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Crisis politics, marketing, and the Tipping Point

April 28, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy, Finances, Uncategorized

Courtney Dudley /AMERICAN-STATESMANI’ve previously mentioned the phrase “Now is the time” to emphasize my impression that we could possibly achieve a whole lot very quickly if we really went after things, as opposed to just sitting back and taking advantage of current economic conditions-namely, rising gas prices.

This post is a short thought to drive that point home and perhaps make it a bit more concrete.  :)   Many of us already do all that we can. Still, I think this is an important point to make.

Let me get to it.

The short version:

A little bit more work right now can save us a lot of work later.


A little bit more work right now could possibly turn the tide. It could it could help move us up to and over the tipping point (book), because right now, at this moment in time, the tipping point is closer than it’s ever been before-and it’s a temporary condition.

Certain political ideas (possibly with some roots in military and humanitarian affairs?) that have attained particular prominence over the past few years can be lumped under the banner of “crisis politics”. The key theme of these ideas is that when people are in a state of crisis, they just want a solution that works. It doesn’t have to be a good long-term solution; it has only to be a solution that is good enough to get them and their families to tomorrow.

People in the U.S. are not starving or anything (yet), yet they’re having to make cuts to all their discretionary spending. And rice rationing is already occurring at large retailers. People aren’t quite panicked yet, but there are folks who are looking around, thinking, “What is going on?” The article linked above states, “people will not give up their cars,” but they leave out the context for that assertion, which is that “riding a bicycle in most parts of America can be very daunting for the uninitiated.” We need to let people know that this situation can change very quickly.

I think someone (one of the national bicycle coalitions?) should put together a quick marketing campaign that we can implement on the local level. We need to have smart, soundbite-ish answers for helping transition people out of their cars and onto their bikes. We need to do a much better job of talking up the real economic benefits of dropping your car. We can go after two-car families first, and we can appeal to what people hate most: dropping $40 or more at the gas station every week. We need to get people’s attention and say this:

We know things are rough. And we think we can help. Really. You see, you probably think it’s only those people in spandex and teenage kids who ride bikes, but it’s not. More people are riding bikes every day. They ride their bikes to work, to school, to the grocery store, wherever. And check this out. Go buy a bike and ride it to work one day a week; each Friday, give your car the day off. (It’s usually a dress-down day, anyway. You’ll love it.) Do that for six months, and the bike and any gear you got with it have paid for themselves! And you just lost that ten pounds you’ve been trying to get rid of forever. Trust me. It will be the best decision of your life.

We should all tighten up our marketing message and when the media outlets come calling, we’ll be prepared. I’m afraid that we’ll be talking about global warming when most people will want to be reassured about the safety of riding their bike. Or that we’ll be talking about how evil cars are instead of how much money it’s possible to save by riding your bike. (And it’d be nice if we could put concrete figures and calculations to our claims and open them up for scrutiny). We need to have our 10-second, 30-second, and 2-minute elevator pitches ready. And we need to be consistent. What I’m arguing for is a bit of media savvy. I think it can make a big difference to any campaign.

An Austin area church did some marketing Sunday morning when it held church outside and guaranteed a price of $2.49 per gallon of gas at a local gas station. Pretty cool stuff. I’m not suggesting that us cyclists have the money to do something like that, but could we not be as creative? Could we band together and come up with a contest to convert one or three drivers to cyclists by, say, providing them with fully-equipped commuter bikes (rack, lights, etc.), a training class, a discounted car sharing membership, a bikepooling buddy for their first two months, and finding them a good, safe route from their home to their work? I think we could do it, and we could do it well. We’d have to be careful not to come off wrong (arrogant, conceited, or superior), since I suspect lots of drivers have negative impressions of cyclists and cycling. But I know we could do it and wind up with people falling in love with cyclists and cycling. Bike Month might be a great time for such a publicity stunt.

And here’s the thing: we’re not offering a temporary fix. This is not a one-day affair. We’re gonna get you into better shape financially and physically, and we will have helped you change your life for the better permanently.

Further, it’s not like we have to sell umbrellas in the middle of the Sahara. We are selling what might be the closest thing to the fountain of youth and prosperity that the world has ever known. Maybe that’s a little lofty, but still, you get the point.  :)

Some folks in Portland run the Breakfast on the Bridges fun. You really can’t call it a program because, to me, that label would not do it justice. The type of imagination and humanity embedded in events like this suggest a whole new way to think about your commute, your relationship to others, and your life. Yeah, you still have to get to the office, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could just hang out for a few minutes looking at some beautiful scenery and enjoying a coffee and a chat in the outdoors before you get to the office?

We should be bold enough to propose big ideas, participate in bold initiatives, etc. It is possible that a Level 5 effort over the next six months to a year could be more important than a Level 9 effort for the following five years. It is possible that you might just find out that there is political and popular support for an idea that would have been considered outrageous just six months ago (such as bike highways?). So, go ahead and propose it.

There’s also a word of warning, here. Lots of people are going to push for anything that lets them get to tomorrow, even if it’s a new 12-lane autos-only highway or some other monstrosity. There won’t be any logic or coherence to the arguments. Instead, any objections will be explained away by the people who stand to make boatloads of money from the projects. We need to be prepared to respond with proper rejections of unsound development, and be able to offer good alternatives.