I started snapping these photographs about a year ago, mainly inspired by hostility from councillors to the notion of cycling in the town centre. Department for Transport funds, won by West Sussex – which could have made a small difference to the quality of the cycling environment in Horsham – were not put to any good use, and indeed were actually used in a futile attempt to keep cycling out of the town centre.
So the idea of the photo blog is to show that people getting around by bike are, essentially, just ordinary people – citizens of the town like everyone else.
While there are what I hesitate to call ‘hardened’ cyclists in the town – the people who (somewhat understandably) dress up in protective equipment, and cycle on main roads without thinking too much about it – I have, for the moment, focused on a broader range of users, essentially to counteract the stereotype that ‘cyclists’ are an odd outgroup, whizzing around, and putting people at risk.
Cycling levels are very low here – cycling to work in the 2011 census was below 3%, and at a guess the overall cycling share will be a fair bit lower than that. But what I see is, essentially, suppressed demand. There is no group of people who are not cycling in Horsham; all groups are represented, particularly the old and the young.
‘Cyclists’ here clearly don’t fit any neat stereotype – they are just ‘us’.
But the problem is that they are only present in very small numbers. And the reasons for this are also clear from the photographs. A large proportion of the people on the blog are breaking the law in some form. They are cycling on pavements, or in pedestrianised areas, or the wrong way down one way streets.
These are people who are cycling despite the conditions. They aren’t criminals – they’re just people trying to get from A to B in the safest way possible. Their lawbreaking would disappear if the environment was designed to reward their choice of mode of transport, rather than ignoring it altogether.
These are also people who aren’t really ‘cyclists’. They are wearing ordinary clothes; they are just using their bike as a tool; they are cycling for transport. Their cycling is just an extension of walking.
In that sense, they are remarkably similar to the kinds of people you see cycling in Dutch towns and cities. They just look like pedestrians. The major difference from Dutch cities is instead the types of bike being used. Mountain bikes – really ill-adapted to urban utility cycling – dominate in Horsham, and that means people are carrying their items on handlebars, or in bulky rucksacks.
Helmet-wearing – and hi-visibility clothing – is also notably low amongst this form of utility cycling. It’s clearly just too much of a faff for people who are meeting up with friends, or going shopping, or cycling in to town. This is a difference from commuters, who have a fixed routine and are more likely to add clothing and equipment to it.
Unaccompanied teenagers don’t wear helmets, nor do most adults.
The exceptions are young children, especially when accompanied by adults (young children have to do what they are told), and adults when cycling with their children, presumably because they feel they have to set a good example.
But in general cycling looks remarkably normal. There are even small clues that the people cycling around town aren’t just cycling around for the fun of it. Cycling is a helpful tool for them, one that makes their daily life a little bit easier.
Horsham is a relatively compact town, with around 60,000 people within two to three miles of the town centre. It’s flat and temperate, and has a high proportion of children (who of course can’t drive). My personal view is that cycling levels could, and should, be enormously high in the town. The photographs here demonstrate that potential. I see young children, teenagers, women and men of all ages using cycles to get about, despite the obstacles in their way. The environment should be designed to support them, and to reward their behaviour. Doing so would open up cycling to everyone, not confine it to the current minority willing to put up with inconvenience and hostile conditions.