Hacking hard infra and soft info

We can learn from studies in high-cycling situations. Although, caution! When comparing it to low-cycling locations we must sometimes tread with care. I feel that much is too easily lost in translation, if the study location isn’t well described. Situational factors like modal share and the quality of the urban design should be adequately described and that should include findings, recommendations and solutions which may be rather sensitive to those factors.

For example, the problem definition in studies from high-cycling cities would naturally presume that many people are already cycling (to work, to school etc) and would hopefully describe these factors. Getting more people cycling in a city in the Netherlands, Denmark, parts of Belgium or Germany, is an entirely different proposition to getting more people cycling in the UK, US or Australia. In low-cycling countries it is often the urban design that holds back progress on that matter, whilst information initiatives might well be sufficient in high-cycling cities/country.

General basic reading material could be Sallis et al (2006) and Hanson et al’s TRB report from 2005. Both studies offer good insight into history and development of different (academic) approaches, and their respective successes.

Example of an infra-insensititive tone in an academic study

A school travel study by Ducheyne et al (2012) in a location with medium-cycling numbers, shows how a certain sloppiness’ manifests itself when failing to describe the environment in good proportion to individual measures. There are some sweeping and quite insensitive statements in the study which should have been mediated by appraising the urban design more than they have done. The Belgian research team say

the contribution of the physical environment is limited and highlights the fact that interventions for increasing cycling to school should not focus solely on the physical environment

but have made no real attempt at describing the setting other than generalised terms:

However, roads in Belgium that are equipped with walking and cycling facilities are usually quite busy. Busy roads have been identified as important barriers for active commuting to school“.

This is an inadequate discussion and acknowledgement of urban infrastructure and its role in active school travel, especially when compared to their statement

Additionally, no objective measures of the built environment were assessed. Notwithstanding this latter limitation, the environmental questions used in the questionnaire have been validated

then concluding that soft measures will do to promote cycling to school. This is problematic, perhaps not in the Belgian setting, but for low-cycling researchers who may now adopt these findings without a second thought about role of the urban/built environment.

Example of adequate appraisal of urban design influences

On the other hand there are studies, like the one by Emond & Handy (2012), managing to strike a much fairer balance. In their investigation in the medium/high-cycling university town of Davis, US, infrastructure and environment are acknowledged and appraised. It is a different type of study to Ducheyne and colleagues, however it holistically embraces the soft-social as well as the hard-physical environment. “Following the logic of the ecological framework” the researchers, state

“Davis is admittedly a unique setting. The levels of bicycling … are unlikely to be matched in other communities in the US. Even so, the general relationships observed in this study seem likely to apply to high school students in other communities as well. In particular, infrastructure improvements that create safe routes to high schools are likely to be a necessary first step but, as in Davis, not sufficient to ensure that students living within bicycling distance will choose to bicycle. The attitudes, perceptions, and preferences of both students and parents are likely to play a pivotal role anywhere that the physical environment supports bicycling.”

Another example would be the Canadian team Willis et al (2015), who inclusively say

for places that are not yet bicycle-friendly, although the focus may remain on improving facilities and infrastructure in the city for cycling, it must be understood that individuals may still choose not to cycle if they are not confident in their ability to perform the behavior. Similarly, the influence of the attitudes and behaviors of friends, family, and co-workers cannot be understated.

or, also

Although this paper emphasizes that city planners and engineers must look beyond improvements to the built environment to increase bicycle mode share, the authors do not wish to claim that the built environment cannot influence perceptions, especially perceptions of safety, convenience, and speed of cycling. The presence of bike paths can be correlated with perceptions of safety from traffic, for instance.

Positioning statements like this help the reader

In North America, cycling is still seen much more as a form of physical activity than a mode of transportation. This is reflected in the infrastructure available for cycling, which is often indirect and off-road and thus not optimal for getting people safely and quickly from home to work or school.

And the team are even going as far as suggesting further research on the inter-relationship between perception and the environment, and doing so between different nationalities

Future research should examine the effect of social and psychological factors in cities with varying degrees of bicyclefriendly infrastructure and facilities Additional work could examine active transportation in other parts of the world, where social and cultural norms concerning cycling are likely to vary significantly.

Which is music in my ears, and makes me think about my study, concept, methodology and design (and literature review, sigh, which I haven’t started to write yet).

A ready schematic of what I am trying to express is below, Figure 1. Take it as read, that this must happen in a pedal-positive policy environment. Enter the schematic at the left with your cycle mode share, then project horizontally across to determine the appropriate hard v soft ratio.


Figure 1. Schematic of cycling numbers dependent infra v info

Concepts and plans

I am closing in on conceptual models. There are plenty out there. The model most relevant to my focus is from Mitra (2013), which is shown below. Highlighted, in green, is my area of investigation. The model is relevant as it includes school travel and household decision-making. In addition, it appears to show a good socio-ecological link, acknowledging both external urban environment (and even policy) as well as the internal socio-psychological side, attitudes, norms.


Figure 2. Mitra’s conceptual model


What I would like to find out is how attitude to road situations makes people feel, react and think. How it can possibly even stimulate their attitude and intentions – perhaps even imagination or creativity. We know that people’s attitude is important in making transport and mode-choice decisions, as Ducheyne, Emond and Willis agree above. Yes, it is sometimes stated that attitudes are even more important than other factors (may they be correlates, or determinants).

But what can be said, specifically, about the attitude towards the built environment?

Can a physical change in the environment also trigger a (quick, noticeable, measurable) change in people’s attitude?

The point is also raised by Willis et al (2015) who are musing

“Creating a network of bicycle lanes, applying traffic-calming measures across various roads, and giving cyclists priority at some intersections, for example, may very well lead to changes in perception and behavior”

With all the above in mind, I want to investigate the connection between (different) environments and people’s reaction to that. I want to concentrate on road situations created during the school run and capture the views, opinions and impressions of the participants through qualitative interviews.  The road environment could be relayed by representing the school run through photos or film which can then be shown to the willing research subjects, possibly in a ‘parent + child’ grouping.

  1. First off, participants are shown the situation they are currently used to, and views are collected in Bremen and Braunschweig about their respective locations
  2. Doing this in two cities as planned – one high-cycling, the other low-cycling – should make a comparison possible.
  3. Further, by then swapping over the ‘portable’ (filmed/photographed) school run should yield some further comparative results.

Bringing this long-winded, long and winding post to a conclusion, is this schematic of the planned course of action:


Figure 3. Schematic study approach


Next week I will be in Bremen, where I will be doing some initial scouting for a study location there. Turns out, my visit is during the school holidays, so I won’t be able to observe the Bremen school run (in all its glory). However, there is desk-top work to do too. I have been looking at street maps and list of primary schools (Ganztags-Grundschulen) to get an initial idea of street classification and school sizes.



Ducheyne, F., et al. (2012). “Individual, social and physical environmental correlates of ‘never’ and ‘always’ cycling to school among 10 to 12 year old children living within a 3.0 km distance from school.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BEHAVIORAL NUTRITION AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY 9(142).

Emond, C. R. and S. L. Handy (2012). “Factors associated with bicycling to high school: Insights from Davis, CA.” JOURNAL OF TRANSPORT GEOGRAPHY 20(1): 71-79.

Hanson, S., et al. (2005). Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence – TRB Special Report 282. Transportation Research Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Mitra, R. (2013). “Independent mobility and mode choice for school transportation: a review and framework for future research.” Transport reviews 33(1): 21-43.

Sallis, J. F., et al. (2006). “An ecological approach to creating active living communities.” Annu Rev Public Health 27: 297-322.

Willis, D. P., et al. (2015). “Cycling Under Influence: Summarizing the Influence of Perceptions, Attitudes, Habits, and Social Environments on Cycling for Transportation.” International Journal of Sustainable Transportation 9(8): 565-579.

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