Wednesday 26 December 2012

Can bicycles be an aspirational purchase?

I work in the City of London.  By any standard, my colleagues and I are well paid.  Our most junior fee-earning staff, doing their “articles”, start above the national average salary.  Over 100 of our partners are paid in seven figures.

I do part of my daily commute by bicycle.  Judging by the number of empty spaces (ie not many) in our secure cycle parking facilities, which have a capacity of about 420 bikes, (and which are regularly cleared of “bed blockers”) about 6% of our 7,000 or so staff in London cycle to work – and that doesn’t include the unquantified numbers who, like me, use a folder and tuck it under our desks.  6% is clearly well above the national average and is probably above the average for the City of London but it is not significantly so.  The old, 2002 planning standard for cycle parking in City office buildings was one space for 250 square metres of usable floor space, which for most City concerns translates into one space for about 20-25 staff.  The new 2012 standard in the Local Development Framework will be one for 125 square metres.

Our cycling population goes right across the spectrum of seniority, with young trainees pedalling in from Camberwell and senior partners from Highgate or Kensington.  My ultimate boss, head of tax at our firm, one of those 100, comes in on his Pinarello racer.  This also is typical – senior partners in some of the City’s “magic circle” of law firms are also cycle commuters.

Why do they cycle?  Well, it is not because they can’t afford a car, that’s for sure.  In most cases it won’t be because they are serving a driving ban either.  I doubt many of them do so out of particular concern for the environment – they merrily hop on planes to the US or far east for what often strike me as quite trivial reasons, and one or two of those senior cyclists also own Jags or Ferraris.

Convenience is an important factor of course.  And speed, compared with public transport, or even a taxi as many at the top end will choose daily.  Shoehorning some exercise into a very busy lifestyle which doesn’t provide much time for visits to the gym is also an important factor.

Whatever.  The fact is that a considerable number of rich, or affluent, top professionals use a bicycle entirely out of free choice.  The fact that most of these are men aged 25-50 can’t be ignored, but in general terms you’d have to assume that a large part of the general population would aspire to be like them.

Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher before him, built their political careers, very successful ones too, whatever you may think of them, around the aspirations of the middle- and skilled working-classes.  Thatcher largely through extending home ownership (now that’s a laugh!)  Blair through his “Mondeo Man”, ie the car-owning democracy.

The great ad-man of the mid 20th century, David Ogilvy, is sometimes credited with the old marketing advice “sell the sizzle, not the steak”.  Very few cars are sold on the basis of speed or acceleration, or even practical considerations like boot space or extra seats for the school run.  Even fuel economy is more of a footnote to the ads.  No, cars are sold on dreams of glamour, of being like the beautiful people, of the freedom of the open road (the Riviera Corniche at 4am on midsummer’s Sunday, the bridge at Kylesku in Sutherland, mere miles south of Cape Wrath).  Impossible dreams, but aspirational. 

Bicycles on the other hand are seen by many as something for people without enough money in the bank, or too many points on their licence.  They can even have more negative associations, as Dave Horton’s excellent series of “CyclingStruggles” illustrates – in poor communities, the bicycle may be seen as the escape vehicle of choice for drug pushers.

Can cycling be aspirational?  Can a bicycle become an aspirational purchase?  I don’t count all those sales of racers immediately after watching Bradley Wiggins cross the finishing line.  If that is aspiration, it is of a different kind, as it requires serious effort and most of the aspirers will give up quite quickly once they realise that.  (Or after they realise that the cheap bicycle-shaped object they bought is too horrible to ride).  Aspiring to a car on the other hand is easy-peasy – part of the sell, alongside all the glamour, is that it relieves you of all effort.

Presumably the big bicycle manufacturers like Specialized or Giant are content with their marketing strategies.  After all, bicycles are sold by the million every year, even if most end up gathering dust in a shed and eventually make their way to the dump.  But I can’t help thinking that selling mid-priced but quality practical bicycles – Pashley springs to mind – off the back of that smell of success, in the City but also in the Media and any number of other professions, and with the glamour of a Kelly Brook or a Vicky Pendleton, might get more people not only to buy sensible bikes, but also to use them.

Then all we have to do is sort out the roads they will have to cycle on!

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