Standing up for bikes: Four ideas from a Portland strategist

November 19, 2012

If Leslie Carlson has anything to say about it, “bike backlash” isn’t so bad. It’s only a problem if those of us who understand the advantages of bikes don’t know how to respond.

The Portland-based communications consultant says public skepticism about bike projects around the country is simply a sign that bikes have become part of the political back-and-forth — and she’s got a quiver full of interesting strategies for fighting back.

“That’s what democracy is for,” she says.

Carlson is a good-natured mercenary in the democratic roil. Her firm, Brink Communications, has specialized in environmental sustainability messaging for a list of public and private clients including the Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland Bureau of Transportation and the City of Eugene.

But though she doesn’t shrink from dispute, Carlson comes off as studious and pragmatic. Sustainability isn’t her religion; it’s her business. In an interview with the Green Lane Project, she was eager to share some suggestions for how bike believers around the country can roll up their sleeves and lash back against foolishly auto-centric public policy.

Don’t talk costs. Talk benefits.

Yes, yes, bike transportation is surprisingly cheap and efficient. But Carlson thinks it’s ineffective to endlessly try to explain this.

As Ronald Reagan put it: if you’re explaining, you’re losing. To win an argument, tell your own story.

“I don’t understand why with protected bike lanes we talk about the cost, and with streetcar and road improvements, we talk about the benefits,” says Carlson. “Why are we arguing their points? Why aren’t we arguing our points?”

Carlson thinks bike believers should build their public messages around specific examples of neighborhoods that were transformed for the better when humans took back the streets: “When people came out onto the sidewalks, then local businesses opened up.”

In cities where biking is already in bloom, those sort of anecdotes aren’t hard to come by.

“We have businesses here in Portland that literally take out parking spaces because they can get 19 bikes instead of two cars in front of their business,” Carlson noted.

But in a country where every city is scrambling to attract a world-class labor force, you don’t have to be in Portland, New York or San Francisco to see a clear business case for making biking better.

“People want to move to bike-friendly cities because of the quality of life,” said Carlson. “Cities where the young college-educated people are moving have bike infrastructure, because it increases livability.”

Steal tricks from Madison Avenue.

The private sector’s marketing pros are the masters of influencing human behavior. Carlson watches them for ideas that work.

One of the private-sector marketing concepts she’s been mulling lately: shelf-talkers — “tags that convey a message about that product at the time people are thinking about that product.” In the grocery store, little tags that detail the health benefits of a particular product can shape a product’s brand in ways that a glossy magazine campaign can’t.

That’s why Carlson has been thinking about ways to get “bikes are healthy” messaging into doctor’s offices.

The age of TED Talks and viral histograms has also convinced Carlson that more people should be using images to make arguments.

“Infographics, video, charts and graphs — I’m pushing everyone to not just communicate with words any more,” she said. “People’s attention spans are just much reduced.”

Tackle cars head on.

When bikes are under attack, talking up bikes isn’t the only way to go. Carlson doesn’t think bike believers should be above taking direct potshots at the problems that arise when cars are always top priority.

“Talk about the costs of cars, which we never talk about,” she said. “There have got to be ways in which cars decrease livability, if we had that data. — People who drive really fast past local businesses may be less likely to stop. Cars make it really hard to walk. There’s got to be ways we can frame that.”

It’s a fairly intuitive connection, she said: The fewer auto miles are driven, the more local money stays in town.

“Money spent on gasoline, on car parts, exits the local economy immediately,” she said. “Sometimes it exits the country. — Cars decrease the amount of money that families have to spend on the local economy.”

When bike infrastructure helps families live more cheaply, “lo and behold, the money gets spent on entertainment, on local restaurants, on local goods and services.”

The moms who rock the cargo bikes rule the road.

Carlson thinks the key to increasing bike use long-term is making bikes normal among a particularly influential demographic: parents.

Especially moms who have kids in tow.

Citing a 1999 study that showed how vehicle use among women shoots up after they give birth, Carlson — car-owner, cyclocross racer, mother of three — says no other demographic might be more influential in changing the number of cars on the road.

“If you can get women to haul their kids by bike — and protected bikeways are good for that — I think you will see exponential increase in bikes,” Carlson said.

First and last photos courtesy Carlson. Bike corral photo by Paul Kreuger. Grocery store photo by Let Ideas Compete. Gas pump photo by Rubin 110.

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