Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bike Lane Bliss: The Rift

Bike Lane Bliss: The Great Rift

NOTE: This blog entry is the first of five straight days of blogging on bicycle advocacy, as I head to the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. This is my third trip to this most encouraging of events in American cycling.

BOSTON, Mass. (March 8, 2010) - Anybody who has ever laughed at Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” would have to chuckle over the locally vicious divide in our world of bicycle advocacy. This infighting is comically similar to the fratricidal hatred between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

This past week I discovered an online debate about my local advocacy group, MassBike, having the audacity to take a position to officially support the development of bike facilities and bicycle specific infrastructure.

I realize the reader is twisting up their heads like Nipper, the dog in the RCA ads. Seems kinda like the bleeding obvious stance for a bike advocacy group to take, right?

Wrong. And here is what frustrates so many truly enthusiastic cyclists about advocacy. People who may be lifelong commuters, bike industry leaders,

The world of bicycle advocacy divides into two basic camps: “Vehicular cyclists” and - if I may take the liberty of creating a label – “Infrastructure cyclists.”

This past week MassBike posted on its site a decision to stand on the “Infrastructure” side of the aisle. You can read it here: http://www.massbike.org/2010/02/26/massbike-believes-in-bicycle-infrastructure/

As innocuous as this statement reads, I found the venomous comments to be most revealing.

This rift is also why I developed this blog.

Let me give a broad overview of this rift. Vehicular cyclists argue that bikes should simply be part of the flow of vehicles on our roadways, subject to the same rules as automobiles, and deserving of the same rights. The Infrastructure cyclists argue that cyclists should ALSO have facilities – bike lanes, bike paths, bike boulevards – dedicated to cycling.

Look folks, right now just one percent of all trips in America are done by bike. To return to the Monty Python metaphor, I feel the real issue is with The Romans. We need to address how the 99 percent of the population perceives bicycling and stop quibbling.

I happen to believe that both sides are right and all of them are wrong. In my own 30-plus years of cycling, I’ve always subscribed to the basic tenant of the vehicular argument. What helps is that I raced for 20 years and have no trouble operating smoothly and safely within the mix of automobile traffic. I do not confine my riding to a prescribed lane, especially where that lane features the danger of doors, delivery trucks, and distracted pedestrians on their phones.

That said, I’m also a father of three and reside nearby a popular bike path, The Minuteman. I also commute daily through Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston where I routinely ride in designated bike lanes and see a growing number of beginner commuters employing those facilities. And these beginners include my older sister, who became an urban commuter well in to her 50s.

Overall, however, I believe the locus of most American bike advocacy is wrong. Not because they aren’t good people, or devoted cyclists, or smart. The vast majority of bike advocates are hard working folks doing a thankless and important job.

This does not mean I give up on them. I believe every cyclist should be involved in advocacy. I’m certainly not giving up on bike advocacy. I just want them to adjust their aim. I believe change is marketed more than it is legislated.

That said, I honestly believe that the best thing to do for American cycling would be to put many of our established bike advocates in charge of marketing automobiles.

I’m not joking. Having sat on a few boards and enjoyed a lot of advocacy discussions and meetings, I have come to believe that advocacy leaders would be well served to read a bit less NHTSA data and watch an occasional episode of Mad Men.

You see, I don’t believe we have a problem in engineering; I believe we have a problem in marketing.

One of the greatest mistakes of cycling advocacy may be its constant emphasis on safety. There’s a basic principle of marketing: safety equals fear. If you’re constantly discussing how to make your product safer, you’re constantly telling people that your product is dangerous. When Volvo introduced the three-point seatbelt in the early 1950s, Detroit car companies resisted that product’s introduction in American models. They were not concerned about cost; they did not discount their efficacy. But they did not wish to give the impression that their product was dangerous.

Any bike commuter who has ridden an office elevator can recite all the times people have questioned them about the safety of their enterprise. Then those same skeptics of cycling confidently march to the parking lot and partake in an exercise that kills more than 40,000 people each year in America.

They have been brainwashed to believe that cars are safe and bikes are dangerous.

But carmakers do not aim for the minds of the market, they aim for the heart. They use sex, status, speed, power, and convenience to sell their product. Only after Ralph Nader did they start to occasionally advertise the safety of their product, but were cautious to only show their product in clean labs with dummies inside sterile cockpits to convince customers these products were safe.

Those guys are brilliant. Here they have a product that is deadly, ruins the environment, destroys the quality of communities, economically cripples families, fosters an addiction to foreign oil, and spawns global warfare. And they have people lining up to buy more. If 40,000 people died in plane crashes every year, the entire fleet would be grounded.

Here is the bicycle, arguably the most perfect of all inventions. This product is environmentally benign, improves communities, is proven as means of weight loss, improves one’s sex life, saves households thousands of dollars, and requires no fossil fuels to operate. These guys have the fountain of youth to sell and all they can do is bicker about how to use the product correctly.

What’s the most important thing a cyclist can get to make a bike ride safer?

Reflective straps?
Body armor?

No. It’s another cyclist.

Even if it’s an incorrect cyclist, it’s another cyclist. Every cyclist carves out a little bit of the collective attention span on the roads to look out for cyclists. Multiply that by 100 and your entire traffic grid slows down and starts paying attention.

I believe in bike paths and bike lanes and boxes and such, not because they get us road share, but because they get us mind share. They’re constantly reinforcing the notion to pedestrians, motorists and cyclists that bikes are part of the transportation grid.

Are there mistakes in engineering? You betcha. In the development of highways for automobiles all sorts of mistakes were made – and some with tragic consequences – in the process of constantly improving the system.

But demand preceded supply. Nobody went out and advocated and engineered and constructed our Interstate highway system and THEN encouraged folks to drive. They built that amazing system – love it or hate it, the Interstate system is a spectacular achievement – because the cars and drivers had overwhelmed the existing system of roads.

My bike path, the Minuteman, provides a good example of how vehicular cyclists do not appreciate rules of marketing. When first constructed, this rail trail drew some concerns that cyclists would be exiled from roads. The motoring public, the argument went, would not tolerate cyclists riding along the parallel route, Massachusetts Avenue.

What happened, however, was a derivative of the gas station principle in marketing. We assume that the market is a given size and if there is a single gas station at a crossroads, the creation of a second gas station at that crossroads would split the market in halve. When in reality the original gas station sees an increase in their business.

The same held true with my bike path. The cycling traffic on Massachusetts Avenue actually increased, despite the fact that the Minuteman Bikeways saw traffic blossom to an amazing 10,000 users per day.

Are the users on that path a touch wobbly? Yes, but every cyclist is a work in progress. Today’s wobbly beginner is tomorrow’s hardened commuter.

One of the most amazing facts about cycling, borne out by a recent study of traffic safety in the Netherlands, is that as more people take to cycling the entire system becomes safer. And not only do more cyclist make it safer for more cycling, they make it safer for EVERYBODY, including motorists, pedestrians and transit users. That’s opposite of what putting more cars on the road creates, which is a more deadly system for every user.

And although I’m grouchy about the conduct of advocates, I’m deeply grateful to all of them for the hard work done over the past 30 years to get us a small degree of respect on the American roadways and trails.

By practice, I’m a vehicular cyclist. By preaching, I’m an infrastructure cyclist. By observing, however, I’m a marketing guy. We need to sell cycling as sexy, as fun, as healthy, as economical, as quick, as independent, as convenient.

But to date, cycling advocacy has been like an army – if you’ll pardon the military metaphor – operating strictly with infantry. I’m not saying we stop worrying about transportation policy and engineering. But we’re operating without any of the artillery of marketing and the cavalry of lobbying that the folks who built a car culture used to win.


  1. I'm not sure what to say other than, I agree. Very nicely written.

  2. A expensive marketing campaign forced on the public is more effective than the truth. It's unfortunate, but it's also been proven time and time again. Axe body spray generates more profits than the entire US bicycle industry*. Massbike should take a field trip to Madison Ave.


    *according to the voice in my head.

  3. They are still talking about the same stuff they were back during those meetings we went to 30 years ago and as far as I can see the only thing that has happened is bike trails and even with them, we have to share with walkers that feel that they deserve them more then cyclists. I will never forget having to deal with the headphone wearing roller blaider, skating backwards toward me on the Minuteman one afternoon. He told me to share the trail.
    Like the guy that opened the car door on Mass ave in Central Square. What a shame!
    Still to this day, crossing Speen Street in Natick by the Mall, Rounding the circle at Fresh Pond, descending into Boston from the Longfellow Bridge, and countless other hazards all around us have not been taken seriously as where we should be able to ride.
    We knew the answers to all the questions back in the 70's, all of us, But still we want a SUV and a parking space for it. What good does it do discussing it all over again. Are our kids going to make things right for the world as we thought we were going to do? I can hear that terrible furniture add guy,, I Doubt It!

    It comes to my mind, How many folks used public transportation, or rode to the Summit.
    You know Exactly what I'm talking about and it shows by what I just read above.
    Thank You.