Friday, 7 August 2009

The tipping point

I have been thinking about many things (as usual), because a 40 minute ride each way gives one time to ponder life, the universe, and why some people are thick as two short planks.

Some might say that this has been my week to pick on the females of the cycling fraternity. Not so. I have simply pointed out some things that I have observed. You may disagree with my conclusions, but my observations remain the same. Just like "Charlie don't surf", chicks don't ride - at least not in the same numbers as men.

And then I'll got and post this photo to disprove that theory.

Actually, posting this photo of a female cyclist has nothing to do with pricking theoretical bubbles. I posted it because I realised today that cycling in Sydney has reached a certain tipping point - a very sizable proportion of my fellow commuters have taken to wearing reflective vests of some sort. Green is the most popular colour, with a good smattering of orange. The days of the Ninja (idiot cyclists dressed in black from head to foot) are numbered. Even I have crossed over to the dark side (so to speak).

If you ask me, we've reached a tipping point. Vest wearing has become the thing to do. When I started out, only weird people wore reflective vests - hippies mainly. Men with beards - and women too. Birkenstock wearers. Hairy legged soap avoiders. Lentil chewers. Tofu bandits. In the world of serious road cyclists, that is still the rule; but in commuting land, reflectos are now possibly in the majority.

Here is where I move into the world of conjecture.

I believe that the reflective vest is something that is helping convert some people to cycling. The vest leads them to believe that it lowers the risk of being on the road, and once their perceived risk is reduced to a manageable threshold, they start cycling. The more reflective cyclists there are on the road, the more they are noticed, and the more people start to think, "Hey, I could be doing that instead of sitting on this bus". There is something to be said for the idea of safety in numbers.

Now comes my next theory, and here I move into the world of the theory of the diffusion of innovations. Before I get into that, check out this page that covers systems dynamics - the animations are very cool.

The diffusion of innovations breaks consumers down into the following groups:

  • Innovators
  • Early Adopters
  • Early Majority
  • Late Majority
  • Laggards
Adoption of a product or service follows on S-curve. I'll see if I can draw some later that will make sense.

Here in Sydney, cycling to work is still a rare activity - albeit a growing one. I think it is down around or under the 1% mark of all journeys to work. Many policy wonks have this grand vision of raising that to 5% or more, but if you ask me, most of them have no idea how that will actually be achieved.

At the moment, bike commuting is moving from the "innovators" phase to the "early adopters" - at least as far as males are concerned. This change is no different to say the adoption of the iPod - trendy innovators took it up first, then the early adopters and so on, until laggards like me finally got around to buying one.

The reflective vest has I think had a lot to do with getting the early adopters on board. The innovators are the risk takers - they'll ride naked at midnight with no lights and smeared in boot polish. Early adopters are not so accepting of risk - they need to see some sign that they can ride to and from work on a consistent basis without ending up as road kill, and the vest has probably tipped them over the edge.

I may be wrong here - we might in fact be moving into the "early majority" stage as far as men are concerned, but I doubt it. If you look say at the numbers of people riding in Holland, our numbers are so tiny, we have to be right at the start of the S-curve.

And then there are the women. I postulate that they are a stage behind men on the S-curve because of this risk-perception factor. Men are thicker than women - ie, more tolerant of risk (or just less aware of the consequences of their stupid actions). Women have a higher risk threshold to climb over before getting into the saddle. The big increase in the number of male cycling commuters of late has led innovative women to think, "I'm at much less risk if I cycle with that big pack of blokes - I won't be on my own in the traffic".

I reckon that in a few years time, women will move into the early adopter phase, and we'll see a big jump in women cycling to work. It won't be steady growth - it will be explosive. There'll be the odd one here and there one day, and packs of them roaming the bike paths the next.

So here's my curves - men in blue, and women in pink. That's my explanation for why men currently outnumber women about 20:1 on the bike commute into town.

It's either that, or too many women think lycra makes their bum look fat.

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