on understanding and addressing motives
A few years ago, I was consulting for a well-known company with a large vehicle fleet. Higher-ups were interested in the company’s environmental impact, and wanted to know the best way to reduce their carbon footprint given “X” dollars of investment. They were thinking of maybe of replacing their vehicles with hybrids. My team and I, being the intrepid businesspeople that we were, collected figures, ran some numbers, and came to a solid and convincing conclusion about what they should do.
Standing before company execs, we went through a number of concise charts and calculations demonstrating our work. Then we stated— with some sense of pride for our thoroughly researched and unintuitive conclusion— our genius strategy: on retirement of vehicles, the company should replace its gasoline powered vehicles with diesel powered vehicles.
It was in the moment of silence that followed that I believe we lost them.
Sure, we told them:
- Diesel vehicles are much cheaper than hybrids and one could thus buy many more of them with the same amount of money
- Diesel engines are much cheaper to maintain and replace
- Hybrid batteries have high carbon footprints of their own, and disposal is a serious and largely unconsidered issue
- Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline
But ultimately, we sensed that something hadn’t quite translated. There were some questions and some comments by the company’s representatives, but they didn’t look convinced or excited by our presentation. The question of what happened, of course, is blindingly obvious to the onlooker. The company had already made up its mind about its strategy— they were going to get hybrids—, and our proposal simply did not fit into their plan. More to the point, we simply took their words about wanting to reduce environmental impact at face value, without taking careful stock of what their motives might be.
If you look at the business environment with regards to carbon footprints, the United States tends to be fairly hands-off at the moment. Generally there aren’t very many penalties for generating negative externalities as long as your company happens to create jobs and contributes to the economy. That is, no company is going to face government intervention because employees create air pollution while they drive around; the penalty for driving around comes almost exclusively in the form of fuel expenses and maintenance costs of the vehicles. Thus, any potential benefit that comes from reducing carbon footprints comes from these cost savings— and from creating a positive impact in the PR department.
Ah! The PR department. That was the critical element that we had missed. Somewhat naively, we had overlooked that the main intent of the carbon footprint reduction initiative was not the reduction itself, but in looking good for doing it. We had yet to learn that part of marketing is understanding that it’s as much about the story you can tell as it is about the reality. And the bottom line here was that “we care about the environment so we’re going to buy, errrr, smog-spewing diesel trucks” was not as compelling a story as “we care about the environment— that’s why we’re replacing our gas-powered vehicles with green technology hybrids!”
In other words, while doing the right thing is without a doubt a good thing, effective sustainability campaigns will definitely need to place the image factor high on the set of priorities. Something to keep in mind.
why building bicycle infrastructure is only a partial solution
PROLOGUE: THE NEED FOR RETHINKING THE CONVERSATION ON ENERGY AND BICYCLE GROWTH
At the recent Energy Hub Conference, held in mid-October in Madison, WI, Skip Laitner, Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), argued in a keynote address that the vast majority of our nation’s conversation about solving energy problems assume that it’s all about employing amazing new technologies like solar power, hybrid vehicles, wind power, microscopic energy-producing organisms, and the like. Point taken— in fact, just moments before his talk, the audience was subjected to a five-person panel of scientists and businesspeople who took turns promoting their new and wonderful energy technologies, and who tried to convince us that their innovations were going to be key elements in the high growth energy markets that drive the American economy and which will prevent the energy disaster looming on the horizon.
Laitner, however, was skeptical of this viewpoint. He argued, quite convincingly, that we need to wipe clean the slate on which we have written the dominant narratives about energy independence and we need to rethink it from the bottom up. One of his central points was that that we need to seriously think not about creating more energy, but in using what we have more efficiently. In general far too much attention has been paid to looking to the future technologies, and too little has been spent in understanding and addressing, in his words, the “cultural and anthropological” aspects. In short: We have a tendency to think of improvement in terms of technology, not in terms of behavior.
It is in this spirit of rethinking that I write this essay, in the hopes that it can better articulate why bicycling, a practice that in theory could be very instrumental in accelerating energy independence, requires a new approach in promoting its growth. I hope that in examining this issue and proposing marketing strategies, I can do my part to illuminate how the growth of the bicycle market can be not only be hugely profitable, but also culturally valuable to the American populace in a number of salient ways, not least in reducing energy dependence.
UNDERSTANDING THE BICYCLING MARKET AND ITS BARRIERS TO GROWTH
One of the highest product growth markets in the United States from 2000 to 2008 was bicycles.1 Indeed, the number of bicyclists on American streets has grown exponentially, and the prominence of bicycling in the mainstream consciousness has been increasing quite rapidly. Lance Armstrong is now a household name, and his athletic abilities have been held in high regards by Americans, who view him who is reinforcing American excellence on the world stage in competitive games like the Tour de France.
However, the growth of bicycling is starting to plateau; it experienced a rapid rise, but is now butting up against formidable barriers. The bicycle industry and bicycling-related groups are now finding themselves facing a seriously uphill battle in breaking bicycles into the American mainstream.
Three Major Sources of Consumer Resistance to Bicycling
As an avid cyclist myself, I have spent much time considering how advances in bicycle ridership could occur, and I have uncovered three distinct areas that require attention:
- Serious attention to improving bicycle design
- Improved transit infrastructure and bicycling amenities
- Greatly increased focus by bicycle companies on understanding the cultural barriers in bicycle growth, and addressing them in meaningful ways
The first of these issues is one that I have written about before, and which might be of interest. To quickly summarize, it seems apparent to me that most R&D and innovation at bicycle companies go towards efforts like reducing bike weight. While this is certainly something that is of concern to road bicyclists and many others that currently make up the core market of bicycle buyers, this is not a concern for the massive potential market that U.S. bicycle companies seem to be completely oblivious to. There are other, seemingly minor concerns regarding bicycle design that I strongly suspect are at least partially responsible for preventing an explosion in bicycle sales that would exponentially grow the entire bicycle market. While it is critical to understand this argument, it is not the focus of the essay here.
The second of these issues, the lack of bicycle infrastructure, tends to be the one that bicyclists fixate on. There are constant laments from cycling quarters that not enough money is being spent by city, state, and federal governments on improving transit infrastructure for bicycles despite its growing popularity. As a result, cyclists and bicycling advocacy groups have been relentless in pushing new projects like bike paths, bike lanes, and other amenities for cyclists. While I agree that these amenities would be nice, pushing this angle also implicitly argues that bicycling is an alternative form of transport that requires special and additional facilities to accommodate. This is a false assertion, and one that needs to be seriously questioned. Bicycles could easily make use of infrastructure that is already in place, and theoretically, even infrastructure that cars couldn’t use (like sidewalks and narrow alleyways). The United States has already built more than 4 million miles of public roads, almost all of which are currently allocated to cars. However, the ownership of this space by cars is not generally a legal designation so much as a cultural and psychological one, which brings me to the third point, which I think is the one that most seriously needs to be addressed: cultural barriers.
The recent increases in bicycling have rather unexpectedly hit a sensitive cultural nerve for something that might appear from the sidelines as an innocuous hobby. This is because bicycling is a phenomenon that touches heavily on a number of issues that are central to American culture, identity, and outlook, and like many of the other highly controversial issues on our collective table, is creeping rather nastily into the messy purview of the culture wars. In this article, we will examine many of the issues surrounding the controversies and cultural warfare that has erupted somewhat unexpectedly from bicycling, while situating the conversation in a socio-historic context. My hope is that understanding the resistance to bicycling from the mainstream can help bicycling manufacturers and advocacy groups reposition cycling to be a more attractive pursuit to the mainstream consumer than it traditionally has been.
RECURRING THEMES IN OUR CULTURAL DIALOGUE ABOUT BICYCLES
With the socio-cultural context of American streets as a backdrop, it is interesting to note that there has been a massive increase in interest in bicycles over the past decade. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it likely has a lot to do with young people being more environmentally-conscious than their parents, economic woes forcing people to adopt cheaper forms of transport, our culture’s increasing focus on ‘authentic’ lifestyle choices as being more status-conferring than traditional wealth-oriented consumption patterns, and the internet’s help in fomenting communities. It doesn’t hurt that city planners have been spending more time thinking about how cities can better reflect the needs of people through initiatives that encourage civic pride.
As a result of this, there has been a great increase in bike-related stories in news outlets. In recent years, I’ve lost track of the number of articles about bicycling public policy, government proposals about allocations of money to bicycling projects, details of bicycling accidents, opinion articles about bicycle culture, advocates raising the merits of bicycling, and other bike-related coverage that I’ve come across without even looking for them. Clearly, something is happening in the public consciousness with regards to bicycling. I’ve noticed that many of these stories—and the comments made about them on sites that allow user comments— involve explicit or unstated tensions, pitting bikers against other members of the community. The following are themes that I’ve collected, and which I think it is extremely important for bicycle advocates and bike manufacturers to take note of and to address in a serious and focused manner if we are to look at cultural barriers.
- Biking as a rejection of modern society and the societal expectations of 21th century citizenship
In the summer of 2010, an article appeared in the online version of a Madison, WI newspaper describing current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s desire to spend more money on transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of all consumers, not just ones that have typically benefited in the past. Translation: there are a lot of bikers (and walkers) out there, and we can further encourage biking (and walking) with improved infrastructure; while this might negatively impact motorized vehicle traffic, we need to think about the needs of society as a whole. I’ve read many news stories like this, and invariably, the comments sections are littered with comments by warring parties bemoaning either a) the hitherto under-recognized needs of individuals who do not want to use or do not have access to motorized vehicles, or b) the need for individuals falling in column ‘a’ to grow up and get with the times. One comment I read stated, with some degree of hostility, that “bicycles are an 18th century form of transport.” The implication being, of course, that people who use them are living in the past, and are refusing to come to grips with the advent of newer, better, faster, and more modern technologies. By choosing this mode of transport, it is suggested, these anachronistic contrarians are clogging our roads and hindering America’s technological, economic, and social progress.
- Biking as an obstructionist takeover of a space assigned to cars
Critical Mass is an organization that promotes bicycling and bicycling culture. As an organization that is prominent in major cities like San Francisco, they do a great job of getting bikers together for what amounts to organized protests. Once every few weeks, for example, they like to get hundreds of bikers together to take over heavily-trafficked main streets during particularly inconvenient times— like rush hour on Friday afternoons. By thrusting themselves into this public space while preventing the regular flow of motorized vehicular traffic, they essentially force motorists to take note of bicycling as a movement. Unfortunately, the tactics involved in this act basically amount to some rudimentary form of cultural terrorism. Even more unfortunately, like most forms of terrorism, it’s built on the frustrations of people who realize that getting their message across in non-confrontational ways is a fruitless endeavor, which is why they feel forced to do it in this way. To their credit, Critical Mass does bring biking to the forefront of the minds of people who otherwise don’t care— but ironically, their approach does little to create sympathy towards their cause, and does much to create antagonism. What besuited businessman stuck in bicycle-created gridlock on a Friday afternoon is going to think good thoughts about bicycles?
It’s not just Critical Mass members that face the wrath of angry motorists. For a society in which patience is not a commonly-held virtue, and for which instances of road rage are in rapid ascent, it does not surprise me that the sight of a bicyclist is inherently rage-inducing for many motorists. A bicyclist on a road probably fires the same neurons as a sluggish driver who waits too long when the light is green. As a result, bicyclists are often viewed by motorists as individuals who are obstructionists in a space that is designated for cars. They get in the way and prevent the smooth flow of traffic at the speeds motorists like. Few people like driving at 15mph, and the venom against cyclists ties into the combined frustration of traffic, low patience for delays, and perceived invasion of space by outsiders who aren’t playing by the rules set by society. Interestingly, in most states, bicycles are given equal status as cars, at least on urban streets and state highways. Usually bicycles are not allowed on freeways, presumably for safety reasons. Yet, stories of bicyclists facing harassment and marginalization on the streets are quite common. In high school, a classmate of mine bragged about chucking a bottle of urine on a bicyclist on a rural road; behavior like this may not be condemned by the public as much as a similar story about an assault on a pedestrian because the bicyclist is perceived as someone challenging a largely unquestioned notions about who owns street space.
- Biking as an explicit challenge to a cultural status quo
If you get to talking to people about food (everyone’s favorite topic!), one thing you’ll find very quickly is that many otherwise sensible people ridicule vegetarianism. On its surface, it’s hard to argue against it as a personal choice. Even if you think animals don’t have feelings and that they are here for human benefit, it really has little impact on anyone else if someone chooses not to eat meat. But once you look a little deeper into it, it’s clear that the attitude against vegetarianism has less to do with the lifestyle or personal choice, and more to do with meat-eaters perceiving vegetarians as making some moralistic statement about consumption, a statement that gives moral superiority to vegetarians over omnivores. The discomfort of feeling looked down upon, or perhaps even morally outdone is enough to make many meat-eaters dismissive of vegetarians, and by proxy, vegetarianism as a whole. Many vegetarians I’ve met claim that they don’t express hostility, condescension, or moral superiority towards their meat-eating brethren, but still feel as if others dump that baggage on them anyway. Having been a vegetarian myself for 3 years in my mid-20s, I understand the feeling. Because the overwhelming majority of people are omnivorous and our collective diet is so meat heavy, it’s hard to convey to others that your consumption habit is not necessarily a political statement but a personal choice; it so defies the dominant culture that it is bound to be viewed as a rejection of mainstream society, and as some kind of battle cry— even if it isn’t.
Bicyclists seem to fall into that same category of a marginalized group whose consumption habits defy mainstream cultural expectations. The United States has an extremely dominant car culture, so it’s hard for people who are heavily embedded in it to see the motives of the people who either reject car culture or who embrace bicycle culture. On its face, cycling has the appearance of a political movement because of its phenomenal growth, and because of the view of the car as the dominant mode of transport in this country. As a generally center-right nation, we have a fairly strong aversion to the idea of messing with the status quo, and we tend not to look favorably upon those who attempt this (at least outside of the business realm). Aside from the rose-colored glasses through which we view historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually view people who challenge the status quo outside of a business context as either naive idealists, Che Guevara-style revolutionary wannabes, or meddlesome gadflies. Bicyclists seem to be tarred with all three of these dubious and unflattering epithets.
- Biking as a flagship cause of liberal politics or a means of forwarding a liberal takeover of public space
Bicycling as a cause has come to be strongly associated with liberal politics in a way that simply rankles many conservatives irrationally, regardless of any objective social, environmental, or health benefits increased biking might provide our society. There is little doubt that due to certain historical and demographic realities (e.g. that many adults took up bicycling during their time in college), much of the public sees the interest in promoting biking as a preoccupation of a certain class of liberal elite— well-educated trust-funders who come from privilege and have a disdain for the white working class, the Protestant work ethic, and conservative values. It also doesn’t help that bicycling is associated with those elitist, socialist Europeans, whose entire continent many parochially-minded Americans apparently view with broad disdain for being effete, weak, and pretentious.
In fact, with these ideas in mind, many anti-biking factions genuinely view the pro-biking movement as a maneuver by a cancerous cell of socialists to hijack public resources for their nefarious political agendas and “special interest” needs— a theme that has repeatedly come up in opinion articles, responses, and conservative talk shows. This is regardless of the fact that legally speaking, motor vehicles are generally not privileged over bicycles, and that infrastructural changes would uniformly benefit all citizens (of course, whether or not you see these changes as benefits or a wasteful diversion of resources is a different matter entirely).2
- Biking as expression of anarchy, lawlessness, and the flouting of society’s values and social norms
One of the most commonly expressed frustrations motorists have with bicyclists is their apparent disinclination to follow the rules of the road. Watching as bicyclists blow through stop signs; ignore traffic lights; ride alternately on sidewalks, roads and lawns; cutting across several lanes of traffic; and riding the wrong way on one-way streets, many motorists see bicyclists as representing an element of lawlessness, anarchy, and a lack of common courtesy.
Bicyclists often don’t have good excuses for their lack of adherence for the laws. Observing from the sidelines, it is possible that this is a by-product of our car-friendly infrastructure coupled with American attitudes about non-motorized traffic on streets. In short, bicyclists don’t feel welcome on streets because they are car space, and they don’t feel welcome on sidewalks because they are pedestrian space. As a marginalized group, bicyclists feel as if they don’t belong anywhere, and are thus compelled to adopt a somewhat Machiavellian attitude that sidesteps following traffic laws. The unspoken question is: why follow traffic laws if you aren’t also being actively protected by them? Bicyclists also defend their actions by arguing that the potential for injury or damage that stems from ignoring traffic rules largely apply only to the cyclists themselves, not to others; that is, a car can inflict massive damage on human life, property, animals, and things that have nothing to do with the driver of the car, but a cyclist is mainly just going to be injured himself if he breaks the laws. Of course, this isn’t entirely true; cyclists can certainly hurt others, but—without defending lawlessness—it is true that the likelihood of a serious incident generally are much smaller.
What is interesting in observing this tensions, however, is that law-violating bicyclists seem to be expressing certain elements of the same frustrations that motorists have; namely, that they are impatient with the lack of movement on highways and arteries, and tired of having to deal with traffic slow-downs and obstructions. But unlike motorists, whose impotent rage at being stuck in traffic needs to be grounded, bicyclists can actually bypass the traffic and ignore the elements that cause the slow-downs. Of course, most drivers would likely do the same if they could get away with it, but the unwieldiness of cars, the potential for damage, and legal repercussions prevent it— while the agility of the bike actively facilitates it. Unfortunately, the overwhelming proclivity of bicyclists to take advantage of this fact only makes motorists more angry; the idea that some people on the road seem to view themselves as not being subject to the same laws as everyone else, and are able to easily benefit from breaking those laws (rarely with consequence) is often deeply upsetting and rage-inducing for motorists.
- Biking as an effete/unmasculine/pretentious pursuit
People already are annoyed with bikers for various reasons already described, but there’s also something about groups of people wearing skin-tight spandex that doesn’t quite translate to mainstream sensibilities. There’s also something convincingly cult-like and laughable about a bunch of identically dressed people parading around town together in a way that completely defies even the lowest-brow fashion sense. Maybe that’s why so many dismissive comments about road bikers revolve around their distinctive and decidedly eye-soreish garb. It’s hard for me to personally defend the bike clothing as fashion, because it’s obviously meant to be functional (the spandex wicks away moisture to prevent chafing). Nevertheless, the fact that this clothing is such a massive departure from the clothing that the general population chooses to wear is interpreted by motorists as reflecting a certain spacey, cultlike cluelessness. Such “fashion” statements (even if unintentional) tend to engender dismissiveness from outside observers.
EXAMINING CAUSES OF CONSUMER RESISTANCE
Without a doubt, over the past decade, there has been a rapid ascent in DIY culture that has privileged simplicity, customization, authenticity, and other crucial characteristics of consumer goods; these qualities are ones that make bicycles an attractive, cheap, and fashionable mode of transportation amongst members of certain demographics and psychographics. However, there is much resistance to widespread bicycle movements in areas outside of progressive hubs like Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Madison, Wisconsin. As I have already mentioned, some of the problem is infrastructural in nature (though truthfully, the U.S. has some 4 million miles of paved road, almost all of which is dedicated to motor vehicle traffic— an allotment that could be reapportioned given public support), and some of the problem is due to what I consider antiquated bicycle design; but a large part of the problem is cultural. As a society that has been heavily indoctrinated into car culture, we simply have a strong aversion to this alternative transport mode for reasons that aren’t easily addressed. For non-cyclists to begin adopting bicycling as a primary form of transport currently requires certain psychological adjustments that, depending on the person, range from minor to massive. The following are the specific barriers that are expressed through consumer resistance, and which play on the ideas mentioned above. For many, the idea of using a bicycle as a legitimate form of transport:
- Violates certain deeply engrained cultural beliefs about transport propriety
Namely, that the road is for cars and motorized vehicles only
- Requires many potential cyclists to re-evaluate their sense of identity
Am I the type of person who would be a bicyclist? Remember that to people who are not used to doing it, riding on main streets is somewhat of a renegade concept and may require them to view themselves as people who challenge status quo, which many are not comfortable with. Also, because many of the strongest advocates of bicycling currently are young people, people who have reached middle age might feel demographically excluded from participation
- Creates discomfort with political or group associations
Even if one follows road rules, if one belongs to a group of people that is widely considered the spoiled children of urban anarchy, it could be problematic for those who walk on the side of law and order, and value being associated with that image. To make things worse bicycling is now so closely associated with liberal politics, people who feel uncomfortable possibly being identified as such, or uncomfortable associating with those whose alleged political views are antithetical to their own may find biking problematic to their image.
- Highlights safety issues
Again, the cultural assumption—and the obvious corporeal reality— that roads are car space factors heavily into the unwillingness of broader segments of people to adopt bicycling as some component of their portfolio of transportation options.
This reality became quite apparent to me in Madison, WI, where there is an annual (sometimes semi-annual) event called Ride the Drive in which large segments of major streets in the city are closed off to car traffic. In 2010, 50,000 people came out to bike around the city that day (to give you an idea of the magnitude of this event, Madison is a city of approximately 200,000). I took the opportunity to speak to participants at this year’s Ride the Drive event, and many confessed that although they own bicycles, they don’t use them as much as they’d like because they simply don’t feel comfortable with all those cars around, especially when many drivers are distracted with phones or aren’t looking out for cyclists.
CREATING MARKETING STRATEGIES TO COMBAT CULTURAL RESISTANCE AND TO GROW THE BICYCLING MARKET
Clearly, there are many barriers to the growth of bicycling, and many different ways that growth can be facilitated. Here, I describe how a successful approach to popularizing bicycles— in addition to manufacturing better bicycles and improving city infrastructure— must adopt marketing strategies that encompass holistic views of the cultural elements of bicycling, and the behavioral inhibitions that face many potential and current bicycle consumers. What follows here is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of marketing strategy, but rather a brief sampling of the types of avenues that should be explored by bicycle manufacturers, bike advocacy organizations, and bicycle consumers.
- Legitimation of Bicycling by Respected Government/Non-partisan/Apolitical Agencies
Because the American cultural assumption is that cars are street space and that if you aren’t in a car, you should stay out of the street, many people are inculcated from childhood to believe that as bicyclists, they shouldn’t be on the streets. For this reason, it is important to average citizens that biking activities be legitimated by politically-neutral government agencies; the go-ahead from these groups government agencies is reassurance and encouragement that it is okay to be on the streets, even if you are not in a car. Some city governments advocate cycling once or twice a year with “bike to work weeks,” which give people who don’t bike much a green light to do it. More work of this nature and more frequent such events are absolutely necessary to convey the understanding that bicycles do belong on city streets, and that respectable organizations think so.
- Converting Advocacy from a Political Movement to an Apolitical Business or Social Organization
One of the best ways to grow the bicycle market is not by focusing on how to market bicycles per se, but rather, to focus on developing bicycle communities. The ones currently in existence revolve largely around bicycle advocacy through political processes. These have been organically-generated movements that arose from the fact that bicyclists have traditionally been somewhat disenfranchised on public streets, and these organizations served to raise awareness of bicycle issues, a cause near and dear to their members. However, at this stage, it is no longer beneficial for these groups to move in this fashion; indeed, I propose that their work might actually be harming their cause rather than helping it. Like with PETA, the explicitly confrontational tones that surround organizations like Critical Mass do not generate sympathy for the bicycling cause; instead, they contribute an unpleasant sense of haranguing the public, which preaches mostly to the choir, and may even eliminate goodwill from people who might otherwise be sympathetic. I propose that bicyclists and bicycling companies should create regular (i.e. daily) bicycling events that not only invite the general public to join, but place leadership roles in the hands of eager volunteers. Such events might be long rides around town, or perhaps organized rides from residential areas to business parks during the morning commute. The importance of the social element cannot be understated; it is legitimating, it is gives an opportunity to meet others, it conveys the sense that one is being left out of something interesting if one doesn’t join, and it can help create a sense of inclusion that doesn’t favor only certain types of people (e.g. age, political persuasion, gender, etc). Clearly, some thought should be put into how this goal can be achieved but there is no doubt that something needs to happen somehow on this front. I personally would propose some kind of social networking website that links bicyclists regionally, a one-stop site that combines maps, routes, group cycling events, group commuting times, etc. Done properly and with the simultaneous backing of all the major bicycle companies, this can eliminate a number of cultural barriers like safety issues, social issues, political fears, etc. Importantly, connections between people who can make things happen— even in the absence of bike corporation money— can be made, which could change everything.
- Promoting Local Races / Group Biking Experiences
Just as professional sports like the NBA and the NFL have been instrumental in turning the tides against racism, and television programming about gays and lesbians have been instrumental in changing Americans’ attitudes about homosexuality, establishing periodic regional bike races and group biking experiences would help greatly in exposing citizens to biking as a legitimate sport and bicycles as a non-threatening and perhaps even endearing presence. Targeting high school students for participation in such races might be a particularly good avenue because it involves young people (who eventually go on to continue the activities they enjoy throughout their lives) and it gets their parents and neighbors excited too. Moreover, America has a longstanding tradition of pitting various regional high schools against each other, and this is one more avenue for it to happen. Demonstrating the excitement and athletic prowess involved in racing, bike races could also be interesting periodic festival-style events in any town, especially if coupled with other festivities. Bicycling companies, working with various food and beverage companies, should go to extraordinary lengths to promote these types of races across the country, first starting in medium to large-sized metropolitan areas. In general, the more exposure and familiarity the general public gets to bicycling events, the more likely they are to accept bicycling as a normal and admirable pastime. Indeed, another angle that is worth thinking about is the deliberate playing-up of the turbulent lives of specific cyclists, to ensure that they join the ranks of celebrity gossip fodder (think: Brett Favre, Shaq, Tony Hawk, Venus and Serena Williams).
- Cultural Rebranding through Aesthetic Appeals
Unfortunately, many Americans tend to think of bicycling—unlike, say, football— as a sport that attracts wimps and pretentious arty types. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thirty years ago, video games were almost the exclusive purview of the dorkiest kids in high school, but now we find that all kinds of people play video games. To present bicycling as a pursuit that could involve anyone— even non-dweebs— is important. One possible inroad into this could come in the form of the visual aesthetic of bicycles and clothing. Currently, neither have much in the way of ego-expressive qualities built into their aesthetics. You can glance at a car and instantly have an idea of what kind of person would drive it. Very often, you can have a look at someone’s wardrobe and quickly understand with a good degree of confidence how that person views him/herself. The same should be true with bicycles and bicycle clothing, to ensure that all feel welcome, and a set of options can be procured that are consistent with one’s self-image. Vehicles are a big part of identity in the United States, and work should be done to explore whether expanding the aesthetic dimensions of bikes and clothing can make the pursuit of cycling more appealing to those it currently has no appeal for.
- Transcending Political Barriers through Economic, Health, and Civic Benefits
The following do not address specific cultural barriers, but can be pushed as part of a larger outreach campaign. These elements can serve as ways to offset negatively viewed aspects of bicycling with clearly messaged benefits.
For many people, moral arguments about the merits of bicycling have little weight. For example, individuals who were not persuaded by environmental arguments to drive less were persuaded in the late to thousands to drive less because of rapidly rising fuel costs. Ultimately it is very difficult to make the sorts of moral arguments that bicyclists like to make to those who do not subscribe to the politics or the political views that are central to the rationale that many within the movement subscribe to. It is often easier to convince someone who is not philosophically aligned to engage via another route that more directly affects their personal concerns (which is what a good marketer should always do).
In a suffering economic climate in which unemployment is high, disposable income is decreasing, and there is a generally high level of instability, the argument for bicycles as a primary form of transport can be made more salient through explicit demonstrations of cost-effectiveness. Cars and car maintenance costs are very high, and through proper messaging, arguments can be made that bicycles provide a more effective use of money in transport. Ivan Illich’s 1974 book “Energy and Equity” suggests that the average American spends several hundred extra hours a year working just to own and maintain a car, time that could be spent in other ways (there are obvious complications involved in employing this calculation in a practical setting, but it is interesting nonetheless). It should be noted that economic incentivization may not be effective as a singular strategy; it should be employed in tandem with other methods of promotion.
As the obesity crisis reaches epic proportions, and while demands on American workers put a premium on time, many Americans find it increasingly difficult to find time to exercise. The use of the bicycle as a primary form of transport combines the economic benefits and health benefits in one package, and depending on the distance one has to travel for work and the geographic density, could actually save time. Bicycles can and should be aggressively promoted by bicycle companies as alternatives to gyms, ones that can be seamlessly integrated into one’s work day; instead of spending more time locked in a building, biking gives a person the opportunity to experience the outdoors during a time when he/she would be otherwise trapped in a car. Bicycle companies would be wise to band together and promote this message through advertising on television, magazines, contests, and channels that involve health-conscious consumers. This message would be much more powerful in conjunction with a social networking website that can quickly convert the message from well-intentioned thought to action.
Promoting Economic Revitalization and the Reclaiming of Civic Space
What became stunningly vivid to me during the aforementioned Ride the Drive events, where cars are banished from major streets, is the realization that cars take up an immense amount of real estate in a city—not just in terms of the literal space of the 2-4 lane city streets that cars dominate, but the more subtle psychic space of residents. The knowledge that cars are around forces us to be vigilant at all times when we’re anywhere near a street. There are giant metal behemoths whizzing by at 25-90 miles an hour wherever we go. In shopping areas, we have wait for traffic to pass or we have to go to a crosswalk before we can cross a street to go to a shop. We have to breathe the polluted air and listen to the constant noise of humming motors and honking horns.
Conveying the idea that cars have been instrumental in the decline of public space, the suggestion must be offered that increased use of non-motorized traffic would have the effect of promoting community and the reclaiming of space that was once dominated by motor vehicle traffic. With enough reduction in motor vehicle traffic, or an eventual massive overhaul of the apportionment of street space, it could even be argued that giving children the space to play in front of their own homes will reduce instances of delinquency and other unwholesome activities that detract from city life.
Most importantly, however, work should be done to asses the economic benefits of creating shopping areas in which only minimal traffic is present. There are only a handful of areas in the country like this. In Madison, WI, this area is 6 blocks long and does not allow motor vehicle traffic except for the occasional bus or police car. It is a very lively area filled with people and bicycles, and an area that is much more pleasant and conducive to spending long periods of time than similar areas that cater to cars. If cities can reliably create areas that produce economic benefits through this means, this can be a powerful signal for other cities to also build them and encourage non-motor vehicle traffic. Studies from urban planning should be compiled to understand the impact of pedestrian malls on economic climates.
In addition to legitimating government organizations, it is important to involve organizations like the American Lung Association, groups who aren’t easily categorized into politicized “special interest” groups. The ALA in particular is one that should be greatly concerned about air quality issues; the pollutants stemming from cars have had a far greater deleterious effect on Americans than cigarettes. Other organizations like MADD, the American Heart Association, and Noise-Free America might be interested in collaboration too.
The reason for getting these organizations involved is because social pressures can be very strong incentives for shifts in consumer behavior. For example, cigarette smoking was quite common until organizations like the ALA got involved and created a heavy stigma on smoking. Since then, smoking rates have dropped dramatically, and I’m inclined to think it had less to do with health benefits (especially since obesity rates have gone up) and more to do with these organizations essentially making smokers feel like bad people. The same has happened to some degree to SUV drivers, who increasingly feel some level of shame for being alone in a 6000lb. vehicles on the freeway. It’s not necessarily a pretty strategy, but increased effort in making bicycling feel like a civic responsibility that bestows upon cyclists a “warm glow” of respectability, and which simultaneously tars drivers with a negative stigma might be what it takes to grow the bicycle market. Medical organizations in particular seem like good agents of non-politicized stigma creation.
For cultural reasons, promoting the adoption of bicycles is not going to be an easy sell. Cultural attitudes are notoriously hard to overcome and are ingrained in entire thought patterns. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that overcoming the hurdles can happen through a careful understanding of the cultural barriers and taking active steps towards addressing those barriers through effective marketing strategy. It will take some money, but a lot of work, planning, and relationship-building at the agency and aggregate level.
The above strategies are only a few ways to address the central issues. More effort should be put in my bicycle manufacturers and bike advocacy organizations in crafting strategies that take into account the cultural forms of resistance I have elucidated above. For reasons I have described, they are just as important (maybe more) as pushing for better dedicated bicycle infrastructure.
Do you have good ideas on how to address the cultural barriers to bicycle growth? Any important cultural barriers I have missed? Please let me know in the comments.
1 National Bicycle Dealers Association. “U.S. Bicycle Market Overview,” 2008.
2 The comparison of this particular theme is one that reminds me strongly of the origins of America’s attitude towards its drug policy. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on the economic aspects of American’s longstanding (and largely failed) war on narcotics, largely because understanding how this war has been executed vividly demonstrates how ineffective demonstrations of brute strength are against all known economic and marketing theory. Yet, it’s hard for anyone who has spent any time reading about this topic to walk away without the feeling that generalizations about the politics of drug users had a major impact on how policy has played out. The use of drugs during the 60s and 70s was associated with liberals, hippies, intellectuals, and minority groups. All their talking about revolution and social upheaval was not an association that, say, the Nixon administration was eager to be bedfellows with— regardless of what objective studies said about these drugs. I strongly suspect that in a similar way bicycles are maligned in an unwarranted fashion by those on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
the importance of thinking in complex terms about subjects that are often denied it
In a world of soundbites, it’s hard to be nuanced these days. Every time you make an assertion that—wait— maybe Wal-Mart isn’t working hand in hand with Satan, or that materialism might not cause the downfall of civilization, you get dirty looks from people. It’s not that I believe that Wal-Mart is the greatest company ever or that I believe we should all be more materialistic. It’s that these are nuanced points of view that attempt to not be reductivist. By this I don’t mean to imply some wishy-washy sense of moral relativism that sidesteps taking hardlined stances on topics of public interest. It’s about being complete in an assessment before passing judgment. But in the modern world, we not only expect reductivist views that are partially based on political ideology, but we view non-reductivist views suspiciously, as if they are coming from someone with an ulterior and opposing motive.
Case in point: last night, I was engaged in conversation with some fellow graduate students, faculty, and area intellectuals. We were talking about Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, in preparation for his visit to this campus. The topic of conversation weaved a path around a number of subjects, but I found myself interjecting numerous times to offer a little bit of push-back towards certain culturally-driven assertions. I realize that doing this can make someone appear argumentative and contrarian, particularly in settings where they don’t know the people they’re talking to, but my goal is to elicit some level of thought in people who have strong, but largely unquestioned, points of view.
Unfortunately, pushing nuance means that people will interpret a political argument even where there isn’t one. Some topics are simply so ideologically loaded that you can’t talk about them in a complex and thoughtful way without people instinctively taking the side that most conforms to the talking points of their political ideology, and getting defensive when a statement impinges on it. Viewpoints that I often come in conflict with, and for which my rebuttals ruffle feathers, almost certainly cause people to form negative judgments about me (“obviously, this is a marketer talking” or “he’s clearly a member of such-and-such political party”); these impromptu acts of belief-formation on their parts are able to account for what otherwise may seem like— but aren’t!— needless and attention-seeking subversions of expectations on my part. The problem is that on hot-button issues, people assume that their conversation partners have political agendas that they want to push.
But in order to have a real dialogue, we have to abandon that way of thinking. We can no longer afford to have conversations that consist entirely of liberal/conservative/capitalist/socialist/pro-business/anti-corporation talking points. These talking points mean nothing because they are contextually bereft, and are selective ways of interpreting large amounts of complex information. But the real world is complicated. In my view, extreme points of view are common from people who haven’t done research on opposing views, and have not considered the aggregated knowledge in a meaningful way.
Perhaps you are wondering about the types of complex thoughts I’m talking about. Here are some points that I brought up last night, and which probably didn’t go over too well:
- I argued that Wal-Mart has done more than any other company of its size or any where near its size to go “green.” No, I’m not a fervent Wal-Mart advocate, corporate apologist, or capitalist zealot. I am neutral about Wal-Mart as a force on this planet because they do some things that I perceive as good, and some things that I perceive as bad. I do understand that some people have a strong dislike for Wal-Mart; but regardless of your feelings about Wal-Mart, do you recognize and applaud their “green” efforts for a cause you supposedly care about, or do you reject them? Is it possible for you, an anti-Wal-Marter to acknowledge any positives that come out of Wal-Mart? If not, can you justify shopping at Target or any other corporation, especially those that have not made any particularly meaningful movements towards “green”? Why is Wal-Mart singled out when there are plenty of other companies who espouse similar managerial philosophies?
- I also argued that “materialism” has brought some good things with it. Naturally, there was a stunned silence as people tried to fathom why I would say such a perverse thing. The common thought is that materialism creates greed and unhappiness; it’s about shallow and empty pleasures like getting a bigger house and a nicer car. Plus all our religious institutions and cultural conditioning tells us we should reject materialism. I do not argue with any of this. But we can also see how materialism might have created the conditions necessary for things such as indoor plumbing and modern medicine. No one would have created that stuff in the first place if they felt like what they had was enough. For many inventors and companies, the desire for wealth is what drove them to push the boundaries of technology. Our patent laws, which offer inventors exclusive rights to profit from their inventions, support this point of view. My assertion doesn’t mean that I think we should all buy a Mercedes S-Class and hoard money in a silo like Scrooge McDuck; far from it. It’s about looking at the world in a nuanced way, and questioning the reductivist mode in which we engage in thinking about topics of broad impact. Questioning common assumptions does not equate with making value judgments or political statements.
- And once again, my favorite topic: consumers, not corporations, are responsible for consumerism. It is rattling to see how many people reject this argument. Fact: marketers cannot “create” demand for anything simply by virtue of their access to large amounts of money. Companies simply cannot shove products down consumers’ throats. I do not know what causes this belief to persist, but it is a myth, and one that can be empirically proven false. Remember the marketing blitz surrounding Crystal Pepsi? There’s your proof. Consumers do have the power to resist, and they often do. Perhaps it is comforting in a world where so many people feel personally powerless to believe that corporations run their lives with the kind of caprice we expect from cartoon villains; it allows us to blame someone other than ourselves for our deficiencies. But anyone who has read any history of advertising and media should dismiss the “cultural authority of corporations” argument very quickly. Curiously, this has not happened, even among those who should know better; I fear it’s because no one bothered to read up on it. But again, it’s not about making a political point; it’s about getting the basic facts right and having a nuanced view of the world. Are corporations powerful? Yes, some corporations are very powerful. Do they run the world and enslave mankind with their products and advertising? No, they do not. Do some corporations carry undue influence, and use that power to do terrible and often unethical things? Certainly. Are there companies who use their power to do positive things? Absolutely.
So, to the few of you who actually read this blog, I have one desperate plea: Question your own belief system rigorously, and be willing to think in complex terms, even if that means you arrive at conclusions that are unpopular among those in your peer set and social networks. It’s the only way to have honest dialogues these days.
why we should reject extreme views about data source validity in constructing knowledge
Some academics are not secure about knowledge without having reams of “data” about it. But what exactly is data? To many people, it just means numbers that somehow tells us something about something else. Often, data is a proxy for information we can’t really get directly. If you ask someone how much they would pay for something, you’re trying to gain access to a hidden piece of information that you can’t access directly. You would like to be able to reach into someone’s head and grab the number, but you can’t. Instead, you have to ask. The problem with asking, however, is that the person may not really know how much they would pay. What they tell you and what they might actually do could be two very different things. Many researchers have issues with this, but I want to explain here why I think it’s misguided to categorically dismiss certain forms data.
Okay, truthfully, I wouldn’t place a tremendous amount of stock in survey data. Often if you ask people about things that intimately relate to them, they have little insight or even self-awareness. This creates a problem in data accuracy. I once read a paper in which respondents were asked, among other things, how neurotic they considered themselves. What person is going to be able to answer this accurately? People have a vested interest in believing that they are not neurotic and are likely motivated to have an overly positive view of themselves; moreover, they probably don’t have any awareness of how neurotic they are. You could get this information much more reliably from asking the people who have to spend extended amounts of time with them. But beyond that, it gets even more complicated once you realize that people have different scales. A 7 to one person is a 9 to another. Over a group of people, these numbers end up muddled because of intersubjectivity. But often, it’s the best we have, and we have to make do with it. And generally, if you take the time to control for variables, you can minimize uncertainty.
Nevertheless, there are those who argue that “factual” data is the only way to go. This is stuff like scanner data (quantitative information about sales, for example— with no room for “interpretation”). This information, it is argued, consist of “facts.” They are not debatable, touchy-feely constructs dealing with emotions and nebulous latent thought patterns. Yet, in my opinion, numbers only tell part of the story. You can get a what from that sort of data, but it’s much harder to get a why. You can speculate, but speculation only gets you so far. Some might argue that getting a why from interviewing doesn’t work either. I can see why they might say that (perceived lack of generalizability), but nevertheless, one can still gain some valuable insights, especially over large sample sizes.
I know of a few researchers in marketing who do, almost exclusively, ethnographic studies. This means that they interview a usually small number of people and perform something akin to psychoanalysis to make sense of their comments, from which they extract broader level understandings about people and culture. This is a method that many people apparently view with skepticism and scorn. “How do we know that this stuff is true, and that it’s generalizable?” a colleague once asked me. This, to me, invites the question of how we “know” anything.
Knowledge is a strange thing. What does it mean to “know” something, anyway? The best explanation of knowledge that I’ve ever heard was featured in Michael Shermer’s excellent book Why People Believe Weird Things. In it, he offers a thought experiment.
There are a number of people who are vehement Holocaust deniers. They claim that this genocide never happened, and people who believe it did are ignoring mountains of evidence showing that it didn’t happen. These people then present certain pieces of evidence that they have collected that indicate that they are correct. A piece of evidence Shermer received from one denier was a photograph of a gas chamber that showed that the gas lines weren’t hooked up properly. Therefore they could not have been used. This was at one of the concentration camps with the most supposed casualties. The denier had numerous other similar forms of ‘proof’ as well.
So what are we to make of this?
Shermer’s response is rather remarkable for its simple but profound intuition: he states that knowledge is not produced from isolated pieces of evidence. It is based on a convergence of evidence from may different areas. It’s not just the millions of bodies found, it’s not just the thousands of witnesses, it’s not just the trove of photographs, it’s not just the millions of pages of documentation. It’s all of these things together that all point towards the same thing, which is that the Holocaust happened.
Isolated photographs don’t prove anything; human interpretation of knowledge is based on our assessment of what is most likely true based on all information available. One photograph of a disconnected gas chamber does not disconfirm all the aforementioned evidence, and to think that it does suggests the presence of motivated reasoning more than anything else. Even a hundred such photographs don’t show much— because the relative amount of evidence between the it happened group and the denier group is at such a disparity that it’s virtually impossible for an unbiased party looking at all the evidence to arrive at the conclusion that it didn’t happen.
Likewise, I think it’s very important for researchers to have a somewhat contemplative view of data. Despite the presence of “definitive” journal articles about certain subjects, one sample of data and its interpretation is not definitive; more important is the convergence of many different types of data onto one most likely truth. More data from more diverse sources ensures that any one piece is not biased, and isn’t misleading you in a certain direction. However, as anyone who has been collecting data for any amount of time will tell you, it isn’t easy to get data, much less many different forms of data that relate to the same constructs. But if you ask me, from an epistemological point of view, it’s the only way to establish knowledge; the more data you have that all point at the same thing, the more you can be certain about something. It’s a rather simple concept that forms the basis of the scientific method.
Even if some people find certain forms of data less reliable than others, all data collected in a responsible fashion can be useful in constructing truth— especially when combined with other relevant data. Every piece can play a role, just as each brick plays a role in building a house. True, not all data is perfect; in fact, very little of it is. But it is not productive to dismiss entire categories of data simply because it came from a survey or it is based on ethnographic information. It is a grievous research error, in my opinion, to make the perfect the enemy of the good; it undermines the role of information diversity in arriving at truth.