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Using Google Search To Reveal Public Perception 2

Google Bicycle

Google Bicycle – Photo courtesy of Leon Hoffman 

One useful and amusing way to identify current trends and to gauge public perception on a topic is to use Google Search Auto-Complete. To do this, simply start typing in a phrase on a topic of your choosing, and watch Google complete the sentence using data from common search phrases.

For example:

WhyAreMenSo

Okay, so sometimes the results aren’t so flattering. But these are real phrases that people are commonly searching for, so it does provide some sort of indication about what is on peoples’ minds.

I decided to do some searches with keywords pertaining to bicycling to gauge how the general public views bicycling.

The first term I tried was “bicycles are”:

BicyclesAre

This tells me that there is a perception that bicycles are primarily for the summer season. We have shown here on The Urban Country that bicycles aren’t limited to any one season.

Update: The “Bicycles are for the summer” phrase probably refers to a Spanish play written in 1984. Thanks Kent for pointing this out.

It is refreshing to see “bicycles are better than cars” as one of the top searches. Although cars can serve a useful purpose and have their place in our society, we happen to agree that bicycles are better than cars for most trips most of the time.

Let’s ask Google users what bicycles can do for us:

BicyclesCan

Indeed, bicycles can change our cities and thus change the world. Over a hundred years ago bicycles did indeed change the world and significantly changed how people get around. There is no reason not to believe that bicycles can again change the world – we are already seeing many cities changing to better accommodate the most reliable, fast, fun and proven mode of transportation. We learned some lessons over the past few decades, and cars simply aren’t going to cut it anymore.

(I won’t start a debate about whether bicycles can save the planet – though they certainly can help reduce our footprint.)

Another common search phrase asks whether bicycles can ride on the sidewalk. Indeed there are many places where sidewalks are shared between bicyclists and pedestrians, but we believe that proper bicycle infrastructure will eliminate the need and desire for bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk.

Speaking of bicycle infrastructure, what do Google users think of bike lanes?

BikeLanesAre

It seems to be a unanimously held view that bike lanes are bad. It would be hard to fault English-speaking users for perceiving bike lanes as bad and dangerous. A large proportion of the bike lanes that have been painted in English-speaking countries are inadequate and fail the comfort test. They are often too narrow, too close to fast-moving traffic or too close to parked cars.

Instead of inadequate, narrow, painted bike lanes, we prefer wide cycle tracks, with curb/fence/painted buffer or grade-level separation from motor vehicle lanes, and a buffer space between parked cars.

Beijing China Changan Street 1986 bicycles

Wide fence-separated cycle track in Beijing, China (circa 1986) – Photo courtesy of Beijing Shots

Next, we asked what Google users think of bicyclists themselves:

BicyclistsAre

image 

Not very flattering. Sadly, our bike infrastructure is terribly lacking here, so bicyclists have a bad reputation for not following the rules. Unfortunately, these rules were designed for motor vehicles and following the letter of the law can sometimes be more dangerous than breaking the law.

The argument that bicyclists are polluting when they ride is a myth that some in the media have tried to perpetuate to rationalize our car culture. One writer even claimed that drivers are doing the environment a favour because the air is cleaner when released from a modern exhaust system than the air that was taken in. This nonsense holds no water and has been duly debunked many times over.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the following when doing a search for bicyclists? (photo edited of course)

BicyclistsAreFake

But don’t feel too badly fellow bicyclists. Drivers aren’t off the hook on this one either:

WhyAreDriversSo

James D. Schwartz is the Editor of The Urban Country and is based in Toronto, Canada. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

i share the road

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  • http://lovingthebike.com Darryl is Loving the Bike

    That’s a fantastic post, James. Very interesting stuff. Keep up the great work over there on the site.
    Darryl

  • Kent

    James,
    Your posts are always insightful and interesting. Keep up the good work. By the way Bicycles are for the Summer is a play (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycles_Are_for_the_Summer) and that may have skewed your perception on that search. The most interesting google auto-complete (IMHO) was “bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride”. Nicely enough, it appears that this line of “reasoning” has not gotten any traction.

    Have a great day,
    Kent