The Current State of National Bike Advocacy

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Bike advocacy results in more protected bike lanes and ride to work days across the country, among other things. Photo by Dave Iltis

By Charles Pekow — So who is fighting for better policy and conditions for bicyclists on a national level? A variety of groups; some with a broad focus, some with a narrow one. And they sometimes work together to advance bicycling interests, with an emphasis more on legislation than implementation. But such cooperation and coordination could be improved. While the groups seldom disagree on goals or strategies, they tend to have different focuses. The various groups represent the bicycle industry, railroad to trail conversions, mountain bikers, schools, etc. Some relatively well-capitalized groups maintain sizable offices or representatives in Washington, DC. Other see advocacy as only part of their mission and are headquartered elsewhere or staff work remotely. And some national bike groups have disappeared.

Bike advocacy results in more protected bike lanes and ride to work days across the country, among other things. Photo by Dave Iltis

National policy for funding connections, recreational riding and safety will be up for debate in 2020 in Congress as it tackles reauthorization of surface transportation law and perhaps a tax bill. Federal agencies from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the National Park Service to the U.S. Forest Service will have to interpret and enforce laws. Here, we describe the organizations that will be leading the charge. Other groups without a bikecentric focus are helping out – everyone from AARP to the American Society of Landscape Architects to the American Hiking Society and other safety, health and outdoor recreation groups with similar interests are fighting some of the same battles.

Rails to Trails Conservancy

The Washington, DC-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was founded in 1986 with the intention of converting miles of abandoned railroad lines into trails for bikers, hikers, etc. It now defines its mission thus: “a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.” Or as Kevin Mills, vice president of policy, put it “connecting people from where they are to where they want to go. Connections can be within communities, between communities or even between states.” (Disclosure: When RTC was founded, I became a charter member and retain my membership.) In addition to fighting for trails in Washington, it sponsors state and regional projects and is currently working on the Great American Rail-Trail to cross the continent (http://www.cyclingutah.com/advocacy/road-advocacy/great-american-rail-trail-planned-for-cross-country-cycling/).

“I think we need federal policy to focus on connections and creating functional networks in real time. Transportation Alternatives (TA) has been our lifeblood for decades. The problem with it lies in that it isn't really designed to focus on places where you need to make a lot of connections at once. That's our number one focus on this reauthorization,” Mills says. RTC also wants to remove a provision added in the last reuathorization that allowed states to transfer money out of TA to other transportation programs. It also wants to pass legislation that would ensure that all the gas tax money that's supposed to be dedicated to the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) actually gets there.

And while it's easy to get caught up in the issues of the day, RTC wants to see an overall culture shift in the long run. “I think there's a need for taking things to the next level,” Mills says. “making it a mainstream culture shift where it is seen as normal and desirable for communities and cities to cultivate more bicyclists….In some other countries, there's an attitude toward providing bicycle facilities everywhere.”

For more information, see: railstotrails.org

People for Bikes

The People for Bikes Coalition (PFB), based in Boulder, CO advocates heavily for an improved nation for bicycling. PFB, originally called the Bikes Belong Coalition, perhaps could more accurately be described as Industry for Bikes as it is basically a trade association for the bicycle industry. But its work pushes improved conditions for cycling nationwide. It maintains one federal affairs manager in Washington, DC. PFB technically comprises two organizations: the People for Bikes Coalition to promote the industry; and the People for Bikes Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that provides grants for bicycle projects. The coalition board consists only of industry leaders and as a trade association is free to lobby to its heart's content, whereas foundations are limited in advocacy. Funding comes primarily from the bicycle industry, including suppliers, distributors, manufacturers, dealers and bicycling-related publications.

PFB merged with the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) in July. BPSA leaders explained “Now that we are one, we can use our time-tested voice at all levels of government to sell more bikes and increase participation faster. Our individual companies stand to benefit as our influence grows.” The two groups had been working together five years. “PBSA has expertise; PFB has staff,” explains PFB Chief Operating Officer Jenn Dice, a former lobbyist for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

PFB is currently lobbying hard against tariffs imposed by the Trump Administration on Chinese imports, since many bicycles, parts and accessories are imported from China. And the tariffs drive up the costs of bicycles. Since the effect is less direct and harder to see if you are satisfied with your bike and the issue doesn't directly involve trails or safety, PFB is taking the lead among bike groups for this.

But the issue — while necessary — has taken up plenty of PFB's time and energy that ideally it could spend elsewhere. ‘”In the last year, we have gotten more into (the tariff issue). Prior to that, we did very little work in that area,” Dice says.

“We're not in the tariff battle. It's a really big priority for (PFB) as it represents the industry and we're glad they're working on that,” Mills of Rails-to-Trails says. “But it's a little far afield to our constituency.”

PFB sponsors annual “executive fly-ins” to Washington in October, since it's too far to travel by bike for most industry executives. They speak with legislators and staff on Capitol Hill about tariffs and increasing federal funding for bike programs.

“We have over a million grassroots supporters on our email list. We send alerts asking members to reach out” to their legislators (and to encourage the legislators to ride bikes), Federal Affairs Manager Noa Banayan says.

The foundation, meanwhile, has gotten grants from REI, the Summit Foundation, the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, Walton Family Foundation, Craigslist Charitable Fund, New Belgium Foundation, and other family foundations and individual donors.

The coalition, however, has had to make do with less. Income rose steadily from $1,335,887 in 2006 peaking in 2016 at $4.3 million (according to its annual reports in non-inflation-adjusted dollars). But recent years have seen a decline in income:

Year  Income 
2016   $4,299,890.00
2017   $3,684,086.00
2018   $3,523,334.00

 
“This year, the combined budget of our two branches (coalition and foundation) will exceed $10 million – the highest budget ever,” PFB President Tim Blumenthal wrote in an email. Blumenthal explained that “the drop in coalition income can primarily be attributed to the decline of the Interbike Show and a year-over-year decline in their financial support…Emerald Expositions – Interbike's parent company – was for many years the largest contributor of unrestricted funds to back our work. As their show shrunk, their generous contributions fell, too. In 2019 – without Interbike – they won't contribute anything.”

PFB is trying to make up for the loss by finding new members, adding the resources of BPSA, and seeking other support. “We've also cut where we can: we just moved to a new office on the edge of town, where we will save close to $500,000 in rent and related expenses during the next five years,” Blumenthal explains. PFB is also seeking revenue through its Ride Spot app that helps cyclists find and navigate rides. Riders can sign up free; but businesses, bike groups and local governments can subscribe to provide info for users (ridespot.org).

For more information, see: peopleforbikes.org

League of American Bicyclists

The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) is probably the most well-known bike lobby that tries to cater to as many interests as possible. (The organization is still technically incorporated by its original name when founded in 1880, the League of American Wheelmen, which it stopped using in public because it sounded sexist.) LAB describes its mission to the IRS as “To lead the movement to create a Bicycle Friendly America for Everyone.” In addition to lobbying, it operates the Bicycle Friendly America awards program and certifies cycling instructors.

But the league's finances have been gradually slipping. Its income reported on its tax returns for recent years:

Year  Income 
2014  $ 2,374,334.00
2015  $ 2,310,638.00
2016  $ 1,837,299.00
2017  $ 1,616,075.00

Despite the loss in revenue, last year, LAB reported spending $759,091 on staff compensation in 2018, an increase of $62,752 from 2017. Executive Director Bill Nesper received about $133,742 in salary and benefits, a raise of $20,634 from 2017. LAB reports spending about $230,000 a year on lobbying.

Charity Navigator, a non-profit that evaluates charities, gives lab a rating of 81.45 out of 100 and three of four stars overall. It rated LAB a 97 for accountability and transparency (four stars), but only 73.94, or two stars for financial. (Charity Navigator based its ratings on 2017 data).

LAB is focusing now on pending legislation to improve TA, getting more federal effort dedicated to bicycle safety and reinstalling and possibly expanding the commuter tax credit for bicycling that Congress took away last year. The latter will require a tax bill as opposed to a transportation bill. LAB sent a solicitation to potential members saying “2019 HAS BEEN A BIG YEAR FOR US” pushing all these items. But so far, Congress hasn't moved them, leaving the battle for 2020.

LAB declined to cooperate for this report, which is uncharacteristic, since I've been covering them steadily for more than a decade.

For more information, see bikeleague.org

Adventure Cycling Association

The Missoula, MT-based Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) promotes bicycle travel and offers tours. It focuses on getting people to ride outside their communities and routines. Part of its mission involves advocating for policies and conditions that improve travel cycling. “We don't employ lobbyists” but work with LAB, RTC and PFB when their interests converge, such as policies allowing ebikes on federal land and Safe Streets legislation, explains Ginny Sullivan, director of travel initiatives. “Specific areas we focus on are rural and suburban conditions,” she says. “We're trying to help state (transportation) departments get better rumble strip policies” and improve shoulders. ACA also enthusiastically supports the Great American Rail-Trail. “We're supporting that in any way that is helpful to” RTC.

“We're not doing a whole lot of coordination with IMBA but we want to work with them on bicycle tourism. We see a real collaborative opportunity on that, especially in rural and mid-sized communities. People might bring their bike to do mountain biking or two-day tours,” Sullivan says.

ACA also works with federal and state agencies to try to improve campground conditions for cyclists. It would likes policies that set aside some campground slots for people who arrive without motorized vehicles: camp areas that include bike racks and fix-it stands, Sullivan says.

When the need arises, “we can call on our 52,000 members to weigh in on the federal level. We're getting better at that. We haven't done that as much in the past as we plan to do in the near future. We're going to launch an advocacy platform at the beginning of (2020) where people can instantly take action,” such as contacting their legislators, Sullivan says.

For more information, see: adventurecycling.org

National Bicycle Dealers Association

PFB doesn't monopolize the market for representing the bicycle industry. The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA), based in Irvine, CA represents the community bicycle stores that are now suffering from the rise of on-line bike sales. High on NBDA's agenda: making sure everyone pays taxes on bikes and equipment. “In order to create a fairer retail environment, NBDA supports measures that would require Internet and mail order purchases to be subjected to the same sales tax requirements that are currently imposed on local brick and mortar retailers,” the association says on its website.

Rather than lobby a lot in Washington, though, NBDA, which like PFB worries about tariffs, sends a letter template to its members encouraging them to get the message out to their senators and representatives. President Brandee Lepack and some board members go to Washington to do some lobbying sometimes, says Administrative Coordinator Rachelle Schouten.

For more information, see: nbda.com

North American Bikeshare Association

With the rise of bikeshare systems around the country (and world), the operators needed as association to promote and represent them. The North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) formed in 2014 and is headquartered in Portland, ME. Legislatively, it is very interested in the Bikeshare Transit Act of 2019 (H.R. 4001) pending in the House. The bill would clarify that communities can use federal transit money for bikeshare programs. Current law doesn't exclude them but since Congress wrote the law before bikeshare became common, it's not clear. NABSA wants to make sure that provision is included in the next surface transportation reauthorization.

Congress eliminated the Bicycle Commuter Tax Benefit last year. NABSA wants Congress to reinstate it and clarify that it could be used for bikeshare (pending in the Bicycle Commuter Act of 2019 (H.R. 1507). If employers offered it, bike commuters could deduct the cost of commuting, such as parking, repairs, and, of course, using bikeshare.

NABSA is also working with other bike groups and helping push Congress to increase support for bicycle infrastructure in the next surface transportation bill, says President Sam Herr. “I'd say mostly we work with PFB but we are aware of and coordinate with the other organizations that closely align with our goals,” she says.

NABSA doesn't use a centralized office or maintain a Washington presence; staff work from home and conduct an annual conference. It includes members in Canada and Mexico (next year's conference takes place in Guadalajara.)

For more information, see: nabsa.net

Safe Routes Partnership

The Safe Routes Partnership promotes Safe Routes to School (SRS) programs helping pupils bike and walk safety to school across the country. An offspring of PFB, the partnership still gets much of its funding from its parent, which created it in 2005 and set it free as an independent non-profit in 2014. It maintains no central office, with staff located across the country from California to Oregon to Philadelphia. Deputy Director Margo Pedroso lives in Fort Washington, MD outside the nation's capital and spends much of her time advocating for federal support in Congress, working closely with LAB. “We are working together on issues we have in common. This year, it's basically TA (Transportation Alternatives),” Pedroso says.

Though SRS lost its federal earmark in a previous reauthorization, it remains an eligible TA activity. “We feel pretty good about where we are,” Pedroso says. “It has gotten pretty well incorporated in how states do their programs.”

So the partnership isn't fighting to reestablish the earmark. “We feel at this point that putting it into a special program again would slow down the funding. Whenever you change something, it takes time to incorporate it. It would result in the loss of funding for a few years till they got it up and running again,” Pedroso explains.

“I do a monthly blog on federal policy we send out to subscribers, safe routes folks around the country. We encourage them to contact their members of Congress and ask them to visit and see SRS in action.”

For more information, see: saferoutespartnership.org

International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)

And we can't forget mountain biking. IMBA concerns itself strictly with access to public lands, says Advocacy Manager Aaron Clark. Like PFB, IMBA is headquartered in Boulder, CO. While it generally supports allowing ebikes on public lands, it wants local land managers to be able to exercise some discretion. Allowing “the full spectrum of all classes of ebike on all trails would be a one-size-fits-all approach. We want managers to have flexibility to have site-specific designations,” Clark says. Some of the more powerful ebikes could endanger public health and safety on some trails, or spook hikers and horses, he acknowledges.

And IMBA's favorite federal funding, naturally, comes from RTP, as opposed to TA.

“There's always room for improvement” in coordination among the groups,” Clark says. “There are different agenda,” as some groups like PFB represent the industry, and other membership organizations like IMBA serve a rider member base. Clark says IMBA coordinates and communicates regularly with PFB. But he says RTC has been less enthusiastic. “I was on a panel with RTC in Little Rock this summer before the Outdoor Writers Association of America. I've reached out to them numerous times. I haven't had a response from them, though.”

He also said that “LAB is probably the last group I communicate with. I don't even know a single person there I'd reach out to.”

“LAB defers to us regarding some mountain biking issues. We'd probably defer to them and don't do a lot on road biking,” Clark says. IMBA is strongly supporting the Recreation Not Red Tape Act (legislation in Congress that would make it easier for bike tour operators to get permits to operate in federal lands and encourage outdoor recreation in other ways). “IMBA has been the driver on that issue. PFB has played a supporting role knowing that it is important to us. We scratch each other's back when we can,” Clark says.

For more information, see: imba.com

Political Action Committees

It's a truism that legislators listen not just to constituents and those who knock, call or email with a point of view or interest – but mainly to those who contribute to campaigns. So is the bike industry contributing to help get the ear (or palm) of legislators – and to support ones who will promote bicycling?

PFB maintains a small political action committee (PAC) known as BIKESPAC that has traditionally donated to sponsors of bike legislation. For next year's congressional races, it reported donating as of the end of June (the latest information available) $7,350. But it retained more to award as the election draw closer: the books showed $70,367 cash on hand. The only beneficiaries of largess so far this cycle are the co-chairs of the Congressional Bike Caucus: Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vernon Buchanan (R-FL), getting $6,000 and $5,000 respectively last year for the upcoming campaign. During the 2018 cycle, these two received the biggest contributions: $7,500 each.

Both parties received contributions. The only one from a Mountain West state, however, was Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), getting $5,000. Evidently, legislators from this region aren't seen as big bike advocates. Among those now running for president, only Sen. Amy Klobuchar got any: $2,500.

Banayan says “We're working on a strategy. Right before the presidential election we want to be sure we focus the PAC where it matters.”

Schouten says NBDA isn't developing a PAC.

The only bicycle company with an active PAC is TREK Bicycle, which reported only $7,066 in contributions during the 2018 congressional campaign from individual donors. For the 2020 elections, it reported donating $489. Only Democrats received donations, if you include the $32 given to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

(The above figures come from the Center for Responsive Politics' Open Secrets website.)

Defunct Associations

What was once the Thunderhead Alliance and became the Alliance for Biking and Walking, which described itself as “the North American coalition of grassroots bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations, designed to help advocates around the country.” Former director Sue Knaup published a memoir describing abuse she took on the job from board members out to sabotage her work (https://www.onestreet.org/bicycle-programs/one-street-press). Eventually, its main funder pulled out.

One of its major projects, the biennial national Benchmarking Report on bicycling and walking in the Untied States, was taken over by LAB. The alliance's last IRS filing listed Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, as its chief officer and said it's main office is located in St. Paul, MN.

“It went from an organization of five or six people to an organization of one or less than one. It just didn't work. LAB was happy to accept some of the responsibility,” Grilley explains. The alliance's 2017 tax report disclosed that revenue dropped from $125,360 in 2016 to only $27,941 in 2017 and it reported only $8,474 in assets.

Meanwhile, the similarly titled National Center for Bicycling and Walking had set up a People Powered Movement office in Washington, DC that it said was dedicated “to provide the most accurate information regarding advocacy to increase bicycling and walking throughout the U.S. The office is closed, though the website remains up but not updated (https://www.peoplepoweredmovement.org/). It's last Twitter feed and Facebook posts were dated Sept. 4, 2018, save for one Facebook link in May. When the office closed, Senior Associate/Program Director Mark Plotz moved in with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association but moved out at the end of February. The center continues to put out an online newsletter (http://www.bikewalk.org/newsletter.php).

Abandoned Collaborative Efforts

While the organizations work together informally, a formal effort died. The America Bikes Coalition last met in 2014. It included, according to LAB, the Adventure Cycling Association, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, Bikes Belong, IMBA, LAB and the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and it worked with America Walks, the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Safe Routes Partnership, Transportation for America and other groups interested in growing the role of bicycling and walking through federal transportation policy, according to a 2012 posting by LAB when it's then campaign director Caron Whitaker moved to a job with LAB.

 

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