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.
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.
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.
The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.
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)
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.
The bicycle is in vogue. Rathbone (2013) argues that “the rise of the bicycle is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon.” In many cities across the world there are now advocates for utilitarian bicycling. City governments are re-shaping streets in order to accommodate the bicycle. In some cities in North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia, there has been marked quantitative increase in everyday bicycle use (Pucher et al. 1999; Hidalgo & Huizenga 2013; Bonham & Johnson 2015; Transport for London 2015). In other cities in Africa what is more evident is the policy interest into bicycling above and beyond user uptake (Morgan Forthcoming; Jennings 2015).
Yet in the late 19th century, the bicycle was as popular as it is now. In the late 19th century Johannesburg, the city was described by observers as being in the grip of a cycling “craze” and “mania” (Gutsche n.d., pp.6, 10). Carstensen and Ebert (2012) write about the ‘golden age’ of bicycles in Northern Europe in the same period. At the time, bicycle users even became a political force. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate, Carter H. Harrison II, “launched his campaign by riding his first ‘century’ – one hundred miles – from his West Side home to Waukegan, Wheeling, and Libertyville, and back – in just nine and one-half hours” (Bushnell 1975, p.175).
The similarity between the late 19th century and the contemporary moment, is recently well captured by Friss (2016) who asks “there’s a buzz about bicycles! The number of cyclists is increasing, the streets themselves are changing in order to cater to them, and politicians can’t stop talking about them: Is it 1897 or 2016?”
Is there something to learn from the past that can support this renewed interest in everyday bicycling? Why was the bicycle as popular as it was in the late 19th century in many urban contexts? Why was the bicycle dethroned as an everyday form of transport almost everywhere in the world? But curiously, why in some spaces such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark did the bicycle remain as a respectable mode of transport – albeit with reduced levels of use. These are some of the sub-questions that animate my PhD research.
Bonham, J. & Johnson, M., 2015. Cycling Futures, University of Adelaide Press.
Bushnell, G.D., 1975. When Chicago Was Wheel Crazy. Chicago History, 4(3), pp.167–175.
Hidalgo, D. & Huizenga, C., 2013. Implementation of sustainable urban transport in Latin America. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), pp.66–77.
Jennings, G., 2015. A Bicycling Renaissance in South Africa? Policies, Programmes & Trends in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). The 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). Pretoria, South Africa.
Morgan, N., Forthcoming. Space, culture and transport mode choice in socio-technical transitions. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.
Pucher, J., Komanoff, C. & Schimek, P., 1999. Bicycling renaissance in North America?: Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 33(7–8), pp.625–654.
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.
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: velo-city2013.com/?page_id=6492.