Drawing Conclusions from Narrow Cycling Data Sets

It is very encouraging that more and more data is being collected concerning both the safety of cyclists and the overall adoption of cycling.   Most recently, Oregon Health Sciences University released their study of bicycle commuters in Portland.   While offering some specific and valuable insights about Portland, this type of study only offers limited value for drawing broader conclusions about the safety and risks of bicycle commuting as a whole.   The discussion that has followed this study, as well as many of these recent studies, has been quite heated. Generalizations and broad conclusions have been flicked back and forth incessantly (along with tempered discourse offsetting those generalizations).

Bike Data PuzzleSome of the studies seem quite tailored to draw conclusions in order to support a specific agenda.   While these agendas are generally agreeable to most bike commuters, the perception that “the agenda strongly motivates the study” runs the risk of giving the study a biased feel, which detracts from the studies overall authority and therefore its usefulness in the end.

I will state emphatically that I applaud the efforts put out into the various recent cycling studies, such as the recent Australian helmet study, the London assertiveness study and numerous others.   The information gathered, organized and presented is an arduous task that is instrumental in supporting bicyclists and our efforts to develop a safer environment for cycling.   However, while these efforts are tremendous, I feel that it is important that efforts be made to contextualize the resulting studies within a broader spectrum of existing and yet-to-be-gathered data.

Following the release of most of these studies, it would be wise to begin tempering the conversation with the acknowledgment that, at the moment, we mainly are arguing with our instincts and assumptions rather than comprehensive data. The data sets so far are not broad enough to offer any level of certainty. I can acknowledge that the arguments and debates that follow the release of a study leads to some very interesting discussions.   But it also feels like we are spending a lot of time chasing our own tails.

A broader objective in discussing the collection of cycling data sets is attempting to piece the puzzle together.   This would mean that data from a broad variety of bicycling studies would be gathered and, compared.   The goal is to organize a broader data set presenting as much available information about bicycle commuting in as many scenarios as have been studied.

It is clear that the groups behind the current studies would conduct broader levels of research if they could.   The limitations are certainly financial.   And I’m sure that corresponding data about auto and airplane use is abundant due to the financial impetus to understand this.   I wonder if the Dutch or the Danes have not already conducted broad studies on bike commuting with the purpose of supporting the momentum of their continued exemplary commitment to bicycling infrastructure development.   I wonder if the Dutch and the Danes would ever consider studying the US as an example of how not to implement transportation infrastructure. Probably not, they probably prefer to stay focused on what works, not on what doesn’t.

In piecing together the current limited resources supporting bicycle commuter studies, one of the goals should be to build momentum towards encouraging and motivating larger scale, broad based research.   Bike commuting studies must acknowledge that they show a slice of the picture, thereby defining the need for whole spectrum to be displayed.   An effort to contextualize all of the existing studies within a shared framework would be a very fruitful effort as well.   In fact, if anyone is considering conducting a study on bike commuting in their region, I would instead encourage that they consider looking at the value of gathering the existing data and finding the points of cohesion between the various data sets.   CommuteByBike.com and UtilityCycling.org would certainly offer support if such a compendium study was conducted.

With an appropriate amount of convincing, perhaps either local or federal government will come around to seeing the value in conducting broader studies of bicycling safety and adoption.   The motivation to better understand how cycling can better fit into our transportation infrastructure is clear and it would only take a very small slice of the BP reparations to conduct a very thorough, broad based and most importantly useful study of cycling safety, usage and implementation throughout the world.

There also could be a financial motivation to gather cycling usage and safety information.   Google comes to mind.   While it is unclear how committed Google is to improving their cycling map data (i.e. the Bike-There feature), it does seem clear that collecting data about cycling would help improve the functionality of these maps.   Location specific information about bicycle accidents could potentially assist Google in recommending safer cycling routes.   At the same time, this data could be recompiled for other uses.   Google is certainly masters of both data gathering and reporting, and if they discovered a motivation to focus their expertise in data towards cycling, I’m quite certain that they could compile some very relevant and useful information that would support decisions about the implementation of agendas supporting the wider adoption of cycling.

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