Understanding bicycling in cities using system dynamics modelling

31 Oct 2017

BACKGROUND: Increasing urban bicycling has established net benefits for human and environmental health. Questions remain about which policies are needed and in what order, to achieve an increase in cycling while avoiding negative consequences. Novel ways of considering cycling policy are needed, bringing together expertise across policy, community and research to develop a shared understanding of the dynamically complex cycling system. In this paper we use a collaborative learning process to develop a dynamic causal model of urban cycling to develop consensus about the nature and order of policies needed in different cycling contexts to optimise outcomes. METHODS: We used participatory system dynamics modelling to develop causal loop diagrams (CLDs) of cycling in three contrasting contexts: Auckland, London and Nijmegen. We combined qualitative interviews and workshops to develop the CLDs. We used the three CLDs to compare and contrast influences on cycling at different points on a “cycling trajectory” and drew out policy insights. RESULTS: The three CLDs consisted of feedback loops dynamically influencing cycling, with significant overlap between the three diagrams. Common reinforcing patterns emerged: growing numbers of people cycling lifts political will to improve the environment; cycling safety in numbers drives further growth; and more cycling can lead to normalisation across the population. By contrast, limits to growth varied as cycling increases. In Auckland and London, real and perceived danger was considered the main limit, with added barriers to normalisation in London. Cycling congestion and “market saturation” were important in the Netherlands. CONCLUSIONS: A generalisable, dynamic causal theory for urban cycling enables a more ordered set of policy recommendations for different cities on a cycling trajectory. Participation meant the collective knowledge of cycling stakeholders was represented and triangulated with research evidence. Extending this research to further cities, especially in low-middle income countries, would enhance generalizability of the CLDs.