People for Bikes

The perception that biking is unsafe remains a major stumbling block in getting more people to ride.

Maybe you're that breed of bike owner who has a cycle but almost never rides it. A person whose bike, bought in a hopeful moment, is sitting in the garage or basement, its tires flat and its seat coated with dust.

What would take to get you out and rolling?

Bike advocates are trying to figure out how to motivate people who would like to ride those neglected bikes, but perceive the streets as uncomfortable, unsafe, or downright terrifying. To that end, the national group People for Bikes recently surveyed registered voters in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, teasing out their perceptions about bike safety and bike infrastructure.

The resulting report, "Selling Biking: A New Study on the 'Swing Voters' of the Street," shows that the perception that biking is unsafe remains a major stumbling block. But it also reveals just how appealing good bike infrastructure looks to the same people who are scared to ride on today’s streets. And advocates think that gives them something concrete to work with.

"Companies invest huge amounts of money in this sort of research in order to understand their markets and how to grow them," said Zach Vanderkooy, manager of the Green Lane Project of People for Bikes, in the group's report on their findings. "Political campaigns use research like this to craft effective data-driven messages to their constituents. Bicycling can benefit from the same techniques."

According to the survey, advocates have a long way to go when it comes to perceptions of whether it's safe to ride. Among respondents in San Francisco, where fatal crashes involving cyclists made headlines around the time of the survey, 80 percent said riding in the city was "very" or "extremely" unsafe. Even in Portland, which had not seen a cycling fatality in the year prior, that number was 69 percent.

As Emily Badger recently pointed out, biking is often the most time-efficient mode of transportation for trips of a certain length. But if people think they're going to get killed doing it, they're not going to care about saving minutes, or any of the other myriad benefits of biking.

What would it take to change that?

Clearly marked and fully separated bicycle infrastructure might help to do the trick. When survey subjects were shown images of brightly painted protected bike lanes, they had an overwhelmingly positive response. One picture of people riding bikes in a green-painted lane separated from cars by reflective poles got a favorable reaction from 90 percent of the people who saw it, all of whom were registered voters who own bikes but don’t regularly ride.

In contrast, a picture of a lane marked only by white stripes of paint, with cars encroaching from both sides, got an 87 percent negative reaction.

Guess which of these people prefer? Images courtesy of People for Bikes.

But the survey reveals the complexity of our emotional response to bicycling. When asked to evaluate a series of messages about reasons to ride bikes, 60 percent responded favorably to the idea that biking makes you feel happier, has significant health benefits, and saves money. The message that biking "is a safe option for everyone" and that safety increases with more riders and better bike lanes, got a favorable rating from only 47 percent of respondents.

While policy-makers like to think about safety when they are crafting cycling plans, the general public seems swayed by positive words and images.

That seems sort of obvious to Doug Gordon, who blogs at Brooklyn Spoke. "Look at the automobile industry," he said in the report. "If they really wanted to appeal to people’s safety, they would show crash statistics, survival rates.... You don’t see that any more. You see the car parked in the driveway and the family playing catch."

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