The Changing Landscape for Bike Advocacy – Lessons from the 2012 National Bike Summit

By Charles Pekow

The landscape is changing and this means the Utah bicycling community is going to have to switch gears to adapt. No, not just to ride the reconstructed roads, new trails and bridges or added mountain bike trails throughout the state. Bicycle advocates are going to have to change the thrust of their advocacy efforts to keep up with the changing political landscape. Control is shifting from federal to state and local officials. Cyclists will have to take up the political issues of the day and show how cycling helps solve the related problems if they want to continue to improve cycling conditions in Utah. It no longer suffices to say we like to ride to get from here or there or because we enjoy it.

Or so warned speakers at the 2012 National Bike Summit in March in Washington, DC, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). The future of surface transportation law was nowhere near the ground upon which we ride at the time – but rather still up in the air as Congress couldn't agree on a plan for a new transportation bill to bring down to earth. But whatever emerges probably would leave increased decision making about whether to fund bike projects – not merely which ones to pay for – up to state and local governments.

But it's not too early to ensure that state attitudes favor bicycling. “We have to create a backstop to make sure states still spend (federal) money on biking and spend state money on it,” warned Shailen Bhatt, Delaware Secretary of Transportation. Delaware put a bicycling advocate right on the top of its transportation department. And already, he noted, federal money only accounts for 22 percent of government bicycle/pedestrian funding. States are responsible for most of it, and they decide where to use the federal money, he pointed out.

He said that between 2008 and 2010, 17 states passed 29 funding bills involving surface transportation. “If you’re not talking to your state legislators to make these funds eligible for bicycling, required for bicycling, you are not doing your job,” he warned state bicycle advocates.

Delaware even includes a bicycle representative on its state Council on Transportation. (Utah, however, can't name a specific bike rep as its Transportation Commission is appointed by district. Still, members can be bicycle enthusiasts, or at least understand cycling.)

Bhatt said the way governments promote bicycling needs updating. “At the state level, we do biking as an amenity. ‘If you buy in this little subdivision over here, there is a bike path so you can ride with your children after a long day of work.' I think that is the wrong way to look at it.”

Rather, we need to take a look at the current economic realities. Gas costs about $4 a gallon now and we need to promote bicycling as a way to save on energy costs,” Bhatt stated.

“Some people are biking for recreation. Others are because they cannot afford to put gas in their car to get to their service jobs,” he said. “You have to sell more than bicycling. You have to know your audience. Somebody may not have ever rode a bike.”

“There are 20 different arguments you can make,” LAB President Andy Clarke told Cycling Utah. “The way you can be effective is to do your homework.” He said what while the bicycle industry is “huge” in Utah, “no one has ever really studied that. When they do, they'll wake up to the fact that it's an incredibly valuable part of the Utah economy and that it will go away if the state ever does anything to take money away from bicycling and walking.”

Ivette Rivera, the new vice president of government relations for Bikes Belong, adds “the most important thing is to talk about the tourism that it brings.” (The bicycle industry-funded Bikes Belong Campaign, based in Colorado, is designed to get people to ride bikes. It recently opened a Washington office to lobby for bicycle causes.)

State and local advocates need to set priorities, but they don't need to reinvent the bike wheel to set them. When setting goals, don't be afraid to borrow from other lists. Dorian Grille, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, said “we borrowed from Bikes Belong for our goals.” Check them out at www.bikesbelong.org. Or see what other state bike lobbies have set as their goals.

It's been well known that you have to make alliances with other groups, ranging from the business community to other recreational enthusiasts. But remember that you needn't confine alliances to one issue or time period. Of course, bicyclists can work with parent groups to promote Safe Routes to School (SRS). But “maybe you can talk moms into (remaining) advocates” for biking, suggested Robert Ping, technical assistance director at the SRS National Partnership.

Many schools sponsor walk to school or bike to school days. Get politicians and the media to attend. “You can't beat kids in action,” Ping said. They look great on TV and in council meetings, Ping added. “Get kids to speak. There is nothing more powerful than getting a kid to sell the program.” They won't sound like policy wonks making technical arguments.

To get politicians to understand cycling, “invite these folks out for a ride. Invite them to watch children get to school in rush hour,” advised Caron Whitaker, campaign director for America Bikes. You win in any event. If it is safe, they'll see the kids enjoying themselves. If it's not,” they'll see the need to make it safe.

In addition to rising gas prices and economics, think of the health care aspects of promoting bicycling. The issue very much preoccupies the public debate as Obamacare is getting challenged in the courts and by politicians even before it is fully implemented. “People hate the health care law,” noted Jay Keese, founding partner of Capitol Advocates, a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Either the U.S. Supreme Court or a new Congress or president are likely to change it.

So explain some of the big causes of skyrocketing health care costs. You come up with back trouble, diabetes, obesity and others that would be reduced significantly if people did more bicycling, and therefore health care costs will go down if we get more people to ride, Keese said. Even Republicans can buy that.

And, of course, legislators are talking more about jobs than anything else these days. So bicycle advocates must show how many jobs bicycling will provide. For politicians, the number of jobs created, even as the unemployment rate is slowly falling, seems to trump the original purpose of legislation. In fact, the original chief highway bill in the House this year was called the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, as if providing jobs was more important than moving people.

Likewise the Senate recently passed a bill designed to ease regulatory burdens on small businesses. In previous eras, senators would have called it a regulatory relief act. This year, they called it the Jumpstart Our Business Startups, or JOBS Act. And even the attempt to repeal Obamacare was called – guess what – the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. Other examples about, but you get the picture.

Megan Blackwelder, manager of Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, where a mountain bike trail opened three years ago, spoke at the conference about how trails can spur economic recovery. She told Cycling Utah that the park has contributed $4.1 billion to the local economy in general.

So you have to count or estimate how many jobs will be created by improving bicycle infrastructure. Count how many jobs for truck drivers and mechanics a Bikeshare program provides, Keese recommended.

Utah's state government is trying to do at least some of that. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and Utah Department of Health are collaborating on a study to try to gauge the economic and health impact of building bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in part of the state, reports Evelyn Tuddenham, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at UDOT. The state hopes a contractor will provide a report by the end of the year.

The two agencies have worked together before, Tuddenham said, noting that several state agencies worked together to put out a state bicycle and pedestrian master plan, which helps people get around and exercise.

While it's necessary to partner with other interests and fit bicycling into other topical issues, it seems the number of groups in Washington dedicated to promoting bicycling and walking has mushroomed: in addition to the league, we've got Bikes Belong, America Bikes, Transportation Alternatives, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Alliance for Biking & Walking and others that promote cycling as part of their strategy.

“The era of fiefdoms is kind of over,” remarked Jonathan Morrison of the Bicycle Collective of Salt Lake City upon returning from the summit. “A new breed of advocate is emerging, which is what you see with (these organizations) partnering up.”

The summit always includes a day of lobbying Congress on behalf of bicycling issues. Morrison reported that “we didn't thank any of our senators because they voted against the transportation bill” (the bill passed the Senate and protects local say in funding).

“The angle for us,” Morrison said, “is talking about why most of us live in Utah and that is recreation….We have to lobby (officials in Utah) and say we don't want you to take away the reason we moved here in the first place and that's recreation….Most of us who didn't grow up here moved here for the outdoors and a lot of them are for biking.”

School safety, health care, jobs, economics. Now if we can get biking to promote world peace…well, if we were all riding, we wouldn't be fighting.

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