Cycling and the city: Learning to love each other

Revolution may be afoot as governments plan to make more urban cycling havens, but cities can’t learn to love cycling superhighways. Or can they?

Cycling in the city, and particularly in midtown, is anarchy without malice – The New Yorker, Talk of the Town

Falling in love and learning to love are two different but somehow oft-confused journeys. You fall in love without trying, despite flaws and complications; learning to love is coercion, a wilful act of categorising and laying siege to each tiny discrepancy until you can live with them.

People fall in love with bikes, cities are rarely so sure.

I live in London, where to watch mayor Boris Johnson waffling on his two wheels through the streets is a local pastime. People do cycle here and more people are cycling here every day, according to statistics and the visibly multiplying hordes of luminous-jacketed pedallers weaving a wonky path along the Embankment everyday. But the relationship is a deeply uneasy one.

Cycling along said Embankment not long ago, thinking about how beautiful the evening was and trying not to have my elbows grazed by passing motorbikes, I got a reminder of what other people see. A woman was halfway across a pedestrian crossing on a busy section of road where cars, taxis, motorbikes and cyclists, including me, revved and leaned impatiently, when she stopped and came back to address us cyclists. “You lot need to stop, I’ve had enough of you,” she said shaking her fist (actually!) before continuing back on her course. She may have been a victim, drunk, or simply brave enough to say what other pedestrians don’t, but she reminded me that the city doesn’t love a cyclist. We’re in the way.

More than that, for the bravura around unleashing a city of cyclists, there’s plenty to put off would-be cyclists: cities are dangerous, motorists don’t respect cyclists, cyclists don’t respect cyclists, roads are poorly planned, the rules on where you can and can’t cycle blur so much as to be useless. You can’t just plonk a load of cyclists in a space and expect everyone to get along.

Promises made

For figureheads and politicians, it’s good to talk about making a city love cycling. Says Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor’s transport advisor and TfL board member “This is London’s year of cycling. The look and feel of the city, as well as our approach to cycling will radically change this summer through the delivery of the best cycle-hire scheme in the world and the first two cycle superhighways.”

Sound familiar? London is an interesting battleground as rhetoric and goodwill come up against the very fabric of the city. But it certainly isn’t the only place trying to learn its way into becoming a cycling city: Chicago, under the guidance of former transportation director to the White House, Gabe Klein, is a year into its Streets for Cycling 2020 plan, which calls for the installation of a whopping 100 miles of separated bike lanes over the next four years.

Bike lanes, however, might be a warm gesture from the city to the cyclist – but without conviction for change in individuals, from lawmakers to lorry drivers, being in a city with cyclists is like a crammed lift with a lycra-clad road warrior and his bike trying to wedge in the corner. If you’ve ever had to cross three lanes of traffic or been cut up at slip roads, you’ll know how drivers respond.

Across the UK, it’s definitely the case in many cities. A recent blog post by Owen Duffy for The Guardian argued that though Glasgow should be a cyclist’s paradise, it’s far from it. It will be home to the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and, by Duffy’s description, its size and prominent green spaces should make cycling ideal. But the layout of the road structure and the culture of the city has only motor vehicles in mind. When a place is so determinedly not set up for cyclists, alterations can feel cosmetic and have little effect on the hostile ride to work. Glasgow riders may be able to ready to try and emulate Sir Chris, but they may not be able to get to the velodrome on two wheels.

Compare Glasgow or London with Cambridge, proclaimed as the UK’s most cycle-friendly city, and you get a glimpse of a more idyllic relationship between rider and driver.

Watch the bikes swarming through the rest of the traffic and note the lack of cycle lanes. Cambridge has a tradition of students cycling that goes way back and it is remarkably flat. But it’s not that the city has been built with cyclists in mind – it’s that the cyclists and the city get along.

When you take England as a whole, there’s a marked discrepancy between cities such as Cambridge, Oxford and York and, say, Bolton or Newcastle, in terms of frequency of cycling. In the former, the cycling community has political heft, ensuring that not only do more riders feel they’re able to commute, but also that they’re not unwelcome insects in a car-fuelled metropolis. When you have a community, you not only open up the cycling culture itself, you also make the concerns of cyclists something that the city cares about. In Cambridge, you’d be foolish to aggravate the cyclists – in London, a company like Addison Lee can openly declare war on them.

There’s even a push by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) to try and get Dutch-style segregated paths, something London cyclists would sincerely welcome, as the Love London, Go Dutch campaign has proved.

Overseas affair

Of course, the Dutch aren’t the only templates. Copenhagen is frequently cited as one of Europe’s, and the world’s, most cycling-friendly city. It isn’t just that the Copenhagenites love cycling – they have a city that loves cycling. The inhabitants pedal 1.21 million kilometres a day, collectively, 40% of children ride to school, while 55% say they cycle because its faster (stats courtesy of Sivellink). It makes sense to ride in Copenhagen and it’s part of life there.

Back to London and a recent meeting between TfL and the London Assembly, where TfL has seconded a Danish infrastructure expert to share expertise with street planners in London. Exciting plans afoot, but as London Cycling Campaign chief executive Ashok Sinha points out, plans to which the real barrier is political will.

A look at the divergent fortunes, from a cycling perspective, of Copenhagen and, say, Los Angeles, reveals that political willpower forced one city into change, while the other continued its affair with the motor car. Writing in the LA Times in 2008, Michael Colville-Andersen of relates the story, “We started pedestrianising our city center and creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure. There were protests, sure, but the cries died out as soon as people realised that commerce increased and that the city was a lovelier place to be.”

“These sentiments can be just as well applied to bicycle culture and the bicycle as a feasible transport form. Imagination is required, as well as public and political will, but two out of three are an excellent start.”

Perhaps here is where the final clues lie to turning this doomed triste into something more dependable.

According to figures from TfL’s Cycling Revolution campaign (pdf here), of all the journeys in London that could be made by bike, 30% are in Inner London boroughs – it’s this battleground where motorists still dominate. Eyeing Copenhagen’s relationship with its cyclists jealously, London has firmly ingrained a culture around the motor vehicle and the problem is that simply getting more cyclists on the road won’t solve the problems that a dominant class of motorists are likely to cause. But they’re not the only worry…

It’s not you, it’s me

As The Economist picked up on recently, John Pucher, Ralph Buehler and Mark Seinen’s 2011 paper Bicycling renaissance in North America? An update and reappraisal of cycling trends and policies explains that almost all the growth in cycling in America has come from men aged 25-64. The growth as a sport doesn’t necessarily run parallel to growth as an accepted part of wider culture and that theme has made it across the Atlantic Ocean.

Getting behind ambitious change programmes to try and make cities’ infrastructure more capable of handling greater volumes of cyclists is an excellent cause, but what if its main effect is enabling one social strata of cyclists to cycle more? London’s cyclist community, like the growing clan of cyclists in North America, is still quite different from a city like Amsterdam’s and it’s a crucial contrast because the behaviour and perception of those cyclists that enjoy the crossover between commuting and weekend jaunts doesn’t necessarily help the cycling community’s cause in a city, nor can a swathe of society that’s interest is leaned towards the sporty side of the spectrum be relied on to raise a voice for what needs to be a much broader spread of active cyclists.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be gained from the background of continental cycling cities, where cycling crossed over from a hippie pastime to common mode of transport when parents realised the roads weren’t safe for their children and demanded change. Not only is the will of that section of society much broader and stronger, the next generation of cyclists got involved. ‘Inspiring a generation’ is an agenda that cycling groups should share.

Cycling culture itself needs to change.

From cycling proficiency to council-led courses, from the availability of bike shops and facilities to the spread of community groups, cyclists in cities need to educate themselves and each other. Depending where you live, that process is happening, but its growth and success may have a greater impact than the ongoing battle over ideas like cycling superhighways.

Learning to love cycling means deeper shifts from both sides of the partnership; it means invoking deeper motives than protecting enthusiasts and it means persistant campaigning. No-one said it would be easy.

Steve Hall

If you liked this article, please subscribe to the &Bike Sunday Read newsletter – an exclusive, in-depth article every Sunday delivered to your inbox. Also, please share using the widgets below. Finally, we’d love to hear your views, either through the comments section or via email.


  1. Ian

    Nice article.

    One thing I would like to add, is even with all the momentum, the best solution to cycling in cities is to introduce friends and partners to cycling which reveals our cities in a different light.

    We don’t need Boris to do that. That comes after the masses demand it. They just want votes. 

    Our experience has been a revelation. My firm not only enjoys a bike  now, but commutes and also notices nice bikes – lycra adorned and skinny jeans adorned, without bias – ride and is thus becoming as addicted as I. Surely good for congestion…

    And the classic Zeus is back to better glories, with traditional road bars and bars, at the behest of the rider. The seed was sown and she wants the ride to reflect the way she feels about cycling. It’s addictive. Again, a powerful tool against congested cities. And for vote hungry politicians…?

    Good Sunday read, thanks.


  2. Steve

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for the comment.
    I agree, it’s about people power – if you excuse the cliche. I also think that enthusiasm needs to be met with a thoughtful plan for growth in cities. At the risk of purely describing the situation I see in London, there’s a period of excitement now, but how its maintained and harnessed is a question that’s not often asked. From your site it looks like you’re based in Barcelona? Have you got any insights into how cycling infrastructure and culture has developed there?


    1. Ian Walton

      Hi Steve

      You’re right, I am in Barcelona, but it is a bit tricky to say how the infrastructure developed without looking into it more as I have only been here for a year – I was in the mountains above Girona for a year before that and Australia for 10 before that.

      But the infrastructure that is here seems to be such a part of all walks of life, engendearing the bike to be a constant consideration for the city and drivers. “Bicing” the hire bike scheme is used all over the city by suits, pot smokers, girls in flowing summer dresses and workers off to the days labouring. Everyone uses or knows someone who uses them. They are used on lanes that are often separated by a physical barrrier – small concrete lumps between the lane and the road. Not always though. But the other lanes are clearly marked, usually respected by all and connect landmarks such as the Arc de Triomf under which is a shared pedestrian cycle area, for example. And there are very few pedestrian only areas. You can cycle almost everywhere, with care. And most do. Removing that exclusivity allows the city to be connected better and allows the shared areas to be really shared and reduce the crazy fast courier speed cycling – I see very very little of that. Most meander on the bike, or commute at a steady pace. It isn’t La Vuelta on the streets.

      As for the culture, I sense that cycling has always been part of the way of life. A bit like the moto’s (Vepsa’s and the like) buzzing around. I think they get it that without them, the congested roads would be even worse so there is a mutual understanding of letting the two wheeled transport get ahead without the ego taking a dent and needing to fight back with aggression. Even taxi drivers and truck drivers who are paid to get places on time allow me into traffic, when really I don’t have the right of way. Very rarely do I get abuse, though it does happen.

      And cyclists here are not particularly better behaved. They (we, I admit it, I sneak a light or two) do things here that if it occurred in Australia where I was before, would risk serious retaliation – verbal and sometimes physical. It isn’t right to assume cyclists have the right to abuse the laws, but it seems that no one (few) here are bothered that they lose out to a cyclist gaining 10 seconds on them at the lights, because that invariable costs them very little and the ego seems to handle it.

      That hasn’t really answered your question, I realise. The crux for me is there is a tolerance, but I cannot say where it has come from. Bigger things to worry about? A more laid back approach to life (though finding any excuse to have a protest every week in the city…perhaps that is the release that calms the life…?)?

      I feel safer riding the roads in busy Barcelona, be it on the fixie or escaping the city on the way to the hills behind on the roadie, than I ever did on the wide roads of Brisbane and Melbourne or when I visit Yorkshire.

      If a city as tightly compressed as Barcelona can – and needs to – make it work then surely London and others can. The tolerance is here for bikes. It needs to be built in places like Brisbane and Melbourne and perhaps in London. Perhaps using the current boom over there and cyclists being overly polite and inviting to other road users will be a step towards that. Or perhaps that would just be too submissive and lead no where. When the culture of the bike isn’t quite as strong it is difficult to get people out of their comfort zones in air conditioned climates.

      Sorry for the waffling, especially with no real answer to your question. I may look into it more, as I find myself interested in where and how Barcelona got to this state of bike tapas goodness.


  3. Pingback: Making our streets a safer place to ride - &Bike

  4. Pingback: The tribe of the cycle haters &Bike

  5. Pingback: The tribe of the cycle haters &Bike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *