Empowering the Elephant and Castle community through behavioural informed cycling initiatives – a CIVICA student's approach

by Sophie Walton (BSc Social Policy)

As a CIVICA Engage Track student who partook in last years’ European Week, for my Showcase Assignment I reflected on how I can apply social science knowledge into community projects like Elephant and Castle.

As a student interested in civic engagement, I’m interested to see how the community may benefit from initiatives to make real change for the long-term residents of the area.

Sophie Walton, LSE student

If anyone reading this lives and/or have cycled through Elephant and Castle, I’m sure you can relate to this blog. It can be quite confusing and scary. For those who haven’t, Elephant and Castle is in Zone 1/2, located in the London Borough of Southwark, just south of the river and can be accessed by the Bakerloo and Northern line. It’s centred by a large junction, said to be London’s most dangerous and unpleasant junction.

My team during CIVICA European Week 2021
My team during CIVICA European Week 2021

As someone who’s first hand seen these changes over the last few years, it’s interesting to look at the process through an academic lens. Partaking in the LSE course, Urban Geography and Globalisation I was able to mould my perceptions of civic engagement. Through combining behavioural and geographical lenses, this blog attempts to understand how we can empower the community through cycling initiatives.

Elephant and Castle is considered London’s next gentrification project. With good tube access, demolishing the infamous shopping centre, expensive coffee shops replacing Latin American owned retail, Elephant and Castle is becoming an increasingly trendy and expensive area. This creates a unique policy environment for community empowerment. 

To reflect, I understand I am most probably contributing to the gentrification of the area. As a student who seeks relatively cheaper rent, the area is attractive. With trendy night clubs and nice coffee shops – you can’t deny it’s an interesting place to be. 

The new Castle Square development
The new Castle Square development with trendy outlets. Sophie Walton 

This blog attempts to take a step back and encourages optimism. As a student interested in civic engagement, I’m interested to see how the community may benefit from initiatives to make real change for the long-term residents of the area.  

Juxtaposition of Latin American owned retail and new, modern development
Juxtaposition of Latin American owned retail and new, modern development. Sophie Walton 

Similarly, we should also reflect on the debate that cycling initiatives cause gentrification (as the middle-classes are better able to utilise cycling infrastructure). This blog seeks optimism in that cycling and social disruption do not need to go hand in hand. Cycling is transport, and we should see it the same as other TfL services. Denying this community access to good cycling infrastructure is more harmful as ~ 46% London households don’t have access to a car. Worsened by TfL rising prices, cycling must be affordable, with equitable good infrastructure across London.

Beyond the well-known health and environmental benefits of cycling, empowering people to cycle can help many re-claim the spatial elements of their livelihoods. Cycling provides an opportunity to connect communities as opposed to divisions through highways and expensive metro networks. Bikes are economically more accessible than cars, and with rising prices, many of those being hurt by such developments may benefit from cycling schemes.

Elephant and Castle’s main junction currently is not suitable for cyclists. For better insight, I asked residents of Southwark to comment on the cycling infrastructure to create a podcast.

So, what can be done? A lot according to our European peers. London doesn’t have the lust for cycling like we see in The Netherlands, so there’s obstacles to overcome. Mounds of literature cites insights from behavioural economics to understand how we can mould individual motivations to choose cycling. But before we discuss these, we should clear up what’s already in the area.

London generally has chosen "superhighways" as their main infrastructure for cyclists. Super in the sense they’re usually completely separate to the road, which is most desired by cyclists. The existing safe superhighways actually bypass Elephant and Castle’s junction generating inefficient routes for locals.  

For example, according to Google Maps, a commute from Old Kent Road (just south of Elephant and Castle) to LSE through the junction directly takes around 22 minutes but going on the quieter superhighways (C17 and C10) adds an additional 7 minutes. This is a 32% increase in total time. This deters many from choosing to cycle and instead opt for the bus which takes the same time. On TfL's map of London’s cycle highways, no route grows directly through the junction.

Applying behavioural economics, specifically the Theory of Planned Behaviour, we can understand how to mould individual’s motivation to cycle. Motivation is said to be driven by three things; (i) one’s attitude to whether they like cycling (is it safe and do I want to cycle instead of the bus?); (ii) other people’s perceptions of cycling (do people like cyclists on the road, do my peers approve of my cycling?); and (iii) whether the individual has the resources to cycle (do I have a suitable bike and are the roads safe to cycle?).

The Elephant and Castle’s junction deters cycling motivations due to the currently poor infrastructure for safe cycling (iii). This creates an assumption of danger allowing people to prefer other modes of transport to commute like the "safe" bus (i). This creates a social norm against cycling (ii).

Community empowerment

To allow behavioural economics to stand a chance at succeeding, Southwark council need to provide a better cycling route through the junction. Development should make all lanes segregated (not just striped line) to remove confusion and dangerous cycling through the road and on pavements. These images show segregated vs striped bike lanes in the Elephant and Castle area. Note: the segregated cycle lane does not continue throughout the junction.

Segregated bike lane in the Elephant and Castle area
Segregated bike lane in the Elephant and Castle area. Sophie Walton


Striped bike lane in the Elephant and Castle area
Striped bike lane in the Elephant and Castle area. Sophie Walton

This now creates the stage for behavioural economics to step in. Infrastructure alone is not enough to promote cycling behaviours. The "build it and they will come" rhetoric is challenged by Dill and colleagues who suggest additional soft, behavioural informed measures must accompany big development. Yes, a better cycling route through the junction creates more comfortable cycling environment, but showcase events need to demonstrate the misconceptions of cycling. This changes (i) one’s attitude to cycling; (ii) better creates a cycling culture in the area and (iii) showcases safety. 

Showcase event RideLondon in May
Showcase event RideLondon was a huge success this late May with most of London’s streets closed exclusively for cycling. Sophie Walton

Furthering empowerment to individuals (and understanding what actually empowers the community) to make their own decisions is vital. Specific policy recommendations are difficult as the Elephant and Castle community has a unique set of needs and demography. Behavioural insights though can guide approaches though learning from other contexts.

CIVITAS Handshake reports from around Europe showcase how reward systems can incentivise people to cycle successfully (rewards being small cash transfers/vouchers for local shops). The financial reward moulds individual planned behaviour as it changes one’s perception of cycling into a positive (there is something to be gained through choosing to cycle) and can contribute to the provision of resources necessary to cycle (e.g., if the reward is bike repair vouchers).

Whilst sounding perverse for the community (giving poorer communities a financial reward for cycling), it’s proven effective and has positive influences for individuals across Europe. This could be viewed as a paternalistic state function, however in the optimistic tone of this blog, the community could genuinely benefit from such schemes.

As a whole, its undeniable that the infrastructure of the junction needs to change. Behavioural economics then can help influence cycling motivation uptake to potentially help residents feel a reclamation to their spatial livelihoods. As a CIVICA student, I advocate community involvement in any future policy development, as they are the true experts!

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