A recent study, which has been paid for by the Economic and Social Research Council, has shown that there are many different cycling cultures in different cities across the United Kingdom.
In some cities it is the case that cycling is still a method of just getting around, while in others an urban subculture has formed which is rather edgy.
The survey was commissioned in order to find out what the different cultures surrounding cycling in the UK were like. The study wanted to look at who supported these different cultures and whether there were barriers to entry depending on what part of the country you came from.
The study looked specifically at cycling cultures in four different cities across the country. These cities were Hull, Cambridge, Bristol, as well as Hackney, which is in London. It was found that in the cities there were striking contrasts between the different cultures. All of these cities had cycle to work figures that are around twice the average for the country as a whole. However, even with such impressive figures nationally, they still compare poorly on an international basis.
“When an activity like cycling is seen as something alien to national identity, local identity looms large”, says Dr Aldred. “Some UK cities have a long-standing tradition of cycling as a means of transport, while in other areas cycling for an adult is a relatively new activity.”
Both Hull and Cambridge were chosen because of their traditional cycling cultures. In these cities, cycling is seen as an everyday activity that people choose because it makes sense for their journey; or because in the past they did not have other options. In Cambridge, cycling is considered ‘normal’, with people of all ages and abilities taking part; while in Hull cycling is associated more with the city’s past, when few people could afford cars, than with its present.
In contrast, cycling has become popular in Bristol and Hackney more recently. In Bristol there are bike festivals and parades, while Hackney has seen the greatest rise in cycling rates over the last decade of any London borough. In these locations, cycling has more the character of a subculture with its own fashions and events. One Hackney participant commented, “It’s purely a fashionable thing isn’t it, it’s become trendy to cycle”.
The study also revealed differences in how people accessed help with maintaining their bikes. In Bristol and Hackney there are free, community-based cycle maintenance workshops, while in Hull people typically learn how to look after their bicycle from a parent. Similarly, there were local differences in what cyclists chose to wear. “We saw the most Lycra and helmets in Bristol, and the least in Cambridge”, says Dr Aldred, adding “Worrying about what to wear on the bike can act as a barrier to cycling”.
One issue unites cyclists in all locations: the problem of bike theft. “Most people we spoke to had experienced some form of bicycle theft”, says Dr Aldred. “In a society where mobility is highly valued, waking up in the morning to find your bicycle missing can feel like a part of yourself has been taken”, she says. While many people simply bought a new bike and a better lock, others started to care less about their bikes, deliberately leaving them looking dirty or unmaintained in an effort to deter thieves.
But as Dr Aldred points out, many UK cyclists feel burdened by having to carry a lot of equipment to keep themselves and their vehicles safe, unlike car drivers. “It’s interesting to consider how driving would be affected if drivers had to remember to bring their own lights and locks each time they made a journey, and had to remove their lights again when the car was parked”, Dr Aldred comments.
The study also revealed the ways in which cyclists are helping to increase the popularity of cycling. “Many people in local areas are doing a lot for cycling, from running projects to lending friends a bicycle and showing them a good route to work”, says Dr Aldred.
This supports the idea of making cycling a national strategic priority. “If cycling were better resourced in the UK, local support networks might be able to grow and reach a tipping point where cycling cultures can extend beyond specific localities”, she says.