A bit of a kerfuffle has broken out over a recent car advertisement between the new Hard Drive commuting blog at the Oregonian and the Bike Portland blog. Here, for your consideration is the ad:


Very funny. The ad shows people crowded in a bus and one guy negotiating his Segway down a crowded sidewalk. The car being sold passes an old Volvo with a “Powered by Vegetable Oil” bumper sticker. Yes, the very fact that Sightline’s now jumping into the fray might mean we’re doing the devil’s work, spreading the advertisement further into the blogosphere. But setting that aside for a moment, let’s examine what this argument is all about. Does this advertisement hurt efforts to promote more sustainable behavior? Is it an aggressive promotion of cars as a better and more fun way to travel than more sustainable alternatives? Do ads like this contribute to a social norm that promotes driving over taking the bus? Or is it just a funny ad?

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  • Bike Portland’s point is that commuting by alternative modes wouldn’t be so damn difficult if we put as much money and focus on them as we do making it easier to drive.

    We have to say, this ad has raised our hackles—and plenty of questions. Such as: Did you ever notice that bus and bike commutes suddenly get to be a lot of fun when there is adequate planning and infrastructure to support the demand for them? To what lengths will car companies go to try to sell their product?

    Essentially, they say, such ads are immoral because they provide another rationale for drivers to stay in their cars and perpetuate the idea that bikes and buses are for losers.

    On the other side is the Hard Drive blog, suggesting the idea that these kinds of ads are essentially just funny or irreverent—and therefore harmless in the big picture. And complaining about them actually makes things harder by making bike and bus advocates sound like scolds.

    Many of them rely on blogs such as Bike Portland to get news about safety workshops and weekend events, not to get preached at for their transportation sins. I have to wonder whether a commentary like Blue’s does more harm than good when it comes to getting more people bicycling.

    I understand that Bike Portland sees itself as part of a cause. I appreciate that. But does arrogance and ridicule serve the cause better than balance and education?

    A recent study called “Factors Influencing Car Use for Commuting and the Intention to Reduce It: A Question of Self-Interest or Morality?” looked at actual commuters in Canada and found that self-interest is much more useful in explaining commuting behavior than morality, and people are more likely to cite self-interested commute decisions. Interestingly, however, the subjects of the study were more likely to see their unfulfilled intentions (“I really should take the bus but . . . “) in moral terms.

    Morality has to be part of any discussion of climate change and all the different strategies we employ to reduce its effects. So, I tend to think that some outrage is justified. After all, car companies are selling a product that has contributed to the problem of climate change in the first place. That is serious.

    But indulging in outrage won’t help us get closer to the solutions that will transition us away from car use and toward more walking, biking, and busing. In fact, the anger fuels a perception that environmentalists are extreme and unbending. Biking, as the Hard Drive blog points out, is on the rise in Portland (and there are more bike commuters than farmers). It has become a mainstream, everyday way to get to work. And we know that a big part of this shift is the pay back from good policy decisions by leaders and voters in Portland to focus on investments that promote biking rather than driving.  So it’s OK. Laugh.