Cargo bikes: are our imaginations holding us back?
Lindsay Broadwell, PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and and Graduate Research Fellow at the Urban Cycling Institute, explains the concept of imaginaries – a series of narratives about a particular thing or phenomenon that may or may not reflect reality – and how they relate to cargo bikes.
07 FEB 2024
3 MINUTE READ
BY LINDSAY BROADWELL, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE OF THE INTERNATIONAL CARGO BIKE FESTIVAL
What is cycling? What can you do with a bicycle? Empirically, a huge amount, but depending on who you ask, it often isn’t seen that way.
This is pretty important. Bicycles are capable, but if they aren’t imagined to be, well, then they become incapable. We face a massive climate crisis, and in particular, transport is providing difficult to decarbonise – a massive problem in itself, since it accounts for around a quarter of all emissions. Many before us have pointed to cycling as one part of the solution, hopefully a big part, but again, unfortunately, many people don’t see it as something really capable of replacing their car.
Can the cargo bike – of whatever type – potentially change this? Well, it depends on whether you can imagine that.
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The influence of imagination
Our imaginations influence us more than we might perhaps think. In the field of medicine, the placebo effect has been a known phenomenon for a very long time. If you imagine that a pill is capable of making you feel better, then – within reason – it very often will. On the flip side, however, we also have the nocebo effect. If you imagine that something won’t work, or would actually do you harm, then – within reason – it very often will.
When we turn to look at the field of social sciences, we may run into what’s known as an “imaginary” – or in other words, a series of narratives about a particular thing or phenomenon that may or may not reflect actual empirical reality.
This brings us to the case of cycling. Quite often, it’s not so much a matter of what a bicycle is actually capable of, much less a cargo bike, but more that people have a certain set of narratives (an imaginary) about what cycling is, what is can do, and what it could become. For example, you might have found that when trying to advocate for cycling that you run into resistance, and not unjustly, at that. How can I carry my shopping on a bike? How can I carry my kids? How can I ride a long way or up a big hill and not end up drenched in sweat?
These ideas – these narratives – illuminate that the people saying such things have a certain imagined idea of what cycling is, who it’s for, and what a bike might be capable of. Perhaps they’re imagining that cycling is the preserve of kids and teens on cheap mountain bikes, or lycra-clad athletes chasing a new Strava record. In either case, the imagined idea is that cycling isn’t practical, it isn’t utilitarian, it isn’t for people like me – and this is quite powerful. Like with the nocebo effect, people imagine that cycling won’t be any good for them, so, it ends up actually not being any good for them.
This doesn’t actually reflect the reality. As my involvement as a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, and more recently as part of the team behind the International Cargo Bike Festival has shown me, cycling is so much more than a few kids and teens, or a few hardcore athletes. It is those things, of course, but cycling – especially cargo cycling – is also a liberator. The first bike boom gave millions of people mobility that they had never before imagined having – and today, the boom in cargo cycling expands the capabilities of “a bike” so much more.
Every day, cargo bikes haul pallets, packages, and passengers around countless cities. Longtail bikes carry a week of shopping and two kids on the back. The dependable Dutch stadsfiets carries young and old, rich and poor, friends and lovers, here, there, and everywhere.
The design of bicycles – when you step outside the dizzyingly proprietary world of carbon fibre racing bikes – has never been more empirically practical. It’s time for the imaginaries around cycling to catch up to this reality.
As part of that catching up, we should take another look at the world of cargo bikes, of all shapes and sizes. The future of cycling doesn’t really need to be imagined too hard – it’s standing (or rather, riding) right in front of us, for anyone who cares to look up and see it. The trouble is, we are often not showing people that.
We need to carry out more research into cargo bikes and their many uses. The more we know, the better. That’s the goal of my work at the International Cargo Bike Festival. But research alone won’t shift the imaginaries around cargo bikes – we also need to communicate findings so that the knowledge gained will filter to those who need it, in language they can understand and take action in response to.
Our advocacy and research has to put cargo cycles front and centre, to show people what’s possible, and change imaginaries about it. Can we cargo? Yes we can!
Lindsay Broadwell spoke at the ICBF 2023 on this subject. Watch their presentation below – and subscribe to the @cargobikefest YouTube channel for more fascinating presentations from ICBF 2023 and beyond.
Lindsay Broadwell’s role at the ICBF is to seek out and apply for opportunities to research cargo bikes, to carry out that research and to communicate findings to both academic and lay audiences.
Do you have an idea, tip or connection that will help us to carry out or collaborate on important cargo bike research? Lindsay would love to hear from you – just get in touch!
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