Why Don’t More People Bike?

New survey looks at cycling’s “swing voters”

It’s a question that dogs cycling advocates, policy makers and public health officials: Why don’t more people ride their bikes?

The answer depends on a wide range of factors, not the least of which are weather and convenience.  Those and other hurdles aren’t enough to deter a small contingent of dedicated bike commuters, but for the much larger portion of the population that’s generally sympathetic to cycling but only rides occasionally,  the answer to that question could hold the key to bringing cycling into the mainstream.

A new report sheds some light on this “mushy middle,” in the words of one quoted expert, and gives some statistical weight to an answer most of us could have pegged right away: safety.

According to the report, published last week by non-profit national cycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes as part of its Green Lane Project, survey respondents in San Francisco and Portland, Ore. who rarely bike responded positively to images of bike lanes separated from traffic either by protective barriers or clear visual delineation from car traffic. Images of poorly marked lanes, sharrows—shared bike and car lanes marked by arrows—and lanes that incompletely separate bike and auto traffic rated badly among these "swing voters."

The online survey was conducted this fall in partnership with the transportation departments in San Francisco and Portland, and Portland-based advertising firms Wild Alchemy and NORTH.

The report generally upholds what previous research has suggested. A similar study from 2010 out of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that, of the 1,402 current and potential cyclists surveyed, an overwhelming majority responded positively to pictures of off-street paths (71 to 85 percent of respondents) and physically separated routes next to major roads (71 percent). Routes on major streets and rural routes did poorly.

But while perception of safety is a major issue, there’s something to be said for actual safety, as well. A recent op-ed in the New York Times, provocatively titled “Is It OK to Kill Cyclists?” points to the basic inequality of cyclists and drivers, even in the eyes of police.  The writer, Daniel Duane, explains:

When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.”

As long as law enforcement also has a perception problem, it will be hard to make those swing voters feel truly confident about making the switch to cycling.

Still, this is a multi-layered problem, and PeopleForBikes drives home an important point: would-be cyclists are scared of cars.

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