From Dani Simons’s Smart Marketing for Sustainable Streets

Using Hashtags to Build #Bike Community

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in front of my computer this holiday season, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how lots of “next generation” bike commuters in New York are forging a useful and meaningful community via Twitter.

When I first started riding here, it seemed that every hardcore bike commuter I met (at the time, mostly older, most white, mostly men, mostly in spandex, who tended to go on and on and on at various community meetings or social occasions) read a listserv called e-bikes.

But e-bikes was often filled with cranky complainers and the tips and useful bits of information were few and far between. At that point getting answers on bike questions (such as, when is that new lane going to be installed, or when is that construction on the bridge going to be finished) was also much harder than it is today, so people turned to e-bikes for answers. And even if you had a “silly” newbie question like “How can I make sure my hair doesn’t look totally ridiculous when I arrive at work after biking 7 miles in a helmet?” you had to find an actual bike commuter (a rarer breed eight years ago), or risk putting that question out on e-bikes and being snarked at.

Today, all of those questions and more are being asked semi-anonymously through the #bikenyc hashtag, and many people are offering tips and encouragement using the same.

Consider this tweet (which was retweeted by several others) from @MikeLydon the other morning, the first brutally cold snap of this winter “Dear #bikenyc, you look beautiful all bundled up on the morning commute. Keep riding!”

A few other cities appear to be catching on and using a bike hashtag, I found a decent number of #bikeChi and #bikeLA tweets on a recent search.

As we saw this spring and summer in the Middle East, (and even earlier than that in Iran), Twitter and it’s hashtags can be a very powerful way to organize, or at the very least spread information through a diffuse community. Clay Shirky has written very eloquently about the political power of social media, if you happen to be more interested in this, than say, biking…

It’s worth advocacy organizations or even city governments promoting city bike hashtags. Twitter is a great way to distribute rapid bits of information (“Bridge closed for emergency repairs tonight” or “Careful for the big new pothole that just appeared on Maple Lane” or “Free bike lights being distributed this evening on Maple Lane”). And since the media increasingly monitors Twitter for tips and breaking news, important tweets are often rebroadcast outside of Twitter as well. Using a hashtag at the end of these tweets allows users to create a dedicated “search” for this information, almost like tuning their Twitter radio to your station if you need an old-school analogy.

Twitter hashtags are also a good way for communities of interest to share information and support each other. Even if you don’t know a bike commuter personally in New York (which now seems rather far-fetched), you can connect with hundreds online via #bikenyc. Sure, some are still snarky as hell, but many are friendly, or as friendly as New York City cyclists get anyway…at least you don’t have to look at any spandex. At least not until you go to one of those #bikenyc meetups. But even then I’ve been pleasant surprised to find that #bikenyc fashion has evolved quite a bit since I arrived nearly eight years ago.

Not that I’m the boss of this, but I’d recommend for cities that aren’t using a bike hashtag yet to pick a simple one, maybe just #bike + your city’s airport code, which would keep things short (important for Twitter) local and easy to remember (important for the overall usability/success).

That would give you #bikeBOS for Boston, #bikeMSP for Minneapolis St. Paul, #bikePDX for Portland, #bikeSFO for San Fran, etc…

If I missed any cities that are already making great use of a hashtag to build cycling community online, let me know. I’d be eager to take a look at some other examples and learn more about how others are using this technique.

Some basic do’s and don’t for hashtag use in case you’re new to Twitter and wanted some more tips.