Helping Peterborough residents overcome the barriers to try cycling

GreenUP's 'Finding Balance' program provided adults with skills, knowledge, and confidence to use bicycles for affordable transportation or for fun

Cyclists enjoying the popular Rotary Greenway Trail in Peterborough's East City in 2017. When non-cyclists see people on bikes, they may want to take part but may need some support to develop skills or access equipment. GreenUP's 'Finding Balance' pilot program in 2020 was created to meet that need. (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)
Cyclists enjoying the popular Rotary Greenway Trail in Peterborough's East City in 2017. When non-cyclists see people on bikes, they may want to take part but may need some support to develop skills or access equipment. GreenUP's 'Finding Balance' pilot program in 2020 was created to meet that need. (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)

When the pandemic arrived in Ontario in March of 2020, it disrupted the typical ways people in our community travel for daily needs. Transit use and carpooling dropped drastically.

To fill this gap in affordable transportation options, there was a surge towards cycling for essential trips. Cycling and walking also became fast favourites for exercise and recreation for all ages.

However, while many were able to make this move, others were not.

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What prevents you from jumping on a bike? This is a question we at GreenUP ask often at events and in surveys to find out what barriers stand in the way of someone choosing to cycle. Often we hear that people want to feel safe and confident on local roads. Some require access to and knowledge about cycling equipment. Others confide in us that they never had the chance to learn to ride.

During spring 2020 — at a time when cycling was filling such an important need for affordable and convenient transportation and recreation — it felt important to work with our community to open up this opportunity to people who may be facing these barriers.

‘Finding Balance’ was created for this purpose, with generous support from the United Way Peterborough and District and the Government of Canada. This pilot program aimed to provide participants with the equipment and support needed to make a big, positive change in their lives.

After completing GreenUP's Finding Balance program in 2020, participants have been out exploring Peterborough's trails this spring and summer, discovering (as this photo from a participant shows) both the ease and excitement of being able to cycle. (Photo: J. Outterson)
After completing GreenUP’s Finding Balance program in 2020, participants have been out exploring Peterborough’s trails this spring and summer, discovering (as this photo from a participant shows) both the ease and excitement of being able to cycle. (Photo: J. Outterson)

The motivation for participants ranged widely. They expressed a need for access to reliable transportation for essential trips. With Finding Balance, they found the freedom to move through the city on their own schedule and directly to the places they needed to go.

Many participants desired the added bonus of fitting more physical activity into their week to reach physical and mental health goals. Cycling is a great way to get some exercise, but it also provides a break to process the stresses of the day. In our initial Zoom chats, it was also clear that people had memories of how much fun and freedom they had on their bikes as children and they hoped they may experience these simple joys again.

Some Finding Balance participants had never had this experience. For any number of reasons, they didn’t learn how to cycle when they were young. The program gave them a chance to attempt something they’ve long wondered about. Motivations for our brand new riders matched those of other participants, but also touched on the importance of social inclusion — with comments that they would now be able to go on bike rides with their children or friends.

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The team behind Finding Balance worked to remove barriers and set participants on the road to reaching these goals during a difficult time.

One of the first barriers was cost. Transportation costs account for 20 per cent of household expenses on average. Bikes can offer a substantially lower cost alternative than cars. However, acquiring a working bike and gear can still present significant up-front costs. COVID-19 also made this first barrier more challenging, as increased demand for bikes caused a reduction in supply of options.

Thanks to community partners like B!KE in Peterborough and their wonderful volunteers, participants received quality, cost-effective, refurbished bikes. The program also made sure to include the gear necessary to make a bike both lawful and safe — including helmets, bells, lights, and locks.

A decade or so ago, cycling on the road was seen as potentially dangerous. However, with the development of dedicated bike lanes, more adults are using bicycles to commute to work, for exercise, or to enjoy some quality time with family and friends. (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)
A decade or so ago, cycling on the road was seen as potentially dangerous. However, with the development of dedicated bike lanes, more adults are using bicycles to commute to work, for exercise, or to enjoy some quality time with family and friends. (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)

The next barrier we worked on overcoming through Finding Balance was building cycling skills so adult participants could feel confident on the roads.

Not long ago, riding on the road was seen as sweaty, tricky, aggressive, and sometimes dangerous. Over the last decade or so, this has shifted. More and more adults are beginning to see themselves in the cyclists who pass them on the street and are curious to try out riding a bike.

We offered one-on-one sessions with Finding Balance cycling instructors when public health restrictions allowed. These sessions provided a safe space for each participant to improve handling and road skills as they worked toward the goal of riding independently.

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New riders not only learned balance and control in these on-bike sessions, but also had a chance to explore Peterborough by bike. They learned of the city’s vast trail network, and found ways to navigate important daily routes.

The final barrier we overcame through Finding Balance was connecting with the local cycling community and local knowledge. Once you’re feeling confident controlling your new two-wheel vehicle, a lot of questions still pop up. Where are the best places to ride? How do I get through this intersection? How do I lock my bike safely? What do I need to carry groceries by bike?

The one-on-one sessions addressed some of these questions, but connecting with the incredible cycling community in Peterborough can help answer these questions in an ongoing way. While group activities were put on hold due to public health restrictions this spring, projects are in the works that will bring these new cyclists together with local bike mentors to continue the building of skills and connections.

Finding Balance instructor Lindsay Stroud snaps a selfie with program participant Alyssa in 2020. During personalized one-on-one instruction participants work to improve skill and find transportation solutions. For Alyssa, that included finding new routes to her yoga class.  (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)
Finding Balance instructor Lindsay Stroud snaps a selfie with program participant Alyssa in 2020. During personalized one-on-one instruction participants work to improve skill and find transportation solutions. For Alyssa, that included finding new routes to her yoga class. (Photo: Lindsay Stroud)

Following the program, participants have shared that Finding Balance provided what they needed to feel more prepared and confident when cycling around town.

They feel ready to tackle some basic bike maintenance, explore a new trail, and safely move through tricky intersections. Participants are riding farther and taking on more types of trips. Most delightful to hear, they expressed that they were more excited to use their bikes!

While the pilot of Finding Balance has wrapped up, GreenUP is continuing to work with participants and partners on plans for the future. If you have interest in becoming a future Finding Balance participant, bike mentor, or funding partner, please contact Lindsay Stroud at lindsay.stroud@greenup.on.ca.