Getting People On Their Bike

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It is clear that the world would be a better place if more people biked more often. The benefits of cycling are numerous, for individuals, communities and companies. It’s a great source of exercise, it’s virtually free, and it reduces traffic congestion and pollution. For organisations, there is increasing evidence that cycling to work can even have an impact on employee wellbeing and productivity.

For all its benefits, those choosing to commute to work by bike are in the minority. In Australia cities, less than 2% of trips to work are undertaken on a bike.

A lot of barriers exist, both physical and perceptual. A major NSW study of the main barriers to commuter cycling found four dominant themes:

  • The negative image of cyclists and cycling amongst non-cyclists.
  • The perceived danger of cycling, and commuter cycling in particular, due to perceived or actual lack of safe places to cycle, and the fear of being hit by a motorist.
  • The lack of facilities to store or lock up bicycles.
  • Little or no understanding or acknowledgement of the benefits of cycling.

It is interesting to note that two, and arguably a third, of these barriers relate to attitudes and perceptions. Any attempt to increase cycling rates needs to start with understanding those barriers and deliberately addressing them. There are also some good tips in this article. In particular, identifying those people for whom cycling is a realistic alternative is good advice. It may be a tall order to convince someone whose morning commute consists of a 30km journey and two school drop-offs that they should do it all on a bike.

There are a few ways in which people can be more effectively encouraged to cycle to work. One of these ways is to appeal to things that people value. For instance, even though the main aim of a particular group may be to reduce the environmental impact of driving to work, this may not be the most compelling reason for commuters to get on their bike. Emphasising the health benefits may have a greater pull. The Manchester Friends of the Earth group chose exactly this tactic in their 2006 Love Your Bike campaign some years ago. Although a primarily environmentally-focused group, they decided that the best tactic was to focus on the personal benefits of cycling, such as convenience, speed and fitness. Knowing what your target audience values most, and tailoring your message to appeal to those values, is likely to be more effective than getting them to prioritise your values.

Another approach to promoting bike commuting is to recognise that the way we get to work is a fairly habitual behaviour. Many people do it unconsciously and as part of a routine, without really reviewing whether it is still the best option for them.

Previous editions of Wake-Up Call have examined the way in which habits work, and how we can influence their change. One of the most valuable insights this research shows is the steps people typically go through when changing a habit. The key learning is that we don’t generally change from one habit straight to another. There is a process of awakening, reflecting, trialling and evaluating that we go through. The October 2012 edition of Wake-Up Call uses the example of cycling to illustrate how a change of habit to bike commuting can be supported.

The negative perception of cyclists identified in the NSW study above was echoed in another Australian study, which found that many people perceive cycling to be a low-status, non-mainstream activity. Many associate it as either uncool, or that cyclists take themselves too seriously. This suggests that cycling is in need of a makeover. We know from research into social norms that people are influenced most by what “people like me” are doing. As long as we see cycling as something only done by greenies and way-too-serious lycra-clad road warriors, the number of commuter trips done by bike will stay in single figures.

The good news is that cycling to work is on the increase, allowing a positive angle for those who would invoke social norms to promote cycling. Sure, a figure under 2% of total trips hardly inspires envy. But that still represents an increase of 36% across all large Australian cities from 2006-2011 – a far more compelling story when providing evidence aimed at encouraging people to get on the two-wheeled bandwagon.

Finally, research repeatedly shows that safety represents the biggest barrier to people cycling more. While this is a real concern, especially where biking infrastructure is lacking, a big part of it is perceptual as well. There is clear evidence, for instance, that safety actually increases as more people cycle, as outlined in this 2008 paper. Training and supporting people about the safest routes to take, ways to minimise accidents, and the realistic rather than perceived risks, are all ways in which this barrier can begin to be addressed. Of course, investing in safer bike infrastructure is probably the thing that will most change this perception.

In summary, there are so many benefits to biking, that we just need to find a way of making it easy, safe and compelling for people to make it a habit. By understanding the barriers and supporting people to overcome them, a large proportion of the population could find a healthier, greener and more relaxed way to get around.

By CERES Education – Outreach Team|2017-11-06T18:04:57+10:00September 30th, 2013|0 Comments
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