Cycling And Society Symposium

MovingPeopleCoxMeetings on transport tend to be dominated by male engineers and planners, with a focus on figures, discussing the minutiae of inscribed circle diameters and junction capacities. Monday morning in the University Club on Mansfield Road felt very different. Could sociology departments across the country be about to rescue Britain from the hash we’re making of a seemingly inevitable cycling revolution? Let’s hope so.

The 7th Cycling and Society Symposium was far more balanced from a gender perspective, in fact three papers were presented on that particular topic, and a day looking at the cycle’s place in society and the built environment made for a refreshing change.

The first paper explored how cycling is vilified and lauded in equal measure. ‘Cycling: All The Rage’ showed how the bicycle is being promoted as a fast, free, fashionable and green mode of transport – flowing forms with wind in the hair and not a motorised vehicle in sight – while juxtaposing that are the images and headlines shouting road and pavement rage against lawless deviants. I guess that’s what we call a balanced view in Britain.

Another followed the uniformed Lycra Warriors staying one step ahead of london traffic on the daily commute; speed and an intimate knowledge of route, traffic flow and light sequences their stock-in-trade. I suppose donning fluoro-poly-watsit armour and taking on the traffic is an understandable reaction to physical intimidation, and probably a thrill for the red blooded males on their way to the trading floors, but to your average mum – and me for that matter – they’re just as scary as the taxis and buses. In terms of getting bums on saddles the Lycra Warrior legion is a dead-end. Sometimes I wonder if reinforcing the image of danger and conflict is actually holding cycling for the masses back, but they’re really just a niche group.

‘Cycling Subcultures’ drew three more papers together. A colourful look at the fixie phenomenon and its retro style – the symbiosis of (wo)man and machine contrasting innate simplicity with supple skill. A humorous exposé of how those bothersome irritants, cycle campaigners, get things done (they’re only human folks!), and a guy from Amsterdam who, having grown up in the cycling capital of the world, gained a new perspective from looking at the cycle culture in Portland.

Tucked up in the northwest corner of Oregon, in the northwest corner of America, Portland is a hotbed of cycling activity and by american standards a cycle city. A look at BikePortland and the north american cycle mag Momentum give a flavour of the culture there.

What struck a dutch national was that even the type of language used to describe cycling and the relationship with the bike was different. The relationship with cars and the language used to describe that was different. But despite that, and the unique histories and resulting built environments, cycling could still flourish. A successful outcome is still possible when starting from different points and by taking different paths.

The day finished up by touching on the practical aspects of increasing sustainable journey modes and, inevitably, the politics of it. Less motorised traffic at lower speeds is what’s needed to increase sustainable mode share – it ain’t climate science – but what’s the path to that in the UK?

And what of Witney? The bigger picture stuff, like the car being a requirement to compete in today’s economy, that’s outside our remit. We leave that to our MP to sort out in a way that reduces the volume of motorised traffic and competition on our roads. He’s top dog after all and if he can’t do it who can? But the speed of local motorised traffic is very much in the hands of our local authorities and us – just take a look at the 20’s Plenty video posted by Living Streets last week.

Witney is pretty fortunate too, it hasn’t been blighted by a lot of poor cycle infrastructure. In fact it’s in a great position both geograpically and structurally to shift journeys to cycling and walking. A better balanced and sustainable mode share is achievable with links to the A40 to keep lorries out of town, along with sensible modifications to Five Ways roundabout, Ducklington Lane lights, Bridge Street and the Market Square end of Corn Street. On top of a very cheap Total Twenty scheme implemented across the town these changes could make moving around Witney so much better.

Last week I passed people who had paused to chat next to their bikes, a girl on her phone striking the kind of pose you see on Cycle Chic, and I was struck by how close we are to becoming a town that just uses bikes. Where people like me are just weird rather than weird cyclists. It’s so tantalisingly close.

Almost forgot – our Sustainable Bookshelf. The author of Moving People was there on Monday. I’ve bought the book and when I’ve read it I’ll be donating it to the Bookshelf. You’ll find suggestions of more books for the shelf over in the forum. If there’s one there you’d like to read why not buy it and donate it to the bookshelf when you’re finished? If you have your own favourite why not donate that? Why not write a review too? I’ll read it even if nobody else does 😮

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