As a woman who loves to ride a bicycle in New York City for transportation and fun, I often think about how to encourage others to join in. That’s why the well-intended, but flawed “Heads Up” public safety campaign recently introduced by the NYC Department of Transportation leaves me scratching my head and wondering: Did anyone notice that the imagery in these ads reinforces the perception that cycling is unsafe and rife with confrontation?
Perhaps you’ve seen this campaign at bus shelters around town. Briefly, photos of New York cyclists engaging in unsafe behavior, riding a bicycle against traffic for instance, are paired with taglines that use mild humor to promote obeying the rules of the road. The good news — and the bad, in this case — is that female cyclists are featured prominently.
As an everyday cyclist and a presumed member of the target audience for these ads, I get it. Cyclists, pedestrians and motorists need to treat each other with courtesy and obey the rules of the road for everybody’s safety and comfort level. That public safety message has never been more vital than it is right now, as bike sharing, due to launch at the end of July, promises to introduce many newcomers to cycling in the city.
What Does the Bike-Curious New Yorker See?
However, it’s not as though these ads are being beamed exclusively to current cyclists. They exist in a larger public context. And so, my concern is: What message does “Heads Up” send to the woman who may be sitting inside the bus shelter — the non-cyclist New Yorker who sees the growing network of bike lanes and observes more bicycles on the streets. The women who may be curious about giving it a try, but who, like so many, feels daunted by riding in traffic.
Look at the ad examples above through her eyes. In the ad on the left, the cyclist is being yelled at by an angry driver. The car appears to be no more than 24 inches away from the rider, who is shown on a narrow street, chock-a-block with cars and with no bike lane in sight.
In the ad on the right, the rider is visually boxed in by a car and a large passenger van. The car bumper appears treacherously close to the rider’s leg. The motorist is an unseen protagonist, reinforcing this woman’s isolation in the street. The cyclist is in the wrong: she’s run a red light. But isn’t a casual observer more likely to focus on an accident-in-the-making than to spot the partially cropped red light far above the cyclist’s head?
The point is that to a non-cyclist who may possess an impulse to try cycling, these images reinforce the perception that riding a bicycle in the city is perilous, when the opposite is true. The NYC DOT reports that traffic fatalities have declined more than 40 percent in the last decade. (And by the way, for people who oppose cycling infrastructure, or who consider cyclists reckless, the ads do nothing to discourage stereotypes or to quell a sadly persistent culture of confrontation among cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.)
Friendly Persuasion Versus Scolding
Beyond making cycling appear unsafe, these ads focus on discouraging negative behavior rather than on reinforcing positive behavior. Last year’s “Don’t Be a Jerk” video series followed a similar path. And, while humor can drive home important messages, is its use in relation to safety really the best choice?
Wouldn’t the popular idiom, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” argue for friendly persuasion over scolding? The cyclists in these ads appear stressed out — the opposite of what I observe regularly in the streets of NYC. What would be wrong, for example, with showing cyclists conforming with the rules, rather than flouting them? How about showing a few bike lanes to underscore this city’s substantial progress in improving cycling infrastructure to help encourage safe cycling? Why couldn’t the ads depict a group of cyclists enjoying a ride together (photo above) to emphasize the sociability of two-wheeled transportation.
I’m not promoting an unrealistic approach — but rather one that’s more positive and compelling, both to the intended audience of current cyclists and to the larger universe of citizens who may be disposed toward giving cycling a try, and for whom encouraging messages might turn a key rather than barring the door.