Space for Cycling makes Space for Everyone?

This is a guest blog post by Alan Latham and Peter Wood, researchers from the Departments of Geography at University College London and The Open University. Here they write about what their recent publication called “Inhabiting Infrastructure” might mean for campaigners’ attempts to get Space for Cycling in London.

Londoners, their politicians and their business leaders are increasingly talking about cycling as good for the city; fast, green, healthy and money-saving. Against this background our research set out to investigate how commuter cyclists managed the act of cycling on London’s roads. Our plan was to video a number of volunteers as they cycled across London, in order to gain a more detailed understanding of how they actually use city’s streets.

In the first of what will be a series of published findings, we suggest that it can be a challenge for people to imagine how a cycle-friendly city might work in practice. This means that both cyclists and highway engineers can end up acting in ad hoc and seemingly-unpredictable ways. Of particular importance to the LCC’s campaigns, our findings suggest that building spaces for cycling could fundamentally change the way that people think about movement in the city.        

The fieldwork involved one of our researchers going riding with a number of cyclists who had agreed to be followed on their journeys across London. With the academic wearing a head-mounted video camera and cycling behind our volunteer, we recorded multiple hours of footage across London. Whether they were relative novices or highly experienced, the films showed how people have practically adapted their riding to the different streets that they pass through. Our analysis developed detailed diagrams which show how people actually use infrastructure. This took in locations as varied as leafy Roehampton, the backstreets of Southwark, and Vauxhall Cross Gyratory at rush hour.

The peer-reviewed findings record how cyclists’ behaviour often disrupts many of the taken for granted ways in which roads are divided into space for motorists and space for pedestrians. The end result was a view of cycling as often quite simple, but repeatedly containing a number of confused or confusing elements. The diagrams are a way to convey how cyclists deal with different infrastructures, whether that is riding along a thin strip of on-pavement cycle track, sharing space with pedestrians, or running red lights to avoid the traffic following them. But it also investigated how many of our riders would get off their bikes for a shortcut, when surprised by blaring horns or if they felt safer to cross a busy road on foot. Some cyclists who seemed to behave erratically were able to give detailed explanations of what they did. Many others were trying to make the best of an imperfect situation. 

Our findings suggest that the actions of cyclists - actually on the road – are rarely given enough attention. This has arguably held back attempts to support cycling in the past. In a world where the street is divided between a space for motor vehicles and a narrow sidewalk, this leaves little room for cycling, not to mention wheelchairs, pushchairs, retail, relaxation and play. We call this status quo the existing “infrastructural settlement”. Our key argument is that previous attempts to support cycling have not radically challenged how people think about roads. As academics who have watched the Space for Cycling campaign with interest, we think that our research makes two essential points.

Firstly, it seems important to remain open-minded about what cycling in London is and might become. What seems eccentric now may well have a good reason behind it. This is perhaps especially true as the popularity and diversity of cycling increases. On the one hand, this finding reinforces the valuable work that LCC campaigners do to bring cyclists’ experiences to a wider attention.

One example could be the new junction designs that have been developed by volunteer designers. However, at the same time, our study’s riders often had very different understandings of how they expected a street to work, combined with very different abilities to use it. As more people start cycling it is entirely possible that cyclists’ expectations and behaviours will change, both because different people are cycling and because everyone will have to coexist with more cyclists. For example, riding on pavements may become less common as people feel safer on the roads. However, demand for so-called “harmless” actions to be made legal may rise: like turning left through a red-light. By blurring the lines between motorists and pedestrians, this is where the second possibility for radical change comes in. 

London Cycling Campaign, Transport for London and the main political parties are now united in support of building high-quality space for cycling in London: Superhighways, secure cycle parking, Quietways and others. One implication of our research is that by building infrastructures which truly focus upon cycling, London may, potentially, be opening up a new space to think about two-wheeled transport. Putting cycling at the centre rather than the edge, so to speak, might disturb the overall division between motorists and pedestrians. In effect, space for cycling might bring the opportunity to build for a variety of social and economic needs which are not being served by the current situation.

As the Mayor puts it, cycling has the potential to make “better places for everyone”. Our hope is that our research can provide campaigners and public servants with the tools they need to do so.

Download the full publication, “Inhabiting Infrastructure" here.