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.
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.
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.