Looking back at seminar # 5 Mobility, Cycling and Equity with Rachel Aldred

written by George Liu and Anna Nikolaeva

On 23 February 2018 the seminar series Cities & Mobilities featured the talk by Rachel Aldred from University of Westminster on “Mobility, Equity and Cycling”. You can see the full lecture on the website of the Centre for Urban Studies.

Cycling was the theme of the presentations for the day, covering topics from bicycle streets and learning how to cycle to cycling equity. The discussion touched upon more general problems of cities, where the spatial distribution of public space and public safety, for example, represent broader issues that relate to cycling, mobility, and the city. We concluded that our conversation should always relate to better cities for everyone could be built. If you want people to get out of the car or not to get into it in the first place, what kind of social and spatial environment would help them make that choice? If cycling is the mode which makes you interact with your social and spatial environment most, what kind of environment you would want to be exposed to? How does safe, inviting, pleasant environment looks for women and men, kids and elderly etc etc?

The first presentation by Matthew Bruno focused on how participatory governance processes can undermine innovations designed for specific users. Bruno uses a bicycle street in Eindhoven to illustrate how public participation resulted in the deployment of a practice-based innovation, the bicycle street, for a context in which it was not originally designed for. The idea of the first bicycle street was to use existing low volume, low speed streets to fill gaps in the cycle networks at minimum cost using paint, signs, and minimal traffic calming. However, the Eindhoven example of the “Kruisstraat” is an example of where a bicycle street was implemented despite high car traffic volumes, leading to stressful and potentially dangerous situations for people riding bicycles. Despite the flaws in the design of the new bicycle street, it is still better than the former situation. Roland Kager made an acute observation that much bicycle traffic actually goes to and from train stations, and the bicycle street is one innovation that can be implemented to facilitate people commuting using the bicycle train combination.

The second presentation by Samuel Nello-Deakin asks, “can we go beyond internet GIFs illustrating the distribution of road space between various road users? Is there something useful we can do with this information?” Nello-Deakin suggests cross-city comparisons may give us relative benchmarking of how different cities distribute their space in relation to mode share. However, the very idea of space ownership is contentious. Using Bruno’s example of the bicycle street, we can ask if that is car space or bicycle space. This distinction is clearly not binary, and the use of streets in cities change across time. If we cannot agree on what space belongs to whom, then we wonder if quantifying space actually provides a valuable contribution to understanding justice in the city. A thought-provoking session by Nello-Deakin indeed.

The third and final speaker for the first half of our event was Angela van der Kloof who talked about how cycling knowledge in the Netherlands is passed on from parents to children and in schools. She illustrates her case brilliantly using the bicycle child seat as an example. If a parent doesn’t know how to use child seats, then they don’t cycle with child, which means their children is then missing the experience of riding on a bicycle with their parents. We could use intervention to encourage parents to cycle with their children. How about information or try-out session for child seats? Information in multiple languages? Having role models and ambassadors for child seats? The meaning of this parent-child activity is popular yet not given reflection among the Dutch. Marco te Brömmelstroet warns that research asking people to reflect on meaning may break down the taken-for-granted meaning of parent-child cycling.

Finally, Rachel Aldred ties together all the presentations by offering a general overview of cycling from a British perspective. She shows that the promise and tragedy of cycling, especially in countries with lower levels of cycling is that people with the most to gain are losing out (i.e. other than able-bodied, risk-taking young men). To challenge the automobile as a symbolically and physically powerful object, our conversation must target groups and not individuals. We should think along the lines of, “what type of environment do women (or other groups) need to feel safe cycling”? A painted bicycle lane along a highway may be good enough for risk-taking male cyclists, but almost certainly exceeds the risk tolerance of a mother cycling with her child.

Hugo van der Steenhoven commented that in the Netherlands, children has to learn to cycle at a young age. He notes that cycling is a system. You have to learn to deal with traffic. You have to own a bicycle. You need someone to fix bicycle. People say “everyone cycles” in NL but it is not reality. Surveys show that some groups living in particular places clearly cycle more than others.

In the end, we all agreed that improving cycling is not just a transport issue. When we improve cycling, the goal should be to at the same time improve the experience of public space itself. Equality, dignity, empowerment, and freedom are all characteristics that the city can offer to its inhabitants. So too can the bicycle.

Here you can watch Rachel Aldred’s talk (scroll down for Seminar №5) as well as recordings of other lectures from the series.

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