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Trailblazers on Two Wheels

How bicycle advocates defined North American cycling culture since 1970.

By Jeff Mapes, 8 Jul 2011, Momentum Magazine

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Critical Mass rider turning bike culture on its head. Photo by Popejon2 from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

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[Editor's Note: With the long awaited arrival of the sunny season, The Tyee is pleased to present our "Self-Propelled Summer," a weekly series of cycle-centric articles from Momentum magazine. Enjoy this first installment and always remember to wear a helmet while riding your bike.]

If you spend much time pedaling the streets of any city in North America, you're probably pretty passionate about it. You know what it's like to be part of a small and all-too-often embattled minority -- and you probably also believe the world would be a better place if a lot more people got out of their cars and joined you on bikes.

These simple feelings have given rise to an increasingly sophisticated bike advocacy movement that has grown across the U.S. and Canada over the last four decades. Cycling, once seen as only suitable for children and oddly attired athletes, is now becoming a mainstream form of transportation in cities from San Francisco to New York, from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C.

This hasn't been easy and the movement is still a long way from reaching its full potential. That's partly because organizing cyclists -- who are often contrary and individualistic by nature -- is a bit like herding cats. No single organization is the cycling equivalent of the National Rifle Association. No one figure is as towering as Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement.

Instead, the modern bike movement is more akin to a thousand flowers blooming -- sometimes in the unlikeliest of settings.

Take Deb Hubsmith, who just over a decade ago was lugging materials on sustainable transportation around to local schools in suburban Marin County, California on a solar-powered electrical bike. In the space of a few years, Hubsmith -- who headed the Marin County Bicycle Coalition -- formed a lobbying alliance with powerful Minnesota congressman Rep. Jim Oberstar, who had fallen in love with cycling himself. She helped push through hundreds of millions of dollars for new biking programs, including the creation of a national program to encourage children to once again walk and bike to school.

Or consider Randy Neufeld, who built the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation into one of the most powerful local bike groups in the country by essentially embedding his staff within the City of Chicago's transportation department.

Now they are writing bike plans for the city. And Neufeld has moved on to head the SRAM Cycling Fund, which was set up by the bicycle equipment manufacturer, and is handing out $10 million in grants to bike advocacy groups.

Too mainstream for you? Well, there is Chris Carlsson, who nurtured San Francisco's Critical Mass and has seen it grow into a worldwide phenomenon.

Or you can talk about the "underground" mutant bike builders or the loose-knit bike fun group Shift -- in my hometown of Portland, Oregon -- who are turning bikes into performance art and helping create a new kind of urban cool about cycling.

Roll on, Canada!

Canada has taken tips from the States, where the main thrust of the cycling advocacy movement in North America began.

There's Robert "Bicycle Bob" Silverman whose madman antics in Montreal, QC in the 1970s sparked a revolution of bike advocacy in Canada. Silverman and a team of guerrilla protesters became famous for rallying against the "auto-cracy." They painted bike lanes in the middle of the night. They staged a "die-in" where hundreds lay, coated in fake blood, at the corner of St. Catherine and University streets beside mangled bicycles to raise awareness about the need to make roads safer and more accessible.

These demonstrations were also headed by Claire Morissette who, together with Silverman, formed Le Monde à Bicyclette in 1976, arguably the flagship cycling organization in Canada. Dubbed the "Joan of Arc" of bicycling, Morissette became famous for other publicity-raising stunts, such as bringing skis, ladders and cardboard elephants onto the subway system in Montreal, which were allowed, at a time when bicycles were prohibited. The City of Montreal recognized her work in 2007 by posthumously naming the De Maisonneuve bike path the Piste Cyclable Claire-Morissette.

These flowers didn't bloom by themselves. The seeds were planted in many places in North America, all the way back to the founding of the League of American Wheelman in 1880 in Newport, RI. Before hardly anyone had a car -- let alone thought of having an automotive lobby -- the league started lobbying for paved roads to replace the rutted, muddy dirt roads that connected cities.

Plotting revolution in the Golden Temple

But enough about ancient history. If you want to understand the modern bike movement in North America, you could well start in the Golden Temple, a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. in 1977. A group of young bike activists who had started to meet decided they needed a wise head to help guide them. They sought out Tedson Meyers, a local attorney and former D.C. city councilor.

Meyers, then 49, had once bicycled across France. But he too had despaired at how cycling was ignored by American transportation officials, despite a huge spurt in adult bike sales in the early 70s that became known as the "bike boom."

"At the time we began, people in positions of authority had no use for pedestrians and bicyclists," Meyers told me when I was researching my book, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities. "When I was on the DC city council, the head of the highway department – he was a lovely man – [. . . ] thought that pedestrians and bikes just get in the way. The thing that irritated him the most was pedestrians who would walk slowly across the intersection."

On a spring day 33 years ago, Meyers met three young bike enthusiasts at the Golden Temple. Dan Burden, then in his early 30s, was already a celebrity in the tight little world of bike activists. He led an epic trip from Alaska to Mexico that he chronicled for National Geographic and, in 1976, organized a mass "Bike-Centennial Ride" across the US. To him, the bike was a wonderful "learning machine" that allowed people to experience nature and their own community in a way they couldn't behind the windshield of a car. Two young federal bureaucrats trying to carve out a niche working on bike issues -- Bill Wilkinson and Katie Moran -- rounded out the group.

Over lunch, the four decided to create the Bicycle Federation, which they saw as a kind of nerve center for a true transportation revolution. "We wanted above all to train advocates in communities," around the country, Meyers said.

The BikeFed, as it came to be known, never became a household name and it never bothered to become a mass member organization. But for years the Bicycle Federation played a big behind-the-scenes role in boosting bicycle transportation.

The federation sponsored an influential biennial meeting, now known as Pro Walk/Pro Bike and it became one of the main gathering points for bike advocates. Wilkinson, who ran the group for more than two decades before his 2008 retirement, helped form the coalition that outmatched the highway builders and finally gave biking and walking a share of federal transportation money. The group played the midwife role in creating the Thunderhead Alliance -- now known as the Alliance for Biking & Walking -- that represents and nurtures some 160 local bike advocacy groups across the U.S. and Canada.

'A change-the-world mentality'

Above the border, John Luton, a City of Victoria councilor and executive director of the Capital Bike and Walk Society in Victoria, was busy sending out feelers to the bike community, NGOs and government officials, with the intent of creating a more cohesive movement in Canada and North America. The first Canadian to join the Alliance, Luton led the campaign to bring the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference of 2004 to Victoria, BC.

Burden, the first director of the BikeFed, launched a bike-centennial, which led to the creation of the Adventure Cycling Association -- now 44,500 members strong, mostly from North America. Eventually, Burden became a consultant who travels more than 300 days a year teaching people how to create walkable communities.

He hasn't forgotten his cycling roots. He likes, for example, to tell groups there are several good reasons to stripe in bike lanes besides just aiding cyclists. (Among them: providing space on the side of the roadway for emergency vehicles and moving motorized traffic further away from pedestrians.)

Wilkinson remembers the '70s as a time when the pioneering bike advocates approached their work with an almost innocent fervor. In a society that had seen such rapid cultural shifts, from the rise of civil rights to the sexual revolution, why couldn't bikes be a tool for remaking cities?

"We had a change-the-world mentality," he said. "Nothing was impossible."

For the most part, these early pioneers had little engineering or planning expertise. Still, with an energy crisis looming in the 1970s, they did manage to persuade Congress to order the federal government to study the potential gasoline savings of shifting shorter trips from cars to bikes. Several communities, particularly such college towns as Davis, California and Eugene, Oregon, installed bike paths, bike lanes and other amenities to encourage cycling.

John Dowlin, a Philadelphia bike activist who helped market the now-ubiquitous inverted-U bicycle rack, for many years operated a clipping service that distributed news articles about bicycling issues.

Dowlin said that huge bike rides by environmental activists in Paris and London inspired American activists in the 70s. So did the demonstrations for better biking conditions in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. He also recalled the excitement over a 1973 article in Scientific American by Stuart S. Wilson -- titled "Bicycle Technology” -- that explained how the bike was the most efficient form of transportation.

Ivan Illich, a Roman Catholic priest, used the article for his landmark book Energy and Equity, which served as a radical manifesto for the bike movement.

Learning on the road

The tumult of the 1970s, however, did not produce a bicycling revolution.

The bike industry, often only a faint-hearted supporter of bike advocacy, foundered as sales tanked in the mid-1970s and American companies began losing sales to overseas competitors.

Bike activists faced their own schism. John Forester, a California engineer and avid cyclist, started his own movement to fight bikeways, saying that authorities just wanted to deny cyclists the right to the road.

Forester produced a book, Effective Cycling, which codified the style of riding he had learned as a child in Great Britain -- he was the son of novelist C.S. Forester -- and as a reader of British cycling magazines.

"Cyclists fare best," he intoned, "when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles."

Vehicular cycling, as described by Forester, became the basis for bike education in North America. Even some of his sternest enemies give him credit for his vehicular cycling precepts and for helping protect the right of cyclists to use the public right of way. But he had a stormy tenure on the board of the League of American Wheelmen and alienated many bike advocates with his withering critiques.

Perhaps most importantly, Forester didn't look to put North Americans on bikes. He was a suburbanite himself and saw little reason why large numbers of people would want to swap driving for pedaling. "It was a minority activity and I didn't expect it to be any more than that," he told me years later, "because I knew the difficulty. It was real fun, but on the other hand. . . it had its costs, time and social opprobrium and such."

Oil prices dropped in the early 1980s as the Reagan administration shut down the already minimal federal spending on bike projects. The shift to suburbia continued to accelerate and commutes grew longer. Several local bike groups withered. Cars got bigger as they morphed into mobile living rooms and roads became even more swollen with traffic.

Ice tea anyone?

The pivotal moment for biking’s rebound came in 1991 when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, known universally as ISTEA (pronounced "ice tea").

With the interstate freeway system nearly complete by the end of the 1980s, a broad group of transportation reformers decided to hijack the "highway bill." Those included transit interests, urban planning groups, bike activists and plenty of others who were used to getting shoved into the margins. They formed the Surface Transportation Policy Project, but their informal name was an ironic one: "the losers' coalition."

They enlisted a key senator, New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had a lively career as a public intellectual before turning to elective politics. Among his work was a 1960 article, "New Roads and Urban Chaos," that predicted the problems that would occur when states began ramming freeways through cities with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the tab.

With a real stream of federal money available, the bike lobby flowered. Now that local and state governments could apply for grants to build bikeways, politicians and bureaucrats showed a new interest in biking. And local bike advocacy groups could realistically push for new projects, whether it was a trail or an improved bridge crossing. Similarly, the bike industry realized that it needed to do more to make sure cycling captured these new federal dollars. Simply put, bike paths equaled more sales.

Another signature moment came in 1996 when some 20 activists from a dozen local bike groups around the country gathered at Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming.

Jeff Miller, in his first week on the job as executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, was one of them. "That weekend was absolutely transforming," he said, as the activists bonded and realized how common their problems were, from city to city. Miller said his member groups had the equivalent of about 10 paid staffers in the late 1990s. Now, there are more than 200 – showing how much more professional the movement has become.

Hubsmith, who is now executive director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, cited two other key events that helped produce a muscular bike lobby.

Call it 'active transportation'

In the late 1990s, the bike industry -- spurred on by John Burke, the chairman of Trek Bicycles -- formed Bikes Belong and played a key role in pushing through new funding for biking and walking in ISTEA’s successor, the Transportation Efficiency Act of 1998.

And in 2003, the various bike groups -- working as one in a coalition called America Bikes -- demolished an attempt by conservative Republicans to eliminate funding for the program that provided hundreds of millions of dollars for bike and pedestrian projects.

Of course, it wasn't all just sharp lobbying. The revitalization of inner cities around North America helped spur interest in alternative forms of transportation – and many people discovered that bikes were a great way to cover relatively short urban trips. The obesity crisis turned the public health community into cheerleaders for integrating activity into peoples' daily lives. The new buzzword for biking and walking was "active transportation." And, of course, peak oil and global warming became common concerns over the last decade. In many ways, the bike movement has started to shift. No longer is it a small group of outsiders meeting in the Golden Temple.

Oberstar, who credits bicycling with helping him recover emotionally from the death of his first wife from cancer, went on to chair the House Transportation Committee and helped support cycling programs until his defeat in 2010. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who helped create Portland's bike network when he was on that city's council, has stitched together a Congressional Bike Caucus of some 160 members.

Janette Sadik-Kahn, the innovative transportation commissioner for New York City, accomplished more in four years on the job than bike activists would have once dreamed possible. Barack Obama became the first US president to include bicycling in his transportation platform. His transportation secretary, Raymond LaHood, told me on a trip to Portland how impressed he was with the number of cyclists he saw in the city [see our Portland feature, p. 32]. He also praised the city's growing streetcar and light rail lines and said the way to fix cities was simple: "Take what you've done here in Portland and try to replicate it around America. It's not that complicated."

The bike movement has broadened in many ways, adopting a more sophisticated view of urban design and transportation. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, for example, now calls itself the Active Transportation Alliance. It envisions a community where half of all trips are by bicycling, walking and transit.

Wilkinson, one of the pioneers of the movement, talked about how he gradually began to change his focus from bikes to land use.

"If you don’t get the bones of the community right, the rest of it isn't going to work," he explained. "For bicycling and walking to be viable modes to support daily routines and activities, the origins and destinations have to be in reasonable proximity. They can't be eight-mile trips."

New self-propelled heroes

Many of the new stars of the bike movement would never be confused with Lance Armstrong.

There's John Pucher, a professor at Rutgers, who spent much of his career studying mass transit. Since a 1996 sabbatical in Muenster, Germany, where bikes are as common as cars, he's authored influential studies on how to bring European-style urban biking levels to North America. And there's Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Institute in British Columbia, one of the major theorists showing how North America needs to shift away from an auto-centric transportation system. And Yvonne Bambrick, executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union (and piloting the tandem bike on our cover) -- has gathered support for her city's first and only membership-based organization that launched in May 2008, signing up 1,100 members to date.

Through her collaborative and inclusive style of advocacy, combined with media savvy communications skills, BAMBRICK has mainstreamed the conversation about transportation cycling. Ongoing campaigns include updating the Ontario Driver's Handbook, a Complete Streets Policy campaign in partnership with the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation, and Newcomer Cycling Outreach program in partnership with CultureLink Settlement Services. Or you could point to Mark Gorton, a high-tech finance entrepreneur in New York City who has financed two influential web sites, Streetsblog and Streetfilms, which have become major news sources for bike activists.

Miller, who heads the Alliance for Biking & Walking, notes that the 160 local bike groups in his coalition still only have around 100,000 members.

"I find that to be rather dismal, personally," said Miller. "The big thing I always state is to join your local organization, get involved. . . If everyone spent just a fraction of what they spent on their bicycles and equipment, there would be a profound payoff for that investment."  [Tyee]

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