Selling biking: A new study on the ‘swing voters’ of the street

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November 06, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

First in a series.

San Francisco and Portland are celebrated as two of the best U.S. cities for biking. In fact, one in every 25 American bike commuters lives in one of these two cities.

But even in these cities’ bike-friendly neighborhoods, hundreds of thousands of people — it’s perhaps half the population — have ridden bikes before but rarely use them.

What’s stopping them?

Even if they don’t personally bike, what images make them feel best about bikes and bike infrastructure? And what messages do they feel best capture the benefits of biking to individuals and to the city?

In a first-of-its-kind study funded by the PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project in partnership with transportation departments in San Francisco and Portland, Portland-based advertising and research firms North and Wild Alchemy set out to find out. Using professionally facilitated focus groups and a rigorous web survey of 332 registered voters in the two cities who own bikes but didn’t ride frequently, the organizations gathered one of the fullest portraits yet of the swing voters of the bike world.

Over the next four days, we’ll be presenting different aspects of the findings here at PeopleForBikes, for use by those working to broaden the coalition of support for better biking.

“We talked to people who were not daily commuters — in my words, that mushy middle that had some room to move,” Wild Alchemy principal Lynette Xanders said in a presentation.

Green Lane Project program manager Zach Vanderkooy called the launching of the survey a sign of “growing sophistication” among people working to make bikes a bigger part of American city life.

“Companies invest huge amounts of money in this sort of research in order to understand their markets and how to grow them,” he said. “Elected officials are very interested in understanding their constituents and how best to serve them.”

To make the most of the results, we’ve also asked some national experts on biking for the lessons they see here, and we welcome you to share your own thoughts as we explore the numbers for the next few days.

  • Thursday: Perceived safety, the barrier that still matters
  • Friday: Bike images that people like
  • Monday: Better language for better bike lanes
  • Tuesday: The safety paradox

Some findings will be familiar to people who study bikes closely. Others will bring ideas into new light. And some may challenge your assumptions.

“On one level, it confirms that our instincts have been pretty good; it confirms a lot of what people in this world [of encouraging bike use] have figured out through trial and error,” Vanderkooy said. “Another thing it does too is point out that we don’t know everything. We don’t really know in a scientific way what people are hearing when we talk about protected bike lanes or bicycling in general. So it helps us decide what the next priorities are, I think.”

Stay tuned. We’ll be here all week.

If you’d like, you can download the raw results of the survey and a full PDF report of our findingsThe Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for weekly emails of our latest news here. Lead photo by Christopher Porter.

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