It’s most evident at public meetings, where typically only the polarized show up. On one end of the spectrum are the few who are “confident cyclists”, content to tackle any street anytime. While no more than 1% of even a bike friendly community, their voices are generally ignored as those of a fringe element.
On the other end of the spectrum, public meetings are often overwhelmed with those opposed who come with strident arguments and misinformation showing their street is better left untouched, as unsafe as they might claim it is. Intimidation tactics are often used to push people to sign petitions. Municipal councillors are deluged with phone calls and email that’s downright nasty in tone and content. Sometimes, outright deceit is used, for example, meeting with the fire chief and learning that bike lanes pose no problem for emergency response, and then running ads and soliciting petition signatures based on the assertion that bike lanes will slow emergency response and cost lives.
The risk of course is that municipal councils be swayed by these vocal minorities, avoiding conflict, under-serving the majority of residents, and leaving the community languishing in the rearguard of economic progress.
In between those poles, however, lie the majority of the population who are “interested, but concerned”. Research repeatedly shows that this group will rarely attend a public meeting, wants to have the choice to ride a bike more for everyday getting around, or for recreation, and will shy away from having to mix with motorized traffic.
Being informed by this evidence from many municipal studies, the Brockville cycling advisory committee adopted as one of its design principle:
Everyday Cycling – The segment of the population targeted by the network is first and foremost the “everyday” cyclist – those people who would like to bike recreationally to start, perhaps with friends and family, and then venture to use their bike for everyday trips around town for appointments, work, school, shopping and visiting. Research shows this group is eager yet cautious – reluctant to mix with motorized traffic – and holds the greatest latent demand. Safety for all ages, all abilities is considered. The network will also serve, but is not specifically designed for, those comfortable with and skilled at mixing with traffic on Brockville’s busier roads.
Following the research and case studies, is an article posted on Planetizen by public engagement strategist Dave Biggs of MetroQuest, “The Wisdom of Engaging Nervous Cyclists“. He outlines the extensive outreach that Toronto did to engage people in that largely silent and less heard middle group. The results were outstanding and unequivocal, leading to design and plans much further reaching than might otherwise have happened.
“It was clear to the City of Toronto that engaging less confident cyclists that make up 60% of the population, yet seldom come to community meetings, might be the key to dramatic mode shifts in the city.”
And summarizing the results, “It’s useful to note that without careful consideration to the voices of the less confident cyclists, the results of the community engagement would have pointed to infrastructure suited to the 1% of the population who are already confident cyclists since they are highly engaged. Naturally it’s important to meet the needs of confident cyclists. By also accommodating those on the fence, planners can open up a massive opportunity for change.”
And an analogy worth keeping in mind, “A city without separated bike lanes and off-street cycling paths may be like a swimming pool with no shallow end. It’s fine for confident swimmers but intimidating for novices.”