Mar 112013
5 Behavior and Culture Hacks to Get People to Ride Bikes and Walk

good-habits-bad-habitsSerendipity gives me lots of blog fodder, in this case the coincidence of reading a piece on GOOD about how to get people to eat less meat within 24 hours of being directed to the elevators inside the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill during the 2013 National Bike Summit.*

Let me ‘splain, Lucy.

(Source attribution: I’m copying directly from the GOOD piece to borrow their great short take on the science; each boldface numbered statement is from the piece by Deena Rosen. Read it for additional context on other applications of these ideas whether you’re omnivore, carnivore, pescatarian, or raw vegan.)

1. Defaults — Science says: You’re much more likely to stick with the first choice that is presented to you.

This concept can be applied to anyone sending out information for people attending an event or coming to any destination. Instead of including “parking information” list “transportation choices” in this order:

  1. Biking: Availability and location of bike racks or other secure parking (including “You’re welcome to bring your bike inside the building and leave it at the security desk” or similar information).
  2. Transit: List the transit lines that serve your vicinity, location of the nearest stops, and walking distance to the destination, with a link to the transit operator site for information on fares and schedules.
  3. Driving: List available parking including costs and constraints (e.g., “Parking garage: $4/hour, closes at 10 p.m.”). (I’m deliberately labeling this “Driving” so the three choices listed are parallel–picking up the car keys is the first step in the chain of choices.)

2. Normative comparison or ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ — Science says: If you’re compared to other people like you, you’ll be motivated to adjust your behavior to adhere to the norm.

Include biking behavior in descriptions of your business or organization, employees, customers, members, what-have-you.

TIP: This is particularly valuable if you’re an employer looking to recruit healthy employees. If you care enough about your biking employees to include them as a selling point, you’ll get more of them.

If you’re a downtown business and you think parking scarcity discourages customers, reach out to people who will choose you if you signal you’re bike-friendly–all it takes is a simple statement about the availability of bike parking or a mention of how many people come into the shop carrying a pannier or bike helmet.

Show us we’re there, and we’re there.

3. Commitments — Science says: If you make a commitment to do something, ideally in writing, you’re more likely to follow through. You’re also more likely to feel good about doing it, because it became congruent with your self-image.

Well, this is easy! Biking excels at opportunities for tracking.

Sign up for 30 Days of Biking. Find your local Bike to Work Day/Week/Month effort and register, join the National Bike Challenge, take the Clif Bar 2-Mile Challenge, or find some local event or other opportunity to commit. Take on a fun challenge like the errandonnee or coffeeneuring. It doesn’t matter if the formal timeline established by someone promoting an event has passed; you can start 30 days any day. (Why 30 days? Watch this TED talk.)

Or you can just start writing down what you do and perhaps tracking with technology.

4. Cue and reward — Science says: A habit loop can be broken down into a cue, a routine, and a reward, and you can change a habit by changing the elements in the loop.

What has created your driving habit? That’s what it is–a habit. And I’ll guarantee you that riding a bike is more fun than flossing (sorry, dental folk).

Can you change the cues and routines you’ve created for yourself concerning what you use for transportation? Can you make it a true choice instead of loading the dice with cues like car keys that are easy to get to and a bike that’s stored away and hasn’t been serviced lately?

What are the rewards? (And really think about it–you may be assuming some rewards that don’t actually exist, like the idea that you get places faster, which is often not the case in a dense downtown.)

Do you value independence? Bikes can give you even more of that than driving. The rewards of mindfulnesshealthweight lossa feeling of strength, improved self-image, and more can all be yours if you ride. I’m all for mindful driving, mind you, but have a hard time seeing that any of these other things are on the reward list for driving.

Grace-Kelly-Rides-a-Bike_From_Rides-a-Bike-Blog5. Liking & Familiarity — Science says: You’re more easily persuaded by someone you like.

If you ride a bike you can help a friend get started by reaching out to invite someone along for a ride to a coffee shop on a quiet weekend. Organize an occasional ride–or even a regular schedule–aimed at welcoming people who don’t ride regularly and need a social space that invites people to try riding and rediscover its joys.

If you don’t ride yet and seek inspiration, there’s plenty to be had on the Internet courtesy of over 800 women’s bike blogs alone and many more blogs by writers all over the world. You’ll see bikes more and more frequently in advertising. If you have a favorite movie star you need to check out the blog Rides a Bike with its images like the one of Grace Kelly shown here. Smart people ride bikes–Albert Einstein is famously supposed to have hit upon his theory of relativity while riding his bike.

What cues are you sending, directly or indirectly? You can change them and hack the culture.



Now you’re saying, “But wait–what about the elevator directions?”

While attending the 2013 National Bike Summit day on the Hill I had a health/active transportation “Aha!” moment when asking the nice security guard in the Cannon Office Building how to get to the cafeteria I knew was somewhere in the basement. (Hello, caffeine!)

He politely directed me to follow a couple of long hallways, then take the elevator to the basement and bear right when I got off to follow the signs to the Longworth Office Building.

I realized when I got to the elevator that right next to it a perfectly good set of stairs — heck, better than good, they were marble — would also take me to the basement and down I went. As I descended I wondered how many more people would walk down the stairs if the guard simply provided the verbal cue: “Go down this hallway, turn left at the end, and take the stairs or the elevator to the basement.”

In other words, the guard was “elevator-centric” and communicated that to everyone he directed to the caffeine source. What if he just mentioned the stairs? When I read the piece on GOOD, the “Click!” was so loud the publishers of Ms. magazine should have heard it.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Can you put some of these into practice?
  • Looking back, can you see any of these playing a role in how you started riding?
  • Looking around, do you see ways your workplace, favorite store, or something else can invite people to ride in ways that science tells us are most effective? If they’re already doing it give them a shoutout in the comments!

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Reader Comments

  1. To encourage children, some kids might view biking as an “outlier” activity, a rebel that distinguishes themselves from others. They see it as an adventure. These children often get together to cycle to school in the winter in Calgary Alberta, where it is snowier and much colder.

    Another incentive is that in some organizations, cycling is the new “golf”. Several of the Grand Fondo rides in Canada seem to attract various people from corporate sector/business owners who view it as a bonding/networking exercise. It is isn’t totally cheap to register for those rides…

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