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Attitude Adjustment
Attitude Adjustment

In cities throughout the U.S. bicycling is experiencing a renaissance.

The resurgence is apparent from increasing numbers of cyclists on the road. Local governments keen on promoting the environmental and health benefits of riding are investing in innovative infrastructure projects and encouraging residents to engage more frequently in active modes of transportation. Since 2008, private sector partnerships with public agencies launched bike share programs in sixty U.S. cities, increasing public access to bicycles. Meanwhile, researchers at institutions like Portland State University are exploring the facets of cycling from new and creative angles.

Tara Goddard is an urban studies Ph.D. candidate affiliated with PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center. Last year, a paper Goddard coauthored with colleagues Arlie Adkin (University of Arizona) and Kimberly Kahn (PSU) garnered the attention of media outlets including The Oregonian and the Huffington Post. Conducted in Portland, the study found that African-Americans waited thirty-two percent longer than white people in crosswalks and linked that observation to implicit racial bias among drivers. Embracing a similar interdisciplinary approach as she did in the crosswalk study, Ms. Goddard’s dissertation combines social psychology, urban planning, and transportation engineering in an attempt to understand conscious and unconscious factors that influence drivers’ behaviors where cyclists are involved.

“I’m interested in approaches cities take to planning for a sustainable and just future,” Ms. Goddard said. “A critical component of those plans is reducing single occupancy vehicle travel and finding other ways to get people where they need to go. Cycling is one of the best options we have. But right now, safety is a major barrier to getting more people on bikes. I think it’s possible that people’s attitudes about bicyclists contributes to that.”

Research shows that bicycling is disproportionately less safe than other transportation modes. While cycling accounts for one percent of all trips in the U.S., cyclists are twelve times more likely to be killed and three times more likely to experience serious injuries than passengers in an automobile in the event of a collision. That elevated risk of harm likely resonates with potential riders. In a survey conducted by the non-profit organization PeopleForBikes, three-quarters of Portland and San Francisco respondents who own bikes but do not ride frequently report feeling “very” or “extremely” concerned for their safety while riding.

“We need to explore ways to improve safety outcomes for cyclists,” Ms. Goddard said. “And we need to close the negative feedback loop keeping people from active transportation options because of safety concerns. I’m looking to the intersection of transportation engineering, urban design, and social psychology in my approach to addressing these issues. I want to measure people’s attitudes towards drivers and bicyclists to see how they influence safety behaviors. And I want to know if we can use that data to start thinking about different ways to intervene to reduce risky behavior.” 

In psychological terms, attitudes—explicit and implicit—are expressions of favor or disfavor toward a person, place, thing, or event. Explicit attitudes are deliberately formed and tend to fall on one side or the other of a polarized construction: good/bad, right/wrong, true/false. Implicit attitudes are unconscious and shaped by experience and socialization processes. Both influence actions and choices. By identifying and evaluating attitudes, researchers like Ms. Goddard can, to a certain extent, predict individual and group behaviors. And if you can predict a behavior, you can intervene to change it.

Researchers use surveys and self-reporting to measure an individual’s explicit attitudes. Methods for measuring implicit attitudes are more complex. Arguably the gold standard for measuring implicit attitudes is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a number of versions of which anyone can take at the website of a group called Project Implicit. Project Implicit provides research and other services for the study of implicit attitudes, biases, and stereotypes. According to the organization’s website, IATs “measure the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy)” by asking participants to organize concepts into categories. The speed at which one categorizes concepts is a measure of how strong their implicit attitudes are.

Working with researchers at Project Implicit, Ms. Goddard developed the first IAT to measure an individual’s attitudes towards bicyclists and drivers. Using Project Implicit’s web platform and network of test respondents, Ms. Goddard is collecting data on participants’ explicit and implicit attitudes, basic demographic and geographic information, and cycling experience.

“At this stage in my research, I’m not measuring attitudes on race, gender, or other identities that intersect with cycling and may affect driver behavior,” Ms. Goddard said. “I’m interested in what participants think about bicyclists as a group and if they distinguish between sub-types within that group.” 

Measures of participants’ attitudes might help researchers recognize links between psychological phenomena and behaviors associated with collisions involving bicycles and vehicles. Attitudes, for example, may correlate to instances of inattentional blindness, a condition that leads one to not see an object or person in their field of view. Inattentional blindness is potentially a factor involved in a category of collisions called “looked but failed to see.” Similarly, if Ms. Goddard’s research contains evidence of favorable attitudes towards cycling in individuals without cycling experience, but who live in areas where cycling and bicycle infrastructure is prevalent, that might suggest exposure can influence attitudes and behaviors. Such insights might impact public policy, transportation planning, and infrastructure design.

“When it comes down to it, I’m a transportation planner and engineer interested in developing interventions we can deploy at the urban design level, or at the programmatic level to enhance safety and improve interactions between drivers and bicyclists sharing the road,” Ms. Goddard said. “Applying the tools of social psychology to enhance bicyclist safety is something no one has done in this way before. I think it could help change the way we approach designing infrastructure.”

At a time when Portland and other cities are envisioning a future in which traffic-related causalties are a thing of the past and reductions in the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are slowing the pace of climate change, groundbreaking approaches to solving critical environmental and public health challenges like those proposed by Ph.D. candidate Tara Goddard will provide civic leaders new pathways to the sustainable solutions they’ll need to accomplish those goals.