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Metro’s latest ‘Opt In’ transportation survey draws ire

Posted by on December 20th, 2011 at 9:44 am

Jobs and the economy need to be our focus, even if the environment suffers.
— Choice on a Metro Opt In survey

A Metro survey aimed at the 8,000 members of their Opt In Panel drew swift and critical reaction from active transportation advocates yesterday.

The survey was introduced as “some questions about infrastructure projects and economic growth in the Portland-metropolitan area.” Despite its intentions, the questions and phrasing rubbed some Opt In members the wrong way and they went to Twitter to share their reactions.

Paul Manson, a former environmental and sustainability planner at Parametrix, who’s now working on a PhD on public affairs and policy from Portland State University, had this reaction:

Matthew Arnold, an urban planner/designer with Portland firm SERA Architects, as well as Chair of the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, also shared thoughts on the survey:

Steve Bozzone, a citizen activist with Active Right of Way and board member of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition tweeted about the survey several times. Here’s one of them:

What’s all the fuss about?

I’m a member of the Opt In panel and just finished the survey myself. I agree. There are some poorly phrased questions and false dichotomies.

My first quibble was with this question:

When it comes to transportation improvements in the region, which should be the top focus? (Select one)
– Bicycle lanes
– Sidewalks
– Light rail
– Regional roads and highways
– Neighborhood streets
– Don’t know

This question is troubling because the term “bicycle lanes” doesn’t accurately reflect the type of bicycling facilities we currently build. Bike lanes are 1990s technology and have been proven in many cases to be inadequate and unpopular — even with people who ride bikes! These days we build neighborhood greenways and cycle tracks and complete street projects. I want to see more and improved bike access in our region, but I don’t think “bike lanes” should be our “top focus.” Hopefully Metro won’t read results of this survey as meaning people don’t support bicycling.

The question also perpetuates divisiveness within transportation advocacy circles (a growing issue as budgets tighten). Our “top focus” should be roads and highways that give people choices in how they move around and that have adequate access for all modes depending on the roadway type and land use context.

And then there was this question: “Which of the following comes closest to your opinion? (Select one)”

– Environmental sustainability should be the region’s top priority, and businesses and individuals must learn to adapt to this priority. This needs to be our focus, even if our economy suffers.

– Improving the economy, creating family-wage jobs, and making the region more attractive to businesses is more important than environmental sustainability. Jobs and the economy need to be our focus, even if the environment suffers.

Who says that doing what’s good for the earth must be doing what’s bad for the economy?

One of the final questions asks people to choose between a good economic future for our children or a good environment for them to live in.

Why is Metro trying to make people pick sides in a battle where there are no winners?

Jim Middaugh, communications director for Metro defends the survey. “We’re attempting to provoke a bit and help decision makers get a sense of where different segments of the population are on these things.” On Twitter, he responded directly to criticisms by saying that the “Forced choice” the survey presents is a “technique to get at underlying values.” And he added that, “Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.”

“We’re trying to see how people are leaning… If you put a grey zone in there, it’s not as informative.”

There are options in the survey allowing people to choose “Neither” or “Don’t know” and to leave their own comments (and Middaugh said they’ll publish all the comments they receive); but the phrasing and choices show a troubling perspective at Metro. I hope they’re careful with what they extrapolate from this survey.

Did you take the survey? What do you think?

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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John Beaston
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John Beaston

I took the survey and didn’t let them force a choice. You can “strongly disagree” with all of them and explain your reasons in the comments section and tell them the option you would “strongly AGREE” with.

9watts
Guest
9watts

It is maddening how badly worded many surveys are these days. The one put out by the Oregon Global Warming Task Force was equally unfortunate in its wordings.

“Who says that doing what’s good for the earth must be doing what’s bad for the economy?”

While the dichotomization in the survey above was needlessly clunky, the fact is we really need to finally have a broad discussion about the economy vs environment trope. It is not a simple matter of green-jobs-and-all-will-be-well anymore. We have some tough choices to make, particularly around how we define and understand our economy.

After all the economy isn’t even working for people much less the environment. I’d have a hard time picking ‘the economy’ in a survey like that if by ‘the economy’ they mean what we have now. But this gets us pretty far afield, interesting though the place may be, from transportation.

Paring this knotty mess back to essentials it is pretty clear that everything that isn’t based on fossil fuels is going to be a winner (bicycling, pedestrian infrastructure). But since we haven’t had the public broad-based discussion about the underlying factors that are making this the new normal, it is hard to see how a little opt-in survey with ill-conceived questions is going to advance any discussion.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I took this survey last night and had similar thoughts. Had to explain many answers in the comments section:

For the question about reducing road/highway congestion with alternatives like cycling infrastructure, MAX, and highway expansion:
“None of the above methods will have a significant impact on congestion because of induced demand. There will always be road congestion, what we need are alternative modes of transportation that enable us to avoid driving”

For the question about growth vs. the environment:
“It is possible to grow without adversely affecting the environment; it should not be one or the other. Smart growth in our region is better than unplanned growth elsewhere.”

NF
Guest
NF

The “Regional roads and highways” vs. other priorities really bothered me. Shouldn’t our regional roads (aka arterial streets) be the most complete, most safe, and most accommodating?

I got the feeling they used that category to symbolize ‘increased auto capacity’ and I had to clarify my thoughts in the comments section.

Paul Johnson
Guest
Paul Johnson

I got that survey and didn’t complete it when I realized that they were basically asking the urban-planning equivalent of “have you quit beating your wife yet?”

Aaronf
Guest
Aaronf

Here’s what happened.  You guys all signed up to do a survey for people who aren’t interested in the truth.  Maybe they are interested in finding palatable answers to give people, I don’t know.  If they were interested in the truth they would fund a study that would survey a random sample of people.  It’s not that hard. 

In the last article on the opt in crowd, Ben acknowledged that the panel is “not currently under-representative of more politically conservative residents.”  I’m glad we can start on common ground.  My problem is that the amount of distortion caused by self selected survey participants is unmeasurable.  People should not make any important decisions based on data from these participants.  The post right above Ben’s addressed this.

So, to take something unmeasurable and use it as a flag to wave for more funding towards any pet cause (even active transport) is either intellectually lazy or dishonest, in my opinion.  What makes me sad is that I imagine that this is effective as a means to secure funding for more projects, and since the projects themselves are good, people start rationalizing using bogus numbers. 

I’m all for active transport, but you can’t seriously propose that the solution to the problems with a non-measurable study is that a representative sample of people need to self select and come find METRO, as Ben proposed.  That’s preposterous. 

So, when you’re dealing with someone who justifies spending their time shuffling literally meaningless numbers around… you might have to answer some stupid questions.  This reminds me of the skit I heard Jello Biafra do about buying soda from a moose diarrhea salesman… only to be disappointed when the soda does not taste good.  Don’t waste your time on these surveys!

Ross Williams
Guest
Ross Williams

This is not a “forced choice” survey to get information about the public’s wishes, its a political survey designed for messaging.

The real issue with transportation is whether transportation investments should focus on “complete streets” that serve motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and transit users or concentrate on creating streets that best serve individual motorists with faster speeds.

The question with the environment is “Which is more important, short term job creation and immediate economic growth, or long term protection of an environment that creates an attractive, thriving community. ”

These are the real “forced choices” and I think many people on both sides of these issues would find it easy to make a choice.

As for the usefulness of a survey like this. There isn’t any. It can only be misused for propaganda purposes.

Brian E
Guest
Brian E

I’ll support any program that –Helps to reduce the amount of money spent on foreign fuel and uses the money saved to make local purchases.

Elliot
Guest
Elliot

Jim Middaugh, pushing people into the comment box because of unpalatable preprogrammed responses won’t get you the information you want… unless you’re going to read and process all the comments? This is clearly unrealistic. In fact, that’s the opposite of what multiple choice survey is about. You want people to be able to select a choice – the point is to be able to quantify the results, in order to *avoid* having to digest endless qualitative input.

Yes, the problem with Opt In is that (surprise!) you have to Opt In. If every commenter on BikePortland has taken the survey, you’re getting a result that’s representative of the regional population. Skewing the survey isn’t the way to make up for a skewed respondent base.

Dave Thomson
Guest
Dave Thomson

If you look at the results of previous opt-in surveys i think you will find that the folks who self-select to join Opt-In tend to be more progressive than the area as a whole and tend to support active transportation, parks, and other “government supported” services that conservatives hate so much. I complete these because they are used by Metro to support their decisions, and this is a good opportunity to skew that support in the right direction. This is not intended to be a representative survey, but a way for Metro to see what people who care enough to provide input want. Refusing to take the survey because you think it is slanted just removes your input from the process.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

I hope this isn’t paraphrased too badly: “We’re attempting to provoke a bit… [The ‘Forced choice’ the survey presents is a] technique to get at underlying values. Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.” Jim Middaugh, Metro Communications Director

So, political issues are not polarized enough, already, and that survey needs to further provoke those schisms in order to…uh…what, exactly?

Sonia Connolly
Guest

I opted out of the optin surveys on the first or second one because they’re so badly phrased. It was clear they intended to force an agenda rather than solicit feedback.

sd
Guest
sd

Glad to hear I am not the only who thought the phrasing was ridiculous and amateur at best. After taking the survey, I am concerned about the current Hughes-Metro agenda and how the surveys are truly used. It would be nice to know what is driving the process. The Metro defense of the phrasing is a defense of incompetence.

J-R
Guest
J-R

The survey is an embarrassment. It’s full of false choices and puts everything in a black or white context despite what Jim M says. For an agency that claims to be on the cutting edge, this dropped Metro to the bottom of my respect-for-local governments list. No matter the results it will cause greater conflict between cyclists and motorists, urban vrs rural, environmentalists vrs job growth, etc. Shame on you, Metro.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I filled out the survey, and added lots of comments about the false dichotomies being presented. I don’t kid myself that my comments will necessarily get read — from what I know about survey taking, they often get ignored if the poll results are clear or fit the survey-takers’ agenda. If they don’t, then they start reading the comments to try to discern the intent of the poll respondents. I suspect that will be the case with this one, because the poorly worded questions will produce a muddy response at best.

Ryno Dan
Guest
Ryno Dan

Are you ever presented results from a “survey” that don’t make sense. This is why. The “answers” were pre-ordained.

Xathras
Guest
Xathras

My problem with the jobs or environment question was that your choices were to Agree Strongly or Agree Somewhat with both statements (no disagree options). I used the comment at that point to tell them it was a blatant push-poll question, and if they have any integrity, they’ll throw the results of that survey out, and start over with one that doesn’t choose the answers for you.

JonM
Guest
JonM

Interesting comments here – near universal support for reducing freedom and liberty by imposing one’s preferences on others that would require taking more money from people that you don’t like. I so class warfare and Marxism well represented. What is it with this blogging community that trends towards statistics and coercion? Kinda like progressives and eugenics and population control…

Matthew Arnold
Guest

As the bike / bridge stuff has been well-covered here, I thought I’d mention one other disturbing aspect… Did anyone notice that one set of questions seemed to be a referendum on the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project? Some truly bizarre wording considering that project has been in the works for years, already has its funding set, and broke ground last Spring.

Oh, and for the record, J. Maus, I’m not an architect. I’m an urban designer / planner.

Justin
Guest

While it’s true that many questions used a forced-choice scale, he should realize that this fact isn’t what people are angry about. People are angry about poorly worded questions that produce meaningless results.

k.
Guest
k.

Didn’t anybody really read Middaugh’s explanation? He admitted the questions as phrased represented a false choice but he very succinctly stated why they did that. There’s nothing wrong with that in a survey. Of course they have to analyze the responses correctly but there’s no reason at this point to think they wont, is there? This is the way surveys and statistics work people. Get a grip.

Carter
Guest
Carter

I took that survey, and one of my impressions was that it was written by someone who didn’t know how to write survey questions and had questionable writing skills to boot.

When they used extreme cases to try to discern my underlying values, I chose “Don’t know” and put my opinion in the comment box. If I agree with an extreme-sounding alternative, I don’t know if they are going to see it as my tendency or as my absolute conviction. How can they tell the difference?

I thought it was a poor survey and I told them so in the comments.

JonM
Guest
JonM

Cant argue with the goal and consequences of slowing population growth? So anti-intellectual of you, and thanks for revealing your true colors. .. Of course, there’s no valid or legitimate disagreement with you, right?
Did I detect some weak distinction between rational and predictable population control and say, was China’s one child policy? What would that look like? And what is not rational and predictable about that one child policy?
Love the jab at god-fearing folk… Any resistance to your ideas can only be a product of religious brainwashing right? Such arrogance and condescension is truly a mark of a real progressive. You a eugenics fan? Lol…
Food riots in Tunisia or Angola are hardly caused by over population… Drought, political corruption, tribal warfare… You’re off track here…

q`Tzal
You may not agree with methodology or implementation but you can’t argue with the goal and the consequences of not slowing population growth in some way.
I’d really like to believe that the human race is capable of reducing it’s child births in a rational and predictable manner.
No, really.
Unfortunately intelligence is not favored by the reproductive process nor evolution, only the mindless ability to pop out progeny like a rabbit.
But don’t worry: those food riots in Tunisia and Algeria can easily occur here soon and when they do you will be begging for Big Brother’s Birth control plan.
In the mean time please tell all your God fearin` constituents that “be fruitful and multiply” plays in to the devil’s plan now. There are too many people on this planet and any “good person” that has more than 2 children is not considering the negative impact that child’s mere presence will have on the quality of life of every other child.
Choice or edict: you make the call.
That is your freedom.
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JonM
Guest
JonM

Oh… You’re merely using the govt as a tool… Riiiight! Rather the prior commenters were condemning the perceived ignorance of their neighbors to do the right thing. Of course the right thing is always to be imposed lest the unwashed keep their cars and freedom to travel as they will. Whether via confiscation, and regulations, and taxation… You’ll impose uour preferences on unarguable conclusions of population, climate, etc. Spare me…

Paul Johnson
What’s conservative or progressive about hate and neglecting the public commons? Why does the hard right always spout off about the red scare whenever someone talks about actually using this government by us, to work for us? Joe McCarthy’s dead, but his cult of personality sadly isn’t…
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Nerdo
Guest
Nerdo

So wait, they spend 76K on optin and know that the information they get is an ecco chamber for progressives? That is according to their own news post. They have been saying for some time that the results are skewed and everyone knows this. How does 76k get them anything? Why not just tap other sources of input from around the web where there is broader cross section of people? No willpower to take a risk?