Beverly Hills Wants to Know: You Bike?

Bicycle questionnaireBeverly Hills wants to know: Do you ride a bike? How often? For what purpose? The city is asking via a distributed flyer at Pilot program outreach meetings. (Here is our response.) Given this rudimentary questionnaire, though, could the data gathering have been very productive? There is no shortage of bike surveys from nearby cities that offer good models. Let’s take a closer look to suggest improvements to a second-round improved survey that should be at the center of our city’s bike planning effort.

Every planning effort is based on knowing current conditions. For a housing element update we will want to know about the age of the stock, vacancy rate, and other characteristics. For the circulation element we will need to assess traffic patterns and count vehicles. For the Bicycle Master Plan we will want to know how frequently people ride and to which destinations. We also want to know why they don’t ride more often and we will want their suggestions on improvements to encourage more bicycling. To what extent do road conditions and availability of infrastructure and bike parking affect one’s choice to bike? Among people that do bike, how do they perceive safety on our streets? For those who don’t bike, what would entice them to mount the saddle?

Yet this basic Beverly Hills bicycle questionnaire doesn’t collect nearly enough information  to plan effectively. It barely scratches the surface. But then brevity is its virtue – it takes only a minute to fill out. Don’t we need to collect the kind of data that informs other elements of our General Plan? Don’t we need a solid process behind the update of our 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan?

Where This Questionnaire Falls Short

For a questionnaire related to the Pilot program currently underway, it conspicuously doesn’t ask about the candidate routes already identified for possible improvement. Nor does it ask about the most frequent destinations (which assists in route selection) or even address the ‘last-mile’ challenge of making transit connections convenient for cyclists. That’s essential in a city like Beverly Hills, which is well-served by bus lines but over-congested by unnecessary car trips.

Beverly Hills bicycle questionnaire question detailThe questions are divided into two categories: description and preferences. Most of the descriptive questions ask about frequency and trip length. But there is no question about specific destinations like most other bike surveys ask. That is a missed opportunity: how can we help make the most often-traveled routes safer if we don’t know which they are? (We have no bike count to go by either.)

Second, ‘survey 101′ reminds us to ask respondents only questions they can answer. The ‘average’ frequency category is inappropriate here because respondents have no way of knowing what is average for any trip. Better to use a 4-point frequency scale anyway, which precludes straddling the middle of the scale; instead the 4-point scale forces respondents to lean to one side or the other.

In the preference questions at bottom, we have another methodological problem: ‘facilities’ is not defined so respondents can’t be expected to provide a response that may accurately reflect what they know. The term is most familiar to bike enthusiasts. It may leave casual cyclists scratching their head. Adding to confusion, only one kind of facility – bicycle lanes – is queried here, though the Pilot feasibility study identifies other treatments like sharrows too. (Indeed bike lanes are identified as feasible for only a small share of the candidate route segments anyway.)

Another rule of ‘survey 101′ is to ask what we need to know. Asking about the Bicycle Master Plan seems a red herring here: few are familiar with the plan that dates from 1977; that plan was not addressed in any detail in the outreach meetings where this questionnaire was distributed; and not updating the plan is simply not an option because it’s not appropriate to have a 1977-era document included in a 2010 General Plan update. Besides, updating our bike plan is supposed to be the focus of our city’s ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee. There’s no need to ask about it.

Other problems with this questionnaire concern communications – never a strong suit of Beverly Hills City Hall. Note that the comments box is so small, that if the city really were seeking input there’s no place to really note it. That’s not encouraging of feedback.

And make note that there is no city contact information printed on this questionnaire. Have a question? Want to mail the form in? You will have to do your due diligence to uncover the proper contact person and department responsible. (Hint: it is Martha Eros in Transportation.)

More obviously, the questionnaire passes up an opportunity to ask respondents for their contact information. This really is ‘survey 101.’ Every other bike survey asks for a contact email address (if not a name) and extends an invitation to be kept informed about the planning process. The failure to include a contact info line is no mystery: our city has done very little to engage the broader cycling community during the Pilot program process.

For would-be respondents who couldn’t make the public meetings – let’s say the 99% who cycle through our city on a daily basis – we’ve appended the missing contact information on a downloadable version of the city’s bicycle questionnaire [pdf]. We offer it too because the city has not made it available online with the other Pilot program documents. Somebody ought to!

Opportunities For Questionnaire Improvement

Let’s think about our objectives for a real bike planning questionnaire. We want to understand how stakeholders feel about traffic conditions and how they perceive them to discourage cycling. We need to gauge the need for programs like riding skills & safety instruction and see if respondents indicate that taking a course will be more likely to get them back into the saddle. We also want informed guidance on the appropriate infrastructure improvements, like dedicated bike signaling, bike boxes and high-visibility bike lanes. We might ask, Would a separate cycle track make you feel more inclined to bike? A properly-constructed online survey could help us capture informed and thoughtful insights and preferences.

Now, we can dig into the FHWA’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Data Collection handbook (all 200 pages) or merely breeze through other cities’ surveys. We did the latter to offer our suggestions. There’s no reason why staff can’t pull together a better bike survey than the one in hand simply by doing what we did. Our suggestions: