Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Thinking about cycling, in Dublin

May 17, 2010

(Shameless bit of self-publicity, but ….) I’m off to Dublin in a couple of days, to deliver Dublin Cycling Campaign’s Annual Cycling Research Lecture. As part of my preparation, I’ve been reading about the current state of cycling in Ireland’s capital city; it looks as though there have been some interesting, and encouraging, developments there recently. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to ride around the city whilst I’m there, and aim to find time to reflect on the experiences when I’m back in the UK. Next week feels like the first week in months when I have no plans to travel beyond Lancaster (except, of course, by bike), and I can hardly wait. Among my plans are to blog about some of the things which I’ve been doing and thinking about recently …

If you want to find out more about cycling in Dublin, the Dublin Cycling Campaign is probably the best place to start. We’ll have to wait and see whether they want to thank me for going across the Irish Sea to talk to them, but sincere thanks from me to them, and especially Damien o’Tuama, for inviting me over there.

Understanding cycling …?

April 14, 2010

I realised earlier today that we’ve just passed the half-way stage of the project on which I’m currently earning my living, Understanding Walking and Cycling. This prompted me to look back at a short piece I wrote for our local cycle campaign’s newsletter, at the start of the project, and to reflect a little on the extent to which the reality, 18 months into the project, matches my expectations back then. Here’s what I wrote, 18 months ago:

Tory leader David Cameron emerges from his house with his bike, and sets off on his cycle to work. Perhaps he wears a helmet, perhaps not. Perhaps a ministerial car takes his papers, perhaps he carries them himself. What’s clear is that he’s made a commitment to ride his bike, and is doing so.

But what conversations, discussions, negotiations and decisions have taken place behind the closed doors of the Cameron household to enable him to make that journey by bike? Does Mr Cameron make all such journeys by bike, or only some? If only some, why those rather than others?

It might surprise you to learn that we don’t know much about the specific processes which get people onto bikes and out riding. Similarly, although we know that the vast majority of people –famous and not-so-famous, young and old, men and women – do not ride bikes, we have little understanding of the processes which result in all these people not getting on their bikes, and moving around in other ways.

There’s a very visible world of transport, and then there’s a massive invisible world underneath it, producing the visible. We can see people moving about, in cars, on bikes, in trains, on foot. What we can’t see is the processes which got them there.

A new research project based at Lancaster University aims to change that. It’s called ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. I’m working on the project over the next 3 years.

A sceptic might say that we don’t need to understand walking and cycling, we need actions to promote them. By funding research into walking and cycling, Government can defer such actions. So long as the Department for Transport is awaiting evidence of ‘what really works’ in getting people out walking and cycling, it can avoid doing some of those things we already know would get more people walking and cycling – widespread 20 mph speed limits, closing streets to cars, widening pavements, building high quality off-road routes.

Of course, spending a bit of money on thinking is an awful lot cheaper, and politically less difficult, than spending a lot of money on doing. But there is a sound logical basis to the project. We want to understand how different kinds of people make decisions about which mode of transport to use for short, local, urban journeys. These are journeys which we know could easily be made by bike or foot. Our task is to figure out the many, varied and complex reasons as to why different kinds of people do and don’t make such journeys by bike or on foot.

We’ll be finding out how people do things through actually getting involved in their lives, and attending to the details of their ordinary routines. We’ll be hanging out in their houses, accompanying them on journeys, discussing their reasons for doing this rather than that, probing their relationships to things (car keys, umbrellas, ‘sensible’ shoes, waterproofs, bikes, timetables, maps ….) which help or hinder them from moving in particular ways. Getting behind Mr Cameron’s front door, in other words. 


My immediate thoughts, re-reading this, are:

  • what I wrote back then still makes sense to me, which gives me some confidence that both I personally and the project more generally are at least being reasonably consistent … (which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing, but I’ve also been led to believe that ‘proper academic projects’ are supposed to deliver what they promised at the outset to deliver …)
  • but much more importantly, also that a suspicion I had back then has only grown stronger, actually much stronger – namely, that we cannot understand cycling only (or even mainly) by seeking to understand what goes on behind the ‘closed doors’ of households. There is something out there which – my sociological tongue-in-cheek – we might call ‘actually-existing realities’; and to understand cycling we need very consciously and explicitly to observe those realities, and critically to consider the ways in which they might be inhibiting or facilitating people’s decisions to cycle, or not to cycle. So as I mentioned in my recent post about our Worcester-based fieldwork, Griet and I have been paying much more ethnographic attention to conditions out there in the transport environment. Our (preliminary, non peer-reviewed) conclusions will not come as much of a surprise to you, indeed will strike most of you as statin’ the bleedin’ obvious (namely, those conditions for cycling absolutely suck). But I must confess to feeling very privileged to be a sociologist getting paid to stand on street corners (a la William Foote Whyte, one of my key sociological influences), from where I can pay very serious attention to actually-existing conditions for cycling, observe how people negotiate their ways through those conditions, and move slowly towards a position, perhaps a year from now, when Griet and I, along with our colleagues, will be reporting and discussing our findings, hopefully with multiple and diverse audiences. Half-way through the project, and half-way through our qualitative fieldwork, I’m feeling pretty confident that our calls for fundamental change to currently dominant conditions – if we’re serious about promoting walking and cycling (and how serious different ‘stakeholders’ really are about that does of course throw up a whole set of different questions …) – will have very firm bases in empirical realities.

Incidentally, please don’t take my use of David Cameron and his cycling here as some kind of indication that I support the Tories. For my own conscience, I feel the need to say: I have never voted Tory, and I have no intention of ever doing so. Should anyone be in the slightest bit interested, my vote on May 6th will be for Gina Dowding.

Bicycle Politics: symposium and workshop

April 12, 2010

Bicycle Politics

Symposium and workshop

Thursday 16th – Friday 17th September 2010

Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

The major role and relevance of bicycles and cycling to future life seems increasingly unquestionable. On the ground, projects across the world are committed to promoting cycling and/or cycling-oriented subcultures. In both theory and practice, there’s a real energy and vitality to think about cycling differently, to carve out alternative possibilities around the bicycle.

But if cycling is enjoying a renaissance, it is also under fire. Whilst almost everywhere people are pushing for cycling, it also seems that almost everywhere cycling is deeply problematic – contentious, oppressed, discriminated against.

Bicycles, cycling and cyclists seem to invoke love and hate in equal measure …

Bicycle Politics, a two day event hosted by the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) at Lancaster University, UK, aims to explore bicycles and cycling politically. By thinking creatively and critically, its political project is to help push bicycles and cycling further into the hearts of our cities and societies, to improve the possibilities for cycling to re-make our world, to assist cycling’s obvious potential to contribute to alternative, sustainable mobility futures.

To this end, we are calling for critical explorations of the political, social, cultural and economic barriers to current and future cycling, as well as for critical investigations of the ways in which bicycles, cycling and cyclists are currently framed.

We welcome all proposals for papers which fit under the broad heading of Bicycle Politics. Such contributions might examine:

•     Cycling and political economies and ideologies

•     The politics of cycling ‘promotion’

•     Critiques of cycling

•     Cycling and discriminations

•     Cycling and inequalities

•     Cycling, social control, freedom and deviance

•     Cycling, space and the politics of space

•     Cycling, social movements and social change

•     Cycling and identity

•     Cycling and the politics of representation

•     Feminist perspectives on cycling

•     Cycling and the law

The precise structure of the event will be decided later. But we anticipate the first day comprising paper presentations, with the second day given over to deeper explorations of the papers and ideas presented the previous day. Our intention is to produce an edited collection, Bicycle Politics, from the event.

If you wish to present a paper, please send title and abstract, by Wednesday 5th May 2010, to both:

Dave Horton – and Aurora Trujillo –

We aim for the symposium and workshop to be free and open to all. However, spaces could be limited. So if you would like to participate, but do not plan to present a paper, please email us to reserve a place.

Environmentalism and the bicycle

December 2, 2009

I’ve added another paper to the ‘Longer articles’ section of this blog, Environmentalism and the Bicycle. Here’s the abstract:

In the UK, the bicycle has played a role in the oppositional cultures of various social movements; feminism and socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, post-1960s anarchism and, most recently, environmentalism. This article discusses the significance of the bicycle to the discourse and practice of the contemporary environmental movement. At the level of discourse, the bicycle is routinely mobilised in constructing the green visions to which environmentalism aspires. And in practice, use of the bicycle organises and helps sustain the distinctive ‘green lifestyles’ of environmental activists. Thus, as an object both discursively utilised in green talk and texts, and actually ridden by green practitioners, the bicycle powerfully enables the articulation of an alternative society, a green vision of sustainability. The case of the bicycle demonstrates how ‘ordinary’ materialities can contribute to the development and performance of antagonistic cultural and political identities.

The article emerged from research towards my PhD, undertaken between 1998 and 2002. In a different form it eventually found its way into the academic journal Environmental Politics, back in 2006. Re-reading it, it strikes me as in some ways now almost historical, a reflection on the state and status of cycling in British environmentalism at the turn of the millennium, rather than today, December 2nd 2009. I have, though, elected not to change it, for now. But, what’s changed in the last few years?

Well, I think it’s pretty indisputable that cycling’s profile has increased dramatically in the UK since I wrote this piece. Late in the article I write, “There are more bicycles than ever in the UK, yet the proportion of all trips made by bike continues to fall”. Despite some valiant efforts, we’re remarkably clueless about the actual state of cycling in the UK, but I think it’s safe to say that I couldn’t write that same sentence with any confidence today. Although levels of cycling and the proportion of all journeys made by cycle are obviously two different things, cycling is clearly on the up and my best guess would be that the proportion of all journeys made by cycle, across the UK as a whole, is up too.

Re-reading, I was also struck by my discussion – following especially the work of the British anthropologist, Mary Douglas – of materiality as communicating cultural allegiance and hostility. My hunch is that the car is increasingly being used in this way, within popular culture. Take the very popular British TV show (and the range of other cultural and material expressions to which it has given rise), Top Gear. I must stress that I’m speculating here – I’ve not done a rigorous sociological analysis of this TV show. I don’t even have a TV, so have rarely watched it! (And when I have watched it, I’ve been surprised to see representations of car culture which are more nuanced and ambivalent than the show’s staunchest critics would have had me believe.) I would  not attempt quasi-analysis without solid empirical research to back me up in an academic setting (which is one of the reasons I started a blog!), but in the relaxed and casual informality of the blogosphere I’m tempted to read Top Gear in, from a cycling perspective, a reasonably optimistic light.

Although still undoubtedly dominant, car culture and motoring-as-usual are under threat. We live in a world which is undergoing steady (if uneven and rather stop-start) enlightenment about climate change, peak oil and an assorted range of other threats to quality-of-life, or even life. Car culture is massively culpable, and it is on the back foot. I’d be very interested in Mary Douglas’ analysis of Top Gear, were she still with us. But my sense is that we will see stronger, more aggressive assertions of a celebratory car culture as advocates of that culture feel increasingly threatened by an emergent alternative, an alternative which shows clear signs of being in the ascendant. People often perform, and thus help to reproduce, their opposition to another world through more strongly and fiercely entrenching themselves in the world-which-they-know. In other words, car love might grow most intense as the car is most obviously dying.

It’s also pretty clear that carbon is much more clearly on the agenda than it was when I wrote this piece. I know we’re approaching the Copenhagen negotiations, so quite rightly carbon is metaphorically as well as literally everywhere, but the rise of carbon has had some interesting knock-on effects in the world of British environmentalism. It’s interesting, for example, how nuclear power is no longer quite the unambiguous ‘bad’ which I describe it as here – some key environmentalists now support it, for the sake of tackling climate change. (I don’t, by the way – I just think it’s interesting to note how seemingly solid and uncontentious positions informed by particular political ideologies can actually, over a few short years, become much more wobbly; the world is always changing, and us with it … which is why the bicycle has such a fantastic chance ….)

Social movements and the bicycle

November 25, 2009

I love this image. It’s by the San Francisco-based artist Mona Caron; see I originally asked Mona’s permission to use it in an academic article, ‘Social movements and the bicycle’, which I’ve just now added to the ‘Pages’ section of this blog. To me, Mona’s picture beautifully exemplifies the different worlds of the car and the bicycle. It forms the cover of the book published to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Critical Mass, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration (edited by Chris Carlsson 2002, AK Press). (I’ll also put the short chapter which I contributed to that book up here, as well as some of my other writing, when I find more time.) Car culture results in the grey, grim, polluted urban present. The world of automobility is dark, oppressive, bad. In contrast, pedalling bicycles produces an ecological city, full of fresh air, trees and sunshine. The world of the bicycle is light, airy, good. The contrast is not of course merely between types of vehicle, but between the types of society which they tend to produce.

Anyway (the trouble with blogging is, once I get started, there’s always so much to say, and a need to limit myself … ;-)), here’s the abstract for ‘Social movements and the bicycle’. If it captures your imagination and/or curiosity, please just click on to the full (10,000 word) article over in ‘Pages’:

This paper examines the bicycle’s role in the oppositional cultures of four British social movements; feminism and socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and anarchism and environmentalism from the 1960s until today. It argues that the bicycle powerfully enabled the expansion in the geographical, social and political horizons of both feminists and socialists at the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast, within environmentalism and anarchism since the 1960s, the bicycle both symbolises and produces a desired compression of everyday life, fitting an expressive politics concerned with authenticity, community, and elevation of ‘the local’. The changing role of the bicycle in these movements points to the shifting landscape of political resistance, and to differences and continuities between so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movements. The case of the bicycle also demonstrates the importance of ‘ordinary’ materialities to the production and reproduction of cultural and political identities.