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Study reveals the very different cycling cultures of British cities

Two year study examined cycling in Hull, Cambridge, Bristol and Hackney

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.


Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Belaroo | 11 years ago

Really really interesting! Having had 10 years in Holland, then 5 years in London and now 7 in Cambridgeshire and in all that time spent most of my travel time on bikes up until moving to Cambridgeshire. I feel invested in projects like this.
I live 17 miles north of Cambridge where cycling is popular but nothing like Cambridge standards. Cambridge most similar to Holland in that the bikes are similar in style, there are plenty of families cycling with cargo bikes etc and yes, people wear normal clothes. I regularly cycle my kids to school in a dress. The major difference is the prevalence of shared cycle paths and frankly appalling cycling infrastructure in Cambridge. It's actually one of my least favourite places to cycle. I'd much rather cycle in London.
I spent a few days in London over the summer and took my Brompton with me, we cycled from Camden to the city along the canal and having lived by Old St and worked in a bike shop in London, cycle culture there really fascinates me. The trend now is for fixed wheel bikes, the safe ones have a brake, but they don't always! When I left 7 years ago, they were around but the sheer number of cyclists and fixed wheelers at every set of lights was phenomenal. I remembered that London cycling is all about the sprint from one set of lights to the next. Bromptons pull away from lights very well and are good for sprinting too.
There is a faint withering annoyance with the Boris bike riders who often seem to be in the wrong lane or holding up a bus but I think the buses, taxi's and experienced riders seemed to see them as a good thing.
My sister lives in the middle of Bristol and with the hills being what they are, a good set of gears is what you really need. People in Bristol really do have good bottoms and legs! Bristol is full of rebels and cycling is one of their causes, against all odds, hills, wet weather and so on, cycling there is becoming the future.

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