Cycle culture: can councils do it?

“It is crazy to think we can encourage cycling while simultaneously discouraging it.” – Dave Kincaid

For a long time after the discussion on cycle culture vs infrastructure started among my fellow bloggers, I pretty well assumed that councils should stick to their knitting and focus on infrastructure. The odd bit of sponsorship of this or that event was fine, of course, but by and large they should just work in their appropriate field.

I still don’t think councils are particularly well-suited to culture pushes – they’re generally too rules-bound to be really creative, and they move too slowly to be leaders in this field. They like to keep their heads beneath the parapet.

But my views on this topic have started to change. I still don’t think councils will be leaders, but I do think they can be effective supporters. If they do it right.

Auckland Transport have a video series on starting out cycling that has the potential for brilliance. Video titles such as “Planning Your Route”, and “Feeling Confident on Your Bike” indicate well-thought out concepts for new or tentative riders. The people in the vids talk about what works for them, which would a new rider a level of comfort.

But there’s a problem. All but one of the vids had hi-viz in the front image, and most people I saw were wearing hi-viz (although there were some beautifully stylish riders too). Hi-viz is what people wear when they’re undertaking a dangerous activity. It’s not normal. Are you starting to see the problem?

All that good work that has gone into topics, getting the right people, good production values etc has been a bit of a waste. The main message that comes through clearly is “Danger! Danger!” How does that normalise cycling?

This is exactly why I think councils on the whole fail badly at cycle culture. They seem to confuse road safety with individual safety, and believe that in order to be responsible they must promote the message that cycling requires extraordinary levels of ‘protection’.

Certainly visibility is key. And there may well be times when hi-viz is appropriate – on a busy main road in a rural area, perhaps. But is promoting a form of visibility that sends an instant message that a) the wearer is engaged in a dangerous occupation, b) they are trained for this dangerous occupation and therefore no extra care is required around them, and c) (adding insult to injury) they are low-class, really going to encourage people to ride for transport?

I very much doubt it, and it seems that overseas experience supports that view. Let me know how many times you count the highly successful Copenhagen Council promoting hi-viz in their Bicycle Account 2010.

Promoting cycling culture is essentially a marketing exercise. Any non-infrastructural effort to get people on bikes needs to be run through a basic checklist that asks what message the campaign sends.

Why public information marketing campaigns are held to a lower standard than that of any other product I have no idea. If you brought the content of these vids to any ad agency and said “Use these concepts to sell soft drink” they’d laugh in your face.

So let’s do what works. Let’s encourage our councils to run smart cycling-promotion campaigns based on proven advertising methodology. Let’s sexify bicycles.*

(I also note that Auckland Transport’s Safe Cycling page starts “On average, two cyclists are killed on Auckland’s roads each year”. This line is also the sample text provided in the dropdown menu under the Road Safety banner. Sorry Auckland Transport, but you’re not going to convince anyone to cycle with that attitude. That’s another brickbat.)

*With apologies to the original Sexify.

DISCLOSURE: I used to work for WCC. Not in any capacity related to bikes.


3 thoughts on “Cycle culture: can councils do it?

  1. atom

    The guy in the video needs all the safety gear he can get his hands on, because what he’s doing IS dangerous. Yup… Riding in the door-zone.

    Of the “two cyclists killed on Auckland’s roads each year” at least one of 2010’s fatalities (Jane Mary Bishop) was the result of being doored.

    This is especially ironic since the video opens with him saying “positioning is the most critical thing.” Indeed.


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