In the five months since I started this blog, I’ve done a number of interviews with Twin Cities area cyclists. I like to ask them for the details on how they got started biking in the first place. A consistent theme has emerged over time. One major way people first start biking is simply because they see other people doing it.
From the interviews
“I saw people with bikes and I was like, well maybe I could [bike] to go up to the coffee shop or go to the video store or things like that.” – Dana DeMaster
“Seeing how many other people were doing it. At first I thought it seemed unbelievably impractical to ride your bike downtown and then after awhile I was like, I think I could do that. Then I started trying to ride downtown. After that I saw people riding in the winter and I was like, no way. A year later, I was riding in the winter.” – Jessica Baltzley
“We saw people biking around there all the time and I thought it would be a good thing to get out and do together.” – Justin Wallace
“I think I’d been living there for maybe a month and I realized I needed a bike. My friends had bikes.” – Nick Sandstrom
This trend doesn’t really surprise me, because seeing other people doing something is a well-documented way to improve someone’s self-efficacy. I’ve talked about self-efficacy before, but as a refresher, self-efficacy is simply the confidence you have to do a particular thing if you set your mind to it. This premise is a major foundational component of many behavior change theories. If someone’s self-efficacy goes up, they’re more likely to engage in the behavior.
So then, how do we make someone’s self-efficacy go up? There are three main ways: mastery experiences, vicarious learning, and social persuasion. The other two are important, but I’ll just be talking about vicarious learning here. Vicarious learning is the idea that seeing someone who is similar to you doing something can make you feel more confident in your ability to do that thing. That’s exactly what I’ve seen through these interviews. People notice others riding their bikes around town and think something along the lines of, “hey, that looks doable and fun, I should try that.” Sometimes the hardest barrier to break is just that barrier of doing something the first time. When it comes to biking, vicarious learning can help someone overcome that first time barrier.
Promoting cycling through vicarious learning
St. Paul Women on Bikes recently released a summary of five focus groups they conducted to learn about barriers to cycling among women in St. Paul. They specifically focused on hearing from “women of color, women who don’t consider themselves bicyclists, and others who often get left out of conversations about biking in St. Paul.” One theme in the focus group conversations was that there are cultural perceptions that biking is for other (white) people. The authors recommend “seeing more people like me” on bikes as an important insight for promoting new bike ridership.
While cycling is becoming more normalized in certain populations and certain parts of the city, it’s not equal across the board. Just because people in my neighborhood may be encouraged to start biking because they see me on a bike, doesn’t mean that someone who is from a different cultural background would. That’s why encouragement of all people to bike is so important. Even as a few people in a community start biking, their cycling behavior is subtly influencing others.
I think it’s pretty cool that just by doing something you love to do, you might be part of a communal fabric that’s encouraging your friends and neighbors to bike. Perhaps we’re about to see an explosion of cycling over the next few years, as more and more people start biking due to this influence, and their presence on the road influences more and more people to start biking too. I’m looking forward to it.