Is the Movement Losing Its Edge?

Dawn on lobby day at the National Bike Summit. The view of the sunrise over the Marine Corp. War Memorial with the Washington Monument and Capitol Building in the background is certainly inspiring. Bike paths from Arlington and separated bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue show the progress we have made as a movement.

Last week was the 11th annual National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. I joined a few other members of the Bike Fed staff for two days of workshops and one day of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The conference itself is always a lot of fun. We get to hobnob with our fellow bike advocates from all over the country. We renew old friendships and start new ones. The information that gets exchanged in the hallways or over a beer after the meetings is usually just a valuable as what we learn inside the conference rooms. It is also inspiring to hear of the progress advocates in states not thought of as having a history of being bicycle friendly are making by working at the local level. Their examples point the way for Wisconsin where we also face opposition at the Capitol in Madison.

But one theme that I’ve heard in the last three conferences I’ve attended troubles me a little. That theme is that cycling is now mainstream; that bike activists are no longer outsiders looking in, but active and full participants in policy making. That is certainly what the folks who organize the summit at the League of American Bicyclists believe and want to be true.

I’m not so sure. I can tell you that I sure don’t feel like much of an insider in the Wisconsin State Capitol where we became the first state to repeal a complete streets law. And I know that many of you don’t feel like part of the establishment in your local communities where you have to fight for every inch of bike lane.

Perhaps because the League feels like they now enjoy insider status they think like insiders. They live within what is considered possible in Washington. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it doesn’t make them visionaries either.

Karen Jenkins, chair of the LAB’s Board of Directors introduces new Executive Director Alex Doty. Our staff all felt having a woman of color leading the LAB’s board and the recent equity and inclusion initiatives across the country are really the most exciting opportunities in bicycle advocacy.

Take for example the three items that we were asked to lobby on. First, we were asked to thank our representatives for voting for the FAST act, the new five year federal transportation bill. In fact, it is a major accomplishment that this gridlocked Congress passed any law at all.

But lawmakers still couldn’t bring themselves to resolve the key issue: how to pay for the nation’s infrastructure needs. Congress continues to punt on this major issue and our roads and other transportation infrastructure continue to crumble. As cyclists we know that a pothole can be a jarring thing when we hit one in our car, but it can be a really dangerous thing if we catch one on a bike. Every year the problem of deferred maintenance on our roads and streets grows and FAST does virtually nothing about that. So, we thanked our representatives, but in truth, I didn’t feel all that grateful.

Second, we asked them to support a bill that would allow people who have Health Savings or Flexible Savings accounts to use some of that money tax free for fitness activities. The bill would allow up to $250 to go for sports equipment, including bikes. It’s a fine, bipartisan bill that has some chance of passing, but it is no revolution. About 15 million Americans have HAS’s, so that’s no small number, but it still only represents less than 5% of the country. And, of course, there’s no telling how many people will even be aware of this benefit, should it pass, and how many would use it on bike-related activities.

And third we were asked to encourage our representatives to ask that money that goes to the states and which can be used for bike and pedestrian safety programs actually be used to that end. We needed to make that ask because the legislation Congress passed does not require states to use the money for those purposes. In fact, one pot of money that Wisconsin might use for safe biking education isn’t even available to us because Congress restricted its use to states where pedestrian and bike fatalities amount to at least 15% of the total. Wisconsin hangs in at around 10%. So, states with the worst records get the most money.

The crowd at this year’s bike summit.

Anyway, it would have been far better if Congress had simply set aside a pot of money that went to the states and required them to use it for safe cycling programs. The fact that we had to make this ask was another indication of the failings of the FAST bill.

So, overall, the legislative soup was pretty thin and pretty cold. It was hard to get up much of an appetite for lobby day. Despite leaving the summit still feeling hungry for more, it is important to note the progress we have made and the important roll the LAB has played in the bicycle advocacy movement over the years. From protected bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue to the exciting opportunities offered by the equity and inclusions initiatives, the LAB has been a leader pushing the barriers.

But it’s more barrier pushing that is needed. So, here are two fundamental questions. In what sense are we better off as insiders? And will being insiders allow us to push the envelope so that we can get to 10%, 20%, 30% mode shares?

Maybe we’ve been too quick as a movement to declare ourselves part of the process and too quick to settle for half a loaf if not just crumbs.

Look, there’s no doubt that the League staff is right about the mood in Washington right now. It is difficult to get anything passed and Congress isn’t very friendly to cycling. But part of being a movement is creating a vision and that means asking for things that you know you won’t get this time. It means pushing the envelope; aiming high so that if you fall short what counts for “short” is actually a pretty long way from where you started.

Maybe we’ve become too easy to please and perhaps a return to an edgier movement might be more effective. It would sure be a lot more fun.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

10 thoughts on “Is the Movement Losing Its Edge?

  1. Spot on, Dave.

    In my experience, people that advocate for a comprehensive, 8-80/low-stress bike network are still routinely dismissed as naive or accused of wanting to wage a war on cars; even in genuinely ‘bike friendly’ communities like Madison. The movement needs to hold on to a clear vision and not settle for crumbs.

  2. I am eagerly looking forward to the new, edgier, forward-thinking, and more aggressive agenda that Bike Fed will be putting forward. This sounds like a call to arms, and I’m excited to see how the membership can help at the state and local level.

    Let’s use the membership and funds we have raised at events to push the envelope!

  3. Hello Dave – Thanks for your report on the National Bike Summit.

    In recent years, my Twitter feed buzzed with the excitement of activity taking place at the NBS, as described by the grass-roots bike advocates that I follow. This year, it’s like someone turned off the channel. Here’s part of a Tweet from NBS attendee @joebiel_ indicating the lack of energy: “Attendance is down, lots of first timers, budget problems for orgs but few people say anything real.”

    The three NBS asks you summarize boil down to this: (1) thanks for doing nothing to make bicycling better (FAST act); (2) please consider bicycles as fitness equipment instead of transportation vehicles; and (3) we’re holding our hats out because bicycling is dangerous.

    Frankly, to me, this sounds pathetic.

    A few years ago, NBS focused on the economic arguments for making bicycling better. In doing so, we discovered these were powerful arguments that resonated with legislators and policymakers. Winning arguments.

    But I get the feeling that such arguments are now so 2013, as if the League of American Bicyclists feels the need to move on to other themes for NBS to keep it fresh.

    A new theme that deserves to preempt economics is equity. It is indeed encouraging, as you point out, to see that the chair of the LAB board is a woman of color. Nevertheless, here’s a Tweet I saw from @hyeranbikesLA that perhaps gives some insight into this year’s muted reaction to NBS from grass-roots types: “70% of #NBS16 attendees are white. Blacks only 6% and Asians 3%. This is a reality check for the bike world.”

    Adonia Lugo, former Equity Director for the LAB, wrote a blog post last year that included some indication of why she left that position: “As a woman of color, I didn’t have the power to solve the problem I’d been hired to fix. In fact, taking on that task had made me the target of more resentment than I’d ever experienced.”

    Is the LAB really embracing equity? Or do they just consider it the buzzword of today that replaced the “bicycling means business” buzzword of yesterday and that will be replaced with a shiny new buzzword tomorrow?

    Over the past few years, I had hope that the LAB might evolve into an influential force in national transportation politics that could magnify the efforts of grass-roots bicycle advocates throughout the country.

    But now I fear that moment has passed and an opportunity has been lost.

    We in the trenches will continue, as you say, “to fight for every inch of bike lane.” We do this because we feel this is an important part of what is necessary to make the places we live better.

    Perhaps I’m being too hard on the LAB. Perhaps my expectations for the NBS are too high. It’s just that I’d like to feel that the efforts of the LAB and the outcomes from the NBS are making my local efforts easier. Unfortunately, I’m just not feeling that way any more.

  4. Thanks for this insightful post. We can all agree the League, and perhaps the entire bike movement, is at a crossroads. While lobbying on the hill is fine, as you pointed out, many of our fights are much more localized. Living in a dark red state in the south there’s not much chance of anything we do making much of a difference with our legislators in D.C.

    Things get even more complicated when you consider the need for the League to represent ALL bicyclists. We are advocating for a broad range of issues these days from Complete Streets to Health Care Reform, to Civil Rights – none of which are bad and all of which are connected, but when does the LAB have to draw the line at mission creep? Do we now have enough capacity in our local and state organizations to necessitate caucuses within the league? All of this is only addressing the Policy side of what we do. There are many more issues we address with encouragement, education, engineering, enforcement, and evaluation that go beyond sitting in meetings.

    These are complex issues without clear answers that the League, and all of our organizations, will hopefully deal with in the coming years. Hopefully, after careful analysis of our needs, insights from our constituents, and leadership from national organizations, we will have charted a clearer course to success.

    Thanks for starting the policy discussion. I will be curious to hear your suggestions for moving forward.

  5. Dave,
    Could not have been better timed. After reading Bike Battles recently I was wondering some of the same things you are. Are we losing our power as advocates?.? Do we settle for less when need more ?
    Can we make the revolution a reality , again ? I have to say that WISDOT is even less friendlier then 9 years ago when we got the first grant to build the first trail. I want them to stop paying lip service to active , alternative transportation and make it happen. We are a small budget advocacy organization but we always find the money to pay our Bike Federation dues.
    Let’s not settle for less

  6. Excellent analysis Dave. From my perspective, cycling advocates need to broaden their base. It seems we continue to have the same conversations with the same group of people, while millions of people who ride bikes remain outside the the circle of “cyclists.” If cycling has become mainstream, we need those in the mainstream to join the fight for better infrastructure and better laws. Everyone from the Cat. 4/5 rider to the people who bike because it’s their best option should be lobbyists for the cause.

  7. We are not insiders, until the majority of automobile drivers really believe that they share the road with bikes and pedestrians and that children shouldn’t be killed because they make dumb mistakes. We have way too much “blame the victim” when it comes to automobile/children conflict.

  8. This is the kind of thinking that makes me want to renew my Bike Fed membership. Let’s celebrate, but never settle for, our accomplishments. Let’s push the envelope together.

  9. The National Bike Summit has to include federal policy (of course). (And Lobby Day will of course always be about federal policy.) But the focus of the summit should be state and local policy, which is (a) where innovation needs to happen most, (b) where innovation is in fact happening, and (c) where there are way more openings for progress than in Washington DC. You *almost* made the crucial point when you noted “The information that gets exchanged in the hallways or over a beer after the meetings is usually just a valuable as what we learn inside the conference rooms.” What you should have wrote is that “The information that gets exchanged in the hallways or over a beer after the meetings is 10 times as valuable as what we learn inside the conference rooms.” Next year’s summit organizers need to recognize that fact and turn those hallway and over-a-beer discussions into summit sessions. Isn’t this obvious to everyone?

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