Cycling and (in)equality
I have been (rather slowly) reading Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s deservedly popular book The Spirit Level. Very broadly speaking, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that societies with higher levels of inequality (like Britain) have higher levels of mistrust, fear, and jealousy; which lead to higher levels of various social and health problems. They use a variety of statistics, examples and anecdotes. Including this one: cafes in some European countries (not Britain, apparently!) leave blankets out for people sitting outside the cafe in cold weather, as the cafe owners do not worry that someone will run off with all the blankets. Britain is also one of the few European countries where citizens are constantly recorded on CCTV camera in the name of “security and safety purposes”.
So, I was thinking about cafes and blankets when I kept seeing bicycles in the Netherlands that appeared to be unlocked. Now they weren’t really, they were secured by a built-in lock around the rear wheel, like so -
- but I suspect that in UK cities, this kind of lock would be viewed as little better than no lock at all. I carry a heavy D-lock and a super-heavy chain everywhere, and I rarely stop at a shop without putting both on.
Now of course, there’s plenty of bike theft in the Netherlands – our friends in Arnhem pointed out a bike in their street that had lost its new saddle – but I wondered whether the UK’s bike-locking arms race, like our apparent tendency to appropriate cafe blankets, could be connected to our higher levels of inequality…
I then wondered if it would be worth making more of inequalities between users of different transport modes, as a specific form of inequality embodied and experienced in public space. This isn’t a dimension of inequality that Wilkinson and Pickett focus on, although they do talk about the popularity of SUVs as being linked to high levels of inequality and status anxiety. But how about inequalities between transportation modes as a dimension of inequality itself? How does it connect with other forms of inequality (with my “comparative social policy” hat on), and how does it affect the sociological variables discussed by Wilkinson and Pickett such as mistrust and fear?
Cycling and (in)equality is likely to be discussed at the Lancaster Bicycle Politics workshop where I will be presenting a co-authored paper. Aurora Trujillo will be presenting a paper at Bicycle Politics on “Cyclists as an Oppressed Group” – so more may well follow on this topic in due course…