A two-year research project into attitudes towards cycling in four areas of England with higher-than-average bicycle usage – Bristol, Hull, Cambridge and the London Borough of Hackney – has found “vast differences in cycling culture,” attributed by its author to the fact that Britain lacks a distinct cycling culture, meaning that it is local factors that help shape the characteristics of a specific place when it comes to cycling.
Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of East London, who led the Cycling Cultures study which ran from January 2010 to December 2010 with the final report published yesterday, said: “We wanted to find out what British cycling cultures were like, what supported them, and what local and national factors continue to exist as barriers.”
The four locations in the study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, were chosen because they all had levels of cycling to work that were more than double the national average of 2.8 per cent, although as the report’s author acknowledged, that is far from the levels of cycling seen in European countries such as the Netherlands or Germany.
And while cycling campaigners in the UK may aspire to creating a cycling culture in the UK similar to that found in places such as the Netherlands or Denmark, the evidence from Dr Aldred’s study is that in the locations analysed here, there were “striking contrasts” in the way it had evolved; far from having common themes that might provide evidence of their being in the vanguard of some burgeoning British cycling culture, instead it was local characteristics that shaped what was happening.
"When an activity like cycling is seen as something alien to national identity, local identity looms large", Dr Aldred explained. "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."
Those contrasts were reflected in the cities chosen for the study, with Hull and Cambridge having long-established traditions of cycling, maintained in the latter until the present day with cycling viewed as a ‘normal’ activity, while in Hull, high levels of cycling reflected the city’s past more than anything, due to the difficulties many people encountered in affording a car.
The popularity of cycling in Bristol, designated England’s first Cycling City, and Hackney, by comparison, was identified as much more of recent phenomenon, and one that had given rise to a distinctive subculture in each location.
In turn that bred events and fashions specific to both places, with one participant in the study from Hackney reflecting that by saying, "It’s purely a fashionable thing isn’t it, it’s become trendy to cycle.”
The differences extended well beyond mere fashion, however; while in Hull, cyclists tended to learn bicycle maintenance skills from a parent, in Bristol or Hackney, free community-based cycle maintenance workshops helped people learn the basics.
Meanwhile, even the clothes and other equipment people chose to wear on their bikes differed between the locations – "We saw the most Lycra and helmets in Bristol, and the least in Cambridge", Dr Aldred revealed. "Worrying about what to wear on the bike can act as a barrier to cycling," she added.
There was one common thread running across the four locations, however, namely the issue of bike theft. "Most people we spoke to had experienced some form of bicycle theft", Dr Aldred said.
Cambridge itself has previously been identified as the UK’s bike crime hotspot, although as Dr Aldred highlights – and as anyone who has ever discovered that their bike has been taken will attest – beyond the raw crime statistic, there’s an emotional impact too.
"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 explained.
However, reaction to the theft of a bicycle led to different reactions among victims, as Dr Aldred outlined.
“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,” she commented.
But the study found that the battle against the bike thieves also impacted those cyclists who did not themselves have their bicycle stolen, with the need to carry locks and remove lights viewed by some as a burden.
"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", she said.
More positively, the study found that it was cyclists themselves who were helping spread the word about taking to two wheels and encouraging others to do so.
"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", Dr Aldred said.
"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 concluded.
According to the background to the project on the Cycling Cultures website, “ The four chosen areas (Hull, Hackney, Cambridge and Bristol) have differing social and spatial characteristics (from average income levels and ethnic mix to hilliness and local climate). They have different policy and political environments (e.g. prominence of local cycling campaigns, political composition of local authorities).
“We will ask: How do these differing contexts influence the "cycling cultures" to be found in each area?”
Following those two years of research, the findings are now published in the report which you can download here, while the Cycling Cultures website has a range of other content including a blog written while the study was being conducted, as well as links to time-lapse videos and other media associated with the project.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.