Beauty and the Bike – What Happened Next?

At NewCycling we have always been a big fan of Beauty and the Bike, the first UK documentary with a campaigning message about the importance of cycling infrastructure directed at politicians. We screened it for the first time in 2011 in Newcastle, and the message is still super relevant. Here we asked Richard Grassick and Beatrix Wupperman, Beauty and the Bike’s Directors, to tell us what happened since it all started in Darlington in 2008.

Oh and to celebrate the 10th anniversary, there will be a screening of the film at The Forum in Darlington on Monday September 17th, 7pm. Organised by Darlovelo, more info on their website here

 It’s 10 years since we embarked on a journey of discovery with a group of young women in Darlington. The County Durham town had been awarded government funding as both a Cycling Demonstration, and a Sustainable Travel, Town, and was making very public efforts to move local people out of their cars and onto a bicycle. With little in the way of cycling infrastructure, the town’s modal share for cycling was something like 1%.

 The Beauty and the Bike project, financed by Cycling Demo Town and European Youth Exchange funds, and led by the local cycling campaign and a community media workshop, began by asking local young women why so many of them didn’t cycle. The answers we received – at first – constituted a well-known list; it’s not “cool”, it’s a “kids thing”, friends don’t cycle, parents don’t allow it as too dangerous, and indeed dangerous from the young women’s perspective as well.

Next, we went to the cycling city of Bremen, to ask why young women there overwhelmingly cycled. Bremen has around 700kms of dedicated cycling infrastructure. Its first cycleway was built in 1897. Every major road in Bremen has a protected cycleway. Nobody needs to “plan” a cycle journey.

To the young women, cycling was “cool”, “stylish”, “easy”, and gave them a taste of independent mobility without the expense and hassle of a car. Looking at these glaring differences, we did three things. First, in an attempt to attract non-cycling young women, we launched our film project in Darlington with a series of “casting” sessions. The glam factor seemed to work, resulting in a group of some 12 young women. Next we raised funds for a fleet of Dutch bikes (which at that time were more or less unknown in Darlington), and offered them to the group for a token fee of £1 per week. Third, we began to plan for an exchange between the girls in Bremen and those in Darlington.

The bikes were “launched” on a freezing St. Valentine’s Day 2009 in the middle of Darlington, with brave participants appearing in distinctly summer season dress. For the next 6 months we documented their progress on the bikes. In April we took a group to Bremen, in July the Bremen group came to Darlington. By the time we were editing in the autumn, most of the young women had come to understand the word “infrastructure”. They had seen with their own eyes, and experienced personally the joy of cycle mobility with good, safe infrastructure.

The film premiered in December – and immediately the first bikes came back. Then slowly, as the buzz of the film receded, more and more bikes got returned. A few of the young women did choose to buy their bikes, and there was another minor push in 2010 when the cycling campaign received funding to broaden out the dutch bike hire (darlovelo).

 Eight years on, and as far as we know only one of the Darlington women is still cycling regularly. Most of the participants admitted it just wasn’t pleasant enough to continue cycling in Darlington. As they themselves made clear in the film, safe infrastructure is the key. The Bremen participants continue to cycle, though less so as they move to towns and cities without the cycling traditions and infrastructure of Bremen. There is also a general trend in Germany for teenagers to take to driving as they move into their 20s.

 So what did the film achieve? The irony is that, despite world-wide popularity amongst cycle campaigners, neither the Cycling Demo Town nor the state of Bremen have used the film. In a telling explanation, the former asked for a less critical version, that signalled a “happy, positive” image of cycling. The latter was going through a phase of promoting vehicular cycling, that didn’t fit with the film’s message. The cost of this policy is now apparent – cycling’s modal share has actually dropped in Bremen since 2008.

 But the young women themselves re-learned cycling in a way that will always stay with them. They will recognise good cycling infrastructure when they see it. The style of cycling that attracted these non-cycling young women to a cycling project demands such infrastructure. The fact that so many gave up their bikes, shows that “cool” cycling culture isn’t enough. In the end, it’s all about infrastructure.