Towards a Revolution in Cycling

This is an early draft of the concluding chapter to Cycling and Sustainability edited by Professor John Parkin (2012, Emerald). It was co-written with John, who works in the Faculty of Engineering, Science and the Built Environment at London South Bank University.

It makes more sense as the concluding chapter to Cycling and Sustainability because it summarises the themes brought out by the contributors (drawn from different disciplines and across the globe) to that book. For the sake of readability, I’ve edited out the many references to earlier chapters from the book, but suffice to say that without them this ‘conclusion’ would not have been possible.

The main reason I’ve decided to edit this early version and publish it here is because I think the arguments are timely and I’d like them to be read more widely. Many of the topics which John and I describe and discuss in the article are currently prominent in the UK media, including importantly the mainstream media; and it strikes me that wherever I go, and whoever I talk to, this stuff is very much live.

I’d hope that those who can afford it (but it’s expensive – £67.95!) might check out the book, where the arguments more properly belong, and where – because what’s here went through a couple more revisions before being published in the book – they are better made. In particular, thanks to John’s input this article becomes in the book generally less polemical and more professional, and the final sections focusing on the bicycle system become a good deal stronger.

Similarly to the other articles I’ve posted here, this is long – 8,000 words. If you find it too long to read here, please email me and I’ll happily send it to you as a file.


This article describes and analyses cycling’s current situation and future prospects, and it elaborates the need for a bicycle system capable of achieving a revolution in cycling. It argues that cycling remains marginalised, but its current rise in status across some of the globe’s most prestigious cities offers grounds for hope. However this rise is currently both elitist and, potentially, a passing fashion; the challenge is to make it both more democratic, and durable.

The global task is to build a bicycle system which ensures the bicycle can play a full role in the transition to (especially urban) sustainability; the article outlines what such a bicycle system might comprise. It argues for the assembly of such a bicycle system alongside the disassembly of the current system which enables cars to predominate, even for short urban journeys. This is the route to urban sustainability.


How might cycling’s obvious potential contribution to sustainability best be realised?

Cycling is ‘a good thing’; it is an important practice of sustainability, and if it is enabled to become sufficiently widespread, it could be – to adopt and adapt some words from the Brundtland report – a mode of mobility which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

On a sustainable planet, we would almost all be riding bicycles. But how do we get there? How do we produce a revolution in cycling?

Before considering these questions, we must be clear about where we are now. What is cycling’s current condition? There is no single, simple story, but the overall picture includes three main trends.

  1. There have been historically recent but rapid falls in levels of cycling across most of the world. In countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA, these falls occurred some decades ago and have receded from collective memory as ‘motoring as ordinary’ has taken hold. But in other countries, and especially China and India, cycling is being driven off the streets right now. The dismantling of China’s bicycle system is in progress – the bicycle is being written out of government policies, and cycling provision removed from city streets. The consequence has been plummeting (if still often remarkably high) levels of cycling, alongside rocketing car ownership, across Chinese cities. But around the globe, levels of cycling remain in sharp decline even as cycling’s contribution to sustainability becomes more widely acknowledged.
  2. The level of cycling across most of today’s world is miserably low. Certainly, there are ‘cycling beacons’ – such as China and The Netherlands at the international scale, and Copenhagen at the city scale – but these places stand out precisely because they are so exceptional; almost everywhere else on our planet, using a bicycle to move around town or city is something which only a small minority of people do. Indeed, in most countries rates of cycling are so low that it seems strange to speak of cycling’s contribution to sustainability at all. If it has so much potential, why are we not seeing much more conversion of that potential into actual contribution? The short answer is that cycling’s potential is being seriously retarded; a longer answer – spelling out the state which cycling is in, and what needs to change – is the aim here.
  3. More optimistically cycling’s low status is beginning to change, and even to result in some actual gains. Specific towns and cities – Stockholm, New York, Paris, Barcelona, Portland, London, Hangzhou and Bogotá, to name just some – are being  re-made away from the car and towards the bicycle, and in the process the everyday lives and travel practices of residents and visitors are being re-made too. To look at China with cautious optimism, recent attempts to institute public transport and, especially, the car as replacements to the bicycle might be viewed as a failed experiment – congestion and pollution have become very much worse; so cycling’s hope is that the Chinese authorities will see the errors of their ways in time to reverse current trends. All is not lost in China, and prospects for cycling are looking brighter in many other places. To that extent, the revolution in cycling may already be happening; it just needs speeding up, and spreading more widely.

Cycling’s decline and its current marginality have occurred despite its obvious potential contribution to many things which are held to be ‘good’, including the search for sustainability. So the argument here is that it is time to make cycling itself sustainable, to so institute it as an ordinary practice into the fabric of our towns and cities, and our everyday lives, that it becomes the most normal way to make short urban journeys. And if the revolution has begun, it has begun amongst ‘an elite’; to that extent, it needs democratizing, turning into a genuinely mass movement.

Cycling is central to urban sustainability. So the time for sustainability is cycling’s time, finally, as a mass, mainstream, ordinary, normal, everyday means of moving around. But the current upsurge in cycling must be no ‘boom’; it is a revolution which must be made permanent. To do so effectively, we must first understand how cycling has become so marginal across most of our planet, and the consequences of this marginality.

Understanding cycling’s current marginality

Cycling was very effectively designed out of the mobility environments of many countries during the second half of the twentieth century, and is still in the process of being designed out elsewhere. Economies, societies and environments – those three pillars of sustainability – became organised around the radically unsustainable, steel-and-petroleum car (Urry 2004); the car’s radically sustainable alternative, the bicycle, was squeezed out, such that in many towns and cities the person on a bicycle became a rather exotic, rare, and endangered ‘species’. Actual existing conditions for cycling grew dire, and formed a big barrier to its practice. These conditions ensured that cycling became, and remains, a minority activity. This had, and has, consequences.

As cycling becomes less normal and more difficult to do, its practice tends to produce stronger identities; cycling shifts from a cultural practice to a set of sub-cultural practices. Perhaps these sub-cultural practices of cycling were always there; what is certain is that, as ‘ordinary cycling‘ disappears, they become more visible. The disappearance of ‘ordinary cycling’ is both consequence and cause of cycling becoming more difficult and dangerous. People who continue cycling become ever more unusual and elite. Correspondingly, the act of cycling becomes more central to a person’s identity – others will be quicker to label them, and they themselves will be more likely to feel, and to be, oppressed, and to seek like-minded others for solace, support and political action. Struggling to survive in a rising tide of automobility, these cycling identities and sub-cultures have become little islands of sanity and sign-posts towards sustainability. But they have also become massively consequential, and problematic, to the wider image and status of cycling in countries with low levels of cycling.

In order successfully to negotiate hostile urban environments by bicycle people tend to develop attitudes, practices and identities which are conducive to survival. The ‘antagonistic’ aspects of such identities have been noted by those who have conducted research amongst bicycle messenger (see, for example, Fincham 2007; Kidder  2005), but not so much by those exploring cycling more generally. Yet the capacity of those resilient cyclists who do remain to tolerate, and even to thrive upon, existing conditions for cycling is central to the development of ‘antagonistic’ identities, and is also intensely problematic for the creation of democratic, sustainable cycling futures.

Cycling as ‘for the hardcore’ is both the effect, but also to some extent the cause, of cycling’s marginality. If it is hard to do, only the hardy will do it, and they will build strong identifications and sub-cultural affiliations with cycling as one result, and practices which distinguish and distance rather than inspire ‘the masses’ to join them as another. These identities, sub-cultures and practices will announce and cement cycling’s standing as ‘deviant’, ‘abnormal’, ‘hard’ and so on.

Difficult and dangerous conditions for cycling have produced styles of cycling which are elite and which can be elitist. In order to negotiate many contemporary cities by bicycle, the rider needs to be agile, fit, fast and, frequently, illegal. Across most of the planet, we have inadvertently produced a minority of people capable of negotiating a car system by bicycle; when what we need to do is develop a bicycle system, which only the ‘hardcore’ will try to negotiate by car, and which the vast majority of people will be able easily, safely and straightforwardly to negotiate by bicycle.

Ironically, part of our collective failure to realise cycling‘s critical situation derives from the perseverance and ingenuity of people who continue against all the odds to cycle and to promote cycling. Together we (we include ourselves) have become so good at celebrating what is good about cycling, and at feeling optimistic for its futures, that we obscure the critical reality. So we want now, albeit briefly, to dampen enthusiasm for alternative routes to mainstream cycling, routes which do not require radical overhaul of the contemporary dominant mobility environment. We do so because we know that some people may say, “We do not need a bicycle system; we’re moving towards a culture of mass cycling without one“. We will take two different examples: first, cycle training; and then, cycle sport.

Cycle training is widely regarded as a key means to get people cycling. It presupposes a deficit in people’s ability to safely, confidently and assertively ride in today’s cycling conditions; and it addresses such a deficit through teaching them a range of skills and strategies. Such training must be an important part of a bicycle system; today, however, it helps people to ride in conditions which are so hostile to cycling that it risks being counter-productive. In many cases, having undergone such training, people will – perhaps in the light of negative experiences – quickly revert to the legion of non-cyclists or occasional cyclists. We know that negative experiences are likely to reduce people’s desire to cycle (and the direction of any wider ‘social influence‘ here – in the form of what people say about cycling to other people they know and/or love – is of course likely to be detrimental rather than beneficial to cycling’s broader prospects.) We know too that across most of the world it is difficult even for those people who start cycling to keep cycling; to keep cycling in an unsupportive, inhospitable environment is hard to do. In those instances where cycle training is ‘successful‘, then, the person might become part of the cycling minority, demonstrating that ‘cycle training works‘ and preventing the more fundamental changes required to make cycling truly democratic and sustainable.

Enthusiasts of cycle sport see its promotion as key to building cycling’s status. High profile cyclists can act as role-models in getting more people onto bicycles. This may be true, although we know, too, that cycling’s elevation as a sport does not straightforwardly equate to its status as an ordinary way of moving around. Interest in cycle sport is high in France, Italy and Spain, yet cycling as an ordinary practice in citizens‘ everyday lives is generally absent.

Perhaps the early dominance of cycle sport in these countries made it more difficult to frame, and so embed, cycling as just another aspect of everyday mobility. Perhaps especially, the emergence of major stage races such as the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France helped cement cycling in the public imagination as a spectator sport, rather more than as a participatory practice. But whether or not one participated, cycling became effectively instituted as a ‘sport‘, rather than as an everyday means of moving around – that task was left overwhelmingly to the car.

Today, growth in cycle sport (whether indicated by a rise in participation in cycle sport, and/or a perceived increase in the public profile of cycle races and racers) is often taken as a barometer of cycling’s surging popularity, and an inevitable precursor to more people cycling more ‘ordinary‘ journeys. For example, following British cycling success at the 2012 Tour de France and London Olympics, the profile and popularity of cycling are seen as better than ever.

Cycle sport might be good for everyday cycling, because it builds the status of all cycling practice; as part of a much broader bicycle system the status and influence it gives to cycling might be important; much as motor sport today reproduces the status of the broader car system. Or cycle sport might be bad for everyday cycling, because it suggests that to be ‘a cyclist‘ you must be extraordinarily fit, ride an expensive bike, and dress in lycra. The point (to be elaborated later) is that we need to de-couple faith in specific individuals and events (such as Bradley Wiggins and the Olympics) to boost cycling from the much broader and more radical task of re-structuring our cities to support a culture of everyday cycling. There are many ways to change the current status of cycling, but without a broad, fundamental platform which makes riding a bicycle simple, straightforward and easy, they will have marginal effect. Promoting cycling as a sport is not the same as building a bicycle system, and it is a bicycle system which is required to make cycling an everyday practice which replaces the car, rather than an occasional practice which often depends on cars. Furthermore, although they might belong to the same broad ‘cycling world‘, ‘cycling‘ and ‘sustainable cycling‘ are not the same thing; only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will move us towards, rather than away from, sustainability.

Later in this article what is meant by ‘a bicycle system’ will be elaborated. But first let us look at some of the ways in which cycling survives in such a system’s absence.

Patterns of partial cycling

Across most of the world, only some people cycle, and then only sometimes, for some journeys but not others. Partial cycling is seen in every place where people want to cycle but struggle to do so under current conditions. To build cycling as a practice for anyone, anywhere, at any time, we must understand why patterns of partial cycling exist, and what can be done to convert them into more ‘total’ cycling.

We know some groups cycle more than others. We also know that the stronger a nation’s cycling culture, the more this unevenness in cycling is tempered. For example, we see a general pattern of greater participation among women in cycling in places (whether countries, parts of countries, or even parts of cities) where cycling is more ‘normal’. Whilst on the one hand in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia cycling has over the last half century become mainly associated with fit men, on the other hand The Netherlands and Denmark display striking gender equity in levels of cycling.

This pattern of partial cycling is compounded by another factor. Women move in and out of cycling according to the changing circumstances of their lives. Young children, for example, make cycling for most women much more difficult. Of course, some movement in and out of cycling practice is probably inevitable; but it could almost certainly be minimised, so that cycling becomes ‘the habit of a lifetime’, rather than something which depends, as it does at present, on occasional and ephemeral alignments of enabling conditions.

But the most significant form of partial cycling is based around variously hospitable and inhospitable conditions. Where people feel invited and welcomed to cycle, they tend to want to, and do actually, ride. So people like nothing better than to ride on good quality cycling infrastructure, separated from motorised modes (and perhaps also pedestrians). Such provision enables people to enjoy ‘quality time’ by cycling together in conditions which they perceive as pleasant and safe.

Where cycling is less clearly welcome, people are understandably more hesitant to cycle, and many simply refuse outright. Most obviously, a clear majority of people will not contemplate cycling on bigger, faster urban roads, and will not contemplate negotiating busy junctions by bicycle. This is the case even in places where attempts have been made to render space more ‘cycle-friendly’. The provision of ‘cycle-friendly’ facilities in wider ‘cycling-unfriendly’ conditions tends to confuse and even to alienate potential cyclists. On the one hand, people obviously read the provision of coloured tarmac, on-street cycle lanes and advanced stop lines, as invitations to cycling. But on the other hand, recent research (see Pooley et al 2010; 2011a; 2011b) makes it plain that the majority of people adamantly refuse to cycle there; they decline the invitation (and quite rightly – people sensibly do not wish to become ‘martyrs’ in the name of cycling).

This research across four English cities, ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’, found many patterns of partial cycling. The incidence of cycling on the footway, in space designed for pedestrians, was very significant in extent, and a strong indication that many people who ride bicycles nonetheless consider roads – as they are currently organised – to be unacceptable places on which to ride. Many other people regularly get off their bicycles and push them along stretches of their journeys – such as difficult junctions, and fast, busy or congested stretches of carriageway – which they do not want to tackle in the saddle. Other people, able to choose the time at which they travel, will make a journey by bicycle if they can do so at a relatively quiet time, outside the peak period. And many people will ride one carefully selected route between two places, but not any other route. The demonstration of partial cycling, i.e. how some people continue to make some journeys by bicycle despite it being really difficult to do so, suggests that cycling is widely suppressed by currently dominant conditions.

The institutional context of cycling promotion in the UK – with small, piecemeal funding for cycling schemes amidst a landscape of much bigger funding for ‘serious’ (for which read ‘car-oriented’) projects – often leads to the implementation of sub-optimal, or even counter-productive, ‘facilities’. These facilities often make cycling not easier but more difficult and dangerous. Such ‘provision’ for cycling has tended to occur as an afterthought, in response to small pots of funding, because an opportunity to ‘do something for cycling’ arises, or in order to ‘tick boxes’; it tends, in other words, to be opportunistic rather than strategic. Such a model of ‘cycling promotion’ – one which is both dominant and persistent in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia – sabotages cycling futures because a clear risk is this – people will say “whatever we do, we can’t get people cycling, so let’s give up trying”. The truth is that far too little has yet been done.

Across much of the world we have at best today an uneven (in terms of both quantity and quality) ‘patchwork’ of a cycling environment; so uneven, actually, that individuals on bicycles must, in any way they can, cobble together their own ways through. (That they do so speaks of their ingenuity at the same time as it sometimes contributes to their deviancy.)

And so we see the biggest pattern of partial cycling – people integrating cycling into some parts of their lives, but not others. Most people will quite happily ride along a disused railway, along a canal towpath, or through the temporarily car-free streets of their capital city on a sunny Sunday in summertime. But most of these same people simply will not ride under prevailing conditions in most towns and cities across most of the world; they will not make the majority of their everyday journeys by bicycle and so contribute to making their neighbourhood, town, country and planet more sustainable.

Patterns of partial cycling point to the absence of a bicycle system. We have suggested that such a bicycle system is ‘the solution’, and that it involves moving well beyond where – across most of the world – we are today. We will spell out in greater detail what such a system entails. But first, we turn to consideration of cycling’s recent surge in status across some of the world’s most prestigious cities – from Paris to New York to London to Munich. Because if cycling’s status is anyway already on the rise, maybe a much more comprehensive and coherent bicycle system is unnecessary?

Recent changes to cycling’s status

Cycling’s currently rising status across some of the world’s biggest, most glamorous cities might be cause for celebration, but we want to raise some questions. We do so not in order to puncture hopes for cycling’s growing popularity, but in order to urge recognition that cycling’s present rise does not and should not obviate the pressing need for radical change. Especially, we want to stress the importance of turning what might otherwise remain a minority ‘fad’ or ‘fashion’ – a ‘second cycling boom’, following the one which took place across the world’s richest countries at the end of the nineteenth century – into a major transformation in urban travel across the planet.

Cycling is becoming established as a key marker of a middle-class inner-urban lifestyle. Cycling’s status rise is occurring in places which have become saturated with cars, where inner-city living has become de rigueur, and where health and fitness have become key indicators of ‘a good lifestyle’. Cycling appears to be increasingly incorporated as a high status practice into the lifestyles of a distinctive but increasingly influential segment of the population, one which David Brooks (2000) has referred to as ‘the Bobos’, the bourgeois bohemians (a group which closely resembles that described by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as the ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class’, who tend to elevate the need for a simpler lifestyle (in comparison to their more economically powerful peers) into a virtue, and so favour practices of the body, more than of the wallet, such as cycling) (Bourdieu 1984; see also Florida 2002). Cycling is becoming ‘cool’, and is experiencing a ‘renaissance’, particularly amongst affluent, white, middle-class inner-urban professionals. The bicycle’s rising profile seems especially pronounced in the United States (see Mapes 2009; Wray 2008), but its status is clearly rising more widely, albeit across specific groups and in specific parts of cities.

Cycling advocates in The Netherlands and Denmark are implicated in these processes. Dutch and Danish cycling have in recent years been transformed into a brand, for export. Cycling’s contribution to new urban agendas around quality-of-life, livability and sustainability has been triumphed and trumpeted by, most obviously, high-profile Scandinavian architects such as Jan Gehl (see especially, Gehl 1987; 2010), blogs such as Copenhagenize (see, and advocacy initiatives such as the Cycling Embassy of Denmark (see

There are undoubtedly other reasons for the bicycle’s rising status, and our aim here is not to log and investigate them all (for closer examination, it is worth referring to Stehlin 2010). But one component of its current revitalisation is undoubtedly related to the grassroots, sub-cultural energies and creativities of the people pedalling it (see Furness 2010). These people form a massive, global social movement for cycling that is so widely prevalent as to be almost invisible, and their relentless work is finally paying dividends, if not always in expected ways (for accounts which treat cycling as a social movement, see Carlsson 2002; Furness 2010; Horton 2006). Another reason for the bicycle’s rise relates to the ways in which it is currently being fast-tracked in high-profile ways into the hearts of high-status cities across the globe via public bicycle hire schemes. Such schemes have quickly become emblematic of the ‘global city’, and civic leaders everywhere are clamouring to get onto the bandwagon.

Whatever its causes, then, cycling seems to be acquiring, albeit for now mainly in the ‘rich world’, previously only dreamt-of cachet. After a long period during which any status it might have had was restricted to its role as a leisure or sporting practice, it is becoming reconstituted as a status-rich urban and everyday practice, it is being embraced both by urban youth and by new urban elites, and it is being incorporated into their visions of future cities. Cycling is becoming a key ingredient in the re-making of urban space towards improved quality-of-life and sustainability. Following a century during which its potential was thwarted and ignored, cycling is perhaps finally starting to replace the car as the independent, autonomous mode of inner-urban mobility. For sure, this substitution of the car for the bicycle remains for now largely at the level of vision and imagination, but the gradual rolling out of those visions and the fulfilment of those imaginations over the years to come no longer seems unlikely.

There is hope here, that the bicycle is finally being re-made as a (potentially) global cosmopolitan icon of sustainable urban life. This may be ‘the moment’ for the bicycle’s second, this time sustainable, coming. The task then becomes to turn this trend – which might otherwise be ‘a fashion’ or ‘fad’ – into something durable; to take advantage of cycling’s current popularity. After all, who knows how long the car would have lasted – perhaps only a few decades – had cities not been re-designed and re-built around it?

There are two reasons for disquiet however, one to do with how democratic these changes might be, and the other with how sustainable they might be. Let’s look at these in turn.

First, how democratic is this current rise in cycling’s status? How widespread is it? At the end of the nineteenth century cycling was the preserve of the rich and leisured classes in northern Europe and north America. Bicycles only became accessible to those less affluent when the rich jumped from them, into cars. Rarely in the history of cycling have the rich and the poor ridden side-by-side, yet for the sake of sustainability this is what we now must do. But whilst the rich might be returning to cycling, the poor – when they have any choice in the matter – are not. Of course, many people on our planet cannot afford a bicycle, and for many others a bicycle is the most they can afford. But many people even in the world’s economically most affluent countries still aspire to car ownership and use, and have no sense of the bicycle as an appropriate vehicle of urban utility (Pooley et al 2011). The bicycle is being embraced by some but remains stigmatised amongst others, little more than a childhood toy from which escape is required into a car. To put it bluntly, whether you are poor in the ‘rich world’ or the ‘poor world’, whether the bicycle is perceived mainly as a ‘toy’ or a ‘tool’, it tends not to be a vehicle which is chosen, but rather one which is either enforced and/or to be left behind. The bicycle’s clear potential as a tool with which to mend our broken cities and to build globally more sustainable lifestyles risks, then, remaining unfulfilled.

A related issue is that the bicycle’s capacity to infer distinction on the new middle classes of prestigious global cities depends on its continued exclusivity. To that extent, the new-found status of cycling among urban elites is antithetical to democratizing cycling – any loss in exclusivity will see its appeal fade. The elite abandoned cycling once, and could do so again, as soon as its capacity to infer and communicate distinction declines (for more on this, see Bourdieu 1984).

The bicycle’s current popularity amongst one elite (the hardcore minority) and its growing popularity amongst another elite (the inner-city middle classes) cannot be translated into mass cycling unless we remove the logic of choice at an individual level by creating structures which impose it at a collective level. That is, we make cycling not only for some, but for everyone. Only a system can achieve this social solidarity in cycling, because only a system can structure and institute practices which are independent of – or at least reasonably resilient to – individual psychologies and whims, cultural fads and fashions. The indisputable benefits to travelling by bicycle within a bicycle system would not only enable the democratisation of cycling beyond an intellectual middle class elite, but also reduce the risk of this elite’s abandonment of cycling once its status as a privileged practice has been lost.

The thorny question of ‘choice’ will be returned to later, but let’s look at our second, related, reason for disquiet, namely how sustainable is the current upturn in cycling’s status? The reason behind labelling the recent interest in cycling ‘a fad’ or ‘fashion’ is to suggest it might not last. Things which become ‘cool’ can quickly become ‘uncool’.

The very idea that cycling could be ‘fashionable’ or ‘cool’ indicates how cycling’s status is changing, so that it has become a conscious, lifestyle practice. Cycling’s status is also changing in The Netherlands and Denmark; previously ‘national’ and relatively homogeneous cultures of cycling are fracturing due to the emergence and heightened visibility of bicycle types, styles of riding, and dress. The ‘cycling chic’ which is developing across ‘global cities’ might owe something to Dutch and Danish cycling cultures, but it is also producing new effects on those very same cycling cultures. So much so that, in an era of endless product differentiation and ever more global and plural lifestyles, a simple return to ‘a national culture’ of cycling seems unlikely.

Cycling’s relative resilience in The Netherlands is due to the ways in which it is complexly – because it is systematically – embedded in everyday life. Embedding cycling systematically into ‘the everyday’ ensures it proceeds habitually, day after day, in ways which are largely unthought and taken-for-granted. The Dutch bicycle system gives cycling a resilience and a sustainability, much like motoring for many people in more car-centric societies such as the UK and USA today. But as cycling becomes converted into the marker of ‘a lifestyle’, it is excavated out from the everyday, it becomes one practice amongst many about which the individual can reflect, and either accept or reject. It becomes a conscious and active choice, and one which – therefore – can be rejected and abandoned as quickly and easily as it is accepted and adopted.

Most people in societies such as the UK and USA do not choose to drive a car. They drive because they live and participate in a car system. The dominance of this car system also explains why so few people in the UK and USA cycle. Many more people cycle in China and The Netherlands than in the UK or USA because the Chinese and the Dutch have installed better bicycle systems, which embed cycling as a routine, everyday practice. To embed cycling globally, then, we need a global bicycle system.

The notion of ‘choice’ is a chimera, and its rhetoric a delusion. Many countries across the world have over the last half century actively eliminated modal choice through structuring the car into people’s everyday lives as the ‘normal’, ‘default’ option; most of the rest of the world currently seems intent on doing likewise. The Netherlands stands out as the clearest exception, by structuring the bicycle more than the car into people’s lives as the ‘obvious’ and ‘default’ mode for shorter journeys. But The Netherlands need not remain exceptional; its example can be more widely adopted.

Overriding the capacity for individual choice, a bicycle system would convert what might be a current and undemocratic ‘fashion’ for cycling into durable collective cycling practice. At least for short urban journeys, it would make cycling the default, with driving becoming the deliberative, active, more difficult ‘choice’, the option requiring people to ‘become hardcore’ and ‘go against the grain’. China seems set on dismantling much of its current bicycle system, so losing its embedded culture of cycling in its rush to embrace the ‘free’ world of capitalism, consumption and ‘choice’. But its ‘rush’ towards motorisation seems increasingly ambivalent, and is both stoppable and reversible. The more quickly the culture of urban car use can be demonstrated by other countries to be misguided, out-dated and revisable, the more likely becomes China’s rapid re-conversion to the bicycle.

Before examining what a bicycle system might be like, and how best to develop it, we must finally note another key tension involving the new middle class uptake of urban cycling. If the bicycle is being re-made alongside the new middle class re-colonisation of the inner-city, then for the urban poor who are being displaced from those inner-cities by these processes of gentrification – whether they be in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, or Pune – everyday travel distances are growing, so making the bicycle more difficult to incorporate into their everyday lives, and so potentially less relevant. If these groups are excluded not only from the city but also from the car, then unless the developing bicycle system can incorporate them, they may remain effectively marooned on the edges of the city. In the absence of broader goals around justice and redistribution, the structural response to this situation is to re-organise cities in ways which maximise mix of uses and minimise travel distances; and to insist that access to inclusive and effective public transport is, in the sustainable city, an absolute right.

Elaborating a bicycle system

The previous section argued that, with an elite embrace of ‘ordinary’ cycling in some of the world’s most prestigious cities, we are at a geographically and historically specific ‘moment’. This moment provides us with an unprecedented opportunity – for the sake of both cycling and sustainability – to institute, and so make more democratic and sustainable, this minority turn to cycling, and so to make a ‘revolution’ from what might otherwise be a ‘fashion’. In this section we want to move towards a fuller understanding of what this worldwide institutionalisation of cycling – this cycling revolution – might look like.

A bicycle system would rival and eventually displace the present car system, and it would convert current incoherent, partial patterns of cycling into much more comprehensive cycling. Cycling would become a habit which is practised by the majority of people, which is used for the majority of shorter journeys, and which is maintained across the life course. It would be difficult to map out precise details of plans and processes to achieve a bicycle system for every situation. Rather than close down thinking through appearing ‘too conclusive’, our intention is to open up thinking about bicycle-based urban futures. Some of the important theoretical and conceptual work has anyway already started (see for example, Pucher and Buehler (2008), and Pucher, Dill and Handy (2010)). We also have some good empirical examples in The Netherlands, Denmark (especially Copenhagen), and China (however busy it is dismantling what it has previously assembled).

The aim here is to be neither exhaustive nor prescriptive, but instead to argue in principle that such a bicycle system should be assembled, and also to suggest some of its likely character and components. To this end, we make some suggestions as to what the contours, commitments and contents of a bicycle system might include.

The contours of such as system will, amongst other things, be set by:

  • Government policies, exercised via the planning process, to reduce travel distances.
  • The development and embedding of a new ethic, leading to new principles and working practices, that we are now re-designing and re-orienting cities away from the car and towards the bicycle. The Netherlands has done this to the greatest extent; and there are tentative signs that following a period in which attempts were made to dismantle the existing bicycle systems of many cities, China now has a renewed appreciation of the importance of building for bicycles, not cars.
  • This ethic will produce institutional commitments and working practices which ‘de-centre’ the car at the same time as ‘centering’ the bicycle. These commitments and practices will be formally embodied within specific cycling strategies, plans and policies; and they will be effectively monitored and evaluated, with findings feeding into the next wave of enhanced, enlightened policies, similarly designed to build a bicycle system, and to produce cycling.
  • Prioritisation of cycling will occur at every scale – in political and legal decisions, allocation of funding, and transport planning and policy, as well as within the fabric of the city, on the roads and in the design of the built environment. So cycling priority becomes written not only into the city in the form of more space for cycling (whether that space is segregated or not) and in rules for who gets right-of-way at junctions; priority for cycling gets etched more broadly into the cultural, political and economic fabric of societies moving towards sustainability. Most important is the principle – priority to cycling; specific details can be designed on the ground, taking into account local context. Today priority for cycling is sometimes stated but rarely met; on a sustainable planet priority for cycling will be so taken-for-granted it will be noticed only when it is broken.
  • Cultural recognition that we are planning cycling for everyone, not just the few. In the context of sustainability, the intention behind all efforts must be to democratise cycling, rather than to maintain it as an ‘elite’ and/or ‘marginalised’ practice.

The commitments of a bicycle system will include:

  • A commitment to making cycling sociable, so that a parent can ride alongside a child, and people can chat as they move around – together – by bicycle. Travelling together by bicycle is almost extinct; a core part of cycling’s sociability almost extinguished. By making urban cycling sociable, so that – for example – different generations of a family can cycle together, we broaden cycling’s appeal beyond current groups for whom the ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ of cycling might be especially valued. There is an issue of justice here; it is unfair that a family can travel and talk together by car, but not by cycle, despite cycling being more sustainable.
  • A commitment to elimination of the current difficulties in moving around by bicycle, which lead people either not to ride at all, or else to either get off and push, ride on the side-walks, and/or otherwise break the law in order ‘successfully’ to negotiate the city by bicycle. A bicycle system would improve the coherence, continuity and accessibility of cycling journeys so that cycling genuinely joins up the city, rather than – as presently – being broken up by it.
  • A commitment to cycling for almost everyone. In enabling the ‘normalisation’ of cycling, a bicycle system would ‘bypass’ issues of status and status anxiety which are currently so strongly associated with cycling.

Finally, the contents of a bicycle system will include very many things. Such multiplicity is the fundamental and most important characteristic of a system. Anything in isolation will have minimal, if any, effect; changes need to be systematic. Within a system, no one thing is made to do too much work; there is no ‘silver bullet’. Rather all the components of the system work synergistically, together, to create a sum in excess of its parts. Building a system, as many of the chapters have argued, takes time. But whilst it might be an incremental project, it is also a principled and collective one.

Nonetheless, a global bicycle system will, amongst other things, almost certainly contain:

  • Much reduced urban speeds for motorised traffic. Some parts of the world are seeing a move towards urban speed limits of 30 kilometres per hour (20 miles per hour). Such speeds need to become the limit across urban areas globally.
  • The development of coherent, attractive bicycle networks across every town and city. The precise details of such networks will vary, and could always be otherwise. The most important insight here is that until people can get to where they want to go safely, conveniently, enjoyable, quickly and directly by bicycle, they will not ride.
  • High quality, continuous dedicated space for cycling along routes which would otherwise generate too much inter-modal conflict (whether with motorised vehicles and/or pedestrians). The issue of whether we should adopt an ‘integrationist’ or ‘segregationist’ perspective when building for cycling – which has been a subject of considerable dispute within cycling advocacy – loses some of its significance under the weight of the broader, more ambitious, task of building a global bicycle system. Of course, this larger task still requires us to consider, decide and lobby, in context-specific ways, for cycling’s ‘proper place’, but that ‘proper place’ becomes part of a much bigger picture, with the objective of getting everyone, eventually, moving by bicycle. In all likelihood different places will devise and install different solutions – with different life-spans – in the process of incrementally building cycling’s centrality into the urban mobility system. John Pucher has consistently found that where cycling is succeeding there is dedicated provision for it, and such facilities are especially important in breaking cycling out of its predominantly white, male constituency, but also that by itself this is not enough to boost cycling – such facilities need to form part of a much broader bicycle system (Pucher and Buehler 2008; Pucher, Dill and Handy 2010).
  • Public bicycle systems serving residents and visitors, especially within the central cores of larger cities. Such systems effectively provide a flexible and individualised form of public transport, and have proliferated, particularly across Europe, in the first decade of the twenty-first century. They continue to evolve, and new iterations should see improvements in their effectiveness. China looks set to become, if it has not already, the biggest player here, with very large schemes being rolled out across the country.
  • Extensive marketing of cycling, to entrench and develop gradual gains in both levels of cycling and its status.

Today, for many people across the most economically affluent parts of the world driving a car, not riding a bicycle, is perceived as normal, and has become habitual. And driving a car is fast becoming normal and habitual for many people across less affluent parts of the world. In opposition to this, the development of a bicycle system would ensure that cycling is gradually built into the fabric of the city, so that the bicycle and not the car increasingly becomes the obvious, normal, default option for more and more people’s short urban journeys. In a mature bicycle system, the ‘choice’ to cycle is not entirely one’s own – it has been made elsewhere, by complex and overlapping systems which conspire to make it the most sensible – logical, rational, enjoyable – way of moving around.

To be explicit, rolling out of the bicycle system would have a steady, simultaneous effect of making travel by car more difficult. As the car system has been built at the expense of the bicycle, so the bicycle system will be built at the expense of the car, particularly in urban areas. This ‘dual-action’ is the only reliable way of achieving modal shift from car to bicycle (Mackett 2001).


From 1950 until the 1970s the bicycle was excluded from the building of urban mobility systems, not only in countries such as the UK and USA, but also in The Netherlands and Denmark. But the latter countries began some thirty years ago to re-institute their historic bicycle systems which were being dismantled under pressure from spreading car ownership and use. Whether China and India can do what was done by the Dutch and Danes a generation ago, and first halt, then reverse, the erosion of cycling, remains to be seen. But to some extent the answer is in all our hands.

In imagining the sustainable city, we are less inclined to think about strictly scientific indicators, such as quantifiable reductions in carbon emissions and measurable improvements in air quality, important though those are. We are more inclined to envision how the sustainable city will operate, the lives which it will make possible and bring into being, the city’s look, feel, smell, sound and taste; to think, in other words, more ethically and aesthetically about the sensual texture of the city, and the quality-of-life which it might inspire and reproduce. We find it impossible to imagine such a city which keeps the car, in whatever form, at its centre. But we find it remarkably easy to imagine a vision of urban sustainability built around the bicycle. And it is such towns and cities which we should work towards.

The development of a global bicycle system is a major collective project in which we all can, indeed must – even if only by riding a bicycle – be involved. For anyone who loves cycling, these then are exciting times. There is much work waiting to be done, work which can be found everywhere, and which belongs to the enormous and important task – for the sake of human viability on our planet – of contributing to a bicycle system. We need new cycling infrastructure; new cycling stories; more cycling thinking; more cycle shops, cycle repair services, and cycle hire services; more cycling-oriented maps, guides and websites; more cycle parking; more cycle-friendly schools, colleges and workplaces; more cycling-oriented cafes, restaurants and hotels; better integration of cycling and other modes of mobility, especially buses, trams and trains; stronger connections between cycling and other spheres of life, including business, politics, television, film, music and other media. We need people to cycle, and people to help, support and encourage others to cycle. In short, wherever we are and whatever we do, there are ways of contributing to the new bicycle system which is required to build a broader culture of sustainability.

Our challenge is to make the bicycle the global vehicle – both practically and symbolically – of urban mobility, a vehicle not only of and for a new global elite, but irrespective of where people live, of either a person’s social position or of their particular attitudes to and aspirations for sustainability. Only then can cycling make its full and proper contribution to sustainability.


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2 Responses to “Towards a Revolution in Cycling”

  1. Cycling Struggles – a summary | Thinking About Cycling Says:

    […] To conclude I’ll say things I’ve probably said before, here and also elsewhere – on Bike Hub and in Cycle magazine back in 2011, on The Guardian’s Bike Blog earlier this year, and with John Parkin in the concluding chapter to 2012’s Cycling and Sustainability. […]

  2. Bicycling and the “Cyclist Identity”: Understanding the “Bikelash” | Invisible Cyclist Says:

    […] cyclist identity is documented in a number of posts on his blog Thinking About Cycling (see Towards a Revolution in Cycling, An Ethnography of Everyday Cycling, Fear of Cycling). In Cycling Struggles, 9 he lays out a […]

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