19 August 2010

Selling the Sizzle

Screen grab from Amazon Kindle commerical

I hate television commercials. And yet...I'm secretly fascinated by them. I can't remember the last time that I (consciously) purchased a product based on an advertisement, yet for years now, I have been paying much closer attention to them than might be considered healthy. Not so much to the products on offer or the slogans used to sell them, as to the settings and the mise-en-scene on display. It is for this reason, for example, that I have recognized the mean streets of Portland, Oregon (home to advertising giants Wieden+Kennedy) in an extraordinary number of car commercials over the past few years.

Like many people, I'm pretty much obsessed with Mad Men. I could go into a lengthy diatribe about what I think is going on, but I'll spare you. One of the things I think the show does really well is to illustrate how advertisers are able to tap into the mass psychology driving the zeitgeist (except for the times when they're hilariously out-of-touch, even for the time period). Even before I got sucked into Don Draper's world, I had been noticing something strange happening. Bicycles were everywhere in TV ads. These range from cutesy-schmootsey-ness to pointless mockery to downright irritation. But even more than these ads featuring (sorta) active cycling, there's loads out there where bikes are static props in the background. Small cars being marketed toward urbanites are especially prone to this, I've seen maybe a half dozen auto commercials in the past year where bikes are placed on the sidewalks like any other street furniture.

You're probably thinking, "So what?". Anybody who has ever taken a film class can tell you that nothing gets in the shot that isn't meant to be there. When sets are decorated, they don't just grab a bunch of stuff and throw it out there. Every frame is storyboarded over the course of weeks, if not months, and props are picked very carefully. This isn't to say the directors of any of these commercials is going to be the next Hitchcock (or even Ed Wood), but they do have budget constraints, and nobody goes out and buys a few bikes to stick in their ad "just because". They want their commercial to appeal to a certain demographic, and that demographic is increasingly viewing bicycles as a normal part of the street fabric.

So what if it boils down to little more than crass marketing? The marketing targets the money, and the attitudes of those who would spend that money has changed. Advertisers understand it already, even if politicians don't.

04 August 2010

I Won't Share You

Flickr photo by James Cridland

Chicago joined the ranks of bike-sharing cities last week to much hoopla. Da Mayor cut a ribbon, a couple of newspaper articles were written, and hooray, we have 100 bikes that cost $10 an hour. The bikes are nice, but if you don't happen to pass by one of the six stations (all in the Loop and lakefront tourist bubble), you probably wouldn't even know they were out there. Meanwhile, London launched their Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme (rolls right off the tongue) with 5,000 bikes across the center city and more to come.

I've got a real problem with the way this is rolling out, and I don't have very high hopes that this "trial" will be too successful. If the assumed goal of a bike sharing program is to get people onto bikes who haven't used one in a while, making them available only in the traffic-choked downtown core probably isn't very enticing. If the stations were in actual neighborhoods where actual Chicagoans actually live, people then might decide to try one out, and then realize that riding a bike isn't so bad. This is precisely what has occurred in Paris, since Vélib’ was introduced, sales of adult bicycles have increased.

Over at Urbanophile this week, Aaron Renn has a post on uneven development within cities, a topic which is often on my mind. This is a classic example in my opinion. Chicago's neighborhoods can't get their potholes filled or have their recycling picked up, but the corporate owners of the Willis (née Sears) Tower can get multimillion dollar tax subsidies, and the Loop can get 100 bikes (so long as the city doesn't have to pay for them).

Bike sharing in selected cities by the numbers:

May 1995 - Copenhagen City Bikes - 2,500 bikes, 110 stations (soon to be replaced by a new system)
May 2005 - Lyon Vélo'v - 3,000 bikes, 350 stations
March 2007 - Barcelona Bicing - 3,000 bikes, 400+ stations
June 2007 - Montpellier Vélomagg - 750 bikes, 59 stations
July 2007 - Paris Vélib’ - 20,600 bikes, 1,639 stations
May 2009 - Brussels Villo! - 2,500 bikes, 180 stations
June 2009 - Montreal BIXI - 3,000 bikes, 300 stations
February 2010 - Mexico City Ecobici - 1114 bikes, 84 stations
April 2010 - Denver B-Cycle - 400 bikes, 40 stations
May 2010 - Melbourne BIXI - 610 bikes, 52 stations
June 2010 - Minneapolis BIXI - 700 bikes, 65 stations
July 2010 - London Barclays Cycle Hire - 5,000 bikes, 315 stations (so far)
2011 - Toronto BIXI - 1,000 bikes
July 2010 - Chicago B-Cycle - 100 bikes, 6 stations

Chicago is the third-largest of the cities listed above in population, yet with the current numbers there is roughly one shared bike for every 28,000 residents. That oft-repeated Chicago axiom (falsely) attributed to Daniel Burnham comes to mind..."make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized". Even the much-maligned SmartBike DC program is more widespread. It may all be in vain anyhow...if the predicted Tea Party electoral gains actually materialize this November, at least Denver's system could be in jeopardy. A gubernatorial candidate in Colorado apparently believes bike-sharing is part of some devilish UN plot to subjugate Real Americans. The future looks bright, friends.

02 August 2010

Lest I Forget

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about dangerous cycling spots in Chicago. That post garnered a lot of positive feedback and I subsequently realized that I forgot about one of the worst ones. Logan Boulevard & Western Avenue.

Logan is a major bike route, connecting the boulevard system to Elston Avenue. Let us begin with Logan eastbound as it passes under the Kennedy Expressway:

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The boulevards feature service drives, which I always use as the center lanes have very little curb clearance and high speeds. As Logan approaches the Expressway, these end and bikes must enter the lane or use the sidewalk. The road curves as it passes under the freeway and the train viaduct, which is just a bad combination. I don't like driving west through here in late afternoon as well, when the light goes from dark shadow to blinding sun in an instant, all while managing a curve and trying not to hit a cyclist on your right.

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Moving along, Logan crosses Western Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the entire city. Here you can see the bad combination of shadow and street alignment. Furthermore, as you cross Western, Logan narrows from two lanes to one, before a dedicated bike lane appears. Traffic is often nightmarish here, with many people trying to turn left across the bike lane into the Target parking lot.

This one I don't have any simple answers for. I have lots of complicated, expensive ones but I doubt those will get very far. At the very least, bikes need to be given their own space under the freeway overpass. There's already been one cyclist fatality at this intersection in the last couple of years, memorialized by a ghost bike. (As an aside, while I appreciate the ghost bikes, I find this one to be rather distracting every time I pass it. I would hate to have to point out the irony if someday somebody were killed because a driver or cyclist was too focused on the side of the road.)

More posts to come in the near future, I've gotten some excellent feedback lately and it's greatly appreciated. Nice to know there's somebody out in the inter-ether.