Is Education The Real Key To Getting More People on Bikes?

By Josh Cohen October 5, 2010

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Yesterday, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington's Mary Anderson wrote a post on the Alliance blog arguing that education can have a profound impact on the number of people who commute by bike. Anderson's Exhibit A: Whatcom Smart Trips' 2008 "individualized marketing" campaign in Bellingham.

The campaign targeted one-third of Bellingham households (roughly 22,500 people) by mail and phone, asking them if they wanted information about walking, bicycling or transit. Forty-five percent of the households the group contacted said they wanted to get more information. Those households received an order form for free informational brochures and booklets about bike, pedestrian, and transit safety, along with tips and techniques for biking; about 90 percent eventually ordered information.

Additionally, participants could request a visit from a "bike buddy"---a "one-on-one meeting with an experienced cyclist who reviews bike safety, rules of the road, bike and helmet fit, and even helps plan out bike routes near the person’s home," Anderson writes.

The outcome of the campaign was pretty remarkable.

Anderson writes:
In Bellingham, we saw a 15% reduction in VMT (vehicle miles traveled), as well as an 11% increase in bus trips, a 22% increase in walking trips and a 35% increase in bicycle trips! This results in city-wide mode share of 12% walking, 6% bicycle, 1% motorcycle, 55% car as driver, 21% car as passenger, 4% bus, and 1% other public transportation. In the targeted area, the active transportation mode share is an amazing 20% walking and 11% bicycling!

Contemporary bike advocates generally agree that building quality infrastructure is key to increasing the number of people who ride bicycles. As I wrote last week, this is corroborated by hard academic research.

But if Anderson's numbers are any indication, Seattle would do well to put as much effort into education and outreach as it does into infrastructure. Given that Bellingham has almost double the percentage of people who ride bikes, with roughly the same number of miles of bike paths and striped bike lanes, it's worth considering a well-funded and well-executed outreach campaign in addition to the city's ongoing efforts to build more and better infrastructure.
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