How do you get more people to ride bicycles

How do you get more people to ride bicycles

Having spent far too much time trying to find how other places achieved the high cycling rates they have, I have come to the conclusion that there are two factors which can increase cycling rates and make cycling feel ”normal”.

First: provide usable, high quality (although not necessary expensive) cycling specific infrastructure. Lot of people have bikes and will use them more if they feel it is safe and covenant to do so. This is something which is slowly coming about, with the emphasis on the word “slowly”, and is not helped by so much money being wasted on poor quality unusable cycling infrastructure, which is not fit for purpose. But that is for another post.

Then: emotional marketing, and this is something I would like to discuss in this blog post.

It is important to make riding a bicycle feel like a normal thing to do, for a number of reasons, not least because people are then more likely to support (and demand) the provision of usable cycling infrastructure.

A large proportion of the UK population knows how to ride a bicycle and indeed own at least one bike. Sadly, most bikes are at the back of a shed gathering dust. So at some stage in their lives people felt that riding a bicycle was an ordinary and normal thing to do. However, most adults no longer ride bicycles on a regular basis, and cycling as an adult is no longer seen as normal. For more on why this is the case, I recommend reading Dave Horton’s work on the fear of cycling.

So how do we overcome this fear of cycling? This is where emotional marketing comes in, which is about selling a lifestyle, making it look attractive and desirable. If you are wondering what this has to do with transport, well the motor industry spends about £830m a year on advertising, much of which can been seen as emotional marketing. They are selling a lifestyle: making driving seem ordinary and aspirational at the same time. However, the advertising rarely, if ever shows congestion, the roads are always empty, suggesting this should be the default way to travel. The reality, as we all know, is often very different, but the marketing makes people forget these downsides, and believe there is no other way.

Now obviously the cycling industry doesn’t have the same sort of money for advertising as the motor industry, and many in bike business just aren’t interested in cycling as transport (rather than sports & leisure), but increasingly bicycles are being used in lifestyle advertising. So things are starting to move our way. A number of cities in mainland Europe have started to run marketing campaigns to promote cycling as a means of urban transport, notably Bozen/Bolzano, Munich, and Copenhagen.

These broad promotional campaigns are intended to “sell” the idea of bicycling to those who currently don’t cycle, and to create a positive image for cycling among the public in general. In the same way that the motor industry uses advertising, this promotes a certain lifestyle, successful cycling campaigns appeal to the emotions of their audiences to sell the idea of cycling as a positive lifestyle choice. They use emotion-based sales pitches rather than logic-based ones, and this has generally been proven to be more successful. However, it is important to note that simply encouraging people to cycle more without making it easy to do and attractive will not succeed. These campaigns are not a substitute for providing good, usable, cycling infrastructure. They can, however, play an important role in encouraging people to ask for something better. It is about hearts and minds. After all, if people don’t know there is a better option than the one they have, they aren’t going to ask for it.

These city (or regional) marketing campaigns are well funded formal campaigns, but they aren’t the only form of emotional marketing of cycling going on. At a more informal level, there is the global “Cycle Chic” movement. This is a collection of blogs inspired by the original Cycle Chic blog (better known as Copenhagen Cycle Chic) which started from a single photo and has developed into an international consultancy. These blogs are mostly individual enterprises which aim to celebrate ordinary people, riding bicycles in ordinary clothes, in cities and towns around the world. The message they are sending is: look, there are people just like you riding bicycles as transport, if they can, so can you. As the strap line of Edinburgh Cycle Chic puts it, “Because you don’t have to wear Lycra”. It is the activity of these blogs, documenting people riding on the streets that have attracted the attention of the fashion industry, which is increasingly using bicycles as props in its advertising. If there is one industry which can out-spend all others and influence lifestyles, it is the fashion industry. It also has the power to reach people who are not engaged by traditional cycle industry marketing. In the UK, research carried out by Sustrans in early 2009 found that 79 per cent of British women never cycle at all, but 69% of those would cycle if they felt it was safe.

For some reason there are some existing cyclists in the English speaking world who find the Cycle Chic movement disturbing, but I am really not sure why. Cycling is an activity which just about everybody can do, and it has a lot of potential as everyday short range transport, so where is the problem in promoting it as such? Part of the problem may lie in the fact that cycling can mean many different things, as Graeme Obree says: “It’s is a sport, it’s a pastime and it’s a form of transport. You don’t football down to the shops”.

A lot of the opposition to disquiet about the idea of Cycle Chic appears to come from what can loosely be termed the “Lycra brigade”, who seem to feel that they are in some way being criticised by the emphasis on riding in ordinary clothes. They rather miss the point, Cycle Chic is not about them, no one is saying “Thou shalt not wear Lycra!”. The country which probably has more cycling clubs per head of population and the most fanatical cycle racing fans, is The Netherlands. This is also the country with more people cycling in normal clothes on an everyday basis, there is no reason why this should have a negative effect on cycling as sport.

For those who like to cycle fast or over long distances, there is a case for wearing technical clothing, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, this sort of cycling is never going to appeal to the masses, even the most popular mass participation sports in the UK only engage about 5% of the population each. However, everyone makes short journeys of the sort of distance which can easily be covered by bicycle, and the whole point of Cycle Chic is to show that anyone can ride a bicycle as a means of everyday transport, and that you don’t have to be an athlete to do it.

There are also a small number of people who criticise the idea of Cycle Chic on supposed “safety” grounds. Saying that people should wear hi-visibility clothing and cycle helmets while cycling in order to be safe, this is a totally false argument, as I have pointed out before. Sadly a number of these people seem to think that emphasising high-vis and helmets in cycling campaigns will somehow encourage people to take up cycling. The truth is it won’t, most people are risk adverse. Telling them that they will be safe if they dress in a certain way, while ignoring the real source of the problem, will simply put them off. This has been shown over the last 20+ years by the failure of these “safety” campaigns to raise cycling levels to those seen on the European mainland, and shows it is clearly time for a fresh approach in the UK. There are lessons to be learnt from our near neighbours across the North Sea, where they have shown that the cycling infrastructure and emotional marketing approaches work, especially if employed in tandem.

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16 thoughts on “How do you get more people to ride bicycles

  1. So many people now are actually appearance concious when it comes down to it. Another approach is ensuring people physically feel that little bit more “trendy” when it comes to cycling.

    You’re never going to appeal to every audience when it comes down to encouraging people to take up or re-take up cycling.

  2. I especially like this part:

    “They are selling a lifestyle: making driving seem ordinary and aspirational at the same time. However, the advertising rarely, if ever shows congestion, the roads are always empty, suggesting this should be the default way to travel. The reality, as we all know, is often very different, but the marketing makes people forget these downsides, and believe there is no other way.”

    It seems a lot of people miss this. They think it’s enough to say cycling is green and healthy.

  3. “it provides a welcome counter-balance to advocates of helmets and hi-viz”

    …who in Britain, are numerous and well-funded, and would dearly like to go on promoting cycling as a slightly outré, decidedly risky recreational activity requiring hundreds of pounds worth of kit: a sort of bungee-jumping for those afraid of heights. The result is that people buy into this – quite literally – and you see families toiling along quiet country lanes in the summer heat riding 25-gear faux-MTBs with knobbly tyres and boingy-boingy frame suspension, encased in sweaty hi-viz tabards and with their heads clamped in ludicrous Dan-Dare helmets. They find that it isn’t a particularly pleasurable experience; so the bikes go into the garage and never come out again. Messrs. Halfords (By Appointment Suppliers of High-Quality Kit to the Discerning Cyclist) now have a policy of never showing a cyclist not wearing a helmet, justifying this on grounds of “best practice” when what they really mean is “shifting merchandise”.

    Cycle Chic has nothing against Lycra in its place, which is sport cycling. It merely tells the “you must dress like this or you will die” people, firmly but politely, “Oh no we don’t have to dress like that; and we most probably aren’t going to die as a result.”

    1. I would said that:

      Cycle Chic has nothing against Lycra in its place, which is sport cycling. It merely tells the “you must dress like this or you will die” people, firmly but politely, “Oh no we don’t have to dress like that; and we most probably going to live longer as a result.”

  4. Poor people in the US have been cycling in “normal” clothes forever. No one is calling that cycle chic. It is people using whatever means they can to arrive at a destination. Make the motorist pay for the full cost of owning a car and we will likely see more middle-class folks choose to bike the <5 miles to work.

  5. As it happens, because I use a bike for ordinary transport in fairly ordinary clothes, I don’t feel threatened by Cycle Chic. I was trying to answer your point about why it disquiets some cyclists.

    Certainly, it provides a welcome counter-balance to advocates of helmets and hi-viz. If it persuades people who are more interested in clothes than bikes to ride one, that’s great.

    Put it another way: I’m an ugly old bloke. I don’t ride with grace, elegance or dignity. My normal charity-shop clothes are certainly worth less than my bike. I am excluded from cycle-chicness. That’s my loss, you might say, but it may explain an aspect of disquiet.

    1. No you are not excluded from cycle-chicness, just don’t get too hung up on the fashion bit and do your own thing. If you really want a label, you are a citizen cyclist!

  6. I largely agree with this blog, but not about the mis-reading of Cycle Chic. You say, “They [the “Lycra brigade”] rather miss the point, Cycle Chic is not about them, no one is saying “Thou shalt not wear Lycra!”.”

    You are mistaken. That is exactly what they say.

    One of Cycle Chic manifesto points points is “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear’.” Another is “I will endeavour to ensure that the total value of my clothes always exceeds that of my bicycle.” And there is the overriding principle of “Style over Speed”.

    I have no problems with cyclists wearing whatever they want. If people want to wear clothing that slows them down and makes then pedal harder, good luck to them. And everyone has the right to say theirs is the correct way, and everyone else is wrong. But they shouldn’t be surprised when some cyclists find this disquieting.

    1. If it not your sort of thing, then carry on riding in Lycra, that is your choice, no one is trying to make you sign up to the “Cycle Chic manifesto”, however, if you are going to quote it selectively maybe I should point out that it starts by saying:

      We’ve been discussing for ages the composing of a manifesto regarding Cycling Chic. We coined the phrase, after all, so we thought it necessary to highlight what it’s all about. As ever, with a hint of seriousness, a splash of poetry and a dash of playfulness.

      It is intended to be slightly tongue in cheek, but this is about marketing cycling to people who would ride a bicycle as a form of transport and who wouldn’t consider themselves to be a “Cyclist”. Where is the problem in that? Why is that so threatening? You think Formula One driver feel threatened but the idea that people are encouraged to drive the to the shops in ordinary cars, without wearing flame suits and helmets? So why should it be different with bicycles??

      I really don’t understand why some people feel so threatened by the idea that other people might want to use bicycles as a means of transport to get from A to B, without it being some sort of race? My interest is in marketing the bicycle as an everyday form of transport, which anyone can use and it should be safe for them to do so. Really where is the problem?

  7. An interesting piece. I have worked for the fashion industry and my trip in to work was around the 10 mile mark. A trip I always did without lycra and in full make up. I have always seen cycling as another styling opportunity and I have almost as many helmets and I do pairs of shoes.
    I am a big fan of cycle chic but I wish the media would merge it with cycle safety. Showing celebrities on bikes in billowing dresses and heels just makes me think ‘they won’t look so great when it starts raining, and their dress gets caught in the chain’. But that’s probably just me.

    1. Thank you for your comment, you raise a couple of interesting points. First you talk of helmets in terms of safety, this ignore the actual level of risk and make certain assumptions. In places where cycling is common, helmet use is very low or non existent. This is because the real risk of head injury is far lower that the helmet industry would have us believe (there is a real dishonesty in the use of fear to sell a needless product), the simple truth is ordinary cycling as a means of transport is no more dangerous than walking (or running). How many people do you see walking or running who wear helmets? Helmets, may have a place for those engaging in extreme sports, but cycling to get from A to B it not (and should not be) an extreme sport. If you are really worried about cycle safety then the answer is reducing motor traffic in built up areas and providing good infrastructure.

      As for riding in the rain, just wear a raincoat. Worried about getting your clothes caught in the chain, fit a chain guard. These things are quiet normal in places where riding a bicycle is simply a way of getting from A to B and not thought of as a form of extreme sport.

  8. A thoughtful post and a topic I think about quite a bit. The cycle chic movement made the switch to bike commuting and sale of a car much easier to swallow. I am an obsessive recycler and run around the house turning off lights in empty rooms but I couldn’t be persuaded to sell my 2000 VW Beetle based on reducing my carbon footprint. My husband and I first started talking about bike commuting to eoncomize but I wouldn’t have done it if doing meant I had to leave the house looking and feeling like a “frump” or if I had to cover myself in 15 blinkie lights and reflective gear. I am quirky enough without having to be labeled a weirdo based on how I look on my bike.

    I’ve managed to convert a modest number of women to incorporate bike commuting into their daily lives. I’ve been able to do this by making bike commuting look fun, easy and fashionable. Someone recently implied that I falling victim to the oppressive patriarchal system but I strongly disagree. I choose to wear pink sling backs and tall, high-heeled black boots because they are prettier than Birkenstocks, which in my opinion are just ugly. I don’t ask or care what men think of my clothes; I dress for me. As much as my sister tried to focus her daughters on things other than clothes, Barbie and looking pretty, her oldest child left the womb seemingly programmed with an inordinant interest in each. This same sister later began indulging in a long surpressed desire to dress more stylishly – she just had never felt confident enough to do so. Embracing one’s feminity and sexuality isn’t the same as being oppressed by the male dominated culture. For me, if anything, I feel more personally powerful and competent when I look attractive. Dressing nicely while on a bike makes me feel even more so.

  9. An interesting overview. Fashion is indeed the secret weapon for reaching out. My own (17 year old) daughter was taken with the ‘fashion’ idea of having a bike with basket and eschews hi-viz but does look over her shoulder and watches her road position.

    Lowering city speeds to 20mph would help in my view. Would also save fuel as far too much rapid acceleration and braking to no effect.

    1. As I say above, the marketing is only part of the story. Having appropriate infrastructure is also part of the equation, if we had that as well then your daughter would be able to ride side by side chatting with her friends as well, which I am sure she would enjoy.

      The lower speed limits, as we are getting (in some parts) of Edinburgh is a good start, but we really need to go further.

  10. We don’t call it cycle chic, this side of the pond. Personally, I ride a beach cruiser. I go V-SLOW. I’m almost always either on the actual beach where a helmet would frighten the sea gulls and the bike shoes would become filled with sand – when I lower the kickstand for my Tai Chi moment… or I’m riding on a separated (from cars/road) bicycle path, where my biggest risk is getting run over by some guy in full gear, with magic calves and a lycra body suit – going 300 miles per hour…

    So, yeah – I’m likely to wear ‘whatever’ I can find, no helmet and flip flops for shoes.

    But, if I lived in the city…and actually rode faster than the senior walking club walks – then yeah – I’d put on a helmet… but the tight fitting duds… No Way!

    Heidi White
    Beach Cruiser Owner

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