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The politics of cycle clothing

The politics of cycle clothing

I was at the Cycling Scotland conference and tried to do a bit of live tweeting. Derek MacKay MSP stated in his speech that he prefers not to be photographed in hi-viz, to which I tweeted:

I was rather surprised by the reaction that this sparked off on twitter. Firstly, there was the comment that wearing nice clothes was not going to make the roads safer. But It was a comment that rather missed the point, as neither wearing hi-viz nor a helmet does. To make the roads safer we need to start with a danger reduction approach, which means reducing danger at source. The point of the tweet was to point out that we finally have a transport minster who is not following the Taliban approach to road safety and does not feel that he has to set an example by wearing hi-vis and a helmet to be photographed. Instead, for cycling occasions he is always photographed in normal clothes for press photo shoots, even when some around him choose to do otherwise.

More tweets followed from a number of people, suggesting that I was in some way “anti-Lycra”, and was in some way blaming people in lycra for putting off others. This is where trying to discuss issues on Twitter can get very confused, sometimes it can be very hard to make a nuanced point in 140 characters. My comment above was very much about the use of images and the message which such images can send. There were also comments from other about infrastructure being more important that clothing, but in many ways the two are interlinked.

Why is clothing important in normalising cycling? Ask anyone in the fashion industry and they will tell you that clothes speak volumes about who you are and how you feel. In places where cycling is a normal means of getting from A to B, people just ride in ordinary clothes. They don’t get dressed up to ride a bicycle, unless they are doing so to ride for sport (there is also a misunderstanding about Danish “cycle chic”, Copenhageners don’t dress up to ride a bike, that’s just normal dress for them). In the UK some people seem to believe that it is necessary to dress in a certain way in order to ride a bicycle, for what ever reason. Part of this is to do with something I refer to as the Taliban approach to road safety, the failed idea that making people dress in a particular way makes the roads safer – it doesn’t. Indeed, the promotion of hi-viz and helmets can create a barrier to cycling. Added to this, the motor lobby is always keen to promote the use of hi-viz and helmets, as a means of transferring blame to the victim, and to avoid liability.

Does this mean that we should all start to ride in ordinary clothes as a political statement? No, of course not. There are those who will do so, but for most people the choice of cycle clothing is more about comfort, or more correctly, comfort and fear. Before I moved to Aberdeen I had never felt the need to wear Hi-viz, but in Aberdeen I felt different, it was/is hostile to anyone cycling (or even walking). So I bought a yellow cycling jacket, which made me feel better, but made no real difference to the way I was treated. Drivers still treated me as if they couldn’t see me. Over time, I came to realise that in places like Aberdeen drivers simply don’t look for people cycling, as there are so few. Later I came to realise that bright lights were more effective for being seen in a hostile environment, but not a solution. Like bright clothing, they are a survival mechanism (the real solution is to change the road environment).

In places where there are more cyclists (and pedestrians), drivers are more likely to look out for those more vulnerable road users. However, that doesn’t automatically lead to greater safety or a feeling of safety, you only have to look at images from London to see that there is plenty of fear there. There is a flaw in the “safety in numbers” theory, the death rate on UK roads per Km walked or cycled is higher than in many other parts of Europe. In places where cycling is common, it is infrastructure and legal structure that make cycling (and walking) safe, and this is why you see people of all ages, wearing normal clothes, using bicycles as transport.

In the UK there is another thing going on, which has to do with group identity. This has led to the term MAMIL or “Middle Aged Men In Lycra”, and generally refers to male cyclists who treat travelling to work as an adventure sport. There are those who justify wearing Lycra for commuting on the grounds that they have to ride fast due to the distance of their commute. It is an interesting thing that the average cycle commuting distance in the UK is longer than on the Continent. This is probably because so many cycle commuters in the UK are keen cyclists and like to use their commutes as training rides. On the Continent, in places where cycling is seen as normal (something the 95% engage in, not just the 5%), the sort people who in the UK have 1-5 km journeys and would drive or take the bus, ride a bicycle instead. So there are a great deal more short journeys by bike. For longer distances, the Contintentals are more likely to travel by multimodal means, for example: cycling to the station to take a train, and then walking or using another bicycle at the other end, to get to their final destination. That is not to say that there aren’t people commuting distances of greater than 5 Km by bicycle in these countries, it is just that they are more likely to use an e-bike, so that they don’t arrive sweaty.

Is the MAMIL image a problem? I have been accused of being anti-Lycra or even anti-cycling for using the term MAMIL. Neither is true, there is a place for Lycra and it fine in its place. However, it can be a barrier to making cycling more inclusive, as it can put people off, especially those not currently cycling. No doubt there are some cyclists who will say that the sort of people who are put off by MAMILs wouldn’t cycle anyway. However, if you go to a Women’s Cycle Forum and listen, you will find women saying that the perceived need for lycra, hi-viz and helmets does put them off cycling. A case study: L. is a woman over the age of 40 who says she is put off by the MAMIL image of cycling. However, on a trip to Bruges, L. was persuaded to try riding a bicycle because people of all ages, shapes and sizes were cycling in normal clothes. She now occasionally rides a bicycle in Edinburgh, and although L. is not a regular cyclist, she now has greater understanding of cycling, which is useful, given that her current job is in transport policy.

Before going any further, I will return to the point I made above, people should be free to wear whatever they feel is comfortable for their cycling journey. Images are important here, and where everyday cycling is being promoted, images which show hi-viz and helmets should be avoided. It is always disappointing to see organisations which soak up large amounts of funding, using images of people on bicycles dressed up in hi-viz and helmets. Generally, the majority of people are less likely to engage in an activity that looks like a minority activity, where you need to dress up in specific clothes and that may be dangerous. This makes trying to increase funding for active travel much harder, as it is seen to only benefit the few rather than the many. If you make cyclists look like a small outgroup, it going to be far, far harder to get those with the power to take space from motor vehicles to act. The Dutch didn’t get their famous cycle infrastructure by campaigning for “cyclists”, they did it for the children. Now that those children have grown up, they are the most relaxed parents in Europe, as they don’t have to worry about the safety of their children outwith the home. If we want the same here, we have to make active travel attractive and desirable, and we also have to make it normal and inclusive.

Cycle chic inspires others
Remember images are important

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A small step forward

A small step forward

My idea of a Cargo Bike Club took a small step forward today, but first a wee bit of history:

Back in the autumn of 2010, Ulli and I were faced with the problem of getting a large pumpkin home from the allotment (not a problem that we have had since due to the poor summers). The solution I suggested then was to get a cargo bike, but at that time such bikes were very few and far between in Scotland, not that there are that many more now. This led me to come up with the idea of a Cargo Bike Club as a means of making cargo bikes available to the wider population (and a way of kick-starting the market for cargo bikes in Scotland).

When I first floated the idea of the Cargo Bike Club, it attracted a lot of positive comments. My initial idea was to use the City Car Club model, where the users would pay an annual fee to join the club and then have self service access to the bikes for a small hourly hire rate. There are, however, a few technical issues with security and self service access, which I have yet to overcome.

One person who thought he could over come these problems was Will Vaughan who took my idea (he did contact me and ask first) and started cargobikehire.com. However, he was planning on using a prototype technology from a small German startup called LOCK 8. I have seen the Kickstarter campaign raising funds to develop the locking system, but was sceptical about the level of security it would offer (the cable shown in the pictures is up to Solid Secure Gold level, as required by insurance companies). [Up date: I met Philipp Meyer-Scheling, the MD of Lock8 at EuroBike and am hoping to have another meeting with him in November] At the present time, it doesn’t appear he has managed to get the self service access up and running, but he does have a Bullitt available for hire in the Hereford area, so all credit to him.

The idea of the Cargo Bike Club has continued to gnaw away at me, and I have re-visited the idea a few times, but mostly I have gotten on with other projects like the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. Where is all this rambling going, I hear you ask? Well, this year the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling Ltd has acquired an Urban Arrow cargo bike, and from today it is available to hire when not in use for company business.

Urban Arrow for hire

It is a small step, but it is a start, this is currently the only cargo bike available for hire in Edinburgh. Who knows, if this bike proves popular, there may yet be a Cargo Bike Club in Edinburgh. I am still working towards getting it off the ground one day.

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How one simple thing changed my life

How one simple thing changed my life

Some eight years ago when this blog was very new, I wrote a post called On cycle commuting, as it was “coming up to that time of year when people make resolutions to change their lives”. I think it is time to revisit that post. I hadn’t at that time seen just how much selling my car to fund my first year at university and getting a bicycle was going to change my life (OK, so the money only lasted the first term, but I did have a very good time).

That was how I came to sell my last car in 1994 and since then I have never looked back. The car was an MG Midget 1500 since you ask, and I had had two MKIII Midgets (one of which had round rear wheel arches, such a pretty wee car) before that, but despite the 1500’s ugly rubber bumper this one was my favourite, it was such fun. But I digress, at the time I sold the car I couldn’t imagine living without a car and thought that as soon as I graduated I would get myself another one. However, that was not the way things worked out, by the end of four years of car free living I had discovered freedom in the shape of a bicycle and my own two feet, and so I didn’t want to go back to owning a money pit. You never really realise just what a burden a car is until you get rid of it, it is a continual drain on resources. So people think of the car as freedom, but then constantly complain about congestion, the cost of fuel (even when it is getting cheaper), the lack of parking, the cost of insurance, etc. Drivers are never really happy.

When I was living in Aberdeen (2002-2005), I did for a short while consider buying another car. Aberdeen is an awful place to live as it is so car sick, it is difficult to get about by active travel even though it is a small city and distances are short. At the same time it is heavily congested, people drive everywhere, and as a result it can take over half an hour to make a two mile journey. Yes it would be quicker to walk, but there are continuous barriers put up to make walking unpleasant and dangerous, which further increases the incentive to drive. However, I discovered that even in Aberdeen I could get about by bike, although it was more stressful than anywhere else I have ever cycled. Have you tried cycling on roads used by Humvees? In a city where Range Rovers are two a penny, there are some drivers who feel vulnerable unless they are driving a light armoured car imported from a dubious source in the Middle East.

So while I did feel peer pressure to buy a car, especially for getting out of Aberdeen into glorious Aberdeenshire, the thing that ultimately stopped me was sitting down with a piece of paper and working out the economics of doing so. It didn’t take me long to work out that for what it would cost me to buy and run a well maintained five year old second hand car, I could hire a car for three week long rentals and several more weekends (which was as much usage as I could see myself needing at the time). Not only that, but by hiring I would always have the use of a brand new car, I could choose the right size for the journey I was making and if by any chance it did breakdown, I could just hand it back and get another one. Why buy, it really made no sense. After moving back to Edinburgh I did consider joining the City Car Club, but again found that it didn’t suit my needs, in Edinbugh I didn’t feel the need for so many weekend hires and the CCC is more expensive for longer hires, CCC cars are intended to be hired for a few hours at a time. In the last few years I haven’t even felt the need to hire a car at all, as I have discovered that car free holidays are really great fun.

Looking back at my blog post On cycle commuting I realise that it was only the tenth post I had written and the first on the subject of cycling. When I first started this blog I had no idea what I was going to write about, it certainly hadn’t occurred to me that cycling was a subject I was actually interested in. For me the bicycle was just a quick and convenient way of getting from A to B, it was transport, a utility item and nothing more. However, around the same time I found myself commenting on a cycling forum. I don’t quite remember how it happened, I think I was looking something up on the internet and found myself in the commuting section of the old C plus forum (now part of Bike Radar). For some reason I felt the need to join in the conversation, it was the first time that I had joined an internet forum. When the C plus forum was subsumed into Bike Radar, I, like many others, moved to a tiny new forum, run as a hobby by a guy called Shaun. This forum started to see exponential growth and in some ways being there at the start of the growth felt like being a pioneer. I became a regular poster and was involved in a few innovations which helped it to grow as a community.

I found that I made a number of friends through CycleChat, people I have broken bread (or should that be cake) with in the real world, not just on-line ‘friends’. However, over time I drifted away from forums and onto Twitter, here I was involved in a wider range of conversations. Around the same time I also became a qualified cycle trainer and for a while taught kids to ride bikes on the road. This, along with my experiences as a fully qualified driving instructor (before going to Uni as a mature student), changed my views on the safety of our roads. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain formed around the same time (pretty much by accident). It looked like a good idea so I signed up to it, but as all the meetings were in London, a group of us started to talk about forming a Scottish Consulate, mostly over Twitter, but there was one memorable lunch as well, in our kitchen. Then one evening (24 Feb 2012, for the record) a couple of friends and I were discussing talk of a big protest in London. To quote an e-mail sent the same evening from Dave Brennan to Sally Hinchcliffe and myself:

Hi Guys,

The call has gone out […] for cyclists to go to London on the 28th April
in a show of support for the ‘cycle revolution’. I’d love to go, but I
just can’t make it. Too far, too expensive, too difficult. 🙁

However, that got me thinking, surely this is the right time to push the
agenda north of the border. We have a separate parliament who have yet
to make any major noises about this campaign. So, I’m wondering if we
need a Scottish ride to coincide with the London ride. Probably an
Edinburgh ride to Holyrood.

What do you guys think?

So was born Pedal on Parliament. When we started, we had no idea just how big that would become. At one stage in the early planning we were filling out a form to get permission for the ride to go ahead, one question was about how many people did we expect? I suggested that we put down 300 and that if 50 turned up, we’d be doing well. On the 28th April 2012, 3,000 people turn out to ride to Holyrood in support of the PoP Manifesto. Following this first PoP protest ride, we were invited to meet the (then) Minister for Transport, Keith Brown MSP. Since then PoP has had a number of meetings with the Minister and we have made it clear that we are not going away until Scotland becomes a a cycle-friendly nation. It will, one day.

Having seen the turnout for the first Pedal on Parliament, I came up with another idea and innocently put up a blog post asking if there should be an Edinburgh Festival of Cycling? It seemed like a good idea at the time, I hadn’t really expected people to take it too literally, but they did and the next thing I knew, we were doing it. The first Edinburgh Festival of Cycling which was held between 15th and 23rd June 2013, the festival took place again this year (2014) and we are now planning 2015.

So if you are thinking about doing something in the new year to change your life, I would recommend, in the words of Mark Twain, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

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Getting inspiration from Dublin

Getting inspiration from Dublin

I recently came across Dublin Cycling Stories, which is a series of short portraits of people who use bikes to get around Dublin. These films were made with support from the Dublin Cycling Campaign and Dublin City Council. The site is inspiring in many ways and there are lessons here for Edinburgh. After all, Dublin and Edinburgh are capital cities of a similar size, both are emerging cycling cities, although Dublin is way ahead of Edinburgh, as we shall see.

Where Dublin has got it right, and where other emerging cycling cities should take note, is that the influencers in the city have made it a priority to promote the Cycling Stories as a normal way of life for Dubliners, and not just a fringe lifestyle for the brave few. These short films were made to show the world how gloriously easy, fun and sexy a bike ride can be, what a great idea!

Let’s start with Lisa’s story, the young mum taking her child to nursery …

… this shows that cycling can be easy and fun, something that both mother and daughter enjoy.

Then there is Paul’s story, he uses a bicycle for work …

… as a photographer he has to carry equipment about with him, but he can easily do so by bike and it’s obvious that going by bike has many advantages over using a car.

For a bit of contrast we have Julie’s story…

… she’s a student and tells us about how cycling gives her freedom (and how hills aren’t really a problem).

Next, we have Georgia’s story, showing how easy and sociable cycling can be as a way of getting about the city …

… in Georgia’s story we see clearly how far ahead Dublin is of Edinburgh in terms of infrastructure.

The film shows Dublin as having a connected network of cycle paths, where space has been taken from motor vehicles. Edinburgh is only just beginning to timidly experiment with this on George Street …

George Street, Edinburgh

… although in true Edinburgh fashion, they have only gotten half way through doing it, then downed tools for the Festival. George Street looks great, but doesn’t actually connect with anything at either end and is not part of a direct route to go anywhere, showing a frustrating lack of thought about cycling as a means of transport by the planners (and they call themselves transport professionals?).

Another thing that is different in Dublin, compared with Edinburgh, is evident from the dublinbikes story …

… Dublin claims to have the most successful bike share scheme in Europe. Edinburgh has yet to dabble with a bike share scheme, although such schemes have been real game changers in other cities. Will Edinburgh ever get a bike share scheme?

Well let’s just say that Rob Grisdale, MD of nextbike UK was sighted in Edinburgh yesterday, and he wasn’t here to do the festival (although I am told, he did manage to take in a show or two). So will Edinburgh ever get a bike share scheme? Given the City of Edinburgh Council’s desire to remain stuck firmly in the 1980’s it would seem not, but as Stirling is showing, the council doesn’t have to be in the lead, it could be a forward-looking social enterprise that takes the lead. I am not going to say more here, but there are ideas forming.

Possibly the greatest lesson these films have for Edinburgh (or indeed other cities) is that by promoting positive images of average people using the humble bicycle as a means of transportation, cycling can be used to “humanize” the city. In the last century the coming of the car brutalised our cities, now in the 21st century, civic leaders are starting to recognize the importance of the bicycle to creating living cities of the new millennium – the ones which embrace multi-modal transportation.

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So you want to start a festival of cycling?

So you want to start a festival of cycling?

A couple of years ago I innocently put up a blog post asking if there should be an Edinburgh Festival of Cycling? It seemed like a good idea at the time, now on the eve of the second Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, I still can’t believe that it is happening. It is not just that EdFoC (as we affectionately call it) has been listed as one of the UK’s best cycling festivals by The Guardian and Total Women’s Cycling. It’s also that I have been asked for advice on how to run a successful cycling festival by people as far away as Canada and Australia!

As a result of this experience I have decided to put together this wee Q & A:

How did EdFoC start?

Ironically in a way, it started with a mass protest ride called Pedal on Parliament, which in itself started as twitter conversation between three friends. When we started planning PoP, we had to get permission and give an estimate of number of the people we expected to turn up. I said “put down 300 and if 50 turn out we are doing well”. On the day an estimated 3,000 turned up. This made me think that there was an appetite for everyday cycling and I decided that what Edinburgh needed was a Festival of Cycling, and set about organising one.

Is it open access, like Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

Yes, we invite people to organise their own cycling/bicycle related events. The festival acts as a banner for all sorts of events, some are already well established such as the Edinburgh to St Andrews ride (65 miles) and the Spokes Bike Breakfast, both of which have been running for years, but were happy to become a part of the Festival. Others events are brand new, such as the Edinburgh inter-schools MTB championships and the Women’s Cycling Forum (both firsts for the UK).

Are any events run directly by your organisation or is it all community generated?

Yes, the Festival does run some of the events too, we organise a number of talks, exhibitions and the highly success full Night Ride (which has sold out both years and has been described as a “magical experience” on its first outing). I should also point out that the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling Ltd is a community based social enterprise, and any profits from running the festival are invested into grass roots cycling in the city.

Do you have any records of the numbers of participants from the festival last year?

It is hard to know exactly how many people took part in the festival last year, as we had 40+ events across more than 30 different venues, over nine days. I would estimate that there were at least 1,500 – 2,000 people in total. We did gather feedback on the festival through an online survey, which showed that over 80% of those who responded rated the Festival as Very Good or Excellent, which we were very pleased with.

Do you know if participants were regular bike riders or were non-riders engaged with the festival as well?

From the limited snap shot of the feedback survey, we know that most of those who responded were already cyclists, but just about all of them said that it had encouraged them to cycle more. Those who were not currently cycling (and there were a few) said wanted to give it a try again because of the festival.

Up date, a few more questions have been asked, which I have added here.

Do we charge a fee to event organisers for having their events listed?

Yes we have a fee of £20 for listing events (other Festivals in the city charge higher fees), this is something we will look at again after the
festival this year and maybe go to a two trier system, for commercial and non commercial events.

What about events which register after the printed guide has been released?

Here we still charge the fee, as to do otherwise would create an incentive to wait and add events late.

What sort of marketing does EdFoC do to promote the whole event?

Most of our marketing is through social media and press releases as we started with a zero budget. This year we did take out a display Ad in a
cycling magazine, but the budget is still very limited. There is also the printed programme, which we distribute through out the city. This year we distributed 10,000 copies of the printed programme.

Are event organisers expected to do some of their own promotion and if so, do they understand this?

Yes event organisers are expected to do some of their own promotion, we make this clear on the booking form for inclusion in the festival. Certainly most (probably all, I haven’t had time to check) event organisers do some of their own promotion. Interestingly last year we had reports that event organisers had large increases in traffic to their websites, much of which was click thought from the EdFoC website, so they felt that they had seen a clear benefit to being a part of the festival.

Hope that this is some use, of course if you have any more questions, I always happy to try and help.

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