People often grow to like active travel projects but if policymakers repeat this it comes across as “paternalistic, or even deluded” — ERSI report

— “Pre-bunking” misconceptions is useful as, once cemented, positions can be harder to change.
— Perception of safety on routes, especially at junctions, is key to getting more people cycling.

People often grow to like active travel projects but if policymakers tell the public such, they risk coming across as “paternalistic, or even deluded” according to a report by researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute.

The report from the ERSI’s Behavioural Research Unit looks at local and international research on walking and cycling from a behavioural science perspective.

It outlines how the opposition can be born out of status quo bias — which is described as “the preference for things to remain the same even if change is beneficial”, the effect “can be particularly influential for opinion formation”.

Public doubts about the effectiveness of cycle routes and other measures can play a large part in how people think about proposed changes to streets. The acceptance of active travel infrastructure typically grows after projects are put in place, the report said.

In this vain, researchers also highlight how there’s a disconnect between active travel schemes and their benefits around emissions reductions which means people don’t “join the dots” and see the project as climate action and rather see the change as “a mere redistribution of resources between transport users”.

“While negative attitudes toward cyclists may play a role, the perceived effectiveness of active travel schemes remains a primary factor. People are more willing to support something that they think will work,” the researchers wrote. “This finding arises in a context where the overwhelming conclusion from international research into active travel initiatives is that they are, in fact, effective.”

The researchers said: “Multiple individual studies and systematic reviews show strong evidence that implementing active travel infrastructure is likely to increase rates of active travel. Planning and design decisions determine the scale of effectiveness. There is strong evidence that connectivity, proximity and safety should be prioritized over other design elements.”

The ERSI said that the evidence reviewed indicates that “Improving perceived safety is likely to increase uptake by all sociodemographic groups, but especially women, older adults and children.”

Key to update is “perceived safety” at junctions which influences how people feel on their journey and “the best way to increase uptake is to design routes that are easily accessible from places of residence.”

The report’s authors said: “The implications of this research suggest a need for continued efforts to communicate the supportive evidence and specific measured benefits of active travel schemes. Where initiatives are successful these can be used as demonstration projects in order to reduce uncertainty about effects of future plans.”

However, the researchers warn of the risk of policymakers communicating about the future perception of schemes.

“This is tricky territory for policymakers, as asserting to the public that they will grow to like a scheme that they presently dislike may come across as paternalistic, or even deluded. A commitment to a trial period, where this is feasible, may be a useful solution. Stakeholders and planners would also benefit from gathering data on public perceptions and expectations of active travel plans in order to pre-bunk common misconceptions before they have cemented,” the report said.

The report said that the context of the above is where people are “most strongly influenced by the information and arguments that they hear first and who they hear the arguments from”.

It warns that “Once opinions have formed, they can be resistant to new information that challenges them. Early, clear communication from trusted sources is likely to be the best way to inoculate against misperceptions.”

The open-access research paper was published in the latest edition of WIREs Climate Change, a peer-reviewed scientific journal and can be read in full at The research was commissioned by the National Transport Authority and Fingal County Council.

Dr Shane Timmons, senior research officer with the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit, said: “Opposition to traffic policy changes is not unique to Ireland. However, in multiple countries, research finds that people become more positive about changes once they are implemented. Open and fair consultations with communities to address concerns about traffic, local businesses and safety are helpful. Policy can benefit from more targeted research on how communities anticipate and respond to change.”

Joe Seymour, head of Active Travel at the National Transport Authority, said: “It can often be hard for communities to fully see the benefits of an active travel scheme before it is implemented. However, we have seen, time and time again, how people’s views can change once a project has been delivered and its positive impacts begin to be realised. Helping people see that, at the early stages of any project, is now a key focus for us in the NTA and our local authority partners.”

David Storey, director of Environment, Climate, Active Travel and Sport at Fingal County Council said: “There is a disconnect between public attitudes to climate action and public adoption of climate action initiatives.”

He added: “Mass modal shift to active travel is necessary to achieve meaningful climate action and we are already using this ESRI research to help us make design and communication choices that will close that gap between understanding and behaviour.”

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