Bike advocacy is about as far away from ‘cool’ as one can get. It’s a world full of recumbents, Day-Glo yellow, helmet mirrors, wool and tweed; the stereotypes that make self-important racers and hardcore enthusiasts cringe.
I’ve often been confused by the question “Are you a serious cyclist?”. I don’t own a car, and bike virtually everywhere I go. I’ve spent a year or so cumulatively living on my bike touring. In eastern Europe, in Mexico. To my mind, this makes me serious. But not so in some other minds. To many it seems that only competition can make one “serious”, and I just don’t understand. But then, I’ve never watched a SuperBowl either.
I’ve been talking to friends and co-conspirators about how best to do bicycle propaganda marketing. There’s a tendency in Boulder — as well as more broadly in the US — to market transportation cycling on the basis of its environmental, health, economic, and even political benefits. These benefits are significant, and are part of why I and many others who already ride, do so. However, I don’t think that means they’re the right way to reach the other 99% of the US population (or even to the other 90% of the Boulder population). To use this rational, functional framing is to use the marketing techniques of the 19th century, which often assumed consumers to be rational beings, making their purchases on the basis of the relative functional merits of the products on offer. Some people behave rationally, in some purchases, but since the mid 20th century most corporations (and many governments) have realized that this is not actually the best way to move product. Ever since Edward Bernays, marketing and public relations has largely been about evoking an emotional response and associating your product with the aspirations of the consumer, regardless of whether those aspirations are attainable or pure fantasy. Most people with an analytical background are irritated by the idea that logical rhetoric and rational argument are not the best ways to convince people of something. I’ve seen this issue come up repeatedly with public science communication, especially in the context of climate change.
Irritating or not, this seems to be the way most people work, most of the time. If we want cycling to become something everyone does, we have to work with people as they are, not as we wish they were. The benefits of the bicycle will be realized if lots of people decide to ride, regardless of whether they’ve made that decision rationally.