Carlton Reid gets a frosty reception from a group of travel planners when he suggest that you can’t sell cycling by being negative...

SPOKESMAN: Planning positively for the future of UK cycling

Recently I’ve given a couple of presentations. One was to a friendly crowd; the other was to sea of morose faces that, while not exactly hostile, included a few in the audience who gave me a hard time.

The friendly crowd was a cycle campaign group. Sixteen people turned up on a wet, dreary Friday night to listen to my bikey bon mots.

It was like talking to friends, a fireside chat rather than a formal presentation; it was real-life ‘social media’, a to-and-fro conversation. I had got the ball rolling by talking about how, to promote cycling, we need to stress the warm and fuzzy stuff, not dwell on safety stats, helmets, Lycra, city streets clogged with two-ton vehicles out to kill. I was gently chided for this by a couple of members of the group. They argued my happy-clappy image wasn’t reality. I was able to counter – loud murmurs from everybody else in the room helped – with the point that the car industry has sold its wares for ever and a day with just such jiggery-pokery. Empty roads. Sunshine. Beautiful people. (‘Nicole?’ ‘Papa?’). In effect, this is how the whole of marketing works. Sell the positives, ignore the negatives.

The second group I presented to was a bunch of travel planners. These folks are charged with getting people out of cars and on to buses, bikes and shanks’ ponies, but an awful lot of them, unwittingly, focus on the downsides of the alternatives to the car. I stressed a similar, warm-and-fuzzy message about cycling to this audience. On travel planning literature, I suggested, don’t picture cyclists wearing fluoro jackets, helmets and Lycra. That’s stressing that cycling is a niche transport option – tribal, wacky, open to ridicule. [Disclaimer: I wear this stuff].

Don’t suggest companies spend a small fortune on installing showers for cyclists. Keenies, commuting in from miles and miles away in bike clothing, might benefit from work-place sprucing-up facilities, but the every-day, short-hop commuter cyclist needs no such facilities. Such amenities are not provided to workers in Amsterdam or Copenhagen; it’s simply not necessary.

Boy, did I get some stick. Partly for dissing on showers, mostly for daring to suggest cycling is not overtly dangerous and should be normalised. Some of the travel planners told me afterwards they’d enjoyed my talk, and they would modify how they promoted cycling, stressing the positives rather than the barriers. The majority, I fear, will continue to promote cycling as a hair-shirt option, something for the brave and something for fine weather.

Those bike shops in contact with their local travel planners might want to pass on some positive urban lifestyle images. There are plenty available from suppliers. We need to sell cycling not with ‘safety’, but with emotionally uplifting images and messages.

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