In this post, I discuss the idea of bicycle share marketing as an important tool for creating a diverse user base rather than letting bicycle share market itself.
Given bike share’s continued problem with integrating a diversity of users, why don’t we look at how its marketed?
Bicycle share is a popular new form of transportation and leisure bicycling in the United States. Despite its popularity and continued growth in cities across the country, bicycle share has a deep equity problem. From its most recent inception in places such as Washington D.C. and Minneapolis, bicycle share systems (BSSs) have been criticized for not placing stations in low-income and people of color-dominant communities and being wholly inaccessible to already underserved communities.
Many BSSs have attempted to retrofit this inequity through “equity station” placement, free or reduced subscriptions, and partnerships with community organizations. But these attempts have resulted in some success, but BSSs continue to be dominated by white, middle-class users.
For those who are curious as to why this is, there aren’t a whole lot of answers. A lot of bicycle share research is based on usage data, interviews with key stakeholders and surveys of bicycle share subscription members. Researchers are concerned with the rate of usage, why people choose to use bike share, and what barriers to usage exist.
But what about how bicycle share is marketed to people? Maybe it can give us some clues as to why bicycle share continues to struggle with inclusion and equity.
Very little research has been done on perceptions of bicycle share outside of tracking user data, which inevitably excludes people who do not currently use BSSs (the only exception to that is research done with Philly’s Indego bike share, which I will extrapolate on in a moment).
Marketing bicycles and related amenities
It is hard to make a claim about whether marketing causes a particular demographic to use bike share, but marketing does send a message about the desired users of bike share. This is an important factor to consider because bicycling, including bike share, has an image problem. The existing issues in bicycle marketing include invisibility of people of color (unless they are representing an equity initiative) and unapologetic sexist images of white women.
These typical and tired representational problems are rampant across bicycle marketing but are held in tension with bicycling’s overall progressive image. The bicycling world cannot be understood as progressive if white men remain in control of marketing and produce advertising that is offensive and/or erases the major demographics of cyclists (i.e. Latino men).
According to Katie Monroe, the outreach manager with Philly’s bike share program Indego, there is an internal industry assumption that bike share markets itself. The bicycles are highly visible and unique, therefore easy to spot in otherwise crowded urban spaces. Bicycle share’s mere presence is meant to attract users. But, as Monroe said, the word-of-mouth function only goes as far as the bike share users and their networks. If only a specific demographic tends to be early adopters, then it is unlikely this adoption will jump communities without intentional outreach. The exclusionary demographics are an unfortunate pattern across U.S. bike share.
Source: Paul Mackie, “How Capital Bikeshare Members Use System is Becoming Clearer,” Mobility Lab, April 2015
Beyond mere representational politics, there are real consequences to inequitable bicycle share usage that are based in transportation equity. Bike share is a growing form of both mobility and infrastructure in the United States. Bike share systems face unique challenges, as they are both the mode of transportation and the apparatus from which people acquire the mode.
In my research I have found many BSSs that have tried to initiate equity marketing after the implementation of the system rather than as part of the bike share development plan.
I have been a casual user of bicycle share across multiple cities and have tracked marketing trends in Chicago, Miami, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis (where I currently reside). BSSs do not use formulaic marketing strategies so I do not have a clean collection of one type of marketing to analyze. For example, Indego is the only BSS that utilizes a Tumblr page for marketing. But through my research, the BSSs that did focus on equity in its marketing clearly stood out from other marketing techniques.
Bicycle share marketing tends to fall into one of three categories:
Bike share brand marketing
Sponsor marketing (pay-for-placement)
3. Embodied marketing (use of models and/or on-the-ground outreach)
So do any of these marketing types work for equity-driven marketing?
#3 is the most likely to have an equity-focus.
And equity-driven marketing and/or people of color models were most likely to be a) funded through equity grants or b) have a POC-led BSS