Monday, July 28, 2008

'I want to ride my bicycle': Draft paper

Here is a recent draft paper on cycling and urban planning. Comments/suggestions are always welcome.

Abstract: Cycling for transport has widely been celebrated by planning professionals as a key policy objective in creating ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ cities. However, despite much enthusiasm, cycling remains a very marginal mode of transportation, particularly within Sydney, which is regarded as Australia’s most ‘unfriendly’ cycling city. This paper argues that in order to advance the profile of urban cycling, planners need to recognise that cycling is a complex cultural and psychological issue, one that cannot be fixed by simply building more bicycle lanes. Firstly, it is argued that planners need to develop a far more comprehensive approach to cycling policy and infrastructure, one that includes a more diverse understanding of different road users and mobility needs. Secondly, it is argued that cycling policies need to promote a more ‘embodied’ understanding of cycling skills and competencies to engender cycling practices within communities. Finally, it is argued that to successfully promote cycling for transport, planning students and educators need to be directly engaged in the experiential learning process of riding within urban environments. Effective policy-making can only be achieved with an intimate knowledge of cycling as a practice. Such learning can also facilitate critical perspectives on automobility as a far more malleable cultural norm.

Cycling for transport is often promoted as an ideal when imagining plans for ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ cities. When faced with a growing number of problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, rising petrol prices, oil depletion, congestion, pollution, and carbon emissions, it is easy to see why cycling has been heralded as a panacea for so many contemporary ills (see Cycling Promotion Fund 2007). Bicycles offer amazing opportunities for cheap, healthy and efficient personal mobility, but despite having so many clear advantages, cycling still remains a very marginal mode of transport within Australian cities. Instead of positioning cycling as an impractical or eccentric mode of transportation, planners need to develop a broader understanding of cycling as a mobility practice. More so, cycling is a mobility practice that can be broadly accepted or stigmatised within a culture whose norms, educational practices and legal codes can greatly influence how it is regarded.

What’s ‘culture’ got to do with it?
Bicycle use currently makes up approximately 1% of all journey to work trips within Australia. However, Rissel and Garrard (2006) note that there is no consistent data on cycling and journey to work census data is a poor measure of bicycle usage. Without a, accurate means of calculating bicycle usage, cycling is easily neglected by transport professionals who perceive it as marginal and unimportant (Schimek 1996). According to a recent report by Mees, Sorupia and Stone (2007, p.17):

Cycling is currently of negligible importance as a travel mode for the journey to work in all cities, accounting for around one per cent of trips everywhere except Canberra (where it is 2.5%). Although cycling rates are increasing, they are doing so from a very small base, with the result that the increases have no appreciable difference to overall travel patterns.

Such negative and static evaluations reinforce a marginalised view of cycling rather than analysing how cycling has become culturally marginalised as a mobility practice. A more culturally attuned approach to transport would recognise that transport behaviours cannot be reduced to the choices of archetypal individuals but are constituted within ‘the identities of individuals, organisations and indeed the wider culture’ (Skinner and Rosen, 2007, p. 95).

In the course of the twentieth century, cycling transformed from being a major mobility practice into a minor one within many industrialised nations (Horton 2007). However, for the last 50 years, the numbers of bicycles produced globally each year has continued to exceed the numbers of cars produced (Brown and Larsen 2002). Bicycles have revolutionised personal mobility for a great majority of the world’s people. According to McClintock (1992, p.4), ‘bicycles in Asia alone transport more people than do all the cars in the world’. Bicycles were also significant in changing many nineteenth century norms around women’s mobility in public spaces (Mackintosh and Norliffe 2006; Strange 2002). Women cyclists were among the first to publicly promote physical activity and to challenge prohibitive forms of fashion (Watson and Gray 1978). Bicycle organisations were also the first to campaign for better roads (Meakins 2000). In 1893, Joseph Pearson produced the first comprehensive road map of New South Wales as a guide for cyclists. An avid cyclist and member of the New South Wales Cyclists' Touring Union, Pearson also led a campaign to improve roads and road signage across the state (Fitzpatrick 1980). However, much of the history of the bicycle has been forgotten. For instance, automotive manufacturers such as Ford, Dunlop, Peugeot and Michelin all had their beginnings in the bicycle industry. The modern car simply would not exist if it weren’t for the new inventions and manufacturing techniques that were developed in the bicycle industry (Norcliffe 1997). Bicycle manufacturing remains at the forefront of technological research in contemporary materials and design. For instance, the Italian bicycle manufacture, Campagnolo, was once employed by NASA to produce its high-end aerospace components and materials. However, with the growth of the petroleum and automotive industries, cycling diminished as a transport mode within many industrialised nations. As automobiles became increasingly affordable, cycling numbers rapidly diminished in the latter half of the twentieth century (Horton 2007).

Within societies of mass automobility, bicycles are often regarded as a children’s toy, a middle-class sports fad, or a form of transport for those who are too poor to drive. Within less than three generations, cultures of everyday or utility cycling have disappeared within most industrialized nations. Those who continue to cycle for transport are often regarded with suspicion. According to Pucher et al. (1999, p.46):
cyclists suffer from a renegade image associated with disobedience of traffic laws, and a pervasive sense of cyclists as an alien presence on roads intended for cars. Indeed, the various images of cycling are so heavily determined in relation to automobiles that utilitarian cyclists are variously seen as too poor to own a car, “anti-auto”, eccentric, or deviant.

Negative perceptions of cyclists have been reinforced by a view of the road as a car-centric space. As roads came to be culturally dominated by automobiles, road design came to prioritise the speed and capacity of cars over and above any consideration for other road users (Illich 1973). Cyclists found themselves spatially marginalised in the gutter. Cyclists who remained on the roads came to be regarded as ‘subversive’ in challenging the spatial hegemony of the automobile. According to Horton (2007, p.145):
The cultural acceptability of cycling’s spatial marginality, particularly when combined with the cyclists stigmatised identity, is highly consequential. It means that those cyclists who do not stick to the margins, but either consciously or unconsciously attempt to ‘centre’ themselves, are experienced as threatening and unsettling…

Many cyclists within Australia are viewed with low regard. Recently within Sydney, a group of fifty elite racing cyclists were brought down in a crash by an irritated driver. News of these events gained national and international media attention. However, when several news stories on the events were published in the Daily Telegraph (see: May 8, 2008; May 9, 2008; English 2008), 142 online readers comments generally expressed contempt towards cyclists. Some were overtly aggressive:

Keep the losers off the road, when they pay as much rego as we do, they can have rights, but hangon, they dont pay any rego at all, therefore they should all be fined or charged for obstructing traffic... Chances are, this guy was beeping his horn at them and they started to mouth off at him, i would have done the same as him too i think, good onya bloke! (Daily Telegraph, May 8, 2008, online readers comment No.27).

Maybe they will learn their lesson now and not take up a whole lane in peak hour traffic. They really bring this all upon themselves. (Daily Telegraph, May 8, 2008, online readers comment No.121).

You wanna ride your bike? Go for it - though do it somewhere safe, otherwise quit your complaining and deal with the consequences - the roads are for motor vehicles - DEAL WITH IT! (English 2008, online readers comment No. 87).

While cyclists are theoretically and legally allowed on the road, they are culturally and spatially perceived as outsiders without recognition as road users (Horton and Salked 2006).

Cycling practices have been truncated within an automotive environment of high speed and driver aggression. Studies by Bell Dignam (1996) found that Australian cyclists are subjected to significantly higher levels of road hostility and harassment than other road users. Conversely, research by Rissel et al. (2002) found a large proportion of Australian motorists are not even aware of cyclists’ legal rights as road users. A consequence of anti-cyclist attitudes and behaviours is that ‘potential cyclists are deterred by the unfriendly and anti-social behaviour of many drivers who show scant consideration for those on bikes…’ (Whitelegg, 2002, p1). As fewer people cycle, cycling becomes objectively ‘less safe’ with motorists paying less attention to the presence of cyclists on the road (Bauman, et al. 2008). While studies by the British Medical Association (1992) found that the health benefits versus risks of cycling can be calculated at a ratio of 20 to 1, real experiences of fear as well as cultural perceptions of risk appear to take precedence over other evaluations of cycling as a healthy and safe activity.

In many Australian cities, cycling is dominated by a higher proportion of younger men who live in the inner-city (Mees, Sorupia and Stone 2007, p17). Consequently, cyclists are often negatively perceived as being ‘road warriors’ associated with ‘high risk taking behaviour’. An alternative way of understanding these cycling cultures is that those who cycle do so because they are the most confident riders in the context of a high-speed and high-aggression car culture. Cycling within a hostile environment requires greater levels of confidence to offset what many would experience as paralysing fear (Jones 2005). Consequently, less-experienced cyclists will illegally ride on the footpath or simply not ride at all. It is these cultural, psychological and emotional barriers to cycling that present a significant challenge to promoting cycling, and yet they are often overlooked in cycling policy (Horton 2007).

Embodiment and the bicycle
The popular saying “It’s like learning to ride a bike” is commonly used to convey a message that once a skill is acquired, then it will remain with a person for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, this saying is very misleading with regard to cycling. Cycling is a skill that develops with time and regular practice. Many Australians are taught to ride by their parents. After a few falls, most children develop some of the basic cycling skills of balance, control, and visual awareness that is necessary to ride a bike. However, once the training wheels come off, bicycle education often ends. In many cases, more developed bicycle skills such as using gears, braking quickly, lane positioning, scanning for traffic, cornering, bicycle set-up and maintenance are not taught and are widely absent within the adult Australian population. However, within countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, all children receive extensive instruction in cycling and traffic education by the age of 10 (Pucher and Dijkstra 2003). Such programs set out to provide young children with the basic skills needed to become confident cyclists. Cycling education also continues to teach older children and adolescents to develop their skills and road education so they can learn to ride safely within trafficked environments. Research by Telfar et al. (2006) found that bicycle training is fundamental to improving levels of cycling activity and enjoyment because they increased the participants’ skill levels and self-esteem. Training in physical education has been found to shape life-long trajectories in physical activity (Penny and Jess 2004); however bicycle education has a comparatively low profile within Australian schools.

Traffic regulations and driver education are also important to removing barriers to cycling. Within countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, driver education is more demanding and places greater emphasis on the responsibilities of motorists to ensure the safety of cyclists and pedestrians (Pucher and Dijkstra 2003). Within these countries, cyclist and motorist interactions are also far more respectful because most people identify with both ‘cyclists’ and ‘motorists’. While cycling and driver education programs cannot entirely remove the potential for conflict and danger, they can communicate greater awareness of cycling as a normative mobility practice for all persons and contribute to creating a more convivial environments for cycling.

Within cultures that marginalise cycling as a mobility practice, many children (and subsequently adults) do not develop the embodied skills or cultural values to become cyclists. The dominant focus of many ‘BikeEd’ programs in Australia is on helmet use and injury prevention (Carlin, Taylor, and Nolan, 1998). While such messages are important, road safety education programs can also create a self-fulfilling ecology of fear in which ‘vulnerable’ road users, including children, cyclists and pedestrians are represented as not belonging within the urban environment. In contrast, Horton (2007, p.138-9) has argued that:
A minority alternative approach, road danger reduction, concentrates instead on making travelscapes less dangerous per se, by reducing numbers and speeds of cars, and improving enforcement of speed limits. In other words, current road safety education, perhaps reframed as citizenship studies in mobility, could be very different.

Valuing cyclists, pedestrians and other more vulnerable road users requires not only a change in road design; it also requires a change in culture in terms of the norms that govern our perceptions of mobility and citizenship (Parker 2001). In a society where a driver’s licence has become the default form of identification, non-motorised road users are typically devalued.

To make cycling a sustainable transport practice within Australia, various cultural interventions are needed to make cycling a more accepted mobility practice for women and men, the young and the old, and the rich and the poor. Rather than seeing ‘cyclists’ as a homogenous class of road users competing for their own turf, greater awareness needs to be given to understanding how cyclists are differently placed as road users, who may travel at different speeds, with different abilities, and with different mobility needs. While cycling cannot solve all mobility needs, it is estimated that 38% of all car journeys within Australia cover a distance of less than 3km (Cycling Promotion Fund 2007). Such distances can be covered on a leisurely bicycle ride within 10-15 minutes although topography may lengthen some journey times. Cycling has a tremendous potential to become incorporated within everyday transport activities and to improve levels of physical activity across the community. The benefits of cycling reverberate through the population with improved health, environment and more sociable urban environments. However, to reach its potential as a mobility practice, a number of strategies are needed to physically, culturally, and legally enfranchise more Australians to cycle. Of particular importance is the need for more public education campaigns to promote broader acceptance of cycling as a fun, healthy and socially valued activity.

A comprehensive approach to bicycle planning
The overwhelming focus of bicycle planning within Australia is on infrastructure development (Australian Bicycle Council & Australian Local Government Association 2007). Bicycle plans often work on the untested assumption that: ‘if we build it they will come’. When councils develop bike plans, they often do so as a list of infrastructure works to be completed. Cycling budgets are often exclusively dedicated to the provision of off-road bike paths. While often popular with recreational cyclists, such paths can be highly inadequate for enhancing active transport. By effectively removing cycling to the edges of sports fields and riverbanks, cycling is spatialised as a leisure activity rather than something that can facilitate transportation between places of work, education, shopping and recreation. Bicycle planning is often left as a minor task within the responsibilities of road and traffic engineers (McClintock 1992a). Without either specialist training or a high level experience in cycling, bicycle infrastructure and facilities are often poorly designed and not co-ordinated with a strategic vision in mind. Cycling around a city such as Sydney, one constantly finds bike lanes beginning and disappearing along streets and as one traverses across council boundaries.

The relationship between bicycle policy and urban planning is also very poor. One survey of local governments found that only 43% of councils considered cycling in their land-use planning controls (Australian Bicycle Council & Australian Local Government Association 2007, p12). While planning policies universally support sustainability and integrated transport use, detailed development controls and standards in relation to bicycle parking are often absent from the mindsets of many planners. With the exception of some more progressive councils within New South Wales, most local governments have not developed suitable development standards for bicycle parking or end-of-trip facilities in residential, industrial or commercial zonings. Invariably, cycling is perceived as a recreational activity and little attention is given to understanding how it may be incorporated into strategic visions for a more healthy, safe, and environmentally sustainable city. One of the great difficulties with bicycle planning is positioning it within a much broader policy environment. However, bicycle policy is often conducted by persons with little interest in cycling or regard for it as an everyday mobility practice.

Cycling is an activity that cuts across many fields of knowledge and expertise such as transport, health, education, psychology, environment, engineering, urban design and road safety. Given the multiplicity of cycling knowledges, cycling policy requires both a generalist knowledge base as well as collaborative skills to work with others and provide strategic direction. As a profession, urban planners should be ideally placed to incorporate cycling as part of a more sustainable and healthy vision for the city. A focus on cycling as part of a renewed interest in public health could bring the planning profession closer to its nineteenth century origins (see Hall 2002). However, little is known about what levels of awareness exists about cycling within the planning profession in Australia. Further research is needed to ascertain the current status of bicycle planning amongst urban planners and within Australian planning schools. Studies by McClintock (2001) on pedestrian and bicycle planners in the United Kingdom found that most relevant skills and knowledges were acquired ‘on the job’ with only a small number of practitioners receiving dedicated training or benefiting from continuing professional education. Furthermore, a survey of United States planning schools by Balsas (2002) found that only 6 courses within 66 planning schools held subjects that were dedicated to non-motorised transportation. Comparative research by Meschick et al (2002, p. 91, in Balsas 2001) found that: ‘institutions in most European regions offer their students ten times more possibilities to study bicycle planning than North American universities’. According to Balsas (2001), a lack of knowledge or interest in cycling by planning educators creates a self-perpetuating phenomenon within the planning profession. Because bicycle planning was not taught to a current generation of planning academics, it has not been taken seriously as an object of study for future generations of planners.

Cycling praxis
Pedagogically, bicycle planning presents a significant challenge for planning educators as something new, foreign and potentially challenging to their own subjectivities. While incorporating an elective of bicycle planning would provide one way of improving the status of cycling within planning schools, bicycle planning could also be incorporated within a more general curriculum of social and environmental planning. As a pedagogical tool, the bicycle could be used as a way of destabilising many discourses of sustainability (Gunder 2006) through a more challenging confrontation with subjectivity and embodiment. According to Freire (1997, p. 47), ‘discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must also involve action’. By cycling on the edge of a dominant automotive culture, planning students may come to reflect on their own mobility practices and to more critically come to see how planning policies and decisions are significant in re/producing cultural norms and values that shape mobility practices within Australian cities.

Cycling through the city can give planners access to a non-automotive subjectivity that may be foreign, fearful and potentially destabilising. Riding on the road can help planners develop a much stronger understanding of the diversity of cyclist practices. Such experiences can challenge the many negative stereotypes of cyclists and may facilitate more empathic relationships. The experiential learning of riding a bicycle in traffic could also facilitate critical reflections on the place of automobiles within the built environment as well as a broader ‘auto-centric’ culture that holds car driving as an unquestioned norm. By riding through the urban environment, planners can come to experience the city in new and exciting ways that reveal the potential of bicycles to facilitate diverse mobility needs. By gaining a more grounded understanding of cycling, planners can begin to understand the many physical and cultural barriers that prohibit cycling as a more sustainable transport practice.

Bicycles can provide planners with a significant opportunity to make achievable policy gains in creating more sustainable, equitable, and healthy cities. Such gains are currently being made in cities such as London, however Australian cities like Sydney appear to be lagging behind and Australian cyclists still find themselves culturally stigmatised as ‘deviant’ and ‘illegitimate’ road users. At a time in which oil dependence is coming into greater question, re-knowing the bicycle can help planners to critically reconsider current and future mobility practices. To promote cycling, planners need to move beyond a determinist view in which cycling policy is solely interpreted as a question of urban form and infrastructure provisions. Interpreting cycling as a lived practice can present planners with more challenging questions about contemporary cultures of transportation, citizenship, and mobility.

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J said...

Thank you so much for posting this.

I've only had a quick read but my initial thoughts are about the further marginalisation of cyclists through the promotion of increasing the number of bike lanes, which are invariably positioned at the margins of roads.

It's nice to see that some thought is being put into the psychology of cycling because I suspect this is where we need to aim campaigns designed to promote cycling as transport.
To this end, I've been thinking for a long time about a future post regarding the ways cars and bicycles are advertised. I really must get on to that soon.

Adrian said...

Thanks Pedaller. Look forward to your future post. If your interested in car advertising check out Stephan Bayley's "Sex, Drink and Fast Cars". Its an oldie but a goodie.

lisa said...

Interesting what you say about culture. In my experience different kinds of riders evoke different responses. I was having coffee with a group of cyclists yesterday after a morning ride and anecdotally it seemed the men get a lot more verbal aggression pointed at them from car drivers than we women cyclists do.
This would go with your comments about cycling being seen as something done by young males, and the confidence one needs to ride on the roads.
I also feel less likely to get abused when I am in normal clothes with my bright safety vest looking like a commuter with a basket etc, than when I am with a group of people in a pack dressed in lycra.
It seems easier to characterise cyclists as a menace when in a group, then when its just a commuter. And yet as a cyclist I feel so much safer in a group, even just one or two others.
Conversely I have received cheers of support from cars and people in cafes and pubs etc when I have been on group rides with people dressed in regular clothes, I suppose we seem less professional or cocky or something, and apparently celebrating commuting (or something) rather than the sport of going fast. I can’t imagine this kind of response to a lycra clad group.

One difficulty I have as a commuter is when I go somewhere new and I don’t know the best bike route yet, and I find myself on roads with only 1 lane, and even if only for a short distance I have to take up a lane and slow the cars down, they seem righteous about this, as if to say - well bicycles are all well and good, but only if they are of no inconvenience – we can’t be expected to be slowed down. I feel squeezed and it seems like there is no place for me, I don’t ride fast enough to keep up with traffic like perhaps the young blokes do, and yet I don’t belong on the footpath.
I was speaking to a young chinese man the other day and asked him about cycling. he said he cycled everywhere back home in China, indeed most people do, but he wouldn’t in Australia, he was too scared. He said back home they go slow, but here people cycle fast, there is pressure to fit in with the “normal” car traffic. In china this expectation isn’t there, and bicycles are considered a normal part of the traffic, rather than an encumbrance.

Dylan said...

This is a really well thought out and informative piece. I really rate in particular the part about ' Embodiment and the bicycle ' as I think it highlights a blind spot in the views of many policy makers. It is all well and good building more bike paths and promoting cycling in the media but you have to address the fact a lot of people still don't feel confident to ride on the roads - I write this with particular refernece to Sydney. It is potentially irresponsible to encourage people to ride their bikes into the city if they do not have the skills to do so. Yes, more bikes are sold every year than cars and most people do learn how to 'balance'on a bike as a child. What is commonly ignored though is that you need to develop this skill set to ride in the city and in Sydney at least I am unaware of a recognised means 'training' people to ride. New infrastructure is great but we also need to prepare the people who are going to use it. Otherwise I fear that we are asking for problems by exacerbating the rancour of car drivers against cyclists and encouraging novice cyclists to put themselves at risk. A national proficiency level would be great or if not a more cohesive means of teaching peole how to ride around the city.

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