Why is cycling so emotional?


Since the numbers of cyclists in Vienna are increasing, there is also a growing number of conflicts in the streets of Vienna. Vienna features a dense inner city where space to expand cycling lanes is scarce and parking spaces are sacred. The City Government’s support for cycling and green transport is a very valuable long-term strategy to enhance the urban quality of living in Vienna but in the short run may lead to occasional conflicts between the different stakeholders in urban traffic. Viennese cyclists are in the midst of this development.

A recent event at Vienna’s Cycling House tried to highlight this conflict in order to support a productive debate about how Vienna’s roads can be shared with fewer conflicts. The podium of the latest Cycle Talks united transportation experts, traffic psychologists, cycling advocates and politicians with a critical attitude to expanding cycling to the disadvantage of car traffic.

At this event, we also met with one of Austria’s foremost specialists in public opinion and communication research, Dr. Helene Karmasin of Karmasin Motivforschung, who also participated in the Cycle Talks.

With her insight into Austrian popular preferences with regard to mobility and lifestyle choices, we wanted to learn more about public opinion in terms of cycling (and cyclists), mobility and traffic culture as well as how campaigning to increase cycling and improve traffic culture can become more innovative. Enjoy the interview.

Velo-city 2013: Do you like cycling? When do you use the bike in everyday life, and when and why don’t you?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: I like cycling very much but only as a leisure pastime. Honestly, I don’t really have the courage to cycle in the city. I find it too scary. And pedalling to a meeting in more or less fancy clothes is an unusual idea for me.

Velo-city 2013: How does your research work relate to the general issue of mobility as well as to cycling in particular?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: Obviously, mobility is a very wide field that many of our studies touch upon. The question is how a society will organise mobility. We look into that aspect at various levels. At the individual level, we have noticed that the different ways of movement are not just perceived as possibilities to get from A to B. Rather, each and every mode of transport has a very specific image, conveying a very specific lifestyle and the feeling of belonging – or not belonging – to a specific group.

In this way, transport is like all products that are not only functional items but encompass many emotional aspects as well and at the same time express different values within our society.

Velo-city 2013: In your opinion, why is cycling such an emotionally charged issue for people in Vienna and Austria? What positive and negative popular emotions with regard to cycling can you identify?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: This is indeed interesting. Cycling is really a mode of transport with strong emotional connotations. It is an entirely autonomous and pleasurable form of locomotion that directly translates physical activity into mobility. It involves a sort of funktionslust on the part of cyclists – the pleasant feeling of experiencing one’s body. There are many sensual stimuli, you can feel their air, humidity and smells around you; you perceive your surroundings from a very specific perspective.

At the same time, there is an element of antagonism, too, a sort of accusation: “car drivers are reckless, and cyclists don’t swerve.” There’s a feeling that there are many enemies against you. In part, this may have a rational basis, but it is also something to do with a certain group feeling, and a component of ethics likewise comes into play here.

Velo-city 2013: Different modes of transport are often used as a mode of differentiation between individual groups of society. What measures could help to break down such attitudes in order to perhaps facilitate better coexistence of the various road user groups?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: It is essential to involve the different groups in a dialogue, to initiate a sort of mediation. Basically, I do not believe that motorists are deliberately out to harm cyclists or behave in a life-endangering and reckless manner. Cars are still central objects of our society, and thus motorists have this feeling, “well, this is my street, my route”, and bikes are viewed as a hindrance. Motorists have this experience of almost natural dominance, sort of being “the king of the road”.

Conversely, cyclists quite literally have a rough ride on the streets; they have to avoid certain obstacles and make do with little space. This should be communicated to car drivers in order to create awareness for the situation of cyclists. It’s about creating awareness for this situation. I think that many car drivers behave inappropriately because they simply do not have an inkling of the situation of cyclists.

Velo-city 2013: What are your experiences regarding the visual language used in advertising and campaigns to promote cycling-based mobility? What innovations and refreshingly new approaches can you identify for campaigns to promote cycling or improve the “traffic climate”?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: There is basically very little innovation. Unfortunately, the thing that makes ads for cars so exciting – that an object is assigned its true importance through visual language – is not offered at all by cycling commercials. Adverts for bikes as an instrument for leisure activities are simple, staid and sober. They do not convey the experience you have, the added value or the freedom – all this is never translated into imagery.

Velo-city 2013: What issues would you like to see discussed at the Velo-city Conference 2013?

Dr. Helene Karmasin: Precisely these: visual worlds. What sort of semantics, pictorial ideas or semiotic strategies does cycling need to be associated with? This is not only about verbal arguments – what is cycling good for, who are its opponents or its advocates, etc. – but rather about stimulating desire, creating an emotional bond with people, so that they will say, “oh, that’s lovely, that’s nice, I want that”. And this can only happen if the idea of cycling is charged with a certain meaning, and this meaning must be communicated through images – also via semantics, but mainly through images that stick in the mind. This is what I would really, really like to see.

Velo-city 2013: Thank you for the interview.

For us, the bottom line of this interview is: cycling needs to be presented as an equally important mode of transportation, and the positive aspects and potentials of the “good life” on a bike saddle can be emphasised through cycling campaigns. Two ongoing campaigns in Vienna are currently working towards this objective. The campaign “tschuldigen” (“Sorry”) aims to improve traffic culture among different stakeholders. And the Vienna Cycling Agency is showcasing cycling as an enjoyable and valuable form of urban transportation in their campaign “Setzt Freude in Gang“ (“Sets Joy in Motion”).


Finally, we can all dream one dream together – namely, that cycling campaigns will one day receive as much funding as campaigns presenting the car as the sole model of individual mobility. Dream on, and go on cycling (campaigning).

Velo-city 2013 Vienna | Cycling Stories


Florian Lorenz, Hanna Posch

Velo-city 2013 Communications Team