How NOT to Encourage Women to Ride Bicycles

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?


Momentum Layout
This New York City street photo featured in Momentum Magazine is more reflective of the fun and sociability of riding a bicycle. (Regarding helmets, let’s not go there!)

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.


  • Sigh. I agree that the ads make city streets look more hostile than they are. And I resent the implication that stopping for stop lights makes you late.

    I’m guessing that the series is a reaction to the growing backlash of non-cyclists who are demanding that the NYDOT do something to “control those crazy bikers.” So you get these negative campaigns instead of positive ones.

    Imagine an ad showing those same women on the new separated bike lanes or on the Hudson river path and a caption “I’ll be home soon, honey, I’m taking the Hudson River Greenway.” Or “Sure, I can meet you for a drink at . I don’t have to go to the gym.”

    Positive trumps negative every time.

    • Re “imagine an add showing women on the new separated lanes…”, given the NYC DOT’s remarkable progress in adding cycling infrastructure, you’d think they’d include bike lanes in each ad! Your tagline suggestions are terrific. Even without images, they’re convey what we all enjoy about riding in NYC. Thank you for sharing these!

    • I love your ad ideas! They are fun, encouraging, even somewhat sexy. I’m already a female cyclist/commuter and I just got a new does of pride and excitement from reading your captions. How can we make that happen?!?!? Thanks ladyfleur!

  • Great post, Susi! It’s good to see that someone else recognizes that these kinds of images are the product of biased, old fashioned thinking.

    I think the current era NYC gold standard of bicycle encouragement comes from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in their Bulletin no. 84, available for download in PDF format here. That’s from 2011, and it features the great tagline from that year, “Make NYC your gym.”

    In contrast, the DOT has always encouraged with one hand and admonished with the other. DOT’s mission (from their web page, natch) is “to provide for the safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible movement of people and goods in the City of New York and to maintain and enhance the transportation infrastructure crucial to the economic vitality and quality of life of our primary customers, City residents.”

    Notice how safety is the priority, followed by efficiency. These ads are meant to encourage “safety” directly by addressing unsafe acts (no matter how infrequent they might be), not to encourage “safety” through the second-order effect of safety in numbers.

    As for efficiency, it’s much more efficient to jam New Yorkers into subway cars and shoot them around on underground metal tracks than it is to have us out there bicycling or walking along the streets. One of the deep pleasures I get out of bicycling is its inefficiency; I’d rather cut over to the Greenway and ride all the way uptown, accompanied by a fresh breeze off the river, than take the efficient A train that only makes five stops from 34th St to 168th St. I’m sure many of your readers feel the same way.

    • Jonathan, thanks so much for your comment and for sharing this link. I couldn’t agree more regarding the pleasures of getting out on a bicycle. However, as a multi-modal New Yorker, I rely on bicycling, walking and public transit, including the subways, and I’m grateful to have so many options — soon to be joined by one more: bike sharing!

  • Thanks for your post. There is one of these ads at a bus shelter near my office in midtown. I often walk by it and have had similar feelings.

    I would much rather see something like the heartwarming Liberty Mutual “Responsibility, What’s Your Policy” ads. These are the ones where one person helps another, and an observer goes on to do the same. I agree that this kind of messaging is far more appealing.

    For example – you could have print or TV ads that depict a group of friendly cyclists talking at a red light; a potential couple enjoying some flirting; a cyclist joking with a taxi driver – all under a tag line of something like “Enjoy a Chat at the Light.”

    Alternatively, you could depict a cyclist waiting at the light being acknowledged by a crossing pedestrian who waves, smiles, or nods appreciatively. Maybe a tag line something like “Make Friends” could work here.

    These get across the familiar “don’t run reds” message in a positive way by showing that a little wait isn’t so bad, and may even be fun.

    • Sean, these are wonderful examples of positive ways to communicate safety messages. They make me wonder what this campaign might have looked like if the NYC DOT had solicited suggestions from the public — say, by running a tagline contest. Maybe an option for the future? Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Continuing on the “enjoy a chat at the light” theme, how about an image of a couple flirting at the light and the tag line “If I hadn’t stopped I wouldn’t have met Liam.”

  • Spot-on post. I would just add that persuading more risk-averse peopole to take up bicycling will do more to tame cyclist behavior than any number of ad campaigns. Filling the streets with cyclists inclined to take fewer risks is what will ultimately build a more civil cycling culture in NYC. This misguided campaign is discouraging that culture from taking hold.

  • Excellent analysis, Susi. I do wish that DOT would take your message to heart and understand that positive ad campaigns are more likely to change hearts and minds than negative ones.

    People need to be told what to do and what not to do. Nike doesn’t get people to buy sneakers by running a campaign that says, “Don’t sit on the couch.” They tell people, “Just Do It.” Positive, simple, and effective.

    Maybe Velojoy should produce the next round of PSAs for DOT!

  • I must remember never to give advise to bikers. They apparently know everything there is to know, especially safety in the big city.

  • As long as the DOT & NYC & NYPD mental image of “cyclist” is a helmet wearing wrong doer, rather than an ordinary person in ordinary garb at an ordinary pace, the driving public will view them as hostile odd balls, and not be moved to drive more courteously or see the cyclist as a neighbor on an errand. Sorry to be so “anti-helmet” for those helmet headed religious among you. The adult in a power ranger’s outfit does not elicit sympathy or empathy. DOT may have increased bike lane mileage but they continue to cast the cyclist as outsider, not everyday citizen, and their messages do not match the idea of promotion.

  • I’m in agreement with Janice. Strongly overt helmet promotion is detrimental to getting more people on bicycles, be they men or women. Not only does it scare potential ‘bike curious’ from riding bikes, it also contributes to the meme that if a person on a bicycle isn’t wearing a helmet that they ‘deserve to get hurt/hit/etc’. Almost any time there is a story in the news about a person on a bike getting killed, you will see hateful comments saying the ‘cyclist deserved to get hit’.

    Too many people, both on bikes and off still hold to the idea that a helmet is the first/most important thing for the safety of people on bikes. It needs to be emphasized that infrastructure and more people on bikes that are the real factors that make riding a bike for transport safer.

    The photo from Momentum Mag promotes a much better image- emphasizing that you don’t need special clothes or gear to ride a bike. Plus, those smiles go a long way…illustrating that riding a bicycle for transportation is safe and enjoyable.

    While “Head’s Up’ isn’t as bad as “Don’t Be a Jerk”, it still misses the mark. Can’t remember which city used “Give respect to get respect” as a safety message, but I thought that was a pretty good way of looking at all sides of the equation.

  • The cyclists in these ads don’t look stressed at all. The one on the left looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world as she goes the wrong way. I see people doing this all day long and it needs to stop. The one on the right is pleading for a car not to hit her because she chose to run a red light. Again, something I see every single day.

    • Thanks for your comment. Agreed that everyone needs to share the road with courtesy and respect. What solutions do you think would be most fruitful in encouraging people to abide by the rules of the road?

  • Notice that the adds show women? I see many cyclists riding on the wrong side of the street as well as on sidewalks. I try to let them know the law. Some are appreciative,while others as as hostile as some drivers. Many of these cyclists come from other countries where the rules of the road are different. We need more outreach showing a diversity of cyclists and using many languages. Pictures showing the right way to bicycle in New York can help transcend language barriers.

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