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Does Bicycling Need Rebranding?

Leon Kaye | Tuesday July 13th, 2010 | 12 Comments

Despite the growth of exurbs and the long commutes that pair with them, bicycle riding has become more popular than ever before.  Los Angeles, where I live, is hardly a city thought to be full of bicycles, but its university campuses are teaming with bikes; immigrants and urban hipsters are two wheeling it from Echo Park to Larchmont; and a walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir on weekend mornings means bike riders will zip past you, possibly on their way to biking along the Los Angeles River.

Bicycling, of course, has long been mainstream in the Bay Area and cities like Portland, but interest is growing nationally.  Apparently for some bicycling enthusiasts, however, their passion is still sullied by the image of renegade bicycle messengers who terrorized pedestrians and automobile drivers alike in the streets of San Francisco.  But as electronic court filings and email have caused the bicycle messenger industry to shrink, that demonic image of flying Spandex is no longer necessarily true.  Some bicycle advocates, however, think that a rebranding of bicycling is in order.

The Minneapolis ad agency Cole+McVoy is linking up with the Bikes Belong coalition to launch People for Bikes, which aims to give bicycling a more sunny disposition.  The site’s goal is an admirable and ambitious one:  to garner one million names of support allowing bicycling to become safer, easier, and appealing.  As someone who has had nervy drivers shout at me to “move over” so that my Trek bike does not inconvenience their commute, I admire the organization’s plan to give bike riders a unified voice.

Another of the People for Bikes’ goals is more daunting:  snaring more federal dollars for bike-friendly projects.  It’s laudable, but an uphill fight in a political culture that allows representatives and senators to earmark dollars for pet projects.  Let’s just face it, leaders like the late John Murtha of Pennsylvania want their name on a highway or airport; don’t count on finding the John Boehner Ohio Valley Bike Path on Google Maps anytime soon.  It’s a sad commentary of our transportation priorities in the US, but is the truth—and after stimulus spending dries up, it’s hard to see Congress spending any money on bike-related projects, even though their costs are low.

But considering that a Colorado town recently banned bicycles to mollify owners of a local casino, not to mention the hostility that cyclists often face on the roads, one of People for Bikes’ best features is its page that monitors bicyclists’ successes, from upstate New York to the Texas hill country.  View the map and you may be surprised where bicyclists have scored some hard-fought victories.

Nevertheless, is such a marketing requiring the services of an advertising agency really necessarily?  Call me naïve, but the surge in bicycle riding appears to me to be organic.  Folks I talk to at the bicycle stand give various reasons for going from four to two wheels:  exercise, health, exasperation with the Gulf Fiasco, and not wanting to sit in choking traffic.

Therefore, the reality is that bicycling advocates need to work locally.  The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition will not turn LA into Amsterdam anytime soon (well, maybe around Venice), but has done an admirable job increasing in raising awareness of the need for more bike paths in LA—and has even scored some victories.

Bicycling does not need an imaging makeover—it needs more local activism to make bicyclists safe.


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  • Graham

    The demonic image of bicycle messengers was never generally true, it was profligated by jouno's such as yourself. Nice to see that hasn't changed either.

    • nickaster

      I'm not sure this post profligates that image. I'm a daily cyclist in SF myself. There is definitely a certain element in the media (mostly a certain blog I won't link to) that does indeed encourage that stereotype, however.

  • http://greengopost.com Leon

    Actually it was–one of the best sights in San Francisco was seeing a cable car operater swat off bike messengers like a fly was they would grab a rail and hope the tourist-laden tram would haul them up a hill. The operators always won. And I've seen the poor office worker get nearly flattened on Montgomery and California a few times as a bike messenger decided the rules of the road were for everyone else but him.

    And why are you so defensive about that delicious image anyway? Lighten up and celebrate it! Spandex rules!

    Leon Kaye
    Proud flaming Armenian Jouno.

    • Graham

      I've worked hard as a messenger for 14 years. Knocked 1 person down who stepped off the pavement without looking. Have had to deal with abuse from drivers/peds/everyone that buy into the notion that 'all' messengers are lunatics.
      It's the generalisation that irks me.

      ps. I'm keep the spandex hidden under shorts… way too modest to let it all hang out in the city :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Byron-Dl/903350400 Byron Dl

    Coincidentally, we're discussing this same topic on Bike Hugger today.

    • nickaster

      Nice – give us a link, I can't find it!

  • http://greengopost.com Leon

    Great post, Byron. You mean the one re: getting advocacy wrong? I'm sure it'll spark passion on all sides. I love my bike–and we have to share the road–but as always, a few nuts on both sides screw it up for all of us.

  • http://twitter.com/leonkaye Leon Kaye

    One accident in 14 years is a great track record. But having worked in SF for several years, I’ve seen way too many close calls—often because the pedestrian had the walk signal, only to be almost flattened by a B.M. who felt the rules of the road did not apply to him. Hardly a festering social problem for the ages, but that is my observation and I’m sticking to it.

    The posting on Bike Hugger is a good one and is fostering all kinds of comments. I side with cyclists—I’ve seen too many motorists behave as if the rules of the road do not include sharing. But cyclists need to follow the rules, too.

    Question: Am I the only naïve fool who rides on the right side of the street, with and not against traffic, and never on the sidewalk—and wearing a helmet—oh, and yes, stopping or at least slowing down at stop signs and red lights? Was my father, bless him, too overprotective and literal?

    No reason to be irked by a gentle stereotype. I’m just jealous cause I never had the guts. Plus urban cowboys and cowgirls in spandex and brightly colored spandex are hot! Funny, a banner ad promoting a cycling dating sight is to the right as I type this . . .

    • Graham

      I guess I'm quick to jump to my own defence, there have been so many articles through the years that have really gotten to me…
      I also only landed in hospital once in 14 years, a taxi was 'blinded by the sun' and turned straight into me. Only a broken toe so I guess i can say I've come out pretty well (touch wood!)

      I work in Dublin, Ireland, we have a pretty small, dense urban core with narrow streets. Nobody really goes that crazy here (but I will put my hands up and say there are one or two of the younger messengers who really make me roll my eyes to heaven when I see them ride… they or someone else are going to end up in a bad way pretty soon, and I hate to see that.)

      I worked in NYC for 5 months in '06 and things were a lot crazier there. Big avenues, so much traffic, pedestrians, a really aggressive attitude from all sides, it really felt like kill or be killed sometimes!

      Anyway, the long and short is after all these years I've come to the conclusion that we all need to give and take and I, as a cyclist, can't expect to be treated with respect if I don't treat all other road users the same way. But that goes for all cyclists… not just the easily scapegoated messengers!

  • Graham

    Also, speaking of advertising agencies and cycling, Dublin has a great bike hire scheme http://www.dublinbikes.ie . It's been an incredible success and the initiative is being expanded soon. The project is mostly funded by advertising firm JC Deceaux, in exchange for prime advertising space around the city. A lot of people were against their involvement in something like this, but it has really been such a success now people seem to have gotten over that fact.

    The only problem with the bike hire scheme is that now we have hundreds of new cyclists in the city every day, and they don't really see themselves as cyclists, they still act like pedestrians, so now it's not just messengers, but suits and middle aged women you have to contend with riding the wrong way down streets, on pavements, listening to ipods and talking on the phone…

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  • nickaster

    Great post – I think the demonic messenger sterotype is pretty specific to a few cities, and pretty limited to a small group of people. What would do cycling (at least the bike-to-work kind) some good would be some imagery of “regular folks” biking to work. In most cases there's no need for special outfits or spandex, just get a decent euro style bike and roll!

  • fj2

    http://bit.ly/bx0U2Z Must-see video on the future of Chinese mobility.

    The versions portrayed in the video is the GM-Volkswagen-Segway proprietary version say comparable to Microsoft Windows or the Mac operating system.

    The hybrid human-electric powered version (not portrayed) would be “open systems” and comparable to Linux at much lower cost and practicality.

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