30 May 2010

If You Want Cycle Transport, Make Cycle Transport Sexy by Brian Glover

Long-time reader Brian Glover sent me this article he has written in reponse to my recent post about Cycling Isn't Fun, It's Transport. I have no idea why on earth I'm publishing a critique of myself, but then again, it's Sunday late morning and I'm hungover, vulnerable and incapable of making balanced judgements. So here goes.

No, Cycling isn’t “Fun,” It’s Transport – But If You Want Cycle Transport, Make Cycle Transport Sexy.
Guest article by Brian Glover

Last week Mikael wrote the post Cycling Isn't Fun, It's Transport, taking on the U.S. cycle advocates – ever cheerful, ever wholesome, ever useless and ignored – who seem to assume that people will take up bicycles as transportation because it’s the right and moral thing to do. His answer: “/I don't give a shit... I want to get there quick./” And he’s absolutely right: anyone who thinks mainstream people are motivated by ethics and altruism, in the U.S.A. or anywhere else, should come talk to me about some amazing Florida real estate. He’s right to say that people will choose the bike over the car only when it’s the fastest, most convenient, most direct way to get where they want to go. Cities should rebuild their streets to make that a reality.

And yet... I think Mikael is being more than a little disingenuous here. For several years now, he’s been telling us to “Copenhagenize the Planet,” and a surprising number of people seem to think that’s a good idea. I’m one of them.

Yes, we like those bike paths. Yes, we love those little railings for cyclists to grab at stoplights. The infrastructure of Copenhagen is efficient and practical, and Mikael photographs it alluringly. Really, though, “Copenhagenize” is not selling asphalt and blue paint; it’s selling style.

For people in “developing bicycle cultures,” Mikael offers an alluring ideal, which often involves attractive women (and men) in tasteful clothes, undoubtedly on their way from fabulous apartments to up-to-the-minute offices or chic restaurants and bars, all of which we can imagine filled with well-designed Danish furniture. For a lot of people, this will look like the good life, or at least one version of the good life.

But here’s the problem: for a lot of people in my “developing cycling culture,” the Copenhagenize fantasy does not look like the good life. In San Francisco, New York, Portland, and a few other cities, sure, people are likely to agree. In those few places, Americans really aren’t too different from their urban European counterparts. They want the same things, more or less, and follow the same styles (again, more or less).

Mikael’s graphic design aesthetic, for instance, rides hard on Helvetica (see “American Apparel”) and faux-hand-stenciling (see “Every Indie Band Ever, Pretty Much”). If I were selling stuff to the average 30-something yuppie in Brooklyn (or the people who love him/her), I’d do exactly what he’s doing. But the vast majority of Americans don’t find that lifestyle or its signifiers appealing. It’s not just true that most Americans live in automobile-dependent suburbs; they /like/ living in automobile-dependent suburbs. Even when cycling clearly is the fastest, most convenient way to get somewhere, they won’t do it, and they’ll look with disdain on anyone who does. From inside the head of a person in a developing cycle culture, Mikael’s photos look very different. He wants us to see freedom, convenience, and status appeal; here in the States, his audience is likely to see something that’s not just weird, but threatening. I can’t speak for other non-cycling nations, but I suspect that a lot of the same principles apply. Let me explain.

In any culture – as far as marketing is concerned – what matters is status. People will buy things if they think they’ll get approval and envy from the people around them. In mainstream U.S. culture, driving a car in a city that has been designed only for driving cars is a high-status activity. It implies that you have a lot of private property (power, wealth, respect) and that you don’t have to enter into public, shared spaces (vulnerability, poverty, disrespect).

In the worldview through which most Americans understand their lives, a car is an extension of the suburban home: independent, private, isolated. And in that worldview, isolation is a good thing. In this world, apartments are bad. Urban life as Mikael presents it is bad. Interactions with strangers are bad. We need protection from strangers, and a mobile steel-and-glass box – the bigger, the better – is the best way to get that protection.

Transportation biking, then, is a low-status activity – a /very/ low-status activity. That’s why the original survey that got Mikael all steamed up is so ridiculous; it asked

“Why do you choose to bicycle to work?,”

but it should really have asked

Why do you choose to do something that, in the eyes of 95% of your society, marks you as a freak and a loser?”

No one will say this out loud, of course – it’s not polite – but it’s the truth. And no one will answer this question honestly, either, but if they did, the choices would look like this:

A. I am too poor to get around in any other way. I have no choice. I
am abject.

B. I have had my rights as a citizen stripped from me because of
repeated, unforgivably bad behavior (i.e. drunk driving
convictions). I am an outcast and a pariah.

C. I think most mainstream people are idiots, and I actively seek
out their disapproval. I am a rebel. If the majority of people
around me start biking, I’ll hate that too.

D. I genuinely don’t care what other people think of me. I am an
independent thinker. I also have enough job security and social
status that I can afford not to care what other people think of me.
I am either uncommonly strong, or uncommonly privileged.

(As for me, I’m a combination of C and D. I hope.)

When a mainstream American sees a person on a bike (without the signifiers of cycling as a sport – an entirely different thing, status-wise), he or she sees one of those four categories, and none of them look appealing. The poor (A) provoke either pity (Democrats) or disdain (Republicans). The other three categories are actually threats – whether through degeneracy (B), subversion (C), or class oppression (D). Urban Europeans will generally provoke the same reactions, even when they’re not on bikes – so Mikael’s plan to “Copenhagenize the Planet” probably won’t get far here, without some major revisions.

What, then, is to be done? I do think it’s possible to market cycling to the mainstream here in the U.S., and in developing cycling cultures around the world. But the way to make that happen is to tie cycling to high-status lifestyles in specific local cultures. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Though it may trouble Mikael to admit it, “Denmark” is not a magic word for everyone. So, advocates and marketers need to look at what people really want; to be crude about it, they should market cycling in ways that, for the mainstream of a given local culture, just might get you laid. What we need is a new model of cool/smart/sexy/desirable, a lifestyle model that is indigenous to the local culture but incorporates many of the underlying elements we see in places like Copenhagen.

I live in North Carolina – and not in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, or Asheville, but pretty deep in the conservative “red-state” area. Here in Greenville, the current model of the good life includes a big suburban-style house, a really big SUV, a significant dose of evangelical Christianity and a lot of college football. This may not appeal to readers from other parts of the world, but that’s the point: local culture does matter.

But even here, and in much of the South, I can see possibilities. For instance, I think a "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), couples who look like George W. and Laura Bush (or even better, Cindy McCain) pulling up on expensive city bikes to big ol' Victorian houses in dense, Spanish-moss-draped neighborhoods right out of Southern Living. Ladies who lunch, pedaling stylishly in pastels to an azalea-shrouded church that isn’t an exurban megacomplex. Maybe even U.S. military dudes in uniform, riding European bikes in a German city (sorry, Denmark – we’ve got more bases there). People do have some positive mental frames for urban lifestyles in this region, but they’re a little bit submerged right now; it’s time to go out and activate them.

Wherever you live, though, the point is to determine who the high-status people are. They're the ones you need to reach, and they’re the ones you need to co-opt. Others will aspire to follow them. Once cycling becomes a high-status activity, people will do it even where the actual road infrastructure isn’t very friendly – just as they now refuse to do it, even where the roads are pretty good. Like every culture, bicycle culture is all in your head.
by Brian Glover, May 2010

Copenhagenize replies:

Firstly, thanks to Brian for taking the time to write this article and to send it to me.
I won't get into details, but I'll add a couple of comments.

1. I am so-o-o-o-o going to change the Copenhagenize.com banner graphic.
2. Changing the status of cycling is really the foundation of what I try to do. It is the cornerstone of the Cycle Chic concept, of which Copenhagenize is an extension. Why has Cycle Chic rolled out around the world over the past three and a half years? It presents images, not only from Copenhagen but around the world, of cycling in a different light. Of cycling how it used to be. The world was ready for this, apparently. The first photo I took was recently called The Photo That Launched a Million Bicycles, which is a wild, humbling tagline, but the status of cycling has changed and continues to change. All over the world.

Not only in the large cities, but in Charleston, in Flagstaff, Georgia, Sacramento, on the Change Your Life, Ride a Bike website - and beyond. Lodz, Poland. Bandung, Indonesia. And so on. And so on.

Changing the social status of cycling - of ANYTHING - cannot possibly begin in areas outside of large, urban centres. It's a fact of life that First Movers live in Big Cities and that the ideas they adopt, if successful, filter down to the rest of society.

The Law of Diffusion of Innovation highlights how we are all divided up into five groups; Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards.

Cycle Chic - to use an phrase that highlights the marketing of urban cycling - has been wildly successful at targeting Innovators and Early Adopters all over the planet and we are moving steadily towards Early Majority in many regions. In this context, the Innovators are not cycling enthusiasts and/or advocates but rather Citizen Cyclists taking to the streets. People who have elegantly leapt over traditional advocacy and the outdated and ineffective messages associated with this advocacy.

3. My use of Helvetica and my graphic design aesthetics are aimed at Innovators and Early Adopters and not at the 'heartland', whether in the US or France or anywhere else. The wheels start turning in the cities and, with luck and hard work, the momentum will be achieved and filter down. The people who read Southern Living do not read this blog, for example. On Copenhagenize.com the readership is, very roughly, traffic planners, urban planners, bicycle advocates. A more focused group. I speak to this group, not to their neighbours across the street. But by speaking to the 2000-odd daily readers on Copenhagenize.com, perhaps the ideas that people think are good will spread on the tailwinds.

Most readers of Cycle Chic probably don't read Southern Living either, to be honest. But they are certainly closer to the trend pulse. On the Cycle Chic facebook group, the members are 53% women and 43% men [the remaining 4% are companies/orgs etc] and this is the same on the blog. Most are interested in fashion/lifestyle/design/urban living.

Matthew Broderik on a bicycle.

These are the people to whom urban cycling must be sold, and sold differently. Seeing fashionistas and celebrities on bicycles, seeing major fashion brands using bicycles in their adverts... all this is good. Whether the purists like it or not. This is a repeat of the bicycle boom in the 1890's where urban cycling went mainstream and transformed our societies. Individual mobility, liberation of the working classes and of women. All through a simple product with an excellent design but also through positive marketing.

Something's Fishy
I remember a fantastically interesting study about sushi. About how a team of researchers used the spread of sushi restaurants throughout America as a yardstick to determine how people in different age groups react to trends and at what age they start getting 'stuck in their ways' and start to refuse trying new things, foods, ideas.

I can't for the life of me find the link, but selling urban cycling and mainstream bicycle culture is much the same as sushi's global march. There are now sushi bars in the strangest places. Deep in heartlands where massive steaks once ruled supreme there are now places selling tiny bits of raw fish on sticky rice.

The advantage that urban cycling enjoys over sushi is that it has already gone global - over a century ago. It in public domain and not restricted to one foreign culture. Very few people have to learn to ride a bike - they've done that. Learning to eat - and enjoy - raw fish from a foreign culture is a considerably greater challenge.

I don't actually feel that I'm selling "Danish bicycle culture". I merely show what is possible in a large city - and one with the third-largest urban sprawl in Europe. I don't really know or care what 'Copenhagenizing the Planet' means. It's just a way of expressing possibilities, encouraging a change of thinking, highlighting how the bicycle is one of the key elements in the [re]creation of liveable cities.

But the words 'copenhagenize' dates to the beginning of the 19th century and originates in America. :-) It features in the splendidly named "Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States - By the Best American and European Writers" from 1899. It's a naval military phrase that refers to the practice of the British Navy to confiscate all the ships of a defeated adversary, as they did with the Danish Navy following the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807.

"But, even when it was repealed in 1809, the belief that Great Britain would "Copenhagenize" any American navy which might be formed was sufficient to deter the democratic leaders from anything bolder than non-intercourse laws, until the idea of invading Canada took root and blossomed into a declaration of war."

Which has nothing to with bicycles, but hey, at least it's in a CYCLOpædia...

But I digress... which is a good sign that I should shut up. Thanks again, Brian, for the chat.