The Online Voice of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can a simple conversation significantly increase the number of bicyclists on city streets?

We’ve all read about how bike lanes can increase the mode share of cyclists, but is building infrastructure the only way? If you build it, will they come? Will a non-cyclist start biking to work if a bike lane is installed near their home or work site? One would assume the answer is yes, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many bike lanes sprouting up around the nation. As someone who teaches beginner commuter classes, I have heard many times that new cyclists feel more comfortable on roads with bike lanes. I’m all for bike lanes, however, I’m going to look at another method of increasing the bicycle mode share, Individualized Marketing.

A typical marketing campaign may include posters, advertisements in papers
or radio, and may reach a small percentage of people. If I want to increase the number of cyclists in my community I could develop an ad campaign that shows local cyclists and hope that people see it and are inspired to bike themselves. If I’m lucky, they will also see my website and remember to check it out and read about beginning commuter classes. Individualized Marketing takes this approach a few steps, or leaps, further, by bringing the offer of bicycle education and assistance to their doorstep.

In July 2008 Whatcom Smart Trips contracted with SocialData to provide Individualized Marketing (IndiMarkTM) to1/3 of Bellingham households (10,037 homes or 22,500 people). People were contacted by mail and by phone and asked if they would like information about making more of their trips by walking, bicycling and public transportation. Contact was made with 89% of the households in the targeted area. Of those who contact was made, 45% responded that they were interested in learning more about how they could use sustainable transportation modes.

This is the group that received the individualized attention. An order form was mailed to their home from which they could choose a plethora of brochures and booklets that highlight bike, pedestrian and bus safety, as well as tips and techniques. People who were slow to complete their forms received encouraging follow-up phone calls, with the result that 90% of the group ordered and received materials. In addition to the educational materials on the order form, respondents could schedule a ‘bike buddy’ visit--a one-on-one meeting with an experienced cyclist who reviews bike safety, rules of the road, bike and helmet fit, and even helps plan out bike routes near the person’s home. The same can be done for bus riders as well.

Once the order form was received by SocialData, the requested materials were quickly delivered to the person’s home by bicycle. About a week or two after a delivery SocialData would contact the household to make sure they had received everything they wanted and answer any questions they might have. Households that participated in the 2008 IndiMark project received an average of four to five phone calls and/or visits. This high level of interaction sets IndiMark apart from standard direct mail campaigns, which typically achieve a 3-4% response rate.

So what are the results? Do all these phone calls and bike deliveries make a difference?
You bet! In Bellingham, we saw a 15% reduction in VMT (vehicle miles traveled), as well as an 11% increase in bus trips, a 22% increase in walking trips and a 35% increase in bicycle trips! This results in city-wide mode share of 12% walking, 6% bicycle, 1% motorcycle, 55% car as driver, 21% car as passenger, 4% bus, and 1% other public transportation. In the targeted area, the active transportation mode share is an amazing 20% walking and 11% bicycling!

So why is IndiMark so successful? I think the main reason is that humans respond to and like genuine interactions. Encouragement from a real human being takes the fear and the unknown out of change. Someone may want to ride their bike to work, but if they don’t know how to do it safely, or what the laws are, they have to do the research themselves. They may not even know where to start looking for that information. So if someone calls them and says, “Good afternoon, if you’re interested I’d like to send you some information on bike commuting”, the fear is eliminated and they are on track to start biking.

Another reason for the success of IndiMark is that the information provided is individualized and specific to their neighborhood. If a resident doesn’t know where the bus that stops on their street will take them, they are unlikely to use it; it isn’t even an option for them. But if they get a call and ask for information about the bus, they’ll receive a detailed summary of the bus options available to them in their neighborhood. The guesswork is gone; the bus and the bike are now options.

As I said earlier, bike lanes are great. However, adding infrastructure isn’t the only way to increase bicycling trips. Providing quality education is much more cost effective than a construction project. IndiMarkTM costs about $20 per person ($450,000 for 22,500 people). Compare that to a recent bike/ped improvement project that installed about 1800 feet of much needed sidewalks and bike lanes on a local Bellingham street for a cost of $710,000.

Now don’t get me wrong--this was an amazing project (it just so happens to be in my neighborhood, so I directly benefit from it). However, it’s unrealistic to expect the level of behavior change from that new facility as we achieved in the IndiMark project. The new facility will be used most likely only by people in that immediate neighborhood, whereas the IndiMark project reached a third of the City’s population. If communities are able to couple infrastructure projects with education we will all benefit and have safer, more livable places to reside.


  1. I'm very much for bike infacstructure that provide for the safe and expedient passage of cyclists, but we need to be selectiveabout how they are installed.

  2. Leo,
    I couldn't agree more. It astounds me to see so many bike lanes stripped right in the door zone!

  3. For those looking for an even cheaper way to offer education and encouragement, the West Windsor Bicycle and Pedestrian Alliance ( in central New Jersey is at our local farmers' market every other week with information, maps, helmets and other gear for sale... and yes, I even offered to be a bike buddy for someone wanting a route to work.
    You don't cover everyone in town, but you do have face-to-face time. And I am convinced more people are riding bikes in town than a few years ago!
    Anyone else have suggestions for locations that are good for communuity outreach?

  4. What does "target area" in the 3rd paragraph mean? Were contacts always hit with both mail and phone? Does "contact was made" indicate a phone contact or non-bounced mail contact?

    You bash direct mail but note that this cost $20/target, whereas standard direct mail costs about $1/target. Thats a 2000% increase in costs.

    As an avid cyclist I'm excited to see this kind of effort being put into alternative transportation, and I agree that money could be better spent on organizing than infrastructure. Of all your points, I think that is the most poignant. What if 50% of highway improvement budgets were used for carpool facilitation?!

  5. Mark,

    The target area was 1/3 of Bellingham households, about 20,000 people. Contact was made does indicate that they either mailed back their form or talked to someone on the phone. I wasn’t trying to bash direct mail, but show that Individualized Marketing has a much higher response rate and will make more of an impact. You are right, direct mail campaigns do cost a lot less, however, they are also much less effective. Typical direct mail campaigns have a 3-4% response rate, where as our Individualized Marketing campaign saw an 89% response rate.

    Studies have shown that a passive campaign where materials are sent to a person and it is up to them to react have a unit cost of 1and a reduction in 1 car mile, thus 1 mile reduced per unit cost. An interactive campaign where dialogue is established, materials delivered and interaction is encouraged has a unit cost of 4, with 12 car miles reduced, thus 3 miles reduced per unit cost.