Research Article

For whom does the transport system care? The vulnerability of cycling in cities made for cars


Everyday my 5-year-old son and I cycle to his kindergarten. He rides his children’s bike and I usually ride a cargo bike, which allows me to pick up him and his bike if his courage fails. It rarely does. He is a committed cyclist who likes to debate this and that and show his new cycling tricks on the way. On one of those engaging morning rides, a large truck was parked on the bike lane with long steel scaffoldings sticking out from the rear end. My son, who was busy cycling, cycled directly into one of the steel wires. My son was hurt and shocked and so was I and the scaffolding workers. “It is very lucky that he wore a bicycle helmet,” they said.

Michala, parent of a 5-year-old

Memories like these reflect the lived experiences of cycling with a child, which include both joys and pains. These memories also highlight the vulnerability of cyclists in cities made for cars. Travelling with dependents, such as children, has by feminist scholars been conceptualized as ‘mobility of care.’ In this paper we call for a perspective on mobility of care that goes beyond the care that individuals do. Applying the concept of care to the transport system itself, we ask ‘for whom does the transport system care?’  We argue that transport planning and road design show little care for cyclists and that the mobility of care that individuals perform is not supported in the present mobility regime. The transport system is crucial for ensuring mobility for all. Yet, transport accessibility differs between the best-off and worst-off groups in society. The notions ‘transport justice’ and/or ‘mobility justice’ means to recognize the social inequalities in transport coming from design, distribution, and decision making (Vitrano and Lindkvist, 2021). From a feminist perspective, we suggest that the idea of mobility justice would benefit from a perspective of care as a new rationale in the transport system.

Feminist theory has identified care as a moral stance that historically and culturally relates to the feminine and connects to ideas of interdependency, responsibility, and empathy. Feminists highlight that while care is marginalized in contemporary society, care forms an important basis when imagining and transforming future societies. As such, an ethics of care holds political potentials in its promises for more caring relations and societies (Lindén, 2016). In feminist transport studies, the concept of mobility of care has emphasized how care trips hold a gendered dimension in that the “chauffeuring and escorting” of dependents is foremost practiced by women. At the same time, they don’t receive equal attention in research and practice as commuter trips do (de Madariaga and Zucchini, 2019). Travels with dependents also form a distinct mobility practice, which entails other experiences and emotions than travelling alone (Sersli, 2020). Angelika Gabauer and colleagues (2021) argue that urban space should facilitate care, but is today produced through uncaring spatial practices and social relations.

The Scandinavian countries are globally known as promoting urban spaces which are highly ‘cycling friendly.’  This friendliness tends to translate into care in an understanding of urban spaces which particularly cater to cyclists. Yet, through our own experiences of cycling as well as through our research on gender and mobility, we came to doubt the narrative of the Scandinavian cycling culture as particular ‘friendly.’ In a four-year European research project (TInnGO), we explored the links between ‘smart transport,’ gender, and diversity. In so doing, we interacted with various groups of cyclists. Some were the people we interviewed: a mix of skilled cyclists to less experienced cyclists, to those who were not able to cycle at all. We had contact with policymakers and planners in the field of cycling, mostly in Danish and Swedish municipalities, as well as interest groups, working to promote better conditions for specific groups, such as people with disabilities or older people. The perspectives and knowledge of the very heterogeneous group of cyclists opened our eyes to new narratives about cycling and sharpened an argument for introducing the concept of ‘care’ to shed light on the inequalities we faced in present transport systems.

Every year, people are killed in traffic in Denmark (163 persons in 2020) and Sweden (204 persons in 2020). Of these, some are cyclists (18 in Sweden, 28 in Denmark). In Sweden, seven of those cyclists were killed in single accidents, and 11 in collision with a motor vehicle (Trafik Analys, 2020). In Denmark, two of three of the deadly accidents are caused by collision with a car (Vejdirektoratet, 2020).  Notably, 2020 stands out as a year with few accidents as an effect of less traffic due to COVID restrictions. We argue that these deaths are part of a neglect of vulnerable mobilities and can be understood in terms of ‘structural violence’ (Galtung, 1969). Structural violence is a form of institutionalized practice, so deeply imbedded in our ways of thinking, that it becomes ‘normal’ or ‘natural,’ which hides a silent discrimination against certain societal groups (Galtung, 1969, in Davies 2019, p. 173). While structural violence produces unequal life chances, this is socially concealed and continues to be acted out in policymaking and planning (Davies, 2019), making power and violence an intertwined practice.

In the following, we explore the lack of care towards cyclists in the present transport system. We identify and describe three dominant narratives: ‘cycling is natural,’ ‘the ‘neutral’ cyclist,’ and ‘the celebration of speed and efficiency.’ These narratives not only prevent the care for cyclists, but also work to hide the vulnerability of this mobility as well as reproduce structural violence against cyclists.

‘Cycling is natural’

It is the most natural thing for us Danes to cycle.

Danish Transport Minister Benny Engelbrecht, Keynote, 5th Cycling Research Board Annual Meeting

In Sweden, everyone drinks water, and everyone cycles. 

Ethnic minority woman, cycling course, Sweden

The Scandinavian countries as particular ‘cycling friendly’ is a narrative which permeates the national identities as well as policy and planning in these countries. Both Denmark and Sweden are known worldwide as advanced cycling nations with well-developed cycling infrastructure as well as a large number of cyclists. On the political agenda in both Denmark and Sweden, cycling is seen as key in creating healthy and sustainable cities. Also, in both countries, cycling is regarded as a normal form of everyday mobility and a natural way of transporting children to day care and school.

Living in Scandinavia, we have ourselves been part of this narrative. Our research set out from a motivation to provide everyone with an opportunity to cycle. How we framed an early workshop with bicycle advocates from municipalities and NGOs in the Oresund region stands as an example of this:

The bike is an amazing mode of transport. It is environmentally friendly, healthy and cheap. And it is a powerful tool to make the city more accessible to different groups and strengthening social cohesion. A city where many people bike is a city where many people feel at home. But how do we make biking accessible to all? What are the barriers different groups experience? Who bikes, and who doesn’t, in our cities?

Notes from workshop, Copenhagen, November 2019

In the workshop, a municipal planner expressed a feeling of insecurity when she cycled during Copenhagen’s rush hour. She often cycled with her children and found that the cycling culture were wild and violent. Another participant in the workshop, a younger man who spent his spare time promoting cycling, had a hard time recognizing her story about being violated at the bike paths. He cycled every day with joy and always felt safe. These different accounts about cycling pointed to how views are always positioned. That we all understand the world from our own perspective and experiences is a well-known argument in feminist theory.

Our first workshop had a focus on gender and diversity in cycling, arguing that not everyone had the same opportunities to cycle. The discussions that followed made it visible how encompassing the Scandinavian narrative of cycling as ‘natural’ is.  It is a narrative that treats cycling as an obvious form of mobility. The problem with this narrative is that the naturalness, despite our criticism of ‘standard users’ and ‘one size fits all’ design of infrastructures, make us focus on the individual’s inclusion in the current transport system. The workshop taught us that we (researchers, policy makers and bicycle advocates), need to ask whether the current traffic system is attractive, or safe, to be a part of for cyclists with different experiences.  

‘The neutral cyclist’

I see that everybody can cycle and I cannot.

Ethnic minority woman, cycling course, Denmark

With the naturalness of cycling in Scandinavia follows an embedded cultural consensus about what cycling is and means. We seldom go in depth with stories about how we learned to ride a bicycle, or how cycling works for us in everyday life. Cycling is normal; we just cycle.

In our research, we constantly encountered this ‘we.’ The ‘we’ together with ‘all’ and ‘everyone’ have no gender, no age, no class, no apparent diversity. We found this neutrality translated into other generic terms such as ‘cyclists’ or ‘users’ of transport infrastructures. We saw how ‘we’ was materialized in planning and design of cycling as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. This model applied to everything from bike-sharing schemes, to cycle paths and bicycle racks, which were designed for the standard two-wheeled bicycle and not catered for people traveling with children in cargo bikes or the bikes that people with disabilities used. Even though these groups did not fit into the model, the design continued to be expressed as for ‘everyone.’ The rationality is that when ‘everybody’ cycles, we do not need to pay particular attention to anybody. Yet, paying no particular attention means that we do not see those who struggle to be part of ‘everybody’ and those who do not fit into the standard. They simply become invisible, which tends to lead to that their needs will not be cared for by the system. These invisible persons cycle in a transport system that is not made for them – sometimes with fatal consequences.

In present mobility regimes, narratives of the neutral cyclist, together with the narrative of cycling as natural, tend to translate into a celebration of cycling as the good, healthy, climate friendly and cool form of mobility. This celebration moves the focus away from the vulnerability in this form of mobility. No cycling advocates tell you that cycling is sustainable and healthy – and that you are seven times more likely to be killed on every trip than if you take the car. The death remains untold. Although the bicycle ‘we’ criticizes car consumption, it does not fully reach a critique of the whole rationale of the transport system. The present cycling culture that are cultivated by researchers, bicycle advocates and politicians does not acknowledge the number of cyclists that are killed in traffic every year. From a mobility justice perspective, Anna Davidson (2021) argue that it is nothing inherently radical about cycling, unless we question how systems enable, disable and harm different cyclists. Today, Davidson states, discourses on cycling, as well as the overall transport system, are characterized by spatial injustice, gentrification, white supremacy, and neoliberal urban governmentality (Davidson, 2021, p. 29).

The narratives of naturalizing and neutralizing cycling have consequences for the position of cyclists in the present infrastructure. As we have argued, the naturalness of cycling does not question whether it is safe to cycle, while the narrative on the neutral cyclist neglects that some cyclists are more vulnerable than others. We now want to discuss the vulnerability of cycling in a transport system made for the speed and efficiency of cars.

 ‘Speed and efficiency’

On Friday 23 April 2021, a family took out an evening trip in a small Danish town. At the same time, a 29-year-old man was driving way too fast through the town. The family’s 11-year-old girl was thrown 50 meters when the car crashed into her bicycle. She died next morning at the hospital.

Ritzau, 2021

Time savings, efficiency and flexibility is part of the language of mobility (Brömmelstroet, 2020) and constitute our third narrative. To optimize time and enhance accessibility for in particularly work commuters are seen by politicians and policymakers as a prerequisite for economic growth (Svensson, Summerton & Hrelja, 2014). Current infrastructure, the road network with crossings and traffic signals, reflect the narrative of speed and efficiency. This is key to understand why the structural violence of the traffic system is socially concealed but supported by policymakers as well as why the current mobility regime prioritize speed over safety (Böhm, 2006). This prioritization is seen in cycle promotion schemes and in plans for cycling infrastructure. It is the commuting cyclists that are targeted as desirable cycling subjects, and whose needs are met by, for example, ‘supercycle highways.’

Efforts are being made to reduce deaths that follow from the speed and efficiency narrative. Sweden is known as an international forerunner, adopting a “vision zero” policy in 1997, an ethical imperative based on the assumption that no one should be seriously harmed when travelling. Several countries, including Denmark, have followed with similar policies. Campaigns to get motorists and cyclists to comply with safety requirement have been vital measures for creating a safe transportation system, acknowledging the fatal consequences when people fail to comply with the rules. These measures are symptomatic for a transportation system designed from a ‘zero mistake’ standard. Basing our transport system on a zero-mistake imperative is problematic as we all know that people make mistakes all the time. In many cases, human mistakes do not have major consequences. In transport, we see how even small mistakes and deviations from the rules might result in people’s deaths. The question then becomes how we can maintain a system that is based on an unrealistic premise. The short answer is that the system has a built-in acceptance of fatal accidents. We shift the focus to the individual, making the individual accountable of an unrealistic premise.

An example of this is the traffic incident the 18th of September 2021, in which the Danish cycling expert Chris Anker Sørensen, died at the age of 37 years in collision with a van. In the midst grieving the loss, one could read that “The car inspector could ascertain that the driver of the van did not make any mistake which led to the accident. Cyclists must hold back at the intersection.” (Boas, 2021). This implied that the deadly accident was Anker Sørensen’s own fault, reflecting a narrative we are used to hear in Denmark, ‘that cyclists drive irresponsible.’ However, challenging this narrative we could move our attention to the site of transport infrastructure, asking a different question: Why do we let big boxes of iron drive the same roads as cyclists – and pedestrians – knowing that these mistakes do happen?

The violent effects of the transport system have been debated ever since cars were introduced on a larger scale in the 1950s. Several scholars have theorized transport as a site of violence.  In the Swedish context, Dag Balkman and Tanja Joelsson have asked the question of ‘what makes violent and violating road practices possible?’ (2012, p. 39). Exploring the emotion-material dimensions of car driving, they suggest that (gendered) meanings of ‘speed’ and ‘fun’ play a role in the constitution of a normality of driving violently. The uneven vulnerability between mobilities, such as between car driving, cycling and walking, question the fairness of a transport system in which cars are given dominance. Marco Te Brömmelstroet’s (2020) work on Dutch media coverage of traffic crashes highlights a neglect of vulnerable road users. He finds that there is an ongoing dehumanization of traffic accidents in the media, which present ‘traffic accidents’ as errors in the machinery rather than human tragedies. Te Brömmelstroet argues that this ignorance towards human lives constitutes a ‘systemic violence of our contemporary traffic’ (Te Brömmelstroet, 2020, p. 1). 

The theorization of transport as a site of violence where deaths of vulnerable road users are tolerated due to a systematic neglect of these killings is central for developing an ethic of care. In the final section, we discuss what the concept of care can do to make unjust priorities and consolidated rationalities visible in transport.

 Concluding thoughts on a caring transport system

We have pointed out that the current transport system works from a premise where no one, neither car drivers, pedestrians nor cyclists, makes mistakes. Knowing that it is human to make mistakes, we have argued that transport policy and planning has a built-in acceptance of fatal accidents. Although society on one level acknowledges and tries to meet this challenge, we view the continuation of the current mobility regime as an inaction on care. The structural violence of this regime is an expression of ignorance of the lives of certain mobilities.  

Performing mobility of care in a transport system based on a zero-mistakes rationality highlights the vulnerability of cycling. Children have not necessarily understood the danger of the system and may drive with too little restraint. Other children have greatly understood the dangers of cars and cycle with too much restraint. In both cases, mistakes are easily made. From a caregiver perspective, cycling care trips are made with a racing heart. Our own experiences of “co-cycling” (Sersli,. 2020) disclose how you simultaneously must attend to not only the traffic and its rhythms but also to another person’s needs and emotions. To make sure that a child is happy, safe, and moving forward at propriate phase takes a lot of emotive energy. Every trip feels like a lottery, crossing fingers for that nobody makes mistakes. This is not a viable solution.

We argue that the structural violence that characterizes the current mobility regime erases care from the transport system. We have found that the neglect of care is possible because of three intertwined narratives, which dominate the transport system and the scene of cycling: ‘cycling as natural’, ‘the neutral cyclist’, and ‘the celebration of speed and efficiency’.

The problem with the first narrative is that ‘what is natural’ links to accept rather than critique. Saying that cycling is natural means that this is something we just do without further questions. This is present in the second narrative of neutrality too. The neutral ‘we’ work to erase not only the differences among cyclists, neglecting that some cyclists are more vulnerable than others, but also translates cyclists into a (homogeneous) group of ‘good guys’. We need more of this climate-friendly and healthy form of mobility, the story goes. The third narrative of ‘speed and efficiency’ gets particularly problematic when vulnerable mobilities are neglected. Together these three narratives promote and preserve an unjust transport system.

We view care as an ethical practice that acknowledges vulnerability, interdependent agency, and mutual responsibility as vital in social relations (Gabauer, 2021).  For us, this makes care a powerful concept as it ties intentions and actions together. We all have a need to be cared for, but some people have a greater need than others, – as in the case of cycling children in traffic for example. To ‘care for somebody’ signifies to take someone into account and act on their needs and positions. The negligence of care highlights an ignorance towards vulnerable subjects and a lack of sympathy.  

To emphasize care as a new rationale, we need to ask new questions such as: why should caring be only an individual responsibility? Can the mobility of care be a distributed responsibility? Can care be built into the infrastructure? What measures would that take? How can we move from a culture of violence to an ethic of care? How would transport planning look like if we acknowledge care? Can streets care for all mobilities? What about bike lanes and parking spaces for cyclists? Does infrastructure accommodate vulnerable cyclists, such as inexperienced cyclists, those with impaired mobility, or those travelling with children? These are questions which easily get ignored by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that dominates much cycle policy today.

We now call for a new approach to transport research, planning, and design which emphasizes gender and diversity in an ethic of care. Care moves the focus from an efficient and speedy transport system to the vulnerability of some mobilities in this system. As such, the notion of care works as an eye-opener — to openly say that ‘we don’t care’ about vulnerable mobilities is unacceptable. We suggest that a caring transport system as a concept can be used to open for a new rationality of mobility. ‘For whom does the transport system care?’ is a question which points to privileges and vulnerabilities within present mobility regime. 


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Issue: Just mobility, transport and urban infrastructures

Stories of inclusion and exclusion.

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