Cycling cultures in the workplace

This article was published in 2001, in Newsletter 36.

This year’s A Moving Business Seminar (organised by the Travel for Work scheme, to promote alternatives to the single-occupant private car), took place on 14 May. Here, one of the speakers at the seminar, Paul Rosen, describes some of his cycling-related research done at Anglia Polytechnic University (APU).

Image as described adjacent
Dress codes affect the ability to cycle

What is it about certain workplaces that makes them model cycle-friendly employers, whilst in others commuting by bike is a struggle? Is it something to do with the company itself – the working environment, company policies, the provisions that exist (or do not exist) for cyclists? Is it to do with specific people who work there – a few key activists who keep up the momentum, a supportive facilities manager, or even someone in senior management who happens to be a keen cyclist? Or is it to do with location? Perhaps being in Cambridge helps in general, but other factors can also make a difference, such as the proximity of good quality cycle routes and the option of avoiding dangerous or unpleasant roads.

Trying to find out answers to these questions has been the task of a research project I have been conducting for the last two years with David Skinner of APU. Over the next few months we will be presenting our findings in a number of forums, starting with the ‘Moving Business’ seminar organised by the Travel for Work Partnership in May, at the Science Park’s Trinity Centre. This article is intended to give a flavour of the issues that have been emerging from the research.

The project’s findings centre around two key themes – firstly, the factors that can encourage or inhibit cycle commuting from an individual perspective, and secondly, the organisational dynamics at a workplace that can impact on staff transport choices.

For individuals, a growing body of cycling-focused research within transport studies has identified key factors that help someone decide whether to cycle to work – the distance involved, the presence of physical barriers such as hills or major road junctions, and the availability and quality of cycling facilities en route or at the workplace.

Going beyond these, we have also looked at people’s individual circumstances. Even where distance, facilities and the physical landscape are all favourable, other factors can be crucial to someone’s willingness or ability to cycle. Domestic responsibilities such as childcare, access to the shared family car, the other destinations people travel to aside from work, and the particular features of somebody’s job responsibilities – these can all affect their transport choices. An employer might, for example, require certain dress standards or the ability to travel at short notice during the working day. For most people, these both equate to a need to drive. The key to increased cycle commuting lies, then, in identifying ways of overcome these kinds of constraints – by helping both staff and employers change either actual circumstances or at least their attitudes towards them.

This is where the other dimension of the research – the organisational context – comes into play. Company support for ‘dress down days’, for example, can overcome concerns about cycling to work in a suit. Where facilities are in serious need of improvement if more cycling is to be achieved, staff’s beliefs about how open the company is to new ideas can be crucial. If an employer is felt to be unresponsive to staff suggestions – or if there are barriers set by a third-party such as a site landlord – this can prevent people seeing much point in lobbying for change. Consequently, cycling levels are unlikely to increase.

On the other hand, if the facilities manager consults with cyclists about what is needed, or – even better – if the company appoints a Cycle Co-ordinator, as happens with Cycle-Friendly Employer Scheme members, this sends a message to cyclists that their needs are taken seriously.

It is circumstances like these that we believe can nurture a ‘workplace cycling culture’. The knowledge that there is company support for cycling – and perhaps even a member of staff with an advocacy and promotion role, backed up by management policy – can provide a background against which staff might reflect on apparent constraints such as their meeting schedule, the office dress code or how to pick up the kids from school. A willingness to think about these issues – among both staff and management – is the starting point for generating momentum and consequently overcoming the ‘barriers’ to cycling.

Workplace Domestic Personal Vehicular External
Dress codes childcare fitness/health security weather
facilities leisure activities enjoyment technical failure pollution
meetings access to shared vehicles costs need to carry loads municipal facilites
need for daytime vehicle concerns about person hygiene landscape
atmosphere at work environmental attitudes
journey time
distance to work
flexibility safety

Table 1 – Constraints and benefits that influence individual decisions on whether to cycle to work.

Each column groups features together according to their origins – in the workplace, the domestic setting, personal preferences, the bicycle itself, and external sources. No hierarchy of importance is intended in the ordering of items.

Paul Rosen, University of York