On your bike – what are the real obstacles?

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I got into one of those circular arguments with someone the other day which leaves you with a sore head. The context was the COP26 discussion about electric vehicles and the argument by some that we need to focus our attention more on things likme public transport and “active transport” – by which they mean “cycling, walking and running.”

Their argument was that the thing that was stopping people from taking up cycling was safe routes and secure storage. My response was that actually it was the weather and distance. The reality is that you can have amazing cycle lanes and excellent lock up facilities but if its chucking it down with rain and I’ve got to go somewhere that’s an hour on the bike or 15 minutes in the car then guess which option I’ll choose. That affects day to day choices and it affects people’s decisions about whether or not to switch from driving to cycling on a longer term basis.

The other person wasn’t having this.  He was adamant that ig Government’s and councils paid heed and invested in his cause the everyone would get out and on their bikes. 

The problem is, I think, as follows. If you were to ask people to fill in a survey about what would encourage them to try cycling then they are likely to give the answers he suggested. Why? Well because even if “changing the weather” and “moving Wolverhampton closer to Birmingham” were options on the survey, people would be unlikely to tick them. This is partly because those things aren’t realistic and partly because they don’t want to sound lazy or like they put their comfort before the environment and their health. They give the answers that sound virtuous. They give the answers that suggest that at least hypothetically they will give cycling a go one day.

So, what we’ve not done here is recognise that there are two types of people. There are those who are genuinely interested in cycling. They would like to give it a go. If they do then they’ll be healthier and they’ll feel better about themselves because they are doing something about the environment. Those people are the ones who are likely to be persuaded to get out their mountain bike if we put in a few more cycling lanes.

Meanwhile there’s the other group of people. These are unfortunately the majority. The reality is that, although they won’t say it in a survey, they kind of like being warm, dry and not having to leave for work at the crack of dawn.  You can put in extra cycling lanes make showers at work a legal requirement and give out free bikes at the end of every cul-de-sac and you still won’t get them cycling.  The possibility simply isn’t on their radar. They’ll happily answer surveys telling you what might make them more likely to get on their bike but the crucial question “will you take up cycling” isn’t really engaged.

How do I know this? Well I know because this is generally true not just when tackling climate change but in all other aspects of life too. It’s handy to know this when thinking about church and evangelism.  It’s helpful to think about it when considering how we encourage people back after the pandemic.

There are some people who will tell you that if you put on a certain type of service, or if COVID cases drop or if you can do this or that to make them feel welcome and safe then they’ll be at your services very soon.

However, there are others who will tell you that they are interested in coming/returning to church. If you give them a list of things that you could change then they’ll indicate that they are more or less likely to come based on those changes. The problem is that

They genuinely mean it when they say that they will consider coming. They aren’t just lying to get rid of you. They’d like to see themselves attending church, just as when asked, they would like to see themselves cycling to work, donating to charity and eating less meat. 

However, they are not going to be doing any of those things soon. There is something else that is going to have to radically change before they do.

Understanding where people sit on that spectrum is important. We don’t just need to know whether x or why will make them more/less likely to do z. We need to know whether or not it is truly likely that they’ll ever do z at all.

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