How to become a cycling 'ambassador'

There is a rather unlikely new vogue word in cycling circles: ambassador.

I'm trying to get the images of the Ferrero Rocher ad out of my head (the euro-kitsch classic in which those almost inedible bonbons are handed round by flunkies at an embassy party: "Monsieur, with these Rocher, you're really spoiling us"), because actually the cycling ambassadorial role is a fine and noble one.

Just this week, a bike shop in Portland, Oregon – which is widely seen as a countercultural cycling nirvana in the automobile-loving US – launched an initiative it's calling "21Ambassadors". According to the mission statement:

"To ride a bicycle is to be part of a community, to share a common experience, as much as it is about good health and helping the environment […] We believe that as a community we should support each other in bad times as well as good. We, the 21 Ambassadors are here to help you. When tires flat and spokes break, when chains fail and gears groan, when you need a hand, we hope to be there to assist."

A kind of cross between Bicycle Repair Man and the Big Society, cynics might say. But Kyle Von Hoetzendorff of 21st Avenue Bicycles is getting plenty of applicants, within hours of the launch of the programme, ready to make the ambassadors' commitments:

• To stop and offer assistance to fellow cyclists. • To follow all rules of the road and set the standard for exemplary riding behaviour. • To carry their Road Aid kit with them on all rides.

Von Hoetzendorff is a racer and commuter, and 21st Avenue Bikes has supported local racing teams for years, but, he says, they were looking for a way "to develop a commuter team" – "How do we create a way for our shop to directly support commuters?" they asked. The 21Ambassadors will be expected to do some voluntary work with the Portland bike advocacy group, BTA, which is supporting the project. But chiefly, they'll be riding the commuter routes around Portland, identified by the green tool-roll under their saddles, ready to help any commuter with a problem.

For Von Hoetzendorff, it is all about making a "connection" with Portland's growing cycling community. "Bike shops are a career of passion, it's not the most lucrative thing," he says. "So anything we can do to encourage people to commute by bike is a win for us." I question the "exemplary riding behaviour" commitment: why is that important? Says KVH:

"Being a bike rider my whole life, I know there's always this conflict – between bikes and cars. People are always looking to point the finger. So, to me, the only way for cyclists to gain respect is to behave as they'd want cars to behave. If you're a driver at a stop sign and some cyclist blows by you, that becomes unfair. It is the law [to stop], after all."

The 21Ambassadors initiative is unusual in that it comes from the commercial sector, with backing from 21st Avenue Bikes' industry contacts. Several US cities have their own takes on cycling diplomacy: Washington, DC, San Francisco and Chicago all have ambassador schemes. But these are generally led by bike advocacy groups; or, in the case of Chicago, it's a partnership between cycling campaigners and city government. Transportation Alternatives in New York also recently launched a "Bicycle Ambassadors" programme – along with a pledge that anyone can sign up to and which is reminiscent of the Portland mission statement:

• Responsible riding is safer for everyone. • Bike lanes keep everyone out of each other's way and out of harm's way. • A robust public bike share programme empowers New Yorkers with more transit choices.

TA's approach comes out of a background of recent controversy and conflict over bike lanes in the city: they've been very successful in boosting the number of people using bikes; but while public opinion polls show majority approval, the new infrastructure has not delighted all New Yorkers.

"This is a big city and when changes happens, you get questions," says Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy at TA. "People don't want their street to change, and they'll often cite bike behaviour as a reason."

There's a legacy, she explains, from the bad old days when cycling in NYC was a minority activity and not for the fainthearted: cycling behaviour is still adapting from the habits of the risktakers and renegades, who were so few in number that their disregard for traffic laws was mostly under the radar of the police and scarce enough not to loom large in the list of pedestrians' anxieties. But after significant investment in cycling infrastructure, biking needs better PR: "It's really important to set a positive tone, and pay forward," says Samponaro.

TA recruited 12 ambassadors; one of whom is a full-time staffer, the other 11 paid for 12-15 hours a week. Their duties include staffing routes and intersections used by commuters, talking to cyclists, raising consciousness; also partnering with local businesses, providing stopping points and refreshments for commuters; and joining police precincts, doing work educating cyclists while the NYPD talks to drivers. The programme has funding for two years, but TA considers this such a priority that, says Samponaro, "we're trying to find a way to institutionalise it."

I haven't met an actual ambassador yet, but I'm one of nearly 10,000 New York cyclists who've signed the online pledge. The programme seems a really important tool to change perceptions of cyclists: our detractors are always trying to cast us as a whiny, self-righteous lobby that turns a blind eye to the inconsiderate and even dangerous behaviour of its own members. The ambassadors not only encourage cyclists to have a more constructive attitude to shared space, but also defang the criticism with their proactive approach. It's savvy and virtuous at the same time.

Yet I really like the more voluntarist, grassrootsy feel of the Portland 21Ambassadors, ready to unroll their toolkits and do any rider a good turn. Perhaps it's just the difference between the sense of community and mutual aid that can be achieved in a medium-sized regional city and what works in a major metropolis of millions, where the bonds between people are more tenuous, temporary and arbitrary.

Still, I've made a personal pledge to myself to stop and offer help next time I see someone struggling with a puncture. I may not be an ambassador by formal appointment, but perhaps we should all think of ourselves as cycling envoys.