How do I help others start cycling?

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.

Cycle commuters who’ve successfully spread the joy of cycling share their tips for encouraging work colleagues.

Talk to Everyone and Ride Their Route

For those of us who cycle to work every day, rain or shine, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t cycle to work if you lived close enough.

Where the workplace is in the centre of a congested city like Cambridge, it’s difficult to understand why you wouldn’t at least park your car at one of the Park & Ride sites and cycle the last two or three miles to avoid all that slow, frustrating, gas-guzzling traffic.

For the everyday cyclist commuter, it’s a no brainer; we love it, it makes us happy and healthy, it’s cheap and reliable. This article is not about us.

There’s a significant number of able-bodied commuters who would not countenance cycling to work. How do we help them try cycling and make it part of their routine? Here are some tips.

  1. Talk to everyone, especially the new starters and temps. Find out where they live and how they intend to get to work. Find out their issues about getting to work, e.g. whether they spend an age hunting down a car parking space, buses take a long time or they need to drop the kids off on the way to work. Once you understand their needs you can frame the solution to suit their circumstances.
  2. People new to Cambridge are often unaware of how much better the cycle infrastructure is here than elsewhere in the UK, for instance parking at the Trumpington P&R enables a traffic-free journey into the city centre. Don’t assume that everyone knows this. Make people aware that in Cambridge cycling is normal and ordinary people do it, you don’t need to be a superhero.
  3. Understand their fears. Listen, don’t dismiss the fears. If someone says, ‘It’s not safe’, don’t just say, ‘yes it is’. If you instantly dismiss a fear then you’ll shut down the conversation and you won’t get any further.
  4. Then try and work out a solution. If the fear is about safety, suggest routes that are quieter, a crossing point that is easier, a route that many other cyclists use. People who have habitually taken the car or bus may not think about cycling across parks, they probably don’t know about the shortcuts or lovely routes where you can cycle beside the river and actually enjoy your commute.
  5. The fear may be about fitness: have plenty of anecdotes of other people who have started cycling after a gap of many decades, how they can start off slow, and speed up with practice, or start off slow and stay slow if they aren’t interested in pushing themselves (they will of course get fitter by accident).
  6. The fear may be about getting wet and dirty so be ready with some helpful advice about clothes. However, many people will find their own way on this. If there are some well-turned-out cyclists at your workplace, point to them as examples.
  7. Depending on your audience, leave the statistics until later on the in the conversation. Arguments about the negative risk of cycling, or that it adds ten years to your life won’t work on all people; they have to feel safe. As everyday cyclists, it’s easy to forget how intimidating cycling in traffic can be to someone who hasn’t been on a saddle for 20 years.This leads on to the next point, which is invaluable:
  8. Offer to ride the route with them at a quiet time (e.g. a Sunday morning). People new to Cambridge will observe how many cyclists there are, but still may not know how to join them. For many people who haven’t been cycling since childhood, there are many unknowns: route finding, how to deal with junctions, how to avoid the traffic, where to park your bike. If you can do the route with them, this takes away a lot of the barriers; you can have a nice chat and demonstrate how easy it is. If you are a cheerful, friendly role-model this rubs off that cycling is really quite enjoyable.
  9. Arrange workplace cycle events, e.g. a cycle-to-work day with breakfast provided, and bike buddying from certain pick-up points for the newbies. Even cycling from a P&R site will be a new experience for many people. Try and have a workplace car-free day, where everyone tries to leave their car at home or at the P&R. Try lunchtime cycle rides for beginners to try out a nice route.

If you remove parking spaces in the city, people do find alternatives. This improves both air quality and congestion.

In addition, and outside the scope of this article, there are policy decisions that companies and planners can make which affect everyday commuter behaviour. For instance, if you remove car parking spaces in the city (as Cambridge Assessment did when they moved offices), people do find alternatives. This improves both air quality and congestion in Cambridge.

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Sue, 59

With an office move in 2018, my car parking space was taken away, so my best option was to cycle to work from Girton to the Centre of Cambridge. I got an e-bike because of the length of the journey. I wasn’t initially looking forward to it, but find myself quite enjoying it, and it keeps me fit. The bonus is that I don’t sit in the rush hour traffic. Previous to the office move I cycled to work about six times a year. My advice to people thinking about cycling is ‘Just give it a go’, and ‘If I can do it anyone can’.

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Ellen, 38

I would do anything to avoid the bus! Joking aside, biking allows my commute to be a consistent length which is a necessity when picking up/dropping off kids. I really enjoy it and the exercise is a nice added bonus. I cycle from Trumpington Park & Ride and use the path alongside the Busway, so I don’t have to negotiate traffic. I do prefer this traffic-free route.

Tess Jones

Host a Cycle-to-Work Day

How to bike commute: 1) Wake up and get ready. 2) Get on bike and cycle to work. 3) Do your day’s work. 4) Cycle home

How to do the high jump: 1) Run very fast. 2) Jump very high in the air at the right time. 3) Move yourself in the air so as to just clear the bar. 4) Land safely.

To most of the readers of this magazine, the first of the above statements is probably second nature and part of their daily routine. The second statement, however, will be useless for all except the keen athlete. But these statements are similar in tone. They each describe what is fundamentally a complex operation in an overly simplified and unhelpful way. We may view cycle commuting as a very simple part of our daily routine, but for many it appears no more accessible than doing the high jump armed only with four vague instructions.

The demographic of bike commuters at my company, based eight or so miles west of Cambridge, is decidedly skewed towards the ‘young, lycra clad, male’ demographic – those to whom the first statement is second nature. However, there are many people at my company who choose to drive exactly the same route every day. Those are the people for whom the first statement is useless, and at whom I was targeting my efforts when setting up a cycle-to-work day.

So how to make that statement more useful, and how to break down the barriers that prevent people cycle commuting? First things first – ask people why they don’t do it. This was a relaxed exercise that was formed mostly of casual conversations rather than formal surveys but threw up some interesting points. Firstly, many people simply hadn’t considered it as an option. Our company is not in central Cambridge, so whilst many who moved to the city when starting were aware people cycled locally, a longer commute simply wasn’t on the radar. Why would it be? People drive that distance everywhere else in the country. Secondly, the distance isn’t trivial, and combined with route-finding in an unfamiliar area, is somewhat intimidating for the occasional cyclist. The prevalence of lycra-clad commuters perhaps does not help the view that it’s a difficult undertaking. Thirdly, motivation. Much the same mental spiral that leads to the feelings of “I really should use that gym membership” or “That pile of letters in the hallway really should be forwarded to my landlord” going ignored.

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To run a successful event, each of these issues each needed addressing. People needed to be informed about the practicality of cycle commuting, they needed their anxieties calmed, and often they needed a small bribe to get them out of bed and onto the saddle. Thus, the event was created primarily as a social gathering with bikes. It was made clear that lycra was not required, that we would be cycling, slowly, as a group the whole way, and that there would be a reward for completion both in the morning and evening. The morning reward was a variety of pancakes, waffles, sausages, and spreads that completely negated any health benefit, but proved an effective incentive. The evening reward was that the ride terminated at a pub. These group eating and drinking sessions also provided an opportunity for a debriefing of sorts, chatting about any issues encountered on the ride, and discussing how to improve the event next time.

The cycle-to-work event was created primarily as a social gathering with bikes. It was made clear that lycra was not required and we would be cycling slowly as a group the whole way.

Some humorous advertising for the event was also positively received, with a few choice slogans such as ‘You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic’ generating discussions and sign-ups.

The effect of all of this? A significant uptick in people taking one or two journeys to work a week by bike, and a more concerted push to make cycling benefits permanent. The main success indicator in my view was that the third of these cycle days had a much smaller core group than the first two. Not because people had lost interest, but because they were now happy to commute in accordance with their own schedule. People arrived when they wanted, the bike racks were still full, and the car park had one or two spare spaces for the first time in quite a while.

Finlay Knops-Mckim

Join Those Who Love to Ride

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Cycle September is coming to Cambridge and we’d like to invite you to take part.

It’s a fun, free competition to see which workplace can get the most staff to try cycling. There are loads of prizes that you can win by riding and encouraging friends and colleagues to do the same.

Love to Ride is based on a proven model that has engaged over 400,000 participants, with significant long-term increases in cycling participation. However, for the programme to be a success we need regular cyclists to spread the word and help enlist their workplaces.

By taking part, you can also generate useful data that makes things better for cyclists in Cambridge. Register your workplace and you will also have the bonus of being able to show your employers the number of cyclists, which may be useful in getting better facilities for those who ride, such as storage and showers.

Find out more and register at lovetoride.net. If you have any questions, contact Emma at emma@lovetoride.org