Thursday, March 17, 2016

You Say You Want A Revolution?

It's been done.

Here’s something I never thought I would see: dissent and disaffection within the highest ranks of bicycle advocacy. It seems the Washington DC-based lobbyist group known as the League of American Bicyclists is now too mainstream for Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. The advocacy process is too staid, its results too incremental. Cieslewicz voiced his frustration earlier this week and, for what my approval is worth, I applaud him for showing such courage. That’s not to say I concur on every point; I’m just glad to see someone within the advocacy community who is willing to break the tacit agreement not to find fault with another’s work.

I’m going to repeat something I said before: the first priority of the League of American Bicyclists is its own perpetuation. Its business is not better bicycling, but bicycle advocacy itself. As long as money is being spent and bicycle infrastructure is being built, then the League is happy in its work. Whether its efforts actually lead to more bicycling is completely incidental.

I want you to imagine a world in which all of the League’s dreams are realized. Put protected bike lanes on every inch of American roads and bike share stations on every street corner. Welcome bikes aboard every bus, train and ferry to create that multi-modal commute that so many of us are dying to make. Strike down every law that requires helmet use or bike licensing or other “barriers” to entry. What then?

Then comes the farcical, because the practical and the fanciful still will have failed to deliver a significant bump in ridership. Then the problem is that bicycling is still too hard and too slow. It has become safe enough, but who wants to ride in bad weather or up hills? What we need are climate-controlled tubes, a Habitrail for our electric motor-assisted bikes. Why, it would be just like an above-ground subway, but we’ll be getting exercise! And why is riding a bicycle such a white male-dominated activity? What we need are incentives to attract more women. Wait … not just women, but women of color. No, wait … not just women of color, but economically disadvantaged women of color. No, scratch that: physically-challenged military veterans of Inuit descent. For the love of God, how can we get more physically-challenged military veterans of Inuit descent to ride bikes?

Obviously, I’m having a little fun but the point is that the advocacy community will never be satisfied. Why should it be? It’s playing this game with somebody else’s money. None of its initiatives actually have to work, which is why it’s so hard to find reliable statistics that link infrastructure and legislation to changes in ridership. Don’t talk to me about 300% increases when your town started with 1 bike commuter and spent millions to attract 3 more. And how’s that bike share network treating you now that the private company charged with its administration has gone bankrupt and your city is operating it at a loss with tax revenue? The advocacy community will tell you that all public transit operates at a loss, therefore bicycling should have the same right to be a drag on your resources.

You say you want a revolution? Let me tell you about one that we had more than 200 years ago. It was organized and prosecuted by the wealthiest men in the country, who at the end of the Declaration of Independence said, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” That’s what they risked. What does the bike advocacy community risk? Not its fortunes, but yours.

A real revolution in bike advocacy would focus on increasing ridership directly. Instead of infecting the public with fear and then curing it with infrastructure, why not emphasize that bicycling is already very safe, very affordable, and, for many people, a legitimate alternative to other forms of transportation? We know that the roads get safer as more people ride. We can infer that as more people ride, more people will demand infrastructure improvements where they are truly needed. Let patterns of use dictate construction parameters, rather than undertaking construction with nothing more than an assumption of need. Work on legislation that preserves access to public streets and protects cyclists but also expects cyclists to conduct themselves safely and lawfully. Educate motorists instead of demonizing them, but when their intentional or negligent actions harm cyclists, then demand justice from law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and judges and make the public aware of the results so that it, in turn, may judge on election day. In such ways does an advocacy group represent its constituents and not merely its own interests.

We all want to change the world, and often the best first step is to change ourselves. The League of American Bicyclists is the conventional face of advocacy. It’s not likely to change. But a more militant stance from the Wisconsin Bike Fed isn’t the solution; solving real problems for real people is. Whether those solutions impress the rest of the advocacy community shouldn’t matter.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely well said Dave.

    Here in the north San Francisco Bay area, we’re getting a long overdue, very simple, commuter rail system that merely connects the cores of two counties: Sonoma and Marin. Early proposals unfortunately included “pie in the sky” concepts such as pedestrian/bike paths that would run parallel to the length of the rail line. Yikes. If it isn’t hard enough to mitigate the traffic and environmental impacts of rail crossings in this densely populated area, hobbling the plans by funding, engineering, building a 12-16 foot ribbon of pavement, makes it seem like the path was merely a rider to kill the rail plan altogether.

    Value of the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system itself is still hotly contested (mostly by Marin residents, who see it as only a benefit to Sonoma county commuters–the majority of commuters travel to San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley in the south bay). But area cycling associations are furious that plans to include a complete parallel multi-use path are possibly being scaled back. My own opinion mirrors what you gracefully voiced in this post.

    Few cyclists/pedestrians will choose to ride/walk the roughly 39 miles of the rail line. Those who could, are already familiar with the many, perfectly viable alternate routes that already exist. Similarly those who simply wish to reach the rail stops by foot or by bike have a multitude of safe options already. It does seem that cycling advocacy groups simply want to add to their palmares of infrastructure “gets” by pushing for paths. Unfortunately, that extra load on a project that is so needed, like this rail system (at least in my, and the majority of voters’ opinions in the north bay), can jeopardize approval and funding, doing nothing to alleviate the bay area’s gridlocked highway system.

    But then don’t get me started on what I think is the real root of the problem: Growth in general