Cycling research goes to Manchester

Gabriele Schliwa and Graeme Sherriff, the organizers of Cycling and Society Symposium 2015. 

Gabriele Schliwa and Graeme Sherriff, the organizers of Cycling and Society Symposium 2015. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

The only academic conference dedicated to all things cycling was held this month in Manchester. Cycling and Society Symposium's 12th edition gathered for two days almost 100 participants, academics and practitioners alike, to share knowledge on how to make cycling a more 'normalized' practice.


The academic interest for cycling has increased alongside the practice itself in the last decade or so. Within social sciences alone the number of citations for the world 'bicycle' in the period 2008-2012 grew from under one hundred to more than two hundred publications per year. An important role played in this constant increase has been, in the UK at least, one particular event: Cycling and Society conference, that had its first iteration in 2004, in Lancaster. One eponymous book has been published in 2007, proposing a multi-disciplinary approach to cycling and further inspiring a burgeoning generation of researchers.


The symposium in Manchester, held on 14 and 15 September, was 'an opportunity for researchers, policy makers, transport authorities, urban designers, campaigners and other practitioners to learn about and discuss issues on urban cycling', as it is acknowledged by the two organizers, Graeme Sherriff (University of Salford) and Gabriele Schliwa (University of Manchester). The two days of conference were packed with seven sessions (with topics varying from 'Infrastructure and governance' and 'Cycling from 8 to 80' to 'Conflicting notions of cycling', 'Cycling uptake' or 'Bikeconomics'), several workshops, as well as safari trips to experience the cycling scapes of Manchester.


One of the safari trips, to the 'Theatre of Dreams'. Photo: Gabriele Schliwa.


More than at previous editions, this year's event featured a significant volume of cycling expertise from continental Europe, where levels of cycling are often notoriously higher than in the UK. The lessons were many to learn, both from success stories and failures. Oskar Funk, from Roskilde University in Denmark, discussed how cycling amongst children has declined by around 10 percent in the last decade even in a cycle-friendly country such as his. 'The daily routine of work and school provides little opportunity for making new mobility habits', describes Funk a negative trend that is easy to spot elsewhere in Europe. By considering the perspective of children's own experience of independent travel and surveillance, Funk's research shows that 'school run' can be transformed from a car-centred practice into one revolving around the bicycle. He showed how various initiatives, in Danish cities such as Aarhus and Odense, where adults ride alongside children, are essential in building not just a capacity for cycling, but also to allow 'mastering' cycling.


For a 'lawless cycling society'


Lucas Brailsford, a designer and urbanist from Amsterdam, has highlighted in a video presented before the audience why is it important to build 'a more lawless cycling society'. While even the Dutch often see cycling as chaotic and cyclists as reckless, Brailsford shows, on the contrary, how this is in fact the sign of a healthy cycling culture. But this is made possible by imposing strict liability upon drivers, which still doesn't apply in the UK: 'Even if an accident occurs when a cyclist is breaking a law, such as crossing the street through a red light, the motorist cannot argue that this was unexpected and the accident unavoidable'.



Watch Lucas Brailsford's video on Amsterdam's 'lawless cycling society'. 

Such international perspectives on cycling are necessary, thinks Meredith Glaser from Copenhagenize, who organized a workshop called 'Learning about the cycling city is like riding a bike: it must be experienced', as she was trying to make the case for this knowledge exchange between nations with very different levels of cycling. As more and more urban planning and transportation professionals are looking for best practices to build their cycling cities, academics are starting to get on board as well, she says: 'Academic institutions are equally in demand for structured learning opportunities, real-world application and skill building for students'.


Mapping cyclists' affect


Back to the UK context, amongst the most innovative current research in cycling is conducted within the cycle BOOM project, which aims to understand cycling among the older population and how this affects independence, health and wellbeing. Carl Mann from Cardiff University has advocated for the use of bio-sensing technology as a valuable tool in understanding our experience of the mobile world. 'We record Galvanic skin response (GSR) and proximity data in conjunction with GPS tracking while cyclists move around a way-marked cycle route with the aim of producing a ‘map of affect’. By this, we seek to understand how both internal (sympathetic nervous system response) and external stimuli (route design, road surface, traffic behaviour) combine to effect cycle experience', says Mann.


Another way of quantifying cycling has been proposed by Robin Lovelace (from Leeds University) and James Woodcock (from University of Cambridge), whose workshop on the National Propensity to Cycle Tool aimed to empower planners and campaigners when making the economic case for cycling infrastructure. The National Propensity to Cycle Tool (NPCT) was proposed by the Department for Transport to enable better prioritisation of funding for cycling in England and beyond. The development of the tool 'involved analysis of current cycling behaviour, scenario-based models, and the creation of an on-line interactive tool', says Lovelace. 'NPCT will not only indicate where cycling might be expected to increase the most but also what the health and carbon benefits of this would be'.


The next edition of Cycling and Society Symposium will be held in Lancaster, the city that hosted the event for the first time. To keep an update on the dates for next year's edition and also on more general academic discussions in relation to cycling, you can subscribe to this mailing list.