Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fashionista

Mikael Colville-Andersen (that's him at right) is a film-maker and the blog author over at Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. I heard him speak at the Washington DC Planning Commission last Wednesday night. Mikael is a good public speaker and a charming and funny guy, and he is promoting a provocative idea about urban cycling and cycling policy:

We could have all the benefits of Copenhagen cycling if we just, you know, dressed a little nicer on our bikes, if we just marketed bicycling as an activity by, um, looking more like a fashion plate.

Mikael cites a lot of statistics (if, for example, you go over to Copenhagenize, you can see a running total of bicycle miles ridden in Copenhagen up to the moment) and makes a number of frankly good points about the Copenhagen environment. He talks about all the bike infrastructure that's being implemented in Denmark, and he spends no small amount of time addressing the fact that cycling is so much a part of the Danish lifestyle that people who do urban cycling in Copenhagen don't think of themselves as "cyclists". To what does Mikael attribute this great example for the rest of the world? To the fact that the Danish cyclists dress well, with a sense of style, (and that the men wear suits). Mikael asserts that bicycling's lack of status (outside of Copenhagen and -maybe- Amsterdam) is due to the fact that we just don't dress well enough.

Mikael, excuse me for saying so, but I think you have your cause and effect either reversed or at best very muddled. Your fashion premise is a fiction. An amusing fiction, and one that we might all like to imagine ourselves in the midst of, but a fiction nonetheless.

I've been pretty tough on Mikael so far this post, (and I beat up on him a little in a previous post) but I will certainly concede that in his talk he does make some interesting and (mostly) valid points about the "values inversion" of the way that cars and automobiles are marketed:
  • Which is truly more "liberating", an auto or a bicycle?
  • Which is truly more dangerous, an auto or a bicycle?
  • Which is truly sexier, driving a car or riding a bike?
  • Should automobiles have warning labels like cigarettes?
and he does a nice historical exposition of bicycle posters, to show how bicycles and bicycling (as a tourist activity) have been marketed over the 20th century. These are valid, and I appreciate all this. And Mikael's "cycle chic" (thinly disguised girl-watching, but hey, I like this as much as the next guy) is supported in this article in Sci-Am about the incidence of female cyclists.

But the promulgation of "cycle chic" is just wrong as primary policy. Why do I say this? Two reasons. One, it's an effect, not a cause. And Two, because there are bicycling advocacy groups who will buy into it because it's easy. "All we have to do is increase our marketing budget and find some good-looking models, and our urban cycling problems will diminish!" Excuse me, but this is reductionist malarkey.

Over the past couple of years, I've spent enough time in Europe, in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, to see the truth about why urban cycling in these places is different from the US. The truth of it is, what make cycling work in Copenhagen (and Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Brussels, Stockholm and elsewhere) is the combination of two components:
  1. Motorists' near-universal respect for bicyclists*; and
  2. Bicyclists' near-universal respect for traffic laws.
These two complementary components, while not impossible to enable in the US, are, nonetheless, longer-term and messier than a simple marketing campaign. Making these two things happen in the US will involve "the three E's":
  • bicycle safety education (best if done in public schools from an early age);
  • enactment of laws that protect bicyclists in a reasonable way; and
  • consistent and fair enforcement of those laws.
Denmark has all these things, and that is why Copenhagen residents use bikes casually and don't need to think of themselves as cyclists. (Some of the readers of this blog have already commented on the Danes' observance of traffic laws.) And this has created the secure environment that allows them to 'dress up' when it suits them. Not the other way around.

Postscript: Am I guilty of taking Mikael too seriously when he is intending to be 100% ironic? Hm. It is a possibility. But if Mikael really wants to get the substantive good news out about Danish cycling, there is certainly a lot of it that he's bypassing. Consider this excellent report (PDF) from the English reports pages of the Danish Road Directorate. (It's from the year 2000, but is the most recent paper on this topic.) In a (partial) defense of Mikael's "marketing" position, there is this quote:
It is important to link soft policies (campaigns, instruction etc) with hard policies (infrastructure, taxation etc). The combination of hard and soft policies is necessary in order to achieve a big change in travel behaviour, both regarding transport mode choice and road safety.
Notice that the quote does mention "campaigns" but in the same breath talks about education as well as "hard policies". In fact, the report is such a good report and so well researched and balanced, and give such a good picture of the real policies that need implementing that it somewhat reinforces my picture of Mikael as being reductionist. And mind you, the source of this document is the Danish highway department. Consider how different the US would be if we had our highway departments actively researching and promoting cycling! As just one example, consider the chart below and the story it tells:
But hey, all of this doesn't mean I'm not a curmudgeon :)

*There are exceptions to this, especially in the UK which for some reason tracks the US more closely.

9 comments:

Brent said...

I've always taken the "cycle chic" movement as a re-imagining of the bicycle's role, rather than a simplistic means of promoting it. With the exception of the fixie-hipster phenomenon of the past few years, most U.S. cyclists, including those in L.A., where I live, use bicycles as exercise machines, and wear exercise clothes while riding them. I believe Colville-Anderson's broader point says that this limited view of a bicycle's purpose hurts its widespread adoption as a transportation device. Instead, he argues, people should use the bicycle in their daily lives, wearing their daily clothes. (The fact that Copenhagenites may be better dressed than their U.S. counterparts shouldn't get in the way of the central message.) And when more people use bicycles in their daily lives, our governments will have little choice but to provide better infrastructure for them.

Robert Anderson said...

Well said, Brent. I don't disagree with what you say, but my question remains, what provides the catalyst for people to get out of their cars and onto their bikes for (what we all agree) the large proportion of trips for which it's appropriate? Urban cyclists / cyclocommuters will remain embattled until they, and motorists, are educated as to the law, and the law is enforced. Integration of cycling into life in general is an effect of this basic "safety net", not a cause of it.

Velo Hobo said...

I think many people are too intimidated to even consider riding because of an unrealistic belief that to ride you must dress like a spandexed version of a superhero. Bananas sticking out of secret pockets, high-tech wrap around eyewear, unsightly bulge in the crotch area, aerodynamic Styrofoam hat. Many experienced cyclists have been sold on the idea that dressing this way is a necessity to get the most out of the riding experience because bicycle racers dress this way. My own style of cycling wear has evolved as my attitude about cycling has changed. I’m not saying there is not a time and place to wear more technical clothing for cycling, just that when we deck ourselves out in team jerseys to ride to the local coffee shop we are sending a message to potential cyclist.

Thanks, Jack

Mikael said...

I was actually at the lecture, too, and I remember it quite differently. Maybe because I wrote it and gave it, me being Mikael.

I don't understand how you attempt to put words in my mouth like this:

"We could have all the benefits of Copenhagen cycling if we just, you know, dressed a little nicer on our bikes, if we just marketed bicycling as an activity by, um, looking more like a fashion plate."

I'm assuming that's your interpretation. It reads as though that was what I said or meant. Which isn't the case.

Then it gets better: "to what does Mikael attribute this great example for the rest of the world? To the fact that the Danish cyclists dress well, with a sense of style, (and that the men wear suits). Mikael asserts that bicycling's lack of status (outside of Copenhagen and -maybe- Amsterdam) is due to the fact that we just don't dress well enough."

Complete nonsense. Are you sure you were at my lecture? I didn't actually read any further after this last bit. Kind of like watching the first 45 seconds of Fox News. You get the point, the tone, the direction and you don't need to continue. :-)

Mikael said...

okay, of course i finished reading it. didn'nt improve greatly. it sounds like my points were taken far too personally.

my wife and I were discussing today the mini blog storm from NYC to DC after my lecture series. It's all been positive, which is great.

If one individual out of the 500-600 people who heard the lectures missed the point, I can't really do much about it.

Robert Anderson said...

Mikael, certainly I "spun" your lecture, but I honestly believe I hit on virtually all the main points. You make a lot (deservedly) of how bicycling has been integrated into the Danish lifestyle, and I (like you) think that's great. But I -do- think you, um, under-explore the WHY of it.

The truth is, for a generation or more there has been a large amount of Danish policy directed at making Copenhagen (in particular) and Denmark (in general) bike-able, and I guess that deserves a little more (well, really, a lot more) exposition than you give it.

That's really my point. You certainly can agree or disagree (or "agree to disagree", as we say) but there's not any reason to get heated. I'd like to be on a panel with you and discuss these issues, as I honestly believe they deserve a fair airing.

Jett said...

Atlanta is electing a new mayor in November giving the city a chance to debate its policy options for transportation. We recently gathered the candidates at a transportation forum so we could gauge which candidate would be best suited for steering the city away from a dependence on the automobile. When asked if she rode a bike, one candidate responded she "doesn't do exercise". While the question tested her grasp of Atlanta's transportation issues, she was discussing her weekend leisure activities.

Before our policy makers can participate in the cycling discussion, they need to know there is a discussion about bicycles as transportation. Cycling needs to become an embedded part of the culture instead of something that needs to be explained every time the topic manages to come up.

Making cycling part of our culture is a diagnosis that seems to beg a prescription of education, but what sort of education? Although we can argue that education is a rational process, I think we need to recognize that culture is more about feel than rationality. On the other hand, training the emotions is education too.

There's a catch-22 working here. To get better policy, you need more awareness. To raise the awareness, you need more cyclists making more trips to more destinations. To get more cyclists and destinations, you need better policy. The causes and effects go in a "chicken vs. the egg" circle.

Alternately, you can simply show how much fun it is by getting out there, riding your bike, and sharing the experience with others. This lifts all the causes and effects and gives the catch-22 a chance to work where it would otherwise fail.

RidingPretty said...

Fashionista Reductionism via CCC, now that is something to ponder. While I am at odds with CCC quite often, I of course do think his take or spin if you will, regarding 'cycle chic' can offer some valuable insight into the female psyche. This is a key concept not to be brushed off lightly. There is too much momentum behind 'cycle chic' as evidenced by the proliferation of cycle chic bloggers, and the media attention given to this very topic.

And Yes, so VERY importantly at the heart and core of it ALL I do agree with your 3 E's.

Anonymous said...

All great comments. My wife loves to ride her bike to work but gets strange looks and comments from fellow employees... she rides to work in clothes that cost more than many of the cars on the road. Fashionista? Well yes and no... she grew up in Europe, believes that style is important and she despises the unattractive appearance of "work-out" clothes worn by American women. Especially ironic the women wearing these clothes are more than just overweight.

Many of my friends I've persuaded to take up cycling are still in the "lycra recreation" group and laugh at the idea that commuting can work. Brent said it perfectly: "CA's broader point says that this limited view of a bicycle's purpose hurts its widespread adoption as a transportation device." Exactly and looking good, feeling good are integral to success.
Jack