KUOW’s The Conversation hosted a program about a month ago talking about the unfortunately-titled Salon article “Are urban bicyclists just elite snobs?” Headline aside, author Will Doig makes some good points, saying that while people who bike are not likely to be “elite snobs,” that perception is very real.
When I listened to the show at the time, I was a bit disappointed with the way it went. “Oh great,” I thought, “let’s prompt people to call in with their negative anecdotes and generalizations about people who bike yet again! Just what we need.” Perhaps as someone who writes about bikes on the Internet every day, I have developed a knee-jerk defense mechanism against ill-intentioned comment trolls and radio shock jocks.
But listening to the program again, people do make several good points about the need for better marketing (for lack of a better word) that more accurately shows the wide variety of people who bike, the wide variety of tasks bicycles can help people accomplish, and how easy it is.
The folks at Cascade came to a similar conclusion in a recent blog post:
When I caught the article, my first reaction—to the headline—was disappointment. How can our beloved easy and cheap mode of transportation (or popular form of recreation) be anything close to a central character in a social hierarchy struggle?
Bicycling is more normal and ordinary than ever, so I tire of the notion that bicycling is only for one group of people. When we look at the numbers, we find it to be completely false. In fact, when we look at the census data, those who ride bikes span income levels quite evenly. Are there elite snobs who ride a bike? Are you an elite snob? Better yet, who actually cares? The real question isn’t about snobbery, it’s whether or not we’re going to recognize the serious interest of all ages, races, incomes and backgrounds in this cheap and easy way to get around and make sure it’s safe and accessible for everyone. And beyond recognizing this increasing demand by the masses—people really want to ride—will our city’s leaders build the infrastructure and let us?
Rant over; I then actually read the article. Beyond the snarky headline, the Salon article does dig in. The author even calls the media to the carpet and notes the disparity in enforcement and rash of hyperbolic headlines (um, his is a case in point). Its thesis is that it’s not so much that bicyclists are elitists, but that we’re saddled with that unfortunate and ironically poor public perception. Okay, good point.
Considering the way bicycle products have been marketed for years, it’s no wonder people who do not regularly ride bikes hold negative and confusing images of bicycling. While I get to see a positive image of bicycling every day — whether its writing about community neighborhood greenway groups or the ever-increasing number of bicycle commuters — this is the image of biking that is saturating people’s TV screens:
I must have seen this commercial 20 times while in St. Louis visiting family this holiday season (I am not sure if it has been playing in Seattle or not). Every time it came on, I just groaned. If I were trying to make bicycling look like a dangerous, painful and bizarre activity for weirdos, I could hardly have made a better commercial. Yet this is what people are seeing multiple times a day.
Unfortunately, no bicycle advocacy organization has enough money to run a positive bicycling ad campaign. And even if they did, I’m sure there would be much better ways to spend it.
Which reminds me of one of Seattle Bike Blog’s main New Year’s resolutions (more to come soon!): Tell more positive stories. Bicycling is safe. Bicycling is easy. Bicycling is fun. Bicycling is “normal.” Basically, there should be more smiles on the blog, and stories like this:
Perhaps if we deconstruct this “elite snob” stereotype, we can learn a little about how to change the way we “market” bicycling. Where does this idea originate? Sure, there are some jerks in expensive gear who treat people rudely on the Burke-Gilman Trail (the most-common stereotype I hear cited). But there don’t seem to be a disproportionate number of them compared all the jerks in expensive cars who treat people rudely on the roads. I would never say that people who drive cars are elitists just because some jerk in a luxury car cut me off.
Plus, the value of one’s car or bike has little to do with how courteous someone is. There are jerks in every walk of life using every mode of transportation.
Nearly all people find it hard to relate to someone (or someone’s choices) if they do not share key common experiences. While the number of people biking in Seattle is going through the roof, the majority of our fellow citizens still do not bike regularly. I know what it is like to have a frustrating, traffic-filled highway car commute and can sympathize with people who have one today. But someone who does not ride a bike may find it hard to sympathize with my need for better bicycle facilities on our city’s roads and bridges.
I know all car drivers are not responsible for the actions of a few jerks, because I have been a driver. But some people who do not bike regularly seem to have trouble making the same distinction about people who bike.
People who bike fall nearly proportionally in all income brackets. In fact, the poorer half of the nation bikes more than the richer half. So obviously, people who bike are not disproportionately of the “elite” class.
Car ownership, on the other hand, is skewed toward the wealthy, though there is certainly no shortage of poor people struggling to keep their cars rolling. Given that poorer neighborhoods are less likely to have good walking, biking and transit infrastructure and service, the problem tends to compound.
Okay, fine, so people who bike are not elitists, but they’re definitely snobs, right?
Nobody likes to have someone tell them about how that what they’re doing is dangerous, destroying the environment, encouraging obesity, etc. Yet car culture is, undeniably, all of those things while cycling is not. Without being careful, it’s easy for someone who bikes to come off as a snob during a conversation even if they aren’t one (and if they are a snob, it can send them into snobbery outer space).
Here we have this tool that is so positive in so many ways, costs almost nothing and is easy and fun. It runs on excess calories and gives you hot butt. This thing practically sells itself. So how come we keep screwing it up in America?
In the end, there are some people who will start riding a bike because of pollution or reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. But the vast majority of people who take up biking will do so once they believe it is the transportation solution that works the best for their lives. They need to be convinced it is safe, easy, fast and cost-effective (and being cool never hurts). The city’s infrastructure also needs to meet these goals.
The haters and radio shock jocks will keep doing their thing, riling people up and encouraging a red-faced division between people who drive and people who bike. But down on the ground, more and more friends, family members, coworkers and neighbors around the city are demonstrating that riding a bike is a relaxing and easy way to get life done.
Once people start biking, they get a chance to share that common experience with other people biking. And once people can see things from behind both the handlebars and the windshield, these silly stereotypes will disappear.
What do you think the city, advocacy organizations and everyday people in Seattle can do to help change the image of bicycling in the city?