Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Time to tone down bike evangelism says communications pro

Posted by on March 7th, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Douglas Meyer recommends that bike
advocates tone down the rhetoric.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Some of the most important insights from the National Bike Summit (which wrapped up Thursday morning with a bike ride) came from an unexpected place. Douglas Meyer, a marketing and communications specialist with Bernuth & Williamson Consulting, shared research on Tuesday that delved into how bicycling is perceived by senior policymakers and Congressional staffers from both political parties. His findings underscore that the bike movement is evolving and its advocates must evolve along with it.

For years, advocates have fought for dedicated funding streams, they’ve asked for their “fair share,” they’ve evangelized the myriad virtues of bicycling to those who don’t “get it,” they’ve yearned for acceptance within mainstream culture and among policymakers, and they’ve proudly labeled themselves, “bicyclists.” According to Meyer’s research, that all needs to change. Many advocates also assume there’s widespread and entrenched opposition to bicycling on Capitol Hill. That mindset, says Meyer, is wrong.

“Advocates are being a little too evangelical. There’s a risk of bicycle promotion becoming the equivalent of selling snake oil.”
— Douglas Meyer

Meyer’s research, which was commissioned by the League of American Bicyclists, was based on 30 in-depth interviews and an online survey taken by advocates at the Summit. The insights he gleaned are invaluable and should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in bike advocacy.

A big takeaway from Meyer’s research (and the Summit overall) is that bicycling should no longer be considered a fringe activity. From the huge positive impact of bike-sharing and the proliferation of protected bikeways in U.S. cities; to US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood’s efforts to legitimize non-motorized transportation — the national profile of cycling has never been higher. That means advocates must shift their frame-of-reference.

“Bicycling advocates now have a seat at the table,” said Meyer during an interview on Wednesday, “So instead of convincing people that they need that seat, now they need to sit down and start working together on solutions.”

What about the supposed opposition to bicycling that many legislators have?

“I found that much of this opposition was much less about the ends and more about the means,” Meyer explained. “It wasn’t necessarily an opposition to bikes, the opposition is to larger issues like how government functions. People may be agnostic about bikes… It’s not to say that they’re avid supporters of cycling, but they weren’t avid opponents. They really just had questions about where the money comes from and who makes the decisions about where it goes.” The way Meyer sees it, those are the same questions being asked about a lot of issues, not just bicycling.

So get over it. “Bike advocates might be taking this all a bit too personally,” said Meyer.

Coverage from Washington D.C.
made possible by:

There’s a whole lot of passion in the bike movement. Maybe too much. Based on his interviews, Meyer thinks it might be time to tone things down a bit. “Advocates are being a little too evangelical,” is how he put it. “There’s so much good news about biking. We all know its many benefits; but that tends to backfire… There’s a risk of bicycle promotion becoming the equivalent of selling snake oil.”

On this note, Meyer shared a quote from one of his interviews:

“When someone who is not already a supporter of bicycling hears (from an advocate) how cycling is going to save the world, they simply don’t believe it.”

To help tone down this evangelism, Meyer recommends building alliances with unlikely suspects and working hand-in-hand with other modes to find solutions.

“‘One less car’ is the worst thing to say,” said Meyer. Or, in the words of one of his interviewees: “It can’t be about critical mass and kicking ass. It has to be about multi-modal, progressive, transportation options.”

lines in the sandlines in the sand

(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Another faux pas, according to Meyer, is any talk of demanding a “fair share” of funding. “Those words just don’t seem to resonate and they immediately brought up the question of, ‘Where does the revenue come from and how is it allocated?’ which leads to a sense that people who bike are not paying into the system.”

Meyer shared several anonymous quotes from interviewees about funding issues:

“Focusing on having a dedicated funding source marginalizes the issue*, rather than… (an) approach where you accommodate all the needs and let the money go to that.”

“Advocates need to recognize the pressures on the Federal budget, and instead of relying on the dedicated funding…focus on how to access…the money (that is there).”

“One of my concerns is how the bike community is always arguing about ‘getting their fair share of funds.’ Everyone in transportation is always kvetching about not getting their fair share, and it is annoying…It shouldn’t be about parity but about results.”

Another part of Meyer’s research that is worth noting, is his call to stop using labels like “cyclist” or “bicyclist.” “I know ‘cyclist’ is part of your identity,” said Myer, “But I heard some pretty strong words about toning that down a bit. There are a lot of other people out there who might want to ride their bikes but they don’t want to call themselves cyclists.”

Resist these labels, warned Meyer. “Be inwardly bike-centric, but outwardly multi-modal and mainstream.”

I was very pleased to see these ideas being shared at the Summit. I haven’t written or said the words “cyclist” or “bicyclist” (or “motorist” or “pedestrian” for that matter) on this site for years. I’ve also long thought the continued advocacy for dedicated, set-aside funding streams is a losing strategy. It’s also worth noting that these findings are somewhat inconvenient for the League. There newly unveiled mission statement reads in part, “We are bicyclists” they’ve had entire campaigns devoted to a “fair share” for safety.

If you love bicycling and want to persuade others to feel the same way, Meyer’s report is full of great information on how to communicate effectively. Download it via the League’s blog (PDF).

More coverage from the National Bike Summit here.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

125
Leave a Reply

avatar
37 Comment threads
88 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
52 Comment authors
ZGNWDaveJohn BrookingchuckleheadBill Walters Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
CaptainKarma
Guest
CaptainKarma

wait, who is the dog and who is the tail?

Case
Guest
Case

Hitting the nail on the head. Every movement had zealots and there are scores of examples of what happens to the ones when the zealots are able to take the reins.

Paul Manson
Guest
Paul Manson

This really struck me, because I’ve thought its a path forward:

“Everyone in transportation is always kvetching about not getting their fair share, and it is annoying…It shouldn’t be about parity but about results.”

But the challenge is how to get at those results. In an environment dominated by traffic data on cars and freight, and travel demand models based on cars – its hard to make the case. I think if there was a way to show changes from bikes, in engineer-speak, it would help. But I won’t hold my breath….

Doug G.
Guest

Fantastic analysis and findings. I’ve long thought that the “One Less Car” shirts that so many advocacy organizations give out or sell to their members do more harm than good. For starters, I don’t believe that car owners want to be confronted with the idea that they’re making a bad choice, largely because they may feel as if they don’t have any other choice but to drive. (And many of them legitimately may not.)

The other issue with such messages is that in places where bike commuting is growing in the U.S., people who bike to work aren’t seen as people who replace car commuters. Even as an “avid” bike commuter, when I see someone wearing a “One Less Car” shirt I think, “Oh really? Because I’m pretty sure if you live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan if you weren’t biking to work you’d be taking the subway.’

And ceasing to use labels such as “cyclist” or “bicyclist” is huge. “People on bikes” seems to be better.

Really great stuff.

Top Scientist
Guest
Top Scientist

This is BS. Keep pushing for a bicycle filled world! I was waiting for the part you refute his rhetoric, but it never came.

Ross Williams
Guest
Ross Williams

This is a marketing strategy for lobbyists. It is directed at decision makers and funding. But that is not the only, or the most important, aspect of the cycling movement. What has got the lobbyists their “place at the table” is in large part the fact that more and more people are riding bikes and identify themselves as cyclists. It is that growing movement that has made bicycling mainstream. It would be a mistake to abandon strategies that build that growing movement in order to win short term political victories.

That is not to say he isn’t correct in terms of the messages for elected officials and decision makers. But it would be a mistake to adopt those as the primary message for those who want to promote bicycling. Building the movement is a lot more important than winning a few dollars for bike projects. And the messages that win people over to cycling are by definition, “evangelical.”

Lyle
Guest
Lyle

I’d like to see a freedom/choice type of discussion. In too many parts of the US, there is little or no choice when it comes to transport options, but in many of those places, freedom is a battle cry.

are
Guest

the actual study, to which you have provided a link, was a comparison of perceptions of “advocates” at the summit and federal “policy makers,” apparently staff for several legislators and at DOT. the focus was on the constant [alleged] clamor from “advocates” for a piece of the federal pie. the takeway was the federal pie has already been sliced, go local to find your piece [or crumbs, if that is how you want to see things], and quit whining. since whining for a piece of the federal pie has been the raison d’etre for the summit for at least ten years [one of the “policy” respondents even said, “oh, it’s the bike summit people again”], i cannot think this report was welcomed by tim blumenthal or andy clarke.

pixelgate
Guest
pixelgate

Some great points. The marijuana industry is going through the exact same growth where people realize, like bicycling, it’s a mainstream issue and cannot be approached in the same way as it was 10 or even 5 years ago. The conversation is changing, and when you just banter out the same thing over and over people tune out. No matter how right you may think you are, how you speak is just as important as what you speak.

ws
Guest
ws

Personally, I think bicyclists need to clamor for taxes on bike activity that helps pay for new bike infrastructure. It doesn’t need to be onerous, but having a share in paying for the infrastructure would heal a lot of problems in town regarding entitlement. People won’t write as many angry emails about new bike lanes when they see a pot hole.

People can’t keep saying they own a car and therefor they don’t need to pay for bike improvements. That completely ignores the funding issues of transportation (much like car drivers saying they pay for roads 100%, when that is not true given the funding problems of the Highway Trust Fund, etc).

Come to the table with reasonableness and fairness, and the “us vs. them” mentality will be bridged a lot.

Another one to explore: mandatory law of having to ride a bike with a a helmet, regardless of age.

I support that as a positive health/safety impact, but what if the bike community got together and decided they wanted to spur legislation to regulate their own activity? That would be a good gesture. If you have to wear a seat belt in car, you sure as hell should have to wear a helmet.

Be an advocate, but be an objective advocate.

Ted Buehler
Guest

I love evangelizing, but always get a bit disappointed when folks’s eyes glaze over. So, I have to reluctantly agree that these are good points…

Ted Buehler

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

A shift is indeed needed.

The problem is that we are stuck on a path (motorist dominated) and this is hard to change.

When the average person sees cyclists as outsiders, they are not going to support spending money on cycling infrastructure. We need to show that cycling (and pedestrian) infrastructure benefits everyone and makes cities much nicer to live in than motorist dominated cities. We need to show that cycling (and mixed mode) can be much more convenient and enjoyable than being stuck in traffic.

The economics is clear cut – cars are a drain on the economy, but cycling is a net positive (so incentives to cycle make much more sense than taxing cyclists).

chrismealy
Guest
chrismealy

Douglas Meyer isn’t in the changing the world business, he’s in the consulting business. What’s good for him isn’t what’s good for everybody else.

chrismealy
Guest
chrismealy

This is the message in his PDF: “Keeping cars safe from bikes”. WTF?!

He’s basically telling people to act powerless and hope for the best. Why bother? Who’s paying this creep?

bendite
Guest
bendite

Now what do we do with our “cars-r-coffins” t-shirts?

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

The word ‘evangelism’ suggests religion, something that often jeopardizes rational thought.

Passion is good if it’s effectively directed to accomplish desired objectives. I think it’s true that biking advocacy may have allowed itself to be characterized too much by a kind of ‘biking is going to save the world’ evangelism, rather than practical, nuts and bolts strategies for getting things done.

Al from PA
Guest
Al from PA

The important thing is to just shut up, sit down, and wait for things to… go back to the way they were in the 50s–when all the bike advocates (all 3 of them) were blissfully silent.

DK
Guest
DK

“Be inwardly bike-centric, but outwardly multi-modal and mainstream.”

Exactly! Vote, advocate, contribute, and chill out a bit. It’s the “honey/vinegar/fly” thing. If you don’t get it, you’re not helping.

9watts
Guest
9watts

“If you don’t get it, you’re not helping.”

Oh please!
why is this phrased so monotheistically, so all-or-nothing? I’d like to think that everyone’s take is welcome, from Ben Hurt Chariot Wars to BTA’s legislative advocacy. Just because I think one is a little over the top and the other sometimes lacking conviction doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t have the full panorama.

I think that is also what makes bikeportland so fantastic – it encompasses and documents and reinforces the astonishingly vibrant spectrum.

Tom
Guest
Tom

“There’s a risk of bicycle promotion becoming the equivalent of selling snake oil.”
gimme a break. This guy is a paid consultant who will take the side of whoever is paying him

“Look at our services to learn more about how institutions have engaged us to help them thrive in today’s rapidly changing nonprofit landscape, or take a look at our client list.”

http://www.bernuthconsulting.com/

Mabsf
Guest
Mabsf

I was at the summit and heard Meyer speak. You have to understand that the people at the summit were getting ready to lobby…aka talking to people outside the Portland bubble, even outside the bike culture. To communicate effectively you need a good baseline with the person you communicate with… Meyer provided that I think.
I took away that if I shift some terms in my communication, I will be able to get different funding sources and have people who are not pro-bike get it… Nothing wrong about that… It’s spin.

Bernie
Guest

The problem with a lot of advocacy is that it tends to focus on the immediate and measureable. And because so many decisions come down to the cost element a lot of the shouting is going to be to the wind.

Where I believe advocates would be much more successful is in taking a longer-term view in fighting for legislation that will require town planners to include bicycle lanes for those wishing to cycle, and for the inclusion of cyclining lanes wherever traffic levels and width of road allow for it. These are relatively low-cost measures which can presumably be introduced without breaking the bank. But then as a UK resident it is not really my place to comment on USA issues.

Ross Williams
Guest
Ross Williams

“You have to understand that the people at the summit were getting ready to lobby”

The problem here is that some people have taken advice for messages targeted at one audience and applied them generally:

“Yes! I’ve always thought “One Less Car” shirts/stickers only polarize the issue ”

Shirts and bumper stickers aren’t messages directed at elected officials. But this kind of advice can easily be misapplied to support pre-conceived preferences.

There is nothing wrong with developing a message with the right spin for a particular audience. But there is a danger when people start to apply that spin helter-skelter to other audiences.

“‘One less car’ is the worst thing to say,” said Meyer. Or, in the words of one of his interviewees: “It can’t be about critical mass and kicking ass. It has to be about multi-modal, progressive, transportation options.”

That is true when walking through the capital. It is not clear it is true when trying to strengthen the bike culture out on the street. “mutli-modal progressive transportation options” is just jargon. It almost begs to be satirized. Most cyclists aren’t policy wonks. We just want to make biking easier and more fun. We want more people to share in that experience because that makes it easier for everyone, including ourselves.

By all means, train people who are meeting with legislators to deliver messages that work. But make it clear that those are not necessarily messages that will work with other audiences or for other purposes.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

I am not afraid to admit to being anti-car.

From the perspective of quality of life, safety health, or the environment, there is nothing good about our addiction to single occupancy motor vehicles. Moreover, I view “advocates” who are willing to kiss the @#$es of bought politicians for a few crumbs of transportation funding with hostility. Many bike “advocates” will moon on about infrastructure but are completely unwilling to admit that the Dutch pedestrian and cycling renaissance did not come about by being nice to SOV motorists. Dutch protests made critical mass look like an informal pub run. Until pedestrians and cyclists are willing to ACTIVELY challenge the dominance of the SOV, the type of lobbying Jonathan described is (IMO) tilting at windmills.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Echoing others, maybe that’s good inside-the-Beltway advice, but out here in the real world I’m going to continue calling myself a bicyclist, I’m still going to keep pushing for facilities that work for cyclists, and I’m going to keep pushing the little-understood message facilities money spent on bicycling facilities SAVES money on other transportation facilities.

And I’m going to keep doing this as long as we have car-dominated intersections that are dangerous for bikes. As long as we have bike routes that disappear and reappear without warning, or aren’t signed well enough to follow without a map. As long as cyclists encounter the occasional motorist yelling “get off my f**** road!” (actual quote I heard a few years ago). As long as non-cyclists still think cyclists are in the way and getting “free ride”, when in fact we’re freeing up space and resources for them. In short, as long as we’re a car-dominated country.

My desire to reduce the dominance of the car does NOT make me anti-car. Just as my desire to have the poor and middle class share in some of the productivity gains of the past 30 years does NOT make me anti-capitalist. Just as my desire to have the bill of rights apply only to humans and not corporations does NOT make me anti-corporation. It’s about balance, not being “anti” something.

Richard Masoner
Guest

Can we consider the typical rhetoric of a another special interest which happens to have fabulously good results in their lobby? Do you consider these statements divisive and evangelistic?

* Obama’s favorite vegetable: James Brady
* Gun control means using BOTH hands.
* Dial 911 and die.
* Waco was another Indian village.
* Win the war on crime, arm the victims.
* I fired a warning shot, into his chest.
* We’re not hunting ducks, we’re hunting tyrants.
* Traveling unarmed is like boating without a life jacket.
* Gun control is people control.

jd
Guest
jd

I find myself doing a stealthier evangelism these days. I find, as Meyer says, that most people here like the idea of biking. If you listen to them when they talk about what keeps them from riding or riding to work, you can offer suggestions from your own knowledge and experience.

But I fully support our zealots, our maniacs riding up 39th in the dark, as well. Both approaches are helpful.

Car-o-terrorism
Guest
Car-o-terrorism

Driving kills more Americans than anything else.
Americans fear car death more than anything else.
Terrorism is defined as causing fear.
Therefore, cars = terrorism.
LOL? Well, then why do so many moms fear letting their kids walk or ride their bikes to school?
The real question is why aren’t bike advocates running hard hitting commercials with grieving moms asking, “Why didn’t Congressman Carthunkie want my child to be safe?”

I wish this consultant worked for the NRA, then maybe we wouldn’t have people machine gunning 1st graders. The tiny minority of gun extremists in the US hasn’t shaped US safety policy for a generation by acting more mainstream. There’s a lesson there.
It’s past time to get tough. How about a PAC funding attack adds with weeping victims from our unsafe roads? “Congressman Carwhacker voted for freeway pork over my child’s safety.” Fade from a picture of a laughing Rep. Carwhacker to a child cyclist torn and tangled in the road.
How about going after the state and federal gas tax? That’s something with broad populist and conservative appeal. If the money is just all going to make transportation unsafe and wasteful, like the CRC, get rid of it. That will get ODOT’s and Democrats attention.
How about fighting government waste? Freeways waste billions to move the same number of people that a few thousand dollars in bike projects could move.
How about a bikes versus big government argument? It’s hard to imagine a bigger government project than the CRC.
How about horse-tradding Machabikenelian tactics. Hey, if you want us to stop gathering signatures to lower the gas tax, we want this bike project.
How about describing “bike projects” as what they really are– freeway mitigation measures. ie, If that lethal river of cars you built wasn’t splitting our community down the middle, now, we wouldn’t need that bike bridge, would we?

velo
Guest
velo

Crafting the form of your message to the needs of person you are trying to reach, not just what you want to hear, makes perfect sense. It’s basic political messaging, but it’s surprisingly hard at times.

Gay marriage is a perfect example of this. People who already support same sex marriage think about the issue in terms of basic equality and civil rights. People who are on the fence aren’t persuaded by those arguments, and they certainly aren’t persuade by talk of rights and benefits. Reframing the external message to focus on making the issues about real people, love, and commitment vs. abstract political theory has worked very well. Just an example of how you can both tailor your message to your audience while making remarkable progress on an issue.

I think the takeaway from this is that as a cyclist we think about bikes differently than the people who we can move into our corner. What appeals to us, and might appeal to them after they are sold on bikes, isn’t what will get them to the point of being sold on bikes.

Richard Masoner
Guest

Who was the state legislator who was seriously offended about five years ago when a bike advocate showed the cover of Bill Maher’s “When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden” book? I seem to recall an upper Midwest state like Minnesota, but this representative seriously went off on the poor bike advocate, completely thunderstruck with the suggestion that her righteous self could possibly be aiding the terrorists as she drove her children in her SUV to keep them safe.

Dan
Guest
Dan

Hmm, or if we changed the interest group here, we might say something like “Don’t be militantly out, just be pro-gay-rights on the inside but look mainstream on the outside.”

Not to get too dramatic, but we’re being occupied by an army of motorists who cause tens of thousands of deaths a year, backed by billionaire oil firms and their slick lobbying firms, and the received wisdom is “shut up, be nice, and don’t piss off the powers that be.” Um…well, you take your approach and I will take mine.

J.M. Jones
Guest
J.M. Jones

What I took from this article was someone from INSIDE the system was letting us know how things work. How to achieve a common goal.
Advocates are those advocate for a goal(or whatever). Radicals tend to pursue being radical. Working at being radical and asking for mainstream changes seems to be at odds with itself. I was a student of the 60’s and I know well what being a radical or zealot involves (besides having good, solid goals) in the political process. We tend to end up fighting instead of making changes.
Remember “Occupy Portland”? The goals were good, quite good. I too wanted answers, but they never came. I always felt the method was lacking (sic). Standing on the street corner screaming at passers-by that they all are going to hell draws attention to an issue, but few converts.
Perhaps a good question might be: Are some wanting to make a change for the good, or are they wanting to make their change for the good? There is a difference.

tnash
Guest
tnash

I think the point is, is biking a hobby, a lifestyle, a passion, or a way to get from A to B

Ross Williams
Guest
Ross Williams

“Everyone benefits from education. Not all people benefit from the car, and likewise, not everyone benefits from bikes.”

The problem with “user fees” is that this is not true. Everyone does benefit from motorized vehicles and everyone does benefit from bikes. And everyone benefits from transit. “Users” only get some portion of the benefits.

The problem of assigning costs is less difficult than figuring out how to assign benefits. You can easily make the argument that bike lanes and sidewalks primarily benefit motorists by keeping those users out of the public right of way. I guess the alternative would be to provide tunnels for motor traffic and let the “users” pay for them.

Jeremy
Guest

Whether to dilute our message has been a topic of much debate for decades. Either way, we live in a society of car evangelists, where our critiques of the system and demand for fairness and equity are viewed as bike evangelism. The fact remains that we are paying a lot in time, money and lives for a broken system, so when we talk about equity, it’s not fair to say that argument is old and tired.

chucklehead
Guest
chucklehead

“Bike advocates might be taking this all a bit too personally,”

And that is because cyclists view themselves as a persecuted class of people, much like evangelical christians or tea partiers.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Beth
It seems the larger point here is a sense of social contract, which seems to have gone out the window on many dies of the argument.
The fact is that, until we find a way to:
— make it affordable for everyone to live closer to where they work,
— make all jobs pay a true living wage, AND
— shut down the HIDDEN costs of driving (which are subsidized to promote more driving, folks!)
THEN we can begin to have a meaningful argument about promoting more biking, walking and transit use and less driving.
But right now, we’re not doing the work needed to make all of these things happen. So too many folks still need cars to get everywhere they need to go. Those of us who have managed to fashion our lives within such a small circle of travel are the truly privileged ones right now, and to deny that is to deny our power in helping to bring about real change.
Let the bike summit people bang their heads against the wall if it makes them feel better to keep begging for the same things.
Instead, we should be working on systemic change that redistributes some of the wealth and a lot of the opportunity in this society so that more people can afford to live so simply, so deliberately and so locally.
Recommended 3

Beth, your ideas are the right ones–alt. trans needs to be backed up by:
Hard controls on the value of real property to keep a lid on housing costs
Reforms of labor law–it should be a felony to fire an employee for time-related reasons, and likewise to hold appearance standards for employment
Bust our post-WWII zoning which forces car trips by separating residences and services/places of employment
Remove motor vehicle operators from the protections of the US Consititution and Bill of Rights–if you drive, it should be in a climate of fear of police.
We have to talk about the “hard” as well as the “soft” solutions to our indefensible transportation and energy policies.