Leading From The Rear?

An Open Letter To Our Cycling Advocacy Leaders

Following The Pack – motifake.com

Every four years we Americans get a chance to see how the big boys in Washington turn on the charm and hack one another to pieces in an attempt to win our votes. It is a delicate balance of seeming fearless with respect to the opposition without being seen as pandering to the hardliners in the party.

Once in a while we get a cat in amongst the pigeons when one of our own says something that we are forced to label as “stupid”. Never mind the fact that over 40 of our House members agree devoutly with those same stupid remarks, the leaders of the party see it as essential to not give the opposition a leg up in the donations gathering race while at the same time trying not to further alienate one segment of the population whose demographics make them a “hard sell”.

Phrases like “legitimate rape” are quite dangerous in today’s world. It exposes our widely held beliefs which when shared during closed door meetings seem just fine. But in the light of day they are more than just awkward, they have the capacity to sink the party’s ship.

Make no mistake about it money is the driving force in every thing we do regardless of the venue. Candidates for the Presidency of the United States may have to deny their own beliefs in favor of the good of the party. And of course the opposition trots out the myriad video clips of both candidates saying something a few years ago that sounds suspiciously like agreement with that “legitimate rape” phrase. But we pay campaign strategists big money to help us “walk back” comments that are embarrassing in today’s climate.

True Leadership Always Comes At A Cost

Cycling Advocates are sometimes myopic when it comes to their cycling community. We have forums that we like to tout as having 7,000+ members because it represents legitimacy. But with every large group you find “hardliners” who tout their dislike for “police”, signal their disrespect for entire geographic and ethnic areas (calling them “shit holes”).

One could make the case that forums are examples of places where Free Speech is welcomed and as such should not be controlled in any way. Fair enough. But then why the need to confront columnists whose ideas you disagree with by gathering together a group of non-cycling organizational leaders under the lofty banner of “respect for the diverse cycling community”?

I am cynical enough to believe that sometimes it is worthwhile to have someone act as a stalking horse so that you can flex your muscles in the act of subduing them. It makes you look tough while at the same time costing your little. The article in question by John Kass was written from the viewpoint of a non-cyclist. So raising issues of disrespect plays well in front of the 7,000+ members of the Chicagoland Cycling Community forum. But confronting some of the stark language of members of the that same forum when they mercilessly “run down” the West and South sides of Chicago takes the kind of courage that few leaders possess.

Getting leaders to take a stand that is ahead of the popularity curve of their political base has in some instances cost them their very lives. So it is not without some understanding of this problem that I continue to press for true leadership in the Cycling Advocacy Community.

The Portland Area bicycle community has come to loggerheads with their motorist counterparts over the “right hook” situation at one of their more dangerous intersections. After a bit of political wrangling the powers that be decided to deny motorists the right to do a right turn. The motorists who own businesses affected by this decision decided to strike back with a request to have cyclists be required to undergo mandatory licensing.

The author of the article decided to do something pretty radical. That is to sit down with the motorists demanding the law change to see if some sort of compromise could not be reached. I know, compromise is a very dirty word in today’s political climate. Urban cyclists would rather inhale bus fumes than “give in” to laws they deem unnecessary and objectionable. Waiting at red lights and stop signs for many in the urban cycling community is simply not to be done, it is a sign of weakness.

Cycling Advocacy leaders fuel this debate over the presence of “cycling scofflaws” by using what I deem to be a very lame excuse, the lack of sufficient bicycling infrastructure. Obviously the places around with world where infrastructure is both plentiful and already in place still manage to have issues between motorists and cyclists. And whether a cyclists decides to obey traffic laws is a matter of personal integrity and conscience and has little to do with green lanes with or without protective barriers.

But saying these things in what would be a forthright way can cost you support for your organization and when that happens you lose clout. And with the loss of clout you have fewer dollars rolling in from either the government or the local cycling community. And that could mean that your job is in jeopardy. So the real question is whether or not you are dealing from a truly principled place or are trying to curry favor with the “hardliners”.

That is something each leader will have to decide for themselves.

Going On The Offense

A sure sign that you are leading from the rear is the kind of response given to the Kass article. Gathering together a group of community leaders to respond to an article which is large ironic is somewhat pointless if you are going to allow yourself to be a part of a forum where much worse goes on in the name of advocacy. You are either fair-minded or ham-fisted you choose.

But the worst aspect of the response was not the ham-fisted nature of it but the clear loss of an opportunity to shape thought both inside and outside the cycling community. If you have the clout to organize signatories then you certain have the clout to get that group together for a singular discussion about the concerns that all communities in the city have about cycling. From where I sit there is a very definite rift in the thinking about cycling safety when you read between the lines of the Cycling Community Forum.

You don’t call an entire two-thirds of the city a “shit-hole” if you feel comfortable riding around them. That smacks of fear at having to ride through areas where you could get knocked off your bike or worse. So why not do something radical like getting community leaders on the West and South sides to agree to host rides with those from the North side. And in fact make certain that the fear-mongers from the forum are among those who have to meet with those “nasty, fearsome types” from the South or West sides?

If we can get people face-to-face Jimmy Carter-style we can perhaps start a dialogue that allows both groups to hear what the other has to say.

What Not A BikeCamp?

I will be spending some time at WordCamp this weekend on the DePaul University Campus. It is a gathering of folks who are users of WordPress, an Open Standards website and blog tool that is quite powerful and loaded with features and plug-ins. You can even ride your bike to the event! Sorry could not resist that last sentence.

So what does WordCamp have to do with leadership in the cycling advocacy world? Well just this. Each month the staff of our largest cycling advocacy group helps put on something called Critical Mass. If that ready-made opportunity to get activists together is allowed to simply languish as a “demonstration” rather than a means of further communication between the various groups in Chicago then shame on us.

There are literally hundreds of churches on the West and South sides of the city to which a Critical Mass ride could head. The participants to could listen to a discussion about the fears of riders from the North side or even the very far South side and ways to counteract these notions. In the process the existing cycling clubs for African-Americans could perhaps pick up additional members from their own community as they serve as the liaisons to these church leaders and their congregations.

Why not have the Critical Mass riders help put on a Cycling Rodeo for school kids each year? They get to see what is happening in these communities and in return the kids learn that every white face that rides through their so-called “shit-hole” is as compassionate as their own pastor. It’s a win-win situation.

You could still put on a real BikeCamp event for the adults. People who ride through various communities that they feel are unsafe can discuss strategies for coping with both the fear and helping to shape the future infrastructure changes that are sure to come. What is also a topic that is sure to draw a big crowd is “What do motorists think of cyclists in their areas?”. You could have the “hardliners” openly discuss their scofflaw behavior and the reasons they feel justified in continuing in that vein. And you might want to invite police officers to attend to give the other side of that argument.

When cyclists complain about being harassed by cops for their actions and you read the discussions that ensue on the cycling forum you suddenly discover that Vehicular Cycling is not necessarily the predominant view held by riders from the North side. They are sometimes split on whether “taking the lane” is an appropriate strategy. Now it is not enough to simply play the “wait for more infrastructure” card here, because in the long run there are always going to be streets and situations where the infrastructure is lacking or even non-existent where a cyclist is still going to have to survive by themselves. And they are going to need to know what their best alternatives might be.

Your BikeCamp would be an excellent place to have the underlying differences between today’s Vehicular Cyclists and Separate Infrastructure Proponents discussed at length. It would also be a great venue for having business people who like the ones in Portland are bound to experience benefits and downsides to increased bicycle traffic in their areas.

What for instance does a shop owner do when as expected bicycle traffic increases between three and five times its current levels? Will the city be ready to support his with greater numbers of bike racks outside his shop? Will she have problems with walking-in and driving customers when these bikes block access to the entrance to her store?

Running sorties at articles in newspapers critical of cyclist behavior and raising legitimate concerns about the future challenges to a shared infrastructure between cyclists and the motorists who often distrust one another is not always helpful. It would be much better to have some of the cycling advocates writing articles that share their vision of the future and how it will require a certain level of responsibility from cyclists as well as support from motorists in order to get things right.

We need to learn from the current problems in Copenhagen regarding motorist congestion rings. We have the opportunity here to not go down the same paths as our elder statesmen, but it will take leadership from our Cycling Advocacy groups rather than grandstanding over articles which call into question how the future will look in this Brave New World of separate cycling infrastructure.

We cannot be so naive as to imagine that if we can get Kinzie Street duplicated over the entire city that we will be any more inoculated against the clashes that Portland has seen than they are. Frictions are going to ride between cyclists and motorists despite our best intentions, unless we can get people to discuss the situations both in advance of the problems and afterwards. Holding yet another aimless Critical Mass Ride around the North side of the city is pointless when real solutions are needed.

Cycling Advocacy summits ought to be part of the landscape here in Chicago. And each of the three major areas of our city should be hosting them. When West and South side residents feel part of the conversation things will be bound to change. Many of the folks who live in depressed areas of the city probably have no idea that they can buy bikes at reasonable prices from the various cycling cooperatives here in the city. Not only are there food deserts in Chicago but few if any of these areas have thriving bike shops either.

Residents who are too poor to afford an automobile might love to know what sorts of routes are available to help them reach their jobs in the Loop and everywhere else. If you can find ways to empower cyclists in the least affluent areas of Chicago then you have made both lasting friends and allies in the coming struggle to build the necessary bike corridors that we all need. Suddenly it becomes easier for cyclists from surrounding suburbs to find ways to navigate through the city in safety. Am I dreaming here? You bet.

But it takes some vision on the part of the folks whose livelihood is cycling advocacy to make these dreams a reality. We have Bike The Drive which ties together the North and South sides of Chicago and I applaud that ride and attend it every year. The Four Star Tour which used to be the Boulevard Lakefront Tour is another ride of enormous potential. It is going to help unify both the South and West side corridors with their neighboring suburbs. I will be there this week to attend and enjoy.

But I am greedy. I want to see some real progress in terms of dialogue between North side and South and West side cyclists. Only a Cycling Advocacy group can pull something like this off. Those same signatories on that letter to John Kass are just the kinds of groups to offer segues into the poorer communities. They are the places where residents might turn to learn more about their options for housing and transportation. In fact if anyone is likely to be hearing about poor street conditions it is workers in the field for these various organizations.

We need to get Bike Washes like the one being hosted by one of the more critical forum members to be held all over the city each summer. Perhaps the forum can encourage folks who are fearful of the South and West sides to help in organizing such events alongside the members of bicycle clubs already present in the African-American community. In fact it would be wonderful if the profile of these largely black cycling clubs could be elevated by their interaction with the large cycling advocacy groups.

All sorts of things could happen in this city that will not if all we ever continue to do is react to newspaper articles we take exception to. We have to lead from the front and not from the rear.