No matter what subject is being discussed or what point is being made, statistics are always presented as “proof” of one position or another. I put the word proof in quotations because statistics have no intrinsic meaning, and as such, cannot be proof of anything on their own. In fact, statistics are dependent upon interpretation. And, that’s where the trouble begins.
One person’s “proof” is another person’s erroneous calculation, misjudgment or personal bias. Statistics can be bent, they can be manipulated, and they can be falsified, but this never stops anyone from pointing to them to support an argument which can’t otherwise be justified.
Statistics are particularly useful for introducing new ideas because many people are unwilling to accept them, preferring instead to stay with what is familiar. Consequently, getting people to change their ways can be extremely difficult.
A new idea must be made appealing. Yet it can’t be made so unless it’s presented in a way that allows people to see its benefit.
To this end, facts and figures give structure to ideas, which can otherwise be abstract and hard to wrap one’s head around. They also give form to new concepts, along with substantiating their advantages. So, statistics play a vital role in progress and growth.
This is what happened with respect to bicycling. In its infancy, cycling was an activity confined to a limited number of people. Lack of mass production and widespread distribution channels kept bicycle use from becoming widely adopted.
With time, these limitations were removed and bicycles became commonplace. First they were used for recreation and then later for sport and transportation.
As far as statistics are concerned, only transportation is of concern. Statistics aren’t warranted for recreational pursuits, or for sport, because those are voluntary activities that one engages in on one’s own time. They are personal activities, which have no bearing on society at large.
Transportation, on the other hand, is a societal issue. It affects the common use of resources, and it affects citizens’ quality of life, as pertains to their ability to move freely from one place to the next.
Whenever a shared resource is in question, any particular usage must be justified. For bicycles, this means justifying cyclists’ right to use the roads.
Principles and usage statistics were initially used to demonstrate the need for bicycle accommodations on American roads. The result was a rise in bike lane installations, shared road markings and inclusion of bicycle parking accommodations in well-traveled areas.
The statistics for how these accommodations would be used were impressive. Growth in ridership was projected on the belief that safer roads would lead to greater willingness to ride on those roads.
Ridership numbers soared. And this increase in ridership was used to prove the validity of the projections.
Whether the increase in accommodations was the cause of the increase in ridership or was just incidental is hard to determine. The answer is probably not one or the other, but a complex combination of factors. Nonetheless, what the figures show is often not what people see when out in the real world.
It’s not that we don’t see larger numbers of cyclists on the roads — most of us do. But what we see is often inconsistent with the statistics we’ve been fed.
For example, take the statistic about bicycle commuters. Statistics show that approximately 75% of bicycle commuters are male. The methods by which these numbers were arrived at are not infallible, so this figure should be taken as an approximation.
What we can see with the naked eye is that there are more males riding bikes on the roads than females — or can we?
I did an informal experiment recently to test whether people saw the defining characteristics of a cyclist, in this case male or female, just as the statistics reported. Although my experiment was not formally implemented and had no controls, it did reveal some interesting results.
If I asked a cyclist what percentage of male versus female cyclists they had observed, the answer varied depending on who was answering the question. On average, males believed that the gender breakdown in their riding area was split evenly between males and females. They reported seeing a lot of women riding bikes. Therefore, they concluded that as many women as men rode bikes in their area.
Women responded differently. Most of them saw a lot of men riding bikes, and very few women. This was particularly true in the suburbs where there tend to be fewer students than one would find in a college town like Boston. Students and student housing begets bicycles — and in turn, more young women riding those bicycles.
Pedestrians and drivers both seemed more aware of male cyclists. Of the non-cycling pedestrians and drivers I asked, most thought that the majority of cyclists on the roads were male. This comes as no surprise when you consider that most stereotypes of rude, obnoxious, lycra clad cyclists feature male cyclists.
If female cyclists are stereotyped at all, it’s for being slow and inexperienced riders who are tying up traffic. Fast female riders generally go unnoticed or perhaps they’re just mistaken for males due to their aggressive riding style.
Before arriving at any conclusions, I reflected on the results of my informal study. It went without saying that individual bias played a part in what each respondent thought they saw. None of these respondents actually counted the number of cyclists they observed. They were simply reporting their impressions.
As one might have expected, the only people to report seeing a high percentage of female cyclists were the male cyclists. I thought the explanation might be a combination of their interest in cycling and their natural tendency to notice members of the opposite sex. As both cyclists and men, the female cyclists drew their attention, so they thought there were more of them.
Female cyclists, who are a minority on the roads, noticed a lot of men. Minorities often feel outnumbered and may become acutely aware of how others around them are different. They might also feel like outsiders due to their small number.
Non-cycling drivers and pedestrians are more likely to notice cyclist behavior over gender. With so many aggressive male cyclists on the roads, men are more likely to gain attention, which will lead anyone they annoy to associate cycling with males. Bias, of course, plays a large role in this phenomenon.
Contrary to the cycling statistics, many of which are based on actual counts of cyclists, visual assessments often portray a different picture of the number and identity of cyclists. In this case, we need formal statistics to present a more objective view of who is riding and where. However, cycling will not have truly made it into the mainstream until what the average person sees is consistent with what the tallies show.
For now, bicycling advocates should continue compiling statistics to show what can’t be seen through casual observation. Over time, these statistics may shape society’s view of cycling. And, hopefully through a thorough melding of numbers and perception a new, improved image of cycling will be forged.