Over the course of the last few years, an area of Horsham – East Street and Market Square – has seen the gradual removal of motor traffic. Five years ago East Street was a conventional ‘road’, with narrow pavements, and, with Market Square, was open to motor traffic, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

East Street was given a ‘shared surface’ treatment back in 2010, and this was combined with the banning of the use of the street by motorists, except for loading and deliveries, and blue badge parking in a handful of bays. Subsequent to that change, the council went further, and removed motor traffic completely from the street, with temporary bollards, between 10:30am and 4:30pm. Deliveries take place before and after these times. Market Square – which can only be accessed legally from East Street – effectively became pedestrianised too, as a result of these changes.

There was some chuntering about these developments from many locals. The changes the council made were driven in large part by the numerous cafes and restaurants on East Street and Market Square, who wanted to put tables and chairs out on the street and on the square. This wouldn’t be possible without removing the motor traffic.

The grumbling – presumably from people who still wanted to drive down the street, during the day – focused on how Britain doesn’t really have a ‘cafe culture’, and that it would be silly to put table and chairs on the street. That’s just not for us Britons, the argument implied -we don’t really ‘do’ that sort of thing. People on the continent, maybe, but not us.

Well, of course, the tables and chairs did go out on the street, and, lo and behold, it turns out that we do have a cafe culture!

Market Square - full of tables and chairs, with people using them

Market Square – full of tables and chairs, with people using them

The truth is that ‘culture’ was a pretty empty causal explanation for why Britons – and people in Horsham in particular – didn’t eat and drink out and the street. Compare the above picture of Market Square with how it used to look in 2009 (from the opposite direction) –


The old Market Square. (Picture from here).

Nobody was sitting outside here, because, frankly, it was a bit shit. Essentially a car park.

And precisely the same was true of East Street. Compare today –

East Street today. People eating and drinking, on the street.

East Street today. People eating and drinking, on the street.

with the previous arrangement –

The old East Street.

The old East Street. Nobody eating and drinking on the street.

It wasn’t our ‘culture’ that stopped us from sitting on the street. It was the physical environment. As soon as that was good enough, then our ‘cafe culture’ suddenly appeared.

I think there are important lessons here for anyone who mistakenly tries to attribute the differences in the amount of cycling between Britain and the Netherlands to ‘culture’. Yes, of course, the Dutch do have a ‘bicycle culture’, but that doesn’t explain why they cycle so much. Perhaps by a combination of historical accident, good fortune, strong campaigning and bold political leadership, they’ve ended up with an environment that allows cycling. What ‘cycling culture’ they have flows from that environment. Impose British-style conditions on the Netherlands and that ‘culture’ would rapidly evaporate.

Likewise it would be absurd to attribute Britain’s low cycling levels to any lack of ‘bicycle culture’. People don’t cycle here because – again through a combination of historical misfortune, poor planning, and poor political leadership – the environment for cycling is dreadful. Where conditions for cycling are – even temporarily – made good, then suddenly our ‘bicycle culture’ materialises.

Sky Ride, London 2013 - mass cycling for one day of the year, on roads that suppress cycling for the remaining 364

Sky Ride, London 2013 – mass cycling for one day of the year, on roads that suppress cycling for the remaining 364

That’s why this quote, from Charles Rubenacker

The Dutch have created the safest and most complete bicycling network in the world, but we need to look beyond infrastructure and into their collective souls to better understand why riding a bike is so normal in the Netherlands.

is so baffling. The true explanation is grasped in the first half of the sentence, before being discarded for an explanation that is not so much genetic, as mystical.

Do we Britons need to ‘look into our collective souls’ to understand why we don’t ride bicycles? We could do, but I don’t think it would get us very far.

‘Culture’ is an empty explanation. It asserts that the way things are is due to things being that way. Arguing that the Dutch have high cycling levels because of ‘cycling culture’ is akin to arguing that Britons don’t eat out on the street because we don’t have a cafe culture – we don’t have a culture because we don’t have a culture. It’s circular and meaningless.

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38 Responses to ‘Culture’

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    That Britons will take to their bikes is without question. Just look at the number of cyclists in London, where the numbers have balooned because of the difficulty of driving and parking and the expense of public transport. This being despite the environment rather than because of it; think how much could be achieved if UK cities were to follow the Dutch model.

  2. andreengels says:

    I don’t think ‘culture’ as an explanation is wrong as such, rather, it is useless. Even if by magic you could replace all of the UK’s traffic infrastructure by Dutch style overnight, I don’t think you’d have something like Dutch cycling levels in a year, although the improvement from current UK levels would indeed be treendous. There is a cultural difference, or should I say an attitude difference, as well. But as I said, giving it as an explanation, is useless. Because the one thing that creates Dutch-style bicycle culture is having many people cycle. So giving ‘bicycle culture’ as a reason amounts to saying “the Dutch cycle because they cycle” (or, to put it slightly less circular, because they used to cycle).
    And thus, although I do not agree that infrastructure is all decisive for cycling levels, I still agree that putting all or almost all attention to that aspect is a correct line of action. Because not only is it the most important factor, it is also the only one that can easily be improved independently. Most if not all other factors can only be easily changed by getting more people cycling in the first place. We’re going to improve cycling by improving infrastructure or we’re not going to improve it at all.

    • fonant says:

      I think you _could_ get 40% of people cycling within a year if you somehow managed to get Dutch-style infrastructure instantly. There is huge suppressed demand, most people have a bicycle, most people can ride a bicycle, most people like riding bicycles, most people would love to have safe places to ride their bicycles on a daily basis.

      But, yes, you’re correct: the only thing that will improve cycling is to build safe cycleways, so people on bicycles no longer have to play chicken with people driving heavy motor vehicles.

    • I can’t think of a wronger choice of explanation than one which is meaningless.

      And you come pretty close to offering that meaningless ‘explanation’ of the explanandum in terms of itself when you write ‘the one thing that creates Dutch-style bicycle culture is having many people cycle’…

      Your having granted that installing dutch provision would actually increase cycling to a ‘tremendous’ extent, I can’t see what importance you attach to the thought that we wouldn’t then accumulate dutch levels of cycling ‘in a year’. So what? The same must be said for, ahem, the dutch. And your inference is that ‘cultural’ has causal power? I don’t follow your logic.

      • andreengels says:

        My point is that infrastructure is an important factor, undoubtedly the most important one, in difference between cycling numbers between, for example, the UK and the Netherlands, but not the only one. Even under the exactly circumstances, Dutch would cycle more. Not because Dutch are somehow more fit to cycle, but because having lived all one’s life in a situation where cycling is a possible transport choice will make one more likely to consider it a viable option in a given situation. Thus the mere fact of a high cycling modal share has a positive effect, which can be most easily described as a ‘cycling culture’. Apart from that, there is also the effect that more cyclists means more consideration with cycling by various people and institutions, which to me is also in a sense ‘cycling culture’, and something that has a positive effect on cycling.
        Recuperating, my opinion is that there are various factors that cause more cycling, and several of those can be considered ‘cycling culture’. However, for most of those factors, especially those that would be ‘cycling culture’, the only effective way of changing them (in a positive way) is by having more cycling in the first place. There is one big exception: Infrastructure. Infrastructure can be changed at least to a considerable extent without presupposing a high cycling share. That to me is the reason to put the emphasis there – not because it is the only deciding factor (which I think it isn’t), not because it is the most important one (which I think it is), but because it is the one that can be independently changed to a degree as to make a big difference.

        • On one gloss it’s not worth pursuing the argument further given that you’ve hit upon a position with, on the face of it, the same practical upshot, while retaining your own distinctive take on the sense and causal power of ‘culture’. But that gloss would be wrong- your efforts to mark a distinctive position invent entirely superflous hiding places for obfuscation. The assertion ‘Even under the exactly [same] circumstances, Dutch would cycle more [than the English]’ is not supported by any evidence, or, as one might also put this in an argument specifically about evidence based policy making, complete tosh.

          Your vague hypothesis of inertia (such that the Dutch would for some period continue to cycle ‘more’ due to past provision, even when that provision is taken away) is hardly supported by the graph of cycling in the UK in the 1950s, where roads once safe and pleasant to cycle on became unsafe and unpleasant in a very sort period with precisely correlated collapse in bike miles and childhood mobility. Would that there were an inertia of ‘culture’ from previous provision and mode share: the UK would be the cycling capital of the world.

    • michael says:

      Exactly. Culture and the physical reality feed into each other, but I can’t see anyway of effectively changing the former on its own, you can only start with the latter.

  3. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    Is there any quantitative information on the impact to traders after cars were banned from those streets in Horsham? I assume it has been positive and they have seen an upturn in business but it is always good to see evidence.

    The mantra of Pickles and Portas is of course that car parking outside shops is essential for local traders.

  4. MIKKI says:

    Intestesting comments….but of course we, UK, have a strange reaction to cycling..we have probably far less bikes on the road…and most people seem to prefer cars ( esp in hilly areas !.)…we have very few casual cyclists ?…most I see are hell bent on getting from A 2 B, dressed in all this tight gear ..trendy sunglasses…minimal bike frames…they look as if the manufacturers have not been able to finish making the bike before sale….but until we have a big increase in CASUAL bike user our LA will not do much for A 2 B cyclists….I can only refer these comments to my local area…East midlauds ( north )

    • fonant says:

      You’re confusing cause and effect.

      The cause is that we have terrible cycling conditions: to ride a bicycle you have to be keen, have the right gear, have “your wits about you”, and generally “take the lane” and be assertive in the face of possible death if the motorists don’t see you because they aren’t paying attention. The effect is that “cyclists” are enthusiasts on expensive machines with lycra and helmets: they are a minority, and an out-group, who will never have any significant political weight (no more than players of other sports might hope to).

      To get out of this cycling-is-dangerous -> cycling-is-only-for-fit-fearless-male-enthusiasts -> cycling-is-a-minority-sport vicious circle we have to persuade our highway authorities to build safe cycleways. Then ordinary people will feel safe enough to ride their bicycles for local transport, cycling will become an ordinary mode of transport that almost everyone uses, and people on bicycles will become a majority, resulting in big political power: a beneficial circle.

      We’ll never get anywhere trying to persuade the many ordinary people to cycle in today’s truly horrible conditions. We have to persuade the few people in power that cycling as a mode of transport is not only worth investing in, but is also a solution to so many problems we have in the UK (obesity, diabetes, congestion, pollution, oil-dependency, lack of community, transport poverty, unhappy children, and more!). The change has to come from the top, from central government.

  5. rdrf says:

    I (partly) disagree. “Culture” in the full (anthropological/sociological) sense of the word is everything.

    1. (Less important point). Lots of things associated with cycling-as-normal involve practices such as knowing how to sit on a bike, getting an affordable bike, knowing what to do when punctures happen /how to avoid them, having the bike maintained , etc. etc. Even a lot of reasonably clued up people who claim to be pro-cycling don’t understand debates/problems about helmets and hi-viz(for example), or are prone to “give us a bad name” collective responsibility garbage.

    In other words, there is a culture, set of ideologies, belief systems, whatever that consists of views and practices about cycling which – in my view – are negative and antithetical to cycling. They have accreted over decades and the idea that they will just disappear because of changing (some) highway layouts is just not on.

    The Dutch never went through that because even in the dark days they didn’t go below about 10% modal share, and that wasn’t for too long. They never lost cycling as a normal everyday activity, whereas we have. there is a wholes et of ideas about cycling which, as I say, are negative and obstructive, and they won’t go away without being challenged on an ideological level. For example, all the ideas that come from “road safety” have to be challenged at both the level of everyday chat, blog posts, and in confronting professionals working for central and local government.

    there are other examples: take the fascinating (to me) demographic showing that cycling in London is largely non-working class, with Cs and Ds no doing it much. That’s partly the cost of cycling, plus the idea that cycling is something for hippies, racers, poor people. That isn’t going to go quietly – you need to consider both the issues of cost of cycling (residential storage, maintenance, accessible equipment and accessories etc.) and the issues around cycling as being seen as “not for the likes of us”. That brings us on to:

    2. Car Culture (A). We don’t have mass cycling culture, we do have mass car culture. if people have convenient motoring, don’t have to pay external costs, don’t have to obey the law, get subsidised http://rdrf.org.uk/2014/07/02/the-scandal-of-cheaper-motoring-yes-it-has-been-getting-cheaper/ parking at origins and destinations etc. So even if you build it, they may well not come because they will still be driving (Stevenage).

    (Also minor point: we have far more bus use than the Netherlands. Public transport is quite convenient in London – not so elsewhere – and that ahs to be taken into account).

    3. Car Culture (B). When you consider changes in highway infrastructure to facilitate cycling – of whatever type – you tend to come up against “who are the roads for?” issues. My suggestion is that sooner or later – and it is likely to be sooner – you are going to be challenging the amount of capacity for motor vehicles (parking, carriageway space, timing at signals).

    So my comment that “Culture is everything” may seem pedantic – the changes in Horsham were achieved by posing alternatives to a “culture” that assumes car domination on the city centre street

    But if you unpack it , as I have tried to do above, you can see that there are ways in which we ( naturally and unwittingly, unless we are questioning actvists / academics) think which may impede everyday cycling, and that they are not (all) going to go away by going on about infrastructure.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      The “(all)” is important. Some will. I don’t ask the plumber to do the electrician’s job on the extension or vice versa. Both are required. rdrf can do their schtick, infrastructuralists can do theirs and I’ll read each one knowing the difference; we need both sides argued for by the respective experts. Get the job done between you (puts wagging finger away & returns to a genral comment on the OP).

      I do feel however, that there’s an important role for positive publicity. The Dutch don’t/didn’t just plonk infrastructure on the ground; they go/went for massive publicity drives. Meimaand Fietsmaand anyone (http://www.lekkerweg.nl/nl/toerisme/artikel/meimaand-fietsmaand.htm)? This welcomes riders. And unless potential riders feel there is a welcoming place for them (it doesn’t have to be particularly safe, though of course you’d want it to be) they’ll stay away. Infrastructure has an important symbolic role in this, to an extent that road danger reduction could never have.

      That’s the culture. Meanwhile in Kenya (to about 2 mins):

      I put this in to accompany the quote: “Bicycles are part of the Kenyan culture but so far they are used only as a utility tool,” he (Simon Blake the cycle team coach) says. “There is no established racing scene in Kenya and racing there is at such a low level compared to where we want to be in the future.”


      Oh the irony!

    • ‘there are ways in which we ( naturally and unwittingly, unless we are questioning actvists / academics) think which may impede everyday cycling, and that they are not (all) going to go away by going on about infrastructure’

      Of course not. But the evidence is that they would go away if we actually INSTALLED the infrastructure.

      • In general, I still think you are addressing the question of whether ‘culture’ can be a heading under which to place a description of difference. But that isn’t the issue. The issue is causal power. ‘Apple’ and ‘Earth’ both describe. But if you want causal power you have to remark Gravity. ‘Apples have a culture of falling to the earth’ won’t get you very far towards predicting escape velocities for rockets, either.

        Most of those who cling on to the ‘culture’ word are essentially responding to the question whether there is or is not anything for the word ‘culture’ to pick out in a description. That is certainly interesting, but it’s not the point at issue in the politics of bicycles and it’s not the point addressed in Mark’s piece.

        What Mark is getting at is that it is essential to distinguish use of the word ‘culture’ as summing up a description, from use in *explanation*.

        Use in explanation essentially consists in saying that X exists as a culture because there is a culture of X. Which is a daft use of the word ‘because’ and a perfect non-explanation.

        Moreover, mistreatment of a descriptive heading as an explanatory factor it is standardly deployed to distract attention from obvious, proven, empirically supported measures shown to work, be efficacious, and otherwise exhaust a thesaurus of exasperation with our wilful avoidance of the obvious.

        • michael says:

          This is getting very abstract, but I think your analogy is flawed because apples don’t have minds, ideas or consciousness.

          Culture is manifest as habits and ideas in people’s heads – ultimately it exists as the physical wiring in people’s brains, I guess (and as attitudes inherent in existing works of culture, such as the highway code). That has causal power, it has an effect.

          The point surely is that there’s a feedback loop between that culture and the physical reality of the streets. They both influence each other.

          Surely the real disagreement is not between those who think culture exists and has a casual effect and those who think its meaningless, its between those who think one can change the culture independently of the physical reality and those who think you have to start with the latter.

          I accept culture exists and has an effect, I just think the only way forward is to try and change the physical reality and hope the culture will follow. One just needs to be aware the cultural dimension will put a frictional drag on the whole process.

          • Whether ‘Culture’ in some sense picks out an existent, whether in discussion of mode use we can meaningfully attribute explanatory power to the thing thereby picked out, are two entirely different questions.

            You are mixing them up when you say that it ‘exists and has an effect’. The problem is *on what*, and you can’t just insert any variable of choice into that place holder without risking the validity of your argument. For the accidental slide such casual handling of logic would make way for is, into treating something as having an effect *on itself* -which is clearly nonsense.

            Surely there’s some sense in which UK bike ‘culture’ exists and has an effect on the kinds of sales made at Halfords. *That’s not the point at issue.*

            The argument is about whether we can meaningfully understand mode share in virtue of this ‘culture’, or whether it might make more sense to understand the ‘culture’ in terms of mode share and environment, and to understand mode share itself in terms of *what is empirically proven to influence it*, namely, road design.

    • Paul Gannon says:


      I’d like to get you to respond to the following point. You (and others) may be right when you cite factors specific to Dutch society and suggesting that those factors may have influenced the levels of cycling in the Netherlands.

      However, it seems to me that such factors can only be of marginal consequence.

      My reasoning is that there are quite high levels of cycling in lots of other European countries and/or regions and/or cities. These places all have some things in common: widespread provision of relatively high-quality cycle networks; balanced gender profiles for cycling; and many more younger and older cyclists.

      These things are thus clearly not dependent on the factors cited in relation to the Netherlands, such as the ‘minimal modal share’ experienced or (as others have proposed) Calvinism. Those factors may, at most, help explain why the Netherlands has exceptionally high levels of cycling. Almost by definition (because they have been identified as unique Dutch factors) they cannot account for other countries.

      So, what common factors do account for the frequent occurrence of good cycle networks, lots of cyclists, a balanced gender profile of cyclists, and high numbers of older and younger cyclists?

      Remember that these factors must be applicable over a variety of countries and, thus, to a variety of cultures.

      I’m sure that if you stop to think about the implications of this you will realise that searching for unique national cultural explanations is a waste of time.

      It only makes sense to focus on supposed cultural factors if you deal with just one culture/nation or if you share the idea that all them European types are the same (ie don’t have national cultures of their own) and are quite unlike us Brits with our special cultural ways. Otherwise I don’t see how you can fail to conclude that culture is not what matters, rather it is provision of attractive cycle facilities that determines outcomes and that is clearly not culture-specific.

  6. Paul Gannon says:

    “a combination of historical accident, good fortune, strong campaigning and bold political leadership”
    In addition, I’ve often wondered if the electoral system plays a part too. Proportional representation allows minority interests to find an expression as coalitions are necessary at local, regional & national levels. Our ‘first past the post’ (in reality, the ‘biggest minority’) system with its ‘rotten boroughs’ where one party dominates over very long periods allows those it power to dismiss the concerns of smaller minorities (observe the tone of contempt in the tweets of some Hackney councillors to anyone who dares question that borough’s cycling policy).
    We shouldn’t over emphasise the Dutch example. From our low starting point, we’d do well to aim at Scandinavian cycling levels or the levels achieved of other continental countries which, while not having as many cyclists as in the Netherlands, do have cycling levels which put us to shame – and they also have high-quality, dedicated cycle facilities (and proportional representation too). By thinking about other countries we circumvent the ‘stopper’ of the nonsense about ‘Dutch culture’ (or even ‘genes’ according to some foolish commentators) issue. By widening the focus we can see that ‘national culture’ is not relevant, but provision of good facilities clearly is (though admittedly the irrational British attitude towards Europe does struggle with the concept that ‘they’ aren’t all the same and have national differences)

    • Interesting stuff, except that
      1. Stop Der Kindermoord wasn’t a ‘minority interests’ cycling campaign -but a parents and children campaign with cycling as a solution, so your point about the political system excluding minorities here is of dubious relevance even if true.
      2. I don’t understand what would constitute ‘over emphasis[ing] the Dutch example’ given the data.

      • Paul Gannon says:

        1 – The Kindermoord campaigners were a minority as far as I am aware; I am asking if the Dutch system allowed greater opportunities to convert that initial minority view into a wider one.
        2 – Rather than ‘don’t overemphasise the Dutch example’ I could have said, ‘don’t concentrate on NL to the exclusion of other countries’. You can see the consequences of concentrating on NL in the numerous attempts here (and elsewhere) to induce special Dutch cultural factors whilst failing to appreciate the significance of other countries (see my reply to Bob rtdrf above) and the way they make the whole question of specific Dutch cultural issues largely pointless unless it can be demonstrated that those countries share the Dutch culture.

        • 2. I now see where you are going with that, and the strategic thinking it embodies. But I suspect that your attempt to circumvent daft explanatory hypotheses by citing a broader basis of foreign ‘cultures’ is on a hiding to nothing, given that (though of course not by RDRF) the underlying response in all this is: ‘but we’re british!’. A better strategy, it seems to me, is to directly attack the basic logic of these superfluous explanatory hypotheses, rather than risk surrendering the key empirical exemplar for no gain. We have different ideas of what would be gained perhaps, but agree on the risk.

          1. The point isn’t whether campaigners were a minority -they always are- but whether the group who they were appealing to and claiming to represent were a minority- and in the distinctive case of STK they were not. This I think will have more to do with ‘greater opportunities to convert that initial minority view into a wider one’ than anything about the Dutch political system. It plainly isn’t true to say that FPTP is an inherently conservative system of representation &policy making, or we’d not have had Lloyd George, Attlee, or Mrs Thatcher. Indeed with some reason the defenders of FPTP usually stress the inherent conservatism of politics by coalition negotiation under PR, though that argument looks a bit daft after clegg.

          • The most hopeful thing about a British Echo of STK (‘Stop Killing Cyclists’) is that despite the ‘cyclists’ in the name there’s some broader sense of other ‘victims of traffic violence’ in their activities, eg the coming ‘National Funeral For The Unknown Victim of Traffic Violence’ https://www.facebook.com/events/620158668053003/ and vocal contributions from @comadad bridging ‘pedestrian’ and ‘cyclist’ concerns with policies that honour motorised transport over human beings.

  7. Har Davids says:

    I’m Dutch, I cycle and I’m sure that there’s nothing in my genes or soul that makes me do so. In The Netherlands we’re just lucky that we never became that car-centric that cyclists became a small minority, easily ignored and derided. According to some articles I’ve read there may be a connection with our Calvinistic, egalitarian past that made everybody, from blue-collar worker to doctor, embrace the bike. British distaste, generally speaking, may have something to do with class-consiousnes that’s still part of daily life in the UK.

    • I liked the first sentence. Then you went on to hypothesise things in your calvinistic soul that separate you from ‘British distaste, generally speaking’. I didn’t like that so much, because it appeared to be in contradiction with your first sentence.

      It also looked a superfluous and purely speculative attempt to explain a phenomenon that the absence of safe segregated cycling provision already amply explains, with empirical data to back up the relationship between installed provision and bike use on both sides of the north sea.

      I’m aware that speculative cultural theory is *fun*. Not a problem unless it distracts from data and fact.

  8. James says:

    I’ve always Soho in London would be massively improved by banning cars during the day. There are so many pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants that could provide seating outside and make the area wonderful. Who on earth are these people wanting to drive through Soho during the day. Obviously deliveries still need to take place and bollards that can lower can be used for that but the streets of Soho, lined with parked cars and cars trying to cut through would make a wonderful pedestrian only area.

  9. RichardL says:

    I think there is room to create a “culture” (call it what you will) in which you create the conditions in which people choose to ride their bikes and walk or catch the bus and go shopping locally rather than driving–without thinking about it. New York and Melbourne illustrate this; in the world’s most car-obsessed countries, the implementation of places people want to visit (as opposed to car-infested hell holes), bike lanes and the rest has surely increased the amount of cycling. They have produced other benefits too–more business for local shops, greener places, urban renewal and places to gather and people-watch. Complaints about their implementation have changed from “it’ll create congestion” to “we don’t like the colour of the garden chairs provided” and shop keepers ask for car parking bays to be converted to bike parking in order that they get more custom.

    Notice how the places people tend to dislike the most are usually car-dominated, open wastelands of car parking and dereliction. The places they love the most are Venice (car free at least in the middle) and the Netherlands (perceived to be a cycling and people-oriented place). In world rankings, the cities that have invested in cycling the most consistently appear as the “most liveable” and “happiest”.

    Creating “whole places” means considering urban design, architecture, the purpose and layout of streets and what type of infrastructure (if any) is appropriate and where. It wouldn’t be appropriate to provide cycle tracks in the centre of Horsham or indeed Amsterdam. But it would be appropriate on a busy main road. As cyclists, we need to understand and respond positively to this if we are to move any further at all towards Nirvana.

    Jan Gehl says that the thing people like the most is being surrounded by and seeing other people in an intimate urban setting. The cafe culture in Horsham is an example of this. Create the conditions in which there are lots of people to see and be seen, and people will arrive, preferably by bike or on foot, and buy more coffee. It’s not just about bike tracks; it’s the sight of people cycling that will get people cycling.

    The Dutch have a very strong “car culture”. They have more miles of motorway per head of population than we do in the UK, and a wider spread of road-types where cycling on the carriageway is not permitted (i.e. every road where a cycle track exists).
    In the Netherlands, cycle tracks and cycling promote two clear purposes, and please don’t take this the wrong way. The first is to keep people cycling on the sorts of short trips that in the UK cause congestion and obesity. The second is to keep cyclists out of the way of motorists. I’ve got a photograph of a Dutch motorway. It has five lanes in each direction and a heck of a lot of cars occupied by people who when not driving cycle on nice safe tracks and who also rather like the fact that when driving they don’t have to encounter cyclists on their carriageways.

    Britain, meanwhile, has a very strong culture, not so much of driving (we perceive this but is it real amongst the majority?) but of maintaining the “status quo”. Do anything you like as long as it doesn’t upset the balance. As long as it doesn’t affect me. Well, the world moves on without you then. But it is still this argument that has to be used to justify the things we do for cycling. We have to say that we will invest in cycling but it won’t affect the status quo; indeed we can demonstrate benefits to non-cyclists–in the process sorting out things that people complain about, such as bad pavements, personal safety issues and traffic danger whilst we build the right infrastructure. We have to show motorists that investment in cycling means that cyclists will be out of their way and more predictable and that it and will help reduce congestion. We have to show traders that the investment will bring them more trade and they’ll do well if they ask for more bike parking.

  10. YES! Well said. I like to be strident about it, taking it all the way to environmental determinism.

    Environment -> Behavior -> Identity. Not the other way around.

    People think it’s the other way around:
    1. Identity – I am a driver, I like to drive.
    2. Behavior – I drive to work, the shops etc.
    3. Environment – I demand taxes be spent on a car-first environment.

    Whereas in reality:
    1. Environment – I have been raised in a car-first environment, created by previous governments. OR, the matrix of trade-offs I have made in where I live and work (salary, square-footage, school type for the kids) be in a car-first environment. That countries are not built with human scale urban environments, growing by maturation or neighborhood-by-neighborhood, is a policy failure requiring change in legislation / regulation (mostly clearing out).
    2. Behavior – I respond to the car-first environment by driving. It is obvious I am not supposed to walk, cycle or take the bus around here, because all of those are so unpleasant.
    3. Identity – Look, I drive all the time. And I’m no fool. It must be because I enjoy driving. Sometimes I don’t enjoy driving, but that’s because of all the other fools on the road. I must demand more lanes and fewer fools.

    A Dutchman turning up in some horrible British suburb won’t insist on cycling around everywhere; just as a suburbanite Briton visiting Amsterdam won’t insist on renting a Jeep and driving around everywhere.

  11. Clark in Vancouver says:

    So true. The same things are said in Vancouver, Canada. That we are a car based culture and that won’t ever change. That people won’t cycle because of the hills or the rain. That we don’t sit outside and people-watch like they do in Europe.
    Meanwhile because of infrastructure, people are cycling more and more. The cycling infrastructure that was started in the ’80s and now more recently includes some very well designed high quality examples have brought out all sorts of folks who would not have cycled even a few years ago.
    It was built and they came. (Well, “they” were already here.) Any good cycle infrastructure becomes used by people cycling. Any spot where you can sit outside becomes full of people sitting outside.
    People come from all over the world to rent a bike and cycle our Seawall path. (I can imagine the same happening if London got a cycle path along the Thames.)
    I think differences in culture will only influence how easy or difficult it is to turn the ship around. Human nature is the same everywhere and people will get attracted to the same things. Many cannot imagine anything else than what they have now but they do get used to it and incorporate the new things into their lives.

  12. northernbike says:

    it looks great what’s been done down there – my town has a large and very beautiful cobbled market place that rivals anything in france or italy but it is an ugly untidy noisy mess due to car parking and car traffic, a huge wasted opportunity to create something really special because people cry bloody murder when anyone suggests they walk a few more metres to get their papers

  13. Fred says:

    In Amsterdam I was chatting to the lady working in the youth hostel (apparently I was too old, but she let me in anyway!). She’s cycled from when she went to school, 45 mins each way, through rain and shine all year round. She now cycles to work every day. As she told me, she doesn’t even like cycling and wishes there was better public transport! I told her she was doing something great for her health and the environment 🙂

    It’s interesting she didn’t say ‘I wish I could drive’.

  14. You are entirely right in every particular, and good at putting it in a way that might enlighten, if attended to.

    The key point which people find difficult -or ignore altogether- is that the word ‘culture’ can suddenly become vacuous *when deployed as an explanation*, because it is also supposed to refer to the thing to be explained. The picture is ‘if i can pick something out usefully when using the word in this way, why can’t I do that when using it in this entirely different way’. And that picture is a misunderstanding of Grammar. Wittgenstein’s motto, from Kent in King Lear: I’ll teach you differences.

    The difference is: It’s fine for people to talk about a culture of this or a culture of that if all they are doing is observing a characteristic -and this is the kind of commentary you can expect in a picturebook. But when explanatory power is attributed to thing to be explained, all kinds of nonsense are invited.

  15. Sarah says:

    Cultures can be incredibly local. And even in any given locality, they wax and wane with the seasons.

    In the town where I live (Northern Bavaria), cycling is a completely normal transport mode and leisure activity in spring, summer and autumn. It’s the preserve of a select group of eccentrics in the winter. Everybody puts winter tyres on their cars as if it were the most natural thing in the world, but having winter tyres for one’s bike is a bit …niche.

    Forty miles away, there is a restaurant/hotel atop a little hill (50 metres) where I go for a meeting every six weeks or so, either by bike or by train (with the first three miles and the last three by bike). The place gets 99% of its custom from the nearby motorway. The waitress saw my bright red panniers sitting in the corner of the room last week, shook her head, and said “It’s even dafter to cycle here now in the heat of mid-summer than it was in the snow in February.” Essentially they remember me there because I am the only customer who *ever* shows up by bike; they are geared to truckers and bus tourists. Meanwhile, a mere ten miles from their location, other local cafes are generating most of their turnover from thirsty cycle tourists, have twenty bikes parked outside at any given time in summer, and would probably be electrified if any topic related to cyclists, cycling or cycle facilities came up at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting. My lot would roll their eyes and shuffle their feet.

    The train timetable is inconvenient and I don’t always make the last train, so that particular 40 mile trip is one I have made after dark and in fog and snowstorms The worse the weather gets, the better people’s driving gets. I have had scares with deer and with hares on winter nights, but the presence of motor vehicles (snowploughs!) has generally been more reassuring than unsettling or threatening. That, I think, IS culture.

    Which is good: if it’s culture, it’s learned and not innate. Nobody is born with culture; it is only learned because formal and informal systems for passing it on exist. It can be learned anywhere where systems are put in place. Emulating informal systems might involve some dodgy social engineering, but there is plenty of formalized stuff (in driver training procedures, laws etc.) that could be taken over lock, stock and barrel from places where it works. It’s absolutely fine to say “they have a cycling culture” but it should automatically lead to the next question: “what are the key mechanisms by which their cycling culture is transmitted in families, kindergartens, schools, driving schools etc. etc.?” (And: how is it supported by their urban planning practices etc.?)

    Bike shop culture is a whole topic in itself. Trying to influence what people choose to buy with their own money IS social engineering. But the public transport companies in Munich and Frankfurt and Hamburg are heavily promoting practical folding bicycles with mudguards, carriers and hub dynamos. In the UK, I fear that the same bikes are often sold minus some or all of the above and prove rather less practical. Bike shops have to meet existing demand or customers will go elsewhere, and existing demand in the UK is unfortunately often for bikes that won’t see.too much use. But where a public transport company is involved, there might be some more scope for trying to shape demand? Or does that sound too much like cultural engineering?

    • You are essentially responding to the question whether there is or is not anything for the word ‘culture’ to pick out in a description. That is certainly interesting, but it’s not the point at issue or addressed in the piece.

      I think what Mark is getting at is that it is important to distinguish use of the word ‘culture’ as summing up a description from use in *explanation*. And use in explanation essentially consists in saying that X exists as a culture because there is a culture of X. Which is a daft use of the word ‘because’ and a perfect non-explanation.

  16. Alexey says:

    Was so impressed with such an anology between cafe culture and bicycle culture that immedialtely wanted to share it with my friends. As here in Russia we often hear the same arguments against cycling.
    However it took a long while to translate it into Russian. And finally here it is with some my translators’ notes:
    Hope, you don’t mind.

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