Cyclists should be more involved as biking advocates

Blame me. It's my fault the Northwest does not treat bicycling with respect. How? Bear with me, and I'll explain.

Published November 26, 2007 by Grist
by Alan Durning

This essay is part of a series on bicycle neglect. 

Blame me. It's my fault the Northwest does not treat bicycling with respect. How? Bear with me, and I'll explain.

Cascadia is, as Washington state legislator Dick Nelson used to say, a "motorhead democracy" — a place where licensed drivers substantially outnumber registered voters and where car-head dominates transportation thought and debate.

No matter how much good Bicycle Respect would do for our health, communities, economy, and natural heritage, it won't fly in on fairy wings. Bicycle Respect is a political agenda: new traffic laws and enforcement, new budget allocations, and new street designs.

So winning Bicycle Respect requires political power. When many elected leaders begin to see championing the bicycle as a path to higher office, as Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams does, we will be well on our way. When elected officials fear for their seats if they ignore the needs of the bicycle, we will have arrived.

Fortunately, the political movement for cycling has never been stronger. The North American cycling advocacy coalition Thunderhead Alliance lists 15 member organizations in Cascadia, ranging in size from western Washington's Cascade Bicycle Club with its 7,600 members and budget of more than $2 million a year, to the all-volunteer Juneau Freewheelers, with 60 members. These Cascadian cycling orgs count more than 19,000 people on their membership rolls — far more than ever before. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington, for example, has quadrupled its membership in a decade, to 2,800.

Cascadian cyclists are now better organized than their counterparts in most parts of North America: the most cycling-organized city on the continent is the Cascadian resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the headwaters of the Snake River. The local cycling group, Friends of Pathways, has signed up every eighteenth resident, as the Thunderhead Alliance reports. Growing memberships translates into enough staff and budget to exert political influence. Between these organizations, cycling has almost 50 paid staff members and a combined annual budget of almost $5 million devoted to advocating for Bicycle Respect.

Still, organized cyclists remain a paltry band. They have enlisted just 1 in 1,000 Cascadians. Compare them with the membership arm of the car-head movement, the American Automobile Association and Canadian Automobile Association. The AAA and CAA have at least 2.4 million members in Cascadia — almost one sixth of the region's residents. Their large staffs, which work out of more than 80 different local offices, include full-time, professional lobbyists in each of the state and provincial capitals of the region. Their budgets? The CAA's B.C. chapter alone reports a budget of $135 million.

In short, cyclists are catastrophically outnumbered in the political realm: "a fly on the windshield," says Gordon Black, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington.

In fact, cyclists are so utterly overpowered that the motoring interests hardly even have to show up. In Olympia and Salem, according to leading cycling advocates, the trucking, development, and manufacturing industries lobby fairly heavily on transportation issues. But car manufacturers, car dealers, and auto clubs rarely flex their muscle. Says Black, "They don't have to show up very often, because they know the government is doing their bidding. They don't feel threatened. They don't see us as a threat."

Because of car-head, anything other than roads or transit infrastructure seems somewhat frivolous. "Nobody's in our face, but there's a lot of quiet eye rolling," says David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Scott Bricker, director of Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance, agrees. He notes, "It's not that the auto power really works hard at lobbying. There's more of an inertia."

Decision makers themselves, like most of their constituents, have internalized the auto-centered world view. "The lobbyists don't need to be in the room. They are inside of legislators' heads," says Black of the Bicycle Alliance.

There's no way past this political barrier other than better organizing. Cascadia's bicycle advocacy organizations need to get much bigger, until they become a force to contend with.

Put it this way. For starters, the large number of Cascadians who cycle at least once a month need to be as likely to belong to a bicycle organization as they are to belong to the AAA/CAA. At present, I'm willing to wager, the opposite is true.

I can't prove this point, but I do have one piece of evidence. I polled Sightline's staff and board of directors — about as pro-cycling a group of people as you could hope to find. Of the 22 people who responded, 17 belong, or at some time belonged, to the AAA/CAA. I am among them: a former AAA member. Just six belong, or at some time belonged, to a bicycle or pedestrian organization. (I'm not one of them, but I promise to join this month.) That's right: 17 to 6, even at Sightline.

And that's why I say, you can blame me. It's people like me — cyclists who don't support those who advocate for them and, indeed, undermine them by supporting AAA — who are keeping Cascadia from more rapid progress toward Bicycle Respect.

I'm sorry. Really sorry.

What you can do?

  1. Quit the AAA/CAA. Most people who belong to AAA/CAA do it for the cheap towing and road-side assistance service. (That's why I belonged for two years in the early 1990s.) They probably do not even realize that AAA/CAA chapters spend part of each membership fee lobbying and advocating for driving and cars. The same services that AAA/CAA provides, including insurance, roadside assistance, and travel planning are also available from the Better World Club, which has a strong commitment to sustainability.
  2. Join a cycling advocacy group. A list follows, from the Thunderhead Alliance:

    Bicycle Alliance of Washington, Seattle, Washington

    Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Portland, Oregon

    British Columbia Cycling Coalition, Victoria, B.C.

    Capital Bike and Walk Society, Victoria, B.C.

    Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle, Washington

    Juneau Freewheelers, Juneau, Alaska

    Friends of Pathways, Jackson Hole, WY

    Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, Victoria, B.C.

    Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, Missoula, Montana

    Mount Baker Bicycle Club, Bellingham, Washington

    Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, Santa Rosa, California

    Squeaky Wheels, Bainbridge Island, Washington

    Teton Valley Trails and Pathways, Driggs, Idaho

    Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance, Garden City, Idaho

    Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, Vancouver, B.C.

  3. Stay informed. The very-active Portland biking community finds its online home at the BikePortland blog while Seattle has Bike Hugger and the BikeSeattle blog. And Vancouver, B.C., has the spunky print and online magazine Momentum.

Huge thanks for research on this piece goes to volunteer Alyse Nelson (I mentioned her work here). She assembled the data on cycling organizations' memberships, budgets, and staffing.)