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More thoughts on how we sell cycling to the masses

Posted Feb 02 2011 10:38am

Pictures of highway flyovers and commuting to work doesn’t sell cars and it won’t sell bikes either

Believe it or not, cycling CAN be glamorous. Image courtesy of Copenhagen Cycle Chic. Click image to visit site.

As our city and our country tries to move away from the oil dependent lifestyle of the last 65 years, many efforts are being made to encourage every day people to choose cycling over driving. Some small progress has been made in cities like Portland or pockets of cities including our own, however the tipping point on the war on the carless seems as distant as ever, despite our best intended proclamations .

Much advocacy work has gone towards improving cycling facilities as the key. Many say safety is a huge hurdle to people cycling. I do not doubt that concerns about safety are a barrier, but simply removing that barrier is not enough to induce the choice of cycling. While some say the resources spent on infrastructure has questionable returns , we cannot expect infrastructure in isolation to solve the problem especially if we are not making cycling faster and more convenient than the automobile .

I’ve also questioned all the focus on commuting. Part of this is because rush hour is when our transportation system is stressed the most. Another part is that census data and other surveys are tracked on commuting which is directly connected to how transportation dollars are spent. It’s easier to track people going to employment centers than to the grocery store or library. My problem is that the main way cycling is sold to the general public is as a tool to do something most people don’t like to do: go to work.

Very few car commercials feature the car as a tool for commuting to work. Yes, that’s the majority use of the car for most people, but the car companies are wiser than to sell their product as a better way to eat your vegetables. Some say selling work commuting is our Puritan ethic or the tribe protecting its turf . Truthfully, the commuter focus is what happens when government employees and non-profit advocates are put in charge of selling cycling. (Note: We need and I value these folks as part of the equation. I just think their skill sets and job constraints don’t make them a good match for the selling part of what is needed.)

The way the Toronto Star chose to sell winter cycling. Image courtesy of the Toronto Star. Click image to visit article.

The U.S. bike industry has been either indifferent or flummoxed by how to sell cycling to the masses. They’ve attempted to use the same approach and distribution channels they use for niche fitness and racing markets like road, mountain, and triathlon. This means very male and tech focused . It is a pity because selling the bike as a tool is what can save this slowing market. For the last decade, U.S. bike industry sales have remained stagnant while the American population continues to grow, essentially a market contraction. Many in the cycling industry have been disappointed that transportation cycling has not come good on its promise in the last years to boost sales. Selling bikes the way they always have been sold to a different market with different needs ain’t gonna cut it. To quote an ad campaign from another similarly challenged but eventually successful company, it’s time to “ think different .”

Reflective vests or this: which sells cycling better? Image courtesy of Amsterdamize. Click image to visit site.

It’s time to make cycling appealing again and get the bikes into new channels. Last week , I promoted a site called Rides a Bike where images are shared of Golden Age Hollywood on bicycles. Richard Masoner at Cyclelicious mentioned he has a similar series called Ride a Bike where he shares images of current day celebrities on bikes. I enjoy Richard’s posts, but what I’ve been struck by is that most of his celebrity pictures are distinctly non-glamorous. Many times they are paparazzi shots, but even so most of the time the starlets look like they are going to the beach or the gym. . . because that is what they are doing. The bike is a recreational toy, not an every day tool. Save the fashion for when you are exiting a limo or Land Rover, right?

The good news is that there still is glamor in riding a bike. For the past five years, Mikael Colville-Andersen has produced the excellent site Copenhagen Cycle Chic where he shares pictures of fashionably dressed people on bikes. Other sites have popped up around the world as copies. I find Amsterdamize to be equal in quality to the Copenhagen site. The author and photographer of the site was recently reflecting on his two and a half years publishing the site and share this great film called “Cycling” from Amsterdam in the 60s.

Take away the skinny ties and Mackintoshes and the scenes would be equally familiar today.

Insane Rush Hour In Netherlands

It’s time to get beyond bike lanes and public service announcements. These serve a valuable place in majority adoption of cycling, but they are not the whole picture. Roads alone didn’t sell cars. You needed places to go and an industry of auto manufactures and land developers to sell you on the vision. The Internet was around for two decades before it became ubiquitous with modern life. You needed a compelling reason to get online, whether it was connecting with friends, buying stuff, or looking at funny cat videos.

It’s time to create what is called in business talk “ the whole product .” It’s not just the bike or even the infrastructure. We need a compelling vision of a better life lived on two wheels. Who’s with me?

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