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The JRtB guide to... mode shift

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Mode Shift - sounds a bit jargony. JRtB are here it break it down for you. 

This is an easy one, at least to explain. Mode shift is all about getting people to use their cars less for journeys and instead use alternative, sustainable modes of transport. So, changing one mode of transport (car) for a different mode of transport (e.g. cycle).

Simple, right?

In transport terms this is a nice, easy statement to make. We can see and hear plenty of politicians, councillors and worthy individuals talk about needing to increase mode shift. We need less people in cars and more people on bikes, or on buses or whatever. Less cars means less carbonisation, it means less pollution, less congestion, less road traffic collisions, less need to spend Billions on road infrastructure, happier people, less obesity. It’s all a good thing. We do not disagree.

What no-one actually talks about is how to do it. That’s because it’s almost impossibly hard to do. The concept of mode shift implies that people will simply switch out of the cars onto sustainable transport because they should. This almost never happens. Cars, as we know, are convenient, comfortable, easy, direct, available and straightforward. They are the dominant transport mode, and so most countries infrastructure is designed around them. They are plentiful, and we nowadays they can be electric. The facts against cars are well known, but the are immensely ‘sticky’ as a form of everyday transport for millions of people.

We might think about the mechanics of delivering mode shift as a push/pull, or carrot/stick. Certainly various commentators talk about it in this way. The stick might be changing road layouts and supplying less capacity on the road network. A carrot might be a bike hire scheme, or a £2 bus fare.

If we keep the focus on cycling, we can ask what might help to get people out of their cars and onto bikes. Firstly, we should look at the journeys people make: generally these are commuting, school runs, access to services and retail, leisure. That’s pretty much everything. So, we don’t learn very much from this. Perhaps we can look at distances instead? What if we looked at the distances people generally travel? We know in London, for example, that 1.1million car trips are under 5km* and could feasibly be cycled in under 20 minutes. For England as a whole over 60% of journeys made by car/van are between 1 to 2 miles (1.6 – 3.2km)**. Less than 10 minutes by bike. This is highly suggestive that for the majority of car/van journeys, we could switch to bikes. At least from a distance perspective.

The challenge though is already baked into the situation. If people thought cycling was fine for them to do, wouldn’t they already be doing it. Surely they must realise how ridiculous it is to drive such short distances. But the facts are they don’t, so we already face a tough situation. Individuals make initial decisions, that then become habit forming. The option for cycling doesn’t even occur. And even when it does – such as in the school run – then parents are alarmed about the very idea of cycling because its so ‘dangerous’ due to all the parents driving on the school run. Much like being in a traffic jam, parents are never the problem, it’s other people.

It's all so awful it feels like giving up. Some authorities have latched onto behaviour change. Manchester put various groups of people through some behaviour change programmes with a modicum of success. But there are multiple issues with behaviour change (see JRtB Guide). What we actually need is to look at where there is strong cycling populations (Netherlands, Finland) and find out what they have done. Luckily this is really easy to do.

  • They have made a political commitment for cycling

  • They are generally open societies that deal in debate, not violence or death threats

  • They generally understand the issues of climate, health and children’s wellbeing

  • They generally understand the positives of cycling

This has resulted in lots of the right kind of infrastructure to support cycling as a mass transit scheme.

That is not to say there has not been much media outrage and right wing fury against cycling. The Netherlands narrative is one that came out of people, and mostly mothers, having reached tipping point about how many children were being killed by car drivers. But those governments have proved they can – eventually - act in the best interests of their population, rather than the best interests of powerful lobby groups.

The main process will be building good quality cycling infrastructure, that prioritises safety, directness and end to end journeys. Wherever this has happened, we see huge increase in cycling numbers. Putting some bits of paint on a road, and a few easily-ignored signs does not count as quality cycling infrastructure.

So, that’s mode shift. Easy to understand, easy to deliver in theory, hard to deliver in practice.



Contact Andrew Brown on 07795 547069


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