Cycling home the other night, I suddenly wondered why I was actually on my bike. It was a typically Dutch winter evening (bitterly cold, windy and wet), we have a car and there had been free parking at my destination. And yet, I wouldn’t think of driving there. Why? The EAST model sprang to mind, a model I’d just been reminded of while reading Inside the Nudge Unit

EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. It’s a model used by the British Behavioural Insight Team and a refinement of the MINDSPACE model, both meant to be used when designing behavioural interventions. And although the Dutch did not explicitly use it when designing their cycling policy (which has been evolving since the 70s), what we now see definitely illustrates the principles. It’s why the Netherlands is a world leader in cycling (with a 27% modal share of all trips), and why Utrecht especially is one of the top cycling cities in the world, with a 51% modal share. Cycling here is EAST.

Easy is the, um, easiest to apply. Not only is the cycling infrastructure here amazing, with safe cycle paths connected in a network throughout the city, but they’ve also used the flip side to make car driving in the city more difficult. On that day, it was evening rush time, and the route I would have taken in the car would have been stop and go, with many lights and other frustrations, and would have taken significantly longer. But even during the day, I just wouldn’t drive to that location unless I really, really needed to. And that holds true for most places within the centre – it’s faster to cycle, more direct, and much less annoying, with less time stopped. Plus, in most of the city, parking for cars is hard to find and expensive whereas parking for bikes is almost everywhere (although bikes get towed too).

Another aspect of the easiness is that it doesn’t require any special gear or clothing, nor planning what to do with said clothing at destination. You cycle in what you have on. You may add rain gear in a downpour (I had a rain poncho this particular day), but many make do with an umbrella, or just get wet. People cycle in suits, in dresses and in heels. The Prime Minister, famously, cycles to work or to meet with the King. And only German tourists (and sometimes young kids) wear helmets – the bicycle union even argues that it’s safer not to (though others don’t agree). The cycle planners may not have contributed to this, but this social norm definitely makes things easier.

Attractiveness is also a factor. Cycling is just more fun than driving. It is good exercise but for the most part that’s not the point. If you want a workout you get a racing bike and spandex, but otherwise it’s just transportation. Despite that it does keep you moving in an enjoyable and not stressful way (unless the weather is terrible, but even then you get the “I’ve won against the elements” high when you’re done). It’s also more attractive to cycle when the route is interesting and safe, as it usually is here. When I cycled in Canada, there were often long stretches of boring terrain that made it a workout to be powered through rather than a simple form of transportation.

With Social, BIT really means using social norms, like the one I mentioned above. And while there are definitely a lot of norms at play here – if you don’t cycle within town it’s really a bit weird, for instance – Dutch cycling hits another aspect of social as well. Cycling is often gezellig – a non-translatable word meaning conviviality, coziness and fun. Every time we have visitors from other countries, we have to constantly remind them that we can cycle side-by-side and chat as we go. It’s normal here, just as if you were walking together. Groups of high-schoolers and university students take it to the extreme, cycling together in amorphous slow-moving blobs, but most people will shift their groupings to make way as needed, before rejoining conversation partners. For me it’s often time I use to talk with the kids, cycling beside them now or carrying them on my bike when they were younger. 

Timely, the last one, is maybe a bit harder to apply. BIT uses it to refer to using prompts at the right time, considering immediate costs and benefits and helping to plan a response to future events. Cycling is so pervasive that it’s hard to identify individual prompts – is it the red-paved streets with “cars are guests?” or the cycle bridge or the huge cycle parking lots at the station allowing quick transfers to trains? And cycling does cut down on costs for transit, fuel and/or parking and it provides many benefits. All of this also means that cycling actually often requires less planning than other forms of transport. And timing, rather than timeliness, definitely applies – it’s simply faster to cycle a lot of the time.

So, even if the Dutch didn’t explicitly use these principles when designing the system, their presence in such a successful system could help others when trying to duplicate it. Of course, build better and more cycling infrastructure, but also think about making it easier, and more importantly, making car use more difficult. It should be more attractive to ride than to drive. Think also about making routes more attractive, not just more expedient. And then, social norms for cycling – how do you encourage people to view it as normal and fun, something that only requires a bike, not lots of other gear – transport, not a sport? And could you make it social by allowing side-by-side cycling? What about including information on cycle routes when people move house? And making sure that cycling can be part of a multi-modal trip – bike to transit, for example? Are there other things you can do to make it EAST?

Finally, a lot of what I’m talking about can be seen in this “mockumentery” about cycling in Utrecht, even though they may overstate the dangers! Enjoy!

Title image “In the rain” by Rick Schwartz, licensed under CC BY 2.0