As we get ready to attend the annual Interbike trade show next week in Las Vegas, I am curious to see if the bicycle industry will finally get it.
The numbers are in: although cycling has experienced tramendous growth in the past decade, particularly in America's most bike-friendly cities, the percentage of Americans who bike is still staggeringly small. The growth has come primarily from middle-aged men, with participation by women, children and youth actually falling. At the same time, US bicycle sales stayed pretty steady (not to say "stagnant"), hovering at about six billion dollar mark since 2003.
It has always seemed obvious to me that in order to grow the cycling population (and the bicycle industry as a result), we need to attract great numbers of people who do not currently identify as cyclists. There is simply no other source of potential cyclists. What is less obvious is how exactly that should be done.
On the one hand, it is incredibly heartening to see the bike industry embracing bikes as transportation. On the other hand, I can't help thinking, that, with the exception of a few really forward-looking companies, bike commuting is being turned into one more trend. The video screens that once featured mud-spattered, tooth-baring mountain bikers have been replaced by images of guys in peg-legged jeans weaving through traffic with huge messenger bags on their backs, and sunny women with willow baskets full of groceries on their handlebars.
These things aren't bad in and of themselves. They do create an image of cyclists that is a bit more mainstream, and perhaps more acceptable as an urban presence. It's just that I think these are relatively shallow efforts. We don't want bike commuting to become fashionable, because fashions come and go. We want to evolve urban culture to embrace bike culture as its essential component.
At Rapid Transit Cycleshop, we have grown our business since we first opened in 1994 almost solely on our unwavering commitment to lifestyle cycling. So, if anyone in the bike industry is listening, I have a few suggestions on how to get more people on more bikes more often:
- Non-intimidating image and non-intimidating bike shops. Huge dollars are spent on products and marketing targeting the enthusiast cyclist, someone who is already deeply invested in the sport. I believe the industry, starting with top level executives at major bike companies, down to the corner bike shop, should devote greater attention to the NON-BIKER, or someone who has not been on a bike in many years. Don't berate their walmart bike. Don't bombard them with technical details. Don't overwhelm them with expensive accessories. Don't try to "convert" them. Listen to their questions and concerns, and show them how they can incorporate a modest, ordinary bike gradually into their lives. Don't translate their needs into dollars. Don't try to immediately turn them into a Customer. See if you can first win their trust.
- Let go of your current definition of what a cyclist is. A cyclist is any person riding any bike.
- Safer bike routes. The main reason more people don't ride more is fear of danger. Experienced bike commuters have
learned the skills necessary to maximize their safety in traffic. But,
like it or not, riding alongside speeding cars is intimidating to most
folks, and this makes getting around by bike out of the question for them.
Off-street bike trails, fully protected bike lanes, thoughtfully designed traffic signals, and
traffic-calming measures would make bike commuting safer, not to mention
more pleasant, for new and experienced riders alike.
Realistically, these measures can take a long time to implement. To get people biking sooner, get away from visions of messengers dodging buses and taxi cabs; or from the gruelling 20-mile commute. Be prepared to talk to potential customers about starting small, taking short trips, using alternative routes, quiet streets, and bike trails they may not be aware of. It helps if, as a shop representative, you ride these routes yourself and can offer first-hand tips, pros and cons, and have trail maps on hand.
- There is a fine line between fashion and self-expression. Don't sell bikes solely as a fashion statement, or you may only attract fashionable clients. In fact, I even question selling bikes for fitness, ecology, economy, or anything other than biking for it's own sake. It's not that I disagree with those ideals, but to a novice, they can seem judgmental. The last thing you want is to instill guilt in a new cyclist. You want them to celebrate and look forward to the occasions when they do ride, not feel bad about the times they don't.
- "Stuff" doesn't sell cycling. I think the industry should get away from the discussion of stuff: are
shifters X better than shifters Y? are straight handlebars better than
curved? is this geometry better than that? Who cares? Commuting is not about the the "stuff":
the bike, the parts, the accessories, the extras. Most of that stuff can
be changed, anyway. Commuting is a choice, and you can choose to
commute on just about any bike out there. Really.
- Showing what is possible. We celebrate the big events: winning the umpteenth Tour de France, riding across America or around the world, winning the Ididabike. Inspirational stories, but, for most of us, unattainable feats. If bike companies are looking for people to put in their ads, I can think of quite a few ordinary people who have incorporated bikes into their lives in ways that anyone can. Some of these people are older, they could even be your grandparents; many are young and healthy; some are battling an illness, or disability; some struggle with their weight; many live on very limited budgets; some have a very long way to get to work; some live in iffy neighborhoods; some have children to cart around; some have dogs; some ride every day; others ride when they can; some buy all new equipment; others recycle found objects. Put these people in your ads, and show what regular people can do in the course of ordinary days. These people are the most loyal customers, the biggest fans, the best representatives, and the most vocal advocates for the cycling industry. Pay attention to them.