Knowing Your Audience


Background Reading

This week in Chicago has meant that we get to peek behind the curtain to see what the True Believers think about cycling. When the temperatures drop below freezing an hover around zero degrees with a windchill many degree below zero the varnish gets removed from the happy talk about cycling. In these conditions not even the truest of believers can afford to be flippant about their desire for cycling. This is the kind of weather which were it complicated by three or four inches of snow and ice would be downright terrifying.

Looking For Reasons To Ride

Leslie Carlson is a Portland strategist who is fighting to educate the True Believers or at least those that want to be. She has four points that are worth taking a look at:

  1. Don’t talk costs. Talk benefits.
    “Yes, yes, bike transportation is surprisingly cheap and efficient. But Carlson thinks it’s ineffective to endlessly try to explain this.”
  2. Steal tricks from Madison Avenue.
    “One of the private-sector marketing concepts she’s been mulling lately: shelf-toppers – ‘tags that convey a message about that product at the time people are thinking about that product.’ In the grocery store, little tags that detail the health benefits of a particular product can shape a product’s brand in ways that a glossy magazine campaign can’t.”
  3. Tackle cars head on.
    “Talk about the costs of cars, which we never talk about,” she said. “There have got to be ways in which cars decrease livability, if we had that data. … People who drive really fast past local businesses may be less likely to stop. Cars make it really hard to walk. There’s got to be ways we can frame that.”
  4. The moms who rock the cargo bikes rule the road.
    “Carlson thinks the key to increasing bike use long-term is making bikes normal among a particularly influential demographic: parents. Especially moms who have kids in tow.”

Ms. Carlson is the kind of person you hire to get behind your lobbying efforts when trying to obtain monies from that elusive pot that we are all forced to gather round during each funding cycle. During these kinds of efforts you have to make your case for why cycling needs more monies. Right now the push is on for laying down more paint in an effort to carve out more room for cyclists.

But can these Talking Points persuade more than just the bureaucrats?

Getting people to cycle more is not like “witnessing”. When I was in college each semester you were encouraged to find a mission in which to be involved. The idea was that when you graduated you were either going to go onto the Mission Field in a foreign country or stay here an serve in less dramatic circumstances. Oddly enough the latter was the more difficult.

Think about it this way. When you ship a boat load of refurbished bikes to a foreign country in cargo containers they have a very meaningful impact on the recipients on the receiving end of things. In a poor enough country a shipment like that makes it possible for a young person to travel many miles to a school in a remote village without having to wait for a bus that they really cannot afford to take.

It means that a small business person suddenly has a means of carrying around staggeringly huge load along roads that are likely to be both steep and rugged. But necessity being the mother of invention, people find a way to strap things to bikes that were never dreamed of by the folks who manufactured them. (See: 11 Impossibly Loaded Bicycles)

But as countries develop and the mean income rises people move away from bicycles towards small motor vehicles that can carry the loads cheaply. This has already happened to a large extent in China. As the economy there booms people move in exactly the same trajectory as they did in Western Europe and the United States, towards internal combustion engines. It is a fact that is incontrovertible.

Trying as we Westerners do to tell others that they cannot follow in our footsteps because it means a loss of tropical forests or arable farm land will make little sense to them. It will be perceived as an attempt to keep them from enjoying the same riches we have. We come off as paternalistic.

So how then do your get people who are already very far along the curve of economic improvement (as is the case in America) to suddenly head in the opposite direction when it comes to transportation?

Word came in this AM of the death of Brandon Bernier a fellow cycling activist. He died in a car crash. How ironic. He was not on a bicycle and struck by a car but rather it seems the driver of said vehicle when he lost control and struck a tree. Sad but there is a story here that should be told. None of us is actually free of involvement with internal combustion engines and perhaps that is not a bad thing. Even the bicycles we all love so very much are shipped to the very stores from which we by them via a series of trips either on water or air or truck before we get to pedal them home and then to work.

So if our lives are as intertwined with these engines and the lives of others will soon be in Africa (where the next big economic boom is poised to take place) as they have been in Asia can we expect people to not wish to enjoy the fruits of economic growth?

Getting Past Bwannabes

On every single continent Europeans came and raped the land and took the minerals they needed to enrich themselves. When they realized that they could not or did not want to carry out the manual labor required to accomplish many of these projects they imported either very cheap labor (as in the case of Teddy Roosevelt‘s building of the Panama Canal) or forced labor (as in the managing of cotton growing and harvesting before the invention of the cotton gin).

South American forests and the plantations that sprang up afterwards made millions of dollars for rich Europeans who never ever asked the question “how can we do this sustainably?” Then as now it has always been about gathering to our bosoms wealth at the expense of others. That 2% of people who represent the oligarchy are where they are because they have been able to tear down forests, level mountains, span rivers and more all in the name of moving freight from one side of the country to another via railroads, barges, airplanes and now trucks.

The affordable vehicles that Henry Ford made possible were the envy of the world. And there are still people in many areas of this city whose families were brought here hundreds of years ago who are eager to enjoy the fruits of our economic system, namely owning a luxury automobile. It is a sign that they have made it. And enjoy them they will.

And once again the Europeans who brought them here are asking them (no telling them) that they have the answer yet again to life’s mysteries, bicycles.

It seems that Europeans are always in Missionary Mode. Bringing to others what is “best for them”. Leslie Carlson is trying to get right the questions that a good Missionary should anticipate when arguing the necessity of bringing the Cycling Gospel to the natives.

I agree that automobiles have greatly affected the quality of life here in the United States and Europe. By the same token however they have made life immeasurably better for millions of human beings and animals who would otherwise be engaged in serving as beasts of burden for the Europeans who would not be willing to undertake this effort themselves. Hundreds of thousands of mules lost their lives as they served to pull barges and trams. They were not asked whether they wanted to they were pressed into service. Were it not for the internal combustion engine you and I would be sharing streets with horses forced to serve as transport engines for our benefit. They would not be pulling wealthy tourists around the city for sightseeing purposes but would be doing it for basic transportation needs.

Without these engines and batteries we would still be importing slaves to work in menial tasks that require energy but little thought. Europeans have never been good at providing labor. In fact throughout most of Asia women will not allow themselves the luxury of getting tanned because it would mean that their skin would darken. And that has always been a sign of folks who worked out-of-doors (i.e. menial labor).

Now in the 21st century we are trying to get the world to reverse direction because we have yet another religion to bring to them, sustainability. And we will force that religion as far down their throats as we did Christianity a couple of hundred years ago. We will force our dress codes upon the natives in the form of protected bicycle lanes as surely as we did the covering of breasts among folks who never once thought of nudity as problematic.

Eating Our Dog Food

On the ChainLink Forum this week you get a chance to listen to Europeans talk about trying to deal with the harsh realities of weather in ways that African slaves must have upon arriving in North America. It has been cold here. The temperatures are far below freezing and the wind makes it feel just that much colder. And against this backdrop True Believers are attempting to spur themselves on despite the weather.

The big difference between these folks and those slaves is that they are doing something they “want” to do. They have the luxury of riding a bike in sub-zero weather when they have the option of taking a car, cab, bus or train. Slaves would have been dressed in rags and probably barefoot. These folks are arguing over the best way to stay warm by adding appropriate layers of synthetic materials (all non-sustainable petroleum-based I might add) to avoid freezing to death. It is laughable at one level and tragic on another.

This is the group that has decided to offer communities on the South and West sides of the city bikes that are rentable using credit cards. Wealthy folks who have money and bank accounts can see the value in that approach. The folks who actually need cheap year-round transportation do not have credit cards. And they certainly do not have the money to purchase the expensive riding gear that I don each time I want to take a ride in sub-zero weather.

They do not have the money to maintain bikes which suffer flats, need maintenance (especially when ridden year-round) and are otherwise more inconvenient than taking the Cream and Green to work. And as in Asia and South America the goal of economic improvement is to enjoy all of the luxuries of the Europeans. If you doubt this take a look at the rapid increase of internal combustion engines in the Chinese traffic environment and the difficulties that this rapid growth have brought with respect to air pollution in large urban areas.

What we are seeing in China we already saw happen in the central cities in Europe and here in the United States decades ago. Every emerging culture will have to grow through these stages before they can begin to disassociate bicycle travel from poverty. And here in the United States where the average person is more interested in drinking beer and eating chicken wings the very idea of slogging it out on a bicycle in this kind of weather is simply unimaginable.

The sooner we acknowledge this and drop the Bwannabe Act the better. Our airwaves are littered with advertisements for anything that speaks “upward mobility“. One True Believer wrote the other day that she was welcoming a new dishwasher into her home. Now that speaks sustainability if I ever saw it. Wrong.

But I understand her need to find a way to make her life easier. She like me wants to be able to wash her clothes in a machine that takes care of all the chores that our great-grandmothers did by hand. We all sit down of an evening an enjoy televisions that are powered by either coal or gas generators and read by lightbulbs lit by the same non-sustainable fossil fuels we find so objectionable in automobiles.

There is something very hypocritical in that reality.

We use healthcare and beauty products tested on helpless animals and see nothing wrong with that. Our carpets and floor coverings are all made from non-sustainable petroleum products. And yet we look down our noses at motorists and wonder “When will they ever learn?” The better question is when will we?

Getting people out on bicycles is going to be difficult. If they are traveling very short distances that helps. But we are in a climate zone where temperatures are seemingly always at extremes. It is either very hot and humid or cold and windy. We are not San Diego. What is more the cost of bicycling is pretty steep.

If you listen to cyclists you hear about how much disposable income they have as a result of commuting by bike. But it evidently does not translate into their being able to afford folding bikes that solve many of the problems they face on a routine basis (e.g. theft, storage, multi-modal travel).

This is a group that can manage to borrow a folding bike and rather than bringing it indoors will leave it outside on the porch where it gets stolen. How on earth do you take people that are this stupid seriously when they are attempting to tell you how you should live your life in a sustainable fashion?

 Mothers and Women Are The Key

Side view of seat horn - Courtesy of Easy Racers

Side view of seat horn – Courtesy of Easy Racers

If you want to make inroads in the African-American Community where cycling is concerned do it via the middle-aged women using long wheelbase recumbent bicycles. These bikes appeal in a way that is important. They look (and are) expensive. You can of course make them far less expensive by using different materials and increasing production numbers.

But this will go a long way to making bicycling attractive in the African-American communities. But if you are serious about cycling for anyone here in the Midwest and you want them doing it year round you really, really need to consider tricycles.

To be more specific you need to consider velomobiles. And yes these are expensive but their prices can be brought lower and doing that will increase the likelihood that older people and poorer people will try them out.

Organic Transit has a winner in this category. They are making a bicycle which is a trike that is covered and has electric assist. In short because it is more expensive and upscale even a person who is less affluent will find it “cool” to own something like this. It is not nearly as expensive as a car and yet can transport you just about anywhere a bicycle can go. And because of the electric assist it means that less fit individuals or ones who have aged to point that muscles are weak, can still get around and do grocery shopping and other errands on something that keeps them out of the bitter cold or rain.

There is a great deal that the current members of the Church of Urban Cycling could learn from the Recumbent Cycling Community. We have a transportation mode that overcomes some of the “poverty” issues of traditional bikes. Because they are more expensive they will appeal to those wishing to be thrifty while not seeming poor. It is possible to make these bikes as cheaply as we do the more expensive smartphones. And when equipped with things like hub generators we can charge electrical gadgets and power lights without having to buy unsustainable lithium batteries just to light our way.

Because many of these velomobiles are enclosed it means that expensive non-sustainable synthetic clothing is not always required. You can get around in wool underwear and outer clothing. It will mean that you will have to listen to someone other than your self-appointed Priests to better understand the possibilities of human powered vehicles, but that might be a good thing for you to have to do.

And be forewarned that some of them will be black.