harder. We know its noise too – the way it roars, at times so loud it’s hard to hear the words of the person riding beside you. Where would cycling be without wind?

A bridleway follows Kirkby Gill off the moor down to the Lune. Where it’s not covered with ice its surface is full of brick. I drop out of the snow and under the aerial ropeway which until recently took clay from the pits above to Claughton brickworks below. Just before Claughton a little track goes east through Farleton where I join the main road.

Iced bridleway

Out of the snow

I follow the Lune downstream to home. I’m glad to have been forced into this little ride, but I’m a coiled spring waiting for my road bike and milder weather to return so my corner of the cycling world can open up again. It’s snowing now, as I write, but a thaw is on the way.

The River Lune

Easy Riding

January 19, 2013

Today was one of those days I hadn’t much energy to ride, but also one of those days when I knew a ride would do me good.

I could put my fatigue down to mid-January blues, though it’d be more truthful to admit I’ve overdone it on the turbo trainer which I pulled out for the first time this winter on Monday. I’ve since done three evening sessions on the trot. Because I aim to ride faster this year, and to have a pop at bunch racing, getting on the turbo was overdue.

Turbo training (in the snow!)

But frankly I was forced into it, because my winter bike is being fixed. It’s taken a pounding these last few months, so I’ve handed it over to our local mobile bike mechanic, Colin Stones. For someone who rides so much I’m dreadful at looking after bikes, and Colin saves me having to improve.

I’ve timed my bike’s absence well – it coincides with a cold snap in which it’d be tough to get out for long rides anyway. That said, snow is forecast, so road riding might prove tricky a while longer yet.

But once I’d set it up, in my first rush of enthusiasm for the turbo trainer I probably went too hard too soon. And the effort’s left me jaded and below par.

When like today I don’t feel like riding but know a ride will do me good, I go for an easy ride. An easy ride brings the pleasures of cycling but without the stresses; it leaves you feeling restored, not depleted. Amongst racing cyclists they’re called ‘recovery rides’ (though I think calling them that misses something).

I’ve found simple ways to keep rides easy. I stick to well-worn, familiar ground, close to home, and aim to ride for little more than an hour. And partly to trick myself into getting out the door in the first place and partly to prevent my getting ‘serious’ once I’m out, I include a couple of bike-based jobs. Those jobs include taking our empty Tetra Paks to the nearest recycling centre, making local deliveries (rather than using the postal service), and shopping of various sorts. Today it included buying eggs and nipping into the supermarket for tonight’s tea.

With my usual bike out of action, my race bike on the turbo (and strictly speaking not for riding at this time of year anyway), I took advantage of the need to use my mountain bike by planning a little loop that’s often muddy in parts.

The best way south to open country from where we live follows an off-road route alongside the west coast main line, then down a little snicket which either side of its narrowest part has signs, ‘CYCLISTS DISMOUNT’. I find them offensive and am not sure why I’ve never stopped to take them down. I’ve been this way thousands of times without dismounting; I slow down and stop for passing pedestrians, but dismounting to push would make me a wider obstacle for longer time. I’m courteous but the signs make me deviant, and people sometimes tut-tut.

Cyclists dismount?

Twice under the railway and onto Aldcliffe Lane which runs beside the canal. This stretch of road’s recently become part of a 20 mph zone. Signs say so, but few motorists stick to the new limit; some race down here at twice that speed. Is it hypocritical to think rules designed to civilise motorised traffic should be obeyed, but those which govern cycling stem from prejudice and should be ignored?

20 mph?

A small hill separates the canal from the Lune’s estuary. I ride over it and through Aldcliffe village to join the route to Glasson Dock. This is a favourite stretch of off-road riding. There’s a picnic site a short way down. We’d often stop when the kids were younger. We’d spot its location far ahead from the power lines above, stretched between pylons which march across the landscape from the square block power station on the western horizon. Making it here was a victory to celebrate with a treat. These days we could zoom past without a second look but often still stop, for nostalgia’s sake I think.

Picnic spot

The route follows a disused railway along the estuary. When ships became too big to reach Lancaster a dock was built at Glasson at the estuary’s mouth, with goods carried between city and sea by train.

Cycle track to Glasson Dock

The ride is full of birds; I see curlews, lapwings, redwings, long-tailed tits, swans, geese, ducks, herons, and – out on the mud – lots more whose names I don’t know. Ice sheets across the track and it’s fun to scrunch my way through the biggest bits. I’m glad I’m on the mountain bike.


I make a loop around Glasson village. It takes me to higher ground and a view in all directions: south across the Fylde to Blackpool Tower; west to tiny Sunderland (which at high tide effectively becomes an island) and over Morecambe Bay; north towards the snow-topped Cumbrian fells and Yorkshire Dales, barely visible through the murk; and east over the M6 to the Forest of Bowland. Then it’s down to the village.

Glasson Dock

From Glasson I retrace my ride to Conder Green where I take the lumpy little road east, via Sellerley Farm for eggs, to Galgate. The back road north from here runs tight between but higher than Lancaster Canal to the west and the A6 and railway to the east. With the Lancaster University cycle route which I join at Bailrigg it gives a quiet ride back into town.

The Big Egg

Lancaster Canal at Galgate

I pop into Booths supermarket for food for tonight’s tea, then pedal the last miles home.

Shopping at Booths

I’m still tired, but less so for the ride. A bike, any bike, lets you out the house on a difficult day; for an easy, restorative ride.

City centre cycling, in Lancaster!

June 12, 2012

I remember how excited I was, going to watch city centre cycling in Birmingham in the 1980s, as a teenager who’d recently fallen in love with the sport. Remember the Kelloggs series, which was televised on Channel 4? Riders such as Joey McLoughlin (for some reason, my favourite), Steve Joughin, John Herety, Malcolm Elliott, Alan Peiper, Sean Yates – many of the best English-speaking riders rode, including occasionally the really big stars such as Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche; I remember seeing my hero Robert Millar one year, and the great Australian Phil Anderson too. I’d go with my cycling mates (Pete Young, Steve Sollis, Andy Betts … are any of you guys out there?!) to see these professional riders, who we of course respected big-time, race really close-up. It was brilliant to see the world’s best bike riders hurl themselves round our home-town centre, time after time, and cheer them on. Then we’d rush home to watch the race again, on TV – I think the series was raced and screened on a Friday night, maybe? There’s real drama to crits, and when it’s top riders in your city, riding streets on which you pedal, the drama’s magnificent.

So of course I’m thrilled that – following the efforts of a whole team of people, and on the back of the rising profile of cycling not just nationally but also in our district specifically – city centre cycling is now coming to my adopted home town of Lancaster.

The date is Friday 22nd June, the day the Olympic torch passes through north Lancashire. Here’s some spiel I’ve just sent to local media to publicise the event. If you’re in the area, come along and get a taste of the action.

What promises to be a thrilling evening of racing starts at Dalton Square at 7pm. There are two races, each lasting just under an hour. In the second race, stating at 8pm, top riders from across the district will compete with elite cyclists from further afield, in what’s sure to be a super fast and hard-fought spectacle. Riders must tackle the steep climb out of Dalton Square, short straights, tight corners, and lots of cobbles as they complete lap after lap of a one kilometre city centre circuit at high speeds, sometimes likely to be in excess of 40 miles per hour.

With a beer and food tent, live race commentary, and lots of activities in Dalton Square, it’s the perfect way to gear up for the Olympics, which starts with the Men’s Cycling Road Race just over a month later. In the London race BBC Sports Personality of the Year Mark Cavendish has a real chance of bagging Britain’s first gold medal. Everyone is welcome to get in the mood locally, and to roll up to watch the action, which is not only free but also sure to be a compelling evening’s entertainment for all the family.

Local businesses are generously supporting the event, with a big range of great prizes to the best riders in both races on the night. The route will showcase some of the splendours of Lancaster’s historic city centre, with the focus on Dalton Square and the Town Hall. It’s hoped the evening will be the first of a regular annual cycling event, raising the district’s profile, particularly as a place it’s great to cycle.

It’s come about through the initiative and enthusiasm of local cycling groups, alongside the support of Lancaster City Council. A big team of volunteers, all eager to support cycling in the heart of their city, is ready and raring to go, to make the event run smoothly, and be a big success on the night.

Fingers’ crossed for fine weather and a big crowd. And for this being just the start, with bigger and better still to come. With Team Sky’s amazing results so far this year, local hero Bradley Wiggins riding spectacularly well, the Tour de France just round the corner, and the Olympics following soon after, cycle racing has never enjoyed such a high-profile in Britain. So if you’re in the Lancaster area on 22nd June, come and get a feel for the sport, and a sense of what all the fuss is about. I guarantee you’ll love it.

Snow and ice

January 5, 2010

Our street, today – 5th January 2010

Happy New Year! This is the street on which, with my family, I live. I’ve just a moment ago stepped outside to take the picture. As you can see, it’s been snowing.

I might leave my house through the front door, and go north along this stretch of road, if I’m walking somewhere. The only time I leave by bike this way is when one of my riding partners, Jon Barry, calls – he always comes to the front of the house and so then I go out the same way, on my road bike, which is stored indoors.

I mainly leave the house out the back. Like many people living in older housing in urban north England, we live in a terrace with a back alley.

Our back alley, today – 5th January 2010

Most of our household’s bikes, including my day bike, are stored in one of two sheds in our back yard. So this is the way I generally leave the house by bike. And unless Jon has called for me, I leave this way on my less regularly ridden road bike too. I also tend to go this way if I’m walking. You can see the tyre tracks of one of our neighbour’s cars in the snow, but Ray – ‘the culprit’ – is the only person with a car parked on this side of the terrace, so the back alley forms a virtually car-free start to any journey.

As a sociologist with a keen interest in how everyday lives get organised and reproduced, I’m fascinated by different routes into and out of houses, and the consequences of these ‘household permeabilities’. But that’s not my intended topic today, so let’s get back to the weather, and specifically the snow and ice, which was the reason why I took these photos just now.

Now I’m sure that for any Canadians and Scandinavians out there, this is just a smattering of snow, nothing to write a blog post about … But I’m writing from a UK perspective, and snow in Lancaster is not that common. And anyway we’ve not just had snow, we’ve had almost a month of very cold weather, which has resulted in lots of ice. And whilst particular societies and different individuals within those societies will cope with snow and ice in specific ways, it’s undoubtedly the case that snow and ice has a significant impact on many people’s desires and abilities to cycle.

It seems fairly safe to say that if the weather was always like this, we’d see less cycling. Snow and, especially, ice make cycling a more hazardous, scary prospect. But that said, snow and ice make any mode of mobility more hazardous and scary, except perhaps skiing, tobogganing and such like. So perhaps what we should instead say is that weather like this, in the absence of any attempts – whether individual (e.g. appropriate equipment, such as spiked tyres) or collective (e.g. gritting of cycling routes) – to deal with it effectively, will produce less cycling. But that situation is not inevitable. Indeed, if a society is serious about promoting cycling, it will continue to promote cycling even during such weather and road conditions. So that, actually, it’s perfectly conceivable that cycling could become more rather than less attractive at such times.

For myself, I’ve become very reluctant to get on my bike this past month. I did a beautiful 80 mile ride through the Yorkshire Dales with two friends, Will and Jim, on the 11th December. We left early, and just 5 miles out of Lancaster – at Caton – our wheels slipped slightly beneath us, so that we thought carefully about the wisdom of continuing. We did, and it was a beautiful day – full of sunshine, scenery and comradeship. Nonetheless, a vague but nagging nervousness accompanied me all day, to do with the ice and the potential to come a cropper. I’ve not done a proper ride since then.

I’ve become so frustrated with not getting out that a couple of days ago I did something I’d not even have contemplated a year or two ago, though it’s true that back then I was less preoccupied with being fit and going fast than I am now – I ordered a turbo trainer, so that I can ride indoors, and start to build my fitness for the coming season in spite of my fear of all this snow and ice.

The process of buying a turbo trainer has really illuminated to me how cycling is about so very much more than getting from A to B. It is that; it’s my main mode of daily transport – the way I get to the shops, to work, and to a whole bagful of destinations in the Lancaster and Morecambe district. But it’s so very much more than that too – it’s my exercise, my freedom, my sanity, my re-creation, a big part of my social life, my key way of spending time outdoors and in the countryside. Last year I rode 5,500 miles, but only 250 of them were ridden during December and during the second half of December I did not ride at all. I feel claustrophobic and flabby; the bike is my cure … I need to get out, on my bike …

Not everyone is so cowardly as I currently am. The Monday nighters’ plan for the Solstice was to ride 100 miles. What better way to celebrate – or is it perhaps to try to beat – the year’s shortest day? I had planned to go, but I saw the forecast (very cold and lots of snow) and bailed out. The others – more committed, braver – gave it a go. The snow made riding 100 miles impossible. But, despite the difficulties, they managed a ride, and – by switching to mountain bikes, except John who is now riding with spiked tyres and so didn’t need to – they still made it to the pub, the hard way.

With two young children and a fortnight’s Christmas holiday, the snow and ice have actually been wonderful – we’ve had some truly magical winter day’s out – walking, sledging, sliding and snowballing around Silverdale, Arnside and Windermere. Here’s my son Bobby on Orrest Head, above England’s longest lake, looking for all the world like he has that world at his feet.

But what effects do snow and ice have on mobility? Some of our elderly neighbours are struggling, both with getting out and with the social isolation which results from not getting out. Today in Lancaster, in many places we have fresh snow covering a layer of sheet ice. Conditions are potentially treacherous for everyone, and fewer journeys are undoubtedly being made by all modes. But what worries and angers me most is it’s the sustainable modes – walking and cycling – which are hardest hit, and who can say that journeys on foot or by bike are any less ‘essential’ than journeys by motorised modes?

Around here the bigger the road the more likely it is to get gritted. But of course, the bigger the road the less likely people are to want to cycle – let alone walk – on it (for even on the biggest roads the pavements lie untouched by the gritter’s mechanical hand). The pavements, like the off-road cycle routes, are ignored. Cycling and walking – these modes of mobility do not matter, people travelling on foot or by bike do not count. It’s that simple, that blatant, that unjust …

So people walking either stick to (or rather, don’t stick to, but slide along) the pavements and risk a fall, or walk in the road (where it’s astonishing to see a small minority of drivers, as if incensed by the pedestrians’ ‘intrusion’ into ‘their’ space, showing them not courtesy but contempt). Many people, of course, ‘simply’ stop walking – which might be fine for them if they’ve got a car. But it’s rubbish for them if they haven’t, and it’s rubbish for society either way.

Many people stop cycling.  Last winter I cycled the 4 miles into work and back every day, whatever the weather. I often got angry that, on icy roads, cars came past me as fast and as close as they might ordinarily do, seemingly oblivious to the extra risk which I viscerally felt. On such icy days I was forced into riding on the car-dominated A6 because the main cycling routes in this district are not designated by our Highways Authority, Lancashire County Council, as ‘essential’, and so they are not gritted and they become, as they have over the last few days, virtually impassable.

We have here a magnificent Millennium Bridge over the river Lune – it’s for people travelling either on foot or by bike, and it is immensely useful and extremely popular. Every year, when it gets icy people struggle to walk and to ride across it. Every year people fall from their bikes and people complain that it needs to be gritted. We are a cycling demonstration town, supposedly promoting cycling. Yet I suspect that most people need only to fall from a bike once to be seriously put off cycling, perhaps for life. You have to ask, exactly what kind of cycling promotion is it that fails to grit key routes on which people ride?

You can do as I tend to do, and ride on the main roads. But given most people would not dare to do that under ordinary circumstances, they’re unlikely to start doing so when it’s icy, slushy, dark and the roads are full of motorists who lack the skills and equipment to negotiate the tricky conditions effectively. Watching the cars skating over the ice, an Icelandic friend of ours today expressed serious concern at the lack of driving skills on display; another friend, having seen cars careering out of control on a patch of black ice at the junction outside his house, stood outside for two hours, warning motorists to take especial care.

Of course, I recognise that cold, snow and ice make life difficult for everyone. People are struggling either to maintain movement-as-usual, or else to cope with being unable to move as they usually do (which is something we’re all going to need to become better at, as our lives get re-shaped by the realities of a world transformed by climatic changes). I understand that to some extent we all need somehow ‘just to get on with it’. But I know that I’m not alone in finding the current situation, in which routes for cars and trucks are so clearly prioritised over routes for walking and cycling, really quite disgraceful.

For a while I’ve been thinking very vaguely about the notion of  ‘mobility inversion’. It’s an intuitive concept which I want to develop, not for its own sake, but because  it just might – in ways I do not and quite probably cannot know – be somehow useful. You just don’t know where ideas will go until you try …

UK towns and cities remain centrally designed around the car. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, the car gets the centre of the road, walking and cycling the margins. Routes for cars get priority, and walking and cycling routes are pushed into having to find their ways around them, having to negotiate the city of the car. When it comes to mobility, our towns and cities, in other words, are quite simply the wrong way round.

I’ll return to this example at another time, but it’s less than a kilometre, maybe half a mile, between our house and Lancaster city centre. Lancaster’s train station is about half way along this route. It’s an incredibly busy walking route, but I’d guess that motorised vehicles currently get about 90% of the available space and almost all of the priority whilst pedestrians must make do with rubbish pavements, limited space, and drivers who have been taught that they have the right of way. With no facilities to help them at all, cyclists simply have to survive – dodging the potholes. It’s atrocious and it’s where we live, but similar and worse situations are everywhere.

We need mobility inversion here. If motorised vehicles are allowed, they ought to make way for people on foot and on bikes. People on bikes and on their feet should not have to stop to make way for trucks and cars, the cars and trucks should make way for them. There should anyway be only minimal space for trucks and cars, and lots more space for people walking, cycling and simply hanging out chatting to their friends, acquaintances and neighbours.

In the current context – thinking about moving around during periods of snow and ice – the concept of mobility inversion can be applied equally simply. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe it’s not already being done. Grit the cycling routes and grit the pavements, but don’t grit the roads – rather than encouraging people who normally walk and cycle either to jump into cars or not to move at all, we can then encourage people who normally travel in cars to walk or cycle, or else to not move at all … and isn’t that exactly what we want?