The road to age-friendly mobility: how cycling changes the way we age

Wilbert den Hoed

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


In recent years, the Western world has seen continuous urbanisation and population ageing. This challenges the sustainability and suitability of urban mobility for people of all ages. This abstract presents a recent PhD project that combines the Age-Friendly Cities concept, geographies of ageing, and mobility studies to study complex interrelations between ageing and mobility. Both are relational to the urban setting, as well as social environments, health, and well-being. This holistic approach is rarely evident in separated, utilitarian studies on urban transport, health, and ageing. This thesis advances the Age-Friendly City concept by highlighting urban cycling as means to accommodate the mobility and well-being opportunities of older people. Adhering to a critical mobilities approach, the study engages with long-term experiences that precede mobility in older age and shape the meaning of cycling in daily life. To elucidate the deeply contextual practice of cycling, it develops a methodology of complementary cases studies in ‘ordinary’ urban areas of high- and low-cycling contexts – Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Newcastle upon Tyne (United Kingdom). This ‘relational mobilities design’ triangulates multiple qualitative methods to examine the past, present, and future mobilities of cyclists and non-cyclists.

The findings provide compelling evidence that everyday urban cycling is normalised and learned over time; affected by life events, incremental and disruptive mobility negotiations, and bodily change. Personal and environmental effects shape cycling as normalised or marginalised transport, resulting in different meanings and types of cycling. This thesis furthers the potential of cycling as form of everyday transport for adiversity of ages and abilities. With cycling as analytical lens, it identifies mobility practices as biographically embedded and shaped by material transport environments. Physical, mental and social well-being in later life benefit greatly, and are actively sustained, through (cycling) mobility. By advancing an all-age understanding of urban cycling, it concludes how normalisation of cycling in daily mobilities and urban landscapes is imperative. This insight provides important resources for sustainable mobility futures, quality of (later) life, and positive ageing. Lastly, it shows how the built environment is experienced and made meaningful by an often overlooked but growing part of the demographic.

The findings of this thesis identify three theoretical and methodological avenues that require further attention in cycling studies and related academic fields. Firstly, geographies of active ageing are increasingly relevant to cycling research. The process of ageing is inherently geographic: where you live has an important bearing on the experience of getting older and the access to health and social life. Generally, studies about active ageing tend to emphasise the importance of mobility and well-being to give opportunities for active life. However, innovation in urban facilities and infrastructures often focus on the more central areas of cities. Less is known about the active ageing opportunities in more ordinary, suburban spaces, in many of which the proportion of older people is relatively high. Further research is thus needed to (active) ageing at the urban peripheries, particularly where social and ethnic minorities are involved. Walkability and bikeability may be less on the agenda in these neighbourhoods, and the perceived need for car ownership is often higher. These dynamics may create barriers to active and ‘positive’ activities, and challenge existing scales of urban development, transportation innovations, and ageing policies.

Secondly, different methodologies to relate cycling to ageing and the lifecourse should be developed. The present project took an innovative approach to triangulate qualitative and spatial data. A combination of geo-tracking, lifecourse interviews, and reflexive interactions documented the mobility biographies of older people as they evolved over time. What stood out was the power of retrospective diaries in creating elicitation material for follow-up interviews. This participatory approach, close to older people’s lifeworlds, is a fitting approach to study themes such as lifecourse effects, social relationships, intergenerationality, and the role of the urban environment. This methodology could be further developed by creating a systematic, longitudinal overview of life events, household patterns, and more incremental developments. Additional reflexive interviews or focus groups could subsequently give the necessary context on individual and local case study differences. Digital platforms could provide ways to find a wider audience for these ways of data collection. Larger, comparative datasets could thus be formed to understand wider lifecourse effects, cultural and spatial variety, as well as to give voice to underrepresented groups in social research.

Thirdly, and finally, a further insight in the lived experience of later life cycling mobility would further our understanding of how to improve future urban mobility. From this thesis, it turns out that mobility is not a process that is easy to model over time: positive well-being experiences derived from cycling occur next to wider disruptions. This makes the continuation of (cycling) mobility into later life a fragile enterprise. Positive experiences of succesful, active, or healthy ageing are easily taken for granted, whereas disruptions such as falls, accidents, or bodily decline are often more prominent in the study of demographic ageing. Since larger datasets (e.g. on transportation) tend to have a lower representation of the older demographic, cycling studies to later life mobility would thus benefit from a closer insight into the lived experience of urban cycling and urban environment itself. For example, this insight could establish the meaning, materiality, and competence that form part of the social and mobile practices (and resulting health and well-being opportunities) that compose mobility in later life.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Nov 2018
Event1st Annual Meeting of the Cycling Research Board - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 14 Nov 201816 Nov 2018


Conference1st Annual Meeting of the Cycling Research Board


  • ageing
  • urban mobility
  • age-friendly cities


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