A Matter of Utility? Rationalising cycling, cycling rationalities

Now this paper is being published in Mobilities journal, I’m posting my ‘Accepted Author version’ here. Definitive version on the journal website shortly (link TBA).


This paper discusses how dominant policy paradigms promote a ‘utility’ model of transport, prioritising the destruction of distance and the minimisation of time spent travelling. It suggests that within low-cycling countries, this framing has reinforced the policy marginalisation of cycling, which is cast as having problematic associations with leisure and pleasure. Hence, while the multiple benefits of cycling might seem to mandate policy support, these benefits (including health and equity impacts) seem tainted by association with cycling’s non-transport connotations. The paper analyses interview data from the ESRC Cycling Cultures project to explore how cyclists and cycling stakeholders negotiate the landscape of ‘utility cycling’. It examines how people appeal to a ‘utility narrative’, while often simultaneously appealing to considerations that apparently contradict it. Conclusions for cycling and broader transport policy are drawn.

Key Words

Cycling, Rational Choice, Leisure, Marginalisation, Transportation, Utility


A Matter of Utility? Rationalising cycling, cycling rationalities


This paper explores the place of cycling in ‘speedy times’, showing how cyclists and those who promote cycling seek to rationalise it as a ‘matter of utility’. It argues that given cycling’s marginalisation in the UK, this dominant framing is experienced as problematic, because it makes cycling (and cyclists) prove assumptions that are assumed (yet also tenuous) for motorised modes. Cyclists, within this framing, often appear as inherently irrational, difficult, hard to collect data on, and so on. This creates a vicious circle where cycling remains under-researched and, in consequence, often continues to be excluded from transport models, leading to a continued policy exclusion.


The article begins by exploring how the ability to move fast is linked to power and privilege, discussing this in relation to the valuation of travel time. I argue that current transport policy and planning discourses continue to prioritise productivity and privilege, despite the growth of internal critiques. The article considers how cycling has been positioned within such discourses, characterising a shift from speaking of ‘childhood pleasures’ to ‘hardened commuters’. Here I show how these discourses have changed in an attempt to re-prioritise cycling, by casting it as the choice of the commuter, rather than as child’s play. However, this shift has itself produced new forms of marginalisation.

The paper builds on these ideas in analysing relevant findings from data collected as part of the ESRC-funded Cycling Cultures research project. This involved interviews with cyclists and stakeholders in four English urban areas. I explore (a) ways in which interviewees seek to define cycling in relation to ‘utility’ and (b) discursive and practical tensions that this produces, from the struggle to monetise health benefits, to pressures to wear particular styles of clothing and not to be seen socialising. The data indicate the problems and contradictions inherent in the ‘utility cycling’ model, when promoted within a low-cycling country such as England. The article concludes by suggesting broader implications for transport planning.


Valuing mobilities in a mass motorised world

Speedy Times

Many social theorists have characterised contemporary societies as an age of speed. This is often associated with power, control, and new forms of inequality. Virilio (1986: 142) speaks of ‘the extermination of space as the field of freedom of political action’, arguing that rising speeds are not inimical to greater state control, but necessitate and increase it. In fact, high speeds make control easier. People moving on foot in urban streets remain harder to control than those using aeroplanes, who must pass through multiple control systems. The use of automobile licence plates and Automatic Number Plate Recognition Technologies (ANPR) also enables a regime of control, albeit more limited and contested[i].

David Harvey sees the ‘age of speed’ as rooted in contemporary capitalism. He describes ‘an intense phase of time-space compression that had a disorienting and disruptive impact upon political-economic practices, the balance of class power, as well as upon cultural and social life’ (1990: 284). Time-space compression is associated with a shift from clock time to instantaneous time (Urry 2000). For Harvey, this is driven by capital’s need to overcome barriers to profit. In reducing ‘the friction of distance’, businesses seek to free themselves from more geographically-rooted labour. This is intimately linked to changes in transport systems: the development of rail in the UK was driven by the desire of industrialists to separate factory locations from raw material sources (Aldred 2013).

This process has led to greater global integration, with an ever speedier interchange of people, goods, money and information (Urry 2000: 125). For Urry, this is now tied to the automobile, a ‘source of freedom’ due to ‘its flexibility which enables the car driver to travel at speed, at any time in any direction […] Cars therefore extend where people can go to and hence what they as humans are able to do’ Urry (2000: 59). This extension is not unproblematic and, while it may appear substantial, remains limited. Scale and landscape still constrain movement. Cars cannot climb stairs, fly, nor – without the help of a boat – can they cross oceans. Still, it is true that the automobile’s impact has been transformative, and that in popular as well as academic discourse it remains associated with ideas of freedom.

Mobility and Inequality

Within a speedy age, power is deeply connected to mobility. Cresswell (2010: 21) has analysed how ‘[s]peeds, slownesses, and immobilities are all related in ways that are thoroughly infused with power and its distribution’, while Shamir (2005: 200) characterises the ability to move as ‘a major stratifying force in the global social hierarchy.’ Bauman (2000:120) has argued that the powerful are the fast, and vice versa. Access to mobility resources allows this group to build ever longer distances into their lives. In Britain ‘[m]anagers have much longer average commuting distances than elementary workers’ (ONS 2008:1). This relationship is related to land use patterns, including housing costs and work locations, but also relies upon managers having access to privileged forms of mobility, including the private car. Virilio (2002) argues:


“[The elite] are residents in absolute motion-speed, the super-speed of the train, or the supersonic jet, or the super-fast boat, and the super-speed of the instantaneous telecommunication.”


Those with access to mobility also often control others’ speed; for example, through border controls that bar the less privileged from a state territory. Meanwhile, the favoured escape conflict situations by their power to move. ‘Domination consists in one’s own capacity to escape, to disengage, to ‘be elsewhere’, and the right to decide the speed with which all that is done – while simultaneously stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to arrest or constrain their moves or slow them down.’ (Bauman, 2000: 120).


Other theorists argue that it is not just moving, but the power to choose to move that is important. While in some respects the rich are super-mobile, in some contexts they benefit from being able to stay put. The concept of ‘motility’ (Kaufmann 2002; Kaufmann, Bergman and Joye 2004; Kesselring and Vogl 2004) is used to characterise this potential, rather than actual mobility. Manderscheid (2009) summarises motility as having at least three elements, all intimately connected to social inequality: access to mobility in its varying forms and degrees, competence to recognize and use this access to mobility, and operationalising one’s choice (which may or may not involve actual movement). This brings into focus multiple forms of inequality, such as the way gentrification forces the poor to move and thus endure longer journeys to work (Kaufmann 2002). Cresswell (2010) describes how “[on the assembly line] speed is definitely not a luxury. Rather it is an imposition experienced by those ‘low down’.” (Cresswell 2010: 23).


I would add that the rich, privileged or powerful cannot always move in an unimpeded manner, but – partly thanks to the ideology of speed and power – they believe they should be able to. Hence some motorists’ anger (expressed in the BBC documentary War on Britain’s Roads) at the ability of the humble bicycle to evade traffic congestion. Mass motorised transport systems are self-defeating in urban contexts (Böhm et al 2006). They promise mass motility yet simultaneously deny it. And, as Bauman describes in more general terms, the ability of the more privileged to fly and drive at will creates for others barriers to movement in the forms of stationary concrete and mobile metal. Motility is about power and privilege; it is also relational, relative and contested.

Power and Time

The above two sections briefly outlined (a) the role of motility within contemporary capitalist societies and (b) its links with power and inequality. This section focuses on how dominant approaches to speed and time within transport studies contribute to the privileging of certain people and modes. Most models of travel behaviour cast individuals as utility maximisers making ‘rational’ choices. Travel time is defined as a loss, and individuals seek to minimise the ‘generalised cost’ of travel, principally by saving time or money. This assumption continues to be used despite evidence to the contrary (Lyons and Chatterjee 2008). It has meant that large-scale, expensive transport schemes often demonstrate ‘benefits’ by summing small predicted travel time reductions for a very large number of travellers.


All time is not equal. Working time is prioritised, because of the costs to employers and hence ‘the economy’. ‘Losses’ from congestion are quoted at £20 billion per year (Goodwin 2004), due largely to people being delayed travelling when they ‘should’ be at work creating value for employers (Scottish Government 2006). The prioritising of work-related trips represents both the privileging of a certain group (the ‘economically active’) and of a minority of journeys this group makes. It continues even though work-related journeys represent a decreasing minority of trips. In 2009, commuting accounted for 15%, and business trips 3% of trips, 19% and 8% of distance travelled respectively (DfT 2011).


The valuation of travel time (via the UK DfT’s Transport Analysis Guidance, WebTAG) shows how mobility inequalities play out within transport studies. WebTAG tells modellers to calculate the value of working time using figures derived from ten-year-old differentials in average wages paid to users of different modes of transport (DfT 2012: 2-3). At the bottom of the list come goods vehicle and taxi drivers; followed by cyclists and then car passengers (not drivers). The time of taxi and minicab passengers is the most valuable, so a scheme that reduces working time delays for them generates higher modelled benefits than one providing similar time savings for cyclists[ii]. In many ways, this approach does not make much sense. For example, why should time spent travelling be seen as an economic loss, when many now use trains as work spaces? Many such critiques from within the discipline (e.g. Batley et al 2008) have failed to change modelling practice, however.


Importantly the models encode an ’employer’s view’, where working time is prioritised. Commuting and other ‘non-work’ time are cheap, each ‘costing’ around a fifth of an hour of working time, commuting slightly more costly. Thus, transport policy discourse, expressed through dominant modelling assumptions, helps to perpetuate inequalities between the working and non-working, and within the working population. Specifically, cyclists (and users of some other modes) are constructed as low income and low priority. In practice, the lack of data collected on cycling means such cycle delays are rarely even calculated or considered when highway changes are modelled. However, the low value placed on cyclists’ time likely reinforces this failure to measure or model their delays.


More broadly, in these ‘speedy’ (yet congested!) times transport is seen as a means to an end, where travellers trade time against other benefits. What matters above all is reducing time (as in Urry’s description of the car society) rather than, for example, shortening distances to enable sustainable travel. This is tied to a valuation system that prioritises economic productivity and employer benefit, and hence those assumed to be higher earners. All this is important for cycling, a stigmatised mode of transport within the UK (Aldred 2013a), often defined in negative terms (not real transport, not for the privileged, not for important trips, etc.) The next section explores these problematic associations of cycling and the attempts to re-cast cycling as more in line with the priorities of transport policy discourse.


Cycling: from simple pleasures to hardened fast commuters

Childhood pleasures

Within UK transport discourse, cycling was marginalised for many years. As Rosen comments (2002: 158, my emphasis) there was ‘barely any policy related to cycling […] until the 1980s’. This is despite the fact that cycling was a major transport mode in 1952, representing 12% of all distance travelled[iii]. However, unlike rail, bus, and coach, cycling was not seen within the transport planner’s remit, with a few isolated exceptions such as Leonard Vincent’s network of cycle paths in Stevenage. Within a policy paradigm that prioritised large-scale, carbon dependent state-led investment, cycling seemed anachronistic and out of place (Cahill 2010).


Postwar transport policy focused instead on facilitatinggrowing motorisation while mitigating its disbenefits. Public transport was increasingly seen as a social service for those without a car (Vigar 2002). Rather than suffering the Beeching axe[iv], cycling was allowed to die of neglect. Between 1952 and 1972, the distance travelled by bicycle declined by 80%, while car travel increased exponentially. Midway through this process, Traffic in Towns, the ‘Buchanan report’, was published.Although it focused on road transport, cyclists made few appearances in text or images. One such image, ‘A Central London Block’ (Buchanan 1963: 178), shows four to five lanes for cars and goods vehicles, one bus lane, and no cycling infrastructure; one cyclist appears on the pavement.


Between the 1950s and 1970s, policy constructed cycling not as a transport issue but as a play or leisure activity, which raised associated childsafety issues. While the state may have opted out of cycling policy, it and non-state organisations (e.g. bicycle manufacturers) did become involved in child cycling. The aim was to preserve cycling as a youth activity even while it was disappearing as adult transport mode. A 1955 Raleigh School of Cycling leaflet drew on nostalgia, positing that since parents were young ‘the traffic … has changed most of all’. Acknowledging that parents no longer cycled, it positioned cycling as providing ‘simple and enduring pleasures which television and the cinema will never supersede’ (Raleigh 1955). Children were constructed as future adult drivers with cycling teaching ‘roadsmanship’, so even within cycle training the desired end point was safe motorisation.


The triumph of the motor lobby was not merely the result of good organisation, or clever networking (Dudley and Richardson 1998). Lobbyists sought to tie motorisation into a modernisation narrative, portraying it as part of a new consumerist Britain. When this consumerist utopia began to be widely criticised, however, motorisation was called into question. The critique of growth during the 1970s was linked to the rise of roads protests, while cycling began to make headlines. The Sports Council, with the Cycling Council of Great Britain, published ‘Cycling: A New Deal’ (1976). This portrayed the 1970s as ‘a time when people will gladly swap the jet pace of modern travel for the simple pedal-power pleasures of cycling.’ (CCGB/Sports Council 1976). However, while the distance cycled briefly rose back to about 5 billion passenger kilometres, it fell back as the decade ended.


Part of the problem is indicated in the language of the CCGB/Sports Council report. ‘Simple pedal-power pleasures’ does not sound like a description of a serious mode of transport governed by utility and efficiency. Rather, it evokes childhood and leisure, travelling for ‘fun’; to be left behind when real transport calls (after the oil crisis ended, in this case). This is rooted in what happened to cycling after World War Two. As cycling levels declined precipitously, cycling became defined as not being transport. Instead, it was seen as leisure (a discretionary activity demanding little or no state involvement) or as something for children (again, located within the private sphere of the household). Cycling could become fun but it was not part of the transport system.

Healthy and hardened commuters

When cycling re-entered the British transport policy field, it was against the background of this extreme marginalisation. Initially, cycling was constructed using a deficit model in relation to cycling, with the focus upon child and adult cyclists as being at-risk. For example, the then Conservative government’s 1981 Cycling Consultation paper described bicycles as ‘not so stable’ as cars, offering ‘less protection’. However, from the 1990s, cycling has officially been constructed as a desirable transport mode (see e.g. BMA 1992). This section argues that while the new discourses around cycling may seem very different to the old ones, they combine to create problematic hierarchies helping to perpetuate cycling’s ongoing marginalisation.


Cycling has been rebranded as a serious mode of transport, necessary, efficient and rational rather than discretionary, fun and frivolous. This means drawing a line between cycling as transport (a rational activity to get from A to B) and cycling as leisure. For example, the European Network for Cycling Expertise states (ENCE 2003): ‘Cycling generally falls into two categories: Utility cycling – defined as journeying for a purpose upon completion of the journey; and leisure/tourist cycling – defined as a trip that is undertaken for the purpose of the journey itself and in this sense is not a form of transport.’


This implies some cycle journeys are not transport trips, defined as journeys that have a purpose[v]. Interestingly, much academic literature has tended to reproduce an assumption that walking and cycling are the only potentially purposeless modes. This can be seen by the definition of ‘leisure travel’. ‘Leisure travel’ has in the tourism literature primarily been defined as ‘transport to leisure locations’, usually by car (Schlich et al 2004: 220), rather than as sociable, leisurely travelling for its own sake. Some tourism researchers have questioned this ‘transport logic’. For example, Lumsdon (2006: 751) presents passenger transport journeys as inherently having a ‘leisure’ component lacking in private motor vehicle travel. However, he suggests non-car modes constantly face pressure to be ‘judged on the qualities of private [motorised] transport’.


Unlike public transport, cycling can be seen as a form of ‘automobility’ (Böhm et al 2006). Hence, the pressure to compete with ‘the travel cost model of travel’ (i.e. travel conceived as a cost with no benefits to the user) is greater. Moreover, not only must cycling be ‘transport’, some forms of transport cycling are more ‘transport’ than others. Current policy prioritises ‘commuter’ and ‘utility’ cycling, through what one could call a ‘Hierarchy of Cyclists’. This is identified in Local Transport Note 2/08 and repeated in LTN 1/12 as follows:


‘[F]ast commuter; utility cyclist; inexperienced and/or leisure cyclist; children; and users of specialised equipment (e.g. cycle trailers, tricycles, handcycles).’ […] Their needs, and hence the type of provision required, can vary considerably.’ (DfT 2012: 11-12).


The original text, from LTN 2/08 (DfT 2008:12) provides more detail on these categories, with a fast commuter being ‘confident in most onroad situations and will use a route with significant traffic volumes if it is more direct than a quieter route’, while the inexperienced ‘may be willing to sacrifice directness, in terms of both distance and time, for a route with less traffic and more places to stop and rest’. The soon-to-be-replaced London Cycle Design Standards (TfL 2005: 17) contains a similar hierarchy. Instead of the ‘fast’ it refers to the ‘hardened commuter’, implying these riders are almost like cars, having some kind of protective exoskeleton:


‘Cyclists will vary at one extreme from the hardened commuter or cycle courier,

to at the other extreme children who are for the first time learning road sense,

and novice or elderly cyclists who may be apprehensive about cycling generally.’


This distinction maps onto purposes, with those travelling to work or for work (commuters, couriers) cast as the fast and the brave, while children and old people (not travelling for work – perhaps not even for a purpose) are the fearful and the slow. While these lists are not intended as a hierarchy, I would argue that one is implied, where the importance of speed declines and the importance of safety increases. This does not mean ‘fast commuters’ are well catered for. London’s early ‘cycle superhighways’ including CS2, which largely consists of a blue line within a bus or general traffic lane, offering no legal or physical protection. While poor infrastructure, it makes sense within an approach that caters for the ‘fast commuter’ by encouraging him or her to continue using existing roads. The intervention (blue paint) is meant to act as a directional aid and remind drivers that cyclists may be on the road. Inexperienced cyclists who need segregated facilities are assumed not to be present.[vi]


The ‘dual network’ approach (main roads with limited cycle provision shadowed by slower, more circuitous alternatives) may initially seem to mimic roads provision, where different categories also exist. The DfT makes this case (my emphasis):


‘Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others. In             order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to combine measures or to create dual networks         offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation    from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority. Such dual networks         may be considered analogous to a busy main road carrying through traffic and a         service road catering for access to homes and shops at lower speeds.’

(DfT 2008: 11-12)


However, the two cases are crucially different, as for motor traffic routes, distinctions relate primarily to journey length and purpose, rather than driver skill and competence. CS2 is not analogous to ‘Strategic Routes’ for motorised traffic, because these are not seen as existing for the benefit of more confident drivers. Instead, they exist for the benefit of specific types of journey, primarily long distance journeys with few stops in between. The assumption is that most qualified drivers are happy to use a motorway, and rightly so, as they offer relatively safe and pleasant driving conditions. By contrast, the ‘cycling system’ is seen as a patchwork within which different routes are suitable for different cyclists: so some would use Superhighways (as originally conceived), while some (perhaps due to ‘inexperience’ or ‘inability’, or having children with them) would use slower and less direct alternatives for the same journey.


The categorisation of cyclists is not inherently so problematic. Scholars including Dill and McNeil (2012) and Teschke and Winters (2013) have constructed related typologies, and drawn rather different conclusions. However, segmenting cyclists has had problematic implications[vii] within a policy paradigm that (a) prioritises the ‘speedy’ within actual or potential cyclists, and (b) de-prioritises and under-funds cycling. By contrast, segmentation within the Dutch bicycle design manual is used to design universal infrastructure, meeting the speed-related needs of the speed-preferent, while also meeting the safety and comfort-related needs of those prioritising these factors.


This section has explored how postwar transport policy marginalised cycling and how the ‘rebirth’ of cycling has created new forms of marginalisation. The former involved cycling as a whole being seen as slow and low status. The latter has constructed a ‘privileged’ group of cyclists who prioritise speed above safety, while other cyclists are seen as prioritising safety ahead of all other transport virtues. This explicitly includes both speed and directness, as stated in LTN 2/08, but also reliability, as many off-road routes designed for this kind of cyclist are only available in daylight hours due to closures or lack of lighting. The rest of this paper uses empirical data to explore how these hierarchies play out in interviewee discourse around the kinds of cycling that they do.



The data drawn upon here is based primarily on interviews conducted as part of the ESRC-funded Cycling Cultures project. Here this data is used to explore ways in which people make use of, adapt and challenge the ‘utility cycling’ frame, and to think about how ‘utility cycling’ creates both opportunities and barriers to greater normalisation of cycling.The project is a qualitative study of four urban areas in England where cycling rates are relatively high and/or rising. In the UK much research has focused on cases where cycling is marginal, studying subcultures (Fincham 2006) or the absence of cycling (Pooley 2011). Clearly, these places – except Cambridge – are still well behind cycling levels in the Netherlands or Denmark. Still, for the UK, they do still stand out, and in two areas (Bristol and Hackney), cycling increased substantially between 2001 and 2011 against a broadly flat national picture.


Interviewees fall into two groups: people who cycle as part of their everyday lives (‘everyday cyclists’) and ‘stakeholders’ identified as important within local cycling cultures. Most of the former were contacted via postcards either given to cyclists at junctions or left on bicycles at popular cycle parking locations. The latter included cycling officers, transport planners or road safety officers, advocates and managers of small businesses. Over 150 interviews were carried out, three-quarters with ‘everyday cyclists’ and one-quarter with ‘stakeholders’. The research was approved by the University of East London Research Ethics Committee and informed consent obtained in writing from participants.


The four case study areas are Bristol, Cambridge, Hackney, and Hull. In a recently published paper I characterise Cambridge and Hull, with long-standing traditions of cycling, as ‘established’ cycling cultures, while Hackney and Bristol have ‘emerging’ cycling cultures (Aldred and Jungnickel 2014). The areas are otherwise diverse, in terms of politics, demographics, topology, and weather[viii]. This table shows cycle commuting levels (percentage commuting by bicycle, as a percentage of all employed residents who commute) for all the areas against the English average:


Area % cycle commuting Comments on direction of change
Bristol, City of 8.1% Almost double the 2001 levels
Cambridge 31.9% A small increase on 2001 levels
Hackney 15.4% More than doubled, compared to 2001
Kingston upon Hull, City of 8.3% A decrease compared to 2001
England 3.1% A very slight increase compared to 2001

Source: 2011 Census data, Crown Copyright (via Nomis)


While the project did not aim for statistical representativeness, the demographic balance of participants in the four areas was shaped by broader cycling patterns. In Hull, interviewees tended to be older than in other areas; in Hackney they tended to be younger. Ethnographic fieldwork (where we observed people cycling in terms of demographics and behaviour) suggested similar patterns: a higher proportion of older people cycling in Hull and Cambridge, but fewer in Hackney and, to a lesser extent, Bristol. Cambridge and Hackney had a relatively high proportion of female respondents; this was not surprising in Cambridge where 2001 Census statistics show relative gender equality (the likelihood of male and female commuters being cyclists is similar). Hackney’s official figures are less balanced but our interviewee response and fieldwork observations suggest that the gender balance is becoming more equal[ix].


‘Everyday cyclists’ interviews were conducted in a relatively unstructured manner, apart from several semi-structured pilot interviews. We began with ‘can you tell me about cycling in relation to your life’ and continued with questions related to the interviewee’s response. Interviews covered identified areas of interest (which often emerged spontaneously) including whether participants’ friends and family cycled, how they viewed themselves as a ‘cyclist’, experience of theft or crashes, and opinions of local cycling environments. Stakeholder interviews usually began by asking about the interviewee’s role in relation to cycling, with follow-up based on the response and pre-planned questions tailored to each interviewee. This was complemented by ethnographic research, including non-participant observation: for example, standing at junctions and observing who cycled, what they wore, and how they behaved. It also included participant observation: for example, going on rides with cycling groups in the four areas.


For this paper, I used qualitative software package NVivo to review interviews for content related to utility cycling, searching interviews manually and automatically for a range of related keywords (including antonyms). Initials after quotes indicate the place (BR/CB/HA/HU), then type of interview (narrative/stakeholder) then a number to identify the interview. CP1-34 indicates pilot narrative interviews in Cambridge.



This section of the paper discusses interview findings. It is argued that many cyclists stressed their cycling as being ‘utilitarian’ and were concerned to avoid being seen as cycling for pleasure, for leisure, or for sport. However, at odds with this was the clear enjoyment many took in cycling, which does not fit within a utilitarian, travel time as loss paradigm.[x] Many stakeholders were also keen to stress the importance of ‘utility’ and/or ‘commuter’ cycling; this is likely specific to cycling, as it would be unlikely that those promoting public transport would need to keep reminding an interviewer of public transport’s ‘utility’ function[xi]. Similarly, interviewee references to style and sociality often demonstrate a struggle to negotiate restrictive and often contradictory definitions of cycling as ‘utility’.


Cycling as ‘utility’

Some participants explicitly referred to ‘utility’; for example, ‘I didn’t think culture came into this [cycling], I thought it was just a matter of utility.’ (CP16). This interviewee was partly reflecting upon a construction of cycling specific to affluent, high-cycling Cambridge; a sensible and rational choice made by adults with other options (Aldred and Jungnickel 2014). This is precisely the kind of rational travel model favoured by transport modelling; however, it is far from the only construction used by participants, with those in other locations less able to draw upon this kind of identity. Although stakeholder participants were generally more likely to explicitly refer to ‘utility cycling’ unprompted, other participants did refer to the construct, for example, by defining it by what it was not, such as ‘biking for pleasure’. Reference to specific cycling cultures in each city also displayed similar themes across interview types, although opinions about these themes varied.


In lower-income Hull, ‘utility’ was associated with ‘working class people who do utility cycling’, also associating cycling with a rational choice; but one made by people with few other choices:


Hull has not got a very significant middle class base in Hull and I think that erm the, it’s very much a utility erm cycling city. There isn’t a kind of an element of a lot of leisure cycling. (HUS1)

Bristol, one of the other case study locations, had a ‘Cycling City’ programme which local authority representatives described as targeting middle-class commuters. By contrast in Hull, utility cycling had different class connotations:

[It’s] not all lifestyle choice in Hull. People don’t cycle because they think, “Oh it’s cool or it’s going to get me fit or… erm… I can go spend you know two grand on a nice bike and and it’s you know a status symbol or a nice thing to own”. A lot of people I think still in Hull cycle coz it’s cheap and it’s it’s you know they haven’t got a car, simple as that. (HUS7)

Cyclists interviewed specifically contrasted utility cycling with affective dispositions towards cycling, including ‘love’ and ‘enthusiasm’. Not all the cyclists used the phrasing of ‘utility’; some referred to synonyms such as ‘functional’ cycling, or struggled to find the term they wanted. Yet across the interviews there was frequently a sense that a true utility cyclist is not motivated by, for example, emotion, by contrast with the ‘keen cyclist’:

[A keen cyclist has] a love for it that goes just beyond just like the utility aspects. (HUN7)

I’ve always been a, I suppose a utility cyclist as well as a sort of, you know, enthusiast for it. (CN9)

Particularly in London, cycling was described as being quicker and thus saving valuable time:

It’s just a waste of time sitting on public transport for an hour, or an hour plus. It just takes away so much time you haven’t got anyway [laughter]. (HAN22)

Conversely, participants described cycling for leisure as being about pleasure, and contrasted to ‘utility purposes’:

I think [my friends’] usage of bikes has, has tailed off to be more sort of pleasure biking, you know, mountain biking. They don’t necessarily use them for utility purposes.(BRN24)

I cycle pretty much every day predominately commuting to work and back it’s about a four and half five mile journey each way […] it’s my main form of transport. I don’t cycle for pleasure as much as I would like to predominately because I don’t have the time, I used to use it at weekends and go out to Kent on the train. (HAN6)

The stakeholder material even more clearly demonstrates a normative presumption in favour of cycling as rational choice, separate from emotions:

[Our] focus has always been on erm… cycling to work, utility cycling, rather than leisure cycling, really. Erm… sort of, we’ve done bits with leisure cycling but it’s, the focus has most definitely been on, on, cycling to the shops, cycling to school, cycling to work, you know, cycling as transport rather than a leisure activity. (CS1, local authority officer)

Sport cycling, like ‘leisure cycling’ was seen as problematic, with the first of these two cycle campaigners co-interviewed stressing that he has only become interested in sports cycling later in life, after a cycling careers as a ‘pure utility cyclist’:

I actually just started off only as a pure utility cyclist and never got into any sort of sport cycling until I was a lot older (HAS3, P1)

I was never really into sports cycling or high speed cycling that sort of thing, erm much more into just ordinary transport, local transport so utility cycling. (HAS3, P2)

Similarly, from Bristol:

I think also what Cycling England was about, is that this wasn’t about sports cycling, this wasn’t about lycra and clubs and something you did after work, a leisure activity. Really at heart what it was about was about utility cycling, as it might be called, which is about bikes just being a personal… You know, the best personal mobility solution available. (BRS6, ‘Better by Bike’ representative, local authority)

One way of rationalising cycling, particularly among older men, involved bringing health benefits into the equation. This meant trading off time spent travelling against time that would have otherwise to be spent doing other forms of physical activity:

I joined a gym, my wife’s still a member of the gym, but that didn’t work, I just didn’t have the time. Erm… so, you know, I cycle to work, it takes me half an hour to get to work, half an hour back home. If I drove, it would take about twenty five minutes each way because of the traffic. So, that’s, it’s taking me five minutes longer, or ten minutes longer a day. Now, if I go to the gym, you’re spending what, forty five minutes in the gym, at which point I’ve just lost forty five minutes of my day. Well, thirty five minutes of my day. So, there’s half an hour that I could have spent at home talking to the wife or er… doing more work or a combination. (CS6)

However, while cycling can be made to fit a ‘rational choice’ mould, this example demonstrates that it remains problematic. This kind of health versus time calculation – trading off active travel time against other time needed to exercise – does not exist in transport choice models. Even where such models consider time savings that stem from modal shifts, this would only be in terms of journey times. The additional ‘free time’ (freedom from the need to exercise) provided when someone moves from sedentary to active travel is never considered. So while transport models do foreground time, within that they ignore ways in which the concept of time might favour cycling.

The example of the HEAT (Health Economic Assessment Tool) for walking and cycling briefly illustrates some contradictions associated with the rationalisation of cycling. HEAT attempts to integrate the physical activity benefits of walking and cycling into cost-benefit analysis of walking and cycling interventions; thus making physical activity fit within an economistic transport paradigm; but converting it into money rather than time. Despite the growing popularity of the HEAT tool, the physical benefits (rather than traditional ‘time’ benefits) are still seen as questionable, for example by Transport for London which does not routinely use the tool[xii]. The Department for Transport recommends its use but only for walking and cycling projects; it is not used on ‘mainstream’ transport projects. Physical activity benefits even where monetised remain potentially marginal.

Social or anti-social?

Interviewees, whether individual cyclists or involved in cycle promotion and advocacy, were often keen to underline the distinction between ‘utility’ and other forms of cycling. This complements the findings of another paper based on ethnographic material and discussing the doubly stigmatised nature of social group riding. Social group riding suffers stigma (a) by not being motorised transport, and (b) by not being transport, as it has a social purpose. In the UK, utility cycling is defined as not being social, and by using roadspace in as demonstrably productive a manner as possible. By contrast in countries such as The Netherlands, riding two abreast for ‘transport’ is seen as normal, like talking in a car, rather than a signifier of unacceptable sociality. The CROW Bicycle Design manual contains many images of side-by-side riding, shown as normal user behaviour rather than something to be discouraged.


In interview data, those exhibiting signs of being ‘too social’ were sometimes stigmatised:

[T]here are a lot of foreign students here and they don’t actually quite understand, you know, they cycle two abreast chatting away, wobbling all over the place, going down the one way streets and all that sort of thing (CP32)

[Cycling is] not very convenient for communicating en route unlike a walk is it? Or put it this way – communicating safely. And that’s, so it’s not, it’s a bit anti social from that point of view isn’t it? You know, if you’re cycling two abreast you’re in the way of motorists. (HUN4)

Such social cycling was seen as properly limited in time and space, with people saying they liked to ride in a social manner, but it could or should only be done in certain places and at certain times (primarily, when there is little in the way of motor traffic):

[Of] course there’s a lot of places to cycle in London where you have not got traffic, which means you can cycle two abreast and have a chat (HAN21)

[I]f we go like two abreast […] we don’t usually go till about six half past six so the roads have quietened down so…. we can actually ride side by side (HUN21)

Cycling two abreast breaks an unwritten rule of road space – the road is not a place for socialising, but for individualised utility travel. As with many rules, this is differentially applied; cyclists may be particularly held culpable because (a) they are stigmatised and, to a lesser extent, (b) motorist behaviour is relatively invisible from outside the vehicle. Motorists are assumed to be travelling for utility purposes, while cyclists are expected to visibly behave in a ‘proper’ transport manner, which does not involve appearing to socialise.

A club cyclist interviewed made a contrasting point (often made by those involved in leisure riding); that it was safer for cyclists to ride two abreast, because the overtaking distance would be shorter:

[O]n club runs nowadays we need to be two abreast and if you’re in single file you take, it’s more than twice the distance to overtake because they’ll need to hesitate more whilst they’re doing so and then conditions will change before they get past won’t they? Probably reach a curve, a right hand bend or something. (HUS6)

In making this case, he like others was aware that many motorists (and other cyclists) disapprove of riding two abreast. However, eschewing sociality may not save cyclists: the apparently positive figure of the non-social cyclist can easily slip into the negative figure of the anti-social cyclist. Cyclists are caught between the imperative to be productive and rational (on their own, focusing solely on getting to A to B) and the stereotype of cyclists as arrogant and selfish road users, who only care about getting from A to B, not about anything in their way (Aldred and Jungnickel 2012). As a mode, the diverse benefits of cycling seem somehow to become drawbacks and sources of negativity. This is the case here in relation to its liminality and flexibility, where cyclists are required to live up to competing standards of behaviour; being a rational road user alongside being a good citizen taking care for others. While similar tensions may also exist for users of other modes, within the context of marginalisation they are most visible and most problematic for cyclists.

Utility style

In the UK, being a good ‘utility cyclist’ is never guaranteed; for the cyclist on the street, how they are classified depends upon the perceptions of others. Clothes and equipment are important. For some, looking like a ‘professional cyclist’ is the answer; but more often ‘utility cycling’ is associated with not wearing ‘cycling gear’, seen as signifying too much love for cycling and perhaps even being a ‘Lycra Lout’ (Aldred 2013a). Because of the ‘Lycra Lout’ stigma there is a common perception that drivers treat normally dressed people on bicycles better than those who look ‘professional’, although this was not supported by recent research by Walker et al (2014:69).


While looking too much ‘like a cyclist’ can bring stigma, there is pressure to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing for ‘safety’ reasons:


I wear high vis stuff, try and reduce the risk element, to make yourself visible, but still it seems there is a minority of motor drivers who do not see you. (BRN18)

[M]y raincoat is the orange one, the Karrimor orange, which is supposed to be the most visible colour. And then I’ve got a load of the snap bands, […] so I use those as reflectors on the bike and also great round your wrists for indicating left and right. (HAN21)

Conversely, there is pressure to ‘normalise’ cycling by adopting the ‘cycle chic’ look, appearing smart and attractive, rather than being part of a dubious minority of ‘cyclists’. However, people (particularly women) were acutely aware that casual dress on the bike can be read as inappropriate clothing:


If I come up against a girl in like high heels on a bike, not wearing a helmet, I’ll be more likely to try and overtake her cos I think I’ve got more right to be on the road in my helmet and my fluorescent jacket than she does, if I’m honest. (HAN18)


I put on my little work dress […] and get on in my pencil skirt really inappropriately and just cycle round the corner down to work. (HAN27)

The point here is that again unlike those using motorised transport, cyclists are routinely judged to be illegitimate travellers by their mode of dress. Looking too sporty, looking too scruffy, looking too smart or too feminine can all endanger the cyclist by casting her as not travelling in a sufficiently utilitarian manner. Conversely, failing to wear ‘safety equipment’ such as a helmet or high-visibility clothing can lead to the cyclist being seen as unprofessional (Aldred 2013a). If the dream of endless motorised mobility is impossible, the dream of utility cycling also appears dubious.

Utility and/or pleasure

However, despite the attempted construction of ‘utility cycling’ as an asocial, purely rational activity, relatively few cyclists described their cycling as having nothing to do with pleasure; this interviewee was unusual:

I use [my bicycle] as a purpose, to get from A to B, to get into the city centre and do some shopping, or go to the cinema, or call round and see a friend, or, it’s a means to an end to me. It’s not a pleasurable thing. I’ve got a friend who would not get on a bike from one year’s end to the other, and did the London to Cambridge cycle ride. I would never dream of doing that. I don’t know why, and I’ve never taken the children on sort of pleasure cycling. (CN19)

The interviewee below represents a more nuanced and more representative account. While keen to stress his ‘materialistic’ cycling, he clearly also enjoys the fact that his commute takes him through two parks. Being a ‘commuter’ in London requires one’s cycling to be purposeful, and yet commuter cyclists would simultaneously mention their enjoyment of the more pleasant (usually traffic-free or low-traffic) features of their journey:

I cycle to work every day, to and from work, which is fairly close, takes me about 14 or 15 minutes each way. Nice journey ‘cause I go through two parks, London Fields and Victoria Park, relatively cross country. I used to use a cycle more often perhaps than I do now ‘cause my mum used to live in Lincolnshire and I used to go up by train and then cycle across from the train to… So yeah, more or less just the quite materialistic approach to cycling now. […] It’s just an easy and effective way of getting around London, so it’s not necessarily… I don’t use it for very much leisure and avoid waiting for buses, tubes, it’s cheaper, so it’s… I mean, it’s quite materialistic. (HAN3)

In Hull narratives (and to some extent ones from other areas) issues around money came up often, and people would provide accounts of how they cycled partly because of a lack of a driving licence or a car, but how equally affective and emotional motivations were influential. Often in people’s narratives pleasure and utility were intertwined, as well as also sometimes separated.

I’ve used [my bicycle] for pleasure obviously from a young age of you know starting cycling really. Going through to using it for transport for work.. then going back to more pleasure again now like although I do still cycle to work but I, I, I’m getting a lot more pleasure out of it now than I used to. (HUN17)

Generally, people did not want no commute at all, and some also referred to their wish to have a longer commute (for example in Cambridge, where distances are often very short). However, clearly there was a perceived limit on commuting distance, although this depended upon the individual and also upon the quality of the route. This interviewee, who lives in Bath but works in Bristol does not commute: the only route he feels suitable for cycling is the off-road Bristol-Bath path, which is sixteen miles while the shortest road route would be under thirteen (but involve very busy sections).

I usually just get onto the train just because it’s a bit of a faff and the route’s not that beautiful that erm… I mean, that weird sort of oxbow type meander at the top of it that you can’t really get into Bristol by any other route. But erm… yeah, also it’s quite far. […] Whereas I think if it was either shorter or more beautiful then, yeah, I’d do it, I’d do it more often. (BRN24)

What the above quotes have briefly highlighted is the frequent intertwining of emotional and affective motivations for utility trips. This is unlikely to be specific to cycling; however, what is specific to cycling is the perceived controversial nature of such motivations and their threats to cycling’s tenuous position as a ‘mode of transport’.


The findings section has highlighted how people define their cycling in terms of utility, which includes casting health and other benefits in such terms. At the same time, many narratives included talk of pleasure in cycling, sometimes separated from, and sometimes joined to talk about utility-related motivations. We can see that discourses around utility are used to govern behaviour; for example, in shaping expectations of sociality, and dress codes. This concluding section links this back to the discussion of transport rationalities and argues that cyclists seem to have a greater responsibility to prove their ‘utility’ purpose than those using other modes.


Due to its historical and ongoing exclusion from traditional transport discourses, cycling struggles more than other modes to fit inside this box. Litman (2013: 2) points out that this is not an inherent feature of cycling. It is quite possible to monetise and hence model many benefits associated with cycling, including “health impacts, social equity, affordability and option value benefits, user enjoyment, and additional environmental benefits such as habitat preservation.” However, these benefits are rarely included within conventional transport models. They are usually marginalised when data is collected and when conducting transport assessments, where travel time savings continue to dominate.


This paper has pointed to some of the causes for this marginalisation and explored its impacts on individuals who cycle within a broadly hostile context. The data show how cyclists both strive and struggle to cast their transport behaviour within a broader rational choice model. While this stems partly from the specific ways in which cycling has been stigmatised, cycling stigma is shaped by broader social norms and inequalities. For example, the distinction between utility and leisure cycling draws on discourses about work (as productive and virtuous) versus consumption (as discretionary and wasteful). Here the ‘work’ of utility cycling can be seen as (potentially) productive, while the ‘play’ of the leisure cyclist becomes a waste of road space (Isin & Wood, 1999:139). Advocates have pointed out this is inconsistent. There is relatively little similar complaint made about leisure drivers obstructing others, and drivers are rarely castigated for talking while on the move. But such inequitable assumptions are likely to be deeply-rooted where cycling is marginalised.


Broader social marginalisations of those who are not AAA (Able-bodied, Affluent Adults) are reproduced in the various hierarchies of cyclists expressed in official guidance, in everyday discourse and in public understandings of cycling. Journalist Zoe Williams, arguing in London Cyclist magazine against the provision of cycle paths, says ‘drivers, once they see a cycle path, think of it as the equivalent of putting a baby in a playpen’. The road is equated with grown-up freedom, choice and rights, while cycle-specific infrastructure once again becomes child’s play. Debates around infrastructure are deeply connected to how cycling is imagined, and who is seen to be a ‘legitimate cyclist’. In the UK this has involved a vicious circle: cycling infrastructure has been historically designed for the marginalised and the weak. Such infrastructure (immortalised by website ‘Facility of the Month'[xiii]) is seen as residual provision for those unable to behave as a proper ‘road user’. Being aimed at those outside the utility paradigm, the design of such infrastructure has been consistently poor.

The underlying problem for cyclists is that – within dominant transport paradigms – their behaviour can always be interpreted as not ‘proper transport’, to a greater extent than those using other modes. Motorised travel is assumed to represent a pure time loss, balanced by a utility gain in some other respect, usually by accessing an activity. However, for cycling, the multiple benefits often cited are then problematic. Because cycling is a ‘good thing’ for so many reasons, cyclists are always at risk of falling outside the ‘pure utility’ paradigm. Hence the pressure to cast health benefits as monetary gain, rather than linking them to less easily quantifiable (and more contaminated, from the point of view of a ‘utility’ paradigm) emotional benefits. Yet focusing on ‘utility’ trips marginalises those who could gain the most health benefits: older people, whose cycling is unlikely to be ‘commuter’ and may not even be ‘utility’.

Where cycling has greater legitimacy as a transport mode, its multiple benefits may prove helpful in attracting support. Yet where cycling is so marginalised, these perceived benefits can harm its legitimisation within the transport paradigm. In The Netherlands, cycling has been most effectively integrated into policy as a mainstream mode of transport. Interviewing a representative of Fietsersbond (Dutch Cyclists’ Union), I was told:

Cycling policies is not a matter of high political difference, generally the left wing is more favourable but the smaller Christian party has a very good programme. There is a difference with the environmental movement, which is more polarised. We [Fietsersbond] do not consider ourselves part of the environment movement – we support sustainability, cycling as sustainable transport, and we do co-operate on an irregular basis, but ties are not that close. This is a conscious decision – we don’t want to be too controversial and we need the support of as many parties as possible, especially at local level. (written notes – interview not audio recorded).

It might seem that the social, health, and environmental benefits of cycling are the mark of a good citizen (Aldred 2010). However, within transport, citizenship obligations are rather etiolated. The responsibility is not to be sociable, but instead not to socialise, although it is considered acceptable for people cocooned within cars to talk, listen to music, and so on. The rational actor, elsewhere a threat to citizenship, rules the transport paradigm, despite internal critiques. This is then something for cyclists to live up to. However, for stigmatised modes such as cycling, the rational actor model can easily become negative. The figure of the hardened fast cycling commuter is criticised as being aggressive, thoughtless, selfish, risky and so on within cycling advocacy movements and by the media and the public. Yet this is the model that cycling is still often made to fit, in order to be considered within transport planning and modelling. It carries often contradictory assumptions about how individual cyclists should look and behave on the roads.

This article has focused on cycling, and in particular how it is cast as lacking within a utility-dominated transport paradigm. However, I would not suggest that other forms of transport fit without problems into the utility box. Other forms of transport can have leisure associations; from ‘going for a drive’ to using bus travel as a means of seeing scenic areas. Just as cycling and walking are not ‘slow modes’ in congested cities, neither is cycling is inherently irrational or non-rational. But dominant policy-focused constructions of transport cast it in this way, while the non-utility associations of other modes are obscured. This is backed up by modelling approaches and (lack of) data collection. The point implies a need for a broader re-thinking of modelling and planning paradigms, which might have particular benefits for understanding cycling but would also enhance understanding of other modes.


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I would like to thank Katrina Jungnickel who worked with me on the Cycling Cultures project, the ESRC for funding the project, and all the participants. Additional thanks to the editors, peer reviewers, and journal manager for their contribution.



[i] For example, in-car technologies to limit speeds to legal levels are in practical terms unproblematic, but politically far more difficult to implement.

[ii] There is also guidance as to how to calculate the proportion of time savings that are likely to involve a reduction in working time ‘lost’.

[iii] This was around half the distance then travelled by rail, and a quarter of that travelled by bus or coach, despite the latter two modes being used for long distance as well as shorter trips.

[iv] ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, published 1963, recommending the closure of many branch lines and services.

[v] This leaves aside sports cycling, which like leisure cycling is seen as non-utility.

[vi] However, there is no reasonable alternative in this case.

[vii] See for example http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/a-modern-amsterdam-roundabout/#comment-6142

[viii] More information can be found in other papers and in our project report.

[ix] The 2011 Census confirms a slight improvement in cycle commuting gender balance, from a gender ratio of 1.7 to 1.6 (representing how much more likely male commuters are to cycle to work than are female commuters).

[x] It is interesting to reflect on whether drivers would feel such ambivalence.

[xi] Its associated stereotypes lie elsewhere.

[xii] From personal communication with practitioners, the large benefits are seen as implausible. On one hand, the linear relationships in HEAT may indeed overstate benefits; on the other hand, there may also be a failure to acknowledge that in principle health might trump time savings.

[xiii] http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pete.meg/wcc/facility-of-the-month/

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2 Responses to A Matter of Utility? Rationalising cycling, cycling rationalities

  1. Glenn Stewart says:

    Hi Rachel

    Very sorry but this link doesn’t seem to work:

    European Network for Cycling Expertise (2003) Cycling and Leisure and Tourism. PDF file, available at http://www.velo.info/Library/Cycling_Leisure_Tourism.pdf

    Would you mind either sending me the link or article if you have it pls?

    Thanks v much


    • admin says:

      Hi Glen
      Sorry – yes you’re right, the site doesn’t seem to be available any more. I should be able to dig out a copy of the paper.
      best wishes

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