What is the relationship between broader social values and politics and traffic conduct? That is, can how different road users interact tell us something about the prevailing social relations in each urban place? And moreover what does this mean for cycling advocacy? These were some of the micro questions behind my PhD study. The study (now in writing phase) is exploring changes in social conceptions and practices about everyday bicycle use from a historical comparative perspective.
There is an existing literature of course that offers some insight into these questions. For example there is now an extensive body of literature that demonstrates how social meanings, beliefs, values influence transportation mode choice and practices eg (Stoffers 2012); (Aldred & Jungnickel 2013); (Ebert 2004); (Oosterhuis 2013). Some scholars have examined how different cultural values in China, Japan and the United States produce variable traffic safety outcomes (Atchley et al. 2014).
In spite of this theoretical backdrop, it was still something of a surprise to witness the relationship between broader social values and street level practices in different contexts. I have spent many pleasant hours at street intersections in Johannesburg, Chicago, Nantes, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Here I reflect on experiences in Beijing, China.
One one fine evening during the evening rush hour in Beijing, I spent hours at a street intersection enthralled with the choreography of different road users. See a short video below:
As I sat watching the interactions in November of 2015, I held my breadth waiting for an accident to happen at any moment. None came. As you see in the footage, the different phases of traffic lights are not strictly adhered to. Traffic lights appeared to be treated as offering general but not absolute guidelines. Often but not always users would make judgements on whether to proceed based on real time observations. If there was a gap, someone would take it. But even when such assessments were incorrect producing a potentially dangerous situation, other road users would give way. There was a graciousness palpable. A sense of consideration of the ‘other’. An Austrian living in Beijing expressed a similar observation in comparison to Vienna:
…one main practical difference is traffic regulations and how people obey them. People in Vienna tend to claim their territory in urban traffic regardless of what is happening around them. in Beijing, on the contrary, people on the streets have a good sense for each other and are always aware of their own movement as well as the movement of others. Ignorance of others in traffic just does not exist (Grisby 2013, p.65).
My claim here is that the history of social solidarities in China is present on the streets of Beijing.
What is the implication for efforts to promote everyday bicycle use in low cycling contexts? For me an important conclusion is that cycling advocacy agenda also has to grapple with the social relations that not only affect street level interactions but shape who uses (or not) bicycles. It means that cycling advocacy has to link with broader social change campaigns as relevant in each context e.g. in reducing social difference.
- Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at: http://rachelaldred.org/writing/why-culture-matters-for-cycling-policy/.
- Atchley, P., Shi, J. & Yamamoto, T., 2014. Cultural foundations of safety culture: A comparison of traffic safety culture in China, Japan and the United States. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 26, Part B, pp.317–325.
- Ebert, A.-K., 2004. Cycling towards the nation:the use of the bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940. European Review of History, 11(3), pp.347–364.
- Grisby, J., 2013. Beijing’s bicycle kingdom. In Sound of cycling; Urban cycling cultures. Vienna: Velo-City Vienna 2013. Available at: velo-city2013.com/?page_id=6492.
- Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at: http://t2m.org/publications/yearbook/t2m-yearbook-2014/.
- Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.