Sunday, May 22, 2011

Does the Cycling Epiphany Hold Water?

Cycling Epiphany
Posts like this one claim that a simple bicycle ride through an urban landscape will do more to educate about urban ills/joys, and sell the joy of cycling better, than any other kind of communication. It contends the bicycle is "an instrument of experiential understanding" through which complex civic and environmental issues are graphically conveyed.

There is no question that the experience of cycling as serious transport is powerful stuff (see #1,3,4,5,6, and 8 of Why I Ride). It is also true that, like many things, actually trying something may be the best way to understand it's value and that cycling revolutionizes ones view of ones surroundings.

Back to Reality
However, it is still a massive challenge to get enough people in the saddle long enough to have that revelation.

Acquired Taste
I've been actively recruiting new cyclists for years but I can still count the converts from my personal life on one hand.

Even when you get new butts in the saddles, the first thing those butts do is complain that they are sore. It can take more than a couple rides for the epiphany to kick in.

Then, there's hair. For those who care, if the helmets don't ruin it, the wind does. That knocks out a surprising number of recruits.

And, heaven forbid it rains. Even avid cyclists complain about rain and/or don't ride in it. The cycling epiphany is quite definitely waterproof but this is not apparent even to many of the initiated (those folks need to see these photos of European cyclists in winter).

A prerequisite to the cycling epiphany seems to be a reintroduction to one's own body and  the physical world. That can happen at the same time but that is too much for some.

Feeling Threatened
Amongst all the recent hype about cycling are sobering articles like this: Expansion of Bike Lanes in City Brings Backlash. This article, and many like it, show that a formidable number of Americans are still far away from having a cycling epiphany even when the opportunity is right in front of them.

Gratification Guarantee
Like a lot of great experiences out there, most folks are skipping "experiential understanding" in favor of driving home to eat something tasty and watch TV. After a hard days work, most folks want guaranteed satisfaction not a mere chance at satisfaction through something new.

Perception Issues Persist
What's more, many Americans still assume most cyclists are simply people who can't drive, e.g. the poor, the drunk or the under age. At best, they see them as over-educated nerds naively trying to save the planet.

The entertainment media embellishes this. explains this in: "Dude, Where's Your Car?" Most movies still portray bicycles as emasculating. The "40 Year Old Virgin" is a classic example. This leaves many thinking cycling is not sexy at all. Car advertisements take it from there.

Perceptions are changing on their own in certain pockets of the U.S. And some celebrities like Katy Perry make cycling sexy by wearing their bicycles well. However, that's not putting enough butts in the saddles either.
Proven Motivators
Ironically, what compels many to start cycling are the nuts and bolts justifications downplayed by some. The FRONTLINE story "Poisoned Waters" describes this well. Although it is about the relationship between urban centers and water quality, it includes details about what swayed voters on green urban design and "livable streets". It wasn't new positive experiences or visions, it was known pain points like health, safety, and taxes.

This jibes with my personal experience. One recruited cyclist I know is a hardcore republican. The environmentalist arguments fell flat with her but after much of my nagging she tried cycling to work and found that, combined with CalTrain, the bike got her to work 20 minutes faster than the jam packed 101 freeway. After that, she was sold. She has since had the Cycling Epiphany alluded to earlier. This has led her to initiate trash cleanups of things she sees on her ride, etc.

All this makes it pretty clear, to me at least, that cycling cannot sell itself. And no single aspect of cycling is more compelling than any other. The experience of cycling is indeed profound but most people are surprisingly far from ready to appreciate it. Consequently, every catalyst must be leveraged. In fact, we need to find more of them if cycling is to become a serious mode of transport in North America.