The Sit-Down: Piers North Is a Mad Man

This summer, Transportation Alternatives is going big—billboard-size to be exact. Thanks to donations from the outdoor advertising companies Van Wagner and Edison, we’ve secured a dozen billboards in high-traffic areas throughout the city. Everyone around the office agreed that it was an amazing opportunity for something great, but no one had any great ideas. That’s when we hooked up with Piers North.

A British-born creative at the world-renowned independent advertising agency Mother, Piers is also an avid cyclist and a fan of our advocacy. He and his team worked with T.A. to develop a billboard campaign that speaks to cyclists and New Yorkers and prepares the city for the arrival of a huge bike share system. If all that wasn’t enough, he also sat down with Reclaim to talk about it.

How did you first hook up with Transportation Alternatives?
PIERS NORTH: I started talking with Paul [T.A.’s Executive Director] on a long, boring training ride in the middle of last winter. We were freezing our bollocks off and going back and forth when it became clear that there was a good opportunity between us. For T.A., Mother could help spread the message, and for Mother there was an opportunity to work with a great organization on a project we’re into. So many of our employees bike to work, and we all believe in the cause. It’s a win-win-win.

So then what happened?
Once T.A. told us that they had this billboard space, we started thinking about a tone of voice. Advertising is like any relationship: you’ve got to work out your boundaries and find a voice that makes you both comfortable, but also makes both parties feel like they’re pushing boundaries. That’s what keeps things exciting. T.A. knew it wanted to be out there with a public point of view—to be the voice for cycling in New York—and we both recognized that, with bike share on the horizon, now was the time to lead an inevitable conversation.

What conversation?
It seems certain that biking is going to be a hot topic again; that bike share will be controversial in some quarters, so we wanted to start that conversation. I think we’re about to begin cycling’s third chapter: first there were the bike lanes, then there were the tickets and fear-mongering reports and now we’re at bike share. This time we’re going to set the tone.

What kind of tone?
If you look at the tag lines, they talk about playing nicely; they talk about our right to have space on the road. I’m thrilled with where we’ve ended up.

You mean “Bike Like a New Yorker.”
I mean all of the lines, but “Bike Like a New Yorker” is the umbrella. It’s a very powerful line that gets the tone of voice. New York is at the heart of it. Riding a bike is no different than walking or taking the subway. It makes the conversation unique. It’s different than in Portland or London or Los Angeles. It gets at confidence, a positive mental attitude, toughness.

Have you worked on a bike campaign before?
Not for Mother, but I’ve been working with a cycling apparel company called Rapha for eight years.

  Where did your love of bicycles start?
E.T. I thought the BMXs in that movie were so cool. I must have been seven years old, and I remember making up my mind that I needed a BMX. I struck a deal with my parents: I’d wash the car every week, and they’d pay me and then match every pound I made. Looking back at that as a parent, I’m certain they were being generous because I must have done an awful job.

But you got the BMX?
I did, and it changed my life. I grew up in the countryside, and at an early age it gave me enough independence to see friends that lived three or four miles away. A few years later, I was racing BMX and a few years after that it was mountain bikes. When I moved to London after university it was the same story: I started out riding to work because it was fun but soon I was racing on the track at the Herne Hill Velodrome.

How does cycling in New York compare to cycling in London?
In London, people accept commuter bicyclists more, but it is a much more difficult place to be a road cyclist. In both, though, there’s a spirit of togetherness: you’re never really cycling alone.

Part of your business is understanding what’s cool and why, so can you offer any insight on the bicycle craze?
I think it follows major cultural trends. Tech isn’t the story anymore. It’s craft again, and cycling has gone the same way. It has stopped being all about how fast you can go and started being about beauty. That has a broader appeal; so cycling has become more popular. I think Rapha was a pioneer in that. They turned cycling apparel from performance into romance; from space-age technology that can shave seconds off a sprint into epic stories. Cycling has more than one hundred years of heroic stories, all these amazing battles. I think those tales­—of the Tour in the 50s, of the Alps—really resonate in the States. They’re romantic.

Anything else?
There’s also something attainable about a bike: we know how it works, especially a single speed, and there’s something simultaneously beautiful and comforting about that—a bicycle that you can fix, homemade jam, leather boots that were made in America—they’re not that different. You can make them yours, and you can understand them: these cranks, that handlebar, those pedals. It’s definitely a fashion accessory in that respect too.

Do you think about any of that when you ride?
Absolutely not.