Challenge for Change: A Local Bike Venture Takes the UK

Tim Norton, originally of Matamata and living in Wellington, partner and investor in Challenge for Change.

After reading a short article on Stuff about locally grown but since exported Challenge for Change (nee iCycle), posting on this blog about the project, and reading a few clarifying comments from readers, I decided to get in touch with local social entrepreneur and co-founder of the project, Tim Norton, to get a little more information about his cycling venture.  Tim met with me on a brilliant Wellington day and outlined the inspiration and goals of the project, his thoughts on pushing behavior change and his instinct to be involved in that incitement.

Before our talk, I did a little research, as follows…

These days, if there is an industry dedicated to web-based bike-to-work incentive programs for the workplace (phew), Challenge for Change seems to have asserted itself aggressively as a leader to follow.  At least in England.  The company boasts contracts with over 20 towns and all major cities except London (who, I learned from Tim, has not documented an equivalent success with its government-run program).

Over three years, Challenge for Change has tracked more than 53,000 people who participated in their government-funded workplace challenges.  With the assistance of public health professionals and social researchers on staff, the team at Challenge for Change measures and reports the social and economic benefits of its workplace challenges by charting, among other mind-blurring details, the number of new cyclists, the number of trips undertaken by bike, the percentage of new cyclists who continue riding, the reduction in sick hours used by participating cyclists, and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions avoided because of them.  Reports provided by Challenge for Change to the cities and towns involved highlight these benefits in contrast to the minimal investment expended to get them.  Currently, the average cost to the local authorities to transform one non-rider into one rider who commutes by bike at least one time per week for a year is £39 (86NZD).

So, that’s the good stuff I found on the Challenge for Change and other websites.  But what I wanted to know from Tim is whether this was a sustainable model to keep people riding and why it isn’t in use here, its birthplace.  I appreciated that Tim had spent a lot of time mulling over both questions over the years.

The first thing Tim made clear was the essential role of Thomas Stockell, the current Managing Director of Challenge for Change, and the man with the original idea for the project.  In 2002, Tom initiated the BikeWise Business Challenge, a project marketed to New Zealand Transport Authority to encourage commutes by bike.  He wanted to encourage an existing community of riders to excite others to try it out and he saw the workplace challenge as a fun way—fueled by friendly rivalry, not petrol—to strive for the myriad benefits that would flow from increased cycling.

At its inception, the BikeWise Challenge didn’t have the web presence that has become its calling card in the days since.  That was where Tim came in.

In his earlier days, Tim had worked to seek funding for SmartMeters, an innovation that would permit the reading of energy meters over cellular networks and increase consumer understanding of energy consumption.  Over a couple of frustrating years, he found that the broad social and economic benefits the meters offered was not especially attractive to the traditional energy sector.   To Tim, it seemed that the bits most saleable in his mind—the obvious social good and net economic value of the meters—were the same bits that repulsed the interests he hoped to attract.  In what seemed to be a quick education in the pitfalls of capitalism, Tim discovered a personal preference to work toward a world that valued positive social gain over profit.  He didn’t swear off the potential to earn, but he did set his priorities.  He wanted to make change first, then he wanted to figure out how to make a living at it.

In setting about his new mission, Tim set himself up with two questions that continue to guide his projects.  First, what will make a difference and second, how will it generate revenue.  He started businesses in line with his mission and tried to raise money to carry them.  He took careful note of what worked and what didn’t.  He supplemented his philosophy with a commitment to innovation and results.  And that provided him with his path: find or develop those efficient innovations that offered the best, measurable results.  He also believes in the importance of making the doing of good look even better.

And here’s where Challenge for Change really started to roll.  Tom Stockell had wanted to move to the UK, where it just so happened that a number of “Cycle Demonstration Towns” funded through Cycling England were primed for an incentive program to get more folks onto their bikes.  (An interesting side note: the infusion of funds for this program increased the amount of money spent by local authorities on cycling initiatives from £1 per citizen per year to £16, resulting in a 27% increase in cycling over three years.  Dutch towns, including Amsterdam, spend £10-20 per person per year on the same.  What does Wellington spend?) For an annual investment of £36,000, a town of 300,000 could hire Challenge for Change to plan, implement, market and monitor a three-month program that would see local companies competing to log the most miles on bike.  Smaller towns are also accommodated and incur smaller cost.

Bikes await riders. Credit to Challenge for Change site.

But what is it about the challenge that will continue to inspire riders to ride, thus making the model a sustainable one of keeping and adding numbers to the bike world?  Well, Tim says it’s the idea that his partner Tom came up with at the beginning.  It’s about changing the behaviour of a community and understanding that it’s a community that ultimately inspires itself to grow.

As an example, at the start of every challenge, the Challenge for Change team works with the staff of participating organizations to identify habitual riders.  These riders are asked to share their bicycle experience with other staff, and even to share their bikes.  In a 10-minute cycle challenge, non-riders and occasional riders are loaned the bikes of regular cyclists for a whirl around town.  You can watch a sample reaction in the video.

Other incentives are offered as well: there may be movie tickets available for a regular cyclist and a non-cyclist who agree to ride together to catch a flick; some riders will get coupons to eat out if they ride for their dinner.  The purpose is to get people back in the saddle, to remind them of the feeling of pushing into a breeze and to mitigate the a common barrier to taking up a bike habit: fear.

In those first ten minutes, or that first adventure into town, people are usually swayed by the fun and surprised at the ease.  The fear part, Tim said, is usually relieved by doing.

And upon conversion, the new rider, in turn, is asked to share her experience with other non-cyclists.  The community continues to expand as more people climb on a borrowed bike and remember just how nice it feels to ride.

This is the stuff behind the behavioural change theory that Challenge for Change is all about.  And it’s part of the innovation behind the idea that could guarantee, or at least assist, its future.  As Tim explained it, it’s the same idea that drives us all to meet with friends to get pissed on a Friday.  You get invited to join and it’s fun; it’s the same.  But, he was quick to amend, it’s better and has more worth.  That’s how a social entrepreneur thinks.

As for the reasons that the Challenge for Change folks no longer manage the BikeWise Challenge here in enZed, well, I’m saving that for my next post.  If you need a sneak peek, it’s not far off from the choice that London made.  And Challenge for Change has expanded its reach to Adelaide and is hoping to begin work in Sydney.



3 thoughts on “Challenge for Change: A Local Bike Venture Takes the UK

  1. Lisa

    Nice article!

    “In those first ten minutes, or that first adventure into town, people are usually swayed by the fun and surprised at the ease. The fear part, Tim said, is usually relieved by doing.” <– This is exactly how it was for me. After the initial 'Help I'm really high up and I'm moving!' and 'F—, there's a bus behind me! Help!' I didn't want to get off. It took over two hours to prise me off the bike.


  2. Great post Megan.
    So, how much does Wellington spend per person on cycling?
    I estimate $150,000 / 195,500 people = less than a dollar per year.
    Add a bit for the Regional Council, but a long way short of the Dutch.
    Ride on.


  3. Pingback: Bike Wise Challenge 2011: How it compares to Challenge for Change. : Cycling in Wellington

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