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Cycling in the post-socialist city: On travelling by bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria

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There are many ways of moving through a city. Cycling is one which has received considerable attention from urban scholars. Yet it has remained largely neglected within the burgeoning literature on the post-socialist urbanisms of Central and Eastern Europe. This paper uses a case study from Sofia, Bulgaria to address this gap in urban research. By exploring the practices and affordances of cycling, we offer a discussion of everyday mobility, public life and urban space in post-socialist Sofia. This case study incorporates ethnography and in-depth interviews with regular cyclists. Through a discussion of bicycling spaces and practices, this paper complicates the notion of post-socialist cities as places defined by the decline of public sensibilities.
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Urban Studies
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DOI: 10.1177/0042098015586536
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Cycling in the post-socialist city: On
travelling by bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria
Andrew Barnfield
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK
Anna Plyushteva
University College London, UK
Abstract
There are many ways of moving through a city. Cycling is one which has received considerable
attention from urban scholars. Yet it has remained largely neglected within the burgeoning litera-
ture on the post-socialist urbanisms of Central and Eastern Europe. This paper uses a case study
from Sofia, Bulgaria to address this gap in urban research. By exploring the practices and affor-
dances of cycling, we offer a discussion of everyday mobility, public life and urban space in post-
socialist Sofia. This case study incorporates ethnography and in-depth interviews with regular
cyclists. Through a discussion of bicycling spaces and practices, this paper complicates the notion
of post-socialist cities as places defined by the decline of public sensibilities.
Keywords
cycling, Eastern Europe, geography, post-socialist urbanism, privatism, Sofia, transport
Received February 2014; accepted April 2015
Introduction
The post-socialist cities of Central and
Eastern Europe (CEE) have been recognised
as sites of rapid and far-reaching socio-spa-
tial transformations since the end of state
socialism in the late 1980s and early 1990s
(Hirt, 2012; Wiest, 2012; Wilson, 2013).
Even though post-socialist urbanism has
largely eluded attempts at a strict definition,
the skyline of prefabricated panel residential
high-rises, the distinctive land use patterns,
the ostentatious socialist-era public buildings
and the erosion of public ownership of assets
are some of its recognisable features. At the
same time, there is no broad consensus on
the analytical utility of the concept, now less
than ever, as in the two and a half decades
since the collapse of state socialism the prac-
tices of everyday life have underlined the
complexities and differences, as much as the
shared histories of Central and Eastern
European post-socialist cities.
In this context, the aim of the present
article is twofold. First, we aim to show how
Corresponding author:
Anna Plyushteva, University College London, Geography,
Pearson Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK.
Email: a.plyushteva.11@ucl.ac.uk
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attending to the particular set of practices
and affordances of cycling in Sofia offers
insights into the experiences of post-socialist
urbanism. Second, and relatedly, we argue
that a close empirical study of cycling chal-
lenges the dominant views of the decline of
the public in post-socialist cities. Using a
case study of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria,
we seek to revisit and build upon the find-
ings of Hirt (2012), who has provided an in-
depth analysis of the contraction of the pub-
lic realm in post-socialist Sofia. We argue
that rather than a straightforward with-
drawal from the public domain, the growing
popularity of cycling reveals a dynamic geo-
graphy of inhabiting, sharing, contesting
and enjoying the city’s public spaces.
While cycling is a global and familiar
practice, it includes human and non-human
elements which are also highly contingent
and locally specific. Aspects of cycling in
Sofia are particular to the city. In recent
years, the Bulgarian capital has witnessed
changes in every aspect of cycling, including
the share of bicycle trips, the development of
cycling infrastructure, the social and cultural
significance of the bicycle as a mode of
urban transport, among others. By drawing
attention to the situated, embodied, mun-
dane and ambiguous elements of cycling in
Sofia, we seek to show that it is not only a
manifestation of post-socialist urbanism, but
a force which is itself shaping contemporary
Sofia.
This article is based on data collected dur-
ing several research visits between September
2012 and January 2014. The data discussed
here were collected through in-depth inter-
views and observations. A total of 25 inter-
views were conducted with 15 residents of
Sofia, 13 of whom had regularly travelled by
bicycle in the last year. Respondents were
recruited as part of an on-going research
project on commuting in Sofia. They were
all Bulgarian nationals, aged between 25 and
40 years old. Eight of them were female and
seven were male. They have lived in Sofia for
varying amounts of time and their residential
locations cover Sofia’s main residential
neighbourhoods. They have income levels
covering all income quintiles, and diverse
occupations, including an academic worker,
an advertising executive, a gardener, and a
student.
The interviews focused on respondents’
use of the bicycle as a means of transport.
Cycling as a leisure activity or a means for
keeping fit is outside the scope of this paper.
Follow-up interviews were conducted with
10 of the respondents, 6 to 12 months after
the original interview, in order to discuss any
changes in their own cycling practices and
the infrastructures and cultures of Sofia’s
urban mobility.
The observations were carried out on a
series of weekdays between 7 a.m. and 9
a.m. during October, November, and
December 2013.
1
These were conducted at
the second-busiest junction in central Sofia
in terms of cycling traffic (Petrova et al.,
2012: 21). The intersection was selected
because it brings together busy car, bicycle
and pedestrian traffic with all but one of
Sofia’s public transport modes represented
(metro, bus and tram, but no trolleybus). It
was thus an opportunity to observe how
users of these different modes share urban
space. On the busiest morning we observed
142 cyclists traversing the junction and on
the least-busiest, 99 cyclists were observed.
Data were recorded using time–space dia-
grams, detailed descriptions, and photo-
graphs were produced on each of the
research visits.
The article is organised as follows. The
next section offers a brief introduction to
contemporary Sofia and an overview of its
urban mobility arrangements. We then turn
to positioning our research in relation to
existing scholarship on post-socialist urban-
ism. The following section discusses our
findings on the individual skills and public
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affordances of cycling in Sofia. Finally, we
look at the policy implications of our find-
ings for Sofia and other cities in the CEE
region.
Urban mobility in Sofia
Sofia was named Bulgaria’s capital in 1879,
and during the 20th century gradually
became the centre of most of the country’s
economic, political and cultural life.
Demographically too, contemporary Sofia is
the most significant settlement in Bulgaria,
with 1.3 million inhabitants, or 17.5% of the
total population in 2011 (National Statistical
Institute, 2012).
Public transport in Bulgaria experienced
a boom in development in the first half of
the 20th century. There has been a steady
decline since as a result of long-term under-
investment in infrastructure and the rise of
automobility. Although after the fall of state
socialism in 1989 the decline of public trans-
port was felt especially acutely, the network
of bus, trolleybus, tram, mini-bus, and since
1998 metro, is relatively comprehensive and
integrated between modes.
A feature of post-socialist urbanism has
been the dramatic increase in personal car
ownership. There were over 700,000 private
cars in Sofia in 2010, their numbers having
doubled since 1995 (Grozdanov, 2011: 266).
Car dependence has become a major chal-
lenge for the city, with 57.1 cars per 1000
inhabitants in 2009, compared to 28.5 in
Berlin, 34.0 in Budapest, and 50.8 in Prague
(Eurostat, 2014). The heavy traffic and the
poorly managed parking of cars has proved
detrimental in terms of environmental
degradation, public health, and equality of
access to urban spaces and resources. Air
pollution in Sofia exceeds European Union
limits (particulate matter concentrations
exceed 50 mg/m
3
) on approximately 176 days
of the year (Eurostat, 2013a). In addition,
recent survey findings have classified 39.3%
of the Bulgarian population as overweight,
and a further 11.5% as obese (Eurostat,
2009), and reliance on car transport is often
seen as a key factor in low physical activity
rates.
Although no published studies on the
topic are available, anecdotal evidence sug-
gests that cycling rates in socialist Sofia were
low, mainly as a result of the limited avail-
ability of cycling infrastructure, the extensive
public transport network and the low status
of cycling in relation to the aspirational
image of the private car. It was only after
2000 that the position of cycling began
changing from marginality to relative visibi-
lity. This was felt in the city streets, but also
in the rhetoric of local politicians, in media
coverage, and in everyday conversations.
The share of cycling in 2010 was 1.1% of all
journeys (Petrova et al., 2012: 16).
The challenges presented by everyday
cycling in cities have often been discussed in
terms of the insufficient or inadequate provi-
sion of cycling lanes (Sofia Municipality,
2012). This point certainly resonates with
Sofia’s residents, as the city provided only
27km of cycling lanes in 2011 (Petrova et al.,
2012: 14). Even these existing lanes are often
barely useable, with some two-way lanes
under 2m in width, while others traverse
pavement curbs and descend via stairs into
pedestrian underpasses (see Figure 1). The
combination of heavy motorised traffic, the
competition between pedestrians and parked
vehicles for the footpaths, the poor condi-
tion of many of the street surfaces and the
absence of bicycle lanes paints a bleak pic-
ture of the state of cycling in the city. And
yet, the prominence of cyclists’ pressure
groups in local politics, the presence of
cyclists in virtually all neighbourhoods and
the proliferation of businesses offering goods
and services for cyclists indicate there is a
growing enthusiasm for cycling.
Barnfield and Plyushteva 3
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Post-socialist urbanism
Cities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)
have borne witness to a whole host of physi-
cal, social, economic, and cultural changes
over the last 25 years. There are a number of
important contributions in urban studies
that aim to explain and provide a frame-
work for grappling with this ‘transition’ (e.g.
Hirt, 2012; Stanilov, 2007; Sy´ kora and
Bouzarovski, 2012; Tsenkova, 2006). The
changes which manifest themselves through
planning, redevelopment policies, and pro-
cesses of reconfiguring the urban landscape
have received considerable attention
(Kovacs, 2014; Kovacs and Hegedu´
´
s, 2014;
Light and Young, 2010).
One of the biggest processes of urban
change in CEE post-socialism is residential
suburbanisation. This is particularly evident
in the major metropolitan areas and capital
cities of the region (Bore
´
n and Gentile, 2007;
Sy´ kora and Cerma
´
k, 1998; Tammaru and
Kontuly, 2011). Suburbanisation has partly
been driven by significant rural to urban
migration, itself an outcome of deregulation
and the shift from primarily industrial and
agricultural employment to service-sector
employment (Andrusz, 1996; Ka
¨
hrik et al.,
2012). Tsenkova (2006) explains that with
67% of the CEE population (roughly 300
million) living in cities, the share of urban
population in post-socialist countries is simi-
lar to Western Europe and North America.
Changes in types, places, and numbers of
dwellings are characteristic of urban devel-
opments that are occurring across post-
socialist cities (Bodnar and Molnar, 2010).
These changes have led to an increase in
gated-houses and communities, associated
with a narrative of growing urban alienation
and a decline in public life (Hirt, 2012;
Smigiel, 2013). There are further changes
that have been identified in post-socialist
urban features, including the varying func-
tional uses of Soviet-era car garages
(Tuvikene, 2010), re-appropriation of high-
rise housing developments (Muliuolyt
_
e,
Figure 1. Cycle paths in central Sofia.
Photos by author.
4 Urban Studies
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2013), and the redevelopment of ‘left-over’
grand building projects (Light and Young,
2013).
Sofia has largely remained a compact city
with a vibrant centre and numerous shared,
green spaces despite attempts during various
regimes to expand the city (Hirt, 2007a).
This has come under threat with the emer-
gence of ‘peri-urban’ development in the
form of ‘rural urbanisation’ (Hirt, 2007b:
775). The reduced density of the population
(1047 people per km
2
, Eurostat 2013) and
greater property market flexibility have
influenced urban mobility patterns in Sofia,
shaping the spaces, practices, and materiality
of travel. In Sofia trends such as rapid
growth in automobility, public transport
decline, and more recently, an increase in
cycling rates mirror the rest of the CEE
region (Krisjane et al., 2012; Silm et al.,
2013).
Post-socialist urbanism does not merely
consist of physical changes in the urban fab-
ric. Indeed, Hirt (2012: 3) argues that:
changes in the urban environment are not only
dependent on post-socialist changes in politics
and economics. Rather, to the extent which
space is a medium of culture, the changing
urbanity of Sofia is the story of the post-
socialist cultural condition.
This socio-cultural condition Hirt labels
‘privatism’: the secession from public space
and public affordances. The decline in pub-
lic sensibilities is evident, argues Hirt, i n all
sorts of post-socialist practices including
corruption and tax evasion. As a result, a
socio-cultural sensibility such as privatism
could be argued to be behind the dramatic
rise in individual transportation in the form
of the private car, and decreasing pu blic
transport use in Sofia. Whether, and in
what way, this argument can b e extended
to cycling as a means of transport, remains
an understudied question i n post-socialist
urban studies.
The decline in public sensibilities and
affordances is a condition that has been
argued as characteristic of post-socialist soci-
eties (Kharkhordin, 1995). Bodnar
´
(2001)
describes this as the dramatic reduction in
the importance of the notion of public acts
in all forms. Similarly, Matei (2004) argues,
in relation to post-socialist Romania, that
indifference to public actions affects routine
everyday activities and behaviour. This is a
reflection of a mass frustration and
entrenched behaviours that have carried
over from socialist to post-socialist societies,
one that continuously abates the symbolic
act of public oriented affordances. However,
these accounts of a decline in public life and
growing privatism also have important lim-
itations. Firstly, they rely on an implicit
idealised notion of public life under state
socialism. Secondly, they reduce the relation-
ship between private and public to a simple
quantitative measure. In our discussion of
bicycling in Sofia, we aim to address both of
these shortcomings.
In the post-socialist urban context, cycling
could be read as a plainly individualistic
mode of transport. However, the increase in
cycling does not fit easily into this frame-
work of post-socialist privatism (Hirt, 2012;
Matei, 2004). In fact, we would suggest that
the concept of privatism does not adequately
describe the range of experiences of post-
socialist urban mobility in Sofia. As argued
by Jungnickel and Aldred (2014: 245), urban
cyclists are uniquely immersed in the urban
environment through the senses, the skills,
and the materialities of the moving body and
bicycle. Therefore, the study of the practices
of bicycling opens avenues to more nuanced
theorisations of everyday life interactions in
the post-socialist city.
Bicycling in cities
While cycling may be seen as one identifiable
practice involving a relatively stable set of
Barnfield and Plyushteva 5
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movements and technologies, it can in fact
take a number of distinct forms each requir-
ing different skills, materials, and spaces
(Heinen et al., 2010; Horton and Parkin,
2012; Zhao, 2014). This is especially true of
bicycling in a post-socialist city, where both
the physical and the social infrastructures of
urban mobility are likely to be undergoing
frequent changes.
As mentioned above, the bicyclist has
unparalleled contact with the urban environ-
ment, which produces both richer and more
diverse sensory landscapes (Jungnickel and
Aldred, 2014). While this sensory immersion
is also characteristic of walking, as a result of
the higher speeds and often ambiguous prac-
tices of sharing space with motorised vehi-
cles, the bicycle journey can involve a greater
sense of danger and vulnerability, whether
real or perceived (Gatersleben and Uzzell,
2007). The well-practised bicyclist develops
extra-sensory awareness, such as the feel of
air when a vehicle is passing-by too closely
(Jones, 2012), or the pleasures of taking par-
ticular routes for the sensory or affective
capacities that they generate (Spinney, 2007).
Cycling as an everyday practice is thus
defined by a particular set of interactions
with the urban environment journeys. While
urban bicyclists may spend extensive periods
of time on their bike, they may not see this
as an expression of a particular identity or
set of beliefs (Aldred, 2013: 197). Cycling in
cities involves not only a human and a
bicycle, but also the demands on carrying
and wearing placed by daily tasks. This can
generate pleasant experiences, but also the
need for various trade-offs and displeasures,
including weather, light and darkness, noise,
air pollution, and other moving bodies. It
also generates the necessity to develop a
cycling-specific embodied intelligence of
movement, capable of dealing with traffic
and traffic signals, the built environment,
other people, as well as the cyclist’s own
embodied self (Schwanen et al., 2012).
The parking of the bicycle when not in use
raises questions about the long-term conveni-
ence, effectiveness, financial implications,
and safety of bicycling. Not only does the
bicycle need to be secured against theft, it
must also be accessible and kept in a place so
that it does not cause hindrance. As Aldred
and Jungnickel (2013: 619) have argued,
‘once regularly used, it [a bike] must simulta-
neously be readily accessible and secure,
often in the process becoming out of place.’
The bicycles used in cities vary consider-
ably in price, design, and functionalities.
There is an array of clothing, locks or secur-
ing devices, and accessories. This makes
cycling a relatively affordable, inclusive, and
democratic mode of transport, albeit within
multiple socio-material constraints.
Developing skills to cycle in Sofia
The junction of Grafa and Evlogi
2
is a busy
traffic intersection that accommodates
motorised vehicles, public trams, buses, a
limited cycle path, and pedestrians (see
Figure 2). The cycle path follows the
Figure 2. Map of Grafa and Evlogi junction, central
Sofia, including roads, metro station, cycle paths
and tram route. ‘X’ indicates the position of the
researcher during the observations. The dotted line
indicates the cycle paths
Source: Open Street Map.
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Perlovska River and is interrupted by the
traffic junction, forcing cyclists using the
pathway to join the rest of the traffic at the
junction. We chose the Grafa and Evlogi
junction as the site of our observations
because it provides examples of the everyday
challenges and skills that are developed in
order to participate in cycling in Sofia.
Cycling is a form of movement culture that
is enacted in the city through the body, the
bicycle, and urban space. However, some of
the skills that bicyclists develop on their
journeys are the result of attempting to
engage in a type of movement that most of
the urban landscape of Sofia is not designed
for (see Figure 3). Some of the challenges of
cycling in Sofia are due to the constraints of
urban forms and norms. For example, the
Grafa and Evlogi junction is not well lit in
the early morning, and cyclists are forced to
make a choice between cycling with heavy
traffic, cycling on the footpath, and using
the cycle path which is interrupted at various
sections to allow vehicular traffic to have
priority. The cycle path also has other issues,
such as poor quality of surface, narrow
width, and that it is also used by pedestrians
(Figure 1).
In one of the interviews we conducted,
Maria
3
drew attention to the issues facing
cyclists. These include traffic, difficulties of
route-making, and fitting the journey into a
daily routine. As our observations of the
rush hour at the Grafa and Evlogi junction
highlighted, cycle paths are not universally
used. The concern raised by Maria, below,
Figure 3. Tactics of crossing the Grafa and Evlogi junction, central Sofia.
Photos by author.
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in relation to the cycle path identifies a par-
ticular problem. The cycle path she discusses
is in fact a newly demarcated and resurfaced
section of the existing footpath. This part of
the cycle path travels past the central train
station, coach station, and a number of
hotels. However, pedestrians use the cycle
path to walk on, especially if pulling luggage
due to the smoothness of the surface com-
pared to the footpath. The roundabout that
is mentioned is a new junction that was built
with the needs of car traffic in mind; it is
very busy and steep to climb by bicycle.
I could have borrowed a bike to try out the trip
to work it is long and often scary, overall. The
roundabout in Nadezhda is a challenge. There
are cycling lanes and parks along the route; the
cyclepathonMariaLouisaBoulevardisthe
hardest part. I sometimes avoid it, going instead
via Parliament. After that I cycle along [the
recently pedestrianised] Vitosha Street, where it’s
relaxed. (Maria, F, 32)
To participate in the act of cycling differs
between cities in subtle and not so subtle
ways (see Latham and Wood (2015), as an
example on bicycle journeys in London). In
Sofia this includes more than simply the
selection of a cycle path as Maria discussed
in her interview. This is not only due to the
way the cyclist navigates the difficult terrain
and other hazards, but also dealing with sea-
sons and weather, encountering the abun-
dance of new construction, and developing
fitness and agility. Several respondents drew
directly upon the act of finding and manag-
ing the route. For Martin, the bike paths are
a particular issue as the behaviour of cyclists
is not always considerate:
I don’t use bike paths because once on a path,
cyclists become the way car drivers are in
Bulgaria everyone is in their way! I choose
secondary streets and parks to get around. A
bell is to warn a pedestrian you are coming
it’s not a device intended to tell him he should
move out of the way! (Martin, M, 37)
The lack of perceived adequate behaviour
has forced Martin to change his own move-
ments, adapting his route to include streets
that are not busy but do not have any spe-
cific cycling space.
The issue of security was raised by several
of the interview respondents. As Aldred and
Jungnickel (2013) have discussed, a bicycle’s
materiality does not cease once it is no longer
in use. The bicycle needs to be safely locked
in a place. Sofia, as with other post-socialist
cities in the CEE region, saw a steep increase
in crime rates after 1989 (Hirt, 2012). Aldred
and Jungnickel’s (2013) point on parking a
bicycle in a way which also does not cause a
hindrance seems to be of lesser importance in
Sofia, where both the Municipality and pri-
vate property owners are yet to communicate
any restrictions to chaining bicycles. Martin
discussed the difficulties of securing a bicycle
when it is not in use.
Definitely more people are cycling; I see it of
all ages. Even people [who are] wearing suits
who work in offices. I guess they have a place
to leave [their bicycles]. Sometimes they are
worried about arriving all sweaty though.
However, for most people the main worry is
where to leave the bike. A friend’s bike was
stolen from a rack, and even though there was
CCTV there, no one did anything. A bicycle is
expensive in Bulgaria, BGN 500–600 [EUR
250–300], that’s a [monthly] salary. I would
never leave my bike in a place like that.
(Martin, M, 37)
Mihaela also elucidated on the difficulties of
security and the changes in other behaviours
and material aspects of everyday life that it
creates.
I would love to cycle, but there is nowhere safe
for me to keep the bike. I live in a small apart-
ment with my brother, so we would need stor-
age for two bikes. He has even been talking
about designing a special suspension system,
to hang his bike from the ceiling, above his
bed. Crazy. (Mihaela, F, 33)
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During socialist years, many of the pre-
fabricated panel apartment blocks had facili-
ties for bicycle storage. These consisted of
small annexes with the space for eight to ten
bicycles at each stairwell entrance. However,
during the early years of post-socialism
many of these spaces were converted into
unauthorised shops or small stores (Hirt,
2012). Although most of these shops have
since closed down, the bicycle parking facili-
ties have not been restored to their original
purpose. These spaces are an enduring legacy
of socialist era housing and their unrealised
potential is particular to the materiality of
post-socialist urban cycling.
Despite the constraints in cycling, there
are aspects that enrich the experience. For
one respondent, the construction works in
his neighbourhood opened his eyes to the
potential and even enjoyment of cycling; the
pleasures of moving through the urban space
and traffic of Sofia:
During the construction of the metro in
our neighbourhood, there was a reduced num-
ber of traffic lanes because of the construction,
there were such serious traffic jams. I would
cycle past all the blocked traffic using
the space alongside the actual construction
works even though it wasn’t paved; the pre-
vious cyclists had made a route. (Lyubo,
M, 28)
Set against the narrative of the post-socialist
disposition of ‘privatism’ the interviews and
observations of cyclists revealed through the
development of skills a deeper engagement
with public life. The secession from public-
centred affordances does not present the full
spectrum of post-socialist society in Sofia.
The many subtle and not so subtle skills
required to navigate the urban landscape
demonstrates that cycling in Sofia is about
being part of different publics in multiple
ways.
Public nature of cycling in Sofia
Cycling is an individual form of transport,
which is often seen as a means for the urban
dweller to circumvent the costs and inconve-
niences of motorised transport, and in the
case of post-socialist Sofia, from the severe
shortcoming of the public transportation
system (S
´
liwa and Riach, 2012). From this
perspective, the rise in cycling rates can be
interpreted as another example of secession
from public space and rise of privatism and
alienation in the post-socialist city (Hirt,
2012). However, we argue that the growing
popularity of cycling is giving rise to new
ways of cohabiting in post-socialist urban
space.
Looking beyond post-socialist cities,
research on cycling has demonstrated its rich
sensory qualities, which involves being alert
to, and engaged with, urban life
(Gatersleben and Uzzell, 2007: 422). The
cyclist is intimately interconnected with the
city as they pedal through largely unpro-
tected. During the observations at Grafa
and Evlogi junction, the closest interaction
in terms of spatial proximity was between
the cyclists and the pedestrians. Although
research has tended to focus on the interac-
tion between cyclists and drivers in urban
space, we found bicycling in Sofia involves
various forms of interaction also with pedes-
trians. The near-absence of infrastructural
provision for cycling, and the ambiguities of
cycling codes of conduct, has produced in
Sofia a particular kind of sociality. The pub-
lic nature of cycling the post-socialist city is
often about unspoken negotiation and com-
promise between these two groups, whose
physical proximity on the footpath is not
mediated by the shells of motorised vehicles.
There isn’t much verbal interaction between
pedestrians and cyclists. The cyclists do not
ask the pedestrians to move out of the way.
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However, both do accommodate the other in
two ways. First, at the point of cyclists re-
joining the footpath the pedestrians allow the
cyclists more room to be able to swing them-
selves and their bike onto the footpath.
Second, while waiting at the crossing, the
pedestrians position themselves to the centre
of the space so cyclists can lean against rail-
ings and take up positions near the front of
the crossing allowing them to cross first.
(Research diary, 5 December 2013)
By making this argument about cycling and
public sensibilities in post-socialist cities, we
do not suggest that the shortcomings of
infrastructural provision make a positive
contribution to public life. The deficit in
cycling lanes puts in danger both cyclists and
pedestrians, and adds to the daily stresses of
both kinds of urban journeys. However,
while the post-socialist urban fabric is under-
going transformations these kinds of interac-
tions help to sustain an ethics of care
towards other urban dwellers. The focus on
post-socialist cities as being highly informal
and lawless spaces has overlooked the con-
sideration shown towards others in daily
interactions.
And yet, ambiguity around rules and reg-
ulations should not be underplayed as a
defining aspect of cycling in Sofia. It is char-
acteristic both of the physical spaces and the
legal provisions which underpin this mode
of transport. The ambiguous nature of the
legal framework is explicitly discussed by
Lyubo who is a regular cyclist in Sofia and
has even been employed as a cycle courier.
I don’t know if we’re obliged to stop at a red
light I don’t do it, even in front of a police
car. I’ve never been stopped over anything like
that, or about not wearing a high-visibility
jacket. (Lyubo, M, 28)
Lyubo also identified problems associated
with the cycle paths being inserted into origi-
nal footpath space. He articulates the
frustrations at the lack of clarity associated
with cycling space in Sofia. This relates to
the type of clothing required, the rules and
laws to follow, and how to interact with
other road users.
One of the worst things is people jumping out
onto the cycling lane because they are trying to
flag down a minibus, and they don’t even see
anyone is coming. If you are daydreaming, it
can get dangerous. I’ve had some close calls
with buses and drivers. I try to avoid situations
like that, I don’t like the feeling when a bus is
honking at you and everyone knows it is you.
(Lyubo, M, 28)
As to the lack of spatial provision, it is evi-
dent at the Grafa and Evlogi junction where
cyclists are numerous, but no formal
arrangements for crossing are made for
them. They do not have priority over either
pedestrians or vehicular traffic at any point
at the junction. There is no demarcated
space for cyclists on the road. Therefore, the
Grafa and Evlogi junction provides a partic-
ularly visible example of how cycling space
in Sofia often comprises of ‘encroaching
onto other space. The sharing of the junc-
tion between cyclists, pedestrians, and
motorised transport is not based upon an
equal priority. Rather, the act of sharing
involves imposing one type of transport
onto another, rubbing up against each other
in a confined space that was designed for a
single type of use.
Finally, the growing number of people on
bikes has also enriched the interactions
between urban dwellers in other domains of
everyday life. The increase in cycling rates
has given rise to political and civic engage-
ment where post-socialism has frequently
been associated with political apathy and
indifference (IIDEA, 2002). Activism for
better cycling provisions has been a particu-
larly visible presence in Sofia’s urban politics
in recent years. This is second only to
10 Urban Studies
by guest on November 6, 2015usj.sagepub.comDownloaded from
protests against the dramatic increase in
construction in Bulgaria’s protected nature
reserves (Capital Weekly, 2013). The rise of
a dedicated community of regular cyclists
has not only re-engaged some urban dwell-
ers with local politics, but has also begun to
make a difference in the quantity and quality
of cycling infrastructure. This provides a fur-
ther example of the public affordances gen-
erated through cycling in Sofia, a point
emphasised by Grigor in one of his
interviews:
The cyclists’ community is very active and
even when the authorities are very bad in the
construction of cycling lanes etc., they write
letters, organise campaigns, and the municipal
authorities do respond and take action.
(Grigor, M, 27)
Conclusion: Cycling in post-
socialist cities
Our aim with this paper was twofold. First,
we aimed to demonstrate how the particular
set of practices and affordances of cycling in
Sofia offers insights into post-socialist
urbanism. Our second aim was to argue that
a study of cycling challenges the dominant
narrative of decline of publicness in post-
socialist cities. We addressed these aims by
observing cycling practices at a busy junc-
tion in central Sofia, and by interviewing
regular bicyclists in the city. We have found
that cyclists in Sofia are skilled at navigating
the city in various ways. At the same time,
our findings show that travelling by bicycle
in Sofia remains both challenging and
dangerous.
In the introduction we outlined our inten-
tion to contribute to the critical conversation
about post-socialist urbanism. In researching
the public nature of urban mobility, we were
able to explore the practices of how everyday
public life is made in a post-socialist city.
Our findings complicate the documented
secession from urban public life and growing
alienation between urban dwellers, referred
to as privatism (Bodnar
´
, 2001; Hirt, 2012;
Matei, 2004). For instance, several of our
respondents commented on the rise of cycling
activism in Sofia. As one of the respondents
concluded their interview, activism has pro-
duced tangible results which make a differ-
ence to the cycling provisions in the city:
Do you need a ticket to take the bicycle on the
metro? I don’t know how it is nowadays. For
years, you couldn’t take one on the metro at
all. But two and a half years ago, I and a friend
started a petition [to allow bicycles on the
metro on weekends and after 9 p.m. on week-
days], collected 1250 signatures, submitted it
to the Municipality, and it got accepted within
a month. Good example that it’s not true you
can’t change anything in Bulgaria. (Lyubo, M,
28)
Cycling in post-socialist Central and Eastern
European cities cannot simply be reduced to
dealing with inferior infrastructure or lower
cycling rates compared to Western European
cities. Although we found that the provision
of cycling infrastructure in Sofia is far from
adequate, we have similarly sought to recog-
nise the challenges of inserting cycling facili-
ties into the existing urban fabric. Our
findings suggest that increasing the role of
cycling in a city is not simply about develop-
ing one mode of transport at the expense of
another. While much research on cycling
focuses on the competition for urban space
between cyclists and car users, the example
of Sofia illustrates that cycling provision is
equally about integrating different transport
modes (Schwanen et al., 2004). Moving
around cities is inherently about combining
different modes of transport, and bicyclists
are not defined by a singular modal identity
(Lavery et al., 2013: 38). At present, bicycles
are only allowed on the Sofia metro after 9
p.m. and are not allowed at all on buses,
trolleys buses, or trams. The ability to travel
Barnfield and Plyushteva 11
by guest on November 6, 2015usj.sagepub.comDownloaded from
with a bicycle on public transport at more
times, and greater public awareness of these
regulations, would make a real difference to
cycling provision in Sofia, as suggested by
one of our respondents:
The bicycle lets me relax. Otherwise I am just
sitting down all the time. That is also why I
don’t like the metro very much. Sometimes
people on the metro react when [I get on it
with] the bike; I have to explain that I am
allowed by law to be there after 9 p.m.
(Martin, M, 37)
Similarly, studying the situated, embodied
and often ambiguous act of urban cycling in
Sofia showed that the stationary bike has
not received adequate attention from the
city’s transport authorities (Aldred and
Jungnickel, 2013). Furthermore, our
research argues that the focus on the
bicycle-in-motion exemplified by the con-
struction of cycling paths should be matched
by efforts to introduce or, in the case of
socialist-era high-rises, restore provisions
for the secure and convenient storage of
bicycles at home, work, and leisure spaces.
When discussing new cycling infrastruc-
ture, we often tend to think in terms of
inserting new infrastructure into a pre-
existing urban fabric. However, when talk-
ing about post-socialist cities, it is important
to emphasise the continuously changing
nature of the urban environment. The
shortages and shortcomings of cycling infra-
structure are a major challenge for everyday
cyclists in Sofia, but by no means the only
one. The discussion above aimed to show
that many different aspects of the built envi-
ronment, the cyclist, the people around
them, and the many objects they interact
with, are part of the practice of cycling. As a
result, the improvement of cycling infra-
structure provision in post-socialist cities
depends to a great extent on developing a
more detailed understanding of the skills
and spaces of cycling.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Tauri Tuvikene for his
thought-provoking comments on an early draft
of this paper. We are grateful to Alan Latham for
many insightful discussions. We would also like
to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor
for their considered comments and suggestions.
Funding
Anna Plyushteva would like to acknowledge
financial support from the Economic and Social
Research Council (grant number ES/J500185/1).
Notes
1. Seasonal variation in weather is a significant
aspect of cycling in Sofia. Dealing with sweat-
ing in the hot summer months, and with sub-
zero temperatures and icy roads are two of
the most significant concerns of local cyclists,
according to our interview findings. However,
the late autumn during which the observa-
tions were conducted was unusually mild, and
thus more representative of the warmer
months of the year than of winter.
2. We use here the colloquial name commonly
used by Sofia residents to refer to the junction
at which our observations were based. This
also serves the purpose of brevity, as the full
names of both streets Graf Ignatiev Street
and Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi Boulevard
are lengthy.
3. All names are pseudonyms.
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