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Changing behaviour to get people cycling

Thomas Stokell and Sama Alyasiri share the latest thinking on how we can apply behaviour change theory to encourage more people to cycle more often

Thomas Stokell, director and Sama Alyasiri, head of projects, Challenge for Change


The term ‘behaviour change’ is not a new one. Coined in 1975 by Martin Fishbein and later developed by Icek Ajzen, behaviour change research examined the effects of attitudes, reasoned actions and consequential behaviours. Since the 1980s there have been several prominent behaviour change (BC) theories and models, providing the tools used today to promote health and sustainability – from promoting recycling to changing the way we travel. 

It’s time to take a fresh look at how we can use contemporary behaviour change research, theories and tools to encourage more people to cycle, more often. 

After carrying out a comprehensive review of the current literature on behaviour change theory, we have developed a new behaviour change framework specifically designed for encouraging cycling.

The framework has four parts:

  1. The user journey: Identifying the key stages of change people go through on their journey from being a non-cyclist to regular rider. Imagine this journey is like a ladder with each of the stages being a rung of the ladder. 
  2. Barriers and benefits: An analysis of the real and perceived barriers and benefits that people have, which need to be addressed to get people to go through each stage of change of this journey. 
  3. Behaviour change theory and tools: Identifying how the behaviour change theories and the tools of change can be appropriately applied at each different stage of change.
  4. Creativity and innovation: The creative application of these theories and tools so that we engage our audiences effectively and efficiently. This creative application uses a combination of technology (to scale the approach, and achieve cost efficiencies), face-to-face interaction and conventional promotional channels. 

Measure, target, measure

When we apply this framework, the first step is to find out which stage of the user journey someone is on. Then we can ask specific questions relevant to that stage to identify what barriers and benefits they perceive to taking the next step. 

This information then enables us to target each individual with the right information, incentives, advice and programmes. People are bombarded with messages online and by email, so to be effective, our best chance is to be as targeted and relevant as possible. 

For example, let’s take someone at the ‘contemplation stage’. They haven’t cycled for over a year, they own a bike, but it’s out of working order. They feel confident riding, but not confident riding in traffic. 

We could send them an email which has 5 tips for getting your bike back on the road, a discount to get a bike service at a local bike shop, and encourage them to take a ‘Confidence in Traffic’ cycle course. 

From theory to reality

This new behaviour change framework is currently being built into the online cycling platform – Love to Ride (www.lovetoride.net). 

When we apply this approach, information is collected automatically by the Love to Ride website through a series of very short surveys to monitor where people are at on their journey and what barriers they face next. 

This on-going measurement allows the system to monitor people’s progress and adapt messaging people receive by email and on the website (e.g. for skills training, for tips on cycling, relevant discount vouchers, etc).  

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