End in sight for dodgy bike stats

Allow me, if you will, to extol for a moment the superiority of research conducted by the academy, over hack work undertaken by well meaning dilettante researchers in local governments, private consultancies, and interest groups, who I'm sure are mostly of the view that "methodology" is a way to change tires. Few would know if empiricism was an epistemology, or astrological star sign. They run bike counts with all the procedural integrity of a church fete. Bicycle advocacy is awash with the bogus stats they pump out. And the leaders of bike charity groups, if the truth could be known, are loured more by the promise of buying a new car every 2 years without paying stamp duty, than with getting non-cyclists cycling.

Okay, as usual, I'm overstating my case for effect. (That is, after all, why I pay $25 per year for this livejournal account: to rant as I can't in my day job). But let me say something I really do stand by. We academics are veritably beaten before this system we submit to, ever permits anything we write to appear in a peer reviewed journal. We do not receive government funding to conduct research projects like this one until dozens of our snarkiest peers have picked our proposals apart, to be sure the results will actually benefit the tax payers who fund them. An article like this one, by an Australian academic, is backed by this body of work, that eclipses the League of American Wheelmen's collective oeuvre, and I don't care if they do go back to 1880.

Untrained researchers (who don't have PhDs and who don't submit to the university system), do great work. It's mainly the research they botch. Not always. Just often. 

Now to be honest, mixing with all you unwashed heathen, who don't own beefeater suits, has gotten me out of a rut I was in, researching "scholarly" "academic" things, like the legacies of a few boring dead architects. I would hardly say either that we academics, individually, posses unique wisdom, or even sanity. What I do want readers to notice, is the collective wisdom of universities. As well as providing after-school care, they are institutions that are less likely to conduct dodgy research, thanks to a range of quality control measures, that really would seem over the top to outsiders. My hunch as well, is that the next round of Australian Research Council discovery projects, will include quite a few projects that address cycling. And about bloody time too.

Why this tirade, right now? Well, my discontent with two particular research reports that I've read recently, by groups I shall not name, has been simmering there for a while. Then today, I read some reactions to the studies linked to above, by advocacy groups defending their own special interests and pride, and then I e-x-p-l-o-d-e-d!!! Must end tonight with a camomile tea.

19 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

    What they report in peer-reviewed journals will be fine, but put the professor in front of a journalist, and all nuance will be lost.

    Yes their research correctly identifies what the people they talked to say they would need to get them cycling (and in some cases it would indeed take segregation to get them cycling).

    But it’s a sociology study. The politics of matching a highways strategy to sufficient voters is a whole separate ball game. Some “committed cyclists” might still be useful in identifying practical strategies. More useful, in fact, than sociologists who haven’t looked at some of the practical issues, or negotiated their way through the politics.

    • Steven says:

      Re: Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

      that’s why I do this! Nice comment. Thanks. If I am right, we are going to agree that some journalists have gone for a catchy headline they knew would provoke regular cyclists? Whereas the report stops short of telling advocacy groups to go jump? Is that right?

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

      I haven’t seen the latest output, yet, though I was at a session with two of the academics on Monday, and I know where they are coming from. The press report makes a dubious elision from “committed cyclists” to “existing cyclists”, and I think it’s mostly been stirred up by the journalists (to excellent effect; they’ve got a crust to earn as well). But whoever wrote the exec summary / press release might have taken a bit more care (um, but then maybe they wanted the publicity…)

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

      Important points, I understand what you are saying.

      Paradise Oxford, as a well-known sceptic of the need for segregated cycle infrastructure, is keen again to play down the “Understanding Walking and Cycling” research, damning it with:
      “Yes their research correctly identifies what the people they talked to say they would need to get them cycling (and in some cases it would indeed take segregation to get them cycling)”
      as if to say “gullible academics, not able to tell the difference between what people say they would do and what they really would do”.

      Whereas I think you are right. Professional sociologists using correct, peer-reviewed methodologies are not gullible. They have studied the subject properly, they are not just believing what people say, and their conclusions are valid.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

      I think their conclusions are valid, and that the project was very informative and worthwhile. I don’t think Dave and Tim are gullible (far from it), but the recommendations would not be easy to implement.

      I look at it from the other perspective: pushing the boundaries of what can be implemented.

      I don’t think we know enough to conclude that either approach is invalid. We should carry on pursuing both and see which is more effective.

    • Steven says:

      Re: Peer-reviewed journals and loose talking by professors

      Following on from your last point, we must try anything and everything, because nothing so far has worked. Holland and Denmark made change before mainstream bicycle transport had slipped from living memory. The rest of the world have left their run a few generations too late. It will take measures not yet on the table. My blog is about brainstorming those measures.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Catchy headline?

    “Some journalists”?

    That would be me, then.

    I wasn’t put in front of the professor, I was sent a press release, which highlighted the offending statement. I then read the report, picked out more material and went to other sources for their points of view.

    Even pro-segregation bodies such as the European Cyclists’ Federation said the offending comment was a “terrible mistake”.

    The study can have holes picked in it for good reason. There was a simple edit to the offending sentence that could have transformed one of the main conclusions.

    See base of http://www.bikehub.co.uk/news/sustainability/when-designing-for-new-cyclists-ignore-the-existing-ones-says-study/

    And a statistician – Instography – says he’s not impressed with the survey methods used:

    hich the existing cyclists were continuing or exacerbating the problems that represent barriers to new cyclists. If, for example, existing cyclists were calling for a law making helmet-wearing compulsory and non-cyclists were saying helmets are naff and reinforced a perception of cycling as unusually dangerous, then they’d have a point. But they don’t.

    And much as it might be true that traffic segregation would make cycling appear like one long Flake advert, you’d think that there would be a dose of reality in the report. A massive infrastructure programme is decades in the future even if they started now so in the meantime the job of persuasion and support for would-be cyclists is smaller scale and more personal. For instance cc’s friend needs a friend – someone to cycle with, someone who confidently rides in traffic to ride with them for a couple of weeks. People who want to cycle need to learn to ride in traffic, at least for another generation. Not acknowledging that makes it a profoundly disappointing report.

    Two other things. It’s worth going through the research methods section of the summary report just to see how little data they’ve used to construct this report. They have 150 questionnaires from postal surveys in each town. The surveys have 10% response rates, making them hopelessly biased (and if you read the quotes you can tell that they’re not ‘ordinary’ quotes – the language and concepts are not those of ordinary citizens). The interviews are drawn from the surveys, compounding the biases, and there’s only 80 in total – 20 in each town – and 5 “ethnographies” in each town. It looks to me like the data is fundamentally biased. Let me give one example. They state: “Approximately 40% of respondents sometimes or often were unable to make a trip on foot or by bicycle because of the presence of a child.” But only about 20-25% of households have any children aged under 16 and a good proportion of the older children won’t constrain anyone so either the data is biased – massively over-representing households with children – or the respondents are, let’s say, ‘mistaken’.

    Finally, there is a real problem with just listening to the public (or anyone else) because we know they make excuses for themselves, constructing narratives that express the desire to do the right thing but also explaining why that right thing would be tremendously difficult. It’s a natural human thing to do when faced with someone who has come to talk to you about something they think is important (hello, I’m the walking and cycling researcher. Oh, yes, come in, sit down, yes, I’d love to cycle more but it’s just so difficult…). Researchers need to probe what people say and tease out the real barriers from the excuses.

    Sorry, I’m ranting. It’s depressing to read this kind of stuff.

    http://citycyclingedinburgh.info/bbpress/topic.php?id=3858

    • Steven says:

      Re: Catchy headline?

      Hi Carlton, no rant detected. Your last paragraph I’m with all the way. It’s called an observer-expectancy effect, and could certainly have the effects you’re suggesting. Your second last paragraph does not take account of grandparents. I’m not sure if you’re planning to let this one ride (woops, made a pun), but if it is worth your while, it would be worth asking if these findings are destined to appear in any top public health journals. If not, then why not? Maybe the peer reviewers have spotted the methodological flaws that you have as well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Validity and methodology

    The researchers’ conclusions may be valid but if they are that is more good fortune than good methodology. Much of their conclusions are drawn from surveys administered by mail, which achieved response rates of 10%. This is woeful even for mail surveys and leaves significant scope for non-response bias. In the summary (which is all I’ve had time to read) there is barely acknowledgement of non-response bias but some evidence of significant problems. For instance, they comment that 40% of their respondents are constrained by responsibilities for a child but we know that only about 25% of households in the UK have any children. How is this possible?

    • Steven says:

      Re: Validity and methodology

      unfortunately I don’t have time right now to work through all their various outputs as much as I might, if what I were writing were being published anywhere but a blog. I’m leery too of self selecting sample groups, and to some extent self published reports, as opposed to peer reviewed articles in major journals. A few nit-picking points though: wouldn’t regular cyclists be the most likely to respond? The study quantifies the number of people who are unable to cycle because they need to give lifts to children: 21.1% often, and 18.4% sometimes. To my mind that tallies with the number of parents, AND grandparents, caring for children. And finally, their broader study has more angles than only a mail out: http://www.lec.lancs.ac.uk/research/society_and_environment/walking_and_cycling.php
      Many thanks to those commenting on this post, most of you from Britain I am imagining.

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