Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes on Bicycle Advocacy

For some weeks now, I've wanted to make a post with some general observations about the differences between bicycle advocacy where I come from and the the places that I'm traveling through.

Be warned, though: this is not a thoroughly researched, well documented article about the history of bicycle advocacy in America or Europe. Rather, these are a few limited observations made during more than two months spent studying bicycle cultures in Europe.

1. Staying Positive:

Most of the advocacy I have seen in Denmark and the Netherlands has been oriented at *increasing* the positive benefits across the social spectrum which are accrued from more bicycling. One simple example is a statistic from Denmark which the Danish Cycling Federation put together: for every kilometer bicycled in Denmark, the government actually earns one Danish Crown. This is a particularly poignant political argument for fiscal conservatives as it demonstrates the returns on bicycle investment. Sure it costs money to create bicycle infrastructure; in today's world, it costs money to do almost anything! But the returns on bicycle investments are quite good.

2. Name the Goal, not the Step.

I actually read this in a zine I picked up while haunting a local squat here in Amsterdam. It was a zine about computer technology, of all things, but I think it is a good way of positing a solution to a common problem with bicycle advocates. Installing new bike parking is not the goal, it is the step. An increase in bicycle lanes is not the goal, it is the step. A healthier society is the goal. A city that can move its people with increased efficiency and care, that is the goal. The goal, I think, can compel and inspire people to get out on a bike, which is more powerful than arguments for increased spending on blue stripes in the roadway. For effective advocates, the work before us goes beyond the bicycle, and it should be clearly stated that bike advocates are about more than increasing the number of people on bicycles.

I think this point chafes the sensibilities of bicycle enthusiasts because for so many of us, the bicycle in itself is a powerful tool for social and personal liberation. But the time for preaching to the choir has come and gone. Reaching more people requires broadening the message.

3. Eco-guilt and Slim Bodies Won't Cut it

What is the number one reason people bicycle in Denmark? Ease and convenience. In the Netherlands? 7.2 of 10 people say they are satisfied with the network of bicycle tracks throughout the city. This is a pretty good satisfaction rate for bicycle infrastructure.

A well developed, easy to use system of designated paths is critical to making cycling attractive. Public health, eco friendliness and sustainability, I would argue, are the by-products of bicycle cultures built around convenience. This is a point that should not be lost, because providing convenient and efficient transportation to a municipality's citizenry is in many ways as important as providing fire and ambulance services. Vehicular mobility often determines social mobility, and cities with limited vehicular mobility are often cities with limited social mobility as well. Bicycle paths, then, can be seen as a noble service provided to citizens.

4. America Lacks not for Best Practices; We Lack Political Will

The culture wars, I would argue, are one of the reasons bicycling has enjoyed little progress in America. I think advocates and cyclists alike often fail to use the bicycle as a political tool to bridge the divide between social conservatism and social liberalism. I've observed many of the most passionate bicycle lovers are bent on destroying the car culture in the U.S.; or bent on shoveling out the old guard of traffic engineers in favor of newer, hipper, more enlightened engineers.

Let's get real. The car culture will change in coming years, for sure, but the goal of bicycle advocates should not be to promote its demise. The same is true with the field of traffic engineering.

To focus on the ways in which the bicycle is a unifying force, the ways in which it acts as an egalitarian tool to increase the opportunity for all peoples is, to me, a much more politically sensible approach to effective advocacy. As long as an "us (bikes) vs. them (cars and the engineers/politicians/companies that promote them!)" mentality pervades bicycle advocacy, our single speed wheels will continue to spin and want for political traction.

Me? I'm hoping to encourage the car companies--perhaps in an effort to win some nice publicity for a change--to start a small grants program aimed at increasing effective bicycle advocacy. Refreshing but impossible, you say? Keep an open mind. You'd be amazed at what is possible.

So let's discuss. What, in your estimation, has led to the bicycle's trivial role in American society. This list is not exhaustive, and it certainly needs some improvement.

Weigh in!


  1. Have I mentioned Theodore Levitt's 'Marketing Myopia' before? It was a Harvard Business Review article from 1960 stating that not averting a myopic vision cost many industries not only growth but survival.

    So it is true with cycling pursuits.

    Great insights here. I really like the Goal vs. Step idea. With all of our 'excitement' in American cycling advocacy, more progress will be made through the application of logical thought processes. And it will take time.

    I'm glad you are our side. Keep riding . . . keep writing . . .

  2. Its funny, one of my readings for class is all about the importance in differing between goals and tasks as a key component in Public Administration. That zine is right on point.

    Also I completely agree that we need to stay positive, not try to destroy but to lift up. I think a lot more in this world would be accomplished if it had a positive spin on it.

  3. Bicycle's trivial role? I think it may be geography. US is awfully spread out - urban sprawl. High population density makes for easier use of a bicycle. Short flat routes make bicycling easy. I have a hunch that folks in Copenhagen don't ride a 15 mile commute in hilly terrain like people are subject to in Nashville.

    I also find myself driving across town to a cool new restaurant, I'm tired of eating or shopping at the same places that are within "bicycling distance." Again, high population density provides more diversity within bicycling distance.

    The more this occurs, the more the bicycle evolves away from being a useful tool in many American minds.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hey Pat--

    You're right--population density facilitates bicycle use. Small, crowded spaces are more difficult to drive through, and bicycling makes sense when it's flat and the distances are shorter.

    But bicycling also makes sense for other reasons. Many people enjoy riding their bicycle to work each morning. It's refreshing and fun.

    In the Netherlands, nearly 30% of bicycle riders commute more than 7.5 kilometers one way each day. That's roughly 15 kilometers--or about 10 miles--each day. In America, where 40% of trips are less than two miles, a significant number of shorter trips can be made using the bicycle.

    To be sure, the bicycle is not a panacea for America's problems; still, its potential underestimated in the U.S.

  6. I think in Memphis safety is a big issue. There are lots of places I'd like to ride my bike--especially with my kids--but the streets are too busy/narrow/broken/covered in glass/etc.

  7. Hey Stacey--

    The infrastructure required to make Memphis streets safer for bicycling does not yet exist in the city.

    Separated lanes engineered for bicycle use are the single most effective way to combat the unsafe feelings most potential riders experience.

    Still, people do ride in Memphis each and every day, and very few of them end up injured as a result. It's just that *most* people, as you've stated, feel unsafe riding their bicycle in the city.

    A push for better infrastructure is critical to defeating this problem.

  8. Actually Stacey, you might find this post from my friend Mikael Colville Anderson over at Copenhaginze quite interesting: