Cycling Cultures

The Cycling Cultures project has been studying cycling cultures in four English cities. Sam Smith was there to see authors Rachel Aldred and Kat Jungnickel present the final report.


Everybody who’s been to Holland or Belgium has seen the facilities there and that’s the obvious standard to aim for, isn’t it? – Clive, Hull

The areas chosen in the study represent two very different places where there is a tradition of cycling – Hull and Cambridge – and two areas where cycling has seen something of a boom, Hackney and Bristol.

Hull was once known as “the UK’s Cycling City” because of its flat terrain, high density population, short commutes and large number of bicycle shops. Today, while cycling is often considered quite middle class, Hull’s working class history means those who took part in the research often saw riding their bikes as a functional necessity.

Cambridge has its historic centre and the University undergraduate car ban to thank for its continued high cycling figures. When it received Cycling City status, the Cambridge Cycle programme acknowledged this by planning to tackle the growth of new, car-dominated, developments outside the city centre. A recession did that for them, however, letting them concentrate on maintaining what they already have.

Hackney is both an area of serious deprivation and major gentrification. The “fashionista stuff...  all the single speed stripped down stuff” has made the area famous, but the study suggests bicycle use in other parts of the community and small businesses is overlooked.

The team chose Bristol partly because it had already seen cycling rise by just over a third before it was given Cycling City status. The number of people choosing to ride continues to grow, with a strong sense of localism and a DIY ethic helping keep older bikes, social networks and small businesses healthy.

In neither Hull nor Cambridge did those interviewed think there was a “cycling culture”. They were just people on bikes, doing something everyday (See also Copenhagenize on vacuum cleaner culture).

"Hull doesn't have a cycling culture… it's not like London with its metrosexual cyclists" – Hull interviewee

Rachel had slides galore full of quotations from interviewees who didn’t think they were “proper cyclists” because they only use their bikes to go to work or the shops, rather than going on long-distance rides and holidays.

In Hackney and Bristol, where cycling has only recently taken off, they found more acknowledgement of cycling culture, and subcultures. Even then people were keen to distinguish themselves from “cycling fanatics” and “bike nuts”.

That led to some serious musing on what exactly makes a cyclist. Is it the person who wears Lycra and speeds along, the commuter who only uses their bike to get from A to B, or the friend who sees the journey to and from the tea shop as half the fun of the outing? The report can’t help but acknowledge the negative connotations of the word “cyclist”, mentioned as they were by so many participants, most adding that they were keen not to be seen as such a figure.

Despite most people at the event taking in and understanding the oft-repeated notion that the interviewees did not think of themselves as “proper cyclists”, it was an inevitable question:  Do Rachel and Kat’s findings, based on the responses of people who actually use bikes, clash with the (wilfully misunderstood) “ignore the cyclists” findings of Understanding Walking and Cycling?

Our very own David Arditti quite forcefully put the questioner right on both scores, saving much eye-rolling and paper pellet-chucking for the rest of us.

In addition to the data collection, Kat Jungnickel used the study as inspiration for an art project, creating numerous David Hockney-esque photo portraits of research subjects with their bikes.

The study has so far produced around a dozen published papers, book chapters and reports, ranging from analysis of what makes a cyclist anyway, to learning how to become a cycle trainer, to cycling as sustainable transport, to the rise of the cargo bike in Hackney. Rachel and Kat say there are plenty more papers to be written based on the data they have collected, including items on equality and mobility.

You can read the full summary report here, which includes an already very long list of papers and publications which have come out of the research. Alternatively, have a look at Rachel and Kat’s blogs, to be found on the project site