Archive for the ‘cycling’ Category

Griet and I are currently doing the Leeds phase of fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. We’re working in Little London, a residential area adjacent to Leeds city centre.

Since the last post we’ve finished our fieldwork in Worcester, and more or less finished fieldwork in Leicester. I’ll write more about our experiences in both those cities over the coming months, as I find more time for thinking and for writing … This past year has been really hectic – lots of travelling and too many nights spent in anonymous hotel rooms as we’ve tried to meet and talk with as many people, and as many different people, as we can – all in order to understand much more about walking and cycling in contemporary Britain.

Another month or so of research in Leeds and we’ll almost be done, and whilst the last year has been an enormous privilege and often a real pleasure, I’m really looking forward to finally sitting down, taking stock, and gradually – I hope – starting to make some sense of it all. And we have an enormous amount of data out of which to make some sense …

It feels like we’ve been on quite a journey to get to here; from the relatively middle-class and on the whole suburban lives of people living in Lancaster and Worcester, via the dense urban conditions of the south Asian communities living in the Belgrave area of Leicester, and now, to the high-rise tower blocks and intense multi-culturalism of Little London.

One of the benefits of blogging over writing academic articles is that it’s much easier to generalise, so here goes – we’ve gone from ‘the rich’ to ‘the poor’, and in the process we’ve gone through very different orientations to the various modes of mobility which people more or less use, and/or variously have to tolerate. Most of the households we worked with in Lancaster and Worcester own and use one or more cars, yet the people within these households live lives relatively oblivious to the negative effects of cars (I must stress the ‘relatively’ here, because no one in Britain today lives a life which is fully free from the negative effects of cars); these people also recognise the value and the virtues of walking and cycling, modes of mobility which they try to incorporate into their relatively car-centred lives. Meanwhile in Leicester, the car is still being incorporated into the lives of members of south Asian households, but the car has also become a vehicle which every adult should have. Amidst the high-density, proximate living of Belgrave, many people drive cars for remarkably short journeys, but many people also walk without really noticing that they walk. If you do stop to ask them about walking, and so turn it from an ‘unreflexive’ practice into a topic for discussion, it quickly gets constructed in a quite specific way – those discourses promoting walking (and also, though to a much lesser extent, cycling) which have a disciplinary effect on south Asian British bodies are those concerned with health and fitness; it’s ‘good to walk’, especially, because walking is good for you. Yet the places through which most people who live in and around Belgrave do walk are dominated by cars – their own and others’, moving and stationary.

And so to Leeds, a city re-made around the car, and Little London, a ‘deprived’ community through which other people’s cars continuously and noisily speed. Most of the people we’ve been speaking with so far in Little London don’t have cars: you could say, living where they live, they don’t really need one – one woman yesterday told us that she can walk to the city centre from where she lives in seven minutes; but you could also say that living without a car traps people into their inner-city location. Meanwhile, other people come and park their cars on their streets, drive their cars through their neighbourhoods so fast that one mother told me she won’t let her child play out in the cul-de-sac (that’s a ‘dead-end’ street) on which they live, and the urban motorway which separates Little London’s residents from the city centre can be heard and seen from almost everywhere. Most of the women we’ve spoken to so far walk pretty much everywhere, much less because they’re being encouraged to walk, much more because it’s something they simply do, in daylight hours at least, and/or because they have no choice. These women feel the spaces through which they walk to be potentially highly problematic, but nevertheless walk they do. Unlike some of the people we have met in Lancaster and Worcester, and also in Leicester, they are not I think disciplined by governmental injunctions to act sustainably, healthily or whatever; nor I think are they disciplined entirely by poverty. I think many of these women walk because it makes sense to walk, they like to walk, they want a world in which walking is possible, and many of them are engaged in the very beautiful (and political) act of re-making urban space in convivial, multi-cultural, inclusive ways, ways which re-inhabit and revitalise that space ready for the children they are bringing up there.

In case I’m making Little London sound like the kind of place you wouldn’t want to go unless you were a qualitative researcher interested in understanding others’ lives – which is not at all my intention – let me say for the record, here and now, that it has so far been easier to meet people in Little London than in the other three neighbourhoods in which we’ve conducted ethnographic research (although that’s to some extent a result of the different community mechanisms in the four different places – Little London has a community centre and community workers, who have helped enormously), that people have been helpful and friendly, and amongst the people we’ve spoken to and also – more abstractly – the feeling ‘in the air’, is that Little London is a dynamic, friendly and ‘on-the-up’ place in which to live.

When it comes to cycling, my passion and my raison d’être in academia, the story however is so far a rather sobering one. We’ve yet to meet someone from Little London who uses a bike in the ways which ‘the authorities’ would like. I chatted to one lad who uses his bike a lot, like many kids simply to ride around the place; he’d had one bike – a mountain bike – stolen from him by a group of older youths a few months back, but he’d now got another one, a BMX. He didn’t have a lock for it; like other kids I’ve spoken to, the concept of leaving your bike somewhere seems to be an alien one. This lack of (familiarity with the concept of) a lock is one reason why kids don’t ride bikes to school (whereas I spoke to one lad who skateboarded to school, partly because he could carry his skateboard into school with him). A couple of weeks ago one youngish woman told us that she wouldn’t ride a bike because people would laugh at her; she’s too old for that – cycling is something only kids do. Someone else told us that the men riding around the area are likely to be drug-dealers – they ride on the pavements, whilst the fluorescent commuters who zip through Little London on their way between home and city centre of course ride on the roads. It might make sense for those passing through, but in Little London itself, Cycling England‘s mantra of ‘more cycling, more safely, more often’ seems almost absurd.

Of course, many of the people we’ve spoken with so far in Little London have more pressing things to think about than how they move around. Some of the African women I spoke with yesterday described for me how they were living with young children in flats or houses with severe damp, inadequate heating and broken windows. What’s more important – that they get their grossly substandard housing improved, or that they ‘do their bit’ by ‘hopping onto bikes’?! Still, because it’s my job and because it’s my passion, I want to find out how – and in what ways – cycling might connect (with) these women’s lives, and I don’t apologise for that. So at one point I asked what they would do, were they to be given a free bike, which was waiting for them to ride away outside. Most of them just laughed. I’m guessing that the idea of their leading the lives they lead by bike just makes no sense at all …

As I say, these are blunt generalisations; the detail and the nuance will come later. What’s great for me is finally, now, to be peering my head up over the fieldwork parapet, and realising there just might be quite a lot to say about all this research which we’ve spent the past year of our lives undertaking ….


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When transport professionals talk about “barriers to walking and cycling” they can be referring to many different things. Some of the more obvious “barriers” include fear of motorised traffic, poor (or even non-existent) walking and cycling infrastructure, lack of political and other institutional support, and a whole host of other ‘difficult to tackle’ issues such as hills, rain and distance. But when Griet and I did a walking tour of our ethnographic neighbourhood in Lancaster recently, we came across a very major barrier to walking and cycling which I’d not really thought much about before – private land.

We transport types sometimes talk about ‘severances’ to walking and cycling. But by this we’re almost always referring, in my experience, to the ways in which railways, major roads (especially urban dual carriageways and motorways), and big retail developments can block routes which people travelling on foot or by bike might otherwise take. I already knew of this issue in the areas of west Lancaster on which we’re focusing our ethnographic attention, Fairfield and Abraham Heights. The west coast main railway line runs north-south along the eastern side of the neighbourhood, and this really reduces the permeability between it and Lancaster city centre. You can see this very well on a satellite view of the area, which you can look at via Google Map – just type in “Meeting House Lane, Lancaster”, and you’ll get to a view of the general area, and be able to see how there’s no crossing of the railway south of Meeting House Lane until you get to Carr House Lane (and this route is only available to pedestrians and cyclists, which is one of the reasons this neighbourhood is very interesting to us – in many ways it’s more accessible by bike and on foot than it is by car).

The railway is a major severance to walking and cycling in the area. Of course, on a smaller scale, every road is also (rather ironically) a severance to mobility, especially the mobility of certain groups of people, and perhaps most obviously the oldest and youngest members of our communities (who, arguably, may be precisely the groups which need ‘community’ the most). My son Bobby is 8, and we’re currently going through a process of allowing him a growing amount of independence in mobility. This makes us very conscious of roads, and how difficult and dangerous different roads might be for him to cross. But we’re all affected by roads. In his landmark study of residential streets in San Francisco, published in the book Livable Streets (1981, University of California Press, Berkeley), Don Appleyard demonstrated how motorised traffic kills community. Appleyard found, for example, that residents of streets with light traffic had, on average, three more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people on streets with heavy traffic, and that, as the amount of traffic increases, the space people consider to be their “territory” shrinks.

But I’m digressing … as Griet and I walked around the area, we became much more aware of the very real barrier to walking and cycling through and around our neighbourhood which is created by a block of privatised land separating the two distinct areas of it – Abraham Heights to the west, Fairfield to the east. Go to Google Map and you can see it extraordinarily clearly. From Towneley Close, there are two clear, obvious routes which could link Abraham Heights to Fairfield, but which don’t …

One route goes east out of Towneley Close, via the community orchard and past the allotments to the walking and cycling route which runs north-south through Fairfield; this links to the Millennium Bridge (and so much of the rest of the district) to the north, and Carr House Lane and then the canal (and so also to much of the rest of the district) to the south. Apparently this route was blocked without warning by a landowner a few years ago, but after much local effort it is shortly to be re-opened.

The second route is actually a road. But it’s a private road, patrolled by big and ugly gates. It would make an excellent route from Abraham Heights to the town centre, one which avoids having to use Westbourne Lane. But with this route blocked, and the other not yet re-opened, people must use Westbourne Lane. Westbourne Lane is a relatively pleasant road, full of trees, lined with large properties, almost rural in its feel. But for some of its length there’s a pavement along only one side, and that pavement is skinny and often slippy, so that people often walk in the road. The road also goes up and down a hill, which – when combined with the motorised traffic which can travel very fast and close – means it’s uncomfortable for people who aren’t very confident riding a bike, which includes most kids (and perhaps especially the people who care for those kids).

So from Abraham Heights there is currently no option, when travelling east towards Lancaster city centre, but to use Westbourne Road. Westbourne Road is a very poor route for walking and cycling. There are two alternative routes for walking and cycling, both far superior to the current option. One will shortly, hopefully, be re-opened. The other, to the best of my knowledge, is not even on people’s radars as a route which might potentially be opened up – though it would provide another great route because it is reasonably well surfaced, and so walk-able and cycle-able whatever the weather. But, for reasons I do not profess to understand, it is blocked by big, impenetrable gates. Behind those gates are some very big houses. As Griet and I walked around, trespassing, finding our way blocked, being made to feel very clearly that we oughtn’t to be there, I felt very angry. A stranger in my own community. Treading on land which ought to provide many children with safe, pleasant routes to school; trespassing on land which ought to give the people of Abraham Heights an attractive way of reaching the rest of their district.

To me, anyway, it seems a crime.

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Drying out and warming up in the office, after this morning’s cycling go-along. Yesterday I did two cycling go-alongs, as well as my own cycle commute; today it’s only the one, so I’m warm and dry, until home-time at least.

If you hadn’t noticed, it’s been raining, a lot! Some people might say ‘well what do you expect? It’s Lancaster!’. But Lancaster can be, is often, dry. But not recently. A wonderfully dry October (from a cycling perspective) has given way to a wet November. Actually, given how much it’s been raining, I can’t complain. Sure, I’ve got a bit damp, but not absolutely drenched. I’ve been wearing my waterproof over-trousers and jacket, which together keep the worst of the wet at bay. But all the surface water on the roads, mixed with the recently fallen leaves, mean that it’s currently a bit slippery out there. My back wheel slid under hard braking a couple of times yesterday, and today I’ve been taking more-than-usual care to avoid drain covers, which are always a potential danger to cyclists, especially as they so often seem to be in our natural paths.

What I’ve been really impressed by,  yesterday and today, is how the people with whom I’ve been privileged enough to ride deal with the rain. It’s November, it’s turned colder, the leaves are everywhere, the night’s have drawn in and we’re now much more likely to be riding in the dark, and at rush-hour the darkness can compound the threats which come from motorised traffic. But the people with whom I’ve ridden are simply not deterred. They don waterproofs, they get out there, and they deal with it. No messing. Very matter-of-fact. I know that these three people are probably not at all representative of the British population – they cycle, for a start! – but they’ve made me realise that we’re not necessarily ‘a nation of softies’, as is sometimes said, and that rain simply needn’t be a barrier to cycling, which is another thing that’s often said. Come to think of it, so much of ‘what’s often said’ is just a pile of tosh, eh? But you probably need to get out there, meet people, talk to them, watch them, to realise that …

Which is what we’re doing … This morning, though, I made the  mistake of conducting the first part of the go-along without my gloves on. That’s because I’m holding a digital audio recorder as I cycle. This is not just because it makes me look like a proper researcher, but because I talk into it, and at the times when it seems safe to do so, ride alongside the person whose journey I’m going-along-with, asking them questions and (hopefully) recording their responses. It’s easier to hold and to operate the recorder with bare hands. But by the time we got to our destination (a shop out towards Morecambe), I couldn’t feel my fingers. Lots of blowing warm air onto them, and then it was definitely gloves on for the return journey.

And now they’re beside me, on top of the office radiator, drying out, and reminding me of this morning’s adventures and making me feel very thankful that I ride a bike, and that many other people – including people you might not think – do too …

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Twice, this morning. Cycling along the Heysham bypass, on my way to do a go-along, I got that dreadful feeling which I still get every time (though it’s not often, thankfully) I get a puncture. It starts with a vague unease, there’s something not right. That unease grows as the feeling that there’s something wrong with the bike doesn’t go away. For a moment I think, ‘pretend I’ve not got a puncture and maybe it will go away’, but you can’t wish punctures away, and so steadily the realisation that ‘yes, I do have a puncture’, and that it’s going to need fixing, grows, until it brings me and my bike to a halt … alongside the Heysham bypass, which was quite loud whilst I was cycling, but got a notch louder as soon as I was stopped by the roadside, bike turned upside down, intent on getting back on the road as quickly as possible … after all, I’d an appointment to get to … someone else’s commute, starting at 8:00am.

I put in my spare inner-tube, which I’ve been carrying around with me for yonks, and which – after I pumped it up and rode another mile or so – I now realise also had a puncture. That’ll teach me for not keeping on top of my inner-tube situation! There are times in my life when I find myself shouting out loud, like a mad man, which maybe I am, though I try to do it when no one is listening … or, on the Heysham bypass, no one has a hope of hearing, because those lorries are just too thunderous. Well, I shouted loudly this morning, then stopped, whipped out the inner-tube, stuck a quick-fix patch on the hole which I didn’t know it had, then crossed my fingers (metaphorically of course; after all, I had a bike to ride) that it’d hold, and let me get to where I was meant to be …

… it all worked out fine in the end (though the amount of oil I got on myself means that I am now sitting at my desk looking rather more like a garage mechanic than a sociologist – is that what they mean by ‘getting your  hands dirty’?). Partly because the woman with whom I was ‘going along’ was so understanding about my morning’s bad start, and so relaxed and cheerful as I accompanied her as she walked her children to the childminder’s house and to school, before getting on her bike and riding to Lancaster (me stopping intermittently to find a good place to rest my audio recorder and keep asking her for details of her journey as I pumped my slowly-but-continuously-deflating tyre back up). And partly because her morning’s routine – juggling kids, getting them happily to where they needed to go, then continuing to her workplace – was just so very inspiring. What a fantastic role model for sustainable transport, I kept thinking, whilst also trying hard to make sure I asked more questions, and not just gaze on in admiration …

It’s a funny business, this going-along. I’m commuting to take part in someone else’s commute, riding and/or walking their commute with them, then doing another commute, into the office, where I can sit and pontificate about the weirdness of it all, and write about punctures … important stuff like that … By the time I get to the office, at least 3 commutes done, it really feels like it should be time to go home .. which, actually, it almost is, because this afternoon, for example, I’m doing the whole 3 commute thing all over again, riding through Lancaster and out the other side to meet up with a chap who’ll then ride back through Lancaster and out the other side, me close on his wheel, to his house, before I say ‘farewell’ and, you guessed it, ride back through Lancaster and out the other side, to my house … it’s a good way of ‘getting the miles in’, as we cycling-types like to say, anyway …

This is all rather a long-winded (sociologists, bless ’em …) way of saying, we’ve really got our teeth stuck into the Lancaster stage of our fieldwork, now. Griet and I are busy juggling three different methodologies at once – visiting some people’s homes to chat about how they move around, actually moving around by bike or on foot with other people, and then doing a mix of stuff with those households with whom we’re working most ethnographically – that is, in most depth. Between us, we’re generating an immense amount of data, which is about equally satisfying (“oooh, look how busy we’re being!”) and disturbing (“what on earth are we going to do with, and make of, all this?!”).

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