The complexities of the ‘committed cyclist’ in times of change

Returning to qualitative sociology…
NVivo screen This post is written partly in belated dialogue with Dave Horton’s excellent Cycling Struggles series, which I’d urge people to read if they haven’t yet done so. More immediately, it’s a response to my going back to the Cycling Cultures data this morning, doing some re-analysis for a new project I’m working on, Changing Commutes. Going over the data again I have that how-on-earth-can-I-talk-about-this-without-doing-violence-to-what-people-say feeling, the fear of tearing apart the richness of the long transcripts (which, of course, have already lost a lot in transcription – the bald word ‘laughter’ in its square brackets, regularly re-appearing, standing for a variety of social interactions). With the caveat that these remain my interpretations (albeit influenced by many others) which will develop as I continue my re-analysis, here goes…

The Understanding Walking and Cycling Project (from which Dave’s data comes) has had a major impact on UK cycle advocacy, in part through its analysis of the huge infrastructural and cultural barriers to cycling identified within its four case study cities; Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, and Worcester. All four of these places are fairly typical of the UK in terms of cycling levels: all had low rates of cycling to work in 2011 (1.9%-4.4%; against an English average of 3.1%), while only one of the four (Leeds) saw an increase in cycling to work between 2001 and 2011, albeit a rise from 1.4% to 1.9%. The Cycling Cultures project was rather different in focusing on places with less usual cycling trajectories. These were Bristol and Hackney (East London), where the percentage cycling to work has almost doubled (Bristol, to 8.1%) or trebled (Hackney, to 15.6%) between 2001 and 2011, Cambridge (where already high cycling levels increased further – one in three commutes by Cambridge residents is now by bike) and Hull, where cycling has declined but still in 2011 stood at over 8% of commutes.

The two research projects are thus complementary and both, I would say, can help us understand and change cycling. Cycling is in trouble at the national level, I think it’s fair to say. We are still not seeing anywhere near the level of money and high level commitment that we need for cycling to grow. However, there are places in the UK where cycling is growing, is seeing higher (if still usually insufficient) levels of investment and is (albeit contested) on the political agenda. Ultimately, it’ll need national support to bring fundamental change, but, local change can be a part of making that happen. And to promote local change we need to understand both what happens when change isn’t happening, and when it is. Hence the need, I believe, for data from the different settings.

Dave’s ‘Cycling Struggles’ series raises a variety of important issues; one thing it does is to develop the concept, used in the Understanding Walking and Cycling report, of the ‘Committed Cyclist’ (sometimes described more broadly as a ‘cyclist’ identity). Dave argues that cycling advocacy has in the UK ‘[produced] a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class).’ In ‘Cycling Struggles: 9’, Dave links this to the kind of persona needed to ‘be a cyclist’ in the UK, writing about three ‘committed cyclists’ who have adjusted well to the everyday jockeying for position with cars, trucks, and buses that characterises many UK cycling environments. Dave argues that the committed cyclist has come to enjoy and perhaps celebrate these experiences, which become a badge of identity and a means of reinforcing one’s membership of a subculture. The committed cyclist does not want change, because of the identity threat this implies.

I’d agree with much of Dave’s analysis (for example, in terms of the tendency of both organisations and individuals to adapt to, reinforce and even celebrate a status quo that disadvantages them), so why do I feel uneasy at the concept of the ‘committed cyclist’? Maybe because in the Cycling Cultures data people so often referred to similar ways of describing cyclist identities, and they usually did this while disavowing these identities and seeing them as pejorative (“I’m not a committed cyclist”/”I’m not a bike nut”/ “I’m not a proper cyclist”). From the start this made me a bit worried about using it to classify people.

I think one question I’d raise about the ‘committed cyclist’ identity is whether, at heart, it classifies people or positions. While agreeing with much of Dave’s characterisation of the ‘committed cyclist’ or ‘cyclist’ identity, based on my reading of Cycling Cultures transcripts, I’d tend to see it in more fluid terms, as a persona / discourse / strategy that the people involved may adopt in some contexts (which might be a ride, an interview situation, a conversation…) but which they potentially may challenge or disavow in other situations or at other times. Challenges to the ‘committed cyclist’ position – like Dave’s own work, or the work of many advocates – can thus provide individuals with new ways of framing and articulating their cycling experiences and calling for change.

Going over some Bristol transcripts, it struck me that many interviewees both drew on, and challenged, the ‘committed cyclist’ identity to some extent. They were not single-mindedly celebrating their ability to duck and dodge motor traffic, but were more ambivalent about what one has to do to survive as a cyclist in the UK (both literally and in terms of strategies of identity maintenance). For example, consider the following two extracts from Allison’s interview transcript (all names are pseudonyms). Allison could be considered a ‘committed cyclist’; a non-car owner who rides for many of her journeys, she is willing to ride on the road and refers to the ‘adrenalin’ of cycling with traffic:

I’m often in meetings and people go, “Oh God, I couldn’t cycle. Oh God, the thought of it” and erm… I can understand them but at the same time it’s quite exhilarating.

I go on the cycle path and then I get to a stretch where I’ve got, you know, a bit of road where I’m, you know, going to be in with the traffic and I feel my heart pumping and then I get nervous but then I think that’s a good thing because that means I’m always aware of the danger, you know.

Allison admits to being nervous ‘every time I get on my bike’ because of the need to mix with motor traffic, even if she can simultaneously find it ‘exhilarating’. She advises friends and family to cycle but, she says, she tells them that commuting can be relatively easy as ‘you only want to go this one route’ while advising them that they can walk any problematic bits remaining on what they have decided is their ‘best route’. While in many respects she might seem a ‘committed cyclist’, this identity is not unproblematic; it encompasses nervousness and (as with many interviewees) she describes a tendency to divert to the pavement (either still riding or temporarily dismounted) where roads are felt to be too intimidating.

Another form of ambivalence in relation to the law this time, in this extract from Carolyn:

[I]f a cyclist, you know, breaks a rule and kind of goes up on a pavement or something, then they’re nowhere near as damaging as a motorist that runs a red light and smashes into somebody. It’s like, and I’m not saying I agree with it, and I don’t jump red lights myself, but erm… you know, just the whole kind of tarring with the same brush, but you do, you see idiotic cyclists riding round in the middle of the night, no lights, black clothes, weaving in and out, hopping up and down. You’re just like, “You’re just, you are asking to be knocked off, really”. You know, I’m not saying I want you to be and what have you, but it is just stupidity erm… but cyclists, you know, are kind of erm… Day-Glo wearing, you know, more safety conscious, I guess, they’re a bit more aware of what they’re doing than the other road users around them.

In this extract, Carolyn expresses what seem to be contradictory positions at the same time, in using boundary maintenance to reconcile cycling stigma and her own feeling of unfairness. She –
(i) Argues that cyclists are less dangerous than other road users.
(ii) States that even so, she herself does not break the law.
(iii) Characterises a ‘problem cyclist’ who breaches various legal and moral norms and is ‘asking to be knocked off’.
(iv) Says that cyclists are morally better in general than other road users.

Elsewhere, Carolyn makes a distinction between ‘cyclists’ (like herself’) and ‘people who ride bikes’ (associated with the ‘ninja cyclist’ characterisation she makes in the extract above). So far, so ‘committed cyclist’, as here:

[I]f it’s a flat piece of road, I’ll quite happily go along at like eighteen, twenty miles an hour. You can’t do that on a shared, shared pavement thing because it’s just too dangerous.

Despite her stated preference for faster routes, however, rather than choosing an on-road route to work, Carolyn had until recently commuted on the Bristol-Bath railway path, a pleasant traffic-free shared route into the centre of Bristol (much better in quality than a shared pavement, but still not a route where one can expect 20mph speeds at peak times). She spoke about how she had enjoyed the route, and was still struggling to find a route for her commute to her new workplace, which will be much more on-road.

What was also interesting about Carolyn’s transcript – and present in some of the other transcripts with female interviewees – was the way in which expressing an ‘assertive’ cycling identity could be experienced as a liberating break from gender norms. While clearly current cycling conditions discourage more women than men, some women can draw on the ‘committed cyclist’ discourse and take some strength from it. Carolyn again:

I could be quite stroppy and kind of, you know (laughs) strong minded, and I’m just kind of like, at some point you kind of get intimidated by people, and you’re just like, “No. I’m not having this. You can wait your turn, you know. Wag your finger at…” erm… just kind of you know, edge out and go, “No. Wait. Sit behind me” and I mean it helps that I, I mean, I’m not a speed demon, but I’m certainly not the kind of bimbling along kind of, you know, I wear Lycra in the morning because I get sweaty because I am pushing it, because basically, I’m like, “Well, I’ve got to get to work”, you know.

(The implications of privileging particular types of ‘commuter cycling’, and how this might reinforce particular cycling identities, will be the subject of a forthcoming paper.)

In the Bristol data I was re-reading, I was also reminded of how often people could put themselves in others’ cycling shoes: either as with Allison’s comments about advising colleagues to walk difficult sections of a route, or in drawing broader conclusions about policy and infrastructural change. I would link this to the changes in cycling under way in Bristol, as in London and some other cities, which I guess weren’t happening in the Understanding Walking and Cycling case study cities. In Bristol, cycling was going up (although, as in London, still concentrated in particular demographics, areas, and trip types) and people we spoke to often had talked to friends or family about cycling. The restricted (and restrictive) in-group identity found by Dave had therefore started to weaken; the category of ‘cyclists’ was less stable and to some extent less exclusive.

One way in which people are able to move beyond the ‘committed cyclist’ viewpoint was as they consider their own abilities and what they might be capable of as they get older, perhaps linking this to friends and family who might want to cycle. Another classic example of the ‘committed cyclist’ speaking for ‘the other’ is where a parent talks about cycling with their children (or not being able to). From Darren’s transcript:

If I’m on a bike on my own and I need to get somewhere I’ll just jump on my bike, head off and then make it up as I go along. With the kids I’m much more careful, planning routes and knowing where we’re going to go in advance, thinking it through, what’s going to be…

Darren later referred to debates over cycling infrastructure, saying:

I mean, everyone says the roads are too small for cycle lanes and all this sort of stuff and there’s pro and anti cycle lane people. In most places they’re not too small, even a place like Bristol, on small roads you don’t need cycle lanes, they’re quiet roads. The big roads where there is space you do and there is space for them.

So what can we learn from these apparent differences between the two datasets? I’d say, that where cycling remains highly marginal, ‘cyclists’ are likely to be constructed very differently to non-cyclists; as Dave says in Cycling Struggles 9:

The moment at which someone keeps riding when/where most others would not dare, that’s the moment of becoming a cyclist.

(And, I would agree with Dave, that mindset also made its way into understandings of cycling advocacy).

However, in places where cycling is growing, albeit still marginalised and underfunded, things may be a bit different. In London, for example, although mode share remains low, 11% now say they ride a bicycle once a week or more, and there is substantial turnover: so there are a lot of people who’d like to cycle regularly but haven’t tried it yet, or have tried it but given up. In Bristol, with its 8% of people cycling to work, many of these will be new or relatively recent cyclists; they are not all a long-standing minority in the same way people might be in lower-cycling contexts. People who cycle in these kinds of contexts are searching for new cycling identities; trying (in still often very difficult conditions) to be a person who rides a bike without becoming ‘a cyclist’ in the traditional sense. The ‘committed cyclist’ discourse / persona / strategy is still there in a lot of the Cycling Cultures transcripts, as a way of coping with current cycling environments, yet the same people may also disavow it, put forward alternative positions, or act in apparently contradictory ways.

At least in places where cycling is on the policy agenda, it is becoming more possible for people to cycle without being a ‘committed’ cyclist – or perhaps without even being a ‘cyclist’; in a paper on Londoners on Bikes, I discuss how people instead might talk about being a ‘Londoner’ or a ‘commuter’. Alternative cycling identities provide different positions from which to make political claims; the ‘committed cyclist’ is only one alternative that people may draw on.

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5 Responses to The complexities of the ‘committed cyclist’ in times of change

  1. Gareth Rees says:

    You say that in Cambridge “one in three commutes is now by bike” but that’s very misleading. In the 2011 census, 18.1% of Cambridge residents (30% of residents who commute) said that their main method of commuting was by bike. But many (probably most) commuters in Cambridge are not Cambridge residents: they commute in from the surrounding villages and towns, primarily by car. This survey by Cambridge City Council found that only 31% of employees surveyed were Cambridge residents (see table 5.13).

    Combining these two figures is difficult (because students were included in the 2011 Census, but omitted from the survey), but I think a realistic figure for the proportion of Cambridge commutes by bicycle would be under 20%. It’s important not to fool ourselves with our own propaganda.

    • admin says:

      Sorry, sure, 1 in 3 Cambridge residents who commute (I’ve altered to make clear). You’re right – similarly, the figures for the other places are for how residents of those places travel to work, not for all incoming commuters. (For Bristol, it’d certainly be under 8% if we said all commuters rather than all residents). It would be possible to use the Census to give percentages for all commuting into Cambridge (and other places), but usually the resident figure is given for comparison, although I agree it’s not the whole picture.

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