Bicycle Advocacy: Balancing the Carrot and the Stick

Written November 7, 2017 for The History and Geography of Cycles and Cycling

What does it mean to be a cycling advocate? Should advocates challenge, and perhaps even demean, the status quo, or should they focus instead on painting the picture of a better tomorrow? This question is one this author has spent much time considering, and has been similarly considered by many cycling advocacy groups over the years, including New York City’s Transportation Alternatives group at its conception (Furness 2010). While the dominant car-culture contains countless flaws, the usefulness of continuously pointing these out and “shaming” the act of driving is questionable. On the other hand though, in the words of Fredrick Douglass, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress” ( 2017). Consequently, many of the most dramatic movements in history began with a challenging of the status quo, through vocal protests and demonstrations, such as the Dutch Stop de Kindermoord movement (Zee 2015). In this week’s reflection, I will provide examples of advocacy and policy used in both these contexts, represented as the carrot and the stick.

The Carrot: Focusing on the Positives

One of the oldest examples perhaps of cycling advocacy remaining exclusively positive and non-confrontational was that of Frances Willard. In her novel A Wheel Within a Wheel, she promotes cycling for women through a series of personal stories rather than a political argument. It is suggested that Willard was able to succeed as a reform advocate in this case specifically because her approach didn’t challenge society’s accepted ideals (Strange and Brown 2002).

More recently, Copenhagen stands as an example of “carrot” cycling policy put into practice. With the ambitious goal of achieving a 50 percent bicycle mode share for commute trips by 2015, the City of Copenhagen has aggressively expanded and catered to cycling in the city, with marketing, programs, ongoing feedback, and protected infrastructure. The level to which the city has obsessed over cyclists is perhaps embodied in its now-discontinued “bicycle butler” program, which provided repair and maintenance services at five metro stations. Notably absent from Copenhagen’s policy, however, are the environmental arguments commonly found in North America; that is, arguments that pit the car against broader environmental objectives (Gossling 2013). In general, the city’s policies lack any type of anti-car messaging or policies; rather, the city attempts to lure people out of their cars rather than force them.

While these policies and programs have translated into a notable increase in cycling, they have not succeeded in achieving the target 50 percent mode share, with the mode share actually declining from 45 percent in 2014 to 41 percent in 2017 (O’Sullivan 2017). It appears that the effect of “carrot” policies may be reaching their maximum potential, and it is argued that without the introduction of “sticks” which make driving more difficult, the 50 percent target will not be achieved (Gossling 2013).

The same issue has been evident in Davis, California, where the bicycle commute rate halved from 28% in 1980 to 14% in 2000 (Buehler and Handy 2008). Despite historically strong policy requiring bicycle lanes on all new roads, the city’s bicycle culture was taken for granted, and many valuable “carrot” policies were quietly phased out. This was compounded with the lack of a strong advocacy voice to promote “stick” policies, for example preventing the construction of $60 million in parking garages across the city and university (Buehler and Handy 2008).

The Stick: Drawing Attention to the Problem

Political discussions often tend to be most receptive to the loudest voices in the room, and therein lies the argument for advocacy to focus on the “stick”; that is, bringing attention to the problem at hand, and stubbornly demanding action on addressing its roots. Amsterdam’s cycling renaissance is very much a story of bringing attention to the problem. In response to growing numbers of traffic fatalities in the 1970s, particularly children, the group Stop de Kindermoord was formed, which held demonstrations and protests in the name of safer streets (Zee 2015). These disruptions, and others like it, were sufficient to inspire a response from the Dutch government, eventually leading to safer street designs. It should be noted, however, that Stop de Kindermoord itself evolved, from a protest group to a policy development group funded by the government, evidence of an evolution from “stick” advocacy to “carrot” advocacy (Zee 2015).

Critical Mass is yet another example of advocacy aimed at disruption and drawing attention to the problems. Through disruptive, controversial events where tens, hundreds, or thousands of cyclists descend upon a city’s streets in an anarchistic fashion, Critical Mass rides have drawn much attention from the media, politicians, drivers, and other prospective cyclists. By creating an experience which deviates from people’s normal routines, the event challenges its participants and onlookers to think differently about the state of a city’s streets, and become self-aware of the entrenched culture of automobility (Furness 2010). Despite significant clashes with authorities, coverage of these events has typically been sympathetic towards cyclists, and propagated the idea that street space should be allocated for cyclists, opening the door to productive conversations with governments and other policy groups (Furness 2010).

In reality, “bicycle advocacy is a balance between theatre/demonstrations and strategic meetings with politicians and city staff” (Furness 2010). Rather than choosing one or the other, good advocacy is about knowing when do use the carrot and when to use the stick. When a problem is identified, as it was in each of the cases identified, advocacy needs to draw attention to it, and challenge the engrained assumptions. Once the problem has received acknowledgement, advocacy then needs to be prepared to strategically work with decisionmakers in a diplomatic way. This shift can be difficult for a single group to do, and in the case of Amsterdam, the transition of Stop de Kindermoord to a policy-developing group created an opportunity for a second group, the First Only Real Dutch Cyclists’ Union, to form in demand of more space for bicycles in the public realm (Zee 2015).

Bibliography 2017. Frederick Douglass, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress”. Accessed November 7, 2017.

Buehler, Ted, and Susan Handy. 2008. “Fifty Years of Bicycle Policy in Davis, California.” Journal of the Transportation Research Board 52-57.

Furness, Zack. 2010. “Chapter 3: Vélorutionaries and the Right to the (Bikeable) City.” In One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, by Zack Furness, 47-77. Temple University Press.

Furness, Zack. 2010. “Chapter 4: Critical Mass and the Functions of Bicycle Protest.” In One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, by Zack Furness, 78-107. Temple University Press.

Gossling, Stefan. 2013. “Urban transport transitions: Copenhagen, City of Cyclists.” Journal of Transport Geography 196-206.

O’Sullivan, Feargus. 2017. In Copenhagen, Bike Commuting Gets a Little Less Popular. October 16. Accessed November 7, 2017.

Strange, Lisa S., and Robert S. Brown. 2002. “The Bicycle, Women’s Rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Women’s Studies 609-626.

Zee, Renate van der. 2015. How Amsterdam became the bicycle capital of the world. May 5. Accessed November 7, 2017.

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