Image is (Not) Nothing

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.

7 responses to “Image is (Not) Nothing”

  1. Seems like there’s always a tension in marketing between appealing to people’s aspirations and appealing to their identifications. I’d love to hear a marketing professional discuss how to choose the right approach when trying to sell any sort of widget.

  2. Nice to hear from you Rebecca! Interesting take on Chinese transportation mythologies. I could see the same dynamic happening here for any number of immigrant groups: “I came to America to be rich. Bicycling reminds me of what poor people did in my old country. I want a powerful car and big house in the suburbs.”

    I don’t know if the advocacy community here in Portland has the capacity to run two separate “campaigns” with different messages:

    “Have fun, save money, get exercise, save the planet. Bike to work”


    “Bikes are an expensive plaything of the rich. If you had one, you could be like the rich”

    Should the government entities run such campaigns? Am I oversimplifying?

  3. Money rules the world, the entire world. If you have a lot of it you probably drive, if you don’t you might be more likely to ride a bike.

    It’s all about the money, just like everything else.

    Here in Portland the bike thing is part of a very sophisticated PR campaign basically pushed by the City of Portland. Portland is struggling to become ‘world class’ and part of the way they get people to come here is to have an ‘image’ and bicycles are probably the most important component of that image, even though its a tiny % of people that are actually using bikes. What is it 7%?

    Why does anybody promote anything? People can figure this stuff out themselves as far as I am concerned.

    As gas goes up and transit keeps getting worse more and more people will bike. Transit and gas prices are the main reason so many are biking now, not the PR campaign.

    • Al, please refrain from posting YouTube links without actually describing what the video is going to be. It wastes a lot of people’s time or they just won’t bother clicking. It won’t take you long to write a concise description. In this case “Unicycling Darth Vader” would have sufficed as a description, although the video itself is not relevant to the discussion.

  4. even though its a tiny % of people that are actually using bikes. What is it 7%?

    It’s way more than that Al, even in the Metro area. Don’t confuse “commuter share on any given weekday” with “people who own bikes and ride often and would like to have better infrastructure”.

    See this PSU working paper here for a breakdown of all the different types of cyclists and travel behaviors in the City of Portland as well as the region:
    (PDF format)

    One takeaway from the many stats in the paper:

    About 56% of Portland residents are interested in cycling more, but concerned about their safety. Another 15% are cycling with confidence.

    You have an “image” in your head that the whole bicycling thing is some kind of PR campaign waged by a tiny minority, when in fact a majority of Portland area households have an interest in improving and expanding cycling in various ways.

    • You have an “image” in your head that the whole bicycling thing is some kind of PR campaign waged by a tiny minority,

      ~~~>I think its real alright, but its real out of necessity is what I am saying.

      Al, please refrain from posting YouTube links without actually describing what the video is going to be.

      ~~~>Ok Bob, it was supposed to be funny but I keep forgetting that what is funny to me is not funny to most everyone else. Sorry ????

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