Softly Does It

‘If you tell them, they will believe it.’

So once said a local government officer at a best practice sharing session. He didn’t say it from the front of the conference room with a PowerPoint slide on the screen behind him. He said it over a plate of sandwiches of questionable edibility in a tone that slipped under the hum of people networking around the room. He said it about cycling, about building a reputation for his Authority as cycle-friendly, about increasing cycling without spending much money. And he had the survey numbers to back him up.

It’s an opposing sentiment to the old, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And the comparable value of the two approaches are the source of much debate among transport planning professionals. There is a large school and a larger lobby that insists that to significantly increase cycling as a mode share, miles of segregated cycle lanes or tracks, ranks of secure cycle parking stands, hundreds of signs and many buckets of paint are necessary. Otherwise cycling will not be considered a safe and attractive option. You must spend the money, even if on a currently tiny proportion of your public, in order to increase that proportion.

I don’t completely disagree. See more about justifying walking and cycling spend: in a previous blog.

But there are those who say that ‘soft’ measures can increase the number and share of cyclists in your population without new infrastructure. Then you will have the better business case to make more budget available in future years. Soft measures refer to promotion, marketing, competitions and events. The largest of those, National Bike Week, is fast approaching. Every year, people are encouraged through Bikers’ Breakfasts, free bike maintenance sessions, led rides, camaraderie, prizes and hopefully good weather to take to two wheels, or at least get the thing out of the garage and clean it off. The idea is that raising the profile of cycling will make more people feel it is a normal activity that anyone, specifically them, can do, even without a cycle path outside their house.

That’s not to say that all the organisers and participants in Bike Week don’t want better infrastructure. They do. It’s a chicken/egg kind of deal: raise the profile, get more people riding, and the funding will be allocated and infrastructure built. Building infrastructure can of course raise the profile itself and encourage cycling, as it is, by its nature, something physically present that people see and might want to use. But should building come first? Is campaigning for more building even likely to be successful in these times of government cuts, when providing for cyclists with government money means providing for just 2-5% of the population requiring services?

Thus we are back to increasing cycling, or at least the perception that there are a lot of people cycling in order to attract the money. Soft measure do work to increase cycling. And as for the perception, well, the officer I spoke with said that if you want people to think that cycling is a normal, safe thing that lots of people are doing, just tell them that’s the case, hammer the message home regularly, make it a taken-for-granted fact, and people will believe it. And once they believe it, it might become true.

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