Shifting attitudes around cycling

Dr Rachel Aldred is a Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster.
Earlier this year Dr Aldred was presented with the
Outstanding Impact in Public Policy award in our annual Celebrating Impact Prize.

This blog is part of a new series which looks into the research behind the five successful awards, whilst touching on how the winning academics will spend their £10,000 prize.


I was delighted to win the 2016 ESRC Outstanding Impact in Public Policy prize for my research into cycling. In this and the other categories, there was a strong field that showcased the importance of social science – and the need to support it.

My central research question has been: why, despite long-standing policy objectives to increase cycling, have we not succeeded?
Since the mid-1990s, government has aimed to get more people on their bikes, with greater awareness of the range of policy benefits – health, economic, social and environmental – that more cycling can bring. But at a national level cycling has stagnated, even declined in some areas.

bicycle-tires-1530469_640In 2010, I began the two-year Cycling Cultures project, funded by the ESRC. The aim was to study four English urban areas where cycling is relatively high, and draw lessons from this. With talented postdoctoral fellow Katrina Jungnickel I travelled to Bristol, Cambridge, Hackney and Hull speaking to cyclists, and cycling stakeholders.

There were many findings but one that perhaps resonated most (initially surprising me) was the persistence of stigma and stereotype, the embattled nature of cycling and cyclists, even in these popular areas for cycling. In one paper I drew on Ervin Goffman’s theory of social stigma and recent research in disability studies to explore how these images and discourses were constructed, their impacts and how they could potentially be challenged.

The ‘Incompetent, or Too Competent…’ paper got thousands of views and won a prize for being the most read Mobilities article of that year. But more importantly, the ideas reached beyond those with time or interest to plough through an 8,000 word sociological article. I presented the ideas to the project stakeholder forum we’d set up, and at events across the country. They chimed with ideas that practitioners and advocates were developing, and were written up in a blog by cycling advocate Mark Treasure.

Making a route for good practice

I’d like to think my findings contributed to what’s increasingly seen as ‘good practice’ in talking about cycling policy, such as referring to ‘cycling’ or ‘people on bikes’ in preference to the easily stereotyped ‘cyclists’.
Similarly my work on normalisation of cycling has helped encourage the pictorial shift towards showing people on bikes as normal individuals who happen to be riding, rather than tooled-up fluorescent road warriors. (I say ‘helped encourage’ – changing cycling policy has been a coalition of the willing, certainly not the gift of any one person.)

A gear shift towards attitudes in London

Throughout researching I’ve kept an eye on where it might have most impact.
With the shift to localism post-2010, and savage cuts to local authority budgets, the policy landscape seemed pretty unpromising for an already underfunded and marginalised area. But I realised that there was an exception, where it might be worth concentrating my impact efforts. London, with its large transport budget and Mayor having overall responsibility for transport, was where we might start to see change.

london-263671_640This was despite the fact that the UK capital has long been seen as particularly hostile to cycling. I remember – and this still happens – hearing ‘Wow, cycle in London, you must be brave!’. And cycling levels in London have never been that high. In the first half of the 20th century when much of the country walked or cycled to work, many Londoners used public transport instead.

Public outrage over poor conditions for cycling was fuelled by avoidable tragedies. A report by academics at UCL shows at least a third of deaths and life-changing cycle injuries might have been prevented by high-quality protected bike infrastructure currently found in Holland and Denmark. London has ten times as many cycle deaths as Copenhagen, despite similar amounts of cycling (in terms of miles per day).

Cycling advocacy in London has been a broad church, with plenty of room for disagreement and tactical differences. High profile die-ins outside Palestra (Transport for London HQ) have happened alongside more ‘respectable’ protest methods.

But there has been change. A key ongoing shift has been away from the ‘vehicular cycling’ (cycling on the roads) approach, coinciding with a growth in research and policy work, including my own, starting to set a new consensus.

A distinct transport mode

‘Vehicular cycling’ as a policy position is the belief that ‘[c]yclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.’ This for many years formed a policy consensus in North America and Britain. Reading the Conservative Government’s 1981 Consultation Paper on cycling a sentence stuck in my head describing cyclists: unlike drivers, “Their Machines Offer Them Almost No Protection”. It expressed beautifully the view of cycling as an (inferior) version of driving.

The newer approach sees cycling as not like driving, nor like walking – but a distinct transport mode in itself with specific requirements and characteristics (the Dutch – the highest-cycling European country – have taken this for granted for decades).

This shift sounds simple, but has radical implications. In this country, the ‘vehicular’ approach led to us seeing cyclists as essentially being like motor vehicles, with those who clearly didn’t fit that model (like children) as by default being like pedestrians. The classic ‘cycling network’ has thus provided ‘on-road facilities’ (often meaning sharing with 15 tonne buses), alongside often footway-based detours for the rest.

cyclists-885609_640This has reinforced stereotypes and helped keep cycling marginalised. It was forever trespassing on someone else’s network; neither vehicular enough nor pedestrian enough. But if cycling is just cycling, not fast walking or slow driving, this hotch-potch makes no sense. It could even be seen as discriminatory, because women for instance express stronger preferences than men for separation from motor traffic, yet are also less likely than men to cycle longer distances.
These kinds of connections between infrastructure, policy, tools, imagery and engineering fascinate me.

One of the exciting things about getting involved in the coalition for cycling is learning from (and arguing with) people from a range of backgrounds, developing new ideas together that bridge academic, policy and advocacy discourses.
One of my other ESRC projects, Modelling on the Move, brought health and social science perspectives to bear on transport modelling, and led to my getting involved in modelling research; trying not just to criticise modelling, but to develop it.

Reaching new audiences

Having the £10,000 to spend on impact activities will make a big difference to what I can do over the next year. Already just getting the prize has acted as broader recognition for cycling research, a thriving multidisciplinary field. I have plans for a series of hackdays bringing modelling and local knowledge together, and for activities that will disseminate my work to entirely new audiences. There’s still a long way to go; new alliances to build and new challenges to overcome – but I look forward to those.

You can follow @RachelAldred on Twitter

Learn more about the Celebrating Impact Prize

One thought on “Shifting attitudes around cycling

  1. Pingback: Shifting attitudes around cycling | Real Media - The News You Don't See

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