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Is there a pinch of martyrdom in your bike advocacy?

I had an interesting exchange with one of the volunteers at the SFBC’s fabulous Winterfest party last night. I said “Hi” to the volunteer as I approached one of the food tables. He was surgically picking the turkey out of his sandwich.

He said:

“Normally I would eat a vegetarian sandwich, but since I’m not a strict vegetarian anymore, I’m leaving it for someone else.”

At this point in the night, there were three platters full of turkey and beef sandwiches, and one vegetarian platter.

I said: “You’re taking the turkey out of a turkey sandwich. It’s just a bread and lettuce sandwich now. Why don’t you eat the one you want?”

“I remember how it was when I was a strict vegetarian. The vegetarian option always ran out first. I used to hate it when meat-eaters would eat the veggie option to feel like they were doing something healthy, leaving the vegetarians without food they can eat. So I’m just doing it out of consideration for them.”

I was sort of impressed at how principled he was, but at the same time, his action was a metaphor for the guilt trips and self-denial that bug me about bike advocacy in general. Too many ‘Should’ statements, like “You should ride a bike because of Global Warming,” or “You should ride a bike because of Traffic,” or “You should ride a bike because you need excercise.” But think about it. How did you react the last time someone told you you should do something? You probably said, “Thanks, Mom!” Why would it be any different when you tell someone about riding a bike?

Today’s bike advocates tend to be very effective at lobbying local governments for the things committed cyclists need, like bike lanes and public transit access, and less effective at increasing the overall numbers of cyclists on the road.

Since 2003, Rock the Bike has been exploring and innovating new ways bike people can pump up the volume on their outreach, without guilt tripping their friends and family. If there’s more than a pinch of martyrdom in your bike advocacy style, you might want to consider our approach.

The whole reason we’re involved in the Bike Music Scene is that the concerts and cruiser rides draw people in naturally, through the power of music. Once they show up, they start asking the more experienced bikers for help getting back on a bike after (a) their tires went flat two years ago or (b) their last bike got stolen. Our Down Low Glow bike lights (which we just sponsored for the fifth year at Winterfest) are probably the only bike lights on the market that can make SUV drivers want to give biking a chance.

I went back to the food table later in the night, after the Extra Action Marching Band shredded the venue as the featured performers. I didn’t see the volunteer around, but I did notice that there was still half a platter of veggie sandwiches, but no meat. The volunteer’s self-denial was for naught.

When you “Show, Don’t Tell” the benefits of biking, you’re tapping into a much more powerful way to get your message across to your friends, and, well, to make change in general. To begin, keep it positive. Focus on the things you love about biking, and do them — don’t talk about them, but do them — as much as possible. If you love them so much this should come naturally. But don’t stop there. Make it social. Host rides to concerts you and your friends are interested in seeing, have weekly repair sessions on your front stoop on Sunday mornings, clean your bike and trick it out with colorful parts and lights. Focus on doing the things that will activate the excitement of the people in your life. Leave the guilt trips to their moms!