Capturing cyclist experiences in Australia and the Netherlands: Part 3
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 my previous two posts, I talked about my research on cyclist experiences in Perth and Melbourne (Australia) and Utrecht (Netherlands), the process of creating spatial transcripts, and what I learned from an academic perspective. In this final installment, I discuss the relevance of my findings to practitioners, and my current advocacy work.
Research findings for practitioners
The results of my interviews were thematically analysed, and these themes considered in the context of the academic literature that explores embodied experiences of mobility and cycling identities and culture, and the policy context of the three case study cities.
My research found that the experiences of cyclists in places where the car is the main mode of transport (such as Melbourne and Perth) are strongly influenced by a preoccupation with cycling identities, which in turn compounds the stresses associated with negotiating urban environments and social norms that don't support cycling for transport. How these stresses are perceived by cyclists depends on their personal capacity to overcome environmental and social barriers to cycling.
The main takeaways that have relevance for transport cycling practitioners and advocates are:
How people identify (or not) as cyclists is connected with their social and environmental context, and impacts on their experience of cycling including whether or not they feel comfortable and safe (so different things will work for different people).
When the environmental and cultural context is not supportive of cycling for transport, the burden of making up for it is placed on individuals who have differing capacities for doing so.
To enable more people to cycle for transport, we need to work on culture as much as infrastructure, because transport policy reflects perceptions of cyclists in society and influences the way that infrastructure is built (and whether or not it accommodates cyclists).
If people are given the opportunity to input their lived experience into the design of the built environment and transport systems, then we will get outcomes that reflect the needs of local communities (which should be the goal). In order to achieve a substantial shift in urban mode share away from the car, and fully integrate cycling into a network of sustainable transport modes, the process of policy development and infrastructure design must incorporate cyclists’ views and experiences.
Bringing the community into design processes
Assuming we all want to have cities and towns that are pleasant and safe to live in, have low ecological impact and support diversity, prior to any changes to the built environment, the community should be asked about their experience of cycling, and what they think would improve their experience.
In my research, the positive experiences of Utrecht participants’ cycling journeys reflected the depth with which the local municipality had engaged with its population on transport issues. The opposite appears to be the case in the car dominated Australian cities, where participants in my research were often battling against difficult environments or social norms unsupportive of people choosing to use bikes for transport.
Through my career I have often heard that community engagement is difficult and tiresome, with only the same “squeaky wheels” showing up again and again. My study showed the willingness - indeed, excitement - of community members to share stories of their cycling experiences, and the depth of information you can get when you allow people real opportunities to speak.
It is well within the capabilities of decision-makers to reach out to community members who currently ride bikes, as well as those who don’t but would like to, conduct personal interviews, and hear these stories firsthand. And of course, to deliver high quality outcomes, consultation processes must include actively seeking out a diverse range of voices including varieties of ethnicity, class, ability, age, and gender.
Mobile technologies, such as applications that enable easy recording of people’s bike rides, as used in the above study, can further illuminate the spectrum of cyclist experiences and enable decision-makers to deeply understand current use of infrastructure as well as imagine better ways of providing sustainable transport networks.
The outputs of experiential collection processes are an excellent tool for use in broader dialogue between policy makers, planners, engineers and community members, to act as a focal point for discussion by allowing participants to see and comment on the route choices and experiences of others. As with the inputs, an inclusive approach to outputs, one that reflects the diversity of the community, will likely lead to better engagement and overall outcomes – maps, videos, audio recording, animation, pencil drawings on pieces of paper, or group bike rides, could all play a part.
Putting it into practice
I am fortunate to now be working in a role where I can apply my research findings, and work on creating tools and processes that support people to advocate for cycling infrastructure that suits the needs of local communities.
My organisation, WestCycle, is keen to get better outcomes for people who currently ride bikes, and that support the growth of bike riding as a mode of transport.
There are many road and rail projects happening across WA at the moment. Community consultation is required by the state government for these projects, but the bicycle user experience is not generally considered in any depth, particularly in relation to people using bikes to get from A to B in their daily lives.
We need more attention paid to how new infrastructure projects can enhance everyone’s access to workplaces, shops, social activities, schools and services, without the need for a car.
We are working with various government stakeholders to ensure that the community can be consulted about changes to their environments very early on, and ideally to have their lived experience included in the design process.
My organisation is small – there are only ten of us – and we can’t know about every opportunity to improve active transport in every street. We are looking for ways to support motivated individuals and groups that share our objectives to be our eyes on the ground. Facilitating a community of local experts we can call on for input into infrastructure designs, detours and policy changes, will help us to broaden and deepen the scope of our work to improve conditions for people to use bikes for transport.
We also know that Perth, where we are based, is one of the most car dependent cities in the world, with very few people using a bike for transport on a daily basis: only about 1-2% of people travelling to work use a bike in their journey, and two thirds of all trips less than 5km are made by car.
It’s an uphill battle breaking through the narrative that cars equal convenience and are the most important mode of transport.
Our approach to shift this narrative is to build alliances with organisations that are about
Making awesome places – like the fantastic Town Team Movement
Making streets that meet people’s basic needs – like Healthy Streets
Supporting cleaner air and sustainable transport – like the RAC (yes, it's a car club, who knew?!)
Building a net zero economy – like Clean State;
Getting kids moving more in their daily lives – like Telethon Kids Institute; and
Supporting changes in how we think about who rides bikes – like Lucky Projects, who are collaborating with WestCycle to produce the Bike-Curious Program, which will run creative workshops with girls and young women on the barriers and enablers for that cohort to give bike riding a try.
There are many more organisations WestCycle collaborates with; this is just a snippet of the ones I have the privilege of working with.
These partnerships show decision-makers, funding bodies and the general public that WestCycle is not only about supporting bike riding for fun or sport or long-distance commutes, but as means to creating community, liveable cities and towns, and a net zero future.
It also shows that we value bringing everyone along on the journey.