Understanding Your Commuting Customers

In an effort to understand what kinds of people are choosing bikes over cars in Portland, Oregon, the city’s Bureau of Transportation conducted a study that identified four types of transportation cyclists. Chances are these same commuter types frequent your store and service department. Knowing how best to serve the needs of each type of rider will not only help you keep them as customers and riders, but foster growth in their numbers as well.

Head Counts And Definitions

Here at QBP, rarely does a spring come and go without fellow cyclists commenting on how many more people seem to be getting around on bikes compared to just the year before. But even in Minneapolis, which, along with Portland, is considered a bicycle-commuting mecca, riders still only account for 4.1 percent of the city’s overall population. In cities that haven’t embraced changes that would increase ridership, this number is far lower. Within the walls of a bike shop, however, these numbers represent a fairly large segment of the customer base. Understanding the differences within this group can help you keep them all riding, and even grow the numbers of those who haven’t yet given commuting a try. So who are these people? Here are some observations from the Portland Bureau study, and from our own time spent behind the counter in shops.

Strong & Fearless

The “Strong and Fearless” are, according to the study, “the people for which riding is a strong part of their identity, and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions.” They really aren’t bothered by how obvious it is from their road-worn appearance  that they “got there by bike.” These riders are also comfortable in the middle of the action, with some seemingly chasing the adrenaline rush that comes from live traffic. They have the strength to follow the pace and rhythm of the road, and have honed their instincts to see a block ahead—and seemingly behind.

The bikes of these riders don’t always live the happiest lives. They’re ridden until the paint falls off, and adjustments in riding style are made as parts wear out or break. The Strong and Fearless are often unaware of just how bad the mechanical states of their bikes are until everything is ultimately replaced. (When you hand a bike back after services, it may be good to suggest that the rider take a practice lap in the parking lot to test the brakes—since they actually work now, and might take some getting used to!) Making the case to these commuters for big, spendy repairs, not to mention time away from their bikes, can be challenging, but it usually only takes one really well done overhaul for them to appreciate the benefits of proper service and develop loyalty to your service department.

Enthused & Confident

These are commuters who live in cities that have made significant advances in bikeway networks and supporting infrastructure. The study states that these experiences have led these cyclists to “feel comfortable sharing the roadway with automotive traffic, but they prefer to do so operating on their own facilities. They are attracted to riding streets that have been redesigned for bicycling. They appreciate bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards.”

“Enthused and Confident” riders who are lucky enough to live in more cycle-centric cities like Portland or Minneapolis have had success commuting, and will often try to grab their bike first for daily trips. Available routes may not put them in as much jeopardy, and their workplaces may offer better bicycle storage and ways to clean up when they arrive. These riders are proud of the fact that they commute, and are ready to beat the drum for the cause. They adhere to their bikes’ maintenance schedules and it’s easy to make the case to them for upgrades. These commuters treat their bikes well and are often the first ones to sign up for maintenance classes if your shop offers them. Great customer service just adds to their enthusiasm, and keeps them coming back to “their shop” full of “supportive friends.”

Interested But Concerned

The third and largest group in the study are the “Interested but Concerned.” These are city residents curious about bicycling. They are hearing messages from a wide variety of sources about how easy it is to get around by bicycle, about how bicycling is booming, about “bicycle culture” and “bicycle-friendly” cities, and about the need for people to lead more active lives. One could argue that this group has less to do with well-known cycling cities, and more to do with the state of bicycle commuter culture in America as a whole.

The study notes: “Interested but Concerned citizens like riding a bicycle, remembering back to their youths, but they are afraid to ride. They don’t like the cars speeding down their streets. They get nervous thinking about what would happen to them on a bicycle when a driver runs a red light, or guns their cars around them, or passes too closely and too fast.”

While these people may never think of themselves as “cyclists,” the study found that “they would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.” Your shop staff can certainly be involved in trying to create a better infrastructure in your city via city councils and the democratic process, but what’s even more likely to usher in a sea change is a higher number of cyclists on the streets demanding safety and infrastructure improvements. In this chicken-or-the-egg scenario, just getting the prospective commuter started is where a shop can be most effective.

For a new rider without much context to make comparisons about the benefits of one frame material over another or extra gadgets, what’s really needed is something to pedal so they can experience what getting around is like. In addition to setting a new rider up with a bike, a helmet, and some lights, provide information that gets the mental wheels turning, like how to ride safely in traffic, or details about local routes and features specific to where you live. Offer classes that present opportunities for new riders to learn these things together, reducing some of the anxiety of venturing out on their own.

Eliminate as many barriers to entry as possible for these riders. Once they get comfortable with the idea, help them become Enthused and Confident, or maybe even Strong and Fearless!

No Way No How

The last group in the study falls into the “No Way No How” category. This is a group that is currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest. Commuting just isn’t this group’s thing, and that’s OK. We can always hope that seeing large numbers of confident and smiling cyclists on the road will pique this group’s curiosity, maybe even sparking some reconsideration about commuting in the future.

Tending To The Numbers

In a country that has so long been dominated by automobile culture, the numbers in the Portland Bureau of Transportation study are probably not too surprising. But keeping the Strong and Fearless rolling, the Enthused and Confident excited, and the Interested but Concerned comfortable will help these small population numbers not just hold steady but even grow. The number of cyclists taking to the roads and streets does indeed seem to get bigger every year.

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