Cycling & Society collection, in Journal of Transport Geography

I’ve just signed off the upcoming Special Section of the Journal of Transport Geography on Cycling and Society. The papers are already appearing online here although the Collection will be officially published in August. Big thanks to Tim Schwanen and Karen Lucas as well as all the authors and peer reviewers who helped out. I’ll be putting together a parallel open access version with ‘accepted author versions’ of papers, for people without access to the journal, which should be available by August also.

Here’s the introduction I’ve just sent to the journal (this isn’t the definitive version, which will be tweaked and formated by the journal, but it probably won’t change much). It feels particularly topical today.

Guest editorial
Cycling and Society

This special section was developed from a selection of the papers presented at the ninth Cycling and Society Symposium, held at the University of East London on Monday 3rd and Tuesday 4th September 2012. The Symposium provides a multi-disciplinary space where all aspects of cycling can be discussed, also enabling discussion between academics, advocates and practitioners. While all deal with high- or middle-income country contexts, these papers come from nations with very different levels of cycling, and the methods employed range from ethnography to cycle route mapping. The writers range from more experienced academics well known in the field to PhD students, demonstrating both the maturity and the vitality of cycling research.

Cycling as a mode of transport generates multiple benefits, some of which accrue to users themselves while others involve broader social, economic, health and environmental impacts (Woodcock et al., 2007). However, during the century of the car, cycling struggled to survive in most rich countries. It was marginalised both in terms of carriageway space and in terms of how we think about transport. In the UK the key ‘Traffic in Towns’ report (Buchanan, 1963) virtually ignored cycling; when it discussed non-car modes this was almost exclusively in terms of public transport and walking. Transport policy simply did not address cycling. While cars and public transport commanded academic and policy attention, cycling was allowed to disappear.

In high-cycling countries within the Global North, despite similar trends, cycling remained high enough to be rescued through political advocacy, with protests in Denmark and The Netherlands during the 1970s securing policy change in favour of cycling (Aldred, 2012). In the UK, cycling rapidly slid from 12% to 1% of distance travelled by the early 1970s and advocacy failed to redress the decline. All mass motorised societies face a constant struggle to restrain car use, with demand for car parking threatening the provision of cycling infrastructure and increasing danger for cyclists. However, in countries where cycling escaped extreme marginalisation, it was at least sometimes possible to debate these trade-offs. In lower-cycling contexts, they often remained invisible, with stakeholders from elected representatives to policy officers and road engineers simply not considering cycling.

Too often, low-cycling countries still reinforce the status quo by assigning cycling very low levels of intermittent short-term funding, and by failing to ensure high-level commitment to cycling (hence people charged with delivery, however individually committed, lack the power as well as the resources to succeed). In these contexts, cycling is doubly problematic. Firstly, it is politically marginalised because it is seen as not involving high-profile prestige projects (unlike, for example, high speed rail); secondly, when cycling projects are proposed, they are seen as ‘too expensive’ because cycling provision by definition is seen as ‘cheap’.

However, current developments suggest the potential to change this trajectory. In the UK, London has seen a substantial increase in funding for cycling and a greater stress on the role of the state in providing for cycling.
The shift in London is not purely incremental; rather, I would argue, it marks a (still partial and contested) break with the more traditional view within the UK that cycling is an individual activity to be promoted or encouraged rather than collectively provided for (Aldred, 2012). A qualitative shift in governance can be identified alongside specific changes in policy content. Cycling has begun to enter a new sphere; one in which talk of a system or service becomes possible, and where the public authorities are the key actors responsible for ensuring the continuation and quality of this service. This situation already exists in high-cycling countries, and cycling can appear as part of a normalised (and, of course, still car-dominated and high-carbon) transport system, where different politicians may have different policies but none would explicitly oppose or ignore cycling.

London still has a long way to go, and at a national level such a shift in governance is yet to happen. The question remains open whether change in London will enable change in other parts of the UK. There are signs of similar shifts in a small number of other UK cities, such as Bristol. Even if London does experience the promised ‘cycling revolution’, will advocates and others be able to translate this experience to other places in the UK that lack London’s specific institutional, political, spatial and economic contexts? The answer is yet to be determined, although there are signs that planners in at least a few other UK cities (such as Southampton) are drawing upon what happens in London. What counts as a ‘similar enough’ context to learn from is never simply ‘there’; such similarities are created, challenged, and denied by advocates, policy-makers and academics. Moreover, London’s position as a global city means change there may shape developments in other countries North and South. Political connections, and lessons taken from successes and failures, are not predetermined but are the subject of repeated contestation.

Change is in the air not just in the UK but also in other traditionally low-cycling countries such as the US, and mid-ranking countries such as Germany. This is not limited to the Global North; Jones and Novo de Azevedo’s paper here deals with Brazil, but some practitioners and policy-makers in other middle-income countries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America are recognising cycling as a potential counterbalance to rapid motorisation and the health burden and inequalities that accompany it. More money and more political recognition do not guarantee more cycling, but they do help to ensure that cycling enters policy debates and that advocates have access to a recognised policy vocabulary, which can be used to make the case for cycling in particular contexts. This case needs to be made and remade, until cycling is more thoroughly normalised; a burden on advocates whose usually unpaid work is often little recognised.

Much remains to be done; for example, often researchers and policy-makers lack tools to establish the quality of cycling environments, and to establish how equally distributed access to good cycling environments is. The definition of an acceptable or good cycling environment still needs to be debated outside the higher-cycling countries. In the UK, ‘presence of a cycle lane’ has traditionally been entered into models and evaluations, as a marker of a good cycling environment, despite (a) the widely varying quality of cycle lanes and (b) evidence that it is in fact separation from fast or heavy motor traffic that people value, not a ‘cycle lane facility’ in itself (which may not imply any such separation).

More broadly, cycling is frequently marginalised within modelling and evaluation studies. In higher-cycling countries, this may not matter so much: political decisions to fund cycling can be taken without reference to privileged sources of evidence produced through modelling and evaluation. However, in lower-cycling countries, the continued use of modelling and evaluation tools that fail to deal adequately with cycling can lead to a lack of understanding of how to achieve the needed step-change, and a failure to sufficiently shift policy. This may change as cycling moves up the political agenda. The importance of public transport in London has encouraged the development of tools to calculate and compare access to public transport, and more accurately predict the impact of interventions and other changes.

In London, there is still no comparable tool for cycling. Transport for London analysis has found that 4.3 million trips per average day are ‘potentially cyclable’ (depending upon distance, load carried, time of day, and traveller age and disability). Yet unlike public transport modelling, there is as yet no tool that can tell us what proportion of those 4.3 million trips could be cycled based on access to acceptable levels of cycling service. (When I asked a group of London transport modellers what they thought the proportion was, their answers ranged from 10% to 90%). Advocates in low-cycling contexts have long argued that children should have a right to cycle to school, a right denied when cycling environments are unpleasant and/or dangerous. Three questions could be asked in order to implement this ‘right’. Are school cycling environments uniformly good? If not, are policy-makers able to compare schools, ranking them according to the proportion of children with access to acceptably safe and quick school cycle routes? Does this then lead to policy action? If the answer to all three questions is ‘no’, then this shows us something about the real importance of cycling within transport policy, in contrast to policy rhetoric.

The papers in the collection all have strong policy relevance. Chatterjee et al.’s contribution draws upon a policy programme in England, Cycling City and Towns, to analyse how life course events shape responses to infrastructural and policy changes. They highlight the importance of key triggers, including life events in a number of domains (education, employment, family, residential, health, leisure). Such life events can lead to people thinking about how they travel, rather than relying upon habit. Sometimes this leads to a reduction in cycling; for example, when children are young. However, many such potential transition points can, where cycling environments are of sufficient quality, provide an opportunity for swift uptake of cycling. There are lessons here for countries and cities genuinely seeking a step change in cycling from a low base.

In London, cycling advocacy by both established and newer organisations, networks, and individuals has played a key role in shifting cycling policy discourses and practices. My own article in this collection explores how a new movement, called ‘Londoners on Bikes’, sought to negotiate the multiple conflicts, barriers and stigmas associated with cycling and cycling activism in a low-cycling context. It recognises the importance of new and old groups in changing the political landscape of cycling in London and the UK. The use of the internet and social media to share information, critique plans, and offer alternatives has been crucial to the rise of the ‘new cycling advocacy’, and has also helped to reinvigorate more established organisations. New possibilities for cycling encompass both infrastructures and identities, involving interconnected cultural and distributional claims. The paper also highlights the spread of expertise about cycling, and the high level of knowledge now present in advocacy circles. More research could usefully explore how this expertise could be drawn upon to develop, for example, approaches to evaluating cycling environments and to evaluating the impact of interventions.

Also exploring advocacy within a low-cycling context, Lugo discusses the impact of CicLAvia in Los Angeles. On a CicLAvia Sunday, the city authorities temporarily remove cars from a network of LA streets, enabling a diverse range of people to walk, skate, run, scoot and cycle on those streets instead. Lugo, an ethnographer studying the CicLAvia movement from within, considers its transformative potential, not just in enabling a much wider demographic to see LA by bike, but also in providing a distinctive view from the city, challenging traditional car-centric perspectives and offering a glimpse of an alternative.

Lugo’s analysis explores how the marginalisation of cycling intersects with other forms of exclusion and oppression, such as ‘race’, gender and class, and the potential of events to challenge (or reinforce) multiple marginalisations. Her paper raises questions about cycling and equality, and the need for greater consideration of cycling as an unequal system (like other transport systems). One useful avenue for research to pursue here might be the ongoing social and cultural impact of bicycle sharing schemes, which could potentially greatly broaden access to bicycles yet may in practice not reach poorer communities.

Writing about the Brazilian context, Jones and Novo de Azevedo explore struggles to embed cycling within a more pluralistic transport system. Currently in Brazil, cyclists remain often ‘invisible’, with transport cyclists largely comprised of low-income males while higher-income groups cycle only for leisure or for sport. Jones and Novo de Azevedo discuss how cycling fits – or does not fit – in the context of ongoing social and material transformation. Using focus group, interview and observational data, they stress the importance of developing a culture where cycling is seen as a normal part of Brazilian mobile identity. This they see as crucial in enabling the development of suitable infrastructural and policy programmes to support cycling. Like Lugo’s paper, this article poses questions about the relationship of cycling to various sorts of identity (national, local, ethnic), suggesting a need for more comparative work on how different types of social (and political) identity can be articulated with different cycling identities.

Of course, there exist countries where cycling is strongly attached to national identity. One such is Denmark. Writing from the high-cycling city of Copenhagen, Jensen explores the potentially exclusionary side of a context where cycling is associated with dominant city mobilities. She uses a Foucauldian framework and the concept of ‘borderwork’ to explore how meanings associated with urban mobile subjectivity shape experiences of cycle routes. She finds that policy and policy-makers target three categories of mobile subject, all presented as representing something essential about Copenhagen identity; commuters, active urbanites and middle-class families. While Copenhagen’s cycling policies are in many ways very progressive, they simultaneously embody the needs and approaches of particular groups, with Copenhageners with immigrant backgrounds making relatively little use of the cycle track network.

Jensen challenges us to explore the potentially negative impacts of pro-cycling policies, which is important if we are to mitigate these effects. In many cities, for example, high land prices force poorer citizens out of the central and even inner city areas. Distance and generally poorer bike infrastructure can then limit their access to what should be an empowering and democratic form of transport. Research could explore ways of counteracting this, whether through land use planning, investment in very high quality cycle infrastructure and public transport connections, and/or policies aimed at countering growing income inequalities.

Also writing about Copenhagen, Snizek and colleagues map and analyse cyclists’ experiences, good and bad. Snizek et al’s online survey enabled cyclists to map their routes, finding significant associations between cycling experiences and the road environment, cycling facilities, environmental factors, annoyances, congestion and deviations from the most direct route. As the authors comment, these kinds of methods are increasingly popular.
Processes affecting advocacy, referred to above – the growing use of social media and sharing of information about cycle routes – have opened up promising avenues for research. Snizek et al’s approach could be used to model how infrastructural changes might affect cycling experiences, positively or negatively, although in lower-cycling environments it would need some adaptation to take account of the preferences of those currently excluded from cycling. However, if such adaptation were made this could be a useful tool in exploring how changing infrastructure (or other changes such as creating a park or a market) might enhance the experience of cycling particular routes, perhaps to the extent of attracting a substantial number of new cyclists. Combined with knowledge about journey patterns, this could help prioritise investments in countries seeking to increase cycling from a low base.

Van Duppen and Spierings also discuss cycling experiences in a high-cycling context, Utrecht in The Netherlands. They use qualitative methods, conducting ride-alongs with fifteen cyclists to explore embodied experiences of cycling (sensescapes) and contrasting these with planners’ perspectives on cycle routes. In The Netherlands the ride-along methodology is facilitated by high-quality infrastructure making it easy to ride side-by-side and converse while so doing. Van Duppen and Spierings note the importance of the ‘mental journey’, enabled by less intense sensescapes that leave space for thinking and daydreaming. Their in-depth ethnographic work complements Snizek et al’s paper, providing an enhanced understanding of why cyclists prefer some types of environments. Such qualitative evidence can also help challenge sometimes rigid categorisation of ‘types of cyclist’, and demonstrate the fluidity with which people might move between such categories, with implications for policy and planning.

All these papers help us think about cycling in its social context, challenging us to consider (and counteract) potentially negative impacts of cycling policies (here, discussed in relation to infrastructure provision, but one could also consider policies such as cycle training, or land use policies aimed at facilitating cycling), even at their most progressive. They challenge us to ask, what is cycling policy for? How can cycling be mainstreamed into the broader governance of transport while still holding on to its potential to enable progressive policies in other areas; to (for example) help reduce economic, social or health inequalities, or assist the decarbonisation of the transport system more broadly? The papers further demonstrate the diverse range of methods that can be used to understand cycling, and the relationships between cycling environments and research methods. Another productive connection links research and advocacy, with the rise of cycle blogging paralleled by the use of online methods to study cycling.

Many challenges lie ahead for policy, research, and advocacy, especially in the low-cycling countries. If we are to substantially increase cycling levels, more qualitative and quantitative data will be needed to inform policy, as will the better integration of cycling and data about cycling into different types of transport models and evaluation frameworks. We need to draw upon research in different countries and contexts, to conduct more comparative research, and more research in the Global South. This collection gives some indication of the growing research base in a range of disciplines, and provides examples of how research about cycling is already contributing to shaping policy in a range of contexts.

Aldred, R. (2012) The Role of Advocacy and Activism, in John Parkin (ed.) Cycling and Sustainability, 2012, Emerald, Bingley, pp.83-108.
The Buchanan Report (1963) Traffic in Towns. The Specially Shortened Edition. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Transport for London (2010) Analysis of Cycling Potential. London: Transport for London, available from
Woodcock, J., Banister, D., Edwards, P., Prentice, A.M., Roberts, I. (2007) Energy and transport. Lancet, 370(9592), pp. 1078-88.

Rachel Aldred
Department of Planning and Transport
School of Architecture and the Built Environment
University of Westminster
35 Marylebone Road
London, United Kingdom
E-mail address:

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