Lost (and found) in translation

Another twenty or so journal articles down. Another thirty or so waiting. But I do feel that I am getting closer. One thing is even clearer to me now, ‘city transport cycling’ has been well served by research, over the last 15 years particularly – and in recent years increasingly so. Researchers are homing in (and politicians and officials ought to take note). There are a few sub-headings which may require delving into a bit more – to close down uncertainty and, ultimately, establish causality (the Holy Grail). It needs focus and agreement. And that’s not going to be easy.

It is important to note, however, that research is converging. What was a separate (and perhaps even disparate) undertaking by (pardon my simplifications)

  • engineers, urban geographers and planners (it’s the built environment!)
  • human geographers and sociologists (it’s the individual!)
  • public health researchers (it’s obesity! active travel!)
  • environmental psychologist (it’s in people’s heads and their perception of the environment!)

has now merged into one interdisciplinary, more homogenous, adequately theorised and sufficiently holistically-viewed subject. For a fairly typical call for research focus, you could read reference (1), which is listed below. The right professional fields are now involved; and more-over: they are talking to each other. In my opinion, marketing research (from the field of psychology) could contribute fantastically to the debate (built environment as billboard).

On the whole, the research gaps can currently found in the lack of

  1. an agreed conceptual model/framework (but I’d say we are there, or thereabouts), the ‘correct’ indicators and factors for city cycling and their scale of contribution to mode shift
  2. knowledge of the (technical) composition of cycle-friendly conditions, cycle networks, routes and cycleways (and its complications for politics and policy), and hence a current absence in theory and models – this may well be best tackled through researcher training/continued learning and interdisciplinary exchange rather than more research
  3. city and country comparisons – there are misunderstandings and misinterpretations on the international stage when we talk about cycling, due to the attempted comparisons in high- and low-level cycling situations when these may require quite different interventions, plans and action points (2) due to differential in infrastructure, and hence a resulting differential in social norm and culture

And I believe these three are interwoven, possibly even inextricably linked.

Yes, we can learn from high-cycling countries that cycle networks and cycle-specific infrastructure are needed. And we can also learn (perhaps more by a process of elimination) from low-cycling countries what hasn’t worked so well (3). We can separate, to a degree, physical societal population-wide interventions (building cycleways) from mental individual interventions (promotion and encouragement).

In high-cycling countries the cycle conditions can always still be improved; not to forget that even in Copenhagen cyclists moan about motorists (although of course arguing from a position of social norm strength), see (4). Promoting and encouragement may well have some good effects – once a level playing field has been established (5). We really ought to talk cycle infrastructure and network quality more to close down this knowledge gap that research has. And then we can also start discussing the real factors, and not just those that can be easily quantified by (GIS etc); and start talking about how we capture those seemingly more elusive factors.

In low-cycling countries these ‘promotion and encouragement’ initiatives would be met with largely further silence, suspicion or disbelief – the lack of sensible cycle spaces makes promotion and encouragement a turn-off (like trying to sell fun swimming lessons in visibly heavily-polluted waters when it should be about cleaning up the water). As with every structurual problem, a holistic approach must be seen from the institutions and authorities (6).

When assessing international cycling research one of the main questions should be: how much cycling takes place at the location? (pink scale, below), so that the city can be positioned adequately to its needs.

  1. in high-cycling countries, concentrating on (carrying out, researching) soft measures may well be sufficient (over and above cycleway expansion and maintenance, and keeping a watchful eye on cycle levels)
  2. in low-cycling countries, hard measures are needed first to level the playing field and provide physical population-wide(r) cycle opportunities, soft (talk) measures will only get the city so far

So here’s my conceptual graphics for what I am so desperately trying to express above. If you are unsure where your city sits, the relentlessly productive Pucher and Buehler can help with their book City Cycling (2012). I talked about these city cycling numbers here. Below the threshold, cycling must be institutionally primed, through infrastructure provision. I suspect the threshold (purple, below) could lie as low as 5% – although I would not be too shy to point out that 10% is probably a real game changer. But even at 5% a city starts to feel different. Perhaps not like a world cycling city, but notably different to low-cycling cities.



As the graphic illustrates, a structural problem must be alleviated first, before the individual can be usefully addressed to cycle (more, in different ways, at all).

Some low-cycling country-folks may still keep arguing that cycling is low class, and cycling is done by force, not choice. No, not so. Women in Amsterdam tell us they are well served by cycling infrastructure, turning it into a transport equality provider, providing convenience without a loss in status (7).

One of the very few comparative city studies (I hope to be able to add something to that discussion through my research), a study between Delft and Davis showed that if a cycle network isn’t comprehensive, and that includes reaching adequately out of the city, cyclists will remain feeling left out still, feeling a bit second-class (8,9).

If as an advocate or academic you should be in doubt of the overall direction we ought to take (to make impact, and waves), I leave you with Pucher and Buehler’s 2008 ‘manifesto’ (10) full text via reaseachgate [pdf]. You can be part of the debate too – register your interest for the AdAc debate that takes place in Newcastle in November.

Another lack that is frequently described in journal articles is policy research. The challenge that I can see is that ‘making cycling happen’ requires a concerted long-term effort, will, vision and organisation. And therein lies the crux. As Tony Benn once (and repeatedly) said, we need (visionary steadfast) signposts, not (bumbling blowing turning) weathercocks.

As cycling levels have dropped so extremely low in many countries and cities (many are below 5%), it will take some (monumental, mountain-shifting) effort to provide alternatives that people will adopt. But, of course, it will be worth it. It must be done. That is one thing that researchers absolutely agree on. In the face of population-scale health epidemics, doing nothing is not an option.


  1. Lu, W., et al. (2014). “Perceived barriers to children’s active commuting to school: a systematic review of empirical, methodological and theoretical evidence.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BEHAVIORAL NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY 11(1): 140-140 Abstract: Abstract: Empirically, increasing the diversity of study regions and samples should be a high priority, particularly in Asian and European countries, and among rural residents; more prospective and interventions studies are needed to determine the causal mechanism liking the perceived factors and ACS; future researchers should include policy-related barriers into their inquiries
  2. Willis, D. P., et al. (2015). “Cycling Under Influence: Summarizing the Influence of Perceptions, Attitudes, Habits, and Social Environments on Cycling for Transportation.” International Journal of Sustainable Transportation 9(8) p.578 Future research should examine the effect of social and psychological factors in cities with varying degrees of bicyclefriendly infrastructure and facilities. 
  3. ibid p.578 Additional work could examine active transportation in other parts of the world, where social and cultural norms concerning cycling are likely to vary significantly.
  4. Freudendal‐Pedersen, M. (2015). “Cyclists as Part of the City’s Organism: Structural Stories on Cycling in Copenhagen.” City & Society 27(1): 30-50p.47 Copenhagen is a city for cyclists in many ways. The infrastructure is good and the cyclist is framed (and frame themselves) as an important part of the city, as a living organism that defines the city spaces. But this priority, meaning that so many people cycle, at the same time creates problems when the issue of space comes into the everyday consciousness of the cyclist. So far, the cyclists’ reaction to this is producing structural stories that support the dominance of cars in city spaces. This is problematic when it results in limiting kids’ opportunities to cycle by driving them around. At the same time, it might be a way to finally open up the discussion as to whether or not the car should have the right to so much city space.
  5. Engbers, L. H. and I. J. M. Hendriksen (2010). “Characteristics of a population of commuter cyclists in the Netherlands: perceived barriers and facilitators in the personal, social and physical environment.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BEHAVIORAL NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY 7(89) Abstract: Personal factors (i.e., perceived time and distance) are major barriers to commuter cycling and should be targeted in cycling campaigns, especially in subgroups living within cycling distance to work. Targeting environmental determinants in such campaigns seems to be less important in the Netherlands.
  6. Spotswood, F., et al. (2015). “Analysing cycling as a social practice: An empirical grounding for behaviour change.” Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour 29: 22-33 Abstract: the practice of utility cycling is described according to its three elements; materials, meaning and competences and the potential benefits of this approach are discussed; particularly its ideological shift away from ‘victim blaming’ and its natural support of interdisciplinary intervention design.
  7. Eyer, A. and A. Ferreira (2015). “Taking the tyke on a bike: mother’s; and childless women’s space- time geographies in Amsterdam compared.” Environment and Planning A 47(3): 691-708. p.704 in the current context where cities all around the world are pushing for increased environmental sustainability and opt for the implementation of bicycle paths and infrastructure, it is a positive finding that, at least in the specific context of Amsterdam, mothers may cope well with a bicycle-dominated mobility environment.
  8. Heinen, E. and S. Handy (2012). “Similarities in Attitudes and Norms and the Effect on Bicycle Commuting: Evidence from the Bicycle Cities Davis and Delft.” International Journal of Sustainable Transportation 6(5): 257-281. p.277 Many participants from Davis feel motivated to cycle within Davis, but outside seem to feel the need and expected use of a car; the subjective norm outside of Davis does not support cycling.
  9. ibid p.277 Davis is considered an exception by [the local] participants with respect to bicycling norms [in the US]. In contrast, no Dutch participants cite their culture as an influence on their travel behavior.
  10. Pucher, J. and R. Buehler (2008). “Making cycling irresistible: lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.” Transport reviews 28(4): 495-528 full text via reaseachgate [pdf]

One thought on “Lost (and found) in translation

  1. no Dutch participants cite their culture as an influence on their travel behavior. But that is the point about what anthropologists/sociologists mean by “culture” – it is omething you take for granted, or don’t notice unless you area sociologist/anthropologist.

    R. Davis, Chair RDRF


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