Volvo’s ‘Pink it and shrink it’ strategy for cycling
The latest in ‘innovative designs’ for cycling comes from Volvo, the car company which launched a reflective spray for cyclists. Bikewashing at its highest or indeed a life saver?
I am always wary when a company selling one particular product or service boasts its commitment to the values of precisely those who seem less likely to benefit from their business. It’s a common insidious practice: tobacco companies relying, not long ago, on the word of doctors who would make shallow health claims about their puffing to anyone who would listen. McDonald’s painting their brand identity in green so they looked less like a junk food and more like a fair trade, organic enterprise. The list of examples is inexhaustible, there’s event a name for the whole category of such practices: greenwashing.
But what about bikewashing? This is when a business gets some bikes (preferably some Dutch, ladies’ bike, preferably painted in orange) in their street window to convey essential messages about green values, freedom, summer, nostalgia, simplicity, you name it. It’s done by serious businesses such as banks, but also by the hairdresser at the corner, the very elegant suit shop, or, as it’s happening in my neighbourhood, the newly opened gym (yes, gym!) that has two bikes painted all over in, you guessed it, vibrant orange! Of course there’s nothing inherently bad about promoting your business like that, I’m not a orthodox cyclist or anything, but I can’t help not being bemused by the ingenious yet somehow dumb ways the capitalism reproduces itself through such practices that ever expand its repertoire of possibilities for devising new markets.
But when a car company gets into the businesses of bikewashing there is something perverse to the entire enterprise. As with the case of tobacco companies or McDonald’s, car companies are desperate to show they are some neutral players in our daily mobilities, claiming in a way similar positions with other less detrimental means of getting around in our cities. They can be friendly and responsible and considerate, when it is so obvious this is not the case at all.
Case in point: the more recent reflective spray for cyclists from Volvo. Let’s start by saying that I don’t have anything in particular against Volvo, I’ve even been ridden a couple of times in a Volvo car and they seem nice and friendly, if this can be said at all about any car whatsoever. Still, in what way a product such as a spray for cyclists advertised by the Swedish car producer is anything more than an effective PR stunt? I argue it’s precisely this, with no intention whatsoever of understanding what cycling is and is not in the first place. Let’s make this more clear, by pointing to some important aspects of the entire Volvo bikewashing strategy.
1. Volvo launched first the product through some very hype bike shops in Central London, giving it away for free in these locations on the same day they got the press release, then they will probably sell it for maybe a dozen pounds or so a can. The spray lasts for a couple of hours, the can gets empty in a couple of weeks if you are a regular, committed cyclist. Volvo pretends to innovate with a revolutionary technology, which is actually incorporated in some products with a very short lifespan. This eventually produces more emissions in the atmosphere that the more mundane reflective jackets, but hey, flashy innovation was never supposed to benefit everyone, otherwise it wouldn’t be called ‘disruptive innovation’ any more.
2. Volvo doesn’t understand cycling safety and also what is convenient or not for cyclists. But, at the same time, a PR stunt doesn’t need to have such ambitions, does it? If they did understand them they wouldn’t actually believe that cyclists, already stigmatized for their rather conspicuously odd behaviour amongst the more ‘normal’ of us (risk takers, lawless, in their mid-life crisis), will ever spray themselves and their bikes before every and each of the rides we do. Cycling needs simplifying, not adding complicated and useless new technologies. People take up cycling because it is supposedly convenient, not just a nightmare of paraphernalia that needs constant appraisal before getting on the saddle. Really, one more item in our already packed up ‘wardrobe’ doesn’t make much sense. My other argument is also that, at least in London, the visibility of cyclists at night is the last of the worries drivers have: modernity has made London into a well lit city, cyclists are anyway already constantly reminded to be visible, they wear by default extra amount of high-viz vests, why just add another layer of redundancy to this?
3. With this PR stunt, the onus on cyclists is once again so visible, to use the already consecrated vocabulary. Cyclists must be the ones taking precautions, not the other more dangerous cars. In the UK and in most countries it is the cyclists’ fault when they get hit, there’s no such thing as drivers automatically being hold accountable for collisions, despite the recent efforts from campaigners across the UK.
What could have done Volvo better than this? I would humbly suggest something more efficient to prevent collisions between cars and cyclist, but this surely wouldn’t qualify as an effective media buzz, would it? Simply add to the user’s guide that comes along with every shiny new Volvo two more pages where you advise those too often unaware drivers how to ‘interpret’ cycling. With basic advices that most of them aren’t aware of at all, such as:
1. Don’t overtake a cyclist too closely. This scares the shit out of them.
2. Do not encroach into advance stops line areas provided for cyclists.
3. Do not drive or park in a cycle lane.
4. Check for bicyclists before opening the door of your vehicle.