Paper on Cycling and Diversity

Recently we published a paper incorporating analysis conducted as part of the project, on cycling and diversity. The project has enabled us to do some new analysis of Census data, with some interesting new findings about what’s happened to age and gender balance, where cycling has increased. The paper is available open access here.

Does More Cycling Mean More Diversity in Cycling?

Rachel Aldred, James Woodcock & Anna Goodman
In low-cycling countries, cycling is not evenly distributed across genders and age groups. In the UK, men are twice as likely as women to cycle to work and cycling tends to be dominated by younger adults. By contrast, in higher cycling countries and cities, gender differences are low, absent, or in the opposite direction. Such places also lack the UK’s steady decline in cycling among those aged over 35 years. Over the past fifteen years some UK local areas have seen increases in cycling. This paper analyses data from the English and Welsh Census 2001 and 2011 to examine whether such increases are associated with greater diversity among cyclists. We find that in areas where cycling has increased, there has been no increase in the representation of females, and a decrease in the representation of older adults. We discuss potential causes and policy implications. Importantly, simply increasing cycling modal share has not proved sufficient to create an inclusive cycling culture. The UK’s culturally specific factors limiting female take-up of cycling seem to remain in place, even where cycling has gone up. Creating a mass cycling culture may require deliberately targeting infrastructure and policies towards currently under-represented groups.

Workshop in Lund – cycling meanings (2)

This is the second part of the writeup from the Changing Commutes project workshop in Lund. For more on the workshop goals and participants see my previous post. Again it’s my reflections on, and interpretations of, the discussions at the workshop.

For me one of the most interesting things about the meaning-related discussions were the comments about stereotyping and stigma. I have elsewhere written about cycling and stigma in a UK context – so it was fascinating to find out about images of cyclists in very different country contexts.

My ‘Incompetent, or Too Competent’ paper suggested that in the UK, cycling is doubly stigmatised. As DfT research also found, there is a stereotype of cyclists as being incompetent road users. This is in turn is linked to cycling’s historic association with poverty (in the postwar decades, policy prioritised the car and increasingly it was assumed that only those unable to afford a car would cycle to work) and with children (as adult transport cycling disappeared, bikes became seen as toys for children). Unsurprisingly, in this context many cyclists react to their cultural and infrastructural marginalisation (including, for example, regular experiences of fast moving motor traffic passing close enough to touch) by putting on what one Cycling Cultures interviewee called ‘the uniform of a cyclist’. In other words, what we in the UK know as ‘cycling gear’ – high vis, helmet, maybe even a face mask. But, with cycling seen for so many decades as not a ‘proper’ form of transport, this unfortunately doesn’t help – you may ‘look like a cyclist’, but, you’re still seen as a problem (e.g. a ‘Lycra Lout’) because cyclists are by definition seen as low status and low priority travellers. This may be one reason why bike hire schemes are relatively safe, in London and many other cities, compared to own-bike cycling. Hire bike users are often dressed in everyday clothing and may not even own a bike; in the words of a couple of HGV drivers interviewed by my colleagues:

W: You’ve got the Barclays bikes as well…and they haven’t been trained on the road, you can see them, you see them wobbling along the road like that…And you just hold back until, you know, they’ve disappeared or done whatever they want…

S: [...] On the…Barclays bikes, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. You can get the suited gentleman, you know, with his shoes on and his bowler hat and gets on there to do his 300 metres. Or you may get a family of four, who’ve just come over from Japan on holiday and they decide they want to go on, you know, …look at the touristy things.

I found this exchange very interesting, because while the drivers were complaining about hire bike users’ being unskilled and unpredictable, at the same time they said that they would behave in a more considerate manner towards these riders!

Some of the contexts people drew upon were similar to the UK in this respect. In Belarus, for example, we were told that many people saw cycling as incompatible with professionalism; conversely, cycling then became a kind of resistance identity.

In Belarus one company hired a book-keeper who cycled and another company member wrote in the [company] blog ‘She cycles to work! Should I fire her?’ People were asking ‘is she sweaty, does she smell?’ – it was considered unprofessional. And of course she changes into her suit when she gets in but it’s still seen as unprofessional. In Belarus when I was cycling I felt special like I was trying to deliver an identity message, here [in Lund] it’s just normal.

Comments made about Stockholm suggested some similarities to the London context: a tradition of marginalising cycling, alongside a recent revival in cycling still so far dominated by a relatively limited social demographic; the ‘MAMIL’ stereotype (‘Middle Aged Man in Lycra’) was recognised as comprehensible in a Stockholm contexts, albeit with fewer negative connotations than in the UK. In relation to Skåne/Copenhagen, by contrast, people expressed disbelief at the pejorative nature of the ‘MAMIL’ stereotype. One participant asked why these people would be negatively stereotyped when they are doing the culturally ‘correct’ thing of getting exercise and protecting their health.

In Skåne and Copenhagen though, there did seem to be boundaries in terms of what was considered normal and what was exceptional cycling. We heard that 15km (10 miles) was not considered a ‘normal’ distance to commute by bike in Copenhagen, with ‘normal cyclists’ (‘people like us’) driving such distances. In Lund, those distances might be much shorter, with people perhaps seeing 5km as a cut-off point at which driving would become normal. Some of these kinds of distinctions were reminiscent of Cambridge Cycling Cultures interviews, with many of our Cambridge interviewees owning cars and using them to journeys outside the city centre. It did seem that in Skåne and Copenhagen there were some weak stereotypes relating to people who commuted ‘abnormal’ distances; but without the pejorative and negative connotations associated with this in the UK.

Here there is a clear contrast with Cambridge. Even in Cambridge, with over 30% of all journeys to work cycled, the Cycling Cultures research found cycling is still stigmatised; but in Skåne and Copenhagen, this wasn’t the case. People did describe negative views about cyclists; in Copenhagen, we heard about the ‘shouty cyclist’ who believes in their own priority; we also heard about Swedish perceptions of cyclists as rule-breaking. However, these perceptions weren’t seen to undermine the credibility of cyclists as a group or the credibility of cycling provision and funding. We heard that to some extent, there is instead a discourse linking cyclist misbehaviour to problematic environments – for example, having to stop and push a button at cycle crossings, which, it was argued, leads to cyclists becoming impatient. The irony is that of course in Skåne and Copenhagen the cycling infrastructure is generally superior to that found in the UK, yet in the UK, precisely because of the greater marginalisation of cycling, cyclist rule-breaking is less often seen as an indicator of the need to improve cycling environments. Instead, in the UK, it’s often seen as a reason for not improving cycling environments. (As advocates have put it, motorists are not told that they won’t get any investment in car infrastructure until there’s no more speeding – even large amounts of individua)

In contexts like Copenhagen and Skåne, while there are negative views about cyclists in some quarters (e.g. conflict with pedestrians), this doesn’t seem to lead to the kind of local media hostility and broader local anti-cycling public discourse that we found even in a high-cycling UK city like Cambridge. Even where there are signs of stereotyping of cyclists in Skåne and Copenhagen, it doesn’t lead to stigma and marginalisation.

For another project, I’m currently looking into how media representations of cycling in London has changed. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the stories have changed, and to what extent advocates have succeeded in challenging the reinforcing loops of stigma and stereotype. I think there’s likely to be some indications of change, but, we’re still some way off the situation in Copenhagen, where ‘shouty cyclists’ might well be criticised, but are not seen as undermining the importance of cycling as a transport mode.

Workshop resources from Lund (1)

This is the first part of a write-up of our project workshop in Lund.

James and I held an expert workshop in Lund, Sweden, which fitted in with my Erasmus visit there. The experts were students and academics based in Sweden and Denmark; we anticipated they’d be able to talk about those contexts, but people could also draw on experiences of experiences of cycling in contexts as diverse as Ukraine, Canada, and China.

The main purpose of the workshop was to find out how participants thought processes around cycling ‘meanings, skills and stuff’ worked in their contexts. It also aimed to get feedback on the idea of using practice theory for agent-based modelling and to see how well using workshops to develop ABM rules might work. For more on practice theory and cycling, and what is meant by ‘meanings, skills, and stuff’ see an article I’ve written with Kat Jungnickel discussing practice theory concepts in relation to cycling.

This is my write-up of the workshop, so while it relies on James’ and participants’ comments, notes, etc. they might not agree on all points – it is also me thinking through ideas as I go along.

We created three sheets for small group discussions focusing on cycling ‘meanings’, ‘skills’, and ‘stuff’ . In the end we only actually used two of these, with one small group discussing ‘meanings’ and one ‘skills’. The sheets sought to give people from different country contexts a sense of how (we think) things work in the UK for cycling, using data from the Cycling Cultures project. We would use slightly different resources for a UK audience which might be more familiar with some of these issues and experiences. The sheets also contained questions for discussion. James sat in on one group and I sat in on another.

The discussion about skills/competences was interesting in that neither word quite seemed to connect with participants. The problem with ‘skill’ is firstly that in everyday use it tends to foreground something that individuals can acquire (particularly in a context where people are all meant to continuously upskill, be employable, and so on!), and secondly that ‘lower skilled’ is seen as derogatory. Therefore, people were not always comfortable talking about skill in relation to cycling practices. Competence was if anything more difficult; ‘less competent’ carries echoes of ‘incompetent’; given cyclists are often cast as incompetent road users, this was also problematic. Perhaps ‘abilities’ might be a better word to use in this context as implying something that might be more or less flexible or fixed for different people. Although it may be possible for individuals to increase their ability to cycle, being unable or less able to do something doesn’t carry the same pejorative weight as being ‘unskilled’ or ‘less skilled’, ‘less competent’ or ‘incompetent’.

That said, there were very interesting discussions in the ‘skills’ group, for example, comparing the two relatively high cycling contexts of Malmö and Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s cycling environment was seen as more consistent than Malmö’s, with one participant talking about being ‘surprised’ to suddenly find herself in the middle of motor traffic while riding in Malmö. People thought that more skills were needed to ride in Malmö because of the inconsistent environment – sometimes a cyclist needed to act ‘like a cyclist’, but sometimes like a pedestrian or like a driver, depending on the cycling environment. However, it was also noted that this led to a greater acceptance of rule-breaking, precisely because of the lack of clarity! (While in Copenhagen, it was argued that the greater consistency of environment has led to a stronger consensus about how cyclists should behave, and hence greater disapproval by cyclists of rule-breaking).

One aspect of practice theory that’s always attracted me is the idea of relocation of competences or skills (or abilities, in fact) from individuals to objects, or vice versa. So, in-car GPS means that passengers and drivers no longer have to acquire/possess map-reading abilities. In a sense it can be seen as deskilling. However, one nagging thought has always been, but, as one type of skill becomes obsolete isn’t it replaced by others? Aren’t there abilities related to using GPS? In what sense is the need to use GPS less problematic than the need to read a map? (You could imagine if there were only speaking GPS and no written maps, how difficult this would make navigation for Deaf people, for example).

This issue came up in relation to cycling skills, in the discussion around levels of skill needed to ride in Copenhagen. While in some respects cycling in Copenhagen was seen as relatively easy, the skills needed to signal and communicate with other cyclists were raised as potentially problematic for those unused to this. To what extent can we identify a skill gradient outside of the prioritisation of certain abilities over others?

So, for example, in the UK the tradition of vehicular cycling has prioritised the ability to cope with riding in motor traffic; not, for example, the ability to negotiate and coexist with pedestrians or with other cyclists, which may be seen as more important in cycling environments where cyclists are less often expected to act ‘as a vehicle’. Similarly with ‘confidence’, a popular term in UK cycling discourse: when cycling in The Netherlands, I’ve been impressed to see people cycling sociably and slowly two abreast on narrow streets, blithely blocking overtaking by a car behind. In a sense, this represents confidence by the cyclists that they have a right to occupy the street; and a lack of confidence by the car driver in asserting a ‘right’ to overtake. Confidence isn’t purely an individual attribute; it expresses the legitimacy of different modes which in turn is linked to policy and provision.

I’m getting slightly off topic now, so bringing it back, during this project we will continue working on how we think about and model skill/competence/ability. For creating our model, we will need to narrow down and focus on what we think is essential to the workings of the system, and to the potential for change. We will no doubt have to simplify many of the complexities around the social construction of skill, and the relationships between inclusive design and different types of skills and competences.

The next post in this series will discuss some ideas that came out of the discussion on meanings.