Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aspirational marketing in black communities

On Friday I was talking about cycle chic that sends an affirmational message: "You can be just as chic as you are ... on a bike!" Tonight I'll write about marketing that sends an aspirational message: "You're not chic now, but you could be ... on a bike!" These have the potential to be dishonest and manipulative, but we need something to counter the dishonest and manipulative car ads.

And now I think I'm ready to address Elly Blue's tweets about cycle chic, inspired by the meetings about North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon.
I'm more & more convinced that PR/branding campaigns to make cycling look chic & attractive do more harm than good. Watching bicycling get tangled up w/gentrification & race in PDX is what's convincing me. It shouldn't be exclusive. ... Branding bicycling as upscale *is* exclusive, offputting. Do the (relatively) rich really need our scarce advocacy resources & energy?

Well, yes. As always, it comes down to your goals. If your only goal is access for all, then you don't want to spend anything on the rich. Even then, getting the rich to give up their cars often ends up providing more support for transportation that poor people can use. But if your goals include preserving our resources, keeping our water clean and our children safe, building stronger societies and combating obesity, then you need to get everyone out of their cars, even Mike Bloomberg.

Beyond that, though, Blue makes an excellent point that also came up in relation to another Portland bike lane project: that people tend to support government projects that they feel are for "us" (or "future us") and withhold support from projects for "them." People who think of cyclists as "us" (whether they ride or not) tend to support bicycle infrastructure, while people who think of cyclists as "them" tend to oppose it.

Blue is arguing that the concerns about the North Williams project come from the black residents thinking of cyclists as "them." Based on Maus's posts, I'm not convinced that it's happening in this instance. There are other instances, though, where black people have spoken out against bike lanes, and also bus lanes, not to mention the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. So there are definitely black people who think of cyclists as not "us," or at least not "future us."

The next point in Blue's argument is to say that black people don't think of cyclists as "future us" because cycle chic marketing has associated it too strongly with upscale culture, thus white culture. Again, this seems like a stretch to me. There are plenty of things that rich white people have that black people want, like big houses and SUVs. What is stopping black people from looking at a nice bicycle, seeing something valuable and desiring it? Nothing that I can think of.

On the other hand, it couldn't hurt to market cycle chic specifically to black people. Courvoisier went from being an old white guy's booze to a trendy "urban" drink after being the subject of a rap song. It's not like the car makers aren't working in this market. If black people can't see themselves riding a bike around like Katy Perry, what about Corinne Bailey Rae? Or does she not count because she's English?

There are a lot more white people than black people among the rich, but there certainly are a number of rich black people who are treated as role models by middle-class and working-class black - and white - people. A few are gangsters, but most are athletes, entertainers and businesspeople. It probably wouldn't hurt for cycling advocates to look at the most visible of these role models, find out if they ride bikes, and whether they do it visibly. If they don't ride, why not? If they do, why not do it publicly to an event or two?

In any case, I don't think the answer is to stop marketing cycle chic, but to broaden the image of cycle chic to include black people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Listening to the residents of North Williams Avenue

Yesterday I posted about cycle chic, and I said I would post a response to Elly Blue's tweets about the "tangling" of cycle chic with gentrification and racism. And I will, really! But before that, I wanted to share a thought that I had about the situation. This is entirely based on one blog entry on BikePortland and the comments on that entry, so if I'm missing out on other important information, please let me know.

I once attended a customer service training where we spent some time talking about irate customers. I got some good advice that has been borne out in my experience. Irate is sometimes used as a criticism, but in this case it was used in a purely descriptive sense. An irate person is someone who feels that they haven't been heard. I know from personal experience that it can be one of the most frustrating experiences to have something important to say, but to feel that nobody is listening, that nobody cares. It can fill some people with rage.

The lesson of this training was that when a customer is irate, the only thing you can do is listen. At that time the most important thing for them is to be heard. They don't want their technical problem fixed, they don't want a refund, they don't want an all-expenses-paid cruise to the Bahamas. If you try to solve their problem they'll just get angrier. Sometimes what they wanted to say doesn't have anything to do with the technical problem. It doesn't matter. Right then they just want to be heard and respected.

Once the customer has had a chance to tell their story - and you have to show that you've heard it and understood it in some way - the entire interaction changes. The urgency and hostility fade, and they relax. If they're not also confused, then you can start working on the problem itself. Sometimes they don't even have a problem anymore!

From the BikePortland post, it sounds like the Black residents of North Williams have a lot to say. Although they spoke calmly, they said very clearly that they needed to talk about the history of racial conflict before doing anything about reallocating street space. A white resident, Jack Olsen, who showed up to support the reallocation plan, was confused and frustrated by the focus on the past. He said, "I can begin to comprehend why that resentment is there; but if we delay this safety campaign and project for a year, and in that time another first grader is hit and killed, I'd feel that it was a huge failure on our part as a community."

I can very much relate to Olsen's frustration, but I want to reassure him and anyone else who feels impatient when something like this happens. It's pretty clear that the people at the meeting were acting in good faith. A listening phase like this rarely lasts a year. It has to happen for people like Michelle DePass and Donna Maxey to feel part of this project. The only alternative is to move the project along without their say, which will just increase their frustration and resentment. That choice seems pretty clear to me.

My suggestion to anyone who feels impatient about this is to listen harder. Jonathan Maus sets a good example by quoting people in their own words, then paraphrasing them to show his understanding. Once people feel that their story is heard, they stop being irate. Then everyone can work together (or not) to solve the problem.

Jack Olsen observed that there doesn't seem to have been any substantive objection to the actual plan. As with some of the technical problems I've worked on, it may turn out that there's no real disagreement about the street allocation plan itself. If that's the case, once the listening is done, the street could be ready for restriping!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The value of cycle chic

The concept of "cycle chic" has been controversial almost from the moment it started. Libby Maxim, "Biker Chick" of West Chester, Pennsylvania, totally missed the point and hated it. So did Kati Nolfi in Bitch Magazine.

Today, bikonomist Elly Blue added a new twist to the debate when she tweeted, "I'm more & more convinced that PR/branding campaigns to make cycling look chic & attractive do more harm than good. Watching bicycling get tangled up w/gentrification & race in PDX is what's convincing me. It shouldn't be exclusive."

Blue's point is much better than Maxim's or Nolfi's, but it'll have to wait because I want to deal with those first. The most important thing here is to get ourselves grounded again in our goals. I want to get people out of their cars, for the reasons stated above. That means that I only care about cycle chic to the extent that it gets people to choose not to drive as a habit, or to drive less, or not to buy a car (or to sell one they have), or not to fund car infrastructure (or to fund bike, transit and pedestrian infrastructure).

It's also important to point out that blogs like Copenhagen Cycle Chic and its imitators (Massapequa Cycle Chic, perhaps, someday) are not primarily sending aspirational messages. They're aimed at people who already consider themselves to be chic, and the message is, "You can be just as chic as you are ... on a bike!"

Some of the target audience may drive already. Some may be young adults who've been getting the message their whole lives that Real Grownups Drive Cars, and they're getting to the age where they may become Real Grownups. They're also constantly bombarded with ads that say, "you can be just as chic ... in this car!"

Many of them are also familiar with bike marketing and peer pressure that says that Real Cyclists wear shiny spandex and bike jerseys and those weird shoes. Maybe they think that's attractive, maybe not, but they don't identify. It's not them. If they manage to envision themselves as cyclists, it's looking uncomfortable and out of place in clothes that are tight in the wrong places.

The main content of the Cycle Chic blogs is candid shots of people on the street. Originally it was almost entirely women in skirts and high-heeled shoes, but they've branched out a bit. These people aren't dressed up to sell bicycles or cycling, they're dressed up to be attractive, and the bicycle is either an accessory or simply a way to move their attractive selves around town. They primarily send the value message: Look at these ordinary chic people. They're riding bikes, but they're clearly still getting laid. You're a chic person just like them. You can continue your chic lifestyle without a car.

BicyclesOnly has done the same thing with New Yorkers from all walks of life, including bike commuters (like this guy), families going to school, shoppers, women and people riding in the snow, with the stated goal of debunking the stereotype of cyclists as "fringe weirdo daredevils."

That's what Libby Maxim and Kati Nolfi get wrong. The people who want to dress like Katy Perry and Russell Brand are already doing that. Women who want to wear blue minidresses will do it whether they're on a bike or not, no matter how much Maxim and Nolfi scold them about the impracticality. If they don't ride a bike in their minidress, they might drive a car. Which would you rather see them doing?

My apologies to anyone who came here wanting to see pictures of women in skirts and heels or minidresses, or Russell Brand. Just follow the links.

Monday, July 18, 2011

No-minimum zoning

As I wrote the other day, in New York City outside of Manhattan and Long Island City, every possible zoning district has minimum parking requirements. If you want an area where developers can choose to build without parking, you can't just get that area rezoned. Instead, you have to get it included in a "Subject Area," like Long Island City, which would open you up to the charge that you're "turning the neighborhood into Manhattan." The only other option is to get the City Council to pass a change to the Zoning Resolution. As far as I know, no council member has sponsored any such change, let alone getting it to pass.

The city allows districts to become Low Density Growth Management Areas, which are sort of the evil twin of Subject Areas like Long Island City, but they also contain anti-density provisions. I want this to be neutral with regard to density. There's no area of the city that's too sprawled out to support transit; there are just areas where people drive too much.

I have another proposal. I want the Council to create a set of no-minimum R4N, R5N, R6N, R7N, R8N districts that are identical to the R4B, R5D, R6B, R7X and R8X districts but without minimum parking requirements.

There is a legitimate case to be made that a developer who adds residential capacity has an obligation to provide transportation capacity for those residents. To address that, we could also (or instead) have a series of Transit Contribution districts R4T, R5T, etc., where instead of parking, the builder is required to contribute a certain amount to the MTA Capital Fund, perhaps earmarked for that Community District. Todd Litman estimates the cost of building a parking space in New York City at $20,326 (PDF, page 5.4-2), but that does not take into account the opportunity cost of using that floor space, so we could probably set it higher and it would still be a bargain for developers.

There would be no obligation under the law for these districts ever to be used. They would simply be an option that would be available under the normal rezoning process. It could be initiated by the Department of City Planning or by members of the community, but it would still need to go through the normal review process where the community boards, the borough president, the Planning Commission and the City Council all get to review it.

So what do you think? The first person who can get a zoning text amendment with these districts sponsored in the City Council gets a free Cap'n Transit T-shirt! Get it passed, and I'll give you a tote bag and a free lifetime subscription to this blog.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

You can't not have minimum parking requirements

I've been against minimum parking requirements for a long time. These requirements, embedded in the zoning code, have a host of problems (PDF): they drive up the cost of housing, keeping down density and decreasing efficiency. They encourage people to drive, going against all our goals listed above.

For these reasons, some have proposed a cap on minimum parking requirements within walking distance of transit. Libertarians like Stephen Smith, and liberals like Matt Yglesias, would prefer to see parking completely deregulated citywide, if not nationwide. This may be the right way after all, and I'd be open to trying it, but I think it would be a tremendous political lift unless you could manage to build a grand coalition of libertarians and radical environmentalists strong enough to overcome the entrenched alliance between short-sighted conservatives and Subaru-wagon liberal NIMBYs.

In the meantime, here in New York at least, I would like to see the ability to change things at a lower level than the city. In a city where every Democratic candidate in the past three elections has pandered to the driving minority and the media is pervaded by the windshield perspective, it may be more feasible to get a single neighborhood like Sunnyside, Park Slope or Tremont to abolish its minimum parking requirements.

There's some precedent to this. Manhattan below 110th Street on the West side and 96th Street on the East Side have maximum parking limits, as does part of Long Island City. But that's it. Outside of these areas, as Angus found out here in Sunnyside and Woodside, there is no possible zone that comes without minimum parking requirements. The normal rezoning procedure does not include a way to remove parking requirements.

Short of rewriting the zoning code the only option is to have the City Council combine the neighborhood with Manhattan and the "Long Island City Subject Area." This can add to the difficulty: there may be people in the neighborhood who are indifferent to parking requirements, but afraid of "turning the neighborhood into Manhattan."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Forbidden Taxi Apps

I got an interesting email today from the Taxi and Limousine Commission:
To All Interested Parties:

Industry Notice #11-15
July 1, 2011

For Immediate Release

Attention: For-Hire Vehicle drivers
receiving dispatches via smartphone apps
There has been a recent increase in the development and use of smartphone applications (or apps) for purposes of requesting and dispatching for-hire vehicle trips. While the use of these apps by for-hire vehicles and for-hire vehicle bases is permitted, this use must be in compliance with TLC regulations.
What's this all about? It's about apps like Uber, Taxi Magic and Mobile Dispatch. The first two allow users to reserve cars from any of several car services, while Mobile Dispatch is customized for a particular base. That can be tricky, because the bases all use different dispatching software, not all compatible.
This means that for-hire vehicle owners and drivers may NOT contract directly with a smartphone app developer, without the approval and involvement of their bases. If you are accepting dispatches via a smartphone app that is not authorized by the base you are affiliated with, you are doing so in violation of TLC regulations.
It looks like some car service drivers are going straight to the app managers for calls, bypassing the bases. Of course, this is exactly what they've been doing with street hails as well. When you think about it, Uber and Taxi Magic are really running their own dispatch service, which makes you wonder why a driver would need a base. Why don't the app developers register as bases themselves? I'm guessing they don't want a turf war. But because they're not registered as bases, it's a violation of TLC regulations to get calls from them directly.
If you are unsure whether a smartphone app you may be using is going through your base, you should contact your base immediately. If you have further questions about whether an app conforms to TLC regulations, you can contact TLC at the following email address:
Note that this is a big enough deal for the TLC to create a special email account. In case you're wondering why bases have to exist at all, my feeling is that it provides some accountability. Good base operators police their drivers, with various discipline measures against drivers who don't follow the rules. The TLC in turn polices the bases. Of course, the TLC directly polices many of the yellow cabs, so it's not impossible to arrange it that way.
Attention: Yellow Medallion Taxicab Drivers

This is a reminder that you are NOT permitted to use smartphone apps for dispatch. As a yellow medallion taxi driver, you may only pick up passengers that hail you.
It's funny, I just assumed that if you wanted to you could get the number of a yellow cab company and call it, but apparently not. It seems like smartphones would be useful for yellow cabs as well; I don't really see a reason for the TLC to ban them. Hopefully they'll get over they're bureaucratic inertia.

These players are all clearly jockeying for position. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the market be dominated by one app, or will there be fragmentation? Will it be regulated by the TLC?

It seems like one factor that could help things along would be an open standard for taxi dispatch. What if all the apps and dispatching software spoke the same language, and then bases could join up with different app providers as they chose? What if all taxis spoke the same language, so that they could communicate with different bases electronically? I'd be interested to hear from people at the Open Planning Project about this.