Cascade Bicycle Club Poll Busts the “War On Cars” Myth

By Mary Lauran Hall on March 01, 2013


Craig Benjamin, Policy and Government Affairs Manager at the Cascade Bicycle Club, didn’t understand why media outlets kept talking about a “war on cars” in Seattle.

All over the city, he saw neighborhood streets that weren’t safe for kids. Traffic made streets less livable for families. Families wanted to drive less, but didn’t have good alternatives. Politicians talked about making streets safer, but continued to build roads and highways rather than making the city’s existing roads safer for everybody.

To address these issues, caring neighbors used sidewalks, neighborhood greenways, and bike lanes to make neighborhoods better and build safer streets for children.

But still, Seattle’s media outlets harped on a consistent theme. The city, they said, was waging a malicious “war on cars” that was making Seattle’s traffic worse. Stories like this one (and this one, and this one, and, for good measure, this one) abounded. It seemed that the city’s reporters had practically declared consensus on the matter.

Craig and fellow Cascade advocates were skeptical that the dominant media narrative actually reflected what Seattle residents thought. Facing strong “bikelash,” they decided to run an independent poll to test how Seattleites actually felt about the anti-bike stories.

To begin, Cascade got to work defining the structure of the harmful narrative.

“We deconstructed the ‘war on cars’ story into its component pieces,” recalled Craig on a recent Mutual Aid Call with the Alliance. “One of the funnest days I ever spent was looking at all the stories in our opposition. They were saying the same thing over and over again.”

Based on a thorough analysis of stories that utilized the “war on cars” meme, he developed this summary:

  • Our city is waging a war on cars that is making traffic worse.
  • Politicians controlled by the bicycle lobby are doing too much for bicyclists and making things harder for families who need to drive.
  • Bicyclists are a small, extreme minority who do not speak for most of our city’s residents and they don’t pay their fair share for our transportation system.
  • It’s like our city is being taken over by social engineers who are trying to force us out of our cars.
  • How dare they take away my freedom to control my commute by driving and parking easily?

“That story is the basic outline of our opposition’s narrative,” Craig said. “It doesn’t contain any facts, statistics, or figures. It has a very clear structure with villains and heroes.”

Independent polling group Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates then designed a poll put the assumptions in the “war on cars” narrative to a test.

They found that most people in Seattle did not believe the anti-bicycle rhetoric. Only 31% of people agreed that Seattle was waging a “war on cars.”

Rather than believing that social engineers were trying to force people out of their cars, most Seattle voters had a favorable view of bicycling and of road improvements like sidewalks, bikeways, and neighborhood greenways. The vast majority of Seattle residents — fully 79% — have a favorable opinion of bicyclists. Most of the city’s residents — 78% — actually ride a bike, and 60% would like to ride more often. What’s more, 59% of voters said that they support replacing lanes on roads and some on-street parking to make protected bikeways. image

Graphic via The Stranger

Cascade then got to work publicizing the poll results. They gave an exclusive to Seattle’s alternative weekly paper, The Stranger, which ran a large feature on the poll results.

From there, the story spread to The Atlantic Cities, Bike Portland, the Seattle Bike Blog, and Streetsblog.

A blog post at the Seattle Times, which had featured many stories buying into the “war on cars” narrative that sparked inflamed anti-bike comment threads, even wrote, “How about that?  It almost makes you wonder if the people who comment on news stories don’t reflect the majority of public opinion.”

But Craig and fellow Cascade advocates didn’t just want to poke holes in the “war on cars” narratiave — they wanted to find a strong alternative story.

“Our brains are literally wired for stories,” explained Craig. “If we’re serious about winning, we need to develop a narrative that’s stronger than the opposition’s.”

In the same poll, the independent polling firm asked Seattle residents about their views on components of an alternative narrative that Cascade could use to help citizens work together to build safer neighborhoods for kids.

Thanks to the poll, Cascade was able to develop a new narrative that tested positively among Seattle residents. (To learn the narrative that the pollsters developed, check out the handy message card at the end of this post.)

Cascade couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

“Now all of our message development works really well,” Craig said. “We pull story elements for everything we do. We know the story for each campaign. It allows us to focus on threading this narrative through all of our communications tactics.”

Next, Cascade hopes to bring lessons from the polling to fellow advocates in the field.

“We will be training all our allies in how to use this narrative,” said Craig.

Stay tuned for opportunities to learn more from Cascade about their messaging testing and ways to take advantage of their efforts in your area.

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By Mary Lauran Hall on March 01, 2013 at 04:33 PM