Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative. If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:
People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.
To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.
Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.
Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).
The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:
Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.
Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).
Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.
Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.
The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.
*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.
In an earlier post I suggested the utility bicycle shop as a sound business idea and a good way of lowering the barriers to cycling as transportation. As I’ve found out more about utility bike availability in North America, it struck me that most such shops had only recently opened. To see whether this was true, I searched out every North American bicycle store I could find that has a strong current focus on utility bicycles and bikes as transportation. The answer turns out to be a resounding yes. Below are the shops ordered by founding year.
Human Powered Machines* – Eugene, OR
Hudson Urban Bicycles – New York City, NY
Urbane Cyclist* – Toronto, ON
North Park Bicycle Shop – Victoria, BC
Jorg & Olif* – Vancouver, BC (they have since moved to the UK)
Bowery Lane Bicycles* – New York City, NY
Flying Pigeon LA – Los Angeles, CA
Renaissance Bicycles – online
Madsen Cycles* – online
Downtown Bike Hounds – Hamilton, ON
Metrofiets* – Portland, OR
Dutch Bike Co. – Chicago, IL
Joe Bike* – Portland, OR
Commuter Bike Store – online (the year is my guess)
Violet Crown Cycles* – Austin, TX
My Dutch Bike – San Francisco, CA
Wheel House Bikes – Santa Barbara, CA
Copenhagen Cyclery – Chicago, IL
J.C. Lind Bike Co. – Chicago, IL (formerly De Fietsfabriek USA)
Arriving by Bike – Eugene, OR
Beater Bikes* – Toronto, ON
2010 (up to May / the date of this post):
Republic Bike/Urban Outfitters* – online (founded in 2009, Dutch-style bikes added in 2010)
Bike Bike – Calgary, AB
Portland Velocipede – Portland, ME
Fort Langley Cyclery – Fort Langley, BC
Adeline Adeline – New York City, NY
Cycle Butik – Toronto, ON
Public Bikes* – San Francisco, CA
Shops marked with a * build, design, or special-order their bikes. (Curbside gets a star for starting a major distribution company and helping design the Batavus Fryslan and Breukelen.) I think the number of shops doing their own thing is partially a consequence of major North American bike companies long ago abandoning utility bicycles. That said, in addition to the growing number of imported brands, some smaller North American bike companies do now focus on city bikes and utility: Electra (founded in 1993), Xtracycle (1998), Breezer (2002), Yuba (2006), Civia (2007), Madsen (2008), and Linus (2009). For that matter, new European manufacturers of city bikes have also been setting up shop, including Azor (1998), Retrovelo (2003), WorkCycles (2003), De Fietsfabriek (2003), and Velorbis (2005). Interestingly, both WorkCycles and De Fietsfabriek were started in Amsterdam by Americans.
Utility bicycles really are exploding in popularity, despite (or maybe thanks to) the recession. And it’s not just the bikes, but also the inviting “slow bicycling” that goes along with them, the ever-more-frequent calls for dedicated cycling infrastructure and buffered bike paths, and the rapid spread of bike-sharing schemes (which of course use utility bicycles). So expect to see more city bikes coming to your town. And if you want to see them sooner, now’s the time to open up a bike shop and get more regular people riding (and demanding cycling infrastructure).
There’s many bicycle shops around here, with at least four on King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo. Each one is filled primarily with bicycles that are designed for recreation, and that incidentally can also be used for getting around town. If you watch what people actually use to cycle for transportation here, it’s those kinds of bikes, and not ones which are well-prepared for the task. As the owner of such a bike, I end up being a fair-weather daytime non-winter cyclist, and I leave the bike at home when I fear the situation may become unfavourable. My bicycle does not prepare me for such mundane things as: rain, snow, road salt, night, luggage, or comfort for that matter.
With the lack of availability of European utility bicycles and current bicycle shops’ interest in maintaining a focus on recreation instead of utility — in Kitchener-Waterloo and in most other North American areas — a utility bicycle shop has the potential to do quite well. I envision a place where you know you will be able to go in and have your pick of many different bicycles that are outfitted for utility: fenders, lights, chain guards, skirt guard / coat protector, a rear rack, an upright seating position, step-through frames, baskets, and internal hub gearing and brakes. Such a shop would sell and maintain quality bikes that are designed for many years of frequent use in all weather. The picture at the top of the post is of a Dutch-style omafiets (grandma bike), which is the epitome of this kind of bicycle. Beyond the regular utility bikes there should be all manner of cargo and family bikes, work bikes, folding bikes, and a wide array of baskets and panniers.
In addition to serving an unfilled niche, such a store would encourage cycling as transportation by making it easier to do. One wouldn’t have to figure out how to haphazardly add all of the aforementioned useful components to a bike, or to worry about whether their externally-geared bicycle will survive the winter. A store with a utility cycling focus would make it easy to buy a bike actually suited to its intended use. It would generally be more expensive (think $700-1000 and up), but still nowhere near what cars cost. Many people would be quite willing to pay for the quality and convenience of a solid European bike that can be used to ride to work or to the store in style and comfort. Particularly when they start seeing others on such bikes. And as cycling conditions continue to improve, so will sales.
To be sure, there are such stores in North America: Curbside Cycle in Toronto; Downtown Bike Hounds in Hamilton; Flying Pigeon LA; Dutch Bicycle Co. in Somerville, MA; Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle and Chicago; My Dutch Bike in San Francisco; Clever Cycles in Portland; and Rain City Bikes in Vancouver. But there should be many, many more. Their absence isn’t the only barrier to cycling, but it is one, and I suspect that in urban areas ripe for cycling (e.g. Waterloo Region), removing that barrier could be good business.
Addendum 2: In a later post I have a reasonably comprehensive list of North American utility bicycle shops.