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    UCL symposium on cycling and culture: are your tyres fully inflated?

    By Guest Blogger, on 9 May 2014

    pencil-icon By Thomas Cohen

    Or so read the tweet announcing the imminent start of this event on 1 May, which took place under the auspices of the UCL Transport Institute, in connection with its transport and culture theme.

    Chairing was Professor Iain Borden of the Bartlett School of Architecture.  He set the wheels in motion with a challenge to the audience: how do we talk about aspects of cycling culture? Are they ineffable? “The feeling of the body as it spins its legs and cycles its bicycle and spins through the streets of London…it’s actually not very easy to put that into words.” Nine speakers then attempted to do just that.

    Flickr - http://bit.ly/1g3D3aA

    Flickr – http://bit.ly/1g3D3aA

    There was a diverse audience at the event, from representatives of London Cycling Campaign to local authority officers, transport consultants, plus a healthy sprinkling of UCL folk. Everyone got stuck into the subject matter and the debate was typically robust, as you might expect at a cycling event.

    Michael Hebbert (UCL Bartlett School of Planning) wowed us with a vision of the boulevard as purpose-built for urban living, with the bicycle centre-stage.  “There is a lot to be said about the erotics of cycling down a street canyon, feeling the built environment form caressing you on either side of your face as you cycle,” intoned the professor.

    Dr Alan Latham (UCL Geography) followed with an ethnographic approach using cartoons to capture how people on bikes negotiate the reality of the streets, showing high levels of compliance with the Highway Code as well as a degree of innovation in the face of intransigent infrastructure.

    Dr Helena Titheridge (UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering) told us about the use of the e-bike in China, showing that the term applies both to pushbikes with batteries and electrically-powered scooters. Many Chinese cities have banned all e-bikes, so what does this mean for their cycling policy?

    Steve Johnson (The Architecture Ensemble) gave us some grounds for optimism, showing how far London had moved towards a “car-free” vision that he had developed as a competition entry in the late 90s. He also pointed out some of the continuing barriers to this.

    Dr Aiden Sidebottom (UCL Security and Crime Science)  talked about bicycle security, the challenge of inculcating good locking practice and counteracting a culture of bike theft. Why is this important? Because there’s a high correlation between theft and ownership: apart from privileged areas with rental schemes, you have to own a bike to ride one.

    I (Tom Cohen, UCL Transport Institute) then spoke about cycling and identity, exploring how persistent the characteristic of being a “cyclist” is in relation to other aspects of who people are.

    Then John Adams (Emeritus, UCL Geography)  discussed our culture of risk: the UK has amazingly safe roads, in relative terms, and an amazingly risk-averse culture. How are these linked? John illustrated his points well, showing us a playground from which the swings are removed at closing time. According to the manager, the reasoning is that “kids might climb the fence and use them unsupervised and hurt themselves”.

    Peter Murray (New London Architecture) earned our admiration, telling of his odyssey from Portland Oregon to Portland Place in London by bike. Shouted at only once by a US trucker to “go back to f***ing Iraq”, Peter and his fellow ‘pedalers’ got back to Blighty relatively unscathed, having collected much useful intelligence along the way about a range of approaches to cultivating cycling.

    The final speaker was Rachel Aldred (University of Westminster), the UK’s leading researcher (I would argue) on the theme of cycling and culture. She presented on the differing characteristics of UK communities in which cycling is above average and pointed out the stubbornly low proportion of commuting cyclists who are women. And she challenged policy makers: if cycling is a good thing, why vilify the people who do it?

    And then? Well, it was time for a drink and continuing (friendly) argument. Perhaps the best evidence that the event had contributed to the debate was a comment from a researcher very familiar with the cycling campaign community: people who normally followed predictable lines of inquiry had, at our event, been asking different questions. Iain and I will soon be talking about where next to park our culture bus.