Does advocacy get new people on bikes and if not, what will?
May is Bike Month, and in addition to all the special rides and bike shop discounts, our local, statewide, and national bicycle advocacy groups are front and center highlighting the need for good infrastructure and encouraging us to get on bikes. Locally, this means the Austin Cycling Association , League of Bicycling Voters and Bike Texas while on a national level the League of American Bicyclists , Bikes Belong , and IMBA work to secure resources for making biking more accessible. I have many friends in these organizations, have contributed myself to some, and while I’ve felt they’ve been too timid in the past, I generally support their activities.
With this in mind, I read with great interest a recent series by former Specialized Marketing Director and bike industry critic Rick Vosper on the value and return on investment of the millions of dollars spent each year on bike advocacy. Vosper argues that while advocacy organizations have succeeded in getting new infrastructure built, they have been a failure at stopping the precipitous drop in the number of Americans actually choosing to ride a bike. According to the National Sporting Goods Association he reports, per-capita riding is down 35% in America in the last 15 year. We’ve lost 15 million riders, and this has resulted in a loss of $1.33 billion dollars a year in lost revenue for the bike industry. Pretty shocking stuff.
Vosper is not all negative about advocacy attributing it to slowing the decline in the last decade, yet it has not reversed the trend. He takes the view that while building infrastructure is great, if we aren’t actually actively encouraging people to get out and ride, it’s all for naught. I agree that not enough is being done to put people on bikes, but here’s where Vosper looses me. He suggests taking the money spent on advocacy and doing a major national marketing campaign encouraging people to ride, basically the bike industry version of “Got Milk?” He says let’s try to find the 8.5 million lost or new cyclists needed to recapture the lost $1.33 billion dollars. If we spend about $1/rider, that’s around $10 million dollars a year.
So here’s how he lost me: First, criticizing infrastructure for not producing cyclists in this country is disingenuous. Consider how many billions of dollars and millions of square miles are dedicated to facilities for cars to the practical exclusion of all other forms of transportation, and you’ll see bike advocates are fighting a tank with a squirt gun. Secondly, does anyone think a $10 million on a national campaign will have much of an impact? $10 million is a smallish media budget for just the state of Texas. Think one round of F-150 truck ads.
I agree we need to make the case for riding in a real way, but either the bike industry needs to pony up 5 to 10 times that every year or more realistically look at strategic partners that have similar interests. In Europe, there are some really compelling TV ads heralding the advantages of biking. Who pays for those? The government. It’s time to use those same advocates that get beat up in Vosper’s articles to shake some serious money out of the government to promote cycling. Want to tackle energy independence? Promote cycling. Want to address our obesity epidemic? Promote cycling. Want to create close knit communities? Promote cycling. The tax payer shouldn’t shoulder all the burden. The bike industry should put in money as well and there are other companies like New Urban developers and retail and restaurants in the urban core that could benefit directly from more people biking. Create a public/private promotional partnership that will achieve real market penetration.
Bike infrastructure and public service announcements are great, but I think the real opportunity here lies not in old media and government policy but tapping into the growing social media networks. Do you know who puts more new people on bikes every week than anyone else in Austin? Your local bike shop. Nope. City of Austin Bike/Ped? No. Go to Fiesta Gardens on most Thursdays, and you’ll see 200-300 people on bikes participating in Social Cycling Austin’s Thursday Night Social Ride . Heck, get there on an especially popular night, and you’ll see 500 people. The vast majority of the riders aren’t weekend warriors, and there is a conspicuous absence of spandex. Instead, they’re normal people, in normal clothes going out for drinks with friends. It’s just in this case they happen to be riding bikes. And for an industry that’s completely clueless about marketing to and serving women, you’ll also usually find a 50-50 split of men and women.
We spend an inordinate amount of time in this country in front of screens: TVs, computers, or smart phones. Social media like Facebook and Twitter tap into the isolation we feel from this lifestyle, but in the end, they fall short. There is a hunger for real, live social interaction in this country, and the bicycle is supremely positioned to be a tool of creating these interactions. The return to growth in the bike industry will not be from the current or next Lance Armstrong. It will not be from the coolest new materials or latest components. Racers and recreational riders are not the future. Figuring out ways to get people to do everyday things on a bike, that is the industries only hope for a return to salad days.
I’d suggest instead of spending $10 million on ads that will be a blip today and gone tomorrow, the bike industry fund a version of Social Cycling Austin in the top 100 US markets. Social Cycling Austin was created with no money and a Facebook account. $100,000 dollars/year would go a very long way to create and sustain such an organization in each city and physically put new people on bikes. For those in the bike industry reading this, e-mail or pick up the phone today and call Social Cycling Austin chief Keith Byrd. Keith and his crew are ready to expand their social biking goodness to other necks of the woods, and in the end, they may just save your balance sheets and your butt.