I’ve been on a wee bit of a spree lately about the continual state of Defcon 11 every time there is federal hiccuping about restricting funds for Transportation Enhancements, or cutting Safe Routes to Schools, or classifying bicycles as vegetables instead of vehicles.
Here’s the thing: These are serious issues. We should be concerned about them. But freaking out every time it happens and having all the bicycle advocates write and call their congresscritters is a cute little bandage on a much larger problem — one that I don’t know that the active transport community is really prepared to deal with as yet.
To wit: The problem isn’t that these programs are under attack. The problem is that they are considered low-hanging fruit because the active transport lobby is considered a fringe segment, a small special interest group who wears funny spandex and don’t shower enough. The problem is that “cutting spending” is a big issue for a lot of people, but “safer biking and walking” is not.
Part of this is just the limitation of advocacy. Part of it is a failure to reach out from the circle of the converted and widen the scope of support. Part of it is that some of the advocates are unwilling to put the issues in a framework that a lot of people can support.
In general, biking and walking are not considered by a lot of people to be valid modes of daily transport. And that’s the problem. And to those people, when the advocacy community is represented by the militant car-free, or people who don’t have to buy diapers by the case, or people who can’t tie a tie and heavens knows don’t have to wear one to work… they get written off by the people who do have all of those issues.
The People For Bikes campaign from Bikes Belong has its heart in the right place — anyone who has ridden a bike should care. But even for P4B, a lot of the outreach has come at big bike races or other specialty events where the attendees are predisposed or already part of the community. Preaching to the converted is easy. This may be why, after launching the site in 2010 to try to get a million people to sign their pledge, they still haven’t hit half the goal.
Becoming sympathetic to people who perceive biking as “nice, but not for me because of time/family/commitment,” and showing them how offering added options helps them in their daily life even if they do not themselves embed their buttocks on banana seats is a lot harder. And it’s not necessarily happening enough.
As a result, TE is going to be on the block every 3-6 months for a long time. Until bicyclists convince Main Street America that bikes and pedestrians matter, that they are not merely a fringe contingent, those programs are easy targets to attack.
So ask yourself, if you support bicycling and walking, how you can help make it sympathetic to the woman working full-time with 2 kids in diapers. How street calming makes sense for an immigrant family who perceive bicycles as something children and poor people ride, and who aspire to join the car culture. How providing options that can increase community cohesion is not about special interests, but about providing freedom of choice as current options force a single modal selection. Can you back off of “bicycles as transportation!!” and expand the circle to emphasize the bicycle as a leisure activity that can and should be accommodated, and that it’s okay to maybe drive to the store for 4 gallons of milk, but bike out for some ice cream with the family — an activity that requires safe routes and traffic calming? And then get out there and try to do it.
It’s not that the lifestyle cyclists are wrong. But if the movement cannot expand and accept a broader base of people who benefit from transportation options and traffic calming, we will never get beyond a state of Save Cycling! Panic! Write your Congressperson Now! If we’re going to be expending all this energy, maybe we should do it fixing the disease, instead of slapping band-aids on gaping head wounds. And at the end of the day, the problem is that the circle isn’t yet big enough.
So go forth, and be friendly. Accept that multiple transport modes work for different situations in different families. Sympathize. And try to bring them into the movement.