Note: Rebecca, the second of our new contributors, is in Beijing this summer on an internship with the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design.
If you look at any brochure, map, or cycling resource guide published by Portland transportation or advocacy organizations, you are likely to be underwhelmed at the images of cyclists they contain. That’s on purpose. In America, where 50 years of car culture characterized cycling as either a pastime for small children or an extreme sport requiring electrolyte-replacement goo and an $8K road bike, cycling advocates are making a conscious effort to assert cycling as a safe, normal and economical part of the Average Jane’s day-to-day routine. Part of that effort includes being selective about imagery – for example, choosing to portray a person in casual clothes using their bike to run a grocery errand as opposed to a person who falls more towards the Performance end of the spectrum.
This differs from what you see in Beijing, where cycling advocates stage expos that showcase luxury racing bikes alongside Ferrari dealerships and the Beijing City Government partners with UCI to present prestigious road races like the Tour of Beijing rather than “everyman” events like Sunday Parkways. As millions of Chinese embrace cars as the status symbol signifying their membership in the emerging middle class, bicycles are largely seen as a reminder of a lifestyle that they are eager to leave behind. By presenting bicycling as an elite sport or recreational pastime of the ultra-wealthy, advocates seek to distance cycling from the old stigma and re-frame it as something more desirable to the younger generations. Imagery that might seem exclusive or elitist to mainstream Portland may be more appreciated in a culture that takes great pride in its recent economic success. Likewise, promoting cycling as a cheap, commonplace way to get around Beijing probably wouldn’t inspire a lot of interest among its residents.
It’s one example that underscores an important point for local advocacy groups as they try to reach beyond the majority culture in Portland, as the Community Cycling Center noted in their CCC’s Understanding Barriers to Cycling (PDF) report. Recognizing the values of minority and immigrant communities should be considered as important as addressing more tangible barriers (such as a lack of safe bike storage space), because the imagery and messages used to strike a positive chord with one group of people may not resonate with another.