Back in early November 2014 I was given the opportunity to present a paper at the 10th Anniversary Cosmobilities Conference ‘Networked Urban Mobilities’. I took part in an interesting session ‘Imaginaries of Velomobility’ which included talks broadly oriented around exploring the ‘cultures of cycling’ in different social and geographical contexts and how these might evolve. My paper was titled ‘A cycling future for ageing populations’ – you can link to the narrated presentation slides here.
Recently I received notification of a blog post summarising the session and it reminded me of the ‘point of contention’ referred to in that article.
In my presentation I argued that cycling in most UK cities tends to be dominated by young, male, white, ‘hardened’ cyclists – I call this the ‘velomobile elite’ (see post-script). This group tends to ride fast and assertively and wear cycling specific gear. I highlighted that they are the product of a predominantly car based system that marginalizes cycling and that it is the perpetual acclimatization to current hostile cycling conditions across most towns and cities in the UK that has shaped British cycling identities and practice.
The point I was trying to make at that session is that there is a danger of minimising concerns among the wider population about the dangers associated with cycling in the UK and the manner in which it is performed vis-à-vis in northern Europe. The emphasis on ‘developing capabilities’ to deal with a transport system that marginalises cycling, and therefore a willingness to adopt a clear ‘cycling identity’, is never going to deliver a more democratic cycling system. The majority of the population eschew the very idea of cycling in such conditions in the first place. I argued that the focus on developing capabilities (e.g. through cycle training) is also a convenient smokescreen for avoiding the underlying problem of lack of investment and serious ambition for cycling infrastructure and affordance to a wider range of cycling abilities (and inabilities).
During the second part of my presentation I drew attention to the fact that older cycling in the UK is a victim of a transport system that does not cater for different cycling capabilities. I went on to explain how, in order for older cycling to flourish, a deeper understanding of the experience and potential of older velomobility in the UK is required and explained how the cycle BOOM study intends to do this.
So back to the contention outlined on the conference blog! I guess this arose during the discussion that followed my implicit call to move UK cycling towards a Danish model – towards an unexceptional, mundane, and therefore, ‘normal’, perhaps slower (or at least less erratic) everyday practice afforded to the wider populace. This contrasted with one of the session speakers who argued the need to ‘speed-up’ cycling in Denmark, to refocus away from the ‘mundane’ and short, towards the same visceral and embodied feeling of ‘vehicular biking’ enjoyed in the UK! The suggested pathway was the encouragement and development of Danish ‘affective capacities’ and speedier infrastructure to go with it. It was envisaged that, within the context of increasing journeys distance, this would encourage more people to make longer distance journeys by bike and therefore directly challenge the speed and versatility of the car.
I left that event asking myself, ‘why would anyone challenge the successful Danish cycling model?!’, and furthermore, ‘why turn towards the UK and US for inspiration?!’ On arrival back in the UK I chanced upon an academic paper by the speaker precisely on this issue and very much illuminating what underlies his perspective. The paper provides an eloquent auto-ethnographic account of his attempts to cycle in London and New York whilst living away from his home in Copenhagen. In it he explains how he, as someone accustomed to mundane Danish cycling, went through a voyage of self-discovery, from initial fear of cycling on the road in traffic, to one of sheer exhilaration as he conditioned his body to overcome whatever was thrown at it. Here’s an extract from his initial experience as an ‘alien Copenhagener’ cycling in London:
“I was utterly frightened. Realizing that cyclists have to drive like a car freaked me out as I do not know how to drive a car! By sticking to the kerb, I would never make a ‘London right turn’ and a car nearly hit me on one occasion when the lane turned left and I was going straight ahead. My right turns on the first couple of days were mainly done in the Copenhagen ‘pedestrian fashion’. Rather than crossing into the street, I went straight over when green, then I turned ninety degrees and waited for the green light (while watching everyone else making right turns). Now I could understand why cyclists in major UK cities are stigmatized as mad…”
He then goes on to explain how over time he gradually acquired the necessary ‘affective capacities’ to deal with this traffic environment;
“There is a general lesson here. From outside perspective, cycling in London appears very dangerous, but people that cycle daily acquire the required affective capacities to be relatively safe in a[n] otherwise cycling hostile environment.”
…and that if he can do it, well, so can many others;
“Having just turned forty, being an occasional smoker, mainly pottering about on my rusty excuse of a bike, and occasionally doing a little running, I was not ‘predisposed’ to learning these new cycle practices. If I can cycle in London and commute over long distances, so can many others.”
This amply proves my point. We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of asking ourselves, “If I can do it, why can’t many others do it?” Most people in the UK would not entertain the idea of ‘acquiring the required affective capacities’ to cycle in most UK cities. And those that do often soon find the whole experience so unpleasant that they quickly give up as reported in previous research I was involved in which focused on understanding walking and cycling in England.
Ultimately, perhaps my Danish academic counterpart and I represent two-sides of the same coin. We both celebrate and imagine more and different cycling but we approach the challenge having lived and been brought up in different social, cultural and geographical contexts. This may well be behind our respective desire for, and the apparent allure of the other, the novel, the exotic. I guess where we converge is around the idea of diversity. I understand that my Danish counterpart would like to see more of the UK and US approach to cycling embedded in Danish cycling culture and I would like to see more Danish cycling culture embedded in UK cycling culture. His may well be a reasonable request within a ‘mundane-high-cycling’ context. The difference in the UK is that cycling in most areas is almost at the point of extinction, and where it does thrive, it is ghettoised (both physically and socially) or part of a sub-culture. I also think that we need to look at the broader picture and not fall into the same trap that purveyors of autopia did in the 1960s where the desire for speed and unfettered automobility was at great cost to the quality of urban space. Indeed, I would ask anyone who longs for speeding up cycling in cities – the ‘veloholics’ perhaps! – or who follows the logic of the capability argument, “be careful what you wish for”!
Tim Jones email@example.com is Principal Investigator for cycle BOOM
Post script on the ‘Velomobile elite’
I fully recognise that I am also part of the UK ‘velomobile elite’. I feel confident on a bike and am able to cope with (most) UK traffic situations. I currently have the physical and mental capacity to ‘behave as motor traffic’. And as a white, middle-class, fairly young [okay, middle-aged!] male, privileged to be living and working in Oxford – a relatively reasonable place to cycle in UK terms – and occupying a social milieu where cycling is ‘normal’, I don’t have any great hang-ups about ‘being on display’ on a bike. Perhaps I am fortunate, however, that my everyday journeys are relatively short and on weekends I participate in sports cycle riding and racing. And perhaps this structures my everyday riding. I don’t need to experience the visceral ‘need for speed’ during my regular journeys in the city on my boring and heavy Dutch workhorse!