Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pimping up your city

In the art of marketing a city to its own inhabitants as well as to foreigners as a cycle-friendly environment, several approaches are possible. Yet, most will fall in either of two categories: minor league vs. major league style.

- The minor league approach

This video is an example that perfectly illustrates the points I am attempting to make.
Vancouver will be hosting the 2012 Velo-city Global conference. This video is a preview that debuted at the closing ceremonies of the 2011 Velo-city in Seville. It was produced under tight time constraints in a end of winter, beginning of spring context which may explain some of its shortcomings.
Still, it has all the elements of a minor league cycling approach.

In a minor league approach, unimportant elements will be prominently emphasized. In the video above, Vancouver's Olympic status is waxed on despite a complete lack of relevance to urban cycling. 

Gear will be thrust in the viewer's throat, if not verbally, at least visually. Helmets will be pushed like drugs, and safety-oriented contraptions will be displayed in very not-so-subtle fashion: high visibility vests, fluorescent apparel, protective gear etc.
This point is extremely important as the psychological impacts of such tactics run very deep in the collective psyche. The subliminal message behind this is that cycling is dangerous. Then it promotes the idea that a person's safety and physical integrity are an individual matter. Do not expect society or your city to be organised to ensure your protection because it won't. Don that armour and be afraid, very afraid... Should a car hit you, it was your fault. Everybody knows helmets and protective gear stop cars from running you over by creating an electro-magnetic field that repels motor vehicles.

Cycling will be portrayed as a tough-guy, sports kind of activity. In this video, the presenting host, Skip Swain, Norco's VP Sales, looks and sounds like a biking John Wayne avatar. The tone is dynamic is assertive. You see scenes of cycling along busy highways. You have the mandatory stop at the bike shop, i.e. cycling as also being about the mechanics, get-yer-hands dirty kind of attitude. Commuting is the biggie. There will be talks of showers and locker rooms at work, because you know, cycling is about sweating buckets and you necessarily have to arrive at work drenched in sweat. 
Untold psychological messages are that quality of life in such places is something for go-getters that one sweats to obtain. Not something casual, easy going, that everyone deserves for just being.

There will be no diversity in the people sampled. Only a few women, of the hard-ass type and mostly white break-ya-neck twenty something males or white mature hardcore men. Racial diversity will be minimal with no children or elder folks to be seen anywhere. 
Demographics will be terribly homogeneous which is a problem in the case of this video as Vancouver is a highly racially diversified city. What happened to the Asian community? Don't they bike as well? If yes where are they? If no, doesn't it tell loads about the "normalizing" of cycling in Vancouver, i.e. it is only a sub-cultural activity for whites only and has not yet reached mainstream status?

Unfortunately, this approach will only seduce those susceptible to identify themselves to this limited portrayal of cycling.
Which terribly sucks as Vancouver is actually a much grander cycling city than portrayed. I am convinced that none of these "mistakes" were intentional. They derive from a very pervasive take on cycling that is typical of North America. But with this approach, they ensure cycling rates will never improve beyond the residual sub-cultural groups already interested in cycling.
What you want is mainstream appeal.

- The major league approach

This second video is Seville's Velo-city 2011 Global conference promotional video.
Feel the difference.

In a major league approach, a woman does the talking or someone with a soft voice in a relaxed tone. No need to rush or hurry, there is plenty of time. 
The focus will be on the city itself as a liveable and safe environment. Quality of life is a given. It is being promoted. It is something the authorities will stand for in your name. Attacks on the car culture are clear and to the point: "cars are a thing of the past", "cars are the main polluters", there is no noodling around this, no talk of composing or compromising with the car culture. We fight it in your name! Trains and tramways are rubbed in your face.
Cycling is not just an individual choice, it is being pushed as public policy for everybody's benefit. Cycling will be presented as an integral part of a urban transportation cocktail of which bicycles are the centerpiece.
In that kind of approach, there will be talk of how laws and structures have been modified to ensure protection of citizens, whatever their transportation choice. You see loads of normally dressed folks cycling at a leisurely pace on nicely organized lanes. Women in flowing dresses, women in heels. Casual hats. People carrying groceries. Wicker baskets. Children casually accompanying their parents. Minimal helmets including on children.

You might also see folks strolling bare-feet by the beach or along marinas on cruisers. Bikes parked in front of terrasses and cafés whose owners are sipping expressos and caipirinhas. Folks cruising parks. Lovers of all kinds holding hands or piggy backing because it is safe to do so. Folks giving each other lifts. Racial and age diversity will be obvious as every community and every demographic will feel safe in joining in.
There is talk of culture as well as sports as these are major components of urban and fulfilling quality of life.

So, where do we stand in Montreal?
Montreal cyclists overwhelmingly are voting of a major league approach as they take over the city on their clunkers. However, our authorities and administration are still stuck in minor league scared as they are of God knows what...

A similar discussion already took place at the Urban Country which you can read here along with James' amazing analysis.

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