Book Review: Cycling Cultures by Peter Cox

Academic editions are often as exciting as watching paint dry. They come with mountains of references to obscure previous research conducted decades ago, and grip on present-day reality akin to that of Donald Trump’s election manifesto. But the Cycling Cultures edited collection is a refreshing surprise. It gives insights that surprise, intrigue and inform. By Jeremy Torr.

Singapore, May 11 2016. Published by the University of Chester, UK, Cycling Cultures offers an in depth look at how, and potentially why, cyclists are so keen to tell everybody that cycling is A Good Thing. But they cast a broad net.

Cycling Cultures edited by Peter Cox is a must read for sociologists, city planners and transportation executives.Across eight learned dispositions on the state of cycling as it relates to modern culture, the book investigates such forgotten corners as the role of the Cargo Bicycle, how Immigrant Women Cyclists learn to ride in Holland, and why some cyclists think it sensible to ride 1600km non-stop in 90 hours in a Randonee.

Although some excerpts are a tiny bit obvious: “the cycle is a technology that produces increased mobility through the mechanical input of human power” – really?, there are plenty of fascinating looks into the issues that stop, promote or excite today’s citizens riding bicycles.

These issues range from the perceived danger of cycling in traffic, the fear of looking silly to trepidation about angering a relative by telling them the bicycle they just bought is not suitable for them. Or the ability to prove to the world that you are fit despite your age, that you can take anything that the environment or motor vehicles can throw at you, and still get home in time for tea with a righteous glow of environmental self-determination.

Societal expectations, norms and dress, or the saree, can pose as a hindrance to cycling in some culturesThe section on mapping cycling routes in London is especially well-researched, and looks at generally overlooked aspects like herd mentality when choosing routes, the use (or rejection) of planned cycle paths and lanes, and the need to ride with the weather in mind – which all seem obvious at first glance but when explained in a dissected fashion it suddenly makes much more sense.

The book also looks at the effect of imposing “good ideas” through the use of urban cycle planning. One of the essays looks at Holland, and they way that cycling is not seen as an optional form of transport, but rather a natural process since cycle paths were mandated for forty years ago. “People don’t tell you they are a walker when they get to work – in Holland they never tell you they cycle there either. It’s just assumed.”

The researchers point out that far from being a good thing for cycle usage, however, this viewpoint can lead to an assumption that everybody thinks the same way. Which in turn can lead to significant cultural divides for new migrants who see both the freedom and the propriety of cycling as being unsuitable in some cultures. 

In a similar vein, the essay on Women, Gendered Roles and Cycling offers a fascinating look at how cycling offered the working and middle classes in England – and especially women in those classes – the opportunity to push back against entrenched stereotypes that saw men as being the kingpins in society, and women mere followers. Simple issues like the adoption of cycling pants, the use of baby seats and the use of bicycles for shopping offered hitherto unimaginable freedom to women between 1930 and 1980. 

Sadly, the social progress generated by the bicycle over those decades has been eroded by the ubiquity of the car, leading to a situation where cycling as a form of transport (as opposed to as a recreational pursuit which has grown exponentially in recent years) as being an “abnormal” kind of behaviour.

Indeed, many of the essays touch on what they call the “marginalisation”of cycling, noting that this is unlikely to change in a motor dominated society. 

They note that the value of cycling as a healthy, environmentally-valid and in many cases highly convenient form of transport depends not on promoting it as a Good Choice.

Instead, they argue, planners should be addressing issues of providing systems and developing structures that offer new possibilities and a “new physical and cognitive architecture of mobility” – not simply a way to cycle within existing car boundaries.

If the examples cited of female emancipation and cultural blending through the use of bicycles are anything to go by, the humble bicycle can still bring plenty of new culture to our increasingly crowded yet environmentally aware societies.

Not all essays bring real life suggestions to the table (OK, the cargo bicycle is a bit esoteric) but overall this book will interest anybody that sees the bicycle as a tool for change as well as a way to get around. 

Cycling Cultures is edited by Peter Cox, published by University of Chester Press. ISBN 978-1908258113. Available at Amazon and Book Depository.

Picture courtesy of cyclingandsociety.org.

Prof. Peter Cox of University of Chester spoke about research conducted on cycling and this book at a Cycling Forum organised by the Institute of Parks and Recreation Singapore on 24 February 2016.