Local pockets of hope?
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a research group at the hospital in Cambridge. This was an interesting group because, as scientists and students, I knew they would mostly not be from Cambridge originally, but would have moved there relatively recently for professional reasons. So, at one point, I asked the assembled people to indicate, with a show of hands, how many had started cycling after moving to Cambridge precisely because it was Cambridge. In other words, I asked the group to show whether they had said to themselves something like, "Because cycling is something that people in Cambridge do, now that I live here I should start to cycle too". I was intrigued to see that the majority of the people in the room agreed with this.
There are various things that we might take from this. First, perhaps it reminds us that it is quite possible for a single town or city to have a fundamentally different transport culture from the rest of the country. Of course, whilst this "Cambridge effect" shows that having a town in which cycling is not somehow 'deviant' can indeed happen, it of course leaves wide open the question of how this culture is put in place originally - information that would have been very useful when the Cycling Demonstration Towns project was conceived. Many would no doubt point to the fact that places like Cambridge and Oxford are relatively small and flat. In particular, I suspect many people would point to these cities' large student populations. This latter point seems particularly interesting, and I could easily believe that a transient population, which knows it is only in a city for a few years, much more easily buys into (and reinforces) a transport choice that bolsters their feelings of belonging to something 'special'. This seems particularly plausible when we consider that buying into the culture of cycling upon going to study at Oxford or Camrbidge is clearly only a temporary commitment.
But then, I ask myself, if all that were true, how do we explain the fact so many people who grew up in Cambridge - and who might plausibly want to distance themselves from 'incomers' - also cycle? Perhaps above all, if we want to suggest that a transient population is important in bolstering a cycling culture, how do we explain the existence of so much cycling in, say, York, where there is much less transience? Sure, York has a university, but as a graduate of that university I know that it is much more incidental to the character and population of the city than the universities are in Oxbridge. There is a military base near the city too, which also offers the prospect of a transient population, but in reality the the soldiers again represent a small part of the population; you could easily spend a lot of time in the city without noticing they are there.
Whatever the reason, perhaps we should more often look at cities like these and take comfort from the reminder that a city's approach to transport can feasibly be markedly different from the rest of the country. In particular, it perhaps says to us that no matter how hostile to increased cycling the nation might be as a whole (and all signs suggest that the current government is, amazingly, even more anti-cycling than the last), efforts to increase the amount of everyday cycling might still usefully proceed in one small area at a time.
And there's also something else that we might take from the finding that people start cycling because they are aware that it is locally normal: when people move to a place where a culture of cycling exists, they can in many cases happily accept it. Upon learning that they were moving to Cambridge, those hospital workers could just as easily have said something like "I might be going to Cambridge, but there's no way I'm going to start riding a bike like all those freaks who live there now!" But they didn't, and nor, I suspect, did they receive any ribbing from their friends about how they'd soon be pedaling their way from place to place.
But do you know, as I started to jot down some thoughts about what I might learn from those people in Cambridge - thoughts which eventually became this rambling and confused blog post - I found myself wondering if I might have got the wrong end of the stick. Could the existence of these few cities where cycling is acceptable really be telling us the opposite to what I've suggested? Are these pockets of 'cycling normality' really showing us that cycling is easily relegated to a minority of relatively unusual locales, just as it is relegated to a minority of individuals? Could a less historic, more 'average', city ever develop such a culture? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Please do let me know what you think in the comments section because I've thought about this topic on and off for the past month and just can't make up my mind what conclusions I should draw.