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Local pockets of hope?


A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a research group at the hospital in Cambridge. This was an interesting group because, as scientists and students, I knew they would mostly not be from Cambridge originally, but would have moved there relatively recently for professional reasons. So, at one point, I asked the assembled people to indicate, with a show of hands, how many had started cycling after moving to Cambridge precisely because it was Cambridge. In other words, I asked the group to show whether they had said to themselves something like, "Because cycling is something that people in Cambridge do, now that I live here I should start to cycle too". I was intrigued to see that the majority of the people in the room agreed with this.

There are various things that we might take from this. First, perhaps it reminds us that it is quite possible for a single town or city to have a fundamentally different transport culture from the rest of the country. Of course, whilst this "Cambridge effect" shows that having a town in which cycling is not somehow 'deviant' can indeed happen, it of course leaves wide open the question of how this culture is put in place originally - information that would have been very useful when the Cycling Demonstration Towns project was conceived. Many would no doubt point to the fact that places like Cambridge and Oxford are relatively small and flat. In particular, I suspect many people would point to these cities' large student populations. This latter point seems particularly interesting, and I could easily believe that a transient population, which knows it is only in a city for a few years, much more easily buys into (and reinforces) a transport choice that bolsters their feelings of belonging to something 'special'. This seems particularly plausible when we consider that buying into the culture of cycling upon going to study at Oxford or Camrbidge is clearly only a temporary commitment.

But then, I ask myself, if all that were true, how do we explain the fact so many people who grew up in Cambridge - and who might plausibly want to distance themselves from 'incomers' - also cycle? Perhaps above all, if we want to suggest that a transient population is important in bolstering a cycling culture, how do we explain the existence of so much cycling in, say, York, where there is much less transience? Sure, York has a university, but as a graduate of that university I know that it is much more incidental to the character and population of the city than the universities are in Oxbridge. There is a military base near the city too, which also offers the prospect of a transient population, but in reality the the soldiers again represent a small part of the population; you could easily spend a lot of time in the city without noticing they are there.

Whatever the reason, perhaps we should more often look at cities like these and take comfort from the reminder that a city's approach to transport can feasibly be markedly different from the rest of the country. In particular, it perhaps says to us that no matter how hostile to increased cycling the nation might be as a whole (and all signs suggest that the current government is, amazingly, even more anti-cycling than the last), efforts to increase the amount of everyday cycling might still usefully proceed in one small area at a time.

And there's also something else that we might take from the finding that people start cycling because they are aware that it is locally normal: when people move to a place where a culture of cycling exists, they can in many cases happily accept it. Upon learning that they were moving to Cambridge, those hospital workers could just as easily have said something like "I might be going to Cambridge, but there's no way I'm going to start riding a bike like all those freaks who live there now!" But they didn't, and nor, I suspect, did they receive any ribbing from their friends about how they'd soon be pedaling their way from place to place.

But do you know, as I started to jot down some thoughts about what I might learn from those people in Cambridge - thoughts which eventually became this rambling and confused blog post - I found myself wondering if I might have got the wrong end of the stick. Could the existence of these few cities where cycling is acceptable really be telling us the opposite to what I've suggested? Are these pockets of 'cycling normality' really showing us that cycling is easily relegated to a minority of relatively unusual locales, just as it is relegated to a minority of individuals? Could a less historic, more 'average', city ever develop such a culture? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Please do let me know what you think in the comments section because I've thought about this topic on and off for the past month and just can't make up my mind what conclusions I should draw.

A research psychologist by day, Ian spends quite a lot of time on bikes, particularly commuting between Bristol and Bath or doing audax rides. For years he was an ultradistance runner, but this came to an end when he realised getting back onto a bicycle offered the chance to race over much more preposterous distances. In recent years he has ridden in the Transcontinental Race, the TransWales and the North Cape 4000. He has even finished first in some of these. 

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Paul M | 12 years ago

In Oxford, Cambridge and perhaps even York, the cycling culture might largely be attributed to the academic environment.

Another factor which boosts (or certainly has until fairly recently boosted) cycling is a major industrial site with a dense surrounding population, particularly well illustrated by dockyards.

There was a time when only the bravest would stand outside the main gates to the Royal Dockyards at Portsmouth as the end of shift hooter blew. An onlooker would see something vaguely resembling a mass "Le Mans Start" as the dock workers ran like hell to the bike sheds to get to the front of the pack as they pedal off. You can see the same effect at Barrow in Furness and I dare say plenty of other similar places.

The reason why the workforce cycled was fairly obvious - apart from being reasonably flat, they could thus travel quickly from a catchment area of housing 2 or 3 miles wide to a place where car parking was never going to be possible due to space constraints.

Even today, Portsmouth is reasonably cycle-friendly. It has a city-wide 20mph limit as well as a high degree of cycle permeability on its one-way streets and more off-road cycle tracks than most similar cities.

I guess a similar effect must apply to Gosport, a town which faces Portsmouth across the harbour. Apparently it has a cycling modal share for communting of 15% - possibly people who work in Portsmouth and for whom a quick pedal down to the harbour ferry, take your bike on board and a quick pedal the other side is far more convenient than a 15 mile drive on congested roads around the boundary of the harbour.

eddie11 | 13 years ago

peterborough is a good example of a more average town that has a much bigger cycling culture than average, although probably not oxbridge. Perhaps theres a smallknock on effect from cambridge but the extensive offoad provision in the new town from the 60s-70s bits can only have helped.

mad_scot_rider | 13 years ago

A thought-provoking post, but I'd beg to differ on what the real ponderable is here.

For me the question would be - "how do we take this information and extend it to make cycling the norm everywhere?"

If local acceptance and normalcy of cycling as transport is a big factor, then can we achieve a boost in the number of cyclists just by raising the profile generally of those who do cycle in any given area?

cat1commuter | 13 years ago

I have a nice example from Cambridge, where I live. A colleague of mine in her mid 20's couldn't ride a bike, but learned whilst in Cambridge, and really enjoyed it. Her next job took her to Manchester, where she lived in a new block of apartments near the city centre with zero cycling provision next to a four lane ring road. There was no way she was going to cycle there, so she didn't even bother taking her bike north.

So I think it is about the potential cyclist contemplating heading out from their home into the environment. They will be understandably more anxious if they think they're going to be the only cyclist on the road (so that cars won't be expecting them), if the roads are fast with junctions hostile to cyclists, and if there won't be somewhere convenient to park their bike at the other end.

Tony Farrelly | 13 years ago

I'm saying half full, but not because of these cities - because of London. Again a flat city, but not one with any recent history of cycling as a mainstream means of transport. But that seems to be changing, yes cycling is fashionable in London, but it also seems to me that the the bike hire scheme takes cycling to another level because it represents a rational choice.

When we shot our pre-launch video of me riding around on the Boris/Ken bikes we got talking to a couple of passers by and as we explained how the new system would work you could see them doing the maths and thining "Bingo!" this could save me a fortune and it's all offical - in fact they grasped it before I did that these bikes are public transport. I think there's hope there because it means that lots of people who might never ride a bike will get to experience but the fun and the frustration of what its like to ride in traffic. Hopefully some of them will take the next step and start riding their own bikes and hopefully all of them will have a little more empathy with those on two wheels next time they are in control of four.

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