Will the cyclists come only if you build?: Beyond Infrastructure

The importance of bike lanes

Adequate road infrastructure is a key element in fostering healthier and more inclusive modes of transportation. More and more studies have shown that the association between cycling infrastructure and ridership tends to be positive. Add to that the fact that those urban amenities – like shared bike lanes, cycle tracks and bike parking – are quantifiable, and it’s easy to understand why they are suitable to be included in a transportation master plan, and are also a focus for many cycling advocacy campaigns.

What else is important?

In recent years we’ve heard a lot of people saying, “If you build it, they will come.” Although we know that good street design does encourage cycling, there is more to the picture. Even though road improvements boost cycling rates (as well as providing other benefits, such as increased safety for all users), direct measures of an environmental feature, like road infrastructure, may only explain a small percentage of the variance in individual cycling habits. This leads us to wonder, “What other factors are important in getting more bikes on the road?”

An integrated policy

Let’s approach the issue from a different angle. Will the cyclists come only if you build? The intention of this article is to highlight other relevant ingredients of an effective public policy to increase urban cycling without dismissing the importance of cycling infrastructure. It is clear that a maximum grid (a network of cycling routes which connects to all destinations and is suitable for all people) goes a long way to increasing numbers of bike commuters. However, objective environmental features like weather, topography, and road design are not direct determinants of cycling behaviour. If we consider how hard it is to secure a substantial investment in cycling, it is imperative that we attract as many new cyclists as possible when we do build.

Opening the black box

Years of research have shown that internal factors like attitude and confidence level play a pivotal role in the decision to use a bike for transportation. Those psychological mechanisms act as mediators between individual cycling behaviour and environmental features. These are not localized findings, there is documented evidence from Europe(1), Africa(2), Asia(3), Oceania(4), South America(5), and North America(6).

What research shows us is that regardless of the number of bike lanes in a given city, it is possible to increase cycling in a safe way, and anytime is a good time to start. There is a lot we can do as citizens, business owners, employers, community leaders, politicians and City officials to safely encourage more urban cycling. According to the Extended Theory of Planned Behaviour (7) applied to the decision to cycle or not to cycle (ETPB-cyc), the four main components that determine the intention to commute by bike and therefore directly influence this particular behaviour are: attitude, personal norm, perceived behavioural control, and habit. Let’s take a closer look at each one of them.

Attitude – What’s in it for me?

This is an evaluation of how much a specific behaviour is positively or negatively valued. Initial studies on travel behaviour drew their first insights from economic models which considered that a decision would be based on a strictly rational process. This is, what the scholars call, the instrumental function. In our case – getting from point A to point B – those attributes could be something like costs, speed and impact on personal health. We know that this model is not entirely accurate. Even when people know they are spending lots of money to buy and maintain a car, wasting long hours in traffic jams and compromising their health by leading a sedentary lifestyle -even then, they might still have a more positive attitude towards driving than cycling.

It is obvious that the instrumental function is not enough to explain attitudes. In reality, our attitude towards a behaviour is not solely defined by a dry cost/benefit analysis. We are emotional beings and our attitude is also influenced by social status and the feelings that a specific behaviour produces in us, like pleasure and relaxation. We don’t necessarily buy a car because it will be the most efficient way to get to work. For some people, a car is part of their identity and represents who they are and their values. For some, biking might not be legitimized as a “serious” mode of transportation because its image might be associated with poverty, sports or recreation. Those additional aspects of attitude are called emotional functions and symbolic meaning.

Personal norm – What should I do?

Let’s start with the social norm since it is a more familiar term. Social norms are the social pressures to engage or not engage in a specific behaviour. There are two types of pressure. The first one is composed by the law, codes of conduct and other explicit forms of regulation. They refer to what ought to be done (injunctive norms). The second type is not a written rule. It represents the usual behaviour, what most people actually do (descriptive norms). Obedience to the injunctive norms is motivated by fear of sanction or social exclusion. On the other hand, descriptive norms have the powerful informational function of showing people the behaviour that, in general, will be considered the appropriate one, not only because it seems to be the right one but also because it might seem easier or more beneficial (“If everyone else is doing it, it must be right, right?”).

The personal norm represents someone’s individual values and is a mixture of self-interest and pro-social motives (the internalized beliefs we all unconsciously have). It is influenced (but not defined) by the social norm, an external pressure. Social norms only apply if they are salient at the time of the decision, but personal norms are those guilty feelings we have even when no one is looking.

Confidence level – Am I capable of doing it?

This is how much you believe you are prepared to implement the behaviour. Note that this is not your actual skill and knowledge level, although generally speaking they are closely linked. The academic term for confidence level is Perceived Behavioural Control (PBC). PBC is much easier to verify than the actual behavioural control. That’s why it is adopted. Meaning, for example, that just sending an online form asking a hundred people if they know how to ride a bike or shift gears is much easier than putting each one of them on a bike and evaluating their performance.

Habit – Why I am doing this? I don’t know, it is what I always did.

The learning of sequences of acts that have become automatic responses to specific situations in order to reach a goal or satisfy a need. Habits play a very important role because if they are in place long enough they can bypass all the other components of the decision-making process, even if the habits are not as satisfying as they were in the beginning. We can see habits as behavioural inertia, a tendency to keep on doing things the same way as always. That is why many behavioural change campaigns target people who have recently had a significant life change, like starting a new job or moving to a different place. Those situations represent a fresh start, without habitual responses. In a new environment it is easier to introduce new behaviours.

The four components

Simply put, if someone has accumulated personal positive cycling experiences, has positive references from other people, believes that cycling is beneficial for oneself and for society, has the support of family and friends, and also possesses the knowledge of safe riding and the skills required to bike, it’s very likely that this person will use a bike on a regular basis.

In hindsight, it might seem obvious that creating all those conditions will encourage more cycling, but the how-to is not so self-evident when we are trying to create a long-term policy or even if you are just an individual trying to support cycling. Providing adequate cycling infrastructure city-wide will definitely make it much easier to generate all those favourable conditions. However, based on studies from all around the world, we now know two things.

First, we need to take into account additional forces at play, other than objective measures and socio-economic factors. When it comes to travel behaviour, it’s necessary to open the psychological black box. Simply addressing the external factors is not the most efficient way to encourage cycling.

Second, we don’t need to wait to have a maximum grid in place to promote cycling. A model like the ETPB-cyc provides evidence-based knowledge to show that virtually anyone can play a small part in fostering a positive attitude, supporting your personal norm, boosting your confidence level and building good habits towards biking.

City-wide campaigns that intentionally take into consideration those psychological aspects of travel behaviour not only can increase cycling significantly and make it safer; they can actually pave the way for infrastructural improvements due to general awareness-raising about the issue and the increased demand caused by new riders.

In future articles we will dive deeper into this and other related topics:

  • Self-regulated stages of travel behaviour change
  • Different types of investments in cycling promotion
  • Public policies around the world that encourage cycling
  • Classification of cities and the appropriate types of investment for each one of them.
  • Case studies where increased bike rideship preceded infrastructural improvements
  • The role of employers as mediators of cycling promotion

Please leave a comment sharing your opinion with us or suggesting what would you like to read more about.


  1. Research from Europe: Bamberg, 2012; Broaddus, 2009; Friman, 2016; Gärling, 2009; Heinen, 2010; Parkin, 2015; Rye, 1999; Wardman, 2007.
  2. Research from Africa: Nkurunziza, 2012.
  3. Research from Asia: Fujii, 2001; Kitamura, 2001.
  4. Research from Oceania: Marfut, 2003; Rissel, 2006; Rose, 2007.
  5. Research from South America: Camargo, 2012; Medeiros, 2012; Patricio, 2016; Providelo, 2010; Reis, 2013.
  6. Research from North America: Dill, 2007; Handy, 2014; Krizek, 2014; Pucher, 2012.
  7. Cycling and Sustainability: Parkin, 2012.

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