on conducting market research to better effect behavioral changes in consumers
In an earlier article about bicycling, I mentioned that our cultural narrative about addressing energy problems typically involves a story about technology. Using existing means of solving problems is not usually viewed with much seriousness, or is dismissed entirely. Recall, for instance when President Obama was roundly ridiculed for suggesting that America’s continual search for oil wouldn’t be so pressing if we just kept our cars’ tires inflated.
In the realm of energy, energy policy, and energy politics, efficiency is not a sexy concept. Cool new technology is. Everyone intuitively gets that. Of course, my point here is not to say that technology can’t do amazing things; there’s no question that new technology is revolutionizing plenty of things. However, we also need to take into account that technology is expensive, takes a long time to roll out, and its outcomes simply aren’t keeping pace with the exponential urgency of our problems.
While we wait for our scientists and engineers to crank out viable and affordable solutions, the question turns, then, to whether it is possible in the meantime to make efficiency more attractive. I think the answer is a definite yes. However, there are good reasons why past efforts have not met with much success.
“The failures of achieving efficiency goals can be traced to a lack of attention to anthropological understandings of consumers and how efficiency can fit into consumers’ worldviews.”The failures of marketing in achieving efficiency goals can be traced, in my view, to a lack of attention to sociocultural and anthropological understandings of consumers and how they view the world, and how an implementation of efficiency can fit into this worldview. If I were a policy-maker looking to increase consumer efficiency or encourage participation in energy-saving efforts, here are some starter questions that I would want answered before spending a second crafting a program:
- How do people conceptualize energy in their lives, and what are the narratives they subconsciously tell themselves with regards to energy?
- How do the above views manifest themselves?
- What are consumers’ attitudes and beliefs about energy conservation and technology, if any?
Based on my own readings of literature in energy politics, my discussions with consumers, and the recurring themes I’ve seen highlighted by our media, I have arrived at a few thoughts of my own about consumer narratives about energy, and how those might guide behavior.1
So why (in my view) is technology so attractive while efficiency is not? I think it boils down to:
- Consumer confidence in technology – a cultural belief that technology will unfailingly come through to solve our problems for us
- Desire for magic bullets – a belief that there are (or will be) amazing solutions that don’t require much effort or sacrifice to implement
- Bias against the cheap and familiar – a belief that cheap existing things (e.g. inflating tires, installing weatherstripping) couldn’t possibly be as good as new things (e.g. energy efficient heaters utilizing cutting edge technology) for solving problems— especially complex ones
- Discreteness – technological solutions are typically housed in a single package (e.g. a hybrid car), which makes them more attractive and less cognitively complex concept than ‘efficiency,’ which is by contrast a series of behaviors
- Social visibility – people want to be recognized by others as contributing to a solution ; the visibility of technology generally makes that easier
Much of how we as consumers act has to do with unquestioned cultural beliefs and narratives that guide the way we perceive the world; as a result, attention needs to be focused on understanding those views. Once you can understand consumers’ worldviews, it’s easier to understand what might be important in either changing attitudes or in catering to mentalities; otherwise changing behavior is a rather Sisyphean task. On that point, I hope that those working in the field of energy take the time to push for comprehensive qualitative research to undergird their future programs for creating better energy programs and policy. It’s complex work, no doubt— but I can’t think of many things that are more important.
1 I will, however, caveat that these views are unfortunately not the product of a specific program of research backed by industry funding, which of course is a serious limitation; however, I have a reasonable degree of certainty that these are important, if not central, issues.
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.
a brief look at the ripple effects caused by the car in the American economy, culture, and society
Socio-Cultural and Socio-Historic View of American Streets, and the Decline of Streets as Social Space
Many academic takes on the decline of community in American society suggest that that the moment it all started to go awry was when television entered the scene. It was the advent of television, it is argued, that caused people to never leave their homes and to instead sit alone on their couches, bathing themselves in the glowing blue light of the “idiot box.” More recently, an author named Stan Cox seriously points the blame for the decline in American society to the invention of air conditioning (it seems like a stretch, but Cox makes some good arguments).
I think there is some merit to both of these arguments. But much of the blame, in my view, is the advent of the car. It’s obvious to anyone who has spent any time in the United States that it is a nation that is firmly entrenched in car culture. Cars heavily integrate into the American psyche, and have come to serve as a central metaphor for a lot of things about the way we view ourselves. Cars are viewed as symbols of independence, convenience, status, freedom, class, and success; beyond this, the car has come to be equated with these things.
But it’s not really the car itself that is problematic, but the way in which the car transformed the landscape of our roads and neighborhoods. The reasons for this are not entirely accidental, but are due to a number of historical factors that involve the way this nation was built up. In the United States, most of our streets were built after the invention of the car, unlike many places in Europe and Asia, where the streets existed long before cars were introduced. As a result, American roads were built specifically for car traffic, and with the needs of car traffic in mind.
Travel to places like India, and you will immediately see that people have an entirely different relationship to the road than people in the United States. In India, the road is a place for walking, doing business, hanging out, playing soccer, and selling vegetables. Dogs, cats, and cows walk around in the streets like they own the place. American streets were once like that, as this fascinating clip of Market Street in San Francisco, from 1906, suggests:
Since 1906, cars have commandeered streets, and as such, you will never see people trying to cross Market Street on foot now (except on designated crosswalks), and you would never see bicyclists riding in such a carefree manner. That’s because over time, due to the simple law of the jungle that might is right compounded with the early 1900s understanding that people in cars were clearly more important than people who traveled on foot, people quickly became attuned to the idea that streets are car spaces. This an attitude that as Americans, we all carry with us. We feel uncomfortable walking in the street. As bikers, we feel like second-class citizens who are only borrowing space and who should get out of the way as soon as a car comes near us. Heaven forbid that we allow children to play in the street with their friends—in fact, one of the very first lessons we teach children is about looking both ways before crossing a street. The message that has been written on our cultural frame—the operating system that undergirds our brains— is that streets are places for cars. Cars rule this space. If you are not in a car, you do not belong there.
Unlike many other parts of the world, large sections of the United States were built up after the advent of the automobile. More importantly, companies like Ford and General Motors were instrumental in much of the national and regional dialogue about how city planning should occur. Posing the argument that the design of American cities should revolve around the demands of the car, car companies suggested that catering to the car would ensure that Americans could bask in the fruits of economic prosperity. As a result, our nation became dependent on the car for transport around its towns. It was a rather uphill battle, for example, to get from one’s suburban home to the grocery store or the hardware store, which due to a new vision of urban planning, made these places miles away instead of being around the corner. It doesn’t require much imagination to think about the broader impacts of this historical decision:
- Marginalization of people and non-motorized vehicles on streets
- A high level of dependence by US populace on motor vehicles for everyday needs— a perennial problem for the poor and unemployed, since they need a car to get a job and need a job to get a car
- Increased fossil fuel consumption, which has led to higher levels of air pollution, greater traffic on streets, and almost certainly greater levels of global political instability due to oil dependencies
- Encouragement of sedentary lifestyles
There are many, many other side effects borne from the American car culture, but what is interesting is how completely our attitudes about the car have integrated into our views of what our daily life looks like, and how it should be. Think about this: there are a significant number of people in the US who do not step foot outside of a building on a typical day even though they travel around town. The car has become such an integral part of our lives that not having one can have severe consequences on one’s well-being, whether that involves practical issues like getting to work or going to the grocery store, or whether that means psychological issues like self-esteem, self-worth, and being able to maintain social circles.
Another worrying side effect of this privileging of cars is the fact that communities and neighborhoods do not have public spaces. For example, think about your own neighborhood. If you wanted to have spontaneous chit-chat with your neighbors, where would you do this? If your children want to play with others, how can they do this without going either formal mechanisms like asking someone to play, or without stepping into someone’s else’s yard? In India, people and children hang out literally in the middle of the street in front of people’s houses. It’s an open and neutral space that isn’t on anyone’s property (think of the alleyway that Hank and his friends use on the TV show King of the Hill). No one owns it, and it’s no one’s home turf. The neutrality makes a difference; there’s a difference between hanging out at Bill’s house and hanging out in a neutral area in front of Bill’s house. There’s simply no place for this kind of impromptu and neutral-space interaction here in the U.S.
The lack of available space makes the conditions for getting to know your neighbors and for socializing with them hard. Occasionally, some neighborhoods have a block party. This involves someone from the neighborhood calling the city and asking them to block off the street to car traffic. Invariably, this creates a pretty lively space. As a thought experiment, just close your eyes and imagine for a moment what your street would look like if it was permanently blocked off from car traffic. Do you believe people would spend more time outside if it was?
using marketing strategies to fix a mass transit system
Preliminary Comments on Observing the BART Transit System
Over the 10 years I spent in the Bay Area, I spent many hours using the BART mass transit system. As a result of my own experiences and my observations of others in BART trains and stations, I spent considerable time thinking about the goals of the system, and how rider experiences could be improved to make the system more effective, flexible, and in keeping with principles of usability.
I must admit that the reason I embarked on this article is that I find BART, from top to bottom, a frustrating transit system to use, and it in many ways is the perfect example of a wasted opportunity— so much so that it is really an embarrassment for an area of the country that prides itself on technological leadership and progressive thought. At every turn, the BART system is set up in a way that discourages ridership, and makes it ridiculously hard for passengers to do things that should be very simple. What follows are observations I have made about BART, culled from years of experience riding it, along with some marketing strategies that I think will help mitigate some of the frustrations of using BART.
Implications of BART Design and History
First off, it’s important to get some history. BART was constructed as a system that is unlike most mass transit systems. Unlike intra-city (within a single city) transport system like New York, Tokyo, or Hong Kong, BART is an inter-city (between cities) transport system. This has several implications for ridership: 1) station distribution of the BART system is geographically wide, but with low density; 2) because of the geographical coverage, rides can be quite lengthy; 3) riders are more likely to employ multiple forms of transport in their journeys, and 4) passengers traveling longer distances or going to airports may be carrying baggage. That means that while BART travels further than most other subway systems, it is also likely to be harder to get to a station, a trip is significantly more likely to involve several legs involving different types of transport, and riders will have to wait longer between the arrival of two trains. These facts already pose a psychological barrier to potential ridership, so it is important that if administrators want to encourage BART usage, that central and peripheral annoyances be minimized; after all, any excuse a rider can find not to take BART, they likely will employ.
Observation #1 – Lack of Proper Maps, Signage, and Human Communication
- The BART system lacks an adequate number of maps, and also offers poor information quality on existing maps. At times, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a map; many platforms only contain one, and there is often only one on an entire BART train. In addition, if one is unfamiliar with subway maps, it is difficult time figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Numerous experiences I have had assisting disoriented BART patrons has shown me that the reading of existing BART subway maps requires the development of some intuition that visitors often do not have.
- The confusion of navigating is exacerbated if one not understand the geography of the Bay Area, or if one only has a limited understanding of it (ex. “Dublin is north of Fremont”). Not all trains go to all places, so it is important to understand which ones go where, and where transfers needs to happen.
- Given the general lack of signage, we might expect conductors to give helpful messages over the intercoms about where passengers should transfer and whether the train is currently at a transfer point. In fact, it is often impossible to understand what is being said on the intercom; conductors are inconsistent in their clarity and the speaker quality is generally quite poor.
- Too often, when one is in a train, it is hard to figure out what station the train is at if one is not actively keeping track, or if one does not have a visual sense for what particular stations look like. Often, the only indication is a small sign posted on the wall of the station if you look out the train window long enough to find it. These signs are surprisingly difficult to spot, and are likely be hard to see for those with poor eyesight.
Solutions to Observation #1:
- I propose that in addition to showing a geographical depiction of cities, BART’s map should be shown as a linear continuum to eliminate unnecessary or confusing information. Currently, it is confusing to know where to go when all the signs just say things like ‘Platform 1’ and ‘North-bound train.’ This presupposes the BART rider already has previous understanding of the station layout and geographical sense of the Bay Area. A simple linear map that displays how each location on the BART system is related to each other place would allow a rider to intuitively understand how one could get from point A to point B.
In the above picture (where numbers are used to represent cities), someone at point 7 on the map can easily see how he could get to 23, without having to process geographical information.
- At the various platforms within stations, patrons should have a clear understanding of the direction the train is traveling. This can be done by presenting maps where stations that the train will not be going to are grayed out:
Assuming that lines are not rotated on the same platform from day to day, the floor outside the platform or the train itself can be color-coded to ensure that patrons understand which line they are embarking upon.
- Dynamic information offered within the train should be employed to help passengers understand where they are currently, and where the train will be going next. This is illustrated in the graphic below, where the static yellow light in circle 15 indicates current location, while the flashing orange light in circle 16 indicates the next station the train will stop at:
- Instead of having conductors speak, an automated computer voice should broadcast the arrival at each station (ex. “This is the EMBARCADERO STATION.”). This will ensure consistency and audibility in the announcement.
Observation #2 – Inflexible Payment System and Intermodality Issues
- There are currently countless distinct public transit systems in the Bay Area: BART, CalTrain, MUNI, AC Transit, WestCAT, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and the Oakland Ferry, to name a few. Interestingly, most of these have different payment forms. In the past I have had commutes involving AC Transit, BART, and MUNI in a single day; I have known people who have had even more complex daily routines. Not surprisingly, I have personally dealt with and watched others deal with innumerable transit cards, having to keep constant tabs on whether they have credit on those cards, and having to search around for these cards when the time comes to present them.
- The BART card, which gives a passenger access to the trains, is made of a flimsy piece of magnetic paper. They are easily bent, and will de-magnetize if one happens to place one next to one’s mobile phone. Bent or de-magnetized tickets are rejected by the turnstiles.
- BART attendants aren’t particularly concerned about helping passengers with problem cards (a friend once told an uninterested attendant that her card, which still had $5 on it, wasn’t working. The attendant took it, said that it was “too old” and then told her to buy a new one. Is 1.5 years a long time in BART years?
Solutions to Observation #2
- If a major goal of mass transit is to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce pollution, implementing a universal payment system across different modes of public transit is crucial. A large part of the problem with intermodal transport (i.e. multiple different forms of transport within a single trip) currently is the sense that the trip is not integrated. This creates a sensation of hassle and disconnectedness between different legs of the trip. Simplifying the process of intermodality through a single payment card that works for all systems encourages passengers to view the entire commute or transport process as interconnected and logical, rather than disparate and frustrating. This improvement would likely result in increased system throughput, reduced frustration, and greater levels of pre-payment. Admittedly, there are bureaucratic hurdles to jump, but they are ones worth jumping for the good of the system as a whole and for the goals of that system.
- If institution of a new payment system is possible, I would suggest an RFID system in which funds can deducted simply by flicking a sturdy card (or specially-enabled wristwatch) at a receiver. This would drastically reduce the incidence of lost or damaged cards, and would avoid issues created by finicky ticket machines.
- If it is technologically possible, being able to add funding to the card from a place other than the station, would alleviate the frustration of having to wait in line to add funding to the card, and would encourage patrons to purchase high-value tickets in advance in more convenient settings.
- It is worth noting that mass transit systems in other regions (Hong Kong, for example) is set up such that you can use tickets to purchase goods other than rides on the mass transit, like food at convenient stores. Having additional perks and functionality would render a customer more likely to keep a BART ticket around and in use.
Observation #3 – BART Material Construction Promotes Perception of Poor Sanitary Conditions and Visual Disorder
- In my own informal research, when asked about their opinions of BART, passengers’ comments often begin with a negative description of the visual aesthetic and olfactory experience of the trains. A large component of both complaints can be traced to the material construction of the trains. Namely, it is not advisable for a public transit system that carries about 2.5 million of passengers every week to be equipped with upholstered seats and carpeted floors. These materials retain dirt, sweat, and grime, and are near impossible to keep clean. These materials present an unnecessary maintenance expense, a sanitary concern, and unpleasant visual and olfactory experiences.
- Furthermore, it has become clear from recent events that fabrics such as those in BART trains can be vectors for unwanted pests as bedbugs, which poses a problem not only for BART itself, but for the entire region and beyond.
- In addition, the color pattern of the seats are somewhat dated, and easily show discoloration from dirt.
Solutions to Observation #3:
- Shallow as it may appear to be, initial sensory impressions (affective perception) are one of the strongest drivers of customer attitudes. Visually impressing patrons and preventing unpleasant odors will greatly encourage ridership at the aggregate level, and will create the climate for a more pleasurable BART experience. My advice is to abandon upholstery in favor of hard plastic or vinyl, and remove the carpet from the floor. While this may be an expensive overhaul, the cost savings of maintenance and the appreciation from passengers will ultimately pay off in the long run. It will be much cheaper to maintain, it will smell better after constant use, will not appear as dirty, and the selection of an appropriate color will be visually much more appealing than the current choice dirty teal.
Observation #4 – Suboptimal Seat Arrangement and Inflexibility towards Passenger Heterogeneity
- Current usage patterns on BART suggest that the arrangement of the seats in is awkward, inefficient, and inflexible. Some seats face forwards and others face backwards; some seats are placed perpendicular to the train, while others are parallel; and some seats face other seats, facilitating awkward views of strangers. The odd arrangement suggests some design rationale behind it, but observation suggests that it is an ineffective design.
- From my observations, the BART cars are neither convenient for regular passengers, nor accommodating for special situations. In fact, the heterogeneity of passengers needs on any given train upsets the order in such a way as to inconvenience all the passengers on the train. For example, a bicyclist’s awkward but logistically necessary position of standing in front of doorways with his bicycle jutting into the passageway is uncomfortable for both the bicyclist and disembarking passengers. A passenger returning from SFO airport is forced to place his/her baggage on seats or in aisles, making the patron feel self-conscious on crowded trains.
- While BART does allow passengers to bring bikes, it is prohibited at the times that one would most likely want to bring a bike on— during normal commuting hours. BART has been adding bicycle parking units outside some BART stations, where patrons can store bikes at the station in a special holding container for a nominal fee. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem of those who need bikes on both ends of their daily commute.
Solutions to Observation #4:
- I suggest the rearrangement of seats to maximize seating capacity in most cars, but to set aside [a] special car[s] with different seating arrangements that better accommodates people with packages, baggage, and bicycles. This will account for the heterogeneity in passenger needs, and optimize the customer experience for all by creating designated areas for those whose needs are similar. Obviously, statistics on usage patterns involving means and standard deviations of customer types will need to be collected, but implementing a change based on these statistics will create a better customer experience once optimized for heterogeneity.
- The restriction of bikes during commuting hours is symptomatic of the poor design of BART cars. Because BART was designed to be an inter-city rather than intra-city transport method, stations are not geographically scattered around cities. Because of this, and given the rapid increase in bicycle popularity, BART should encourage patrons wishing to integrate bicycles into their commutes; doing so would encourage BART ridership for commutes, and discourage automobile usage. By designing and setting aside special cars for bicyclists, BART can better serve a segment that is currently not being served very well—a segment, it is worth noting, that is growing.
Observation #5 – Confusing Station Layout and Orientation
- BART stations’ post-modern aesthetic unfortunately thwarts usability and intuitiveness. Some BART stations are designed such that they seem to actively thwart passengers from catching trains. For example, in the 12th street / Oakland City Center station, for a passenger to switch trains, he must climb up one set of stairs to another level, and then climb down a different set of stairs to access the second BART platform. This is despite the fact that the first set of stairs actually passes by the other level; for some reason, access to that floor from the first set of stairs is blocked.
- In certain stations, the passenger standing areas are placed against the outer walls (Design A in the diagram below) rather than in the center between the two opposite train tracks (Design B). This means that if one selects the wrong platform upon entry—which is not unlikely given the poor signage— he/she will have to run back up the flight of stairs and run down another flight of stairs to get to the other platform; in Design B, passengers can access access either train from the contiguous standing area.
Solutions to Observation #5:
- Architectural issues like this are difficult to correct without incurring great expense and inconvenience to passengers. Ideally, investing time and money into creating optimal designs would have been implemented in the initial stages of creating the system; though the time has passed to employ this strategy for existing stations, it should be used for the construction of new stations.
- However, given that the time has passed for optimizing the architectural design, the next best solution is to creating signage that allows patrons entering the platform area to select the correct platform.
The observations and proposals I describe are methods that specifically attempt to create a more positive experience for riders on BART, which will not only create a more committed and loyal customer-base, but will contribute to other social goals within the Bay Area, such as reducing vehicular traffic, congestion, and air and noise pollution.
BART’s slogan is “BART… and you’re there!”, a phrase that sounds great on paper. Yet, anyone who’s ever ridden BART knows well that BART is anything but that simple. With its few stations positioned in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as places like Fruitvale and Bay Point, you can make a decent argument that BART’s geographical reaches are significant; still, what it means in that slogan to ‘be there’ is clearly up to debate. Sure, you can get from the town of Orinda to the city San Francisco relatively easily if you happen to already be at the originating BART station, but it’s rarely convenient to get either to your originating BART station or from the destination BART station to wherever it is that you’re trying to go. This often means that a range of transport is necessitated for a given trip. You might need to drive or walk to a BART station, take the BART, and hop on a bus to your final destination. Or you might need to get on CalTrain, catch the BART, and hail a taxi for the last leg of the trip. “BART… and you’re there!” is a phrase that not only rings untrue and hollow for the bulk of passengers, but serves mostly as a reminder for how long and tedious it is to get anywhere using BART and Bay Area mass transit in general (which probably explains in large part the ridiculous amount of traffic to be found on any given stretch of highway in the Bay Area during any given time, particularly around commute times). Better to improve the actual system than to send out hollow reminders of system’s technological prowess.
and why companies should make it easy for people to adopt their products
Here’s the problem, as I’ve elucidated on a previous post: bicycle companies have not given the non-user a strong incentive to switch from cars to bicycles. Bikes, as they are currently sold, lack all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) features that new users who are wanting to instantly make their bike their primary mode of transportation will want; features like easy locking, built-in LED lighting, stylish and lightweight baskets, and chains that don’t eat your pants. These are all features that are immediately obvious to people who don’t bike regularly, or who have just started biking on a more frequent basis.
I’m certain that bicycle manufacturers will find any number of reasons to throw up resistance for these ideas, and deny that making such features standard is a good idea. This will make the bike heavy, they will say. It will make the bike less customizable. It will make the bike most costly.
Yes, these are all fine old-school reasons to not do something, argued from the standpoint of people who are so integrated into the semi-elitist, extreme-sports culture of hardcore biking that they fail to see the need for this evolution for the mainstream. To them, it’s an “it-ain’t-broke-so-don’t-fix-it” sort of argument; if someone wants a light, why not let them choose what kind to get— if they want one at all— instead of installing a standard one in the bike?
Think about it from another vantage point; take the computer industry: What kind of computer do people who do not know anything about computers buy? They buy Macs. Why should they buy Macs? They are more expensive, have less software, are less prominent in computing society, and they pretty much force you to buy all your hardware from a single manufacturer whose products cost significantly more than comparable PC products. These facts, on paper, do not sound like things that are going in Apple’s favor at all.
But what Apple does offer is instant usability, assurance that everything is going to work, standardized components, integrated hardware that is compatible with the other pieces of hardware within it, and a single sleek and aesthetically-pleasing package that doesn’t need much modification or adjustment before you can use it.
Windows users are plagued with problems, often having to spend ages with their IT guys getting their network up and running, fooling with network adapter drivers, Windows networking software, and hardware conflicts— while Mac users simply input their IP numbers, and are smooth sailing. Meanwhile, the Windows user is pulling his hair out.
This is an instructive analogy. Think about it. Make it easy for someone to adopt your product. Isn’t that obvious?
People just getting on the bicycle bandwagon don’t want to deal with taking their LEDs on and off every time they get on a bike. They don’t want to deal with their clothes getting ruined by a chain that apparently can’t be made to not destroy clothing. They don’t want to be condemned to carrying everything they brought with them everywhere they go just because the bike has no close-able, lockable basket. They don’t want to deal with their bikes being space hogs in their homes because the handlebars don’t fold. They don’t want to buy dozens of aftermarket components and install them all on a machine they don’t understand, hoping that they got the right ones and that they fit with their type of bicycle and frame size. They don’t want to have a Frankensteined bicycle bearing so many different companies’ products that their bikes look like they were cobbled together from scrap.
They want all that stuff taken care of beforehand because they don’t want to think about that! They just want to be able to ride with confidence, have all the accessories they may want right there (and have them easy to put on because they were designed specifically for the bike they bought), and they want to get on with their lives. They don’t want to tinker with a machine whose secrets are only privy to the technicians who sold them the bike. They just want to ride!
A smart bicycle manufacturer would recognize this immediately and build a modular, Mac-inspired bike that includes everything that someone who instantly wants the bicycle to be their main form of transport would want, and fixes all the dumb oversights that discourage them from adopting this technology right now. Yes, it will likely raise the price of the bike, but for many people, not wanting to deal with frustrations and being nickeled and dimed on accessories is more valuable than having a cheaper bike.
A bike like this could easy generate a great deal of brand cachet, high sales, and could earn a company an army of lifelong customers and bicycle enthusiasts. Seems like a great investment to me. So what’s the problem?
UPDATE: I’ve continued my thoughts on the need for change in the bicycle industry in this post. You might want to read that one first before coming back to this one.
Status quo is there for a reason. People don’t like to change what they’re doing, and will find self-justifications for why they shouldn’t. This is true in many contexts; many of us have witnessed this in interactions at work, politics, and other social spheres. If someone is being forced by outside conditions to make a change in their consumption behavior or to purchase items that they weren’t planning on buying, they typically aren’t happy about it, and will find reasons to avoid doing it. That’s why companies that make high-involvement consumer products should really be proactive about finding ways to understand and address the dissatisfactions that consumers have about their products so that they can convert hesitating customers into excited, eager customers.
Case in point: bicycles.
I was picking up my treasured Cannondale bicycle from Revolution Bike and Bean, a cool bike repair shop in Bloomington, Indiana, and was talking with the owners about bike sales. Brad, the owner, was commenting that sales had risen considerably over the past year. I remarked that they would probably be even better if bike manufacturers had spent more time examining how people who don’t regularly ride bikes respond to them when they first get on, and understand why many people who bought them stopped using them.
Transportation in general can be viewed as a series of substitutes. If you don’t use one type of transit, you’ll use another. If you want people to choose your method of transit, you have to pose the argument in the form of benefits. Frankly, bicycle manufacturers have not been very effective at making their argument. They rely on the status quo, rarely if ever offering consumers new reasons to get on a bike. Ninety-nine percent of the effort bicycle companies make in bicycle improvements are incremental in nature and relate largely to shaving a few grams off the weight of the bike, and other such minor modifications that only bike nuts are likely to care about. The mainstream public— the largest piece of the bicycle pie, oddly— is left completely unspoken for.
I log a hell of a lot of hours on my bike, and even I have a huge list of complaints about bikes that are in need of being addressed. These aren’t things that will affect whether or not I actually use my bike —but this is only because I have already adopted it as my primary form of transportation. There are many people out there who currently drive, but who might like to adopt bicycles as their primary form of transport; unfortunately, most of those people never will. The reason they won’t is because they have their own status quo they are trying to maintain. They’ve always driven to work, so they always will. At least until someone offers a good reason why they shouldn’t.
But bike manufacturers don’t offer good reasons to switch that demonstrate new approaches to the biking paradigm. If you wanted to switch, you could have switched 10 or 20 years ago. There’s hardly any new reasons to switch. In almost every other industry, there are always new reasons to switch: think about improvements to cars, computers, televisions, appliances, anything! Those industries take constant efforts to make value propositions. But short of augmenting the available structural materials with things like carbon fiber, the bicycle industry has not made any significant leaps in decades. Now you might be wondering what kind of improvements I’m talking about.
Before I get into that, it’s important to understand something. Every time you make it hard for someone to do something, they are less likely to do it in the future. Repeat: Every time you make it hard for someone to do something, they are less likely to do it in the future. For those who haven’t adopted bikes as their primary mode or ever a regular mode of transport, everything that is annoying about bicycles is one more reason to not ride one. These may not even be major issues; they can just be small irritants. But small irritants add up. Think about these issues, for example, which constantly annoy me:
- It often takes a ton of time to lock up a bike. You need certain landscape features like lampposts, stop signs, or bike racks to lock your bike too.
- It’s near impossible to carry anything on a bike without a) buying expensive panniers to attach to the bicycle, or b) jury rigging a milk crate to your bike.
- bike chains get grease everywhere, especially on your clothes
- storing a bike indoors is often annoying because the handlebars stick out quite far
- getting a light on a bike is far more annoying than it should be, and you have to take if off and store it somewhere when you leave your bike to avoid having it stolen
- mud flies up from the wheels and gets all over your clothes
- there’s no way to store anything on/in your bike if you need to walk away for a few minutes
These are just some examples. They are not major things, but add them together and you have some serious irritants. Every time someone has a problem with their bike that involves one of these issues, it creates a negative perception of their bike and will drive them just a little further away from using it again. Eventually, people will feel so annoyed just thinking about the bike that they won’t even bother getting on. How hard are any of these to solve? I think they’re all solvable, and can be solved in a very simple manner. The question is why companies are not solving these issues, and spending so much time on stuff that only a tiny fraction of the potential market could possibly care about. Perhaps being gearheads make them lose sense of the big picture; or worse, maybe they are so entrenched in the way they’ve always done things that they resist any changes that might cause them to question the existing paradigm. It might even be that they don’t want to make changes that would make bicycle culture less technical and elite.
Yet, below I have written simple solutions to some these problems that could be easily implemented. Unfortunately, they are not the kind of ideas that gearheads would probably like, maybe because they seem too low-level and pedestrian; these are the kinds of changes that a non-biking scumbag might care about. Eww. But that’s where the room for growth is. If you’re trying to promote mass culture in the form of bicycles (and bike companies should be interested in this), they should be thinking about the issues that normal people might care about:
- A keyed lock system could easily prevent the wheels from moving. It may not prevent theft completely (someone could take the whole bike), but it could serve as a quick locking system in situations where there isn’t anything to lock the bike to, or when you only need to lock it up for a short amount of time.
- Bike are not well equipped to hold things/carry groceries. This is a major deficiency. If you want to make bicycles a viable primary form of transport for a mass audience, it needs to be able to handle at least some of the needs of a typical car owner. Almost everyone uses a car to get groceries. Make the bike a serviceable grocery carrying device, and you’ve given them one less reason to drive. Something as simple as places to hook on plastic bags, and metal guards that prevent plastic grocery bags from entering your wheels could make a huge difference.
- Regarding the grease: chain guards are for some reason disfavored by bike manufacturers, and they only put them on their lower end bikes. If you want a chain guard, you can’t even have one added because of the way the bikes are designed. How hard is it to have a chain guard be a default bicycle component?
- Pants and clothing can easily get caught in the chain. Not only does this ruin clothes, but it is dangerous, as you can be suddenly pulled by the chain off your bike if you aren’t paying attention. The only solution is to a) buy a bike with a chain guard—one cannot be added later!; b) roll up your pants c) wear shorts, or d) wear a Velcro pant holder strap. All of these options are subpar, and do not reflect the level of technological prowess that pervades our society. The bike could easily be re-designed to either move the chain out of the way of clothing, have it housed in an isolated unit, or at the very least have the capability of having a guard added
- Handlebars should fold for easier and more compact storage. Having two bikes takes up an inordinate amount of space, especially if you don’t have a garage. Simply having folding handlebars would allow one to take up half the space it did before.
- Bikes don’t have a built-in LED light source that can’t be stolen (required voltage for an LED light is so low that it could even be able to be dynamically powered, which is great because the old dynamos they had in bikes a few decades ago were pathetic and slowed you down big time). This would encourage people to ride even when it’s dark outside, and without having to carry their lights around by hand once they park their bike. There is absolutely no technological reason why this cannot be done.
- Currently, there’s no way to avoid getting wet during rain; this is a serious problems for bicycle commuters, and they have no way to get to school or work if they don’t have a car or mass transit options. This might sound like a silly problem to address; after all, the bike is not an enclosed unit. But it’s a big problem because it makes people feel like the bicycle is not a vehicle that they can use anytime, like their car; instead, they will feel that it’s a vehicle whose value is subject to external conditions and that there are minimum conditions that have to be met before using. That’s an attitude that is dangerous to allow to cement, and which should alleviated as quickly as possible. Surely it is possible to have a full plastic enclosure that can be propped up on the bicycle, and would keep the rider either completely or mostly dry. I believe in some parts of Asia, there are bicycle umbrella holders, but these are probably not that useful, given that the wind is often blowing, which makes rain go all over the place and would probably invert the umbrella too. I’m thinking more of a big see-through rectangular plastic box that goes over the entire bicycle and rider.
- When there is water on road, mud gets on your clothes from water being thrown off the tires. Mudflaps on non-racing bikes should be standard.
- There is no area on the bike to store possessions when leaving your bike parked for a while (the same way you might leave your things in the car when you go somewhere else). A small locking box could easily be built under the seat.
- No convenient place on bike for lock storage. This is partially the fault of lock manufacturers. Their lock holder designs are so horrible, illogical, and impractical that they are basically useless. Bicycles could easily have a standardized place for this.
- It’s too easy to steal the wheels. You can switch out a standard quick-release lock with one that requires an allen wrench (AKA hex wrench), but it’s still not that hard. I’m not sure how, but this can likely be fixed relatively easily.
- Geared bikes are a bit too hard for novices or casual bikers to maintain by themselves without getting into somewhat complicated and technical areas requiring a panoply of specialized tools. Make this easier!
- Bikes are heavy and unwieldy. Many of the above suggestions would make them even heavier, unfortunately. Newer designs should employ strong but light materials, perhaps like plastics or bamboo.
- Safety helmets are big, annoying, and hot. Is there any hope for a fix to this problem?
Bicycles are one of the most efficient forms of transport given the energy crisis and the increasing instances of obesity in our society, it is important for us as a society to encourage the use of bicycles. To do so we must address the reasons why people do not use them, and encourage bicycle manufacturers to address these issues in their next generation vehicles. It’s in their own best interest after all.
Crises are essential to progress. They are one of the most effective catalysts of change, and you can count on crises to lay the death blow to our most enduring issues of status quo. They provide convenient— yet paradoxically inconvenient— turning points in history, and allow us to contemplate the options on how to adjust ourselves to prepare for the future.
Currently, as fuel prices skyrocket, we have a populace that is becoming increasingly angry about the situation, and demanding of politicians to solve the problem. Of course, for most people, solving the problem is just another way of saying “reducing the price.” And unfortunately, many of those most affected are inclined to use this opportunity not to seriously consider their own fuel consumption patterns, their excessive driving habits, or their choice of vehicle, but instead to point blame at politicians, oil companies, and lobbyists who may be in some way responsible for the rise in fuel costs.
However, perhaps there has been a sort of tipping point in the social consciousness where the public has in some roundabout way, acknowledged that oil procurement is going to be a continuing problem for our economy, and any reductions in gas costs are only going to be temporary respites punctuated by large spans in which high costs are the rule rather than the exception. However, despite this somewhat subconscious admission, it appears that most people are not all that excited about the opportunity to alter their consumption patterns, and would be happy to return to their daily lives without having to “endure” any macro-economic change that might force a shift in their consumption behavior in the future. This is disappointing, but not all that surprising, as there is a heavy resistance to change in almost every social scenario. Tragically, the status quo tends to thrive out of inertia even when it no longer makes any sense, for reasons that are hard to explain.
But let’s think about this harder, and see how we might be able to manage the crisis for the best long-term solution.
Oil is a limited resource, but the world’s apparent appetite for oil is virtually unlimited. As such, prices for fuel are only going to increase in the long run. However, we are witnessing motorists using their gas-powered vehicles less in the recent past as prices have increased, suggesting that oil demand is somewhat elastic in the non-commercial sector. I believe that this is a good sign, as it suggests that people are willing to make some personal adjustments, but on the down side, this is only the result of short-term economic self-interest; it has nothing to do with long-term energy strategy, the encouragement of sound energy policy, or attempts to reduce the impacts of pollution.
I would posit that reducing fuel consumption is one the greatest necessities of our era, for any number of political, environmental, humanitarian, and economic reasons. Aside from those who seek to profit directly from the sale of oil, I don’t think anyone has a particular fondness for oil that goes beyond its utility value. For that reason, along with the immeasurable societal baggage that comes with oil usage, it seems a wise investment of resources to redirect energy policy towards other forms of energy.
However, it can be argued that any other energy source has its ups and downs, and it is entirely possible that alternative energies like solar, wind, and geothermal could bring about their own crippling problems once developed to the scale that humanity requires for daily consumption.
Given this, clearly, one of the most obvious solutions to the problem is to decrease consumption. This is a lofty and well-placed goal for many reasons, but some might argue that the economic costs of this could be high. Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that economic conditions, like many macro-scale phenomena, have a way of attaining an equilibrium state even if there are temporary hardships involved.
The fuel crisis is presenting us with a choice:
Do we want to continue using a resource whose quantity is rapidly dwindling, whose cost is rising dramatically, and which poses any number of environmental challenges? Or do we want to use this opportunity to reduce our consumption of this resource and invest money, resources, and policy into promoting new sources of energy that are sustainable, scalable, and environmentally sound— especially knowing that consumers are driven by short-term economic interests, and aren’t typically willing to alter their consumption patterns unless forced to by outside conditions?
As posed above, the latter is clearly the superior choice. We won’t get into the complexities involved in choosing that choice and the compromises involved in it, but let’s suppose we are in fact interested in long-term energy strategy. How can we leverage the fact that short-term economic self-interest is the primary driver of purchasing behavior?
One of the most obvious answers to discouraging unwanted behavior comes in the form of taxes. Increase taxation on oil, reduce it on alternative fuels, give tax breaks for buying bicycles, etc. In other words, simply make the undesirable action the more costly one to choose. The trouble comes when we try to balance the interests of society as a whole with economic interests of a few companies that happen to be critical linchpins in the economy.
Back in March, I took a trip to a developing country in Latin America for a project I was working on. As it would turn out, my expenses were fully paid by the institution I was operating under. Very quickly, I noticed something different about the way I was ordering meals at restaurants; I was getting dessert.
I never order dessert at meals.
Then it hit me. The reason I never order dessert is because dessert tacks on an additional $5-$7 onto the bill. It has nothing to do with the fact that dessert is bad for my health and is chock full of empty calories. Sadly, I’d probably order it every time I eat out if someone else was flipping the bill.
Behavioral economists have long realized that one of the greatest drivers of human consumption behavior is economic interest— money. Make it expensive to do something and it discourages the behavior. Behold the so-called ‘sin tax,’ which makes smoking cigarettes slightly more unappealing through an increased price (though apparently the price elasticity of cigarettes is virtually nil).
For her presidential candidacy, Hillary Clinton is proposing a gas tax holiday. Let’s think about the logic here in the context of economic incentive:
1) America relies on gasoline for operation.
2) America’s gasoline prices are going up.
3) A high gasoline tax discourages people from using gas unnecessarily; therefore the opposite, removing the tax, encourages more liberal use of gasoline on a macro scale.
4) Higher use of gasoline ensures higher prices in the future given the reality that gasoline is a limited resource, and increasing reliance on other countries for oil.
This strategy makes no sense. Our country should be doing everything in its power to discourage unnecessary gasoline usage. The government should be providing tax incentives for companies to use renewable energy, and should be making it easier for renewable energy companies to form and grow. Instead, the government is doing the exact opposite, which is not only a terrible long-term strategy for energy policy, but ensures a grim future for the people of the United States in many ways.
Many, if not most, of the world’s current problems come from a single source: consumption. High levels of consumerism and consumption behavior have driven many of the issues that plague the world. Reduce the occurences of this, and we start to address problems like pollution, deforestation, wars (for natural resources), energy shortages, water shortages, and the like in a meaningful way.
My own ideal form of taxation would come in the form of a VAT tax instead of the standard income tax that we have in the United States. Many in the US argue over the respective merits of progressive, regressive, and flat-taxes, but if you ask me, the VAT is the most sensible. Basically, my idea is that you don’t pay automatic income taxes to the government; instead, you pay 20-50% on everything you buy (something that everyone in the supply chain has to do— meaning that a single item gets taxed multiple times).
If it were up to me, the percentage of the VAT tax would depend on the nature of the item in question. The amount of tax levied should depend on external costs that society has to bear by the fact that this item is out there in the world. If manufacturing the product has led to environmental destruction in some way, tax it higher. Products made of plastic or which contain lots wood should be taxed high. Products that don’t biodegrade or which need special processing to re-enter the waste stream should be taxed high. Products that damage our water supply and pollute the air should be taxed high. On the other hand, items that can safely be returned to the earth to decompose should be taxed low. Unprocessed foodstuffs should be taxed low. Bicycles should be taxed low (while they use up resources in manufacturing, they encourage more prudent use of other more damaging resources).
A hypothetical scenario: say you buy a $100 stereo. By the time you check out, you’re in the $120 range. Maybe even higher, like $140 or $150. That’s considerably higher than the state sales tax you’ll pay in the United States. You’ll question whether you really need that stereo. You’ll be forced to think about the environmental and external impact of your purchasing behavior. True, you’ll have to fork over much more once you buy stuff, but you’ll have extra money in your pocket from not paying income tax.
I like this idea for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it ensures that those who consume the most also bear the external costs— a cost that is often left to society as a whole to bear. If proposed on a large scale, my guess is that many people would complain for the following reasons:
- The VAT may encourage people to spend less, but most countries and their governments push for strong economic growth to maintain or promote “high standards of living”
- Companies and stockholders expect their profits to grow year after year without fail
- While endless consumption empties rainforests, fills the air with pollution, and contaminates drinking water, companies and governments are more interested in short-term success of their enterprises and consider addressing these issues as a hassle, especially since the marketplace typically does not reward good behavior on these fronts
- Society largely views cycles containing periods of economic decline as negative
- On the whole, people want the benefits associated with certain behavior, but are unwilling to personally bear the costs (ex. “I want clear air, but I am unwilling to give up driving”)
- The stock market does not address long-term strategical moves; instead, it focuses on instant gratification efforts