Cycling Cultures

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 100.

Cycling Cultures is a multi-method sociological research project that focuses on four British cities with relatively high levels of cycling in order to find out why cycling thrives in particular areas. Vanessa Kelly reports on the fourth of their practitioner meetings.

Cycle lanes in Hackney (left) and Hull, two of the areas studied as part of the Cycling Cultures research project.
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Dr Rachel Aldred kicked off the Cycling Cultures meeting by asking her audience for thoughts on ‘cycling as the future as well as the past’: the response was varied and eclectic. Participants spoke warmly of spokey dokeys (coloured plastic balls on spokes) as a symbol of childhood, whilst penny-farthings are apparently back in production; one participant commented that Sam Brownes (fluorescent sash belts) do not show up in the very bright headlights of newer cars and lorries, and another wondered whether rickshaws would be banned in China and other Asian countries who are ‘in a different place’ when it comes to acknowledging the role of pedal power in reducing congestion.

Rachel has finished collecting data in her four study areas of Bristol, Hull, Hackney and Cambridge for the University of East London’s Cycling Cultures project. Her Cultures and Contexts paper looks at how people behave on bikes at different times of the day and how they perceive their work. Rachel argued that many routine jobs involve emotional and mental (but not physical) labour. Until the recent past, the car symbolised the link between production and consumption, work and leisure, but it may be losing its aspirational status. Certainly the car was the actual product of hard labour, but by having a car you bought into something desirable: mobility, speed, style and comfort. So consumers aspired to a lifestyle where hard labour was factored out. Between 1952 and 1968 cycling rates plummeted. People drove to work in an office rather than on a production line. Physical activity was removed from everyday life. But in Hull the fisheries and the docks stayed active, so the cycling culture remained. Only recently have Hull workers been able to afford cars, and cycling numbers there decreased.

The emotional stress of modern-day working, such as in a call centre, has renewed the appeal of cycling

The emotional stress of modern-day working – such as in a call centre where you are dealing with customers for hours on end – has renewed the appeal of cycling. Being on a bike means a time in the day when you can reflect and destress – it separates work from home. Flexi-time allows workers to choose what time of day they cycle to work. In London, GPs are recognising the benefits of cycling for patients with mental health issues and are recommending cycle training as a way of persuading patients back on to bikes.

In the final part of her talk, Rachel stressed how contexts matter for cycling – she illustrated this by contrasting Hackney and Hull in terms of their everyday cycling cultures. Cycling is place-specific, i.e. ‘cycling is something we do round here’ or not. In Hackney there is peer pressure amongst 20- and 30-somethings to cycle. It is a London borough which residents consider remote and poorly served by public transport – rather like Hull, in fact, which is cut off by a lack of direct rail lines. In Milan, people walk and cycle to show that they live in the inner core of their city (i.e. the rich, fashionable bit).

Dr Justin Spinney then spoke about his project Parenting and Travel Choices: he has focused on 20 couples in Newham and Hackney who are all expecting their first child and how this affects the way they get around. He carried out in-depth interviews and asked each couple to keep a two-week travel diary (during the last trimester of pregnancy).

Justin found that dependence on the car is an embedded social practice – parents are often tired and stressed, they have safety concerns, so the car is the easy choice. But most of the participants in his study were not actually car owners – 9 out of 10 couples cycled in Hackney but none did in Newham. On the whole, the cycling couples thought they would need access to a car once the baby was born, to transport all the stuff you need if you’re a ‘good’ parent. Female participants felt pressurised to give up cycling for health and safety reasons: don’t get too hot, don’t get too tired, don’t go out on your own when heavily pregnant. But the regular bus users amongst them were critical of travelling by bus when pregnant: no seat, too hot, leg cramps, etc. So for these pregnant women, their social networks contracted considerably – and for new migrants these networks were already small. One key theme was the extent to which pregnant women’s mobility is shaped by other people’s expectations of what is safe and appropriate for them.

A woman cycling at seven months’ pregnant. A key theme of Dr Justin Spinney’s project was the extent to which pregnant women’s mobility is shaped by other people’s expectations.
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Justin will interview the parents when their babies are six months old to see what their travel patterns are and how they’ve changed. He very much expected that the car would be seen as necessary because ‘other people’ see it as necessary.

Next up was Dr Kat Jungnickel’s talk on her DIY bike paper: she looked at the ingenuity of cyclists in fitting into a motorised landscape, and how they adapt as routes vary from borough to borough, or area to area. London cyclists need to piece their own routes together, which can be time-consuming. One cyclist told her ‘I follow cyclists who seem very confident’ – this did turn out to be a good way of finding short cuts. Other cyclists follow car routes, and behave like car drivers, rather than looking for short cuts. Cyclists’ routes are often fragmented, rather than linear, and need to be open to change to maintain flow.

Bike theft and security were discussed – Kat has found that a quarter of cyclists feel guilty – seeing themselves as personally responsible – for the theft of their bike. Afterwards, they feel compelled to do things differently, to stop it happening again, e.g. one Bristol cyclist covers his bike in sellotape; others put stickers on, or make their bikes look old or never clean their bikes (you need to consider what to wear when you get on a filthy bike!). Bikes often end up being taken inside the home, even occupying a prime spot. At the other end of the spectrum is the tactic for dealing with theft by minimising one’s emotional attachment to the bicycle.

Every cyclist has to decide what to leave and what to remove from their bike, not least to prevent theft. Cyclists need to plan for different scenarios, e.g. weather, or that unexpected meeting or date. Kat looked at the different ways bikes are used: e.g. as a means of carrying garden gates, deep sea fishing rods (in Hull) and lazy/slow/recalcitrant children to and from school. Kat argued that if we are to get more people cycling, ‘stuff’ needs to be considered. However, Boris Bikes clearly work differently – you just get on and there’s nowhere to put your ‘stuff’.

The Policy Contexts documents on the four cities, including Cambridge, will be online soon at

Vanessa Kelly