Social pressure as a barrier to mode shift

Cycling advocates in low cycling contexts often point to factors such as poor road safety, distance, and lack of access to bicycles as barriers to cycling uptake in their contexts. Certainly these are legitimate.

But is it perhaps also the case that other ‘invisible’ barriers such as social pressure are equally as important? During the course of my PhD research, I collected many reports in space and time suggesting that the gaze from others is as important in shaping transportation practices. Here are a few.

From Beijing in 2006:

Although I did save a lot of time while cycling, there are disadvantages to cycling. There is nowhere to park near my company, and I had to take a cab when meeting clients. What would they think of me if I cycled up to them?

From Chicago in 1999:

my whole family acts like I’m from Mars because I don’t own a car

From Beijing 1926:

….a university professor in Beijing ‘confessed’ in a letter to the editor of a journal that to save transportation costs, but also to comply with social expectations, he usually called a rickshaw to pick him up, walked most of the distance, then took another rickshaw to reach his destination gracefully (Moghaddass-Esfehani, 2003, p. 97)


Moghaddass-Esfehani, A., 2003. The Bicycle’s Long Way to China: The Appropriation of Cycling as a Foreign Cultural Technique, 1890–1940. In Proceedings, 13th International Cycling History Conference 13. 13th International Cycling History Conference. San Francisco: Van der Plas Publications, pp. 94–101.

The return of commuter cycling in Beijing?

Is bicycling for transport in Beijing on the upswing?

When I was working on my PhD thesis, part of which examined developments in Beijing, one story in the immediate market liberalisation phase was about the dethroning of the bicycle by the car.

At its peak, in 1980 the bicycle mode share was 62.6% of all trips (Zhao 2014a, 53). This is a staggering rate of bicycle use. By 2012 bicycle mode share had dropped to 14% (BUZA 2015). This trajectory is represented in the figure below.

Assembled from (Zhang et al. 2014, p.322; Rhoads 2012, p.111; Sit 1996, p.265; Zhao 2014b, p.3)

However, there are indications that bicycling may yet be coming back. News media have recently been using terms such as “craze” and “stylish” to describe the resurgence of bicycling in Beijing, and other cities in China (Bland 2017; Tatlow 2017).


This is a startling transformation. In November 1998, bicycles were banned from a street called Xisidong Avenue in an effort to relieve car congestion (Rosenthal 1998). Cycling was also stigmatised with driving considered the new status symbol (Lu Rucai 2007; Zhao 2014a). In an often quoted remark, in 2010 a contestant on a television show when queried about her willingness to ride a bicycle during a date said “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle”(Wetherhold 2012).

Colleagues who have recently been in Beijing confirm the pronounced ubiquity of bicycles. One said:

Almost every week it seems as though another bike sharing company has been set up in Beijing. There must be hundreds of thousands of people using shared bikes every day

In another instance:

I am amazed I am at the explosion in shared cycling in China’s cities. In one year it has changed dramatically; quite a reversal, with cycling now a really fashionable thing to do. In Beijing and Shanghai there are now about five or six companies involved in bike sharing.

Another said:

…A miracle that I wasn’t run over by a bicycle or silent scooter. It’s been a very rapid change, possibly since Njogu visited Beijing for his thesis…Several such companies are parking swipe-and-ride bikes absolutely everywhere, lots of smiling cyclists swarming everywhere (some not very experienced) and very worried pedestrians dodging them…

How do we understand this? More work to be done to comprehend China.


Bland, Ben. 2017. “China’s Bicycle-Sharing Boom Poses Hazards for Manufacturers.” Financial Times, May 4.

BUZA, Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken. 2015. “Dutch and Chinese Experts Develop Beijing Bicycle Plan | Netherlands Embassy and Consulates, China.” May.

Lu Rucai. 2007. “Safeguard the Bike.” China Today 56 (1): 28–31.

Rhoads, E.J.M., 2012. Cycles of Cathay: A History of the Bicycle in China. Transfers, 2(2), pp.95–120.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 1998. “Beijing Journal; Tide of Traffic Turns Against the Sea of Bicycles.” The New York Times, November 3, sec. World.

Sit, V.F., 1996. Beijing: Urban Transport Issues in a Socialist Third World Setting (1949–1992). Journal of Transport Geography, 4(4), pp.253–273.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. 2017. “In Beijing, Two Wheels Are Only a Smartphone Away.” The New York Times, March 19, sec. Asia Pacific.

Wetherhold, Sherley. 2012. “The Bicycle as Symbol of China’s Transformation.” Atlantic Cities, June 30.

Zhang, H., Shaheen, S.A. & Chen, X., 2014. Bicycle Evolution in China: From the 1900s to the Present. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 8(5), pp.317–335.

Zhao, P., 2014a. Private motorised urban mobility in China’s large cities: The social causes of change and an agenda for future research. Journal of Transport Geography, 40, pp.53–63.

Zhao, P., 2014b. The Impact of the Built Environment on Bicycle Commuting: Evidence from Beijing. Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 51(5), pp.1 019–1 037.





An inquiry into changes in everyday bicycling cultures: The case of Johannesburg in conversation with Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago

At last I have completed writing my PhD thesis! I started working on it about 4 years ago. I am very happy to have arrived at this stage. It is now in the process of examination. Below is the abstract.

This thesis examines how symbolic meanings about everyday cycling are formed
and change. As a component of this question, it explores how place influences the
production of meaning about everyday cycling. While many studies have shown
how meanings and other cultural attributes influence cycling, there has been
insufficient focus into their formation in the cycling literature leading to calls for
greater understanding into their formation. Other studies shedding light into
production processes reside in different scholarly traditions, limiting the
possibility of interdisciplinary learning. Understanding how meanings are
produced and the role of place in particular, responds to queries in the cycling
literature. It can also support place sensitive policy solutions to promote bicycling
for transport. To explore these questions and objectives, a comparative study,
which examined how symbolic meanings about bicycling changed, was
undertaken. In particular, the study analyses how bicycling became a symbol of
social status and then stigmatised as a practice for the poor in Johannesburg, in
comparison to developments in Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago.
Using a framework of analysis from transitions theory, the thesis argues that
meanings emerge and change through a dynamic interrelated process involving
actor activities, societal characteristics (of place), changes in place, cycling
experiences, and the nature of bicycling and competitor transportation systems. In
these processes, (in)equalities in social relations resident in place play an
important role in the production of meaning. Moreover, as meanings emerge, they
do so together with user practices, technology, infrastructures, social norms, and
other elements that constitute transport systems. Since there are multiple co-
interacting factors that produce meanings about bicycling, policy efforts could
with advantage pay attention to these and in particular how they assume
specificities in place. The thesis also breaks ground by offering a novel empirical history of everyday cycling in Johannesburg.

As soon it has been examined and any corrections made, I will post the url for the final version. But this will be on the website of the University of the Witwatersrand where I have been based.

Social values, politics, street level conduct and cycling advocacy

What is the relationship between broader social values and politics and traffic conduct? That is, can how different road users interact tell us something about the prevailing social relations in each urban place? And moreover what does this mean for cycling advocacy? These were some of the micro questions behind my PhD study. The study (now in writing phase) is exploring changes in social conceptions and practices about everyday bicycle use from a historical comparative perspective.

There is an existing literature of course that offers some insight into these questions. For example there is now an extensive body of literature that demonstrates how social meanings, beliefs, values influence transportation mode choice and practices eg (Stoffers 2012); (Aldred & Jungnickel 2013); (Ebert 2004); (Oosterhuis 2013). Some scholars have examined how different cultural values in China, Japan and the United States produce variable traffic safety outcomes (Atchley et al. 2014).

In spite of this theoretical backdrop, it was still something of a surprise to witness the relationship between broader social values and street level practices in different contexts. I have spent many pleasant hours at street intersections in Johannesburg, Chicago, Nantes, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Here I reflect on experiences in Beijing, China.

One one fine evening during the evening rush hour in Beijing, I spent hours at a street intersection enthralled with the choreography of different road users. See a short video below:

As I sat watching the interactions in November of 2015, I held my breadth waiting for an accident to happen at any moment. None came. As you see in the footage, the different phases of traffic lights are not strictly adhered to. Traffic lights appeared to be treated as offering general but not absolute guidelines. Often but not always users would make judgements on whether to proceed based on real time observations. If there was a gap, someone would take it. But even when such assessments were incorrect producing a potentially dangerous situation, other road users would give way. There was a graciousness palpable. A sense of consideration of the ‘other’. An Austrian living in Beijing expressed a similar observation in comparison to Vienna:

…one main practical difference is traffic regulations and how people obey them. People in Vienna tend to claim their territory in urban traffic regardless of what is happening around them. in Beijing, on the contrary, people on the streets have a good sense for each other and are always aware of their own movement as well as the movement of others. Ignorance of others in traffic just does not exist (Grisby 2013, p.65).

My claim here is that the history of social solidarities in China is present on the streets of Beijing.

What is the implication for efforts to promote everyday bicycle use in low cycling contexts? For me an important conclusion is that cycling advocacy agenda also has to grapple with the social relations that not only affect street level interactions but shape who uses (or not) bicycles. It means that cycling advocacy has to link with broader social change campaigns as relevant in each context e.g. in reducing social difference.


  • Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at:
  •  Atchley, P., Shi, J. & Yamamoto, T., 2014. Cultural foundations of safety culture: A comparison of traffic safety culture in China, Japan and the United States. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 26, Part B, pp.317–325.
  •  Ebert, A.-K., 2004. Cycling towards the nation:the use of the bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940. European Review of History, 11(3), pp.347–364.
  •  Grisby, J., 2013. Beijing’s bicycle kingdom. In Sound of cycling; Urban cycling cultures. Vienna: Velo-City Vienna 2013. Available at:
  • Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at:
  • Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.