Peter Wood is a postgraduate researcher in the Geography Department at the Open University. Peter, you’re in the midst of completing your PhD thesis. Could you tell us more about it?
My work has been looking at the growth of cycling in London over the last few years, vaguely starting in 2000, and we’ve seen cycling just increase hugely, in fact increasing more as each year goes by, and I’ve been looking at why this has been happening through looking at what a group of cyclists actually do. So I’ve been meeting up with a group of about 20 people for a year just to see how the way they cycle changes over time and what they’re using it to accomplish in their life. Because we’ve got quite a lot of data on how many cyclists there are and where they’re going from and to and they tend to be going to Inner London, but we don’t actually know, why do they do this and where do they go: do they go shopping by bike but they don’t visit their grandmother, or do they only commute to work and they have almost no cycling outside of this, things like that.
Recently you’ve been awarded an ESRC Overseas Institutional Visit where you spent three months in New York City. What was it like to be a visiting cycling researcher amongst American academics?
It was absolutely fantastic. Cycling in America is growing just as it is in London. It’s a thing that’s growing in a lot of the large cities of America. There are a lot of ties with the creative economy and a lot of similar issues about people not being sure who the creative economy is benefiting and if it is a good replacement for the industrial employment that has been lost in a lot of these large post-industrial cities. I suppose the first thing to talk about is what I was investigating whilst I was there.
One of the things that has come up in my thesis has been ideas of public space in London and the way that the growth of cycling is changing the way in which we build a city, because if people are doing different things then we need to build different spaces for them to do them in. And one of the big things about London is that if you say public space, people will look at you somewhat quizzically and then assume that you’re talking about a park and they assume that public means green. Which is interesting, because then when I went to America and talking to a lot of the urban researchers there is that they would say that, yes, British academia has the same idea of public space, not necessarily being a park, that involves kind of everything that happens, it gets very complicated, but almost anything that happens outside your house, public meaning places where people are allowed to go to.
But then in some research that I was doing with cyclists in New York they definitely responded to the idea that public meant street. And one of the reasons a lot of them moved to New York and were cyclists was because they liked being in the street. They spoke of the idea of moving to New York and hanging out on the stoop, the front steps of your house, in the summer and I think people were saying stuff like, in New York you have to care about public space because the accommodation is so expensive, you are not going to sit inside and you can’t afford to go to a pub all evening.
How do you see this Overseas Institutional Visit contributing to your work in the future?
I think one of the most amazing things about cycling research, both in Britain and America, is that academics are quite connected to their subject in a rather strange way for many academics. One, Zack Furness put it in a conference presentation as, no-one else’s field site tries to run them over on the way to work, and you get an interesting type of academia coming from that. A lot of the big growing area of cycling research is quite ethnographic, because it really touches the way that people, almost inadvertently, because it is a thing that even when they’re not doing their research they’re probably still a bike rider.
So, one of my most interesting meetings whilst I was in America was with a number of researchers from the Bicicultures Network, which is a network of North American bicycle scholars, or a tendency to be using quite ethnographic techniques. People spending large amounts of time with their participants, either living in similar communities, whether or not they were actually living with their participants or just they tended to live in the same areas and had interaction, but they would actually meet them as they were cycling to the university or to wherever they were working and they’d meet their participants rather than just it being once every three months you actually meet up and do a formal interview. And we’ve really been discussing the way that only through having quite intense academic interactions do you really create really groundbreaking research, because it takes a bit of, you can have conversations via journals, which is good, but they take a while to be published.
So things like the Overseas Institutional Visit where you can go to America and meet some of the people that you’ve been in conversation with through the pages of what you’ve published, it’s fantastic that you can really catch up with the real cutting edge of what people are thinking. We felt that we had really improved how we understood each other’s research because we’d actually met in person, and hopefully in the future there’ll be a chance to do some collaborative work.
One of the interesting things about bicycling as a topic is that it’s very connected to international movements and migrations of people, the areas that it’s expanding particularly quickly are within global cities, and it’s becoming a part of how cities demonstrate that they’re contemporary and vibrant and growing. And so in many ways the people who are cycling have tended to live in a variety of different places and, you know, in some ways if academics were unable to meet other people who are studying it in different places, they’d almost miss out on something that their participants are finding an important part of why they’re doing cycling, because they’ve lived in San Francisco, they’ve lived in Holland or at least they’ve been on a business trip there. So I think it’s something that’s going to keep coming back throughout my work.