Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

Cycling struggles, 9

February 5, 2013

Have I painted too bleak a picture in this series of insights into the current state of British cycling? Have I made things seem worse than they are? Because we know many people – me and perhaps you included – happily cycle in British cities. Why haven’t I looked at them? The last in the series, in this post I focus on people who make cycling work. These people cycle regularly and routinely; they show utility cycling is possible. But do they show utility cycling is probable? And does their cycling make mass cycling more or less likely?

Please note, I’m not interested in further stigmatising the urban cyclist; quite the contrary. But as a sociologist concerned with how we produce a mass cycling culture, I want to investigate the potential unintended consequences of the minority of people who currently make cycling work for them.

9. A committed cycling story

This post merges the cycling stories of three committed cyclists. These cyclists are of a type, and I admit I’m brushing aside some of the diversity amongst ‘everyday cyclists’ here. By concentrating on three assertive male cyclists I’m suppressing the experiences of others, such as older, often female, cyclists who if you look carefully enough you’ll see riding in many British towns and cities. Jo’s a good example. In her seventies, she says:

“Very, very regularly I use the bike. I would say I use it just about every day really.

“I cycle to save a bit of time. I don’t do any cycling for pleasure, because I’ve only got an old Raleigh sit-up-and-beg bike, with the basket, with three-speeds – and they are a bit dodgy (I’ve never had a new bike, I can tell you that. I got it second-hand). I’ve discovered – keep your fingers’ crossed – that it doesn’t get pinched; if I take it into town it’s not attractive to anybody is it? All my life, not that particular one, but all my life I’ve had a bike.

“So I really use it to get to places more quickly, to make me less tired, and to save getting the car out, because [her husband] isn’t involved in quite a few of the things I do [and she doesn’t herself drive]. So that’s why I use the bike. I don’t use it for going out on bike rides.”

“Because I’m 72 now, you see, I’m getting a little, not nervous, but as the traffic gets worse on the roads to the city I tend to try and keep obviously to the little cycle ways and the alleys and keep out of the way of the busy roads.”

Jo tries to take direct routes and if they get too busy, and especially where there are lots of parked cars, she moves onto the pavement

“because it just isn’t fair on the buses and the other cars that are trying to move, to be honest … I’ve found it safer from everybody’s point of view, if there aren’t any pedestrians, because there just isn’t room for everybody. I’m not a nervous person but I do try to be sensible.”

Push bike

Like many people who cycle, Jo is happiest when her routes are clear and straightforward. When they become ‘messier’, and particularly when they become full of motorised transport (whether mobile or immobile) any sense of entitlement to limited space is diminished, and she feels she should give way. So Jo is an everyday cyclist, but unlike many everyday cyclists, she doesn’t have a strong cycling identity. She might move around by bike, but she’s not a cyclist. In this post I’ll be (implicitly) suggesting that she’s not become a cyclist because when it gets difficult to ride she stops riding; she’ll dismount and/or take to the pavement. The moment someone keeps riding when/where others wouldn’t dare, that’s the moment they become a cyclist.

I’m uncomfortable suppressing the voices of those like Jo; they’re already too silent and marginal. But I do so for a reason. I want to foreground assertive male cyclists because they have the strongest influence on cycling discourses; it’s their identities I want to examine and to some extent problematize. I’m silencing women like Jo, as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), and which makes – I’m afraid – women like Jo ‘a dying breed’. Jo is the kind of cyclist we should be producing but who instead we are losing. The cyclists we’re currently producing are like me and those I’ve chosen to focus on here. This is no way to get Britain cycling.

Committed cycling

Three committed cyclists

Fred is in his sixties, and retired. He lives a couple of miles from his city’s centre. He rides a Dawes Galaxy. In recent years he’s done some long-distance touring, but he also rides around town. He says:

“It’s my normal mode of transport. If I want to go somewhere, my first thought is I go on a bike. Shopping, going to see friends, whatever … I ride mainly for convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want … I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.”

Rhys is in his early fifties. He’s a teacher. He rides regularly to the shops, to his allotment and to work.

“I always go to work on my bike, whatever the weather.”

Peter is in his mid-thirties. He’s always cycled and is a keen mountain biker. He rides to work, and deliberately uses his commute as a way of staying fit.

Fred has one bike. Rhys has two. Peter has three which are ready to ride and others in various states of assembly.

The style of committed cycling

For Fred, Rhys and Peter city cycling is relatively straightforward. They ride competently and confidently.

I accompany Fred on a shopping trip. We ride from his home towards the city centre. It’s cold and raining hard. Fred takes direct routes, and rides assertively. Here we’re negotiating a big roundabout near the city centre. Please as you read think about how likely it is that most people could be persuaded to do the kind of riding I’m depicting:

“We’re on the outside of the line of standing traffic, going down, riding towards oncoming traffic. Fred’s slowed down to do this. We were probably riding at 14 mph but we’re down to 10/11 mph. He’s being vigilant, watching out for movements, being careful of cars coming towards us. A car’s turning out of a side road. Fred’s seen it and has waited for it, to let it come through. We’re getting close to the roundabout now. Fred’s still on the outside edge; he might decide to move in – let’s see. Coming to the roundabout, there’s a tanker on the left, we’re just going past it and into the right-hand turn lane. Out onto the traffic island now, staying on the right-hand edge of the lane so that we can get back onto the outside of the vehicles as we head into the city. Overtaking buses, trucks, a long line of cars. The traffic’s speeding up now. Fred’s obviously very confident doing this. We’re riding in amongst the traffic, it’s now picked up to probably 20 mph and we’re just riding with it coming down to the lights, and now cutting back through to the inside, and onto the newly laid red tarmac as we get to the lights, going on the inside and up to the advanced stop line.”

And later

for a lot of the journey today it’s felt like we’re the fastest, most fluid moving vehicles on the road.”

Rhys describes the stretch of his commute along a busy main road:

“It’s a bit of a battle except that most times the traffic’s not moving very fast and so I’m going a lot faster than the traffic. So I’m going on the outside of the traffic and riding up the middle of the road basically, passing all the traffic for a lot of the way.”

Such riding is normal for committed cyclists, something which is done day in, day out. There are risks (such as the car pulling out in front of Fred, above), but through experience cyclists learn to negotiate them. And there are (admittedly grim) pleasures too:  the satisfaction of gliding past a standing line of motorised traffic; sometimes weaving in and out to maintain momentum.

Although they tend to have greater awareness of alternative routes, these cyclists are more likely than occasional cyclists to take direct routes along main roads. They are less frightened of doing so.

Confident road riding

Peter says:

“Main roads are a necessity if I’m late for work. I’ll take a nicer route if I’ve got plenty of time, because it’s five minutes longer, because it’s a mile and a bit more; if I’ve got time I’ll do it but if I haven’t I’ll go straight up the main road because it’s quick – that’s why main roads are main roads.”

Rhys could take one of two routes between home and work: one involves a dedicated cycling route alongside a main road, with controlled crossings to get across the major intersections; the other is through the city centre on road. He chooses the latter; as we examine the map together he says of the former:

“I don’t actually like this route. It’s not a pleasant route. It’s very exposed, and it’s got these irritating bits at the roundabouts where, for a cyclist, it just seems to disrupt your flow.”

So Rhys avoids this ‘stop/start’ route on his commute. But he’ll use it as a quick way of getting out of town for a long ride on his road bike; but then he’s moving fast and will ride and negotiate the roundabouts on the road (“especially when I’m on my road bike I don’t want to be stopping and starting, I want to keep moving”).

Cycling’s right to the road

All three cyclists insist on their right to the road. Rhys says:

My view is that even if there is a cycle track I’ve got every right to be on the road on my bike, just as much as a car or anybody else really.”

Peter says:

“I always claim my space in the road. I see some cyclists who stick to the kerb, right until the last minute and then put their arm out and go. And I’m thinking, ‘oh no! Why?’; I’m thinking ‘30 yards before, check behind you and go for it; if you’re changing lanes, go for it’.”

They particularly avoid off-road infrastructure if it will slow them down (as in Rhys’ commute) and/or is likely to bring them into conflict with pedestrians. I follow Peter along a stretch of dual carriageway busy with cars travelling fast. When I mention he could have ridden on the adjacent pavement, which has been converted to shared-use, he says:

“Yes I know, but at that time of day there are too many pedestrians, and even though I know I can ride through there and also through town – you can ride through there now too – I still think they’ve got right of way.”

Right to the road

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step one

For these men, riding on the road is normal, but it’s not always easy. Fred, Peter and Rhys have learned how to cope on the roads but the difficulties of road cycling haven’t disappeared; those difficulties are embedded within the prevailing road environment and will inevitably sometimes be confronted, and not always effectively negotiated.

In negotiating these difficulties by bike people develop identities as ‘cyclists’. This is a two-step process. The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions.

Rhys says “I’m a confident cyclist so I’ll do battle with the traffic.”

About half of Rhys’ journey to work is along a busy main road on which it’s easy to get squeezed, so effective cycling depends on asserting yourself and riding in what is usually called ‘primary position’ – taking up the same sort of space as would a car, and making it impossible for motorists to get past. (When as a cyclist you consider it safe for following cars to pass, you move out of primary and into secondary position, to let them through. It’s a key riding technique (indispensable for fast and fluid city cycling in the UK, I would argue) which all three men use.)

Peter describes his journey to work:

I admit I’m quite quick. I can accelerate to 20, 25 mph and in the mornings when it’s bumper-to-bumper I can keep up with the flow of traffic.

“There’s a lot of turnings, and the amount of times cars come round, you’re coming up to a junction on your left, and they just ‘verumphhh’ – swing it –  instead of waiting two seconds for me to go … It’s bloody annoying. I do shout at people.”

Talking about mixing with motorised traffic, Rhys says:

“Obviously you’ve got to be pretty careful, you’ve got to be pretty sharp and pretty aware. I’m almost expecting somebody to do something stupid. I don’t ride and expect everybody to do what they should do. I always ride expecting they are going to get in my way or I am going to get in their way … It’s not the best thing. It’s not what you’d want to do.”

An element of difficulty and danger is normalised amongst these regular road cyclists. It’s a fact of life which they’ve learned to accept and cope with. Rhys again:

“I’ve had the odd time when I’ve been cut up by buses, things like that. You get the occasional time when people come in too close when they are going past you, even when they don’t have to be so close, but I think that’s just a general thing about people not having an appreciation of cyclists and about how much room you should give cyclists when you are going past. “

So in this first part of the process of building a cyclist identity, the kinds of experience which stop most people cycling are simply taken-for-granted and tolerated as the cyclist’s lot. And these bad experiences are typically put into the context of overall good experiences.

All three men also own cars and drive, but they don’t identify themselves as motorists in the same ways they do as cyclists because driving is easy and normal, merely something they do. They identify more strongly with cycling because they have to struggle to cycle, and struggles build identities.

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step two

The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents. In fact, often part of the process of building a cyclist identity is to convert these incidents into resources; I don’t want to overstate this – it’s a bit too ‘sensational’ – but for the resilient urban cyclist they become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honour’.

So conflicts, near-misses and getting knocked off are experiences which become part of ‘a cycling career’, stories in the building of a cycling biography. Obviously this is not inevitable; whilst some people tend to reinforce their cyclist identities via such experiences, others simply stop cycling, becoming ‘ex-cyclists’. The effects of these bad experiences underlie why cycling is so subject to ‘churn’ (people taking it up but soon stopping) and why the tiny minority who persist are so resilient.

Rhys tells me:

“I do have an occasional shout at some people. Like there was one occasion a few weeks ago, I was at the roundabout and I wanted to go round, so I was in the middle of the road, and some van driver came up behind me and told me I was getting in his way, from him wanting to go straight on. So we had a kind of little discussion about whose road it was and who had the right to be on the road.”

Such incidents could easily put someone off cycling, but Rhys is used to it.

Peter had many cycling stories, partly because he’s done so much riding, and partly because we worked with him more intensively than we did with either Fred or Rhys. You may find that Peter’s stories (below) sound a bit extreme; I think this is at least partly due to where we are ‘forced’ or ‘choose’ to ride. I don’t ride regularly in Peter’s city but I know it’s a much less forgiving cycling environment than my own city of Lancaster. And of course we must be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’.

During one conversation Peter and I shared experiences of riding the ‘End-to-End’, probably the most significant British long-distance ride in terms of ‘earning your spurs’. Peter was forced to abandon his ride after a few days with a suspected heart attack, which turned out to be a series of panic attacks. He describes his experiences the day before his abandonment:

“I nearly got hit three times.

“One was on a long ascent, a long crawl. There were these long artics [big trucks] coming down the hill, and I could hear this thing bombing behind me and there was a Range Rover towing a caravan, and he was trying to get in front of me before the lorries came.  And he cut in and I virtually had to force myself off the road.

“Then about twenty miles down the road, an artic this time. It was on a nice, perfect, straight bit of road – flat – with a good two foot past the white line so I was in, like, a cycle lane. And this lorry come past and I thought ‘that was a bit close!’. And also I could hear a second one coming. That time I had to jump off the road. Because what was happening, there was a car behind the two lorries overtaking them, and the bloke in the second lorry was paying more attention to him than to me and he was kind of steering to the left as he was going past me.  And that got within like 8 inches of me, that arctic did.  And he was fully loaded, he was carrying logs.

“And about 20 miles later, this car actually clipped my bar end. Just, it was like a millimetre, you just felt that [banging his hand on his bar end].”

For experienced cyclists such negative cycling experiences are brief moments which puncture longer durations of cycling pleasure, but that doesn’t make them inconsequential. They are hugely consequential; they stop most people cycling, and they ensure the minority who continue cycling develop powerful identities. By sharing them, we align ourselves with others who have had similar experiences. Have you ever enjoyed – almost thrived on – swapping cycling experiences (the good as well as bad), almost as though you’re feeding on/off them? In doing so we’re forging powerful identities and sub-cultures of cycling. I’ll be honest, these sub-cultures are part of the reason I love cycling – I know I can go anywhere in the world, find and meet fellow cyclists, and quickly build rapport, solidarity and friendship with them. Peter is doing this kind of work here; we’re standing in his garage, surrounded by his bikes, talking about the thing we share in common – love for cycling. It’s brilliant! I love fellow cyclists because our recognition and appreciation (in a word, identification) of each other is so strong. But if we’re serious about getting more people cycling we’d be foolish to be blind to the potential consequences of such powerful in-group formation.

In another cycling story, Peter says:

“I have been hit a few times. I’ve actually gone over the bonnet of a car before … It was partly my fault. Well, it was 50/50. It was at night. My lights weren’t effective enough. The battery was dying. He said he didn’t see me. He pulled out and I had my head down. I looked up and it was too late. I had no time to hit the brakes.

“Luckily I hit the front of the wing and cleared the bonnet, Superman over the bonnet! If I’d hit the door I think I would have been dead because I hit him at about 30 mph; and destroyed my bike in the process.

“I’ve been hit on about four or five occasions. That was the worst one. Sometimes a car’s just pulled out, never saw me and last minute hit the brakes, and just nudged me sort of thing, and I’ve had a bit of a wobble. ”

The obvious question to ask anyone who continues cycling despite such incidents is ‘why?’ Here’s my conversation with Peter:

“Why do you keep riding when things like that happen to you?”

“You’ve got to get back on haven’t you?”


“If you don’t get back on you never will!”

“Why do you want to get back on?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

“What do you enjoy about it?”

“Well you saw me coming downhill. I love downhills.”

Of course I accept Peter’s explanation; it’s what came into his head when pushed, and he clearly finds riding fast downhill tremendously thrilling. But as a sociologist I must add identity as an explanatory factor: Peter keeps cycling because he’s become a cyclist; and he’s not just built that identity, he’s earned it.

Attachment to a cyclist identity

A cyclist identity is earned by riding in places where others fear to pedal. Cyclists who survive the difficulties and dangers of urban British cycling have earned their cyclist identity by insisting on, then defending, and finally surviving their right to the road. Understandably then, they’re not going to give this right up lightly. But in insisting on their right to the road, do these cyclists make cycling a more difficult route for others to follow? Do they ensure their own identities remain exclusive? Do they perpetuate the status quo of a tiny minority of people cycling through prejudicial cycling conditions in an anti-cycling environment? Do they impede the creation of the kinds of conditions which are required for other people, people much less prepared to go through the journey which they have taken, to cycle? Unfortunately I think the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And I think the sooner we face up to that – individually as people who care about cycling and collectively as ‘cyclists’ voice’ –  the sooner we’ll develop and insist on strategies which can genuinely get many more people cycling, much more safely, much more often.


The key point is that strong cycling identities – which can then find expression in and through some (by no means all) cycling advocacy – result from conditions which keep cycling marginal. The strong identity of ‘cyclist’ and cycling as a marginalised and difficult practice are co-produced from the same stuff. Unless we as cyclists are reflexive about this, our advocacy will risk reproducing the situation (the institutional conditions as well as the actual environment for cycling) which keeps cycling so marginal. Unless we’re reflexive, as cycling advocates we’ll reproduce rather than challenge the status quo.

As regular cyclists cycling seems easy. We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around. It might sound patronising to insist that many people won’t do something which we ourselves do, but better that than down-playing the difficulties of cycling and insisting it’s easier than people think. What we fail to realise is that by succeeding in cycling we have become different, and that such difference makes a difference.

Today cycling is ordinary to the few and extraordinary to the many. It’s not mainstream. Getting Britain cycling requires making it ordinary to the many (which might well be at the cost of making it extraordinary to those of us who currently ride).

Cycling in south-west Ireland

April 27, 2012

Earlier this month we had a great trip to County Cork, Ireland, to visit Sue’s brother, Mike, his wife, Helen, and daughter, Yola.

Mike, Helen and Yola live in Schull, a delightful village on the Mizen peninsula, one of south-west Ireland’s ‘fingers’, which stick out into the Atlantic ocean. The coastal scenery in their part of the world is  spectacular, and we were blessed with fine weather in which to enjoy it.

Superb hosts in every way, Mike and Helen sorted bikes for us to ride whilst we were there; nothing flash, but good enough to get us around. Actually, although I jokingly referred to it as ‘a farmer’s bike’, the machine Mike borrowed for me from his mate Matt was great.

And Bobby, who normally rides either his road bike or BMX, loved riding a mountain bike.

Without our usual cycling gear we rode in ordinary clothes and managed fine, although on longer rides I sometimes wished I’d got a pannier to put my waterproof and/or jumper. I found it refreshing to be reminded, through the circumstances, how it’s perfectly OK to ride 25 or 30 miles in jeans, shirt and jumper. (In the past Sue and I have cycled thousands of miles, often through very hot places, wearing ‘ordinary clothes’ – including fully covered legs and arms, for both modesty and sun protection, in countries such as India and Nepal; but more recently this has given way to ‘lycra-as-normal’.)

One day Mike and I rode out to Mizen Head, where the Irish end-to-end either starts or finishes. On another, Mike, Sue and I rode up Mount Gabriel, at 407 metres the highest point on the peninsula.

And Bobby and I took bikes over to Ireland’s most southerly island, the beautiful and rather romantic Cape Clear.

I’ve cycled in this part of the world a lot in the past, but not for a few years. And I was struck by how different it felt to cycle here, compared to England. The following observation is based only on nine days’ riding in which I covered only around 150 miles; nonetheless I noted it sufficiently often to feel confident it’s not groundless.

As someone on a bike in this part of Ireland, you clearly belong to the ‘road community’. Initially, I noticed this through the ways we were generally treated –  drivers stopped or slowed down when approaching us from the opposite direction; if they approached from behind, they didn’t try to force their way past, but waited patiently for an opportunity to pass courteously (or for us to pull off the road and out of their way, if that made sense). Such behaviour is quite unlike that I’ve come to expect when riding in England, where drivers rarely either slow down and/or make any other obvious concessions for you; it’s much more similar to behaviour we’ve experienced in France and The Netherlands.

Only later did I start to notice how my presence as a cyclist on the road was actively acknowledged by most drivers. Typically this ‘salute’ takes the form of a raised finger from one hand, off the steering wheel. A small gesture, but a significant one. It’s active recognition of you as a person, and validation of your presence on the road – as I said, a sign that you’ve a right to be there, that you belong to the community of road users.

In England I much more often feel I’m an ‘outsider’ on the roads. This outsider experience stems mainly from the lack of respect often demonstrated towards me through the behaviour of other road users. Occasionally I’m treated well, and I tend to think “they must be a cyclist too”. More occasionally I’m treated so badly that I fear not only for myself, but for everyone else – though especially of course other cyclists – who has to share the roads with such behaviour. My most common experience, however, isn’t of hostility but of absolute indifference towards me, almost as though I’m not there. This is close to, but not, the kind of civil inattention described by the sociologist Erving Goffman as required to live comfortably in close proximity among strangers; civil inattention is not cold and indifferent, but a deliberate inattention in the interests of living together anonymously yet respectfully.

It’s perhaps closer to what another sociologist Georg Simmel characterised as ‘the blasé attitude’; a kind of de-civilising (or certainly anti-communitarian) process brought about by the scale, pace and density of metropolitan life (Simmel was writing at a time of rapidly industrialising and expanding cities across Europe). This results in a disregard for others who are seen as not belonging to your own community. Speed, scale and proximity definitely have an effect on levels of civility on our roads; on quiet country lanes you’re more likely (for most of the year, even in tourist areas) to be cycling among ‘locals’ in ‘a neighbourhood’, but as roads get bigger and busier you’re more likely to be riding amongst strangers who are moving faster, live further apart, and have less time and inclination to acknowledge one another. The shift from ‘familiar to strange’ is generally a distancing (and for the cyclist a dangerous) one.

Certainly, and loosely following the work of another sociologist, Norbert Elias, the delegitimisation of the cyclist as a figure on our roads during the last half-century of runaway and increasingly taken-for-granted automobility has on the UK’s roads led to a retreat in the ‘civilising process’, and a return of a repressed animosity towards ‘the other’, an animosity which needs now urgently to be re-civilised.

Why are motorists more civil towards cyclists in south-west Ireland than in north-west England? It’s possibly to do with style of dress and style of cycling. When cycling the lanes of north-west England I’m usually wearing lycra and helmet, riding a road bike, often with others, and going quite fast. In south-west Ireland I wore ‘normal’ clothes, no helmet, and rode an ‘ordinary-looking’ bike not very fast, and if I wasn’t riding alone I was riding with other people (Sue, Mike, Helen, Bobby and Flo) who also didn’t look like ‘proper cyclists’.

It also possibly has to do with the numbers of cyclists and profile of cycling in general. In north-west England cyclists are asserting their presence on rural roads, particularly on weekends in good weather. Some motorists, maybe, don’t like that – cycling’s presence antagonizes them. In rural Ireland my sense is that cycling remains for now lower in profile and popularity, so that cycling hasn’t become constructed as adversarial to driving in the same way.

Those analyses would implicate (but not blame) the behaviour and/or dress of ‘road cyclists’ in their own (and cycling’s more generally?) marginality, and anyway, I’m not sure they’re quite right. (Although as I wrote in ‘Fear of Cycling’, I do think we’ll see more conflicts emerge around cycling as it becomes more significant a mode of mobility.) They certainly don’t tell the full story.

I think the answer has more to do with broader social and economic conditions. I think motorists in south-west Ireland are less hurried, more accustomed to slower-moving vehicles (such as tractors) and delays on the roads, and more patient. I also think there’s a clear link (though not one which has to the best of my knowledge been proven by rigorous research) between the age and size of a car and its drivers subjective sense of ‘a right to the road’. Older cars make up a far greater proportion of all cars in south-west Ireland than they do in north-west England, and I think the drivers of older cars tend to be more careful of cyclists than do the drivers of new, expensive cars. Finally, I think that in south-west Ireland the person hasn’t eclipsed the mode of transport as a source of identity and (mis)recognition, so whether you’re riding a bike or in a car you still belong to the broad community of persons, rather than fall into one or other smaller communities defined by transport mode (motorist or cyclist).

I’m not saying south-west Ireland is cycling nirvana; far from it. I’m saying I felt a qualitative difference in the way I was/we were treated by motorists there compared to back home in north-west England – especially on the smaller, quieter roads (what we call ‘lanes’). And I think it’s worth wondering why this might be. As I’ve said, a partial potential explanation is how I/we looked – ‘ordinary people’ riding bikes. Here’s Mike and me at Mizen Head …

And Bobby riding on Cape Clear Island …

To reiterate, we look like ordinary people riding bikes, and are perhaps then seen as such – as belonging to the community of persons. In contrast, when I ride in lycra and helmet on a road bike, whether alone or with others, I wonder whether I/we ‘disappear into a category’ – ‘the cyclist’. As such, I/we stop being identifiable as fellow members of the road community, and it’s easier for us to be treated with impunity. I’m not condoning this treatment, but nor do I want to deny its plausibility out of some misplaced sense of political correctness. (I am attempting to establish the situation, not make judgements.)

But I think there’s a wider (albeit inter-connected) story here, too – about changing attitudes and behaviour towards others, about who counts, why and when. This story has more to do with broad, gradual and difficult-to-grasp changes in culture, and related norms of civility. It’s a story which recurs often in sociological literature; the version I know best (because it was influential during the process of my doctoral studies) is the story told by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, although a more poignant version is elaborated by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Basically, crudely and for the sake of my argument, as our lives become busier, more dictated by the needs of a global capitalist economy and more stressed, our identities become fractured and the long-term development of character becomes more difficult to accomplish. It is such character – and the civility towards others which it tends to nourish – which we need on our roads; and which can still in my experience be found on the back lanes of south-west Ireland, but less so on the (more commuter- and/or consumer-dominated?) lanes of north-west England.

Finally, then, how do we re-embed (or perhaps embed for the first time, because there is almost certainly no lost ‘golden-age’ here) a civility of the road?  How do we get motorists to show more care towards cyclists?

One ‘shallow’ answer (because it doesn’t deal with the deeper, historical, structural issues) might be awareness-raising campaigns – for example, TV adverts which attempt to inculcate greater understanding of cyclists’ experiences, and greater respect towards people riding bikes.

Absolutely. But a ‘deeper’ answer needs to recognise how discourteous treatment of cyclists by motorists is an outcome of motorists’ (more theoretical) sense of ‘a right to the roads’ (whether rural or urban) and (more practical) experience of having domination of those roads; so this deeper answer needs to challenge both theoretical and practical sense of entitlement to something (the space, time and rhythm of the road) which ought to be much more democratically, and sustainably, held.

If cyclists truly have a right to the road, we urgently need a range of practical initiatives (such as slower speeds, reallocation of road space away from motorised modes, and a general de-privileging of the car’s ‘right to roam’, as well as awareness campaigns) to demonstrate that fact. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.

A cultural politics of cycling, 2

May 29, 2011

For more than half a century cycling has been marginalised. Marginalised practices tend to produce marginalised identities. To be a cyclist puts you on the edge.

And we develop attachments to, and build cultures around, our marginalised identities. We own and cherish them. But at our forthcoming event in Leicester, Building Cycling Cultures, these identities become stakes in the struggle to push cycling into the heart of future sustainable cities.

How do we simultaneously preserve what’s important about our cycling identities, practices and cultures, which are to some extent currently marginal and discriminated against, at the same time as attempting to extend those identities, practices and cultures so they become less marginal, less discriminated against?

How in other words, do we negotiate the tension between a gain for cycling (becoming more mainstream) and a potential loss for ourselves and the identities, practices and cultures which we’ve over the past half-century developed, and developed in part as strategies to enable cycling to survive?

Must we sacrifice the cyclings we’ve built and which we love at the altar of a vision for mass cycling?

No doubt other sub-cultures have faced this dilemma – of how you democratise a desired practice without jeopardising the identities which have been co-produced alongside that practice, and which – like all identities – now form a crucial component of individual subjectivities; you can’t strip someone of an identity without doing violence to their self; you can’t challenge an identity without potentially destabilising the person’s (always to some degree precarious) sense of self.

This dilemma was evident during the research I conducted towards my PhD, over a decade ago now. There I explored the everyday lives of environmental activists, myself and Sue (my partner) included.

Through a range of ‘ordinary’ practices (shopping, cooking and eating habits, recycling, ‘work’/’leisure’ practices, transport …) environmental activists contribute to a radically transformed (relatively ‘local’, remarkably ‘low consumption’ and ‘green’) everyday life which could – when aggregated – help build a culture of sustainability. But the re-orienting work (away from ‘unsustainable’ practices of the dominant culture and towards an alternative range of sub-cultural and ‘sustainable’ practices) required to develop such a ‘green’ everyday life tends simultaneously to build cultural identities which are marginal, elite (at least from an ‘outside’ perspective, which tends also to view such cultural identities as ‘self-righteous’), and difficult to popularise.

It’s a terrible dilemma – you want other people to do something you do, but the road which you’ve made to get to there looks, to those who you want to follow you, full of obstacles.

We also develop attachments to our marginal identities, and the urge to democratise those identities must struggle with an opposite urge, to preserve their exclusiveness. This tension, between the urge to proselytize your privileged practice on the one hand, and to preserve its exclusiveness on the other, exists in cycling today. As people who love cycling we’re initiates, part of a small, select club. Together we produce distinctive cultures, and like all cultures these cycling cultures value particular ways of being, talking, doing and dressing more than others.

There’s nothing wrong in this. It’s what people always and inevitably do. But we should recognise that the knowledge, skills, competencies and tastes we’ve acquired through participation in cycling have been earned gradually, over time. And at the collective level our continuous investments in cycling have produced cultures which can then appear to ‘outsiders’ to be difficult to penetrate, or worse, ‘elite’.

All cultures and sub-cultures produce, distribute and value what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’. The various cycling cultures we have built all have their own distinctive forms of cultural capital. (Which partly explains why I wear a helmet when out with fellow ‘roadies’ but not when cycling in town, or cycle-touring anywhere; or why my cycling campaigner chums aren’t particularly interested in my 10 mile time trial times, whilst some of my fellow racers aren’t perhaps too bothered about the introduction of specific ‘cycle-friendly’ facilities in town, or the social and/or ecological impacts of some of their own cycling practices.)

Cultures and sub-cultures tend to develop strategies for dealing dismissively with those trying to take short-cuts to accrue the kinds of capital on which they trade. The ‘nouveau riche’ provoke disdain amongst those who consider themselves ‘properly monied’ and more ‘culturally sophisticated’. Similar strategies go on in cycling, and I leave you to think of examples based on your own experiences. My point is that, if we want to democratise our practice rather than build barriers to it, we’d do well to reflect critically on our own attitudes and practices here. Because if cultures (and particularly sub-cultures) inevitably create boundaries to ‘outsiders’ during the continuous process of their production and re-production, they can also develop strategies to facilitate and enable others – ‘outsiders’ – to become involved. And if we want to popularise cycling, this is something we must do.

Now I think both cycling in general and individual cyclists in particular already do this very well. We do try to encourage and embrace outsiders. (Though one potential danger is that we leave it for paid cycling professionals to encourage and embrace ‘hard to reach’ ‘outsiders’ whose involvement in cycling over the medium to longer term may prove less durable than the people who we ‘ordinary’ cyclists can influence, encourage and enthuse as a small but significant contribution to cycling as part of our own everyday lives …)

Should you have read this far you might (quite fairly) think I’m being overly earnest about all this. I’d respond by asking you to take a look outside.

If where you live and work is anything like where I do, you’ll see many cars – both parked and moving – but few, if any, bicycles.

How great is our task depends on how seriously we take the need to turn this situation around. Or, to use the terms I’ve been using thus far, the extent to which we’d like to make the dominant mobility (the car) sub-cultural, and the sub-cultural mobility (the bicycle) dominant.

If you’re anything like me, the drive (?!) to promote cycling is almost an instinct, by which I mean something which feels right to do and which happens almost automatically, of its own volition. I rarely if ever stop to think why I want more cycling. After all, couldn’t it equally be the case that – much like driving – by democratising it you simultaneously start to erode some of the benefits it currently provides?

So what’s behind the impulse to popularise cycling? What happens if we seek to prise open, in order to examine and explain, this democratising instinct?

  • It might be because we believe the consequences of anthropogenic climate change to be catastrophic;
  • Or because we believe oil to be running out;
  • Or perhaps we find the dominance of our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by dangerous metal objects quite irrational and/or unbearable;
  • Or we might refuse to implicitly condone the generally taken-for-granted and so submerged (from the popular conscience) damage and destruction which motorised vehicles wreak.

Whatever our reasons for seeking change, as people who (I’m assuming) cycle and love cycling, we have an additional and important vantage point – we have direct personal experience of a vehicle that is an obvious but more perfect substitute to the car. We know the bicycle can replace the car, because much of our own everyday lives demonstrates that fact.

If there’s an urgency to getting people out of cars and onto bikes, to effect a necessary and dramatic change in the world, then a set of questions potentially emerges:

  1. What’s our specific role, as people who love cycling?
  2. Do we have a privileged position, in effecting change?
  3. What do our experiences as cyclists tell us needs to change?
  4. In effecting change what’s the significance and value, if any, of our skills, competencies, knowledge, enthusiasms, energies, convictions, imaginations and visions?

These are some of the questions we might think about as we attempt to move cycling from a minor to a major mode of mobility. They’re questions which have to do with not just practice, identity and culture, but also with politics, social change and transformation.

Cycling is cultural, and there’s a cultural politics of cycling. I think it’s worth sketching the contours of this cultural politics of cycling because, if we know the terrain better, it might help us articulate a more powerful and persuasive politics of cycling.

So the questions above are the sort which I hope we’ll explore at Building Cycling Cultures next weekend in Leicester. They’re certainly questions which I think are important to think about as we – and by ‘we’ I mean mainly those of us already passionate about and in various ways involved – continue and develop a project of building out from a range of vibrant but still small cycling sub-cultures towards an equally vibrant but qualitatively different and really massive cycling culture.

A cultural politics of cycling, 1

May 20, 2011

Over the next week or so, and ahead of the Building Cycling Cultures event I’m helping organise in Leicester next month, I’m assembling a few still sketchy thoughts with the hope of developing a cultural politics of cycling. Here’s the first part, with at least one more to follow …

There’s a real tension in the concept of building cycling culture/s. I think that such a tension is good, because it can be productive, but only if we work with and on  it ….

Britain undoubtedly has a myriad of variously well established cycling cultures, from the recent (re)turn to fixed-gear urban riding, to club-oriented cycle-tourists, to competitive cycle sport, to cycle campaigners, to BMX …. you get the picture.

I’m not especially well embedded in any, but I flirt with and love them all. I also think we should celebrate such cycling cultures – after all, they have, perhaps more than anything else, kept the idea of cycling in Britain alive across the past half century which has otherwise been steadfastly and furiously committed to stifling the desire to cycle, and extinguishing cycling’s existence completely.

It’s as if from sometime during the 1950s, cycling was forced underground, and what was once a cultural practice became a range of sub-cultural practices. (There remains a rich language waiting to be unearthed here, both in order to explore and understand cycling’s descent into the abyss and in order to build a cultural politics of cycling which can help bring it back again – I’m mining one set of metaphors, but others have to do with edges and margins, still others with conquest and colony, or with oppression, discrimination and resistance …)

But now, just perhaps, there are signs of the aggressive and increasingly institutionalised repression of cycling finally lifting. Cycling is coming up for air. And we lovers of cycling can look around, not just over our shoulders but also ahead. For the first time in almost a century we can broaden our gaze, we can look beyond the horizon in the knowledge we’ll be pedalling all the way. We can simultaneously sigh with relief and dig in, thinking about the way forward for cycling now that it’s no longer quite so clearly something to be simply trashed.

So whilst we still might whisper it, one day soon I hope it’ll feel safe to declare – loudly and to anyone at anytime and anywhere – oneself to be a cyclist. We have survived the storm and although another one (climate change) is coming we can pedal towards it safe in the knowledge that at least our vehicle is right.

Given cycling’s potential resuscitation it seems obvious that we should now work hard to promote these existing cycling cultures, to make them bigger than they already are. So that more and more people discover the pleasures of commuter cycling, or cycle-touring, or cycle-racing, or BMX, or mountain biking …. This is what those of us who love cycling, myself of course included, tend to do. And I think we’re right to do so.

But although I perhaps would like to, I can’t deny a dilemma here. I guess at heart I’m not just a lover of cycling, but also a sociologist committed to what I see as ‘the public good’. So there’s a set of questions which trouble me, and which I feel ought to be asked:

1. Do existing and often remarkably resilient cycling cultures represent the seeds from which mass cycling will grow?

Can we harness the undoubted enthusiasms, energies, commitments and imaginations of people who are currently if in different ways passionate about cycling, in order to broaden cycling’s cultural appeal, and transform it back from a range of sub-cultures to an important and normal part of the dominant culture? And if so, how do we do so?

2. Or instead, are existing cycling cultures obstacles, in the way and to be left behind as we attempt to push cycling into a new golden age?

This attitude appears to be on the rise. It’s certainly apparent amongst many champions of ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ cycling who tend to see strong cycling sub-cultures as an impediment to cycling becoming regarded as ‘normal’, a practice which just anyone can do. I’m suspicious of this antagonism towards certain sorts of cycling/cyclists amongst people who profess to like cycling. I also resent it. We’re now in the position to resuscitate cycling only because it has been kept alive and meaningful for many groups of people in many different ways. Why on earth should those of us who love cycling, who have cycled all our lives, and who might sometimes wear lycra or like to ride fast, or do things which most people would consider difficult if not impossible, why should we be sacrificial lambs to the slaughter at the altar of mass cycling? The suggestion that wearing lycra is bad for cycling is preposterous and I think belies a disturbing way of thinking.

However, this defence of cycling cultures shouldn’t stop us from asking important questions. Does, for example, the current dominance of cycling by people who are clearly fit and committed somehow prevent it from being embraced by those who are neither? And if so how, and what might we do about it? What strategies might be adopted in seeking to transform the sub-cultural into the mainstream?

3. Finally, is there a synthesis? Can the old cycling sub-cultures and the new culture of mass cycling co-exist and co-evolve, each feeding the other?

This is obviously the ideal outcome, so I desperately want the answer to be ‘yes’. And what I have said up until now I hope suggests that, with appropriate thought and strategising, the answer can be ‘yes’. Existing cycling cultures can inform and boost attempts to build a broader, more inclusive, mass culture of cycling in Britain.

An important test here might be whether we can detect democratising impulses within the sensibilities and practices of actually-existing cycling sub-cultures. So can we? I think we can. I see this democratising impulse every Thursday evening, when with my family I ride out to Salt Ayre cycle track, half way between Lancaster and Morecambe. Lancaster Cycling Club has come together with the local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, to put on time trials which cater for everyone. My daughter Flo is 7 and rides a 2 mile time trial. My son Bobby is 9 and rides 6 miles, whilst my partner Sue and I ride the 10 mile version. Both clubs are extending themselves, in a bid to make cycling more accessible to all.

Another example is provided by the bike co-ops emerging across Britain. To give just one example, Oxford Cycle Workshop is committed to enabling more people to take up cycling. Through recycling bikes, providing people with the skills they need to maintain and build bikes, and through nurturing an inclusive space which welcomes everyone, Oxford Cycle Workshop and similar enterprises are committed to building a mass cycling culture. Such enterprises form an essential part of the bike system which we’re now developing as a replacement to the increasingly defunct car system.

And the same democratic, inclusive impulse is at work in the Building Cycling Cultures event. We want to recognise and celebrate what we already have, whilst working together to get more. Inevitably, as gains are made in terms of bums on saddles, some losses will also be incurred – some of what we currently hold dear might have to go. Some of what makes cycling special will for all of us have to change. (How many times, as I pedal peacefully along an empty cycle track through a special place, have I questioned why I spend my life working to get many more people riding alongside me through such personally precious places?)

But for me anyway, this is one of the main things which our forthcoming Leicester event is about. By bringing together a broad range of people with different involvements in cycling, we can discuss and develop strategies for how best to push cycling towards the next level – everyday, popular, mass cycling.

Building Cycling Culture/s – programme

April 15, 2011

How big can cycling get, and how do we get there? How might the size of cycling affect what cycling looks like?

As we work to make cycling bigger and better than it currently is, Building Cycling Culture/s aims to

  • celebrate cycling
  • explain and explore findings from two big recent research projects into cycling
  • invite reflection and discussion about how big cycling in Britain can get, what that cycling might look like, and how we can best get from here to there

On Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June, Building Cycling Culture/s takes over Leicester’s Phoenix Square Media Centre for talk, debate, film, artwork, bike rides, children’s activities, networking and ideas for change.  The venue has all facilities including café, bar, and loads of meeting space

Whether you come for the day or choose to make a weekend of it, please join the urgent business of building cycling culture/s …

Pre-conference events

Saturday 4th June, 5pm ‘til late: Launch Event and Party

Join us for an evening of events, including relaxed discussion regarding progress towards building cycling culture/s on both sides of the Atlantic

  • In conversation – with special guests Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation) and Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle, New York)
  • Along with bike films, live music, bike photography exhibition & community media hub

Sunday 5th June, 9am to 12noon: Breakfast & Bike Rides

Including – Bike Recycling Projects Tour, Cycle-friendly Pedestrian Zone, Western Park MTB Trails & Connect2 Watermead Park Project

Conference schedule

Sunday 5th June

12noon to 12.30pm: Registration & buffet lunch

12.30pm to 1.30pm: Welcome & keynote speeches

  • Andy Salkeld (Leicester City Council)
  • Kevin Mayne (Chief Executive, CTC)
  • Dr Rachel Aldred (UniversityofEast London): Key findings from the Cycling Cultures project
  • Dr Dave Horton (Lancaster University): Key findings from the Understanding Walking & Cycling project
  • Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation): Building Cycling Culture/s – Tales from New York

1.30pm to 2:15pm: Break for browsing and talking

  • A chance to look around stalls including: Bicycology, Bike It, Cyclemagic, Bikes 4 All, Future Cycles, Leicester Cycle Challenge, Bike Film Festival, and others to be confirmed (among them Bikeability, Cycle-Derby’s Scootability Project, Leicester Critical Mass, Beech Holme Tandem Club (Hull), Cambridge Cycling Campaign (Cambridge), and Bristol Bike Project)
  • A chance to participate in events taking place in and around the Phoenix: bike try-outs and much more …

2.15pm to 3.15pm: Workshops round 1

3.30pm to 4.30pm: Workshop round 2

Choose 2 from the following workshops:

A – ‘Recycling Communities’

Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle – Bikes, Art & Social Enterprise): From bike recycling to bike art, sustainable environmental education, training and jobs

B – ‘Inclusive Cycling’

Elizabeth Barner (CTC Cycling Champions Project) & STA Bikes Hackney (tbc): How cycling cultures might address issues of inequality and exclusion

C – ‘Re-cycling Peak Car Cities’

Iain Jaques (Photofinale & Leicester Architecture Festival ): Re-imaging cities and neighbourhoods for walking, cycling and sustainable transport

D – ‘Cycling Networks & New Media’

Ian Nutt and Rob Martin (Leicester Forest Cycling Club & Critical Mass) & Cambridge Cycling Campaign (tbc): Using social media to build social cycling networks

E – ‘Building Cycling Culture/s – where do we put the car?’

Bicycology: Exploring the difficulties of tackling car culture head on

F – ‘Cycling Cultures’

Dr Rachel Aldred and Dr Kat Jungnickel (University of East London): Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

G – ‘Understanding Cycling’

Dr Dave Horton and Dr Griet Scheldeman (Lancaster University): What needs to change to get Britain on its bike? Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

H – ‘Bike Hire Schemes’

Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transport): The future for ‘bike sharing as public transport’ in New York and elsewhere

4.30pm to 5:30pm: Question Time

5:30: Conference close


Phoenix Square is fully accessible for all abilities, see

Children welcome; a crèche is available

The cost is £10, including food. Prior registration is essential. To do so, please visit:

This event is being generously supported by CTC, Leicester City Council, Citizens’ Eye, the University of East London and Lancaster University

Copenhagen’s cycling silence – a hypothesis

February 10, 2011

There’s been something niggling at the back of my mind ever since I returned from Copenhagen a couple of months ago. I was really struck by how quiet cycling is there. It felt almost funereal, so it’s perhaps fitting that a certain perplexedness at the silence of Copenhagen cycling has since accompanied me almost like a haunting …

And then on my ride into work through the fog this February morning, I had one of those little light-bulb moments (I only seem to get these when I’m on my bike), a sudden realisation of why Copenhagen’s cycling procession is so silent. It seems obvious now I’ve thought it, but I posit it as a hypothesis here, because it remains just that – I’ve no evidence.

There were I think three main components to Copenhagen’s cycling silence.

First, and most obvious, was the complete absence of the ringing of bells. So many cyclists, but no ding-dings – how could that be? I’ll elaborate on this below.

Second, there is something to say about our always shifting and relative positioning in time and space, which makes places sound more or less noisy. Although I live in a city much smaller than Copenhagen, I’m accustomed to hearing the noise of motorised traffic when I ride on its urban roads. When I rode through the streets of the Danish capital it was between the rush-hours, and people on bikes easily outnumbered moving cars. To ride in so big a city with so little noise of traffic is something to which I’m simply not accustomed. I think that partly explains why the experience also felt slightly eerie and melancholy to me. I associate cities with noise, and am almost unsettled when my experience is otherwise (and rather ironically, this despite the quest for quieter cities being one of my political goals). I remember the same feelings from riding regularly through other big cities in my past, especially at night. (And one of the many reasons I so love cycling is because of how it both enables the evocation of such powerful and beautiful feelings and then provides the conditions to dwell in those feelings. But then, once I’m off the bike, they tend to evaporate – they belong to the bike.)

Third, and this I think is mainly why Copenhagen cycling felt funereal to me, in my ordinary, everyday experience it’s rare for so many people to be in such close proximity to one another and yet produce so little sound. I can think of only two similar situations: ‘pedestrianised’ town and city centres, but in such places people are often walking together, and so there’s a hubbub generated from the sound of voices; and Critical Mass, which we consciously and temporarily construct as a car-free space and where, funnily enough, I’m also often unsettled by the silence, and sometimes find myself making noise just to break it. In contrast to both ‘pedestrianised’ urban space and Critical Mass, Copenhagen’s cyclists proceed by and large in solitary fashion – they are strangers to one another, strangers who do not speak. So there are all these moving bodies, so many people going to so many different places – in silence. A truly weird and wonderful experience, and one which I guess will become more wonderful as it becomes less weird?

I’d be interested to know how Copenhagen cyclists understand and experience their sonic cycling environment. Of course there will be considerable diversity, but in general are Copenhagen cyclists proud of and/or otherwise attached to the collective silence which they together produce? Is that one of the reasons for the absence of bell ringing? From my very brief observations, people seemed not on the whole to be listening to music as they pedalled. Could that be another reason for the belllessness (I just made that word up I think, to see how it looked – you must forgive me, I’m a sociologist ;-))? If everyone’s paying attention, not pedalling to other rhythms but dwelling in the here/now, then the loud and jarring intervention of a bell is perhaps less necessary.

But my main hypothesis is this – bicycle bell-ringing thrives in conditions of unpredictability. A bell is a warning, an announcement of your presence. Britain likes bell-ringing cyclists because we’re not expected to be there; we’re an aberration; out-of-place. We must make ourselves known because if not we’ll make people jump – “I didn’t expect you there”.

Copenhagen’s cycling silence is a collective triumph, for a certain sort of cycling – predictable, ordered, separated cycling. In these conditions, to ring your bell is to suggest otherwise, to question and sabotage the correct etiquette of the Copenhagen city cyclist. Remaining quiet means you do what’s expected, and doing what’s expected means you remain quiet.

Silence is a mode of governance. It forces you to do only the expected, to know your place, and to stay there.

Ringing your bell would announce you as a rebel with a different cause.

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.

Talking about fear of cycling …

February 26, 2010

If you want to hear me spouting the concise version (at least as it struck me on that particular day) of my article Fear of Cycling you can head over to BikeLove and download the podcast of a recent interview with Jo from BikeLove. The key arguments are there, expertly and relatively painlessly extracted by Jo, and all in eight (long?) minutes. I must admit, they sound rather clumsy and crude to me, without all the garnish which normally accompanies academic argument in a ‘proper’ written paper. But if arguments don’t work ‘naked’, it doesn’t matter how dressed up you make them, they still won’t work … anyway, I’ll let you, if you’re so inclined, be the judge …

BikeLove comes from Sydney, Australia – hence the contrast between Jo’s lovely (and to me, during this British winter, exotic-sounding) Ozzie accent and my dul(cet) Brummie tones (to non-UK readers, ‘Brummie’ is a term for people originating from Birmingham, England). It was great to be asked to contribute to the show. I am very fond of Australia, even if ‘they’ do (try to) make cyclists wear helmets (although see the story of the remarkable Sue Abbott, also on BikeLove).

My partner Sue and I lived in the hills above Adelaide for a couple of years back in the early 1990s, and I can trace the birth of an explicit commitment to work on behalf of cycling back to our time there. Specifically, I publicly vowed to work towards a cycle-friendly future during the conclusion to a series of workshops on human-scale development in which I took part; the workshops coincided with the visit, and loosely followed the ideas, of the Chilean economist and environmentalist Manfred Max-Neef, and they formed a key part of my (ongoing) political education.

Ethnographies of Cycling

February 19, 2010

Here are three of the UK’s foremost cycling thinkers – Dr Justin Spinney from the University of Surrey, Dr Katrina Brown from the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen, and Dr Ben Fincham from the University of Sussex. They’re pictured during the Ethnographies of Cycling workshop which we ran here at Lancaster University just before Christmas.

My colleague Griet Scheldeman and I weren’t at all sure how the day would go. CeMoRe (the Centre for Mobilities Research) here at Lancaster asked whether we wanted to organise an event around cycling, so – not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth – Griet put on her anthropological hat and I put on my cycling cap, and we tried to conceive an event which would both speak to our current qualitative research into cycling (and non-cycling), and have wider resonance, appeal and value.

It struck us that, over the last few years, quite a few people have started to investigate cycling from social and cultural perspectives, and – more specifically – to explore cycling ethnographically. Put very simply, ethnography is a scientific research method, aimed at understanding people’s ordinary (and extraordinary) practices, using whatever means make sense, but generally involving ‘hanging out’ with those people whose lives and practices you are seeking to understand. If you’re curious to know more, the wikipedia entry on ethnography is probably as good a place to start as any.

Griet is an anthropologist, and ethnography is the anthropological method. I’m a sociologist who favours the ethnographic method, mainly because I love hanging out with people, seeing how things are for them, and simply dwelling in everyday life. So we’re both fans of the method, and we felt we could help to consolidate what ethnographic research into cycling has so far taken place in the UK by pulling people together to discuss ethnographies of cycling.

We also knew we wanted to run the event as a workshop – designed to share, collectively think about, and produce knowledge – rather than have a largely passive audience trying to stay awake long enough to soak up the knowledge of a few active ‘experts’.

But we didn’t know how popular the idea would be. So we were really pleased that, so soon before Christmas (though, luckily for us, before the really icy weather which disabled so many people’s travel plans), well over 40 people made the trip to Lancaster. Perhaps more pleasing was the mix of people who made the effort to participate – not only academics from across the UK (everywhere from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Edinburgh to Sussex) and further afield (Damien O’Tuama made the trip over from Dublin), but also Local Authority Cycling Officers, cycle campaigners, independent consultants and people from British Cycling.

As you can see, we organised the room in a way designed to encourage people to talk, and to get to know one another. Doing this can be risky, but what I love about cycling, and this includes thinking about cycling, is how people always so want to talk about it. I don’t know if it’s because people who are interested in cycling tend to be natural participants, or if there’s something specifically about cycling which promotes participation, but in my experience when cycling’s on the menu it’s very rarely quiet!

The morning comprised the best set of presentations I’ve ever seen and heard anywhere. OK, I might be a little biased, but we asked all the speakers to give particular attention to the methodological aspects of their research, and – in very different ways – they all did a really marvellous job at that. Ben Fincham started the day brilliantly, speaking with real verve, energy and incisiveness of his ethnographic fieldwork with cycle messengers. Robin Parker gave us a great (graphic!) and entertaining insight into his ethnography of a naked bike ride. Katrina Brown presented a carefully crafted analysis of some of the issues and difficulties involved in doing video-based fieldwork among mountain bikers. Justin Spinney gave us a bold and authoritative conceptual argument, calling for ethnographic work which contextualises bicycles and cycling as aspects of complex everyday lives. And Rachel Aldred presented a massively compelling series of sociological insights arising in connection with her ongoing investigations into cycling cultures in English cities.

Impressed is an understatement. We are very fortunate, at present in the UK, to have so many brilliant people applying themselves to thinking about cycling. I’m both incredibly glad and rather amazed to suggest that the new dawn for cycling studies which Paul Rosen, Peter Cox and I called for in our Introduction to Cycling and Society in 2007 seems to be breaking! That’s not to say I’m satisfied – I won’t, personally, be satisfied until more than half of all urban journeys in Britain are made by bike, and I believe that sociology – similarly to most other disciplines – has an important part to play in achieving such a vision.

Not only was the content of the presentations absolutely first class, but all the presenters were so damn good at sticking to time that I had no opportunity to ding my bike bell – my time-keeper’s device – at them! Here I am, finally getting the chance to bring order out of chaos via my little black bell later in the day …

Before a super lunch, Elizabeth Shove, Professor of Sociology here at Lancaster and someone with a strong theoretical and empirical interest in practices (and of course, although it is also and always much else, cycling is very clearly a practice, or set of practices), gave her thoughts on the morning, which – I think it’s fair to say – ruffled a few feathers. I’d like to think that was a good thing – Elizabeth’s comments and criticisms certainly gave many of us something to talk about, and – speaking only for myself now – will I hope prod me into being both more strident and more rigorous in arguing the value of ethnographic research into cycling.

We were very fortunate to have Jo Vergunst, an anthropologist from Aberdeen University, come down to run the afternoon’s ethnographic exercises with Griet. Here’s Jo, later in the day, getting to grips with a Brompton – the anthropologists in particular seemed to find the Brompton a very fascinating thing. What to many of us has become an ‘ordinary’ machine was to them a whole world waiting to be explored, folded, unfolded and understood … I know that Griet’s explorations are ongoing …

We planned the afternoon as a break out of the office. We wanted everyone to have a go at ‘doing ethnographies of cycling’, no matter how contrived and limited – in so short a space of time – that would inevitably be. Although it wasn’t compulsory, we were keen for people to go outside, out – so to speak – ‘into the field’. First, Jo and Griet provided a quick overview of ethnography, and some top tips and suggestions. Then, we split into groups and headed out to get our hand’s dirty – people needed no prompting, seizing the initiative and tackling the exercise with gusto. As you can see, some people headed straight for the bike sheds …

Many people commented on the amount of stuff which people in Lancaster leave on their bikes when parked. Panniers, lights, pumps – all these kinds of things are often left with the bike – it’s normal to do so here. It’s a basic observation, but one which goes to show that you can never take things for granted, and even within the UK there’ll be significant variations in how people cycle, use bikes, park bikes, talk about bikes … you get the idea. Other groups wandered over to the main entrance to the University campus, looking for people on bikes. Alas, the weather was a bit miserable and all the students and lots of staff had already packed up for Christmas, so conditions were far from fertile for really fruitful ethnography. But hopefully everyone got the basic idea, that by really looking, concentrating on looking, you get to see all kinds of things which would otherwise probably pass you by.

With few bikes around, one group focussed on ‘traces’ of bikes and cycling – D-locks left attached to railings, cycling logos painted on the ground … Another group explored the potential meanings of cycling’s absence (weather, time of year, time of day, lack of infrastructure, lack of cultural messages announcing cycling as ‘normal’ and expected …). Another lot jumped in a car, to explore car users’ perspectives on cycling at Lancaster University (and among other things concluded, I think importantly, that there’s nothing to suggest to those inside cars that they should watch out for, or expect to negotiate space with, people cycling, let alone that they might actually be interacting with a ‘cycling environment’). One group observed a traffic island, and thought about – and with a Brompton experimented with – the different cycling lines it’s possible to take around such a piece of infrastructure, and why and how different people might take different lines, and with what consequences. Perhaps Andy Salkeld and Peter Cox had the best idea – proving that you don’t need to look for bikes or cyclists to do ethnography of cycling, they headed straight to the nearest bar! I don’t think they were motivated purely by the prospect of a pint, and certainly they garnered some good insights into experiences and perceptions of cycling from those they met.

And we even managed to see how many ethnographers it takes to unfold a Brompton …

There was an ‘expert’ in there somewhere …!

Huge thanks to everyone for coming along and making such an enjoyable and stimulating day. I hope the workshop helped to sustain the energies of people already involved in research into cycling, encouraged a few more, perhaps initiated a few new friendships, created a few more conversations, and generally acted as another small step on the road to thinking cycling into a place of greater centrality, both inside and outside of higher education. People tend to say nice things (to your face, at least!) about a workshop they know you’ve been involved in organising, but I really hope that all those who made the effort to come along got something from the day.

And how great, until late into the night, to catch up and share a few beers with some of the people I first met back in 2004, at the Cycling and the Social Sciences Symposium, also hosted by CeMoRe and held here at Lancaster. There are more parents among us now than there were back then, but it was great to see that we still know how to party, and that we’ve gained quite a few more friends along the way!

With thanks to CeMoRe and the Understanding Walking and Cycling project for hosting and financially supporting the event, and particularly to the Project’s administrator Sheila Constantine for organising it all so efficiently, and ensuring the day itself went off so smoothly, and to our boss, Professor Colin Pooley, for letting Griet and I get on with it but then showing up on the day and being a model participant. And special thanks to my long-suffering colleague Griet Scheldeman, who not only organised the workshop with me, but is once again letting me nick her quality photos for my own questionable ends …

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 ….)