“Rebranding Bikes and Buses” – A Portland Perspective

by | February 17, 2012 0 Urban Design + Planning

 Hot off the press over at Fast Company Design is an article by the Danish design group, Skibsted Ideation, titled, “How Do You Wean People Off Cars? By Rebranding Bikes And Buses.

To set the stage for their perspective, the authors review the recent lackluster launch of the Tata Nano in India. In concept, the Tata appeared to have game-changing properties with an aim to “…make a luxury car available to the average Indian (and eventually everyone in the world) for about $2,500.” But as one analyst has now reasons, “Indian consumers don’t want a cheap car; they want a car to flaunt. For Indians, as for people in all other countries, a car is as much about status and identity as it is about transport.”

Which leads the authors to the gist of their argument:

When it comes to devising urban mobility schemes, engineers and planners rule. Most collective transport schemes are based on a false assumption that if given a cheap and effective option, people will use it.

Urban mobility is a massive global challenge. The world needs people to shift from big, heavy, fuel-consuming cars to collective transport, including bikes and other low-energy forms of mass transportation. But as the Tata example shows, the challenge is as much emotional as functional. Taking the bus, riding a bike, or driving a cheap lightweight electric car must be perceived as cool, a symbol of status even in places like China and India, where buying a Mercedes is seen as almost a life goal in itself. Here, brands like Tesla and Biomega have shown a way to create aspirational change rather than a functionalistic approach to building more infrastructure.

Actually, in many cases there is plenty of infrastructure already in place; it’s just poorly designed and relatively unbranded compared to cars. Despite an adequate interstate network, traveling by bus is considered in itself deplorable in the U.S. at large, whereas buses in the U.K. have been well-branded.

This is an area where the right design, branding, and marketing could make a huge difference to the world and future generations.

So how about it? Is a heightened sensitivity to the public’s emotional response to transit options a game changer in urban design and planning?

A Portland Perspective

Here in Portland, we’ve got some pretty decent momentum behind our bicycle brand, neé culture. As we discussed the article by Skibsted Ideation around our Urban Design + Planning studio today, we find that we don’t disagree with their thesis, but there is quite a lot of nuance to the role of “brand” in transit choices.

A lot has been done to shift the cultural gravity toward bicycling as a mainstream (dare we say “hip”?) lifestyle. Portland has evolved as one of the most bicycle-forward cities in the US, not solely from top-down, planning-driven investments in bicycle infrastructure and city-sponsored events like Sunday Parkways [see below video], but from cultivating a culture around the bicycle that has taken many different forms. (Bridge PedalTwilight Criterium, Worst Day of the Year Ride, and tall bikes, anyone?)

The culture component has helped push bicycling in Portland (in at least some neighborhoods) beyond a sustainable and affordable mode of transportation to one that is an attractive lifestyle choice. Portlanders choose to bicycle because it’s fun, convenient, and hip – a fundamental part of creating a successful brand, says Skibsted Ideation. Good planning and design help pave the way (pun intended), but you can’t really engineer hip.

This is most apparent in outer neighborhoods in Portland, where there are stark differences in infrastructure investment and bike culture the further you move from the Central City.  Many challenges remain to increase ridership, particularly among low income and minority communities. Portland State University’s Initiative for Bike & Pedestrian Innovation [IBPI] exists to study these sorts of obstacles, and various campaigns have come about to evolve the public’s perception of bicycling such as the Community Cycling Center’s “I Ride.”

When it comes to public transit in Portland, it’s clear in the Hierarchy of Hip where the love is. The Portland Streetcar – with its modern interior, primary colors, and zippy graphics – enjoys steadily growing ridership numbers and is set to open a new loop to the eastside in 2012. The MAX Light Rail system has seen steady ridership growth since the first line went in the 1980s and new lines have brought with them modern train cars with better accommodations for airport travelers, bicyclists, people in wheelchairs, and parents with strollers.

The workhorse of the system, the local bus, hasn’t seen any significant upgrades since the early 1990s, except the transition to biofuels for some of the fleet and some new seat covers. Flagging transit budgets have reduced or entirely eliminated low-ridership routes and the question begs to be asked: what would it take for more people to ride the bus? Is it really a question of branding the experience – of creating a culture around the bus?

It’s here that we might take exception with the notion that “brand” is the missing piece of the puzzle. It may simply come down to the path of least resistance. Sure, many folks who drive their single-occupancy vehicles to work Monday through Friday enjoy their independence of space and schedule, but the fact of the matter is that the majority of our built environments incentivize this behavior. If catching a bus or train was just as fast and convenient as driving and not quite as loud/smelly/uncomfortable/time-consuming, we would wager that there might be a significant shift  – from one of utility and necessity, to one of choice.

 [top photo credit: Ed Yourdon via Flickr]

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