12 May 2010

Cycling Isn't 'Fun', It's Transport

Richard at Cyclelicio.us blogged this yesterday. It's an online survey from a group called Ecology Action in the US about bicycle commuting.

Right off the bat I agreed with Richard about the fact that the first four reasons are silly and out of touch with basic anthropology. The most important reason of all was left out.

Richard, however, claimed that the most important reason was that it was 'fun'. I got off the bus at that point.

I don't ride a bicycle all over the map because it's fun. I don't think I've ever considered it fun. Enjoyable, perhaps, but even that isn't at the top of the list.

Frisbees are fun. That's why hundreds of millions of them have been sold since Walter Frederick Morrison concieved his flying disk. But there are very, very few people who think that it's so much fun that they want to join a league and do it full time.

When the City of Copenhagen asks its cycling citizens what their main reason for cycling is - and they ask every two years - the majority reply that it is because a bicycle is the quickest and easiest way to get around town. 56% of them say that.

In second place, 19% reply that their main reason is 'good exercise'. They get their 30 minutes a day like the Ministry of Health suggests by riding to and from work and on to the supermarket.

Only 6% ride because it's inexpensive and only 1% ride for environmental reasons.

I agree with Richard when he writes, "No wonder we fail so miserably at cycling promotion. Do car advertisements speak blandly to the raw number crunching, analytical bottom line? Or do they appeal to your desire for visceral, go fast, fantastic feeling of freedom and sexual prowess?"

Cycling advocacy is hopelessly out of touch with basic human anthropology. It doesn't trigger anything universal in it's marketing. If we want large numbers of citizens to choose the bicycle, the main way to do that is what I call A2Bism. It's goal number one in my Four Goals for Promoting Urban Cycling lecture that I travel around with.

People on bicycles are no different than people on foot, on trains, planes and automobiles. They want to get there quick. Homo sapiens are like rivers - we'll always take the quickest route.

People in established bicycle cultures ride because it's quick. Easy. Convenient. If you make that possible in emerging bicycle cultures, you have half the battle won. Sure, it requires safe, separated infrastructure to gain access to the goldmine of societal benefits associated with high levels of urban cycling.

On the Ecology Action - Bike2Work site that hosted that poll I found this:
Why Bike Commute?
- Its good for your health. (
I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick)
- Saves you money on gasoline, vehicle maintenance, parking fees and parking tickets. (
I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick)
- Reduces air, water and noise pollution associated with driving. (
I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick)
- Reduces automobile traffic. (
I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick... although fewer cars might be nice...)
- Its good for the community by making our streets safer, quieter, and cleaner. (
Yeah, yeah, sounds nice... but I still just want to get there quick.)

"Once you discover the freedom, convenience, and fitness benefits of biking to work, you'll wonder why you didn't start riding sooner. Bicycling can be a convenient, dependable, and virtually free mode of transportation. And bicycling burns about 500 calories an hour, so you can commute and stay fit at the same time."

From a marketing perspective this is really dreadful copy. This isn't selling anything, let alone cycling. And yet this is the standard fare on so many 'advocacy' websites all over the world.

After the above paragraph on the website was this...

Before You Ride - Helmets
Always wear a helmet - it may save your life.

All that harping on about the 'benefits' followed by the 'it could kill you' bullshit and the standard propaganda spiel about 'helmets saving lives'. You'd think people would have learned by now, from all the data and experience, that promoting helmets kills off cycling.

Whatever. This isn't about this one little website. It's much more general than that. If you want to continue marginalizing urban cycling, then by all means keep banging on your drum chanting those most failed rallying cries; "It's green!", "It's healthy", "It's cheap!", "It's carbon neutral!" Blah Blah Blah. All you'll be doing is continuing the long, sad tradition of the Greatest Marketing Fiasco in History: Environmentalism.

Think about it. Forty years of noisy awarness and activism. Millions (billions?) of dollars donated to thousands of organisations and spent on 'projects' and what do we have to show for it? The vast majority of our citizens are not 'converts'. They don't wear organic sweaters knitted from the wool of their free-range sheep while gardening biodynamic beetroot in the light of the full moon. They can't even be bothered to turn off their computer at night. Or buy water-saving toilets. Or take the bus one day a week.

Bicycle advocacy, as it is now in so many regions, is the bastard child of the pathetically ineffective environmental marketing of past four decades. There are so few people who have the Know Why - not to be confused with Know How.

Why did the bicycle explode onto the urban landscape all over the world 130 years ago? Merely because it was 'fun'? No. Sure, there was a niche group of rich white boys who first embraced the velocipede and the penny farthing as playthings. They had 'fun' with their expensive machines.

When the Safety bicycle was invented, however, the bicycle went mainstream. Every corner of society embraced it. It was all about mobility and effective transport. It was A2Bism. Sure, it liberated the working classes and women and no other transport form has transformed society so quickly and so effectively as the bicycle. But the workers could merely extend their mobility radius in their search for work. Women could get from A to B without being dependent on their husbands. And so on. And so on.

The bicycle went mainstream because it was quick and easy.

Bicycle advocacy needs to start applying basic marketing principles to this amazing product if we want it to go mainstream again. In the big picture, all we're doing now is getting small numbers to go for 'bike rides' on the weekends - families if we're lucky - and a few more adrenaline-driven men to take to the roads. We're selling frisbees. Whee. Oooh, but remember your plastic safety hat!

100 years ago 20% of all trips in Los Angeles were by bicycle. Now, according to this CNN article, About 27 percent of adults in the United States bike at least once a summer, according to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Cross Section of Copenhageners
This isn't just about one country. It's a global thing. We're doing so little right in the battle for behavourial transport change and urban mobility - and in an age where the population is ripe for it. It's now. And yet we're missing the point.

If we did stuff purely because it was 'fun' we'd all be living in condos in Spain or Florida playing beach volleyball and drinking daquiris until we died. I use a bicycle because it's quick. I enjoy it quite often. I know it's healthy. But those are just tag-a-long benefits, not primary reasons.

Make the bicycle the quickest way to get around a city or town. THAT'S what people want. THAT'S what will make them choose the bicycle. THAT'S how we will mainstream urban cycling and work effectively towards liveable cities, healthier populations and The Common Good.

That was actually that but then I saw this on the website...

They photoshopped a helmet onto EINSTEIN! That's just sick. The man was a SCIENTIST. Show some respect for SCIENCE. Interestingly, the European Cyclist's Federation's new Scientists for Cycling group use the same photo of Albert. Without a helmet, not surprisingly.