'Cyclists rarely choose the shortest route but the one that feels shortest' says new study

New paper calls for more contextual understanding of cycling route choices in order to influence policymaking

Clock11:56, Thursday 23rd May 2024
Cyclists in New York City

© Getty Images

Cyclists in New York City

Cyclists prioritise safety and convenience, even if it means riding further, according to new research that hopes to improve analysis of cycling route planning and influence policymaking.

A new paper by Miroslawa Lukawska of the Technical University of Denmark, published in Transport Reviews, showcases a review of 33 prior studies from a variety of countries that use GPS data and statistical modelling to examine route choice behaviour of cyclists on utilitarian trips.

“Despite many years of research and rapid changes in the field of bicycle route choice modelling, a review of factors associated with cyclists’ route choice decisions is missing,” Lukawska says.

The review finds that the studies conducted to date are “strongly dependent on the local context” and calls for more “individual information” to be incorporated as part of a “quantitative and qualitative” approach to “build bridges between bicycle research and policymaking”.

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The paper largely sticks to recommendations for future research, but does draw some conclusions of its own surrounding route choice of so-called ‘utilitarian’ cyclists – those using bikes as a means of transport rather than leisure.

“The results of bicycle route choice studies suggest that cyclists rarely choose the shortest route but rather the route which feels the shortest,” reads the conclusion. “This feeling reflects a perception of a continuous ride, with a minimum of interruptions on the main corridors, such as sharp turns and intersections where cyclists have to wait.

“The relevance of these concepts will gain even more importance when the route choice preferences of cyclists on e-bike trips are better understood,” the paper adds.

Cyclists, then, are generally not concerned with plotting the shortest route from A to B. In some cases, the extra distance may be balanced by a reduction in journey time, given lack of stoppages on a continuous ride.

However, the paper identifies the feeling of safety as the consideration that trumps both distance and journey time.

“Safety aspects underlie most of the motives for choosing a route to cycle. Separation from motorised traffic appears as the most important decision factor and, although cyclists are willing to detour for bicycle lanes, segregated facilities are crucial for larger roads.”

“In car-friendly cultures with heavy motorised traffic, building cycleways or multi-use trails taking course away from traffic might be most effective.”

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When it comes to multi-use trails, the paper draws a difference between ‘bicycle-emerging’ and ‘bicycle-established’ cultures, in terms of sharing space with pedestrians. In the case of the former, this is “a forced compromise and such routes are chosen because the alternatives are worse from a safety perspective.” Meanwhile, “insights from bicycle-established regions, where interaction with pedestrians is avoided, imply that comfort becomes an important route choice determinant when basic safety needs are fulfilled”.

The paper concludes with a call for more detailed research into the context behind route choices from the full gamut of cyclists, including individual cycling proficiency, access to equipment, and general motives, along with how exactly they interact with the environment around them, from the weather conditions to the infrastructure in place.

“In light of the evident heterogeneity in route choice preferences, addressing the needs of various potential cyclists poses a challenge for planners. Drawing parallels between the barriers to cycling and the route choice preferences of vulnerable groups or people cycling infrequently, as well as understanding the needs of non-cyclists are of crucial importance.”

Keep up to date with the latest cycling news on the GCN website.

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