Save our cities: build for bicycles, not cars

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 97.

Sociologist Dr Dave Horton says, if we want a mass cycling culture in the UK, we must push for dedicated infrastructure. This article first appeared on and has been reproduced with kind permission from the author.

Research into attitudes to cycling revealed two broad cultures of cycling: one viewing cycling in cities as too hard and dangerous, and one where the bicycle is regarded more as a children’s toy than a legitimate mode of urban motility.
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As a society we’re experiencing tremendous turbulence – and ambivalence – about the urgency of climate change, but there’s a growing, often grudging, recognition that we really need to change how we move.

We know cycling is a key part of the solution to – or at least amelioration of – climate change. So our task is to make it a practical reality for everyone. In that, we’re failing. Most people still aren’t cycling, let alone in ways which replace existing car journeys.

Over the past three years my colleagues and I have been investigating the state of cycling in England. The potentially great benefit of our research is that it reveals the seriousness of the state cycling is in, and the radical actions which must be taken if we’re to do something about it, and build a mainstream culture of cycling.

I am a sociologist with a passion for cycling. I want others to share the joys I experience through cycling. I’d also like to see our towns and cities re-organised away from the car and towards the bicycle, because such a re-reorganisation would make them greener, fairer and more convivial.

Our research across four English cities (Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester) has found two broad cultures of cycling. All four cities have relatively low levels of cycling, certainly in comparison to better known ‘cycling cities’ such as Cambridge, Oxford and York. But across all of them efforts have been made to boost cycling, and across all of them some people do, of course, cycle.

We conducted a large-scale survey exploring people’s attitudes to and practices of cycling across all the cities. We also interviewed a smaller sample at much greater length and in much more detail, and we rode with still others as they made some of their journeys by bike. And finally, we undertook very in-depth ethnographic research in one specific neighbourhood of each city, getting up close in search of really intimate understandings of people’s cycling thoughts and practices.

We found that one culture of cycling tends to prevail across more affluent, middle-class, predominantly white, suburban communities. Here, people have by and large received and understood the message – which is finding its way into an increasing number and range of government policies – that ‘cycling is good’. They also understand that the car in general, and their own use of the car in particular, is socially and environmentally problematic, and something which ought to be controlled.

But these people are very nervous about cycling in their cities. In fact, most of them simply will not contemplate it. The idea of it is too hard, too strange, and far too dangerous. They do cycle though, predominantly for pleasure, and especially on sunny summer Sundays. Away from the roads.

The other culture of cycling tends to prevail across the less affluent, working-class urban population. Here we found people to be by and large indifferent, and sometimes hostile, towards cycling. Many of the people we worked with struggled to orientate to the topic of cycling, seeing it either as irrelevant to their lives or even as a bit embarrassing.

In this second culture of cycling, then, the bicycle is regarded as a children’s toy much more than as a legitimate, let alone desirable, mode of urban mobility. Amongst these communities the car has not been socially and environmentally vilified, but is instead experienced as personally problematic. People either can’t afford a car, or struggle to pay the costs of keeping one running. And if they have access to one, the key ‘car problem’ is finding a place to park.

The vast majority of people never willingly cycle journeys which they could make by car

Although people from these communities tend not to rate cycling very highly, some do nontheless ride, through necessity, and on the footway. They ride on footways for two main reasons: first, because they feel safer there; and second, in order to stay out of the way of cars, which they don’t want to delay.

So, here’s the crux of it – the vast majority of people never willingly cycle journeys which they could otherwise make by car. Richer people tend to ‘get’ cycling, but do it mainly for pleasure and mainly off the road. Poorer people tend not to get cycling, though some still ride out of necessity, on the footway. Nowhere across our research exercise did we find a culture of normalised, everyday urban cycling.

And correspondingly, the Brompton folding bicycles via which we enacted the research – for we arrived by train and then rode and walked pretty much everywhere – were always and everywhere seen as rather exotic objects, rather than as mundane or obvious vehicles for doing our jobs.

Of course, we know that people do cycle, and cycle routinely, across English towns and cities. I personally have done so all my life. What we’re saying is that when you look across England as a whole, such people are very hard to find – which is unsurprising, because they’re in a very small minority.

Does our research paint a bleak and depressing picture of cycling in England? This is how those people who have so far heard about it have tended to greet it.

But I think not. Although it has taken me three years of research to realise, I believe that our findings are both obvious and unsuprising, given the absolutely dire conditions for urban cycling which prevail almost (there are some exceptions) universally across our study sites. For hours at a time, my colleague (the Flemish anthropologist Griet Scheldeman) and I stood and witnessed horrific conditions at one major junction after another. We marvelled at the strategies which people on bikes (and also on foot) used successfully to negotiate these places which remain far too common in our cities. And we wondered that so many people do actually still persist in making journeys on foot and by bike, when the system is set so clearly and radically against them.

Our major finding is this: over the last half century or so, we have very successfully built, across English towns and cities, a car system. People have increasingly adapted, often very well, to that system. Their everyday lives and their ordinary expectations are now patterned by and around it. So that for those who can afford it, the car has today become the default option, including for the shortest urban journeys.

Even the majority of the small minority who persist in struggling through this car system on a bike have found ways of adapting to it: some develop powerful cycling identities (and build cycling sub-cultures) from the battles which they must day in, day out fight; others simply accept their marginal status as inevitable, and dream one day of owning a car.

Left like this cycling will probably survive (enough people care too deeply for it to be otherwise), but it certainly won’t thrive.

So here’s the question. How big do we want cycling to become? Or perhaps better, given the realities of climate change now confronting us and challenging us to live differently, how big do we need cycling to become? I’d suggest we start by aiming for current Dutch levels – 25% of all urban journeys by bike – and then build from there. There’s no point being too ambitious to begin with…

We need to move cycling out from its still marginal status as an urban mode of mobility. We need to make cycling ‘normal’, or ‘mainstream’, or ‘irresistible’.

In order to do this we need to build a cycling system to replace the car system which is today dominant. Those of us who currently love cycling must recognise that cycling will change as a result. It’s therefore probably unrealistic to expect us all to embrace the necessary changes enthusiastically.

For example, I love having those high quality cycle routes which currently exist (and we have some good ones in and around my hometown of Lancaster) more-or-less to myself, and I love, too, mixing it with fast-moving motorised traffic when that’s the best means of getting where I want to go. But under a culture of mass cycling, in which almost everyone will feel able to get where they want or need to go by bike, I’ll probably lose both of these experiences. C’est la vie; at least my kids might have hope of a habitable planet, and a convivial city (and maybe their kids will even be able to play out on the streets unmolested by cars again?).

If we agree on the vision of mass cycling, and if we agree that getting there requires the replacement of the current car-based system by one based on bikes, then what might be the key features of this cycling system?

There are many. For example, specific facilities such as high quality cycle parking; bicycle co-ops where old bikes can be re-cycled and cycling skills and knowledge learnt; bike shops; cycle training; events and activities aimed at inculcating the desire and capacity to ride. Although often massively under-resourced, many of these components of a bike system already exist or are being built. But going back to our research, the big one which jumps out – to the extent that it’s impossible to ignore – is an infrastructural one.

Three years ago I’d not have said this. Indeed, I’d have been horrified at the very thought of it. Thirty years as a committed cyclist and twenty years as a committed cycle campaigner had convinced me that cycling’s place is on the road. My stance was philosophical (‘cycling is central and ought not to be marginalised’), political (‘we must fight to centre, rather than to marginalise, cycling’), and pragmatic (‘push cyclists off the roads and we’ll never get them back’).

High quality cycle parking should be one key feature of a new ‘cycling system’.
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But the research process has forced me to shift my position. I simply have too much experience of spending time with too many people, of too many different kinds, all of whom clearly won’t be moved onto a bike under currently prevailing cycling conditions. The sheer weight of evidence that most people will not ride a bike on busy roads is unambiguous and uncompromising.

We need radically to restructure our urban mobility systems in ways which will get people out of their cars and make them cycle. Half of the infrastructural change required is underway – the push for a maximum speed limit of 20mph on residential streets is gaining momentum. But the other half of the key infrastructural change required needs a similar push, and this push should be for very high quality and continuous segregated cycling infrastructure on our biggest and busiest urban roads, the kind of roads on which almost everyone today refuses to cycle.

The task might seem enormous, even impossible. But it’s not. Think about how things change. Our research has made very clear the normality among a large proportion of the population of using a car for short journeys. But this normality has been produced over only the last fifty or sixty years. We used to travel differently, and we will do so again.

We need to push for high quality, continuous segregated cycling infrastructure on our busiest urban roads

Many cycling advocates have a good range of well-rehearsed complaints against segregated cycling infrastructure. It’s too expensive. There’s too little space. It’s too broad-brush a solution, and ignorant of the specificities of local context. But to find reasons not to make the required changes is merely to delay the outcome for which we are battling – mass urban cycling in England.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to the changes required is a lack of political will. But here we cycling advocates must get our own house in order first – unless we’re all saying the same thing, we’ve little hope of shifting the broader debates, and so transport policies.

The only sure thing about the ways in which we move around cities is that they do change. Cycling might have been with us for well over a century, but its time – the time of mass cycling – is still to come. We can and we should be ambitious for cycling; our futures require nothing less.

Our task – on behalf of our children – is to assist the change from car to bike, to seize our urban mobility future for cycling. And that requires replacing the system which we have over the last half century built around the car with another, which we are building around the bicycle.

Dr Dave Horton

Dave Horton is a sociologist at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University. He has worked on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project since October 2008. It runs through September 2011 and is an interdisciplinary and multi-method research collaboration between Lancaster University, Oxford Brookes University and the University of Leeds. It is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.