INTRODUCTION: SURVEYS AS DATA
The Massachusetts Statewide Bicycle Survey was conducted over the Summer of 2021 to get a holistic picture of the state of biking across Massachusetts and how it was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We were interested in how, when, and why people biked both before and during the pandemic, as well as how they imagined their biking behavior changing in a post-pandemic world. This survey, which was distributed via flyers, email, and word of mouth in partnership with many community organizations, ended up receiving more than 7,000 responses. The respondents were clustered around the immediate Boston area, but we heard from people in nearly every part of the state, and the breadth of responses allowed us to examine how biking differs from region to region.
We wanted to conduct a survey specifically because some information is only knowable by asking questions. Automated data, like bicycle counters, provide a lot of information; for example: how many trips are being made, where they are being made, and how volumes have changed over time. However, survey data is the only way we find out who the people are, why people made the travel choices they did, and how they make travel decisions.
Eventually, if we want people to change their behavior, we need to talk to them about how to encourage that behavior shift. For example, encouraging someone who already cycles to make one more trip by bicycle would likely be a different conversation than encouraging someone to make their very first cycling trip. Because of the MA Bicycle Plan’s broad focus on everyday cycling, we wanted to include everyone who ever bikes (or even considers it), even if the respondents do not think of themselves as “cyclists”. Therefore, the outreach focused extensively on people who bike but are not generally represented in surveys (e.g. people who use bikeshare, who borrow their friends’ bikes, who only ride occasionally or used to ride but not anymore, etc.).
This first survey was an initial test to see how hard it is to survey cyclists (especially non-regular cyclists), which groups need follow-up outreach, and where we are likely to have holes in understanding. The focus of this survey was on collecting pandemic-behavior information; future surveys can and should focus on behavior change in the New Normal as we seek to increase trip-making by bike. The survey questionnaire is available here.
GENERAL RESPONSE SUMMARY
Overall, despite extensive outreach efforts to target everyone who rides a bike, many of the respondents were more “traditional” cyclists, who bike relatively frequently. For example, the survey respondents likely underrepresent lower-income riders (and relatedly, riders who don’t have access to a car); riders who don’t own a bike; riders of color; and younger riders (see Figure 2).
However, due to the large number of overall responses, even though the overall demographics are likely not representative, there are enough respondents in most demographic groups to evaluate whether there are differences in opinion or behavior for groups of interest independently.
The final working dataset included approximately 5,900 respondents, excluding people who have never and say that they will never bike (~500 respondents). The data is sorted into low, medium, and high frequency riders:
- Low (1-3 days per month)
- Medium (1-4 days per week)
- High (5-7 days per week)
The dataset is also reported out in three geographic regions: the inner core, the outer metropolitan area, and non-metro Massachusetts. The metropolitan “inner core” was defined based on membership in the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) Inner Core Committee. It consists of Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Newton, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, Waltham, Watertown, and Winthrop (pink region in Figure 3). The rest of MAPC’s jurisdiction makes up the outer metro area, shown in blue.
Approximately 500 respondents reported that they do not ride bikes and will never ride a bike. Most cited age, ability, and logistical reasons, but some also reported that they hate biking on philosophical grounds.
Riders: Main Patterns
Across the rest of the responses (those who ride at least sometimes, or do not ride but may possibly ride in the future), there are some high-level patterns that hold true across regions. Overall:
- There was a decline in biking frequency during the pandemic, with many more people decreasing their biking or ceasing it altogether than increasing their biking.
- People primarily say that a car would have been their second-choice mode of transportation for their most recent trip.
- Recreational trips are the most popular trip type reported to be made by bicycle, especially outside of the more urban areas.
- The most common concerns people have related to future biking are about safety and infrastructure.
Frequency and Purpose of Cycling
In the last 30 days, how often did you make a trip on a bike?
In a typical summer month prior to the pandemic, how often did you make a trip on a bike?
How often do you think you will make a trip on a bike in a “new normal”? (Imagine herd immunity is reached and most in-person activities are resumed)
The overall pattern in frequency change looks similar between regions: from the pre-pandemic baseline, we see a dip in frequency during the pandemic, but respondents projected in Summer 2021 that they’ll bike more in the “new normal” than they did pre-pandemic. Here, the outer metro area more closely resembles the outer service area – in fact, past, current, and projected frequency are all a bit lower on average in outside the service area than in the outer metro area, and averages in the inner core are significantly higher. We can think of that projected average as a sort of ceiling for bike frequency post-pandemic, since people are generally a bit optimistic on their future behavior.
In the last 30 days, which type of trip did you make most often?
In a typical summer month prior to the pandemic, which type of trip did you make most often?
Recreational biking is overwhelmingly prevalent outside the inner core, with 71% of non-metro and 77% of outer metro area respondents saying they made recreational trips most often, compared to only 36% of inner core respondents. Conversely, in the inner core, many more respondents indicated using a bike primarily for commuting to work, shopping, or running errands. Much of the decrease in cycling during the pandemic likely comes from the cancellation of in-person activities (e.g. switch to work-from-home). About ¾ of the trips outside Inner Core are recreational, so patterns are more muted. In general, frequency decreases came from decreases in commuting/work trips. Work trips decreased, and personal errand trips increased throughout the state.
Survey Question: Think about the last trip you made on a bike. If you had not used a bike, what mode of transportation would you have used?
In each region, bicycle trips are most frequently an alternative to car travel – exactly what we would hope to see. The percentage of respondents saying they would have used a car as an alternative to their last bike trip ranges from 39% in the inner core to 48% in the outer metro area (compared to 46% outside the metro area).
In contrast, public transportation is only an alternative within the inner core, where 26% of respondents list it as an alternative (compared to 4% in the outer metro area and 6% outside the metro area). Use of regional transit is much less common within our sample than use of MBTA services as an alternative.
Outside Metro Boston, since people are doing a lot more recreational biking, many more people are saying they wouldn’t have made their last trip otherwise (which makes sense since replacing a recreational trip with another mode defeats the purpose).
We also know a little bit about the profile of respondents using these different options – people who are naming public transit as their alternative are more likely to be using the bike for commuting/work trips than those who are indicating that they would drive or walk instead of biking.
Motivations and Barriers to Cycling
Question: When you choose to bike over other travel options, why do you do so?
Respondents could select up to three reasons for choosing bicycling over other options. Health benefits was the most popular response overall, but there were regional differences in other motivations. Convenience, affordability, and parking availability were all markedly more popular responses among participants in the inner core, while participants outside the inner core were much more likely to cite recreation as an important motivation. On this question, responses from the outer metro area and non-metro Massachusetts look in many respects identical: for most options, their results don’t differ by more than one or two percentage points, with the largest gap being for convenience (23% in the outer metro area vs. 18% outside the metro area).
Question: What is the largest barrier that may prevent you from traveling by bike in a “new normal”?
Safety is by far the largest barrier to biking selected by respondents: 55% in the inner core, 45% in the outer metro area, and 43% outside the metro area. In addition to this, many of the responses from participants who selected “other” and wrote in their own answer are safety-related, with about a quarter of “other” responses overall citing a safety-related issue like a lack of bike lanes, poorly maintained roads, or unsafe behavior from drivers.
Interestingly, within the inner core, respondents who plan to bike more frequently post-pandemic are more likely to cite safety as their primary concern. Likely relatedly, safety concerns are slightly but consistently higher for non-male respondents, respondents of color, and respondents with less access to a vehicle, at least in the inner core (outside of the inner core, these groups do not have enough respondents to evaluate).
While some of what we saw in the survey results confirmed our expectations, we definitely saw other things that were surprising – the overall decrease in bike ridership during the pandemic, for example, didn’t match the narrative of an uptick in pandemic biking leading to bike shortages. If our survey is representative of the state, that could mean that even if there were an uptick in new riders, it was outweighed by the pandemic leading those who rode pre-pandemic to bike less. Some findings, like the higher rate of safety as a barrier within the inner core where bike safety infrastructure is most robust (and overall higher prevalence of safety concerns among high-frequency riders) might require more data to explain – potentially a topic for a future, more targeted survey.
Overall, the survey experiment was successful. As we continue to come out of the pandemic, it is important to continue surveying cyclists to make sure that we’re capturing changing behavior and decision-making patterns that come with the New Normal aspects of more hybrid work, more all-day travel (rather than peak-concentrated), etc.
Future research could benefit from devoting an even larger proportion of outreach efforts for statewide initiatives in order to recruit more respondents from outside Metro Boston. Additionally, more focus on responses from less frequent cyclists even within Metro Boston would give us a more robust sample (perhaps in-person intercept approach to supplement online outreach).
Topically, it would be good to add at least two more areas of content: first, more clarifying questions on motivation for bicycling and what would lead to behavior change (e.g., what originally spurred respondents to start bicycling, and what would convince them to cycle for more of their trips). Relatedly, more questions about marketing approaches to gauge effectiveness of different messaging for different groups of riders would allow us to begin targeting messaging to increase everyday biking as we build out more cycling infrastructure in the near future. And second, more clarifying questions on how much people are willing to go out of their way to access bicycling infrastructure, and what level of infrastructure is needed (i.e. whether cycling infrastructure needs to exist on every street or can be on parallel streets; or whether investment in greenways may be the only path toward more cycling in some locations).