Internationally, cycling is seen as a way of combating a host of problems, from peak oil to obesity. But a new nationwide survey suggests government initiatives to encourage cycling largely overlook the number one barrier to people choosing to cycle to work: driver attitudes.

Both keen cyclists, Dr Ben Wooliscroft and Dr Alexandra Ganglmair, from Otago's Department of Marketing, set out to investigate the motivations for and barriers to commuting by bicycle. They devised a survey asking respondents to rate how likely they would be to commute by bicycle given a range of scenarios. The variables used included the availability of cycle lanes, the provision of workplace facilities, petrol costs and driver attitudes.

"The choice-based modelling technique we used helps work out the relative value of one attribute over another," says Ganglmair. "We only included attributes that could be changed in the short to medium term. For example, we didn't include distance from work which is likely to be a contributing factor, but is difficult to change."

Driver attitudes came through as the most important issue, but Wooliscroft and Ganglmair were surprised by how much. "The impact of driver attitudes was twice the magnitude of cycle lanes or any other attribute tested," says Wooliscroft. "It comes down to safety. The quality of interactions with cars and other vehicles is the biggest barrier to cycling."

Wooliscroft believes the results will surprise policy-makers and non-cyclists. "People don't see themselves as aggressive drivers," he says.

Wooliscroft and Ganglmair hope their research findings will help provide impetus for more extensive drivereducation campaigns along the lines of those that have helped change public attitudes to drink driving. They say it will take a similar shift in driver attitudes before significantly more New Zealanders choose cycling as their preferred option for getting to and from work.