13 October 2010

"Lyrca is Killing Urban Cycling"

I'd be pleased to buy a beer or a glass of New World wine for Dr Chris Rissel from the University of Sydney. Or if I lived in an emerging bicycle culture where people named their bicycles, I'd call my 'ride' The Rissel.

First there was this from the good doctor and now this blipped onto our radar scope today:

Cycling versus the cyclist: the perceptive barriers putting off Sydney cyclists
Popular perceptions of cyclists can make or break our decision to take up the sport, says a recent study by the University of Sydney's Dr Chris Rissel and Michelle Daley of the Sydney South West Area Health Service.

While cycling is generally perceived as a positive, environmentally friendly way of getting around, the actions of some cyclists were disliked, which influenced people's likelihood to take up the sport.

"Our respondents spoke differently about cycling, the activity, and cyclists," Dr Rissel says.

"Nearly everyone was very positive about cycling and the health and pleasure associated with it.

"However, the actions of some people riding bicycles were sometimes seen as negative, and the lycra-clad image of cyclists put some people off because they didn't identify with it or thought it a turn-off."

The study also identified a hierarchy of cycling status, with recreational cycling seen as acceptable by most people, followed by cycling for sport or exercise.

At the other end of the spectrum, cycling for 'serious business', i.e. sport-focused fitness riding and bicycle couriers, were seen as far less approachable.

"We can use this information to encourage more people to cycle. We need to improve the status of transport cycling," Dr Rissel says.

"A more mainstream image of everyday cycling might appeal to non-riders who can't see themselves wearing lycra or being fit enough to be a cycling athlete."

Dr Rissel believes that making cycling more mainstream is the key to increasing cycling in Sydney, which has the lowest rate of bike ownership in Australian capital cities.

"Cycling, and especially cycling for transport, is not yet seen as a mainstream activity in Sydney. Encouraging more people to ride bicycles for short trips wearing regular clothes, without the need for specialised clothing or equipment, will improve and normalise the image of cycling."

Via Science Alert.

Basically, it's what we've been saying for ages now here on the blog. If we're going to sell this thing called urban cycling to the mainstream masses, we need to think differently. I often wonder what would happen if 95% of bicycle advocates were suddenly removed from bicycle advocacy and a new generation suddenly moved in - with modern ideas of marketing and a stronger understanding of basic human nature. Would cycling suffer? Not. Would it boom and expand? Yep.

And instead of whining about 'cyclists' running red lights et al, work harder to get larger numbers of regular citizens onto bicycles. Problem almost solved, as we discussed in Behavourial Challenges Urban Cycling.


Bill said...

A big amen, great stuff.

"work harder to get larger numbers of regular citizens onto bicycles"

This is exactly what I'm trying to do at my new blog:


Michael said...

Still cannot accept this argument. I do not believe that people are so naive that they cannot recognize the difference between someone who rides for sport or fitness (and wears lycra), and someone commuting, running errands, etc (in street clothes). There are more important factors than fashion choices determining whether someone hops in a car, or jumps on a bike to get them where ever they have to go. That factor may be perceived danger, "inclement" weather, imagined convenience, or any number of others, I suppose.

Dave said...

Agree @Michael

I find it hard to believe that people aren't hoping on a bike to go to the shops because they don't identify with sport cycling.

The contra argument to this would be that people only drive to the shops because they identify with rally or F1 racers which just doesn't hold true.

The take up of utility cycling is being held back primarily by perceived safety and public policies that give the car primacy over human powered modes of transport.

Brent said...

I agree with Michael, too. Lycra didn't kill cycling, at least not in the U.S. Instead, the car killed cycling.

When I took up cycling as a sport in the 1980s, my dad was rather amazed. He said in his teens he wouldn't be caught dead on a bicycle -- he would either walk or drive, but bicycles were for children or the poor. I believe that it really was the re-imagining of cycling as a sport that gave it new legs, and has eventually led to a much more positive image among a new generation of riders.

Naturally, these observations may not apply in some areas where cycling really never died out.

wee folding bike said...

I wouldn't underestimate plain laziness.

I hear lots of people saying it's too wet and cold to ride a bike. They sometimes claim it's not safe.

When I go to a local shopping place I see them parked on the pavement despite the availability of spaces a couple of hundred meters away. I don't think they are doing this because of the weather or perceived danger. I think they just can't be bothered walking that far.

Tucker said...

In many ways I agree with the idea that lycra did not "kill" cycling, in part because cycling (in the U.S. at least) was long dead (or in serious decline) before lycra came along. And I also agree that people's choices to ride or not ride are not primarily about attire. But I do have to agree that lycra, as a modern and relatively popular mode of dress for many cyclists, adds to the idea that cycling is for "others" in the minds of many. People should have "enough sense" but mostly we don't unless we really stop and think it through.

As kids (especially if one is a bit older) we experienced riding a bike as just another fun activity, like climbing a tree or kicking a ball. We wore whatever clothes we had on on at the time. Unfortunately, our culture has changed over the decades and everything has become too specialized. We use to just have a pair of "sneakers," now we have to have a specialized pair of shoes for every conceivable activity. With cycling many assume the same trend. If one wants to ride a bike now one needs to "have" the right gear. The right gear is lycra (so it seems to many). Thus, many are wary of riding a bike if it means they have to wear lycra. I have known more than one person who took a long time to get back into cycling just for this reason - usually because they had a friend saying that wearing lycra was basically a requirement these days.

Getting more people cycling, however, can change that as more thoughtful heads begin to prevail and wearing whatever works for you becomes just fine.

Jody Brooks said...

I'm all for making cycling mainstream but inversely linking this to lycra is absurd. Thousands already bike without it. If newbies can't see that, then that's a different problem.

If we really want to take cycling mainstream we need to stop balkanizing the cycling community with petty debates over helmets, lycra, etc. Let people wear what they want while cycling without being ostricized.

Maximize inclusion. That's the way to take this mainstream.

jj said...

The logic of the study (or maybe just the write-up?) doesn't make a lot of sense to me. If you want to know why people don't use bikes for transportation, why not ask them that, and/or what they think about transportation-oriented cyclists? There is no evidence that the lack of esteem for certain kinds of cyclists, or biking clothes, leads someone not to do a different bike-related activity. (so if they dont like lycra, it makes sense that they wouldnt become sports cyclists, or wear lyrca, but does this really tell us anything about their likelihood of using bikes as transport?)

I also think it's important to remember that it is a minority of people who bike in lycra; why is it assumed that the average potential cyclist assumes this to be the norm, rather than a particular type of specialized clothing for a particular type of cycling. (I personally dislike the look of jogging shorts, but the fact that some people wear them when running for exercise certainly wouldn't stop me from running to catch the bus in my regular work clothes)

+1 to Michael, Dave, Brent. And +100 to Jody Brooks.

Euan said...

No, Lycra is not killing urban cycling in Sydney. The facts are that urban cycling is INCREASING in Sydney.

It may be accurate to say that the Lycra factor is retarding the take up of urban cycling, but it sure as hell isn't killing it. I think there are far more important factors at play here than Lycra (helmets, marketing cycling as a dangerous activity etc etc)

me said...

Where is the "Lyrca is Killing Urban Cycling" quote supposed to be from? (ie why the quotation marks? This phrase does not appear in the linked text). Seems to me that this isn't even the conclusion of the study's author (let alone a real quote).

It would be important to think about the study's goals and implications. If the study found that people don't like lycra or sports cycling, then one conclusion might be that lycra will not be an affective MARKETING TOOL for urban cycling. HOWEVER, this is very very different from claiming that lycra (or the lycra-clad) are somehow hurting (or killing!) cycling.

Do you actually mean that you think people riding in lycra bring down the total number of cyclists? (a big jump from what the study's author seems to imply)? Would prefer the lycra-clad stop riding around discouraging the potential-but-not-yet-cycling-cyclists?

Or are you confusing what might be effective marketing with what actually goes on?

Or just looking for (pseudo)empirical support for your push for fashion/beauty/style/chic cycling? If you want to encourage as many people as possible to cycle, and not worry about their clothes, why are you so intent on demonizing people for their fashion sense (or lack thereof)?

Johann said...

The core of the problem is distance ridden. In Copenhagen, the average cyclist probably rides a couple of miles to work, run errands, or whatever.

In most parts of the states, things are spread out. I ride 12 miles each way to work. That's pretty hard to do in casual clothes. I hate spandex, but what's the option?

That being said, when your average car commuter sees a spandexed-out cyclist, they see a hobbyist, not a practical person just getting to work. I think the author is just getting to that core issue, and I agree with him.

But, until urban density in the US reaches a level similar to Copenhagen, those who cycle will wear spandex, and most people just will not ride.

Anonymous said...

One reason not to purchase Lycra: it's owned by the Koch brothers and their massive private company.


"Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products."

"Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus."

PlebisPower said...

While I believe that the more talk the better about how to move cycling into the mainstream, I disagree with the premise of the post - that somehow the message is counterproductive, that cycling might be better served if today's advocates took a step back. Cycling is a big tent pursuit; indeed if the message is persuasive to more folks, it will need an even bigger tent. The more voices the better.
The premise also reminds me of the evolution of healthy eating from roots in 'health food' back in the 1970s. I remember when the stores were smelly warrens frequented by oddballs and nuts (I say it with affection) and the occasional marathoner. It was about carob and tinctures and mysterious packaged food. It was ultra-local.
It's a different beast today. Look no farther than Whole Foods for a rapacious commercialization of the concept, if not the core mission, unfortunately. Even local co-ops have diverged from the narrow if pure 'health food' philosophy somewhat. The purists were muscled aside by the marketers, for good and bad. Good that we're more conscious; bad that the message is diluted as it reaches more folks.
I wonder if the same will happen to cycling? Lycra is the least of it. It's a fabric. It's the spirit I don't want to loose. I happen to think that work/utility bikes are a great entree into the popular consciousness. When we see more work bikes for commerce, or child carriers for utility, we'll know it's more accepted, lycra or not.

Trolly said...

I often wonder what would happen if 95% of bicycle advocates were suddenly removed from bicycle advocacy and a new generation suddenly moved in - with modern ideas of marketing and a stronger understanding of basic human nature. Would cycling suffer? Not. Would it boom and expand? Yep.

This kind of thing has been done before. See:

Fields, Killing
Revolution, Cultural
Terror, Reign of

Anonymous said...

Come on, the image as cycling as a poor, dui or homeless person's game is what is really doing damage.

Lycra? Laugh. That costs money to buy at least.

All these places(Copenhagenize included) that blame lycra are just striking out at the first thing they see. Probably why the doctor's hypothesis is garbage.

Boy on a bike said...

Cycling is taking off in Sydney - no doubt about it. On my commuter route into town, I used to be on my own a lot of the time. 5 years later, there are regular traffic jams of bikes at some points. As the cycling infrastructure on my route has improved, numbers have risen dramatically. What has changed is the appearance of safety - we now have a route that looks safe for most of its length.

Most cyclists on my route wear lycra - Sydney can be a hot and steamy place, and commutes seem to be 10km+ each way.

What is missing is the casual, local cycling to the shops. What seems to be missing there again is infrastructure - they'll put in a bike rack outside some shops, but no means of getting from the road to the rack with a bike!

Bennelong Bicyclist said...

Discussion of the remarkably small number of subjects used in this study, their lack of representativeness of the wider population, and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the authors, can be found at http://www.sydneycyclist.com/xn/detail/1321712:Comment:209343 and http://www.sydneycyclist.com/xn/detail/1321712:Comment:209432 and http://www.sydneycyclist.com/xn/detail/1321712:Comment:209456