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Even a skewed Seattle Times poll finds little support for more driving

Demographics from the Elway/Seattle Times survey. These are not representative of King County or Seattle.

You may have seen a headline from the Seattle Times going around this weekend saying that people in Seattle and Kind County don’t like bike lanes. Well, it’s not really as simple as the headline might suggest.

I’ve been thinking about the poll for a couple days now, and we should get one thing out the way: It’s never great to see bike lane support in any context from any sample of the population be below 50 percent. The Elway/Seattle Times poll found 40 percent of respondents in Seattle and 36 percent in King County support more bike lanes. Those aren’t devastating numbers (did anyone think bike lanes were not divisive?), but they sure aren’t great.

So while this post will dive into some serious caveats, let’s be clear that there is still work to do to get more bike lane buy-in from more neighbors of all ages.

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But it is important to note that just over half the survey sample came from landline phone calls, and reporter David Gutman notes that 75 percent of respondents were homeowners, a far higher rate than the 57 percent countywide rate. Homeownership and the presence of a landline means these results are going to be quite skewed older and wealthier. Indeed, the majority of respondents were older than 50. A quarter of respondents were 65 or older, but the 2010 Census found that only 11 percent of county residents were in that age bracket. That’s a huge difference that’s going to have a big impact on the results.

Since we already know that bike stuff is less popular among older populations, it’s not surprising to see bike lanes get lower marks in this survey. The Times didn’t release a breakdown by demographic, but I bet bike lanes got less popular with each age bracket increase. Bike advocates and organizers should be looking for ways to make sure they are reaching people of all ages, so that could be a worthy takeaway from this survey.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents made $100,000 or more annually. Renters and young people are dramatically underrepresented here. And though the Times did not publish racial demographics, black homeownership has plummeted in the Seattle region in recent decades.

Elway is a respected survey firm and Gutman is a solid reporter. But getting an accurate poll is very difficult and expensive these days, and it’s especially hard to reach renters. It just is not accurate to present the opinions of older homeowners as though they are the opinions of the general population. A person who rents is just as important as someone who owns a home, so their opinion is also just as important. I mean, one of the ideas that got even lower marks in survey than bike lanes was allowing more apartment buildings that have no car parking. People looking for cheaper rent are going to have a much different opinion about that than homeowners who already have a place to live, so that hardly seems fair.

Gutman notes some of the shortcomings of the sample in the story, but that nuance was lost on the headline writer. And since many people don’t get past the headline, now there are ton of readers who think nobody likes bike lanes. And that is not true.

The context of the survey was also about traffic, and traffic mitigation is only one reason to build bike lanes. In fact, it’s far from the most important reason, which is safety. There are many people who want streets to be safe for everyone, but who don’t necessarily believe that bike lanes are going to improve traffic.

So, once you take in all these caveats, maybe 40 percent isn’t so bad from this survey. Again, people have a lot of work to do to shift our transportation culture and get more people, especially seniors, to see bike lanes as a positive addition. But don’t let the Times headline make you believe this survey shows that bike lanes are unpopular.

To flip all this around the other way, it’s pretty incredible that even a skewed sample finds little support for trying to make it easier to drive. This was a friendly sample for driving, and yet “making it easier to travel by car” got lower marks than bike lanes. Even this sample clearly sees the solution to traffic is to make it easier to get around without a car. Only five percent of Seattle respondents (eight percent in King County) said they blame a lack of investment in roads and highways for the traffic. That feels like a pretty serious culture shift from the highway-building focus of the 20th Century.

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17 responses to “Even a skewed Seattle Times poll finds little support for more driving”

  1. Peri Hartman

    Ok, I’ll go first. There are two principal factors I hear most people mentioning as to why bicycling in Seattle doesn’t work. Weather. Hills.

    I’m really optimistic that the attitude will change regarding hills. E-bikes are catching on and, with them, hills are flat. If the survey is taken again (hopefully with a more accurate representation) in two or three years, I suspect that complaint will be heard a lot less.

    Weather. Quit your complaining and look at Amsterdam. Once we remove the hills, you’re out of excuses.

    1. Skylar

      Weather rarely makes sense as an excuse in Seattle. Sure, it rains, but that’s easy to workaround with rain gear or just tolerance for being damp. A good chunk of the country has to deal with ice in the winter and oppressive heat in the summer, and those seem like much harder problems to solve.

      1. Craig

        I would say that weather (and short winter days) makes riding more dangerous if you are riding on roads with cars, no matter how well prepared you are. Weather (and darkness) are both strong arguments in _favor_ of dedicated bike infrastructure, IMHO.

    2. Yesler

      Besides the rain and hills, the reason for lack of increase in bicycle commuting in Seattle is simple: Incredibly shitty bicycle lane design. Study after study after study has shown that in order to attract bicyclists, bike lanes need to be protected and connected, including protection at intersections. If you want to increase bike commuting, that’s what you have to provide. Doing less than that is a big waste of everyone’s time and money.

      Now, some bike lanes in Seattle are connected and protected, like along Mercer. Those bike lanes get used. Then we have the bike lanes on Banner Way NE, which seem designed to kill bike riders. And as a result bicyclists universally, and very wisely, avoid them. Thankfully, no one seems dumb enough to ride there. They do however, create lots of car congestion. Does that help anyone?

  2. Marko

    Those surveyed have probably also never experienced a robust bike commuting culture. Since that’s likely unknown to them, it’s little wonder they would not identify bike lanes as a priority. Educating the public (and modeling bike commuting) is important.

    However, the biggest obstacle to more cycling in Seattle in my view: lack of connected or consistently high-quality bicycle infrastructure. Building better infrastructure reduces the perceived (and actual) danger factor … which leads to more cyclists.

    1. Sirmarksalot

      I think Amsterdam is pretty much the exception worldwide as far as bicycle infrastructure is concerned. It’s a rare place that has both a bike commuting culture and a rule-following traffic culture. Other places I’ve been where it’s considered normal to bike have had a laxer approach to traffic rules. My main experience is in Osaka Japan, where cyclists almost universally ride on the sidewalk, and dodge between pedestrians. On side streets, it’s generally accepted that cars will pass both cyclists and pedestrians with about six inches of room, and rather than having clear rules of right of way, everybody is just sort of winging it.

      Complain all you like about drivers blowing through stop signs, but Seattle has a comparatively rule-following culture — I’ve never lived in another city where drivers even slow down at a crosswalk, let alone stop for you. It’s great because, as a driver, you know there’s a simple algorithm that you can follow that will get you to your destination in a reasonable time. The downside is that rule-establishing infrastructure like traffic lights and roundabouts take up space, and when you dedicate some of that infrastructure to bicycles, people notice that reallocation of space.

      I really hope Seattle gets a fully connected bike infrastructure, and I really appreciate what we already have, but I think we need to be honest that we are one of a handful of cities to make an earnest attempt at this.

  3. Brock

    All points very well-taken.

    Just a little contrarian caveat to one caveat: Seattle’s median *household* income is just over $100k. As such, it’s not surprising that 40+% of the respondents said their household income was at or above $100k.

  4. Breadbaker

    I’m just back from Vancouver, B.C. for the weekend. Not too long ago, Vancouver’s bicycle infrastructure consisted of a lot of sharrows on some side streets with hills, some disconnected paths and not much more. Now there is a serious network of protected bike lanes that extends well into the suburbs. And they’re used. This took a serious effort; it didn’t happen for free or overnight. But it’s completely changed the landscape.

    Vancouver is, relatively, flat compared to Seattle. It also has a very different governance structure and much higher taxes to pay for stuff like this. But they certainly have the same weather.

    1. bike bike bike

      Vancouver is just one small component in the overall cycling area here, and the discriminatory actions by local municipalities is constantly dragging down biking commutes. It is getting worse here, not better. I could go on and one but all people want is good news and to think that public policy is helping, it’s a sham to make you the rider feel better that something is getting accomplished.

      Ride outside of the city limits and see what it is really like.

  5. PD

    Boy you are skewing the results based on what suits you. You even went so far as to insinuate those rich homeowners. Guess what, I love biking but i hate the bike lanes. In Delridge they ripped out the street parking for bike lanes no one uses. My taxes in a few years have doubled and a ton of the money from tabs and property taxes is basically paying for welfare bike community that does not contribute to the cost of those said bike lanes. Traffic is worse than ever and guess what a lot of folks dont have the luxury of a bike to work scenario. You sound like a smug hipster and arrogant to boot. You guys are not under represented. The folks who are paying the bills are under represented. Besides you may not have noticed we have some of the shittiest biking weather.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Wait, people who bike don’t need to pay property taxes? Why didn’t anyone tell me this?!? I could be saving so much money.

    2. Law Abider

      In Delridge they ripped out the street parking for bike lanes no one uses.

      One of the reasons I switched from Dexter to the Westlake parking lot years ago was because I hated getting stuck in a platoon of cyclists going up the hill.

      My taxes in a few years have doubled and a ton of the money from tabs and property taxes is basically paying for welfare bike community that does not contribute to the cost of those said bike lanes.

      If you take the recent, but flawed survey, approximately 3% of commuters bike to work. The 2018 budget was over $472 million, which means that at leat $14 million should have been spent on bike facilities if you want to talk about representation. That didn’t happen.

      There are already two statements that are easily refuted. At that point, I can only assume the rest of your comment is similarly out of touch with reality and didn’t bother to read it. Nice try though!

    3. Dave

      Wow – talk about skewing the argument based on what suits you. You grossly overestimate the amount of roads and transportation budget is spent on bike infrastructure. Only 0.2% is spent on bicycles. I own a car and pay property taxes and want bike lanes. Anyway only 23.2% of revenue for transportation is from drivers and 8.3% from property taxes. 28.4% from sales tax.


    4. PD, I don’t know how old you are. Maybe you have the attitude “I’ll be dead, so I don’t care” like the president’s lawyer. You don’t care that even without road diets, the streets of Seattle will soon be permanent parking lots due to population growth and there will be no point in trying to get around in a car. You don’t care that our marine life is dying off due to the tons of crap coming out of our tail pipes. You don’t care that the climate is rapidly heating and billions of people will be displaced due to coastal flooding. You don’t care that massive amounts of taxpayer dollars will be required to alleviate these problems. Seattle needs to stop being hypocritical about climate change and invest as fast as they can in safe and connected routes for people biking before it is too late. If you build it they will come worked for the Field of Dreams, it will work for the Seattle of our dreams. Even though I will be dead when it happens.

      1. PD

        Well since you want to put words in my mouth and point fingers over something you dont know as much as you think you do let me fill you in. I just turned 50 and my degree is in wildlife ecology. I am a lifelong environmentalist and was even a bit radical to some about saving it. You pick and choose some arguments and then say i dont care and you are wrong on both counts. For starters, yes cars pollute but there are not enough bikes making a difference to change that. We need stricter emission controls as well as a crack down on large trucks, not to mention boats. BTW you got a gas weedeater? Those pollute even worse. Trains? Metro buses I think get 3-4 mpg so not as clean as you think if I am right and it might be better for the environment to carpool than to take the bus. I see lots of empty busses driving around btw. Also airline travel is a major contributor to the issues as well.


        As far as marine biology, well you left out the boating pollution, over fishing, shoreline armoring, dams, sewage, and a whole lot of other issues that are impacting the marine ecosystem. I am very much aware and in support of much stricter rules concerning pollution especially from cruise liners and fishing boats. I want to see massive reductions in shoreline development and removal of existing armoring as well as going after the folks building non-permitted and illegal shoreline walls.

        But you really leave out the main contributor to the warming of the planet and that is that the number of people is pushing past the carrying capacity at a super rapid pace. All these people want a home, heat, power and yes a car. You cannot reduce pollution without some form of a hard look at the population that is driving it.

        But back to my original point is that the bike lanes in Seattle are poorly conceived and generally not used and the bikers are not paying their fair share for it. We don’t need sound transit light rail, we need a proper subway as well as high speed trains like in Europe going up and down the coast. I gotta think that reducing the lanes for bikers that barely use them is only contributing to more pollution from cars sitting there burning fuel longer without moving and increased commute times. Seattle could learn from Amsterdam because their lanes are smart and not just converted streets. Downtown we have wide sidewalks that could be converted to partial bike lanes. But this is really more about the city of seattle’s war on cars and downtown businesses than it is about making a positive statement on pollution because they never really address the real issues. Just my 2c and feel free to disagree as I know you will. Its not personal to me its my opinion and I stand by it. PD

  6. Gary

    I’m in San Diego now and we have “perfect” weather for bicycle commuting and almost no dedicated infrastructure and high speed limits on arterial roads. Thus the commuting by bike is 1% and out in the North County where I live it’s got to be even lower. We also have hills, (steeper and more of them than Seattle) but there are tons of riders out on the weekend, so it can’t be that the riders don’t like hills.

    Why are speed limits high? Because long ago CA passed a law to prevent speed traps which says that if a city doesn’t monitor a road every 7 years, they have to set the speed limit at what 85% of the drivers drive it at. So since the engineers made these nice wide paved streets people whip around at 50 or more so the speed limit is yep, 50mph. On a road that in Seattle would be 35 or 40mph. As a bicyclist this leaves almost no time for an approaching car to see you and take evasive action even if there are sharrows and signs saying “bike can take whole lane.” You’d be insane to do that. (Except on weekends when people ride in large packs.)

    There are places where it would be possible to ride on a lower speed neighborhood road, but a lot of them up here are private gated communities which do not allow random riders to cruise through.

    In a few places there are dedicated bike lanes, but then along the highway CA has not put in concrete barriers. The chain link fence gets mowed down regularly by cars leaving the freeway but it’s rare they hit a rider because the lanes are disconnected and thus underused. (Even though the rush hour traffic can be stop and go…. You’d think some of those drivers would chose to ride vs that horrible traffic, but no. The reason is of course it’s not safe to ride from your neighborhood to the bike lane or from the bike lane to your work at the other end….)

    I’m riding anyway with a if I die, who cares attitude and maybe in some far future there will be enough political will to change things.

    Good luck Seattle, when I first moved there when Mt St Helens blew the cycling was terrible then too. It got so much better. My hope is that San Diego will eventually get better too.

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