Contested spaces to shared spaces in a car-dominated culture

Published: 23 July 2020

Heather K Hodge | Curious about sustainable transport solutions.
Heather is taking a career break from the financial services industry.  She has a keen interest in a more sustainable way of living and would like to live in a cycling city.

Selected final essay, published 23 July 2020
Unraveling the Cycling City MOOC on Coursera

I chose to take part in this course because my recent move to the suburbs of London has made me think about what would make the UK a more cycle-friendly environment.  In my local area there are some unsegregated bicycle lanes, although these are sometimes shared with buses and sometimes disappear.  I also hear negative comments made about cyclists, lower speed limits and traffic calming measures.

My key takeaway from the course is that it has challenged my assumptions that just building bicycle lanes is the way forwards for cycling in the UK and has highlighted the idea that bicycle lanes and roads are “contested spaces”.  It has brought into focus the car-dominated culture that we have in the UK, and the conflict between car drivers and cyclists that I see and hear.  Coordinated policies that integrate cycling with other forms of transporturban spaces designed for the bicycle and steps towards ‘shared spaces’ could bring real change towards sustainable transport.

The fear of cycling reported in the 1980s and the post-war view of cycling as low status both feel very relevant today, whilst the portrayal of cyclists as “abnormal” and the blame attributed to the non-conformist behaviour of cyclists by rule-breaking drivers all contribute to this car-dominated culture.   This seems very far away from the culture of “mutual shared respect” and trust discussed in the film Why We Cycle’.  

The trend towards recreational cycling in the UK, often seen to require expensive gear and equipment, is perhaps an attempt to bring status to cycling, but is in contrast to the “conspicuous non-consumption” seen in the Netherlands (Film: Why We Cycle) and may explain why this culture persists.  Given evidence that illegal driving causes significantly more accidents than illegal cycling, it is unsurprising that only 1% of journeys in the UK are by bicycle . 

Image from: Treasure, M. (2016). The Dutch supermarket. Retrieved from

Another challenge to my assumptions is the broader urban environment in the Netherlands.  Bertolini and le Clercq discuss the idea of finding transport solutions that improve both the sustainability of transport, and also accessibility.  This was a surprise to me since I assumed that improved sustainability came with a cost of reduced accessibility because a common word used in discussions of sustainability in the UK is “less”: fly less, waste less, consume less.

Accessibility can be reached, with mixed land use and by having facilities close to transit stops and to local neighbourhoods.  The decision to ban out-of-town shops in the Netherlands that resulted in the development of smaller, local shops that could be reached without car usage, as discussed in Why the Dutch Ride Bikes, is also a factor that reduces car usage, in contrast to the UK where out-of-town shops are prevalent and high street and local stores are closing.  In addition, Kager & Harms discuss how cycling and public transport can be improved and integrated, including sufficient bicycle parking and the ability to hire a bicycle at a station.  It seems a far-away dream in the UK, to be able to achieve an urban landscape as described in the Dutch Supermarket blog, where cycling is preferred over car use because of design.

To move away from “contested spaces” to shared spaces in the UK would require both cultural and political change.  Whilst the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have made driving in city centres “expensive” and “inconvenient”, Bertolini & le Clercq point out that there is often “poor political acceptability” of the sorts of measures that are needed to make this the case.  I feel that this is certainly true in the UK, from what I see and hear from drivers, and the current political situation. 

The following questions remain unanswered to me.  Firstly, what is the cycling vision for London and the UK?  I will research this and look to influence this where appropriate.  Second, how does the UK bring about the cultural and political change that would be necessary to move towards a more integrated and cycling friendly urban environment, with less dependence on the car?  Would we need to go through the same stages of the learning process to bring about the required cultural change, starting with bicycle lanes and developing into shared spaces?  

This is something that I would like to research in both the cycling and psychology literature.


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