What car commercials can teach us about bicycles

How do you get more people to give up their cars and ride bikes?

Danish cycling advocate Andreas Rohl attended the Ontario Bike Summit last week, and as a representative of a city with quite a lot of bicycle usage, he had a few things to say on the subject. In the National Post, he said:

“I like to say we have no cyclists in Copenhagen. We have citizens who use bikes to get from A to B.”

And he told The Globe & Mail:

“I think the main thing is treating cycling as nothing special.”

The idea of the bicycle an instrument of pure practicality is a growing one. It comes up a lot on Copenhagenize and other urban cycling blogs. A bicycle, the argument goes, is merely a tool for getting from Point A to Point B, and anything else – equipment, type of bike, clothing – is entirely beside the point. We shouldn’t call people cyclists, because no one needs to be identified by their transportation tool. And while I can appreciate the logic and intent of this extreme utilitarianism, I am nagged by this thought: Have these people never seen a car commercial?

The car is, by far, the dominant mode of transportation in North America. And it’s not just because cars are useful, that they can get us from Point A to Point B while carrying X pounds of cargo and meeting Standard Y for fuel efficiency. No one needs a Porsche to get from A to B; they want one to get from A to B in a certain style, and also to drive around points J through P on weekends. You can similarly question the utility of SUVs, jeeps, and pickup trucks – these vehicles can be incredibly practical, but there’s no guarantee that any given driver needs that utility.

Volkswagen is probably one of the more practical automobile manufacturers. They have commercials that highlight the comfort, convenience, and practicality of their cars. But they also have commercials like this:

 

Driving Can Be Beautiful, the commercial tells us, and golly, they may be right. This isn’t about getting anywhere; it’s about driving around in a (conveniently empty) parking lot at night because it’s cool.

Volkswagen also provided something of a rebuttal to Rohl’s point about there being no such thing as “cyclists”, just people who use a bike to get from A to B:

 

Drivers Wanted. The very act of driving is exhilarating and enjoyable, even if you’re just getting from A to B. Because some people do, in fact, identify with their mode of transportation. This is why politicians get so much mileage out of War on the Car rhetoric – many people are so attached to their vehicle, they take any measure that’s not actively pro-auto to be a personal attack.

Meanwhile, Chevy teaches us that a car isn’t just a way of getting from A to B; it’s for spontaneous adventures, good times with friends, and freedom.

 

This is the big thing about cars: They’re as much cultural as they are practical, if not more so. Cars are ingrained in our lives: Learning to drive, buying your first car, buying your first new car, road trips, moving, family trips… A car can certainly get you from A to B, but the destination isn’t always the most important part of the journey.

But bikes can be exactly the same. I ride my bike to work and back, and it’s perfectly practical, but it’s also fun: I love speeding down hills, climbing up other hills, getting some excercise while I’m commuting, and having the freedom to quickly and easily adjust my route in the face of busy traffic or road work.

And no, I don’t strictly need my road bike for a half-hour commute to work – though it certainly helps with the hills – but it’s not merely a tool for getting from A to B; it’s also a substitute for a gym membership, and a toy for long, aimless rides on weekends and evenings. It’s fun and exercise and transportation all rolled into one.

I see some people riding mountain bikes in Toronto, and I think, why would you bother riding something like that in the city? The big, treaded tires just slow you down on pavement, and the shocks suck away your forward momentum. But maybe getting from A to B is merely part of that bike’s purpose, and the rider’s just waiting for a chance to bust loose on the trails of the Don Valley or Blue Mountain. Or maybe not; maybe the rider just thought that bike was cool, or somehow suited their own style.

If a bicycle was merely a tool for getting from point A to B, there’d be a handful of different bicycle designs. But every rider has his or her own style, every bike has its own purpose. Some really are just for getting from A to B – even if it’s not particularly suited for that purpose – while for other, A to B is merely an incidental use.

Car commercials also have something important to teach us about safety, and possibly about bicycle helmets. Helmets, some people argue, actually discourage cycling, as the perceived need for safety equipment suggests cycling is inherently unsafe. Mercedes Benz would disagree with that philosophy:

 

This car can get thrown around like a toy and smashed to bits, and the people inside will still be safe. Discussions of safety are not off-limits to car companies; they’re embraced. They aren’t afraid that customers will become afraid of driving; many commercials specifically remind people that unexpected things can happen while driving, and it’s best to be prepared. It’s fair to question how effective a helmet may be in preventing injury, but completely dismissing them because they suggest danger is absurd.

This is, perhaps, the normalization of cycling Rohl speaks of. People are accepting – often freakishly so – of the negative consequences of driving. Most automobile accidents don’t raise an eyebrow in the news unless the death toll is particularly high, or the casualties were all children. Few people think of how dangerous driving can be when buckling their seatbelt – it’s just something you do – even when car companies are reminding them of the many things that could smash into their car at any moment.

Driving a car, at the end of the day, is normal, though there’s no such thing as a normal car; it’s something people do without thinking about it too much. They’re aware, on some level, of the risks involved, and the sensible safety precautions that can be taken to mitigate them.

There’s some value in marketing bicycles as being simpler and easier than cars – they’re certainly cheaper, and often more convenient in many environments.  But painting them as purely utilitarian neglects the relationships people have with automobiles, and also undersells the joy and versatility of a bicycle. A bicycle that is meant solely to go from Point A to Point B will always be an afterthought next to the excitement, adventure, and fun offered by the automobile.