By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

With any luck, by the time you read this, I will have crossed the state of Iowa by bicycle.

For the past six years, I have ridden RAGBRAI. So, naturally, as a biker I have followed the ongoing effort in Cedar Rapids to make Cedar Lake a public park and to construct a new pedestrian/biker span over the Cedar River – the “Sleeping Giant” bridge. The city of Cedar Rapids recently gave the two projects, named ConnectCR, a boost with a $5 million pledge. You can find more information on the projects at ConnectCR.org.

If the plans bear fruit in coming years, it will in part be due to effective media communication, which must overcome one problem: Bikers don’t always have a positive image.

Think of the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” which includes an occasional character named Jef the Cyclist. (Jef dropped an F from his name to become lighter.) The character is buff, self-righteous and indifferent to others. I hope he’s not what most people think of when they imagine a biker.

So, what strategy should ConnectCR follow to ensure the best media image for its projects? Here are four ideas:

First, emphasize that trails are parks open to anyone. You don’t have to ride a bike to enjoy circling Cedar Lake. I often see people fishing, kayaking, jogging and walking there. In a phrase that has already been used by ConnectCR, trails are “linear parks.” It’s a good line –repeat it.

Second, ensure support from local businesses. The ConnectCR projects are easy to like from an economic development standpoint. Local media has sometimes noted what biking means in dollars and cents. The Corridor Business Journal recently ran a cover story about businesses that have sprung up in the region due to their proximity to bike trails. ConnectCR’s projects can draw people and money to the Corridor. Those dollar benefits need to be quantified and emphasized.

Third, work with local bikers to promote good behavior. I like the “slow for peds” signs on the Cedar River Trail near Cedar Lake because they make sense. Just as bikers hope motorists treat them with respect when they use streets, bikers need to treat walkers on trails with mutual respect, and may need reminders to do so. In addition, bikers should follow traffic laws, just like any other vehicles. ConnectCR’s media communication needs to reach constituents beyond bicycle riders, and encourage bikers to put their best pedal forward.

Fourth, be vigilant about counter-messages. For example, I don’t believe the narrative that bikers are freeloaders who don’t pay taxes. Even if they don’t pay a gas tax to run their bicycles, almost all bikers (like me) also own and drive cars. And local roads benefit from a repaving program that is funded by sales taxes, which bikers pay just like everyone else. Being vigilant doesn’t mean countering each negative message, but rather being aware of the negative ideas about bikers that exist, and having a positive counter-narrative.

I don’t think my four steps for media communication alone can sell ConnectCR. Too much depends on many other factors – what the economy overall does, what legitimate but competing priorities vie for limited public funds, etc.

And, while I like the ConnectCR effort, I admit I’m not neutral. I’m a biker. I ride RAGBRAI. I maintain a bicycle rider blog (crbiker.blogspot.com). ConnectCR would benefit me personally, so it’s easy for me to like.

Then again, I like that Cedar Rapids has nice golf courses, which are important to its quality of life and its ability to attract new residents, for example, even though I never golf.

Mark Twain is falsely quoted as saying that “golf is a good walk spoiled.” It’s a great line even if the source is murky and Twain never wrote it. However, I don’t agree. I say, if you like golf, go for it. And if you don’t ride a bike, I hope you can conclude that ConnectCR would be a good walk that has many additional community benefits.

That’s a message that ConnectCR will have to communicate through media.

Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at jsheller@mtmercy.edu.

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