Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Capturing cyclist experiences in Australia and the Netherlands: Part 2
My name is Georgia Scott, and I am the Active Transport Manager at a not-for-profit peak body representing people who ride bikes in Western Australia, called WestCycle. My job is essentially to advocate for everyone to have the option of using a bike for transport.
In 2018 I completed a PhD in sustainable urban mobilities at Curtin University. My thesis was called “What it’s like to ride a bike: understanding cyclist experiences”. In this three part series I will tell you how I did it, what I learned, and how I am applying it in my work today.
In my previous post, I talked about how I went about undertaking my research on cyclist experiences in Perth and Melbourne (Australia) and Utrecht (Netherlands), including the process of creating spatial transcripts. Here I discuss what I learned from an academic perspective; in the next installment, I’ll discuss how the findings can be used by practitioners and advocates.
Through a recursive process of thematic analysis – basically reading and re-reading and pulling apart and putting back together again and comparing and contrasting with other people’s similar research – I distilled the transcripts of both the semi-structured and go-along interviews down to three key themes: Identities, negotiation, and curation.
Identities: are you a cyclist?
A happy bike rider outside the Walyalup Civic Centre, Fremantle, Western Australia (source: WestCycle, credit Amanda Miller Photography)
This was a big one for the Australian participants. Choosing to ride a bike for transport in Australia – where the car is the default transport mode for the majority – seems to necessitate some pondering of how being a cyclist fits in with your identity – or not! In fact, as Rachel Aldred has found in her research (please go read all of it, it’s excellent), the participants’ experience of their cycling identity mirrored those of a marginalised and stigmatised group.
The Perth participants were self-conscious about their cycling identities. It was something they had all grappled with, and it represented an ongoing source of discomfort and constant evaluation and justification. Half of them did identify with the term “cyclist”, but were keen to explain exactly what kind they were – many distanced themselves from the Lycra-clad road cyclist stereotype, however others, who were all fit and confident male cyclists, actively embraced the stereotype.
The Melbourne participants were more… militant in their embrace of the term “cyclist”, perhaps because they also expressed more of a sense of shared identity and even solidarity with other bike riders than their Perth cousins. They also simply loved to complain about the behaviour of “some” cyclists and express their dismay that these naughty cyclists were giving all cyclists a “bad name”. They were anxious that the consequences of bad cycling behaviour would be car drivers showing less consideration toward cyclists. There seemed to be a code of appropriate cycling conduct and the participants were keen to maintain the image of cyclists as being sensible and rule-abiding through policing of their own and others’ behaviour.
Meanwhile in Utrecht, several participants giggled when asked if they identified as cyclists, and the rest just looked a bit confused as to why I was asking such a weird question. What’s going on here is that cycling is not something different – almost everyone is doing it, and for many, many people, the bike is their default transport mode. In this sort of context, asking someone if they identify as a cyclist is about as relevant as asking if they identify as someone who eats food.
Both the responses to cycling identities found in Perth and Melbourne align with the literature on the stigma of being associated with negative public perceptions of cyclists (again, go read Aldred). In Perth this was seen in anxiety around appearing too sporty and aggressive to other road users, as well as an acute awareness of how their presence on the road may impede the momentum of motorists and the possible negative repercussions of any subsequent altercations.
The Melbournians concerns were more about presenting as the right kind of cyclist, and policing those who weren’t. Cyclists should be well behaved, not break rules or social norms, and most importantly of all, not give cyclists a bad name (this was said MANY times by several participants).
Understanding that the cyclist’s negative experiences in Australia may result from the stigmatisation of cycling identities enables us to reflect on the influence of cycling policy and infrastructure in facilitating an on-going tension between the drivers and cyclists. The Utrecht participants’ lack of cycling identity as well as relative lack of concern regarding both the behaviours of other cyclists and the perceptions of drivers, in contrast, was reflective of the normalisation of cycling in the Netherlands, and cycling policy and infrastructure in Utrecht not representing any particular kind of person as a cyclist.
Negotiation - relationships and space
Bike riders in busy Swanston Street, Melbourne (source: Georgia Scott)
Negotiations of space and relationships with motorists and pedestrians was a constant preoccupation of the participant cyclists in Perth and Melbourne. They experienced stress from constantly remaining vigilant in order to stay safe. This stress was made worse by having to manage shifting cycling identities, which were reflected in the variable decisions they made with other road or path users, and alternating desires to not annoy anyone or claim their own space. Whether cycling was completely normalised and accepted as in Utrecht, or stigmatised and conflicted in Perth and Melbourne, The social and physical context made a huge difference to their experiences with other road users.
The go-along interviews demonstrated that when given separate infrastructure, the participants were able to relax, think over their day and even daydream. The stress displayed by participants in the go-along interviews was clearly linked with the times they were cycling amongst or in close proximity to motorised traffic or, less so, sharing space with pedestrians. The participants’ concerns were primarily focused on avoiding a collision with another vehicle, however physical intensity of exposure to the noise and pollution of traffic, even with on-road separated cycling infrastructure, contributed to a further sensory burden. The moments of stress were correlated in Australia with the inconsistencies of the cycle network as it changed over the course of a route, which might feature a combination of separated, off-road path, shared space with cars on a multi-lane road, and use of the footpath to avoid a hazard or parked cars. Where participants in Perth and Melbourne were able to cycle on paths separate from motorised traffic and crowds of pedestrians, their experience was reflective of the relative calm of the Utrecht go-along interviews.
The above finding indicates that the overall experience of cycling could be made far less stressful through the provision of infrastructure that separates motorists from cyclists, does not require intensive negotiations between road users and ideally has reduced exposure to negative sensory inputs such as traffic noise and fumes. However, it’s important to realise the huge role that the surrounding culture has in whether or not you feel riding a bike is enjoyable and safe. To ensure high rates of cycling, a city needs to have safe places for people to ride, and a society that supports all people to do it.
Curation – chasing freedom
A pod of people on bikes, in front of the old Dingo Flour mill near Leighton Beach, North Fremantle, Western Australia (source: WestCycle, credit Amanda Miller Photography)
People everywhere make their ride their own. In constant engagement with the world around them, cyclists make in-the-moment assessments of how they should act to maintain their personal momentum and stay safe while upholding social norms and legal behaviour.
Free from ties to fossil fuels or charged batteries, the bicycle requires only the body for propulsion, and it’s faster than walking. The agility, size and relative safety of the bicycle allow the user to enact “deviant” behaviour, such as filtering past cars trapped in a traffic jam, hopping the curb to circumvent obstacles or undesirable sections of road, taking cheeky shortcuts across corners or even turning down ostensibly one-way streets. These aspects of cycling, as related by the Australian participants in particular, suggest the cyclist to be a self-contained, autonomous actor, reliant on no-one nor bound to the routes and schedules of the transport network.
The apparent agency and autonomy of cycling-in-practice afford the practitioner with a unique form of transport which, in turn, facilitates the imagination of a personal, cycling-specific cognitive map. This cycling schema of the city is informed by the outcomes of the cyclist’s explorations and subsequent discoveries on the bicycle that may not have been possible as a user of public transport (too restricted by route and scheduling), driver (too “stuck” to the road and bound by rules) or pedestrian (too slow). The cyclist, therefore, is perceived as an empowered actor, with agency to respond to and ultimately benefit from the demands made of the cyclist in the moment. There is power attached to agency and autonomy, and in turn, several of the participants in this study associated the positive connotations of these aspects of their ride with feeling a sense of freedom.
Cycling in places where car is king not only produces but requires individual agency and autonomy. Think of bike couriers who take pride in their abilities to deftly manoeuvre in and out of traffic, becoming truly automobile compared with the reduced mobility of car drivers trapped by congestion. The risk-taking behaviour is a celebrated part of the job; but it’s the celebration that becomes the justification for the danger. While the Perth and Melbourne participants celebrated cycling as an enjoyable, freeing experience, as discussed in the previous section, the go-along interviews showed that in-the-moment, cycling could actually be very stressful. The two sets of results taken together suggest that cyclists are compensating for their negative experiences of infrastructure and culture by reframing these experiences after the fact, focusing on the benefits of cycling, the skills and knowledge they gain, as well as how cycling fits positively with other aspects of their identity.
This process of reframing however, was apparently only a feature of the automobile dependent cities of Perth and Melbourne. In comparison, the Utrecht participants, while embracing the inherently freeing aspects of the bicycle, did not express feelings of freedom being associated with developing their cycling skills to a level where they could fiercely take on any situation on the road. Rather, their sense of freedom came from riding a bicycle being a pleasant and useful form of transport that enabled them to get where they wanted to go with a minimum of fuss. The supportive infrastructure, legislative environment and culture enabled the participants to use cycling to facilitate and enhance other aspects of their lives as there was considerably reduced requirement for the hypervigilance experienced in the Australian cities. Rather, the more controlled environment, where cyclists had less instances requiring negotiation of road space with motorised vehicles, enabled the participants to focus less on the practice of cycling, and instead use their journey for additional activities such as listening to podcasts or music, having free space to daydream or meditate, spend time with children or practice their language skills.
Taking advantage of the mobile flexibility of the bicycle to maximise flow and avoid unsafe situations should not be dismissed as deviant behaviour. Neither should the use of headphones for listening to music or podcasts, talking on the phone, or daydreaming be framed as “distracted riding”. Rather, these are the strategies cyclists use to make up for deficiencies in the built and social environment in which they are riding.
The behaviour exhibited by participants in Perth and Melbourne in actively curating their experience through route selection and constant readjustment strategies is reflective of policy that requires and supports only autonomous, highly motivated, capable individuals. It is unreasonable to place such high expectations of motivation, skill and capability onto members of the public who are engaging in a form of transport that has as many health, environmental, social and economic benefits as cycling. Cycling policy should facilitate extremely low barriers for participation, so that people of all ages, cultures, life stages and ability levels can easily participate and take full advantage of all that cycling offers.
Everyone brings their whole self to their experience of riding a bike. (source: WestCycle, credit Amanda Miller Photography)
If you made it this far – congratulations! You deserve to go for a nice bike ride along a beach-side path!
To summarise my findings: in places where the car dominates as a mode of transport, you’re likely to have some kind of opinion about your cycling identity if you ride a bike, and that identity influences how you experience sharing the road and paths with others. Infrastructure makes a big difference in whether people have a good or bad experience riding their bike, but sometimes negative experiences are reframed by a sense of challenge or skill in finding and battling your way through the city. And of course, whether or not the culture you’re riding in is supportive of you – as a cyclist but perhaps also as the sort of person you are – really shapes the kind of experience you are likely to have, as well as how you identify with riding your bikes.
The takeaway for policy makers is – please stop making cyclists bear the burden of the failings of society and road design. We need to support people to ride, because we need to rapidly increase the number of people using low and zero carbon transport (aside from all the other reasons people riding bikes is good).
Thanks for reading! Part 3 is easier going, I promise. It’s about how all this is relevant to active transport advocates and sustainable cities practitioners.