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Three year cycling and walking study finds image is an obstacle

Story supplied by LU Press Office

Our desire to fit in could be hampering Britain's chances of shifting to more sustainable forms of travel.

A three year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - funded study has found that as well as the usual concerns of squeezing walking or cycling into complex household routines, negotiating traffic and the British weather, a significant proportion of people are put off from ditching the car because it is not seen as 'normal'.

Research by the Universities of Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brookes also concluded that if we want to tempt more people out of their cars we need to listen to the majority who don't already choose greener modes of transport rather than the minority who do.

The study based on 1,417 questionnaires, 80 semi-structured interviews and 20 household ethnographies collected in Leeds, Leicester, Worcester and Lancaster from a cross section of society found that whilst attitudes to walking and cycling are mostly positive or neutral, many people who would like to engage in more active travel fail to do so due to a combination of factors.

The three most common obstacles to walking and cycling over a short journey were:

  • Safety when walking or cycling
  • The difficulty of fitting walking and cycling into complex household routines (especially with young children)
  • The perception that walking and cycling are in some ways abnormal things to do

A number of people interviewed as part of the study said they felt walking or cycling as a form of transport was seen as 'unusual' or even 'weird' and cited image problems such as arriving hot and sweaty for meetings , squashed cycle helmet hair and even 'feeling like a second class citizen' as reasons they preferred to drive.

Britain lags behind its European counterparts when it comes to hopping on the bike for short routine journeys. For instance in Sweden and Finland 9% of all trips are by bicycle, in Germany 10%, in Denmark 18% and in the Netherlands 26%. In UK cycling only accounts for 1.5% of all journeys. Efforts to encourage more of us to get on our bikes have had limited success.

Despite investment of £150m in promoting cycling in British towns and cities since 2005 the overall levels of utility cycling have scarcely changed and remain well below levels in comparable continental European countries.

Most of the investment in cycling has been focused on physical infrastructure and training schemes, but until now there has been little understanding of how people make decisions about everyday travel or why they respond poorly to initiatives that have been undertaken.

Lancaster University's Professor Colin Pooley, who led the study, said:

"Our study set out to discover not only the reasons why people were persuaded to walk or cycle but perhaps more importantly the reasons why people do not do these things. Many people interviewed as part of our study expressed a desire to walk or cycle but were not doing so, clearly something was stopping them from making that choice.

"Most people prefer not to stand out as different, but tend to adopt norms of behaviour that fit in and reflect the majority experience. In Britain, travelling by car is the default position for most people - over 60% of all trips are by car- and car ownership and use is seen as normal.

"The significance of such issues in influencing people's everyday travel decisions should not be underestimated.

"Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling only on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk - as we have done - to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclist and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes

"There is clearly a need to move towards a virtuous circle where the physical environment is made as welcoming as possible, and walking and cycling are made as easy as possible so that more people engage in sustainable travel, thus making walking and cycling seem normal.

"It should not be assumed that it is sufficient to change attitudes and make people more environmentally aware. It is necessary also to make the changes that enable people to translate these values into actions."

- The Understanding Walking and Cycling (UWAC) project, funded by the EPSRC, has examined the factors influencing everyday travel decisions and proposes a series of policy measures to increase levels of walking and cycling for short trips in urban areas. The project is a collaboration between the Universities of Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brookes and was funded from October 2008 to September 2011 as part of an EPSRC initiative to research walking and cycling as means of sustainable urban transport

Thu 08 September 2011