Overestimate the role of emotion in selling cycling.

New Dawn

Choose the messenger wisely.

Facts and analysis are not enough. The public has to feel you are correct. The truth has to be sold as well as told. You have to capture the high ground with a brand that is more emotionally compelling than that of your opponents.

So says advertising entrepreneur, John Kearon.

Yes, overestimate the role of emotion and storytelling.

Yes, connect emotionally with a wide audience.

Yes, the roads are for everyone. And do ride your way. But take care to choose the messenger wisely.

And, do overestimate the task at hand. Behaviour is hard to shift.

In the mind of the public….

#vehicularism = unappealing

#wheeledpedestrianism = appealing

Hello? Don’t hang up.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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Submission to the ‘Safer Journeys for People who Cycle’ draft report.



Back in 2014 I made a submission to the ‘Safer Journeys for People who Cycle’ consultation. This blog post reflects what I tried to convey in my submission. It still represents my view on how I think we need to approach the task of getting more people using bicycles as a form of transport – equal measures of infrastructure, policy and marketing. How are we doing since then, I wonder?

I support the draft recommendations proposed by the Cycling Safety Panel and its desire to achieve a transport landscape that allows for the safe movement of people on bicycles. I am encouraged by the panel’s acknowledgement and understanding of the benefits that cycling brings and the barriers to making that happen, as detailed below:-

1. Participation in cycling and cycling safety are inextricably linked.
2. Increases in cycling participation will bring safety benefits to individuals and to the wider community alike.
3. Economic and societal benefits of investing in cycling are irrefutable.
4. Riding a bicycle is inherently safe and the prevention of crashes with motor vehicles is the issue that needs to be addressed.

However, I am concerned that the panel’s recommendations lack the necessary clarity and boldness. Without any clearly stated cycling mode share targets set, there is a risk that the reports recommendations will not achieve its stated goals.


In New Zealand’s current transport landscape, cyclists are catered for as though they are two-wheeled motor vehicles. This is problematic because cycling is more akin to walking than driving. If we are to be successful in encouraging more people to cycle, this reality needs to be addressed. In New Zealand we rely on campaigns such as ‘Share the road’ which suggest that all road users have equal responsibility to stay safe. Whereas the Dutch have set the standard for best practice in this area. It is called ‘Sustainable Safety‘. As the draft report acknowledges, riding a bicycle is inherently safe. It is being hit by a fast moving vehicle that makes it unsafe. The current environment is far from equal.

Quality infrastructure is the critical factor in creating a transport environment that encourages people to choose to ride a bicycle on a daily basis for transport purposes. This infrastructure comes in a variety of forms. The creation of  ‘mobility environments‘ has changed the way road transport is approached. Infrastructure is designed to cater for all road users. Safety is designed into the infrastructure.

A well designed transport/mobility environment:-

  • makes cycling irresistible,
  • is built for the 99% who aren’t cycling now but who could be cycling,
  • follows ‘desire lines’ and goes where people want to go,
  • recognises cyclists are just fast-moving pedestrians and does not try to treat them as cars,
  • has infrastructure that will take cyclists to common destinations such as jobs, shops, businesses and schools.


Creating a cyclised city will not happen in isolation. Transport policies that promote cars ahead of other forms of transport will make it less likely for people to choose to switch to riding a bicycle. The way a city is designed will impact on the rate of cycling uptake. Instead of encouraging sprawl, housing needs to be built around transport hubs and multi-modal transport needs to be encouraged and supported.

A well designed city is one in which people live in an environment that allows them to work and play in close proximity. It’s about reducing travel demand and creating opportunities for short journeys to be achieved by bicycle. Minimum car parking requirements need to be removed from city planning laws to enable this transition to alternative transport to happen.

Cities that have high rates of everyday cycling also have the following features in common:-

  • reduced speed limits,
  • well developed road behaviour social contracts,
  • freedom to choose to wear a bicycle helmet,
  • bike share programmes.


The ‘normalised’ culture of cycling that we need does not come about by accident. It comes about as a result of a range of deliberate strategic interventions. The need for quality infrastructure and supportive transport policies have already been mentioned. But there is also a role for high quality marketing that promotes the value of everyday cycling. The value of cycling needs to be ‘sold’ to the public in order to build the political will that is essential to encourage a shift away from our present car-centric transport policies towards socially and economically sustainable transport options.

The word ‘cycling’ needs to become synonymous with meaning ‘short trips in normal clothes on a comfortable bike for people between the age of 8-80, male or female’.

The dominant perception of cycling at the moment is that it is for sports and recreational purposes; for the fit, brave or foolhardy. That’s a massive barrier to overcome, if we are to get the 99% of people who aren’t cycling now, to consider giving cycling a go. Like issues of real safety are dealt with by building quality infrastructure, issues of perceived safety need to be taken seriously too and addressed by implementing quality marketing.

Currently, cycling promotion focuses on safety by making it look dangerous. It focuses on the wearing of helmets and hi-viz. This kind of scare mongering plays into the fears of non-cyclists by reinforcing their current misplaced beliefs. Even the word ‘cycling’ creates misconceptions. That is why you will see the phrase ‘wheeled pedestrian cycling’ or ‘riding a bicycle’ now being used instead.

The full implementation of the above key strategies of infrastructure, policy and marketing will be needed to bring about the success that the ‘Safer Journeys for People who Cycle’ report says that it desires. Underpinning this success will be a sufficient level of funding. A level of funding that reflects the value and contribution a city full of people on bicycles brings.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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Shifting perceptions: From cycling, to riding a bicycle.

Based on this guys attire, I figure he must be a construction worker.

Based on this guy’s attire, I figure he must be a construction worker.

Everyday I am reminded that a normalised version of cycling is a long way from being realised. I know this to be true because colleagues, friends and even members of my extended family still define me and refer to me as a ‘cyclist’ in a way they would refer to a Tour de France cyclist. For example, a colleague offered me some cycling shirts the other day. The stretchy, highly advertised ones that you wear with lycra shorts when riding fast on a bicycle that weighs less than 100 grams. He thought I would have a use for them. Because I’m a cyclist.

I also get, ‘where’s your hi-viz vest?’ Or, ‘are you doing the Taupo ride this year?’

If random people were asked to draw a picture or describe in words their version of a cyclist, I reckon the sports/recreational/vehicularist version would be the most common response.

My teaching colleagues talk in terms of cyclists being two-wheeled versions of motor vehicles. They teach children about cycle safety but ignore the fact that knowing how to secure a helmet correctly or how to do a hand signal on a school field will not slow down motorists or convince parents that riding a bicycle to school is a safe option.

There’s a rule of thumb in the teaching business that says when you are trying to modify a particular behaviour, you need to provide as many as ten positive statements before making a corrective statement. The positive statements help build up a strong relationship that then allows you to nudge the behaviour into the direction you want it go.

It’s this kind of thinking that needs to be applied to changing people’s perception of cycling. The public are the target that need to be nudged into seeing cycling as something that is a normal, everyday activity. Imagery and words matter.

Efforts at growing ‘everyday’ cycling seem directed at current cyclists and seem to assume that the non-cycling public are already aware that cycling is an easy and functional transport tool, well suited to short journeys. I say, assume nothing.

Presenting the general public with models and imagery of wheeled pedestrian style cycling will also have the impact of decreasing public resistance to the building of the necessary infrastructure like cycle ways, or introducing supportive transport policies like slowing traffic down.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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The trouble with cycling.

No cyclist here; just a person on a bicycle.

No cyclist here; just a person on a bicycle, on a bridge.

Roads are for everyone and road rules were made for all road users.

Then modern cities arrived and urban sprawl was born. And along with a house in the ‘burbs came the promise of fast and cheap car commutes and demands for affordable parking. So even though the road rules have remained the same, the urban landscape looks and operates very differently. Cars are the norm. They dominate our cities.

But things are changing. Although most of our politicians seem to have misplaced the memo, cars are not turning out to be the panacea that they were once intended to be. Increasingly, there is talk of – climate change, active transport, ‘urban density done-well’. Demands for alternatives to the long-haul car commute will continue to get louder. Happy people live close to where they work and play, apparently. We are starting to witness a ‘conflict’ of ideas. How do we want our cities of the future to be? Is the current model sustainable, resilient or desirable?

And it’s important to reiterate that it’s not actually all about the cycling or being anti-car even; it’s about making cities for people the top priority. And just because we can’t imagine our cities being fully functioning without the car being centre stage, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible or that changes shouldn’t be made. That’s why it’s so important to be taking inspiration and ideas from cities around the World that have already made the transition.

Within a context of cities being designed for cars and motoring being made so accessible and privileged, it’s easy to see how the bicycle has come to be the fall guy. Bicycles, as a transport form, don’t cut the mustard. In the current inCARnation of our cities, bicycles were never going to be able to (nor should they have been expected to) compete with cars or public transport over longer travel distances.

Some people have managed to make the switch from the car to the bicycle for their long distance commute. However, the failure of cycling to be seen as a serious transport option, is evidenced in the lack of people willing to take on this brave, but ultimately fear-inducing form of transport. At the same time, the role of the bicycle as the perfect tool for short, local trips (the wheeled pedestrian variety – e.g. from home to a nearby train or bus station) has been largely overlooked.

Bicycles exist in a kind of twilight zone.

So the road rules clearly state the expectation that bicycles are to be treated like two-wheeled motorists. They are entitled to claim the lane and must also follow all the road rules that motorists are obliged to follow.  But apart from the few brave souls already mentioned, the remainder of the population (if they choose to ride a bicycle for transport at all) is more likely to ride a bicycle at a slow, comfortable speed over much shorter distances. (Cycling to school comes to mind).

But in reality, cyclists are neither cars or pedestrians.  The road rules are also very clear in that people on bicycles are not allowed to be on the footpath. That is the domain of the pedestrian. It always amuses me how pedestrians and cyclists will fight it out for some scraps of space on the side of the road, while the motorist remains largely ignorant of the conflict going on on the periphery. (Full disclosure: I will always defer to the safety of slow riding on the footpath if my real or perceived safety feels compromised).

Cyclists as ‘outliers’.

So, while motorists rule the roost and pedestrians are accorded a modicum of space and respect (which may be due to the fact that all motorists are pedestrians – but not all motorists are cyclists), cyclists live in a parallel World. Unsure, uncategorised and not particularly welcomed anywhere. This phenomenon is witnessed daily – on the roads and in the media. Fortunately for us, the hard work in understanding this situation has been done for us.

Transport psychologist Dr Ian Walker says,

Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anti-conventional and possibly even infantile.

With cyclists being a readily identifiable minority group, this leads to the tendency of drivers to attribute behavior to personality or disposition, rather than a situation or environment. It’s called fundamental attribution error. The conversation goes like this,

A. “I just saw a cyclist go through a red light”.

B. “Yeah. Bloody cyclists! They always do that”.

The outlier status of cyclists means that drivers will tend to blame poor behaviour of some cyclists on all cyclists. Further to that, and speaking from personal experience, cyclists are more likely to be making (what is perceived to be) poor decisions or breaking the road rules in order to keep themselves safe. Because you have to remember, our cities have been built for cars, not people or people on bicycles. And according to the surveys, a healthy majority of people say they would ride a bicycle “if it was safe to do so”.

So while the research is unequivocal; cycling is a worthwhile activity and should be encouraged, there is still limited impetus to take it too seriously as a form of transport. We are still too conflicted. The car still dominates transport policies and budgets. Sprawl is still being provided as the solution to a housing shortage.

In the meanwhile, we continue to focus on training cyclists to stay safe around cars and encouraging obedience to the road rules. Back to Dr Ian Walker, on the issue of  “all cyclists should wear hi-viz” argument. (You know, the argument favoured by the New Zealand coroner).

…there are other reasons to be suspicious of high-visibility gear, not least that it transfers responsibility from the driver of the metal box that creates the danger to the victim of that danger.

Instead, we need to be,

  • seeking a consensus that supports prioritising the moving of people safely ahead of the moving of high car volumes.
  • designing our city streets and promoting transport policies that are people and bicycle friendly.
  • promoting cycling in a way that makes cyclists less an unpredictable “out group” and more an integral part of the urban transportation fabric.

Anything less is merely tinkering around the edges.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

Get involved via: Twitter, FacebookFlickr.

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