MobilityCyclingSaviour of Your Health or Saviour of the World? How to Frame...

Saviour of Your Health or Saviour of the World? How to Frame Cycling Campaigns

Tanja Polonyi
Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

Promoting cycling as beneficial should be an easy task: It’s good for the environment and keeps you healthy. The question, however, is which focus proves to be successful when advocating for cycling. Which cycling campaigns convince us to finally ditch our cars and embrace the bicycle? Keep reading to find out!

There are countless ways to frame a cycling campaign and many things you can focus on. Depending on your target group, you have to know what focus proves to be the most effective. While there are several different types of cycling campaigns we can learn and get inspired from, the first thing to realise is that knowledge itself is not enough: “People need repeated positive experiences with a new thing before they seriously consider changing their ingrained patterns”, as the handbook “A catalogue of inspiration” by the Cycling Embassy of Denmark states.

What can we learn from cycling campaigns aimed at different user group that are framing different aspects? How can we activate people to change their behaviour in the long run? Here’s a few examples of what we can learn from cycling campaigns that have proven to be successful: 

Campaigns for Adults – Making Cycling a Habit

If the intrinsic motivation doesn’t suffice, external motivation could do the trick. Dating back to 1997, the Bike to Work campaign of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation has become a yearly tradition, with growing numbers of participants per year. To get more people to commute to work by bike, the organisers put up a competition with the possibility to enter as a company and the prospect of winning prices. 

Due to the success of promoting cycling through competition, this idea has been picked up by several other countries. As Klaus Bondam, CEO of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation puts it: “The bike to work campaign is very much built on a peer to peer system, colleagues helping each other, creating a social platform of activity,” and convincing employers to improve conditions for their cycling employees. 

With a similar concept, Climate Alliance launched its campaign CITY CYCLING in 2008. 

Campaign manager André Muno has a quick answer to why these types of campaigns prove successful: “We created the campaign as a competition to get people on bikes with fun and joy. This is the message we’re communicating: People should simply enjoy cycling.” The campaign also targets local politicians specifically to put more pressure on their role as policymakers and representatives of cyclists. 

The goal of the campaign is to not only communicate the joy of cycling but to help cities improve their cycling infrastructure. To achieve that, CITY CYCLING branched out with a tool called RADar! to help districts locating potholes and other road damages through a GPS and reporting system. Expanding the campaign, if proven successful, with different tools of civil participation, can help several cities in the long run to change their citizen’s attitudes and their cycling infrastructure. 

Campaigns for Children – Building the Foundation

Humans are creatures of habit. Targeting children with cycling campaigns is crucial, as their behaviour can be changed much easier than the one of an adult. 

Image credit: Unsplash / liz99

As a countercampaign of Bike to Work, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation did a similar “Bike to school” campaign aimed at children, also built up as a competition that catered not only to children but to their teachers and parents as well. 

“The whole idea of those campaigns is to spark a conversation on mobility in different social contexts – that can be with the school campaign, or with a kindergarten campaign to start a dialogue at home.” Klaus is convinced that through these campaigns, children will ask their parents about the necessity of their car use. 

As a result of the campaign, the school’s focus on cycling improved significantly, also increasing the number of children wearing helmets. To read more on children-friendly cycling infrastructure, check out our article “Planning Cycling with the Youngest in Mind”.

Don’t Forget Your Helmet!

With cycling comes the issue of traffic safety. Campaigns targeting the cyclists’ responsibility to be safe in traffic mostly focus on the usage of helmets. 

The Danish campaign “Use a helmet – Because we love you” included a short film about a police officer stopping cyclists, giving them hugs and helmets. It turned out to be successful due to the organiser’s decision not to moralize or frighten people. 

However, if not thought through, cycling campaigns can cause a serious backlash. A campaign of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital infrastructure earned criticism after advertising wearing a helmet with half-naked men and women under the slogan “Looks like shit. But saves my life”. 

Critics were fast to point out the sexism of the campaign and the distraction from the fact that German cities are incredibly dangerous for cyclists. Moral of the story: Don’t underestimate the value of detailed research about your target audience!

E-Bikes Are For Everyone

In Cork, the City Council launched Ireland’s first e-bike cycling campaign we-bike to promote e-bikes not only in the city but in the whole county. Even though the campaign has not been running for long, the retailers of e-bicycles are already seeing an increase in sales.

Frank Fitzgerald, responsible for Sustainable Travel & Road Safety Awareness in Cork, told us that the previous campaigns about e-bikes have been a little out of touch with reality, too picture-perfect. To counter that, the Irish campaign decided to show a wide variety of different uses of electric bikes and especially the different people that use electric bikes.

With a community-oriented approach, the campaign picked several ambassadors that live in Cork and Cork County to show what they are using the e-bikes for, and how: One ambassador, for example, is Siún Kearney. She is using the e-bike as a way for social inclusion. As Frank tells us, “she would keep contact with friends and family and she was able to go on longer journeys with electric bikes that wouldn’t have been possible in any other way” before.

Siún Kearney used her e-bike to spend time with her lovely family. Image credit: ®

The campaign does not have a particular age group in mind. Their ambassadors are of all ages and as Frank tells us, it was important to “show that it wasn’t just the young 20 to 30- year-olds that are on bikes cycling around the place. It could be a young mother or an elderly person using it for everything.”

What is it that we can learn from these examples? Here are our top 5 aspects to consider when it comes to framing your cycling campaign:

How to Frame Your Cycling Campaign

Choose Your Target Group

To change people’s minds about cycling you have to know about their behaviour and attitudes. The identification and analysis of potential target groups is an important first step. You need to know everything about your audience and make sure that you adapt the messaging of your campaign to that specific group. 

One example of identifying target groups can be found in the EU project CARMA, a project initiated by six European cities to gain a better understanding of how to change beliefs around cycling. Through extensive analysis, they were able to define specific key target groups in each of the cities. Check out the CARMA Handbook for detailed project results.

When analysing your target group, ask yourself:

  • What are the current attitudes and behaviours of residents?
  • Which groups share the same beliefs and behaviours? Do they have common characteristics?
  • Which groups identified would be most likely to change their beliefs and behaviour?

However, not all campaigns have to have a specific target group. Promoting cycling more generally can result in overarching success as well. 

For a general approach take Frank’s advice:

“We spend too much time thinking what the people want rather than ask them.”

For Frank, the ambassadors of the e-bike campaign are a good way to cover a wide aspect of people, to show their stories and their way of using a bicycle.

Goals, Results, Evaluation

It is important to know beforehand what exactly you are planning on achieving. Typically, the goal of cycling campaigns is to get more people to cycle. But what about people that are already cycling? What about road safety, does your campaign influence people wearing helmets?

The Cycling Embassy of Denmark recommends investing a lot of time in the evaluation of your campaign. Most Danish cycling campaigns set up goals for the campaign beforehand. The campaigns are later evaluated with the help of questionnaires and focus groups. 

Evaluations are time and money consuming but worth it to prevent future mistakes. Besides, specific results and numbers are a great help in getting more funds. 

Health Is a Better Frame Than the Environment

This might be hard to admit, but the environment does not make a good frame for cycling campaigns. At least not as good as health. Lucas Harms, the director of the Dutch Cycling Embassy tells us in an interview, that “environmental arguments are sort of overarching”. He continues to explain that in contrast to health, the change of the environment has no directly felt effect on your own life. 

Climate change isn’t tangible yet for most people. Your own health, however, is personal. You can feel the effects of a healthier lifestyle almost immediately. Roger Geffen, policy director of Cycling UK describes the mindset of people as following: “for individuals seeking up cycling, the health imperative is a much stronger one than the environmental one.”

“The environmental argument is a reason to feel good about having taken up cycling rather than a reason to take up cycling in the first place.”

André puts it similarly: “We don’t say it’s about climate action in every third sentence.” The City Cycling campaign has the intent to improve the city’s liveability and the climate between road users, hence the safety and health of the participants.

Timing and Community-Orientation

Image credit: Unsplash / Nina Strehl

Involve your city’s community to promote your cycling campaign. Make sure that the people in your city feel seen in your campaign. Use relatable people for promotional videos and pictures, who, ideally, are known in your community.

To get your campaign rolling, show up at local events and promote your cause there as well. Not only the community work is a factor for success but the timing of your campaign’s rollout. As Frank tells us, they launched their campaign during the Bike Week in Cork, held several events including cycling games, and went into schools to teach kids about cycling.


It is much easier to get your campaign off the ground if you have the support of other stakeholders, allies, and partners. In the case of the we-bike campaign, the City Council worked not only with local companies such as bike retailers but also with the Credit unions to offer loans to people interested in buying electric bicycles. Community groups particularly the Transport & Mobility Forum (TMF) contributed as a major driver to this project as well.

Be cautious to only work with companies and stakeholders that fit your campaign and keep your network in a manageable size so that everyone can express their opinions. 

Besides communities and companies, it is important to involve the media as well. Make sure to promote your campaign via several networks and involve the press. Many successful cycling campaigns have been covered in national and international newspapers, which can lead to international attention and the adaptation of your campaign in other countries.

Keep in mind that some media outlets might not support your message. As Roger tells us, during the pandemic, London City Council created several pop-up bike lanes, and the portrayal in the media was pretty negative. However, Roger debunks, that did not reflect the majority’s attitudes. In this case, the goal of your cycling campaign is to show people that they are not the beleaguered minority, as the media portrays them, but are in fact the majority. 

Key Takeaways

  • Think about who you are targeting
  • Partners and the press are crucial allies
  • Find your city’s unique selling point
  • Set your goals beforehand in a way that they can be measured and evaluated
  • Get the community of your city involved
  • If possible, time your campaign roll-out with cities’ events
  • Don’t assume what people want, ask them!

Check out this website of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark for more Danish solutions and recommendations on cycling issues!

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