May 21, 2010

Building a Cycling Culture: Dave Horton

Yesterday evening I attended the annual Dublin Cycling Campaign lecture. Dr. Horton is a sociologist working with the Lancaster Environment Center at Lancaster University. Ronnie Delvin from the Department of Transport opened proceedings with an encouraging message that it is the aim of the National Cycle Policy Framework to achieve a vibrant cycle culture in Ireland by 2020. He also iterated the role of cycling campaigners to get out there and spread the message to the public, a message not only that cycling is reliable, healthy and vigorously pursued as government policy, but most importantly, that cycling is fun and for everyone.

Dr. Horton carried out his phD in exploring cycling role in creating subcultures. From feminism at the end of the 19th century, through to socialism at the turn of the 20th century, and on to anarchism and environmentalism, cycling has played a crucial role in the defining of these identities. However Dr. Horton was not in Dublin to talk about his phD but rather to propose the argument that in order to promote cycling to the levels desired, there needs to be a democratization of cycling, a shift to cycling as a dominant culture. The message of the lecture was that in order to acheive this goal, policy makers and society need to move from provision for cycling, via the promotion of cycling, to the production of cycling.

This video above created by Mark Wagenbuur was taking during Rush Hour in Utrecht in The Netherlands. Instead of showing a grandiose masterplan of the city redesigned to create a cyclist's utopia, Dr. Horton chose this video as it is often the simple ordinary moments in a day that can show how cycling culture will be like here in the UK and Ireland in the future. In a way, the is the way a sociologist works and this is how he carries out research. This video also makes it blatantly clear that as an urban utility practice, cycling in the UK and Ireland is in deep trouble.

Dr. Horton spoke in detail about the EPSRC Understanding Walking and Cycling Project which was a research project that sought to establish why people don't cycle. The research was taken from households in four chosen regional cities in the UK; Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester. Methods such as interviews, questionnaires, spatial mapping exercises, mobility inventories and go-alongs (cycling alongside participants on their daily journeys) were all employed to create a framework for the discussion of why people do not cycle. Three distinct categories of cyclist's emerged from the research
  • committed identities - those who use negative cycling experiences in the past to build their identities stronger (eg couriers); 
  • conditional cyclists - those who cycle when there are only conducive conditions (eg daytime, nice weather, safe/off-road routes), and finally 
  • Non-cycling Identities -  those who didn't get back back on the bike. 
In the question-time after the lecture, it was suggested that another category be created, the 'I hate cyclists' identities - those who force cyclist's off the road and cannot bear sharing the road, the SUV touting yummy mummies patrolling the streets for a car parking space, you've seen them before!

However, the essence why people don't cycle, Dr. Horton says, is the actual existing conditions out there for cyclists. There has been a legacy of inadequacy when it comes to providing for cyclists.  This in turn has led to a culture of cyclists who improvise and craft their cycling routes through difficult urban conditions, conditions that are created with one thing in mind, to keep the automobile moving. The result of this action is that we are only building for a partial cycling culture by uncomfortably accommodating sub cultures.

Dave makes the point that there needs to be a fundamental shift from provision for existing cyclists to promotion of cycling for all. Promotion means not just incentivizing cycling to the public but also not providing just for existing cycling, not promoting through gradual improvements (click here for a link to a video of Guardian journalist Adam Gabatt riding London's new cycle so called 'superhighway') and actively attempting to produce new cyclists.If the Danes could do it in an era before climate change, there should be no excuse that we cannot do the same nearly 40 years later.

At the end of the lecture, I was prompted to think, well how do we actually incentive people to leave their cars at home, as opposed to penalizing car use in the city? Penalizing use is a political hot potato. Increasing tax on fuel in the United States is not an option, while more closer to home we saw the motorhead-talk-radiostations spun public outrage with the recent introduction of the carbon tax and the 30 km per hour speed limit in the city centre. While civilizing cars in the city centre is important, congestion will remain. Cutting the numbers of cars is the real dilema. Introducing a congestion charge might be a step too far for an already enraged driving population.

Dublin Bus has a pathetic marketing campaign at the moment calling on people to 'cheat on their car' once a week and take the bus. No doubt this terrible slogan was devised by a corporate type driving into work every day in their beamer. 'Cheat on your car', come off it, we need to break the attachment to the car. How to do this? It was mentioned in the post lecture discussion that Amsterdam's modal share of cyclists never fell below 20% therefore we cannot use this as 'the model' that will answer all our questions. We are at a 8% modal share in Dublin and that is an all-time high. I believe innovation is necessary.

Zimride in operation in campuses across the States
Recently inspired by Zimride's success story in the States it got me thinking about what are the possibilities for people to monetize on leaving their car at home. Can people's cars become share-cars? Can car-use be auctioned to connected colleagues, co-workers, friends and neighbours to the highest bidder on a Facebook application? Can all of this be controlled by the owner on their smartphone? Recently turned 25, I have discovered the joys of open-insurance that has encouraged me to further my investigation into this idea.

Trust is an important issue and of course one that solutions exist for already. A user feedback loop can notify other owners if there is a untrustworthy driver among the car-share community. Car owners can choose who to give their car out to and they can also have the security of knowing where their car is at all times by means of GPS. Much the same way car rental companies operate, speeding tickets and parking fines will not be a problem. Thats what it is, crowd sourcing car rental, that's a real innovative solution for reducing congestion at peak hours in the city while breaking peoples personal attachment to their car. Watch this space for updates...

David Horton maintains a blog at
Dublin Cycling Campaign is online at
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