The Transport Area of Advance has funded a group of “Covid projects”, where researchers have studied how various parts of the transport system have been affected by the pandemic (see list at the bottom).
One of the projects – Everyday cycling in unusual times – is an interview study with twelve participants in Gothenburg, who had changed their daily mode of transport to cycling to avoid public transport. Chalmers researchers Helena Strömberg and Pontus Wallgren, at the Divison of Design & Human Factors, saw the opportunity to map these "new" year-round cyclists' overall experiences of using their bikes for both work commuting and other transports.
The participants' stories entail many ideas for how different actors can contribute to climate change mitigation by making cycling more attractive in various ways – after the pandemic as well. One theme that stands out, and which so far has not received much attention, is difficulties in finding suitable products that are needed for the bicycle to function as an everyday vehicle. For example, clothes to stay dry and warm (but not too warm), trolleys or watertight bags for all the necessities that must be transported, and safety gear such as helmets and winter tires.
“The study shows that equipment is very important for successful year-round cycling, and this factor has previously been rarely discussed”, says Helena Strömberg. “The participants managed to overcome several different types of barriers by finding the right equipment. But it was an unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming process for them, and we believe that there is a lot to work with in this area to reduce barriers to cycling.”
Reluctantly dressed in neon colours and lycra
All the participants in the study had gone through a process of buying, trying and rejecting a lot of different equipment in order to end up with something that was compatible with their needs. They had struggled to find gear that was suitable for everyday cycling – most products were adapted for sport biking. And this was both a functional and an aesthetic problem.
The participants didn’t want to look like “die-hard” or “sports” cyclists, and didn’t want cycling to be part of their identity. They wanted to find equipment and clothes that look normal, and that are functional for ordinary people who just get around by bike in all weathers. But in many cases they had had to accept the neon and lycra aesthetics, because that was what was available, and it was difficult enough to find products with the right functionality.
“Here we see a great opportunity for industry to develop clothing and other equipment that support cycling equally well as the speciality gear, but with a more varied and inclusive aesthetic”, says Pontus Wallgren.
But just finding out what products are available and where to find them was a hurdle for the participants. They searched with the help of informal networks, such as colleagues they met at the bike rack at work. The ferry across the river in Gothenburg proved to be a good help for those who commuted that way. There they got the opportunity to check out which equipment other cyclists had, and also to chat to them for tips and advice.
Better opportunities to try equipment out can make a difference
The researchers therefore believe that increasing the trialability and overview of products for everyday biking is a great opportunity for the bicycle industry, as well as for the public sector. For example, companies could offer a hire and buy scheme, and also offer better sales processes with tailored recommendations based on the particular cyclist's needs. The public sector could make contributions such as libraries for gear, and arenas where inexperienced bike commuters could learn about everything from equipment to the best route for them.
“Cycling all year round for all purposes in a Nordic climate is quite a skill to learn”, says Helena Strömberg. “All the participants in the study described a learning process, where they actively sought out various solutions to make cycling work in their daily life.”
The challenges for cyclists are similar in many Swedish cities. However, Gothenburg is also a very hilly city, and most of the participants had found out that a traditional bike was not compatible with the requirements of everyday cycling. They had bought a new bicycle as part of the process when they discovered their own needs – either an e-bike or a light, sporty bike with multiple gears.
“In high-cycling countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, it is often said that the only thing you need is a standard bike with an upright riding position”, says Pontus Wallgren. “But many people have a rather flat biking route there, and this is an example of the importance of finding solutions for local and individual barriers to cycling as well.”
Easier and more fun than expected despite the challenges
After all, the participants in the study had expected that it would be even more difficult to become a year-round cyclist than it actually turned out to be. And their stories contain many positive effects of biking.
“One thing that really stands out in our results is the participants' experiences of joy, freedom and empowerment when cycling”, says Pontus Wallgren. “They had been cycling for about a year when they were interviewed, and almost all of them said they intended to continue after the pandemic as well.”
But the study was specifically about people who had managed to maintain their cycling, and thus had overcome the various hurdles they had faced. They also told about colleagues who had tried to change their mode of transport to biking during the pandemic, but had given up because it was too hard.
It could be small things that together made the cons outweigh the pros. Poor support for bike commuting at the workplace or home was one of them. For example, one got tired of crossing a giant car parking every day to get to a small bicycle parking where it wasn´t even possible to lock the bike to something – or of pushing wet outerwear into a locker, and then putting on the still wet clothes at the end of the working day.
“Our results, as well as previous research, show that employers and house owners can also do a lot to reduce barriers to cycling”, says Helena Strömberg. “For example, by offering secure indoor bike storage and facilities for showering, drying wet clothes and recharging batteries.”
Lack of priority and capacity can only be partially compensated
The results are also in line with previous research regarding a third important factor for how many people choose to cycle: how much priority and space that are allocated to cycling in the city. Thus it comes down to urban development and policy, but also to usage and maintenance of the already existing bike lanes.
Some problematic examples from the participants' stories were dangerous road sections where aggressive motorists demonstrated their perceived right to the road, sections where there were indeed cycle lanes – but very frequent stops were required for various reasons, and cycle lanes with potholes, patchy asphalt and late snow removal.
Gothenburg is one of many cities that have a long way to go to reach their cycling goals, even though the mode of transport has increased during the pandemic. And overall, the participants in the study felt that biking is not a prioritised mode of transport in Gothenburg. “I almost always feel that the cars are at advantage when you go out, so I cannot think of it as a cycling city”, was one of the statements.
But of course there are limits to what biking gear can achieve.
“Although our study indicates that equipment is a factor which needs more attention, that doesn´t mean that urban development and policy become less important”, says Pontus Wallgren. “If more people are to choose the bike for daily transport, everyday cycling absolutely needs to be prioritised in cities. That is necessary for the bike routes to be safe and efficient, but also for them to be nice environments where people enjoy cycling. All of this contributes to increasing the relative advantage of cycling over other modes of transport.”
Text: Johanna Wilde
Photo: Chalmers; Helena Strömberg and Pontus Wallgren. Pixabay; the rest of the photos – the people in these images did not participate in the study.
The Covid projects funded by the Transport Area of Advance
- Exploratory analysis of new data sources to assess the impact of Covid-19 on urban mobility. Jorge Gil, Chalmers, Anders Larsson, University of Gothenburg.
- The role of liner shipping for robust supply chains. Contact person; Johan Woxenius, University of Gothenburg.
- Long-term impacts of Covid-19 on the sustainability of online clothing retailing. Patricia van Loon, Chalmers, Sharon Cullinane, Magnus Jansson, Michael Browne, University of Gothenburg.
- The interdependence between freight and passenger transport services. Contact person; Jonas Flodén, University of Gothenburg.
- Everyday cycling in unusual times. Helena Strömberg, Pontus Wallgren, Chalmers.
- Urban deliveries pre and during Covid-19. Ivan Sanchez-Diaz, Juan Pablo Castrellon, Chalmers.
- The psychology behind hoarding during Covid-19. John Magnus Roos, Jonas Flodén, Johan Woxenius, University of Gothenburg.
- Western Swedes' travel habits before and during Covid-19. John Magnus Roos, University of Gothenburg, Frances Sprei, Chalmers.
- Procurement, firm resilience, and effectiveness of response to disruptions: insights from Covid-19. Ala Arvidsson, Patrik Jonsson, Riikka Kaipia, Chalmers.