One of the main findings of the cycleBOOM project which set out to investigate the barriers to older adults’ cycling was that of precariousness.
By this I mean the rather fragile status that cycling holds for many people. Our research suggested that cycling may be especially precarious among the 50+ age group.
Even those who consider themselves to be a confident or resilient rider know the effects that a ‘near-miss’ or unpleasant incident can have on their confidence. These incidents are typically unreported; the Near Miss project which asked cyclists to record their experiences of riding on a single day is designed to generate understanding of how common such incidents are, why they happen and what effects they have on people.
In our research with older adults, a lack of confidence was not only a barrier to maintaining cycling; it was often also a disincentive to taking up cycling in the first place. So-called reluctant riders were put off by many factors but concerns about their personal safety and a lack of confidence in their ability to ride on roads were high up on the list.
Confidence (or a lack of it) was also an important issue for those considering taking up cycling after a break from riding. For example, those wanting to take up riding again following retirement as a way to increase their level of physical exercise.
We called these cyclists re-engaged riders. Many of them modified their cycling behaviour to avoid what they considered to be risky situations. For example, they chose to ride solely on off-road cycle routes or avoided journeys at peak times. These decisions were typically due to a combination of concerns about traffic and personal safety and were compounded by a lack of confidence in their ability to cycle in a full range of environments and navigate busy roads.
Often re-engaged riders had not cycled for many years, and their riding was even more precarious because of it. For example, some described how much busier roads had become since they had last ridden a bike leaving them without the necessary skills to deal with heavily trafficked journeys.
Many local authorities are looking to increase cycling numbers. This can potentially bring a number of benefits, including reducing traffic congestion and increasing levels of physical fitness and social wellbeing.
However, there are many barriers to encouraging an uptake in cycling, not least the dangers (both real and perceived) of riding on roads.
Cycle skills training, particularly training that focuses on building on-road riding confidence, can be one way to encourage reluctant riders to consider cycling. It can also be an effective way to support those who have re-engaged in cycling to extend their riding beyond traffic-free routes. It could also help more resilient riders to continue their cycling by refreshing their riding skills, and by offering techniques to mitigate some of the negative effects that incidents such as near-misses can have.
We saw in our study that cycling training can have benefits for all types of riders.
As part of the Bike Smart Reading programme, there are a number of free "Back on Bikes" confidence building cycle training sessions being offered to those in the Reading area in April. These include an introduction to cycling on roads, skills to help riders navigate the town and basic bike maintenance skills.
For further information and to book, go to: bikesmartreading.betterpoints.uk
Dr Emma Street, Associate Professor in Planning and Urban Governance, University of Reading
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