Cycling to Work, ‘it’s just what we do…’ could Social Practice Theory help?

Why don’t more people cycle? Here’s a small experiment you can try. Introduce ‘what can we do to encourage cycling to work’ into a conversation. Wait and see how long it takes before someone mentions, ‘The Dutch’. Less than 5 mins I’d wager.

Depending on which bit of the internet you believe, 25% of all trips to work in the Netherlands happen by bike. This compares to less than 3% in the UK. There are ‘mountains’ of material explaining cycle use in the Netherlands, and it’s not just because of the lack of mountains (and hills). Cycling is a ‘social practice’. “We aren’t cyclists, we’re just Dutch” is a typical comment, which this BBC article explains in, ‘Why is cycling so popular in the Netherlands?’

Social Practice Theory and Behaviour Change. Here’s a quick reminder (my interpretation) of some of the science behind Social Practice Theory (I covered this in my last post: ‘Social Practice Theory, Tube Chat and relevance to Behaviour Change’.)

  • Social practices are the behaviours that define a group of people.
  • This is what that the group does, but also what it believes and understands about the world.
  • Some of the social practice is obvious and easily observed from outside, and some more subtle, like what things mean and unwritten rules.
  • Most human behaviour is influenced by social practices.
  • This influence is part of our automatic response, we don’t think about what, or why we are doing something, we just do it, as part of the ‘social practice’.
  • I used the example of not talking on the London Tube to illustrate this (see previous post).
  • From the behaviour change perspective – the Social Practice Theory argues that you focus on understanding and changing the social practice – rather than the individual person.
  • From a policy perspective (and value for money), changing behaviour through changing social practices can have an impact with a much wider group of people.
  • Focussing on changing social practices rather than just individuals changing their behaviour is quite a big deal.

A bit more Social Practice Theory: Professor Elizabeth Shove who’s done a lot of work in this area divides the things that contribute to social practice into three ares; Materials, Know How and Meaning.

  • Materials. These are the physical things needed for a social practice.
  • Know How. The skills and competency needed to perform actions that fit with the social practice.
  • Meaning. The understanding of what it means to perform that social practice.

I’ve seen this neatly wrapped up in the description of driving a car (as well as other things like having breakfast):

  • Materials: The car, the road infrastructure etc
  • Know How: passing your driving test, knowing the highway code etc
  • Meaning: the unwritten rules of the road like when to reverse when you meet another car on a single track country lane, and the say thank you with a wave.

Key Point: If you want to change the social practice (and the behaviour of the people influenced by it) you need to change the component parts and the links between them.

You can read more about this in Chapter 12 of Beyond Behaviour Change, edited by Professor Fiona Spotswood. The Chapter is written by Daniel Welch from the University of Manchester and uses a lot of material developed in the field of sustainable consumption (it’s worth reading).

Cycle to Work Schemes and the MAMIL’s I was discussing social practice theory with a friend when she helpfully pointed out that the cycle to work scheme at their office was never going to work (on a large-scale). This was because of the MAMIL’s and meaning.

The MAMIL’s (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) in the office had assumed responsibility for cycling and were ‘encouraging’ everyone else to be part of the ‘cycling revolution’. In her words, “if they think I’m going to join in with a bunch of sweaty blokes in skin-tight leggings, they can forget it”. The social practice of cycling within that office had a meaning that was associated with being a MAMIL. The organisation was going to struggle with increasing participation, despite the;

  • Buy a bike cheaply through the cycle to work scheme (economic incentive),
  • New showers (materials to support cycling),
  • Well lit bike racks (more materials)
  • A refresher course on Cycling Safety (skills development) and
  • A publicity campaign from the Comms Team (some social marketing),

There was no way my friend was going to engage in a pastime where the social practice had an alien meaning.

Linked back to the ideas around how you change social practice I have tried to capture some of the discussion we had about how you might change the social practice of cycling in that organisation. It’s in the diagram below and covers a range of activities that focus on social practice, not the individuals (it’s not perfect by a long way, just an illustration).

My image. Adapted from the work of Elizabeth Shove et al

Back to ‘The Dutch’. I think the BBC article (above) gives a good insight of cycling in the Netherlands; being a ‘social practice’. It is a picture of complex social practice that is driven by: Materials, Know How and Meaning. From what I’ve seen, in many cases people try to effect behaviour change by copying part of what they see has worked elsewhere and applying it locally. It doesn’t really work like that.

Having financial incentives to buy a bike and having a publicity push isn’t going to create a ‘Dutch Cycling Culture’ in your organisation, if the ‘meaning’ associated with it alienates 97% of the workforce, sorry MAMIL’s.  (This post is partly a confessional to being a one time wanna be MAMIL….. but I’m over it now).

And back to the Valley’s -1950’s style. There is also something in reminding ourselves our past. Talking to my Mother about riding a; single gear, (heavy) steel framed bike between Nelson, Ystrad Mynach and Treforest Trading Estate in the 1950’s /60’s is making me feel bad. Do I really need 28 gears and lightweight carbon-fiber frame before I even think about cycling to work? No I don’t! It was my Mam’s social practice before she’d even thought about me.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Most of our behaviour (what we do) is influenced by the social practice of the group around us (an automatic response that we don’t think about).
  2. Social Practice Theory is about changing behaviour through changing the social practice, not focussing on the behaviour of individuals.
  3. If you can change the social practice of a group, you can have a much wider impact.

Footnote: I probably should have read this paper before I wrote this post. From Professor Fiona Spotswood et al, Analysing cycling as a social practice: An empirical grounding for behaviour change.  Everything you need to know about cycling and social practice theory is here.

PS. My Mother learned to cycle on this bike. Borrowed from Granny Tucker, who was in her 80’s and used to ride to the farm to milk the cows every day.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

7 Responses

  1. There’s one big main outstanding reason for the cycling in Holland. The cycling paths and infrastructure.
    Imagine if in this country couldn’t drive your car from your house to the shops or to work or your kids school because there wasn’t a road to drive it on? Perhaps for part of the way there, there is one small section that abruptly stops for no reason and doesn’t actually connect any important places. Oh, and you share it with pedestrians.
    There’s so many brilliant blogs about the crazy nonsensical attempts at “encouraging” cycling and making it safer that dont bother with the simple and proven method of building safe paths segregated from cars. (hugely recommend this one)

    When it comes to cycling it’s dead easy, as you correctly suggest, cycling to work schemes won’t work, they don’t. They just make it easier and cheaper for people who already do cycle. I should know, I am one.
    Build good quality cycling infrastructure that’s separated from cars, LIKE IN HOLLAND, and ordinary people of all ages ride bikes. And there’s other things like speed limits or out right bans on cars in residential areas. But it’s cycle paths that makes cycling normal and unremarkable, cos when normal people cycle, then cycling becomes normal. And they won’t until it is easy but most importantly is safe and FEELS safe. Safe enough that your kids can ride everywhere and not be riding withing touching distance of an articulated lorry passing you.
    You can’t change cycling in a single organisation, you change it at the much larger level of region and country level. And you can’t do THAT until you have people who want that and will vote for it. And I don’t think people, in England anyway, have demonstrated recently their ability to think and vote as sensibly as the Dutch.

      1. Lots of cycling bloggers are, the best I’ve read recently is

        Touching on trying to make people think and therefore behave differently, whilst ignoring the elephant in the room.
        Pedestrians have pavements to keep them separate from cars, imagine if they didn’t, imagine the attempts at trying to get drivers to “understand” and think differently? Instead of just building pavements

  2. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about
    Forcing function being equal to physical barriers, ie separate spaces with gap and or barrier inbetween.
    Automation i suppose being the driverless car, which would be fantastic for cyclists, acting as a forcing function too to enforce law and highway code viz passing distance, speed etc
    Right at the bottom training and education

  3. Ruth

    I have generally chosen not to join the lycra clad cyclists (except when I was training for the Wales Velothon last year, and also wasn’t working), as I have a short commute to work and don’t want to have to change my clothes before I can sit down at my desk. To that end I have just bought a new bike with a lower top tube, so that I can continue to wear the knee length skirts and dresses that I wear to work.
    I also think it’s important for me to be showing my children that you don’t have to get in your car to go everywhere, and that this mindset will stay with them into adulthood, after I have set them the example.

  4. […] Other ‘psychological effects’ have been described in 6 Purely Psychological Effects of Washing Your Hands published on PsyBlog. They cover things like; being more optimistic, feeling superior to those who don’t wash their hands and ‘guilting’ other people into washing their hands. Good old peer pressure and a bit of social practice theory. This aspect might be of interest to anyone who’s hoping to change group behaviours as a result of coronavirus. I wrote about social practice theory here: Cycling to Work, ‘it’s just what we do…’ could Social Practice Theory help? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s