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.