On a hot Sunday afternoon this September, Mad Men writer-producer Tom Smuts and a handful of his famous friends rode bikes from Santa Monica to the Emmys awards show in downtown Los Angeles. It was the second time Smuts led the 17-mile ride to promote cycling as a fun, practical way to get around the city, an effort that puts him on a growing list of celebrities backing the bike.“If Hollywood could make smoking cool, it’s interesting to see what it could do for cycling," Smuts told the Hollywood Reporter.
Pedaling in a Rapha suit with a pocket square, Smuts definitely made cycling look cool, and his efforts to promote bike commuting are welcome and laudable. But more coolness aside, the bigger thing to consider is how celebrities can make cycling normal. And on that front, even Smuts will admit, we’re still searching for the perfect A-list champion of bikes.
“The celebrity needs to be the appropriate person for the target audience you’re trying to get at,” says Jennifer Lynes, Director of Waterloo University’s Environment and Business program, where she where she examines the marketing of sustainability. “It’s best when their behavior isn’t a one-off, but a continuous thing.” Think Angelina Jolie sharing her decision to undergo screening for the “breast cancer gene” BRCA1, and her subsequent double mastectomy. Studies showed the number of screenings in the UK more than doubled after her public revelations, a result dubbed the Angelina Jolie Effect. “If the target audience believes the celebrity is sincere, and it’s somebody that resonates with them celebrities can influence public behavior on a large scale,” Lynes says.
The problem with promoting bike commuting is it how complicated it can seem for most people. In nearly every survey, would-be bikers cite safety over the act of cycling as the main deterrent to two-wheeled commuting: bad drivers, dangerously designed and badly maintained roads, lack of bike lanes.
This fear was on full display last weekend, when NPR host Peter Sagal announced to his 129K Twitter that he would “try to survive a weekend in LA traveling entirely by bicycle.” To which got the following replies: “You will be missed.” and “RIP.” (Sagal later tweeted: “LA is fantastic for bikes, except for the people in cars who want you to die.” And when he announced he survived the weekend unscathed, a follower suggested he might possibly be immortal.)
Those replies show the perceived (and real) danger of cycling in a city that doesn’t yet have a robust bike infrastructure. Fortunately, many major American cities are currently addressing that issue, including car-centric Los Angeles. “There’s an understanding that as people are moving into cities, their populations are growing, and we can’t build more space for parking and roads,” says Nicole Freedman, the former Olympic cyclist behind Boston’s seven year transformation into a more bike-friendly city. “So we really have to support biking and walking and [public] transit.”
Los Angeles’ mayor and representatives from the Department of Transportation and city council were on hand at Smuts’ ride to talk about initiatives that’ll put a bike share system downtown by mid-2016, and reduce the number of injurious and deadly collisions—there were 2,043 reported bike accidents in Los Angeles in 2012—to zero by 2025.
But we shouldn’t have to wait decades for cities to transform in order to hop on bikes. That’s where cycling’s yet-to-be-found celeb savior comes in—the guy or girl with Angelina Jolie Effect powers who can appeal to a broad range of people, drivers and cyclists alike, to make cycling normal. “I just wish it was bigger,” Smuts said of his ride, “and that we had Matthew McConaughey.”
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