April 21, 2011

Riding a Bike, Train, or Bus: Can it Be Cool?

The other day, while I was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, I heard an interview on Marketplace with Stephen Dubner.  His conversation with Kai Ryssdal focused on "conspicuous convservation," in which people particiate in eco-friendly activities in order to show off how much they care about the environment. 

One thing Dubner said in particular caught my attention:

The Prius is the king of the hybrids. Now it's not necessarily because it's better than other hybrids; according to the Sextons, it's because the Prius has this unique shape which screams "hybrid," which screams "I love the earth more than you love the earth." Now, if you live in a community that cares a lot about the environment -- somewhere like Boulder, Colo. -- that's worth something.
Well, I started wondering about that.  In a place like Boulder, hybrids have a special "coolness" factor, and so a car that "screams" that it's a hybrid is going to do better than a car that is just as good - and just as eco-friendly - but looks more like any other car.

In other words, the Prius sells better because it has a coolness factor that other hybrids don't have.

The Marketplace conversation seemed to paint this negatively, emphasizing that some people make earth-friendly decisions only because it's cool; or, in the business language of Marketplace, because it's "worth something."

My wandering mind then started wondering about how that applies to my own mode of transportation.  When Stephen Dubner asked Kai Ryssdal what kind of car he drove, I thought of the kind of car I drove.  And actually, the "car" I drive most often is my bike. 

Here in Long Beach, bikes are starting to acquire some measure of "coolness" among the general population.  At a community meeting I attended recently, Long Beach City Manager Pat West talked about the city's master plan for bikes, a plan which is helping to make Long Beach "the most bike-friendly city in America."  West made frequent references to the fact that bicycling in Long Beach is for everyone, not just "guys in tight black shorts." 

Make of that what you will.  It does seem to me, however, that perhaps cycling is on its way to reaching a critical level of "coolness" in Long Beach, and when it does, everyone will ride a bike at least some of the time, not because they care about the environment or their health or the cost of gas, but simply because they want to be seen as "cool."

That, in my opinion, won't be such a bad thing.

Earlier this year a local NPR station - on its facebook page - invited folks to offer suggestions that would make public transportation in LA County better.  I left my own comment, suggesting that Metro work to make riding its buses and trains more fun.  Perhaps what I meant to say was "more cool."  At Disneyland, people ride the monorail not just to get from one place to another, but simply because it's fun and cool.  Why is a round trip on the Disneyland monorail cool, while a trip to downtown L.A. on the Blue Line isn't?  Seems to me that a ride on the Blue Line could be made to be fun, with not a whole lot of effort, and the costs of making the trains cool and fun to ride would be offset by the increase in riders.

Maybe someday riding public transportation will be cool enough that it will be "worth something" to people to be seen riding public transportation.  They'll ride buses and trains and ride their bikes simply because doing so screams "I love the earth more than you love the earth." And those who are stuck in freeway traffic will wish they were riding a bus or train, instead of the other way around.

Where many of my trips begin.


Anonymous said...

Danny, I really like your discussion about the positive side of being cool when it comes to transportation. I too live in a city (Portland, Oregon) where bikes have a cool factor. Sometimes cyclists and motorists agitate one another, but for the most part we get along fine. Our light rail system has some of that same sense of being cool. When it comes to using the bus system, which my wife and I do, the experience here is more luke warm than cool.

O said...

We in Brisbane, Australia sort of accidentally hit a winner with our CityCat ferries. They instantly took to being a tourist favourite as well as good for commuting. Some friends tell me that 'fixie' bikes are becoming very cool in Melbourne now. How you make something cool is another matter. People are very savvy about being told its cool now (unless its an Apple product!)
Hope you have a nice break