Cities,  Cycling

Making it cool, making it normal

The well-heeled urbanite, in tailored threads, bicycles with pleasure through the traffic-clogged streets of Jakarta. Meet Monocle Man.

Monocle Man is the hip sophisticate who reads the magazine Monocle.

a magazine that is in general focused on a particular brand of well-heeled global urbanism, the go-to source for articles on  . .. such new-urbanist obsessions as bicycling (“Kenji Hall goes for a little bike ride — in the middle of traffic-clogged Jakarta with the city’s governor, a Spanish MotoGP world champion and the ambassador of Denmark”),

I’m glad to hear that bicycling is a new-urbanist obsession. Of course in some countries like Denmark and Holland it’s merely how you get about but in Britain it would be good news if it became the same sophisticated activity that it was in the 1890s, when titled ladies pedalled about London and the beau monde showed off their cycling gear in the Bois de Boulogne.

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Fashionable ladies in the Bois de Boulogne, Vanity Fair, 1897

Those rich folk turned to automobiles but poorer people picked up second-hand  and then cheap mass produced bicycles. Cars, in Britain, were for the elite. When they began to be owned by the general public, they were also used differently from how they are today – for excursions and holidays, not for day to day transport. You got to your work on foot, by bicycle and by public transport while cars did not become the habitual way of getting to work until the 1960s.  The film Made in Dagenham, about a strike in 1968, showed the factory workers arriving by bicycle. In 10 years time it would be by car.

Madeindegenham
Made in Dagenham

So part of cycling campaigning is to make cycling normal urban transport  and not a lifestyle choice.  The Guardian, for instance, has good articles about cycling but they are in the Life and Style or politics section of the website, not Transport.

I heard a talk by Professor Colin Pooley co-author of Promoting Walking and Cycling;  New perspectives on sustainable travel.  A study was undertaken in four different towns/cities,  (Leeds Leicester, Worcester and Lancaster) among various communities on how people made their choices of transport for short urban journeys. The summary of the key findings can be found in Understanding Walking and Cycling.

The authors demonstrated that, even in areas of England where ‘utility cycling’ is relatively common, most cyclists still perceive themselves to be part of a marginalised group; this compares starkly with studies in Europe that have revealed the extent to which cyclist believe they are confirming to a societal norm.

While attitudes to walking and cycling . . are mostly positive or neutral many people who would like to engage in more active travel fail to do so because of:-

1. Concerns about the safety of the physical environment – for cyclists that is traffic, for pedestrians, scary streets
2. Difficulty of fitting walking and cycling into complex routines
3. Walking and cycling are “abnormal”

Certainly cycling is seen as a desirable activity. Why else would Google put up this image for Mother’s Day.

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Capes? Have they never heard of Isadora Duncan or watched The Incredibles?

But although bicycles are seen as a carefree family occupation – look at the advertisements for Center Parcs, for instance – they are not used as ordinary urban transport.

The key message that comes from this research is that at present in Britain using the car for short trips in urban areas is convenient, habitual and normal. . . Alternatives to the car – especially cycling and walking – are perceived to take too much effort, need planning and equipment that causes hassles, and may be risky and uncomfortable. They also run the risk of being perceived by other as eccentric or odd.

Common remarks from those interviewed by the study:-

“It’s not a cool thing for a girl to be on a bike”

“People assume that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t drive.”

There were various suggestions for remaking cities and towns for walking and cycling:,-

1. Fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy roads
2. Making pedestrian routes more welcoming (widening pavements, removing street furniture, better lighting, keeping them clear of ice and fallen leaves)
3. Restricting traffic speed on non-segregated residential roads;
4. “Strict liability” so that pedestrians or cyclists injured in an accident involving a motor vehicle do not have to prove fault in seeking compensation;
5. Urban design that makes eg shopping centres convenient for cyclists and pedestrians.

There are a range of bodies that could effect these changes from central government to private businesses.

Professor Cooley was speaking to a converted audience, i.e. 150 cycling members of the public and councillors.  To us he made three important points:-

1. A good urban policy is against the use of cars, not the ownership of them.
2. It should not be assumed that it is sufficient to change attitudes and make people more environmentally aware. It is necessary also to make the changes that enable people to translate these values into actions.
3.  Do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. They are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk. . .to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers . . to encourage them to make more use of these transport modes.

The Leader of Edinburgh City Council, Andrew Burns, also spoke. Edinburgh has achieved 4% to 8% work rides within 8 years, with a target of 15% by 2020.  Councillor Burns cited Munich and Cologne as cities that have made progress in cycling. The utopias are Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

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Cyclists, Copenhagen

Edinburgh has a strong campaigning group, Spokes, and a sympathetic council, and so has achieved better cycling than the average in the UK, in spite of its chilly, windy climate, hilliness and (the council falls down here) pot-holed road surfaces. On some of the cycle paths at peak hour it’s like the M8 for traffic flow.  So it can be done.  But it needs political will.

However, to finish with another quote from Professor Cooley (paraphrased):-

“The politicians report that the electorate will not accept changes that will make it easier to walk and cycle, yet speak directly to the electorate and they are happy with these changes.”

Update:- entertaining video giving stats on cycling in cities

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