A Matter of Utility? Rationalising cycling, cycling rationalities

I have just heard that an article of mine has been accepted for publication in Mobilities journal. Once it’s in press, I can upload an author version. In the meantime, I am happy to send anyone who’s interested a copy. Here’s the abstract:

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 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.

and, from the conclusion (much improved thanks to three very helpful peer reviewers…)

‘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’.


It might seem that the social, health, and environmental benefits of cycling are the mark of a good citizen. However, within transport, citizenship obligations are rather etiolated. 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.’

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

  1. Jim Moore says:

    Hi Rachel,
    Would you please send me a copy as I would like to read more about how you suggest treating the health benefits.

    • admin says:

      Hi Jim

      I will send you a copy, but I thought it might be worth saying something here about my views. I’m afraid the article being a Sociology piece doesn’t offer any practical ways forward 😉 However for what it’s worth, here’s some quick thoughts on the problem…

      One motivation for writing the article has been the fact that for 20+ years in the UK, cycling has been described as ‘healthy’ by policy-makers. One widely cited figure claims that health benefits of cycling are in the realm of 20:1. And yet, this does not seem to have translated into policy support and uptake. So I wondered why this was (as you might think that people’s lives and health are or should be pretty important for policy).

      Some (not all by any means) public health academics are pretty bullish about monetising health economic benefits within traditional transport cost benefit analysis. Indeed, I’ve been told that health economic benefits will always look so big that this will compel policy to support cycling. But, as above, this doesn’t seem to happen.

      Briefly here are two reasons. One, even many sympathetic transport modellers/appraisers I speak to don’t take the big health numbers seriously. Maybe they should. (After all, predicted travel time savings are pretty silly numbers, and the appraisal process relies on those). But the fact remains that they often don’t.

      The second reason for caution is that the health economic benefits don’t always come out on top. TfL cost-benefit analysis found cycle infrastructure that involves taking space from motor traffic may well still come out negative, even if health is included, because travel time savings are rated so highly. So I worry that if health gets placed within an economic paradigm to evaluate infrastructural plans, this can actually count against making space for cycling at the expense of cars (because not delaying motorists is prioritised within the CBA).

      I’d agree with David Metz that transport CBA is fundamentally flawed because its central reliance on travel time savings is so problematic. So if I were talking about health, I’d keep it in qualitative and/or quantitative health terms – I think it’s more powerful. What kind of people are we, if we find “£15 million health economic benefits will be gained” more convincing than “Three people’s lives will be saved”? (Obviously communicating extending life and reducing ill health is a bit more complex, but still quite possible). I’d support the use of multi-criteria analysis in this way rather than the creation of an economic value figure that hides the inflation and prioritisation of travel time benefits, which many insiders argue are very problematic.

      There’s lots more I could say, but I think I’ll stop there. Maybe a future blog post?

  2. Martin Parkinson says:

    within transport, citizenship obligations are rather etiolated.
    That is such a nice example of pointed academic phraseology – the whole stinking mess we’ve made encapsulated in a few, very dry, words.

  3. Catherine Swift says:

    Hi, could I have a copy of this please, sounds very interesting.

  4. Alistair Sheldrick says:

    Hi Rachel. Could I have a copy of this too? I’m doing my Masters thesis on cycling policy and this would be really useful.

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