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.


Kim said...

Aye, a bicycle is transport, it is the fastest way to get across town, but you know what, it's FUN as well or maybe you Danes are going it right ;-)

Just try going out and asking a few of those commuter you keep photographing, which is more fun, driving to work or cycling. Just try looking at the faces of the drivers, then at the cyclist, which group smiles more often?

The car advertisers know this, that is why they are always trying to sell driving as fun, they never show the really of their product stuck in traffic.

Beany said...

Wow this was brilliantly written!

Being car-free in Southern California certainly has its own weird quirks, but I find that the most enjoyable and quick way for me to get around is definitely by bicycle, although my primary motivation is saving $$.

Since I know nothing about marketing, your analysis on reasons why so few ride in the U.S. and bike advocacy is failing is spot on.

Anonymous said...

My bike commute is about 10 minutes longer than my car commute, here in urban Los Angeles. And when I ride my bike, it's largely because of exercise. Sorry.

Brent said...

From what I gathered from your earlier posts, it took large numbers of people who WANTED to cycle -- those who enjoyed it and found it preferable and fun -- to get planners in Copenhagen and other Danish cities to make cycling faster than driving. Yes, political and other factors contributed, but the main force had to be people who wanted (or didn't mind) a city where cycling dominated.

I'm not sure how one goes about doing the same in cities where people don't like to cycle and prefer to drive, even when driving is only just faster than cycling.

As such, I can't criticize this group too much. They're selling cycling with the few assets they have.

l' homme au velo said...

I always Cycled since I was Three and without a Helmet on the Public Road that was back in the 1950ties and I am still Cycling without a Helmet. I enjoy Cycling that is my main reason for doing it.

Although it is certainly quicker than by Bus or Train into the City. I would have to walk to the Bus Stop and then wait ten or Fifteen minutes for a Bus. If I went of for the Train it would take ten minutes to get to the Station and another ten minutes before the Train arrived and by the time I reached Town it would be nearly an Hour. If I just hopped on my Bike it would take me twenty minutes at most to get to the City Centre. If by Car it could take an Hour because of Traffic Jams.

The Bike is free Transport but that is not the reason why I Bike. I hate being Cluttered up in a Train or Bus,I enjoy the Freedom and sheer Pleasure of Cycling. I know it keeps me fit but again that is not the reason why I cycle.

I can get on my Bike and just Drift along and shut my Mind off and not think about anything just keep Cycling.It is not the getting there but the Travelling that counts.

tensaimon said...

that's pretty much why I cycle - it's convenient. By convenient, I mostly mean I am free to go from A to B (ism!) without dealing with the frustration of sitting in traffic or worrying about a parking space when i get there.

that said, cheap is good too (esp when you calculate how much a car costs to buy, own and run) and I enjoy the exercise, though again that's convenient because the exercise is built into my day without having to take extra time to do it.

But as you say those are side benefits - the best bit is how stress-free it is.

didrik said...

The current cyclists here in the States are doing it because it is fun or for exercise or some "noble" reason. Almost everyone reading this blog is motivated by some of those reasons. Mikael's point is that the whole rest of the population--the 99% who are not cycling--are NOT, and never will be motivated by those reasons. Current cycling advocates are made up of people who consider cycling their sport, like to add 20 miles to their commute "for fun", dress up in cycling cloths, and would probably keep cycling even if it was made illegal.

There's nothing wrong with these people, but it's hard for them to see outside of their world. Hence, when they try to promote riding a bicycle, they come from their perspective.

Most people in the US don't enjoy driving in the same sense that they enjoy tossing a frisbee or having coffee with friends. They "enjoy" driving compared to standing in the rain at a bus stop, having motorists shout at them on a bicycle, or not being able to do the things they want on public transit because it takes too long. For the average person on the street, convenience and ease will be the deciding factor. People didn't start driving all over the US because they necessarily enjoyed the act of driving. They drove because there wasn't a reasonable alternative. Sure, driving can be fun, like on a perfect California day riding down Hwy 1 in a convertible. But not so much when you are just driving to work or running errands in traffic. >*

rorowe said...

Right now, cycling to work doesn't save me time, and I haven't ditched the car, so it's not saving me money. I consider myself fairly average, health-wise (not overweight or anything).
I would love for cycling to become a more accepted means of transport in my area, but the infrastructure doesn't support it yet.
So, for now, it's for fun, which a slight "treehugger" mentality thrown in for good measure.

Tom Street said...

I used to ride to work because it was fun, good exercise, cheap, and because I did not want to buy another car or inconvenience my wife. I also did it because it did not pollute.

It had nothing to do with getting from a to b. For that, a car would have been much more convenient and quick.

In Copenhagen, things may be different but not in Sacramento, California.

Anyway, in American cities marketing is irrelevant. Bicycling will catch on, if ever, when there are no other alternatives. I think most people would just prefer to stall up in traffic jams even if bicyling were faster.

Anonymous said...


How wonderful that Denmark is so unique. However, your continual insistence that the rest of the world adopt Danish values about everything is getting old.

Why can't people have fun while riding to work, school, etc? Personally, my bike time is some of my most productive and relaxing time of the day. If that isn't fun, then I don't know what is.

Telling people that bike riding is some boring exercise isn't going to get more people on bikes.

Maybe it's just your dour northern European mentality that requires everything to be compartmentalized.

Lighten up a little, ok?!


Oops said...

I think you may be missing the important point that not all cities are like Copenhagen yet. Yes, it's about transportation and we need to make cycling a more convenient and enticing option by improving infrastructure. Advocacy groups know this. But the current reality is that cycling isn't the quickest or most convenient option in many places. We can't simply change behavior -- we need to change the physical reality of our cities as well.

So people have (and advocates need) other reasons for cycling in order to build the argument for why we should invest in better infrastructure to make cycling the most convenient choice. If most people currently find driving to be perfectly easy and convenient, then why change our way of life? Why transform a city's infrastructure and change planning practices to favor a different way of living? If people already believe they have a convenient and quick choice in driving, then they need to be sold on the other benefits of transforming a way of life. We need to plant a seed of demand for a different way of life, and that seed starts with a movement of people who care about more than just convenience and getting somewhere quickly.

In many US cities, if you tried to sell people on the idea of bikes being a fast and easy way to get around, sadly, they'd just laugh at you, because in many cities it's just not true. In some cities though, it is true -- they're blessed with a physical layout similar to Copenhagen, and people don't have much excuse for not cycling when it's often the most convenient choice.

The Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago (the local cycling advocates) recently surveyed their members and asked them to rate the top factors that influence their transportation choices. The top five factors members cited were:
1.Health/active lifestyle
5.Saving time
(other options were saving money, safety, social circle, limited transportation choices)

People in the city (as opposed to the suburbs) put convenience second -- reflecting that the urban environment makes cycling more convenient than it is in the suburbs. But all these reasons are important -- people want the most convenient and quick option to also be healthy and enjoyable. They want another viable choices besides driving. And they're creating demand to change the way we build our city to make that happen.

Chicago is a city on the fence -- cycling is a very viable choice and can indeed be faster and more convenient than driving at times, but the city definitely still goes out of its way to make driving convenient. It's also about 7 times the size of Copenhagen, which means riding from one place to another very easily isn't the quickest way to get around. So in a city like this, with all things being equal, why choose cycling over driving?

There really does need to be more to the argument than just ease and speed.

Adrienne Johnson said...

Ultimately, I think it comes down to where a place is on the bike "friendliness" spectrum. Where I live is not too bad as American cities go, and it gets better on a daily basis (quite literally) but we are far from being an "easy" place to ride and for many people, speed only comes with driving. Unless you live in central SF and commute to Downtown, riding becomes more than just the "fast" way.

When I pick up my son from preschool by car, it takes 45 minutes round trip. If I ride, it is 1.5 hours. It was the same when I was still working and commuting to work. The only thing that made the extra time worth it was that I was happier on my bicycle. For me, trying to tell me it is faster would be a crock. When people comment on my time commitment when I ride, I say the amount of enjoyment I get from it far outweighs the time.

Now, if I was living in Barcelona, where they are heavily marketing to new commute cyclists and have created many of the circumstances that support transportation cycling, I would certainly market speed and ease like crazy. They don't need as much sold to them to see the benefit.

Eddy said...

Great article, and thanks for everyday posting in your blog.

Boy on a bike said...

You've hit the nail on the head. I hate it when cycling gets greenwashed or lycrawashed. Personally, I ride to work because the activity gets the blood pumping and the brain working - I hit the ground running. When I ride home, I slough off all thoughts of work and arrive home not still stressing about the crap that happened in the office that day. That's it. Game over. Oh, and it allows me eat what I like and still fit into my pants.

Robert P said...

I love it when you get a bit tetchy! ;)

Joking aside- good post.

There may be cultural/linguistic issues at play here in the fun/enjoyable distinction, but in essence - to me - 'fun' implies something done /because/ it is fun ("Let's go bicycling* in the park!"), 'enjoyable' implies a positive side effect, but not the primary motivation.

It's endlessly fascinating to witness the extent to which people take alternative viewpoints as personal attacks. Is it something to do with the victim/persecution mentality of American cyclists (some notable exceptions notwithstanding- hi Adrienne)?

* I'd never use the word 'bicycling' myself- I'm trying to make the quote sound like a Yank! ;)

Phil Cowan said...

The primary reason I cycle IS because it's fun. I would still do it even if it cost me as much as driving. I would still do it if it were as unhealthy as smoking! No I'm not one of the wild-eyed full kit lycra boys. I generally ride in street clothes. As much as I admire Danish bike culture I'm not eager to see it replicated to the nth degree here in the states. Don't get me wrong, more people on bikes is a generally good thing but I wouldn't want U.S. cycling to assume the air of banality that it has in Denmark. Besides, who wants to be stuck behind some old trout in heels and a skirt doing a stately 8 mph. That ain't FUN.

Jon said...

I blogged about this the other week on http://www.betterbybike.info/style-over-speed 'I agree with Mikael!' I've only recently fully discovered the true transport element of cycling, but put simply - there shouldn't be another option that comes to mind before cycling in and around town...

Jennifer said...

I think cycling can be a quick transport, too; however, if you live in the suburbs it is not the quickest. Your emphasis is on urban transport, but this survey was for people who live in cities, suburbs, or rural locations (basically, anyone). So marketing the bicycle as the quickest mode of transport isn't the best selling point for people who live in the suburbs and has a longer commute. They may need other reasons to ride...health, being green, or having fun because their job sucks.

So, in my mind, bicycle advocates in the US need to work hard on changing the infrastructure of their towns to make it easier for people to ride their bikes. For example, I live in the suburbs and my kids' school is a few miles away, but the only way to get there is a 45mph 5 lane road with no shoulders, bike lanes or sidewalks. Yikes.

Be thankful you live where it is easy to cycle. You've got half the battle won.

anna said...

Man! Einstein with a helmet, how much worse can it get. I have that picture of Einstein in my office, with the text "I thought of that while riding my bicycle -- Albert Einstein about the theory of relativity". Not just because I like cycling, also because I like general relativity. Such bright thoughts would probably still not come to me while cycling. But who knows? :)

Anonymous said...

They want to get there quick. Homo sapiens are like rivers - we'll always take the quickest route.

Not quite. Rivers to not necessarily take the quickest route, they take the route of least resistance. People do the same.

People should bike because it is easy. No circling blocks to find a parking spot, no stopping at the gas station, no dealing with high speed, multi-lane interchanges; just get on your bike and go.

Unfortunately, in many parts of the US, driving is easier. Cycling involves effort to figure out how to get someplace without using the expressways that unnaturally chopped up the landscape and created dead-end streets, where to park when there is (as is usually the case) no bike rack, and how to carry stuff on the rack-less lightweight bikes that they sell here.

Driving is easy. They created expressways to where you want to go. They created expansive parking lots. There are gas stations every three blocks, and somebody will even pump it for you. There are loading and unloading zones. The entire infrastructure is designed to make driving easy. So people do.

John Romeo Alpha said...

But you, Mikael, have made cycling fun! Today, as I transport myself to work on my bicycle, I shall grit my teeth, set my jaw, dress in black, and chant to myself "This is not fun, this definitely is not fun, I am not having fun, cycling is not fun..." and make every effort to keep it serious. And utterly fail. After five minutes of that, I'll be laughing out loud, and car drivers will stare at me like some kind of weirdo, out riding to work having fun. Thanks for the smiles, Mikael!

Doubledrumlin said...

When I lived in a city, I absolutely road my bike because it was quicker and more convenient. But now I live and work in a rural area. My commute is short enough, less than 10k, that when I do ride I ride it in "normal" clothes. But it is far from quicker and more convenient than driving. So it does take some other motivation to get on my bike. As an added deterrent, half of my route to work is on an absolutely CRAP rural road with short sight distance, narrow lane and no shoulder and high speed limit. I mentally have to gird myself to ride in. Not ideal.

Charlie said...

Einstein is smiling in that photo.

Brendan61 said...

I've been thinking about this quite a bit. Here's an alternative idea:
I think too many Americans think they just can't do it because they are fat and lazy.

Brendan61 said...

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, cycling is fun. So is driving under the right circumstances. Hell, even taking the train can be fun too!

burrito said...

So how should cycling be marketed when it is not yet the faster, easier way to commute? i.e. in cities that are just starting to build their proper separated bike infrastructure? You still need to try and grow your cycling numbers in the meantime, don't you?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Copenhagen, that was all a bit to heavy for me. The Danes may be very serious people and cycle because they know it to be the quickest way to arrive, with no other thoughts taken into consideration. I ride 12km each way on rural lanes because it is fun, it saves me money, it keeps the carbon in the ground and out of my air, there is a litle less pressure for yet more roads, I see the world changing with the seasons and I stay healthy. The car gets me to work ten minutes sooner. Now if you ask if people drive cars for fun, I'd guess that over here they'd shrug and say it was faster...
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

Pete K said...

Here's a suggestion: the next time your car, truck or SUV breaks down, don't waste your time or money gettin' it fixed. Get on your bike and ride to work. The next day, since the vehicle is outta commission you've got no choice but to get on that bike again. Repeat daily. Eventually the behavior will be ingrained and getting into a vehicle will feel unnatural, no matter what the weather is like outside.

I'm a fan of a journalist by the name of Carl Honore. He wrote a book called "In Praise of Slow" which rang quite a few bells in my head. I recommend it to all of you out there, and you too, Copenhagenize, because we are rushing towards our graves. I ride my bike every day because it gives me that chance to sit back and enjoy the world around me. Yes, it may mean that I have to give myself an extra 10-15 minutes to get to some places, but that is part of what I find enjoyable, as one reader already commented "It's not the getting there, but the Traveling that counts."

Mikael said...

The post was about marketing. Not about Danes or Americans or Peruvians. It's about basic marketing principles which, when performed correctly, have worked effectively for 250,000 odd years of homo sapiens.

Basic marketing principles that are NOT being applied to urban cycling because most bicycle advocates still adhere to geeky, eco-freaky tactics.

The automobile industry learned everything it knows about marketing its products from the bicycle industry. Now it's time for us to take back the marketing. To pry the marketing of urban cycling and bicycle culture out of the hands of the sub-cultures and begin the task of selling to the mainstream.

The 'Copenhagen is different'/Denmark isn't the US of A' angle is bullshit. Homo sapiens are homo sapiens. It's anthropology.

Esmo said...

If we are to give no shit but for getting to places quick, then let's all hop into our cars, because that's quite simply the fastest approach in places that don't set aside the infrastructure for bikes. So it's no good telling these people to use bikes for faster transport because they'll simply cock an eyebrow at you and pass you by.

That said, I agree with you that shouts of 'FUN' and 'GREEN', whilst true and well-meaning, have been useless even in their best applications. However 'GET TO PLACES QUICK' will be of no more use as long as cars dominate the scene.
Copenhagen and Amsterdam evolved around the popularity of the bike. Everyone else has evolved around the popularity of the car. If you want to reverse that trend, then perhaps you'd need to smear the car.

Besides, you must have other motives in cycling beyond getting to places quickly. After all if that was your sole concern, why so bothered to replace cars with bikes?

Anonymous said...

Isn't going for convenience "fun"? Alright the issue is marketing but in the USA it's quite hard to market high risk activities as needed daily conveniences.

Large FREE parking lots (like most of our built environment) exists to make using cars more convenient and speed sells. Few of these lots even has spaces for parking bikes.

Every car commercial has a hot miniskirted lady speeding down empty roads in a clean-highly polished phallic symbol (how real is that?). Of course a bikechic is much more attractive than a carchic but there are so many more carchics in the USA.

To change this imbalance, our politics (leadership) needs to change. Another problem, the bike advocates in my region are not leaders but rather mousy "can't we all get along" pacifists.

Those old bike posters were truly sexy.

ModelCarGuy said...

Where I live, there is nothing convenient about cycling at all. It's about the slowest possible way (except for walking) to get anywhere. Why do I commute 45 minutes each way?

1. I like riding. I really enjoy it.

2. I like saving money.

3. I like the exercise.

4. There is something ridiculous about having 2 tons of steel and an ICE to transport one body a few miles. OTOH there is something sublime about covering the same distance on a 40 pound machine.

Jan said...

I have been in marketing for quite some time and I dont think you are right, Mikael, sorry. Take the approach of RedBull marketing, for example. Their communication is divided into two equal parts. The first one is what you call "geeky" - promoting the rational benefits such as product specs etc. The other part is promoting emotions.

Do not relly on only one part of communication. Cities need both stories. You say that "geeky" people on bikes are the major cause why people do not bike regularly, that there are bad examples. I say, they are the starting point for society to turn direction, they work pretty well towards early adopters. I started to read both your blog and "geeky" blogs at the same time, and I started enjoying cycling more because of their messages, not yours. You gave me one important part, they gave me another.

Neil said...

A2Bism is a loser marketing technique over here in the new world. Cities are built in such a way, that only for a tiny minority of trips is the bicycle the fastest and most convenient mode of transport.

So there has to be another selling point. We lobby our cities for better infrastructure so that the bike will be more convenient for more trips. But the city needs a reason. That it's cheap (for the city as well as the cyclist), that it's green, that it gives public spaces back to human beings are all good reasons to market it to the city. A2Bism is a result of marketing along these other lines, not a marketing point itself.

But in order to win at city hall, and make cycling more practical, we need a certain number of people to buy into cycling in the first place. The city isn't going to spend a whole lot of money on a program that is popular with 1% of the population. And remember that as things are, using bikes only when they're the most convenient option would probably reduce cycling.

So how do you market bikes to people for whom they're not more convenient than driving. Fitness, fun, green, cost savings. Do you have a better idea?

Jonathan said...

I applaud your post. While I think that A2Bism in the USA is still a better way to sell cars than bikes, A2Bism does apply to to bikes in many circumstances, such as near-home travel. I hope the other commenters take to heart that "quick and easy" needs to be much more prominent in our advertising. Right now it isn't there at all!

I, too, commute by bike in spite of its slowness (25 minutes by car versus 45 by bike), but recognize that my jaunts to nearby restaurants, stores and friends are quicker and easier by bike. My point is that "quick and easy" is a valid reason to bicycle, right here in the USA.

Finally, I think everyone here is too hung up on the facts. Good advertising should bend the facts to fit the vision that is being sold. In the case of "quick and easy," advertising will help bring reality in line with the vision.

Peter said...

Totally agree, you've hit it on the head - cycling will become common only in areas where it is more convenient than other ways of getting around. Once this is true, all the other problems solve themselves. People will figure out how to deal with the weather, traffic, whatever if bicycling is more convenient than other methods of getting around.

I've said this for years - in areas where bicycling is common it's not about infrastructure or weather. It's about bicycling being convenient. Flat areas are more convenient to get around by bike, so that seems to be common in really high bicycling areas. Maybe the infrastructure makes bicycling more convenient and driving less convenient, but that's just one method. In a town with total automobile/subway/bus gridlock, then everybody would bicycle.

NYC is very dense with horrible weekday traffic, but the subway system is very convenient. So most people use that instead of driving or bicycling.

People in the USA still think about sports and recreation when it comes to bicycling and that drives most of our bicycling "solutions".

You want to make your city almost instantly a bicycling city? Reduce the road capacity so that traffic gridlocks. Then unless you have a really good subway system, a lot of people will start bicycling. Of course, no modern city would do that.

And of course, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. The more convenient bicycling is relative to driving, the more people bicycle instead of drive.

Cost does have some effect. When London started charging the congestion mitigation toll to enter parts of London, bicycling did go up. But most people, if they can afford it, will pay what it takes to get around. Look at what people pay for cars. But in general, if you aren't poor, you choose the method that maximizes your convenience.

Another area might be prestige. I think a lot of people drive (expensive) cars rather than bike or drive cheap cars is because it is more prestigious. Making bicycling look normal may help this, but my guess is that normalcy and acceptance automatically follows the convenience factor.

Me - I've been transportationally bicycling for 30+ years - in Memphis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities. I do it because, in order from most to least reason:
1) It's convenient
2) It's more fun than driving
3) It's inexpensive
4) I need the exercise

Maybe 50% for "1" and 30% for "2" and 10% each for "3" and "4". But I imagine I'm atypical and most people would weigh "1" at about 75% of the reason they choose the transport mode that they do.

Ryan said...

about.com sent me a newsletter this morning.
It was a survey asking;

"Why Do You ride your bike?"
-Running errands
-Simple enjoyment
-Fun with friends/family

Link is here:

Anonymous said...

Where's the options for "can stop in the park on the way back and eat the shopping?" and "cos I'm lazy"?

And - agree with Kim here, it transforms the frustration & tedium of hunting for parking-space or standing at bus-stops into actual positive whee-ness.

Michael said...

I think your argument tends to be too generalized; you say (in a comment) that "Homo sapiens are Homo sapiens." But that refers more to the physical attributes which differentiate us from other primate species. I think cultural differences and differences in the various built landscapes in which we live play a much more important role than you are giving credit. Cycling for me is fun, healthy, and energizing - those are the reasons I have continued to do it through my adult years instead of giving it up like so many when I turned 16. Here in the greater Los Angeles area, even with all the traffic, cycling has never been the faster option.

Just a cyclist said...

What is necessary, is for to cycling become a competitive alternative as compared to driving. This will happen when cycling is an easier choice for A2Bism.

That is what should be stressed for city planners, omitting treehugging and Lycra. Then the marketing might just take care of itself.

"healthy excercise"
"cost savings"
"no pollution"
"ease and convenience"

...are just positive side effects that comes when changing transportation mode from motorised to human powered.

merlin said...

I just want cycling to be one more "ordinary" way to get around. Here's a little story - a few years ago the zoo here in Seattle got into a big fight with the neighbors over a proposal to build a big ugly parking garage. The Zoo claimed they'd done "everything" to promote "alternative" transportation to the zoo. I looked at their website, and what I found was a whiney little plea asking people to "consider alternative transportation to save parking and preserve the environment" while the website gave detailed information about driving and parking at the zoo. I wrote a note to the webmaster suggesting they give equal space to bus and bike information and ditch the "alternative" whine. Within a couple weeks the webmaster had changed "driving directions" to "how to get here", added bus and bike info, and added this cheerful little plug: "Woodland Park Zoo urges our guests to bus, bike and walk to the zoo or wherever life takes you."
Just make it ordinary, easy, obvious: lots of easy-to-find parking, mention bikes whenever you talk about transportation, promote the biking directions feature on google maps. Show pictures of ordinary people wearing regular clothes and sitting up straight on bikes. Build the infrastructure too of course.

John-Henry said...

You sir, are the man. I could not have said it better myself.

John-Henry said...

Alright I need to post another comment. Mikael you have nailed the advertising right here, on this site. (Well CCC) I'm sure that if a few of these major European bike companies gave a few of their nicest bikes to beautiful ladies downtown in NA cities, we could see a change. This could speed up any process by great amounts. Get them the bikes: Ride them, look beautiful, NO helmets. Other girls will buy. Men will buy. Sold. Thank you for your work and opening my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Copenhagenize, but your anger at anyone who opposes your viewpoint is blinding you again. Avoiding traffic is one reason many people I know bike to work. Many people do not want to sit in cars going 12 MPH. They bike to avoid sitting in traffic. Granted I agree they might have missed a reason or two, but not sure that should evoke a bile-spewing reproach - but I guess this blog would lose about half its posts if that were not allowed.

John in NH said...

I think there may be different uses of the word "convenient" here. Time wise in most American cities, it is not "time convenient" to ride a bike. However, this changes as you move closer to downtown. In my town 97% of the university, students live within a 3 miles radius of the campus. Time wise, its very convenient, and much much faster to bike, however infrastructure wise its horrid and you tend get the sidewalk and wrong way salmon cyclists because its horrid to bike on the roads and is not convenient, and you get students driving 3 blocks to classes despite living so close and paying 100$+ a semester for parking.

For me the ride in takes ~10 minutes longer than by car (distance of ~5.5 miles, half rural, half urbanish). However, this time difference (esp for uni students who then need to try and find parking) is not quite, what it appears. We don't estimate time spent trying to find parking very well and thus have a misconception about the actual time, and thus it seems a misconception is created about the time required to bike the same distance.

My usual response when I bike in those 5.5 miles in a hair less than 30 is, wow, that’s fast! (my bike computer tells me average speed is 11.5mph) True I am typically going around 15mph on a fully upright Breezer with 25lb on the rear rack, however stop signs and lights kill that average real fast.

Again though, riding in a car (if I have something large to bring in, or know its going to be snowing heavily later in the day) takes ~20 minutes depending on if green lights are hit. I also do not have to worry about parking in this way as it’s just a simple drop off.

I try to make the case of telling the true time and explaining that once you factor in time parking and walking to the class, it takes longer. Many get this and a couple friends have said that by my promotion of cycling that they are now tending to walk more, or try to get on a bike for the first time. Time wise, it is convenient, when you make the connections between driving and parking.

Convenient for most US folks at least only refers to time though; it is hard to win just on the time element, especially in many suburban environments. However as somebody mentioned, stretching the pure truth can be done, but we should be very careful to do that (not that car commercials are, they outright lie every day).

In an Urban environment, cycling can be made more direct, faster, easier, and less stressful than driving. Provide adequate parking and infrastructure based on current perceived needs and design with current and future cyclists in mind. Make it separated when speeds are higher than 25mph, and prioritize junctions for cyclists.

If you start doing these things it will start to fulfill this notion of "convenience" and at that point a full out promotion can happen on that idea of convenience.

Good post, however I feel you may trivialize some of the issues US advocates have to deal with, however we (US advocates) tend to overemphasize our issues and make then a bigger deal than they may truly be.

Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I like most of this post and the reaction it generated. There seems to be an (unnecessary?) opposition between US/Europe...

I have a slightly different interpretation of 'quick' than you do however and I think it would be worth marketing or at least a post on your blog :
- quick is not only speed but how reliable timewise your commute is. If I bike I know it will take me between 40 and 41 minutes :-) Each day, no matter which season, how much traffic etc... For colleagues who drive car it's between 30 min and 1h15min for the same distance. In a urban area, where distances do not get too crazy, reliability is more important than speed IMHO.

- the notion of quick is very relative. I might be slower than a car, but in a car you will go to 1 place for shopping. Biking I can make a stop at each local food-store, buy the best local cheese, the best italian food etc... each in a separate shop. Somehow it's snob, but I could not live differently, and it's simply a question of priorities.

Conclusion : each mean of transportation can be perceived as 'faster' if you adapt your way of life to it. Which way of life do YOU want to adopt ? the answer is clear to me...

bikefriendlynorthshore said...

Great post Mikael, although I don't agree with all of your points. In a hilly, spread-out city like Auckland cycling would almost never be the easier or quicker option, even with decent cycling infrastructure (which we are fighting for at the moment).

... and don't tell me you're not having fun Bromptoning in Barcelona, it was even fun watching!

Regards, Antoine

Peter said...

I think a lot of folks are missing what Mikael was getting at.

In the USA, we have small numbers of people who like to use bikes as transport because it is fun, good exercise, environmental, inexpensive, etc. I'm kinda one of them. I choose bicycling as a somewhat less convenient form of transport over automobile travel for the above reasons. And this is great.

But bicycling will never be more than, say, 5% of the modal share if these are the reasons. These reasons only attract the statistical outliers.

For bicycling to have a high modal share, it has to be nearly as convenient as other modes. The more convenient it is , the higher the modal share.

Convenience in the USA is primarily about time, but there are other issues, such as complexity. For instance, if the city has a very hot climate in the summer, then even if you cycle slowly you arrive at work sweaty, need to take a shower and change and that adds both to the time required and the complexity of the trip.

In the high bicycling modal share cities in Europe, especially Copenhagen and Amsterdam (more Amsterdam in this discussion) you got a number of things going for you to make bicycling convenient ( Mikael, please correct me if I get any of these wrong):

1) Car traffic is fairly slow in the inner city areas due to the density and parking is difficult;
2) The cities are pretty compact so intra-urban trip distances aren't too far;
3) There is a great mass transit system so that bikes are convenient as part of a multi-modal approach for distances more than 3-4 miles;
4) The cities are flat and the climate is relatively mild ( not sub-zero in winter and seldom really hot in the summer) so regular seasonal clothing can easily be worn without having to shower after each trip as long as you don't bike like an athlete.

All of these combine to make bicycling a fast and easy way of getting around compared to automobile travel.

Infrastructure then adds another component: you can pass grid-locked traffic on the side path or bike lanes, making bicycling even more convenient and fast.

Plus the infrastructure makes bicycling less stressful, which may be a convenience factor, not sure. But without the other conditions, facilities by themselves will not create a large modal share.

Tim said...

"I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick".

Congratulations, you've just discovered the reason why suburban cycling is marginalised.

Outside of Europe, most people live in suburbs. For better or worse (mostly worse), that is just the way it is right now.

In the absence of congestion, a car moves faster than a bicycle. And that is why cycling has low-single-digit modeshare in the USA and Australia.

Of course, cycling within the core of a busy city is faster than driving. Anybody who drives in the city centre is insane. But in our sprawling low-density cities, where nobody lives in the city centre, most journeys don't go there. Especially the <5km journeys where a bicycle would be an easy option for normal people.

I'm in a small provincial city in Australia. My 6km commute takes 20 minutes on a bike, or 12 minutes in a car. I need something better than "I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick" to keep me on the bike.

BG said...

Mikael, I agree with you about 50% of the way. Yes, A2B is the most important concern. However, here in the US, even in places where biking would clearly be the fastest and most convenient way to get from A to B, people still don't do it. Why? Because the marketing of cars against bikes is so successful. In the mainstream of US culture, biking is for poor people and signifies that you are vulnerable. Driving is for rich people and signifies that you are not only protected, but you might get laid, too. People are motivated by status, perhaps more than they're motivated by actual convenience.

So, while we definitely need to make the physical layout of our cities more Copenhagenish, we also need to market biking and walking as the high-status thing to do.

That Hungarian TV spot you linked a while back was brilliant, precisely because it showed people getting status approval for biking. What we need is a new model of cool/smart/sexy/desirable. I thought you understood that?

Those Americans (me included) who like what you're doing on this blog are the Americans who find a Northern European urban lifestyle cool/smart/sexy/desirable. They're a minority, though -- probably smaller than those who are motivated by environmental virtue (another group I belong to). What we need is a lifestyle model that is indigenously American (most Americans will reflexively reject anything that's imported from Europe), but incorporates many of the underlying lifestyle elements we see in places like Denmark and Japan.

Here in the South, for instance, I think an "Old Charleston" approach would appeal to quite a lot of people -- blonde sorority girls on updated beach cruisers, tailgate parties with kegs and dogs (arriving by bike trailer), big ol' Victorian houses in dense, Spanish-moss-draped neighborhoods right out of Southern Living. Right now, the high-status people in my community want SUVs. They're the ones you need to reach; others will aspire to follow them.

Anonymous said...

Lot of suburbs vs city debate here, Orange County California is slightly higher density than greater Copenhagen... Also USA is more urbanized on average than EU.... Most American big cities are also not that hilly, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York...

Rob said...

Pfft. It's transport, yeah, but it takes me an extra 40 minute per day to commute by bike versus by car.

In exchange for that lost time, I've lost 25 lbs. in the last year and a half. I'll take that trade any day, but Americans by and large claim not to "have" that 40 minutes.

This morning, it wasn't all that fun either. A 25 mph headwind is never fun. But I've taken to it as the only way I can have the quality of life that I want (read: not fat).

"Don't Be Fat" is a bad maxim for those of us that Michael derides as "bicycle advocates", even if strikes us as the truth. But the few million people living in the Chicago 'burbs aren't going to suddenly have all of their necessities within bicycle range in the next 50 years, either.

Yokota Fritz said...

Wow, but this generated a lot of comment!

I always appreciate your insights, Mikael. My primary motivation when I started Cyclelicious in 2005 was to counter what I saw as excessive fear mongering that passed as "bike advocacy" in the United States; the ridiculous liability waiver just to download bike maps is evidence this still continues, unfortunately.

When I rode my bike on Bike To Work Day, I didn't think about saving money, saving the planet, or saving my health -- riding my bike is just the way I go to work. I don't even think about it. It also happens to be enjoyable (most of the time, anyway), and the newbies I talk to who continue biking beyond about the first week tell me they keep at it because it just feels so good.

Admittedly,a certain commitment is also required. There are times I dread riding the bike -- towards the end of winter, the cold and wet get pretty old, but I slog forward because that's just the way my commute is set up. If don't ride my bike, I don't get to work.

So yeah, I guess that's my way of saying that conveniencecounts for quite a bit. I made choices to make cycling more convenient,so now I *must* bike to get to work. There's a feedback mechanism in play.

Severin said...

I'm with the people that ask how do you market bikes to an audience where it isn't most convenient? By your A2Bism you would likely drive a car in Southern California. I think it is a bit weird for someone who dedicates two blogs to cycling to strictly bicycle because it is the easiest way to get around, there must be something more to it. Most people in LA don't cycle because of safety, so it might even be convenient/fastest but safety is a big hurdle.

zanesfriend said...

Hey, if you like the idea of your skull bouncing on the pavement with nothing but a little hair and skin to protect it, go right ahead. Knock yourself out. (Pun intended.)

As for me, I'll wear a helmet; of course it isn't complete protection and won't make me invulnerable; but it is better than nothing.

zanesfriend said...

Hey, if you like the idea of your skull bouncing on the pavement with nothing but a little hair and skin to protect it, go right ahead. Knock yourself out. (Pun intended.)

As for me, I'll wear a helmet; of course it isn't complete protection and won't make me invulnerable; but it is better than nothing.

Green Idea Factory said...

I wrote to the organizers of the event which was advertised by that Photoshopped Einstein poster, copying it to the Caltech Archive which actually owns the rights to the image, as well as some cycling advocates.

I got no response from the organizers.

Herzog said...


Agreed. I shudder when I see people walking without them. Especially on crowded sidewalks in the city. It's just so dangerous.

Allison said...

I think a lot of the current bike marketing stuff is written as though it was aimed towards organizations and government, rather than individuals.

To create a thriving cycle culture, you need to create an environment where cycling is a desirable activity from a selfish, individualistic perspective. Often, the infrastructure changes are needed first, in order to create some of those selfish benefits.

When trying to encourage a municipality to , for example, create separated bike paths to encourage more cycling, you do need to tout the community-based benefits. However, as you point out, these are not the right arguments when promoting cycling to individuals.

dominic said...

Bicycling has been fun since I started riding 50 years ago. It has been an adventure and always a vehicle for discovery. In North America my experience is that riding in vehicular traffic is not fun but exasperating.
So often taking the road less traveled is the quickest route for me. If that means a route through an alley a park a sidewalk down a one way in mid block so be it. North Americans have generally greater distances to ride in urban areas because so many cities have suffered the donut of urban renewal. I loved biking in Boston for 5 years because it was a challenge. I hated biking in Indianapolis for 15 years because it was boring and always miles from nowhere. A common good is hard to find in most American cities. But it would seem in small towns that would be easy, but there are no bicyclist in small towns unless it is a college town,

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