Interview with Mikael Colville-Andersen by Melissa Balmer of Women On Bikes SoCal
Mikael Colville Andersen will be a keynote speaker at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2012 conference in Long Beach California this September, and a special guest at Women on Bikes SoCal’s urban bike fashion show Cycle Chic: Past, Present & Future….a Celebration of Dressing for the Destination on September 13th. In 2006, Colville-Andersen coined the phrase “Cycle Chic” and launched a world-wide phenomenon of “Cycle Chic” blogs when he began his Copenhaganize.com blog showcasing his beautiful bicycle friendly hometown.
By using his photography savvy, design eye, keen sense of irony, and knowledge of the bicycle’s place in history, Colville-Andersen (whose tagline is “hold my bike while I kiss your girlfriend”) is reminding the world that the bike can easily be a part of everyday life. In his role as a “Bicycle Anthropologist” he focuses on the penitential of the Citizen Cyclist with his keynote “Bicycle Culture by Design.” I hope you’ll enjoy his thoughtful and thought provoking answers as much as I did.
WoBSoCal: As a professional marketer did you have some kind of sixth sense that you’d be launching something so big when you started Copenhagenize and coined the term Cycle Chic?
MCA: It all happened quite by coincidence. I wish I could say that it was a carefully coordinated Master Plan to re-launch the bicycle on the public consciousness, but that wasn’t the case. Once the interest in photos of cycling Copenhageners started to generate so much interest I did, however, realize that something was happening and what was happening was good. I had no idea that it would grow as big as it has, but that recognition of the potential was the key and I started to develop it from there. It was a long, organic process at the beginning, spurred on by my readers and the amazing, positive reactions I received every day. Coining and launching memes like Cycle Chic, Copenhagenize, Slow Bicycle Movement, Citizen Cyclists, and so on, have helped bring the message out to a broader audience.
WoBSoCal: Help us understand why stepping back and taking bicycling in from a anthropological stance has such tremendous power in helping bicycling gain new fans and understanding.
MCA: There are many misconceptions about urban cycling that are the result of 40 years of marketing cycling as a sport or recreation and not much else, in many regions. The societal mirror that potential bicycle users look into only reflects hobby cyclists who are into gear and fancy bicycles. This sends a message that in order to ride a bicycle, you have to subscribe to some sort of sub-culture, which very few people want to do. When we go bowling, we don’t equip ourselves with all manner of avid bowler gear, we just slide on some crappy old shoes and bowl with our friends.
In many ways, Citizen Cyclists use bicycles differently than avid cyclists. They’re not out to break land-speed records, train for triathlons or track speed, burned calories and muscle mass via onboard computers fixed to their carbon fiber wonderbikes. They just want to go from A to B quickly and enjoyably, buy groceries, drop kids off at kindergartens and schools, go to restaurants, etc. Looking at urban cycling from an anthropological and sociological viewpoint helps us understand how Citizen Cyclists regard the bicycle and how they will use it. My keynote is called Bicycle Culture by Design and it will highlight how planning for bicycle traffic should feature less traffic engineering and planning and a lot more focus on design principles. When you design something, you consider the end user from the very beginning of the process – and all the way through. When you design a toaster or a vacuum cleaner, you think about the men and women who you hope will buy them and make it as simple and attractive as possible.
Avid cyclists are keen to over complicate their hobby, which is great for them but quite useless for the 99%. Design is inherently focused on anthropological considerations and it suits bicycle culture and bicycle promotion perfectly. The bicycle as we know it today was invented for society at large in the 1880s. The avid cyclists – largely white, upper middle class men (sound familiar?) – were showing off on their penny farthings when the Safety bicycle appeared. Cycling went mainstream in the course of a very short time. It liberated women, the working class and it provided simple independent mobility for the masses. It transformed human society more quickly and more efficiently than any other invention in human history. Because of the simplicity of it’s design and the fact that it was anthropologically appealing.
WoBSoCal: And on that note, talk about the power of fashion and sexiness to capture the imagination and spark the interest of a much much wider audience than the bicycling focused advocacy world has thus far been able to tap into.
MCA: If you take a look at the many fantastic bicycle posters produced between the 1880s and the 1930s you’ll see that what we’re doing is nothing new. Cycle Chic is a modern meme for something that has existed since the beginning of Bicycle Culture 1.0. What Cycle Chic has done and continues to do is present the broader population with an image of cycling that appeals to them. An entire generation in many regions has grown up with a singular image of cycling – sporty, recreational, sub-cultural. The return of the bicycle to the public consciousness, carried on the back rack of Cycle Chic has provided people with a new image of cycling. Well, not new, just rediscovered.
The bicycle was a main feature on the urban landscape in cities and towns around the world not least until the 1960s. We’re just doing a bit of Most of the cycle chic bloggers around the world are women and the gender split on Cycle Chic blogs and in our Faceboook group is in favor of women. Like with the vintage posters, we’re selling urban cycling to a mainstream audience. Something the ‘bicycle community’ has been unable to do for the past 40 years. Interestingly, many municipalities and NGOs are registering with us to start Cycle Chic blogs. They recognize that bicycle advocacy is flawed and are keen to broadcast a more mainstream message.
WoBSoCal: Who are your fiercest and toughest critiques? What don’t they understand about your message and the Cycle Chic movement?
MCA: On a global scale, it wouldn’t be suitable to say that there is any criticism. It has been overwhelmingly positive from the beginning and continues to be so. I’ve heard that there has been some grumbling on the internet by some avid cyclists of both sexes in the U.S. who feel that their sub-culture is going mainstream and they feel threatened by that, but there will always be criticism and if you spend time on it, you detract from the positive aspect of your work. Fortunately, its just a drop in the ocean.
WoBSoCal: In my own life, and in my relatively new experience of being involved in bicycle advocacy here in the U.S., I see the bike as a tool for urban optimism. I meet young people every day who see the bike as a smart, money sensible option. Are you optimistic about what the U.S. can accomplish in becoming truly bike friendly?
MCA: The power of the bicycle is timeless and it is enormous. It’s amazing to consider the transformational power that just one vintage Schwinn, for example, can have on an individual’s life. Sure, it’s sensible from a financial point of view, but the important thing is that it is cool. Not hipster-cool, but just generally cool. At last, after 40 years of environmentalism and awareness – without any results – we have a mainstream symbol for where we want to be headed with our societies and our cities. The bicycle’s symbolism is powerful. It means many things to many different people, but it’s all good. Am I optimistic about what the U.S. can accomplish? I am generally optimistic about the return of the bicycle and all the good things that are happening in our cities. I think the United States has a greater challenge ahead of it, however. Not because of the car culture – that’s rather universal – but with reversing forty years of marketing cycling as sport or recreation and not much else. It’s so ingrained in American society that the need for making urban cycling a Hero Brand is incredibly important.
Other Emerging Bicycle Cities and Countries who started out at the same time in around 2006/7 have progressed with impressive speed towards reestablishing the bicycle on the urban landscape. So much so that American cities should be rather embarrassed. Paris, London, Barcelona, Dublin, Budapest – to name but a few. We have been told that Americans, when they put their mind to something, get things done so I’m optimistic that the characteristic gung-ho American spirit will kick into gear. The time is ripe. History is repeating itself. The modal share for bicycles in Los Angeles in 1900 was 20%. Regarding Southern California, I’ll leave you with this quote from an 1897 newspaper article: “There is no part of the world where cycling is in greater favor than in Southern California, and nowhere on the American continent are conditions so favorable the year round for wheeling.” Let’s hope this becomes the case again.
This interview was re-published with the permission of Women on Bikes SoCal. You can view the original post by clicking here.