“Momentum’s my middle name”

Capturing cyclist experiences in Australia and the Netherlands: Part 1


My name is Georgia Scott, and I am the Active Transport Manager at a not-for-profit peak body representing people who ride bikes in Western Australia, called WestCycle. My job is essentially to advocate for everyone to have the option of using a bike for transport.


In 2018 I completed a PhD in sustainable urban mobilities at Curtin University. My thesis was called “What it’s like to ride a bike: understanding cyclist experiences”. In this three part series I will tell you how I did it, what I learned, and how I am applying it in my work today.


What’s it like to ride a bike?

Sustainability research recognises that cycling, as a low carbon, affordable, healthy and efficient transport mode, contributes to making cities more liveable and sustainable. The field, however, has not always engaged with the mobile experience, which misses an opportunity to understand how the liveability of cities is intimately tied to how freely people can move around them.


My research looked at how to capture and represent the experiences people had riding bikes for transport in three case study cities of differing urban forms and cycling cultures in the Netherlands and Australia. It then showed how understandings of cyclists’ experiences can be made useful for informing transport infrastructure and policy decisions.


While this was an academic study, the methodology I developed can be modified for use as a tool for community engagement, to inform the development of transport infrastructure projects and other interventions that may impact the experience of cycling in a place.

Case study cities

People riding bikes along Voorstraat, Utrecht, like it's the most normal thing in the world.

Image source: Georgia Scott


Utrecht: cycling paradise; well connected, wide and well maintained cycle paths everywhere. It is very common for people to think of using the bike before any other transport mode. The cycling rate is somewhere around 40% of all trips. The city itself is quite compact, has good public transport access, and at the time of doing the research had around 330,000 people. It’s flat, reasonably mild in terms of climate, and can be very windy and rainy!


A man on a bike waits for the lights to change at an intersection in Fitzroy, in Melbourne's inner north.

Image source: Georgia Scott


Melbourne: a large Australian city of around 4 million people, with suburban sprawl typical of the country. Public transport and cycling infrastructure is ok if you live in the inner city, and can be non-existent further out. Cycling rates for the whole of Melbourne are around 1-2%, but can be much higher during peak commute times (maybe 14%) in the more affluent, educated inner-north. My research focused on those in the inner city. Melbourne is in a cool temperate climate zone, rains through the year but can get super hot at times in summer. It’s pretty flat, particularly in the inner suburbs.



A woman on a bike waits in the middle of a road for a large truck to pass so she can cross, in North Fremantle, an old suburb near the port, in Perth.

Image source: Georgia Scott


Perth: about half the size of Melbourne’s population (close to 2 million), Perth is a similarly sprawling, very low density city. The cycling rate is very low for the whole area, around 1%, but increases in the inner suburbs to around 3%. The local infrastructure for cycling is generally poor to ok-ish, but Perth is lucky to have a Principal Shared Path network that provides separated infrastructure along some key road transport routes. My sense is for some areas (like Fremantle) this might be higher during the commuting peak, but not by much). Perth has a Mediterranean climate, with most rain coming in the winter months. We’ve just had a heatwave of over 40 degree Celsius for 6 days in a row! Perth is generally pretty flat. Again, my focus was the inner suburbs.


Research participants

For all the cities I found people through social media, friends of friends, and various other ways. In one sense, it didn't matter who participated as long as they rode a bike for transport: the research was about testing a new methodology. I would advise, however, that any future research or application of these methods in a practical setting, be deliberate in ensuring a diverse mix of people (genders, class, cultural background, age etc) to ensure an outcome reflective of the local community of focus.


Most of my 37 research participants were aged between 25 and 60, I had a mix of male and female participants (no-one identified as non-binary), and the balance was tipped towards tertiary educated professionals though there was a bit of a mix in backgrounds.


Methodology

To gather data from cyclists about their experiences using their bike for transport I used two kinds of interview:

  1. Semi-structured, which is basically a conversation with prompting questions about how people came to use a bike for transport and where it fitted in their life and identity; and

  2. Go-along, which is where you literally go along with the person you are interviewing, while they do the thing you are investigating. Often in cycling research this means riding alongside people, but I felt it would have been a bit too hazardous to do this in Perth and Melbourne due to the challenges of the on-road cycling environment, and I wanted to minimise my influence on what they said. So instead of me being there, I set them up with a smart phone and a microphone, so they could record a GPS track and narrate their journey as they went, describing their experience in whatever way felt most relevant for them.

Spatial transcripts

The data resulting from the go-along interviews - a time-stamped transcript of the narration and the GPS points - were combined in a custom web application to generate “spatial transcripts”, which basically showed the route and what people said where.


Not having a huge amount of resources for doing cool programming stuff, we only tried a few versions for displaying the data, such as this section of a participant's ride through the inner city suburb of Leederville in Perth.


An early version of a spatial transcript, visualising someone's ride in Leederville, Perth.

Image source: Georgia Scott


I should also note, this work was happening in about 2017, and I would think there are easier and better ways of creating web applications for the purpose of visualising bicycle user experience. If anyone is keen to have a play and make it better, the code is here.


In the end it was easier to see the text and locate it more precisely when we used numbers and displayed the text along the side. These are some random screen shots from my thesis:

Sample screen shot from my thesis of a spatial transcript illustrating the theme of "vigilance", from a stressed-out participant in Melbourne.

Image source: Georgia Scott

Sample screen shot from my thesis of a spatial transcript illustrating the theme of "time", and the multiple ways people were able to use their time riding in Utrecht.

Image source: Georgia Scott

Another sample screen shot from my thesis of a spatial transcript illustrating the theme of "vigilance", this time in Perth. I like this one's poetic quality.

Image source: Georgia Scott


If I'm honest, I don't think I made the most of the spatial transcripts in my analysis, and leaned heavily on the text of both sets of interviews to show both the role cycling plays in the broader context of the participant’s life and their in-the-moment experience of cycling.


I do think that spatial transcripts could play a really helpful role in illuminating the experiences of people using bikes for transport as part of community engagement or advocacy processes, which I'll come to later in this series.


In the next post - Part 2 - I’ll talk about my analysis and the key themes and findings it uncovered, and then in Part 3 how I’m trying to implement these findings and build on them in my work at WestCycle, advocating for better cycling infrastructure, policies and experiences.


#Cycling #goalong #research #Perth #Melbourne #Utrecht #SpatialTranscript

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