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.

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