Protecting existing yet ‘invisible’ bicycling cultures

The bicycle is back. Governments at local, regional, national and internationally levels seemingly everywhere are promoting bicycling for transport. So are private entrepreneurs, grassroots organisations, passionate individuals and many others. These actors are after the numerous environmental, social, economic, spatial, health, and other benefits of peddling. Next month, many of these will meet at the Velo-city conference in the Netherlands.

Some bicycle promotion efforts seek to create new bicycling cultures or at least grow bicycle mode share from very low bases. Yet it is also the case that in some places, at neighbourhood scales within towns, or even on particular streets or roads there are what Koeppel (2006) called ‘invisible riders’ for whom as he argued “bicycling isn’t exercise, a hobby, or a statement” (ibid). It is simply a means of getting from a to b. See for example bicycle culture below in Salima, Malawi.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, one such set of ‘invisible’ riders exists along a corridor called William Nicol Avenue. See the video below.

Protecting these ‘invisible’ cycling practices – such as through the provision of bicycling infrastructure – maybe easier than starting from scratch. Scholars working in transition studies, show that the societal functions – such as ground transportation – are provided by what they call socio-technical systems (STS). Such STS are comprised of an array of diverse elements such as technology itself (bicycle for instance), infrastructures, knowledge, practices, policy and regulations, subjectivities, symbolic meanings, habits, industry (supply and maintenance) (F. W. Geels 2005). It takes time for each of these individual elements to be formed and align with each other (Frank W. Geels and Kemp 2012).

It holds then, creating new bicycling cultures especially from very low bases may take longer than proponents would like. However, surfacing ‘hidden’ bicycling cultures within contexts where utility cycling is believed to not exist, not only benefits those bicycle users but also could help to shift narratives. That is, it could improve cycling safety for those already bicycling (see video above for example) and provide proof of concept sites that could inspire a new generation of bicycle users and justify resource allocation.

Research in diffusion of innovations has demonstrated that innovations that are visible can gain wider use since potential users can more easily appraise them. This is what Rogers (1983, 232) calls “observability.” In this light, with reference to utility cycling, a recent study suggests that “sheer numbers of bicyclists increases the visibility of the activity which can influence individuals to try it” (Sherwin, Chatterjee, and Jain 2014, 11).

Failure to ‘protect’ invisible riders will inevitably mean that should circumstances change – such as improved incomes – this demographic will abandon bicycling. Observing such a trajectory in India, Brussel and Zuidgeest (2012, 184) argue “we witness in India a reduction in bicycle use among people with a higher income and education.”

References

Brussel, Mark, and Mark Zuidgeest. 2012. “Cycling in Developing Countries: Context, Challenges and Policy Relevant Research.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Geels, F. W. 2005. “Processes and Patterns in Transitions and System Innovations: Refining the Co-Evolutionary Multi-Level Perspective.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Transitions towards Sustainability through System Innovation, 72 (6): 681–96. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2004.08.014.

Geels, Frank W., and René Kemp. 2012. “The Multi-Level Perspective as a New Perspective for Studying Socio-Technical Transitions.” In Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport, 49–79. New York, N.Y., United States: Routledge.

Koeppel, Dan. 2006. “Invisible Riders.” Utne, August. http://www.utne.com/community/invisibleriders.aspx.

Rogers, Everett M. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations. 3rd edition. Free Press.

Sherwin, Henrietta, Kiron Chatterjee, and Juliet Jain. 2014. “An Exploration of the Importance of Social Influence in the Decision to Start Bicycling in England.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2014.05.001.

 

 

Place and bicycling cultures

Why do places exhibit sometimes very different bicycling cultures? Some being predominated by cycling as a sport or for recreation. While in others, people may use bicycles mainly for transportation? In others the use of bicycles maybe as varied as can be imagined.

Why is it some places may start from a broadly similar appraisal and practices and then radically diverge over time? I am currently researching a variation of this question. The historical evidence shows in two neighboring towns in South Africa, high levels of utility cycling at the turn of the 20th century. On Johannesburg see previous post. These urban areas, Springs and Johannesburg, with similar origins as mining hubs are about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart.

Springs sustained a reasonably robust commuter cycling culture for sometime. From the 1930s into the 1950s and 1980s Springs built separated and barrier protected cycling tracks. In Johannesburg however, there is scant historical evidence of catering for bicycle users on the road network – apart for some painted white lines on one of the major arterial routes.

In the 1970s, during the fuel crises, there was a genuine interest in rediscovering bicycling as  amode of transport in Springs. See image below.

1979cyclingbecauseoffuelcrisis
Source: Springs Advertiser, Courtesy of Springs – History of A Gold Town

In Johannesburg however, while there were policy measures to reduce private motor car use, it was reported that residents generally stuck to their autos. Even those who stuck to their autos, largely failed to share journeys – in the form of car pooling (Clarke 1987, p.219).

How do we understand these different trajectories? This is the broad question I am working on. By sometime in October 2017 I should have an answer.

Reference

  • Clarke, J. ed., 1987. Like it was: The Star 100 years in Johannesburg, Johannesburg: Argus Print. & Pub. Co.

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s evolving bicycle culture

In December of 2016, I visited Chicago on a short holiday.

Chicago was one of my secondary study sites for my recently completed PhD into changes into the symbolic status of everyday cycling. I took a historical view examining changes over time. Given this perspective I was curious to observe street level changes since my last study visit in April 2015.

I was pleasantly surprised that even in subzero weather, there were people bicycling.

There has also been a noticeable evolution in the kinds of bicycles on the streets. I observed more bicycles better suited to everyday cycling such as the one below which allows comfortable upright posture, easy on and off maneuver given step through frame, and hassle light long term maintenance given integrated brakes and gears. Of course notice the pannier racks in the back for luggage.

img_5172

Bicycles and bicycling also appears to be more integrated and thus normalised into social life including as a commodity item to sell other goods. I saw bicycles in mainstream restaurants, bars, retail stores, advertisements in trains, and other places.

This of course is not to suggest that utility cycling in Chicago is now fantastic. As the image below of a white bike shows, which records a bicycling fatality in public memory, bicycling can be dangerous in Chicago.

img_5329

The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.

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The bicycle share programme which is a personal favourite – Divvy – is also doing well. I used their bicycles on a few occasions with great pleasure. Their advertisements are fantastic I think. “Muscle mass transit” – how apt.

The mode share of bicycling in Chicago does seem set to continue growing. It offers an optimistic story of shifting towards sustainable transportation from a very low base.

Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago. Assembled from (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)

bicyclemodesharetrendssmoothchicago

References

Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at: http://www.activetrans.org/.

Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/25/new-census-data-shows-chicago-bike-commuting-might-be-up/ [Accessed August 29, 2016].

 

Cycling with children in Johannesburg

Is it possible to cycle with children in Johannesburg? That is, can a parent or other caregiver use bicycles for transport as part of their day to day activities?

As I often ride with our children – as does my partner – to their schools, nearby park and shopping area, I wonder about the possibility of seeing more like us on the streets. Some of the deterrents to everyday bicycling in Johannesburg are well known. To name two;

  • Concerns over road safety given the automobile friendly road design
  • Urban sprawl which creates long travel distances

There are many studies conducted in many different contexts that suggest these are important impediments – albeit with many qualifications. See the reviews e.g. (Heinen et al. 2010; Oosterhuis 2013). Indeed my route to drop off our youngest daughter at her nursery school is a meander. This means I add 1 kilometre increasing the journey to a total of 5.3 kilometres. I have chosen the route because it allows us to avoid interacting with heavy car traffic. At some sections I use side walks when there are no low-traffic alternatives available. The result is a generally pleasant ride back and forth. As you will see in the video below, we are also able to stop en-route to pick up some street side berries.

Ultimately in selecting the route, I am prioritising the travel experience over efficiency. As a result my route is best captured in the image at the bottom right hand side of this image from the Copenhagenize Design Company.

meanderingcope

Of course it is possible to have a pleasant cycling experience (i.e. low stress over traffic safety) and a direct journey. Again the team from Copenhagenize Design Company has a useful graphic modelling bicycle friendly traffic planning in Johannesburg.

directroutecopenhegan

It is this combination (of convenience and safety) that I think is likely to lure more parents onto the streets with their bicycles in Johannesburg.

However the long history of automobility in the city and other emerging cycling cities is not to be underestimated. It has coerced and normalised car use to such an extent that even when short occasional bicycle journeys can be undertaken away from main arterial routes this does not register as a possibility. This is partly why the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association developed a bicycle commuter map.  In as much as physical infrastructure (bike lanes) might accommodate bicycle use, new social-cognitive infrastructures also will need to displace those associated with car use. In doing so new social norms, habits, and connotations about bicycles and inversely about cars will emerge.

References

Heinen, E., van Wee, B. & Maat, K., 2010. Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature. Transport Reviews, 30(1), pp.59–96.

Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at: http://t2m.org/publications/yearbook/t2m-yearbook-2014/.