Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bicycle Evangelism

I was pondering the wonderful increase of Bicycle Believers in Portland, and was struck by the thought that the conversion of an infidel into a bicyclist generally requires reaching out by the converted. It takes an active effort, either on the part of noncyclist to find One Who Believes and ask for help, or on the Believer to invite the noncyclist to consider joining the fold.

Why does this event need to occur?


1) Operation of a bicycle requires a broad spectrum of knowledge, and

2) A bad "first experience" will usually prevent conversion, and, therefore,

3) Evangelical outreach is essential to ensure a successful conversion, so

4) Bicycle evangelism is essential to converting large numbers of new bicyclists.

Let's look a little more into this.

1) Operating a bike on city streets, is, naturally an enlightening experience. Sailing through parks and over rivers is like flying. Pounding up a hill creates a burning of the bosom. Each stroke of the pedal brings a person closer to enlightenment.

But it doesn't just come naturally. To have this experience, you need to know a lot of stuff. You need to be able to ride a bike, know which gears to use, how to brake in rain and on hills. You need to know the best routes across town, which streets to avoid, and which of the lines on the map will lead you through an enchanted park or a past magnificent vistas. You need to know what to wear in rain, sun, and darkness. Your bike needs to be adjusted for you -- if your seat is too high you'll be uncomfortable, if it's too low you'll be slogging along in an inefficient manner.

It's not second nature.

2) The First Experience

The average adult doesn't ride a bike much. Maybe once in a while as a tourist, visiting friends, or in a short stint as exercise. Riding a bike in a city in less-than-parklike conditions is something completely foreign.

If a person hasn't assimilated all that complex information in part a), a person will get on their bike, and huff and puff across town, get lost, almost get runover, and come nowhere near achieving nirvana. And they'll come to know that they're out of shape, bicycling is hard, and all those folks that do it ever day are absolutely crazy.

Conversion failure.

Think of all the ways a person could have a bad first experience.

For instance, my mother is pushing 70, recently her husband get the grandkids on bikes, and my mom trid getting on a bike with the seat too tall, and fell a couple times, dinging her hip. She hasn't tried riding since. And that's just the problem of getting on a bike and moving forward.

3) Evengelical outreach.

To ensure a high likelihood of an "interested by concerned" individual to a "believer and practitioner" it's almost essential to have some one-on-one time with a Believer.

By pairing believers with interested souls, it's easy to solve problems 1) and 2). The believer can help the lost soul along, helping them get a bike that's reasonably well fitted and well tuned. They believer can tell them how to start riding -- try it on Sundays, go short distances. Not things that people naturally think of on their own. And for the first ride, they can go together, side by side, and the new bicyclist can focus on keeping the bike going straight ahead, not worrying about getting lost, getting run over, etc.
Some transportation planners theorize that the recent jump in bicyclist numbers in Portland is because numbers have hit "critical mass." That there's now a bicyclist in every social circle, every office, every church congregation. So interested heathens know who to seek out for information.

Bicycling is a sacred and holy activity, but it can't be learned with books or in a room. It needs to be learned outdoors, on the streets and paths, with the wind whistling in your ears. And it's best learned with someone who is already converted and can show you the way.

4) Evangelicism is needed to increase the flock

Suppose, say, we had a goal of getting 25% of Portlanders to be regular bicyclists. It's totally achievable, there's plenty of folks who are perfectly capeable of bicycling for errands, exercise or work commutes that aren't doing it now. The infrastructure is there, the roads are reasonably safe, and there's bike shops that can sell bikes and gear to meet absolutely anyone's needs.

Why haven't 25%+ already converted, then?

It takes a fair bit of effort to get the gear, and if you have a bad first experience, the conversion effort will fail. And, more importantly, the person has to have a reason to try it out.

All this can easily be overcome if there was a more established tradition of Bicycle Believers reaching out to their friends and colleagues. If everyone had one or two spare bikes and sets of gear, and regularly invited their friends on a bike ride, to shop, eat, or just for fun, then all the potential believers would be regularly exposed to everything they need to automatically convert. They'd have the right stuff, and they'd have a good first experience. And after riding for a couple weeks, they'd be motivated to spend a couple hundred $ to outfit themselves, and then bye bye car, hello bicycle! Their car will languish in the garage, their kids will get toted on Burleys or Bakfeits, savings will pile up in their pockets like autumn leaves, and the world will have a new Bicycle Believer.

Not convinced? Try it. See if it works!

Yours in The Faith,

Pasture Ted

1 comment:

  1. I am forever thankful for the friends that "loaned" me my old lady's Raleigh and started riding with me around town. I had several cyclist friends back then, and they were very encouraging.

    They've since moved away (and I paid them for the bicycle--the first of three bicycles I've owned since), but one of them is still on the Shift list. After I posted my Roller Derby Ride, he replied to me saying it made him happy to see where the loan of that bicycle had led! I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd never started riding--would I still live in Portland? I know I wouldn't have the happy full life I have now.

    I do what I can to help people ride bicycles when they're ready. Most of my current friends are already cyclists, but when I'm working, I love showing people how easy and fun it is!