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Velo-City: Perth » Incentives encourage cycling

Incentives encourage cycling

By     Debra Mayrhofer

The pro-cycling stance of politicians such as Tony Abbott, Kristina Keneally, Clover Moore and Anna Bligh may have an even more profound effect on our health and environment than they realise. According to Dr Sylvia Titze, a public-health researcher who has studied attitudes to cycling in Perth, a bit of encouragement and a positive role model are crucial factors in getting people to adopt healthy habits, such as cycling.

Dr Titze, an associate professor at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Graz in Austria, worked in collaboration with the University of Western Australia’s School of Population Health and has conducted a comparative study in Graz into the factors that influence commuters’ decisions to cycle.

Sylvia Titze

“A significant role model, for example a mayor or other authority figure, who actively supports cycling has been shown to have a strong positive influence on the numbers taking it up,” said Dr Titze. “Social support, from either peers or family, is also important.”
Dr Titze has investigated the role various factors play in changing cycling behaviour. As might be expected, a “friendly” attractive environment, with connected bike paths on a network that has short distances between intersections and low traffic volume are all positive factors. For non-cyclists, she found that the two main barriers to cycling were that it was seen as physically unpleasant, in terms of making you tired or being unsafe; and that it was an inconvenient mode of transport due to weather conditions or the need to carry baggage of some sort.
“Another key issue is reinforcement,” said Dr Titze. “People might respond positively to a message, but they need to be supported and reminded of it, in order to maintain the behaviour.”
Dr Titze cited the example of antismoking campaigns – even after 30 years the campaigns need to be active and updated to keep putting the message across and influencing behaviour. Likewise, Dr Titze has conducted research aimed at encouraging white-collar workers to use stairs rather than lifts at work, and found that the use of signs encouraging the behaviour and pointing out the benefits of using the stairs, increased the number of people taking that option, whereas once the signs were removed people started using the lifts more often.
Dr Titze said she was impressed with the cycling infrastructure in Perth, which is well known for its prodigious cycle path network, although she has been surprised by the attitude of some Perth drivers, who park in the middle of cycle lanes and ignore the cyclists with whom they share the road.
“In Europe, we have zebra crossings, like you do here, but the motorists there will stop if there is a cyclist or pedestrian. Here, it doesn’t seem to make any difference,” she said.
“I was also amazed to see signs in Perth telling pedestrians to give way to cars! I have never seen that before!”

Dr Titze said that it was vital that the message about sharing the road was drilled into all road users, both motorists and cyclists. Countries that were bike-friendly tended to have an ongoing system of information and reinforcement. For example, in the Netherlands, the bike hub of the world, bike awareness is an essential part of the learner-driver training program.

Bike skills are also seen as a vital part of education for all children. For example in Austria, children under 12 years generally can’t cycle on the street with the traffic. However, when they are 10 they can take an exam to get their “street” licence for the next two years. All the Graz primary schools teach cycle skills, in the form of classroom theory, schoolyard skill sessions and on-road traffic training. The city of Graz, with the support of pro-cycling mayor Siegfried Nagl, funds the program and police conduct the exams.

“The licence system isn’t strictly enforced, but it allows the children to know whether they have the skills, and gives the parents a sense of responsibility about ensuring their children are safe riding,” said Dr Titze.

Dr Titze also belongs to a cycling group called ARGUS (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Umweltfreundlicher Stadtverkehr, or the Association for Sustainable City Traffic) which runs safety campaigns emphasising positive reinforcement to change behaviour. For example, ARGUS runs Licht-Aktion or “Light Action”, in which the group, with the financial support of Kristina Edlinger-Ploder, the Minister for Traffic in the state of Styria, and the practical help of police and bike mechanics, set up light safety checks at relevant points and intercept passing cyclists.

Typically, the police stop the cyclist and tell them that their bicycle light equipment will be checked. Then an ARGUS member checks the bike and provides lighting fact sheets and information about ARGUS and its activities.
If the bicycle has the right equipment (and in working condition), the cyclist receives a small chocolate bar.
If there are only reflectors missing (two reflectors on each wheel), ARGUS fixes them free of charge. Cyclists without lights, or with faulty equipment, can buy materials on the spot and receive free mechanical repairs. ARGUS holds eight to 10 of these interceptions each autumn and spring, and check between 500 and 1100 bikes, depending on the weather. Licht-Aktion organiser Heidi Johanna Schmitt said that in the recent autumn campaign, 57 per cent of the bikes needed some sort of repair or modification, and nearly half of these were fixed on the spot. Not surprisingly, regular cyclists tended to have better maintained bicycles, and those who had problems with their lighting equipment generally also had some sort of problem with other aspects of their bike, such as the brakes or gears. Many of the cyclists with problems admitted that they had known about the problems for some time, however Dr Titze said that people generally responded well to the interceptions, even if they had to get off and wheel their unsafe bikes away.
“Our aim is encouragement, not punishment,” said Dr Titze. “It’s also good that the police come and help us because then they see how well positive reinforcement works.”

A version of this article was first published in Australian Cyclist March-April 2008

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