Cycling Advocacy, Then and Now : The Business Model View


Active Transportation Alliance

Active Transportation Alliance

The first thing you should be asking yourself is why the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation became the Active Transportation Alliance. The simple answer is money. In fact few things from the GOP have made as much of an impact on the way voters think is the notion that everything from social services to transportation infrastructure is all about the money.

The one myth that survives despite the best efforts of the GOP is small businesses are the engines of our economy. What should be said about small businesses is that they provide the most active snapshot of the employment picture. But for the most part it is the retooling of big business that drives most of the private sector growth in jobs.

The single biggest employer in this country and the main source of income for most businesses is Government. I say government knowing that most of my readers will assume that this means Washington, D.C. But in fact it means government at every level local, state and federal. It is all one big messy pot of stew and without it most of what we think of as the middle class would not exist.

Looking At Government

Australian Federal Police patrol the courtyard of Parliament House in Canberra. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Australian Federal Police patrol the courtyard of Parliament House in Canberra. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Among the biggest devourer of tax money is the military. We pay an enormous amount of money to fund the development of weapons systems, the deployment of soldiers, ships, bases and jets around the world. If you were to shut down all of the wars and policing operations that we fund with American tax dollars you would see a vast savings, but ironically you would also see a huge slump in our GNP. That is simply because entire segments of our economy rely on military spending as their life’s blood.

Companies that produce radios for the military or vehicles for troop transportation or jet fighters for defense or ships for troop and equipment transport or even bombardment would probably collapse were it not for our military operations. In fact there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses around the country that would fold if all of the bases we have were suddenly closed in response to a massive drawdown of troops and cancellation of equipment purchases.

But the military is just the tip of the iceberg. You have schools and their teachers, fire protection and police districts all over this great land that are essentially government entities. And of course there is the postal service and social service networks that provide everything from psychiatric help to the dispensing of medical services. In fact the enormity of medical services is such that you would easily point to the fact that most large hospitals in urban areas are for all practical purposes arms of the government. If you remove the dollars that flow into them for care of the indigent the doctors and nurses and hospital support personnel would probably be out of jobs. Few people in this country have the personal assets to pay the enormous costs associated with health care.

For better or worse the struggles surrounding the Fiscal Cliff talks in Washington are about this dynamic of government and its infusion into all our lives.

Looking At Private Businesses

By John Moore, Getty Images U.S. military personnel get one-on-one mentoring at the Military and Veterans Employment Expo last week in Golden, Colo. The event was aimed to help combat the high unemployment rate among veterans and members of the National Guard and Reserve.

By John Moore, Getty Images U.S. military personnel get one-on-one mentoring at the Military and Veterans Employment Expo last week in Golden, Colo. The event was aimed to help combat the high unemployment rate among veterans and members of the National Guard and Reserve.

Actually the term Private and Business should seldom be used together. There really is little about business in this country that is really private.

Take for instance those military bases we talked about. In small towns shops, restaurants, real estate agencies and all the rest are the recipients of direct government spending because of the paychecks of service men and women. Pull them out of the town and the who place simply dries up. Closing down a base means that the local restaurants die. The housing market plummets and on and on.

Like big business small ma and pa businesses to one degree or another rely on government spending. If you own a sandwich shop in the downtown are of a big city most of your customers are either working for the local municipal government or a private business doing business with the government. You would normally think of this much interconnectivity as incestuous but that would be a pejorative terms applied to something that is clearly necessary.

Even businesses that bring in natural resources like oil and gas are essentially arms of the government. The lease land from the government to explore for oil and gas. The produce these resources in service of either transportation or essential services like heating and electricity. The rail lines that transport the coal for instance that we burn in the United States are seldom heading towards homes. Instead much of it is burned in governmental plants to produce electricity. Even the atomic reactors that are here in Illinois produce electricity for municipalities to purchase and then sell to private citizens. Government has its hands in just about every pie.

Airplane and automobile manufacturers have huge contracts supplying government agencies with transportation. Fleets of SUVs carry around agents for the FBI and local police. They are used to transport politicians to and from their places of employment. Police and fire units purchase these to transport their people. Governmental spending is enormous.

Most food production in this country is done on farmland that is paid for by means of subsidized support from the government. Farmers rely on the government to provide cheap insurance against crop failure and drought. The prices they are paid for their crops usually have government support to keep them in business despite the cyclical nature of weather.

You remove governmental involvement and suddenly most farmers cannot count on being able to support themselves in bad times.

Cycling Advocates As Lobbyists

Franklyn Cater/NPR - A taxi drives down a bus lane in Washington, D.C.

Franklyn Cater/NPR – A taxi drives down a bus lane in Washington, D.C.

The role of government has always been about the redistribution of wealth. The myth is that this means Socialism. If that were true then every casino in the country would be the site of socialist activity. After all they exist primarily to allow folks to bring in their money and attempt to walk out with someone else’s with the house getting a cut. You can find no more raw form of wealth redistribution than that.

But what government does is take in taxes and then give some of it back to each part of the country based upon need. It is a bit like living in a housing development where every unit is a townhouse. Each homeowner pays a fee each month and then the association that governs the use of these monies decides which set of townhouses get new roofs this year. And which ones need to be painted. Each unit gets its sidewalks shoveled and the trash removed and the lawns mowed based upon need. Some areas allow the associations to buy units and then sell them to make certain that when people leave their homes are not sitting empty.

Now the people who are tasked with making certain that your tax dollars are returned to you are called lobbyists. Their job is to influence people in your local, state or federal government that there is a crying need for money in your area. So for instance your school district makes a plea to have monies sent its way to pay for a new stadium, to repave the parking lots, fix up the school cafeteria, buy computer equipment and a host of other things like offering special classes to students with learning disabilities or special needs.

In the case of bicycle infrastructure we have cycling advocates. Their job is to approach the local government and to lobby for a slice of the transportation pie coming back from Washington D.C. to rebuild crumbling trails, add or replace bridges, create protected bike lanes and even purchase the new traffic control signals to keep cyclists and motorists moving along without gross interaction.

What has changed in recent years is that monies for trails and streets is coming out of the pie that services highways and larger arterial routes. Trains, buses and trucks are also part of the mix. The government has decided to push back to the states the responsibility for determining who needs the monies most. In the past lots of lobbyists were traveling to Washington D.C. to clog up the halls of the Capitol seeking interviews with Senators and Representatives from their states to bend their ears on the crying needs of their districts. It ties up the time of these lawmakers who would rather be sitting in their offices sending one another emails about how best to screw their political adversaries to increase their numbers in the next election cycle.

The current thinking is to simply pass on the pot of money to the states and let them divvy it up among municipalities. That of course means that the lobbyists now spend more time in places like Springfield than Washington. But the effect is the same. Palms get greased (if the lobbyists are working for corporations who are seeking government contracts) and everyone is happy.

Entities like the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation have had to adapt to this new way of doing things. To gain a seat at the table they have had to transform themselves in agencies that cover all sorts of transportation having to do with people movement. That means they are supposedly looking out for the “little guy” when it comes to mass transit (i.e. buses and electrified trains), personal vehicle transports like bicycles and foot traffic.

And that means essentially that they have to act as consultants to local governments that cannot afford or perhaps do not wish to hire specific individuals to give them expertise in how to write grants to get government funds. So these organizations have learned to talk in terms that make sense to a group of lawmakers that understand business models above all else. To that end monies for bicycling are now tied to the ability of these cycling advocacy groups to make the case that bike lanes improve small business bottom lines. And that gives clout to a local municipality when it comes time to divvy up the dollars from Washington at the local level.

Getting small shop owners and medium-sized businesses on board is essential. They have to put out press releases touting the value of approving the creation of bike lanes to give the local government “cover” when it comes to paying large sums of money (e.g. $450,000 to transform Dearborn’s 12 block section into a protected bike lane zone.) What the cycling advocacy groups get in return are salaries.

The municipalities that work with them get to have an active partner in turning out cheering throngs at photo-ops when a new bike lane is “opened” for general use. The federal government types read newspapers like you and I and when they see that the monies coming back to a state are being used to generate good vibes among their constituents it makes them more eager to send more money during the next funding cycle.

Dealing With Downtimes In A Slowing Economy

Admit it: Chicagos new Dearborn bike lane makes you a wee bit jealous. Photo: © Active Transportation Alliance

Admit it: Chicagos new Dearborn bike lane makes you a wee bit jealous.
Photo: © Active Transportation Alliance

Cycling Advocates have to make the best of Boom Times. The stimulus monies that were turned aside by GOP governors made their way back to Illinois where we are more than happy to rebuild infrastructure and curry favor for Washington with the local populations. But eventually the monies will dry up and we will have to find ways to pay for additional bike infrastructure and the maintenance of what already exists.

Trails are received renewed focus because they represent the opportunity going forward of relatively low expensive improvements in the street-based infrastructure because they can serve as “connectors“. Chicagoland has dozens of forest preserve trails that when coupled with on-street bike lanes suddenly begin to resemble greenways that could serve as bicycle transportation corridors. And all of this is existing stuff that just needs some tweaking to create the connections. The Salt Creek Trail system in the western suburbs of Chicago is a great example of this kind of thinking about renewal.

What About Cyclist Training?

Gail Copus Spann (yellow jacket) is one of just 17 LCI Coaches nationwide©

Gail Copus Spann (yellow jacket) is one of just 17 LCI Coaches nationwide

One of the things that has changed about cycling advocacy is the lack of focus on training for cyclists. This is because the protected bike lane paradigm is a bit like the Apple Macintosh scheme for computer use. If the software is user-friendly enough you do not need to buy training manuals to become an effective user of software. And that is essentially what has happened in the personal computer arena.

There used to be an entire industry surrounding the training of office personnel on how to use word processors and spreadsheets. But today the level of ease associated with software from Apple has made it almost unnecessary to have extensive training in the way that Microsoft applications on PCs once required.

In the cycling world the current thinking is that you really do not need lots of training from a cycling advocate group because the lanes will minimize the need for such training. By isolating the transportation groups you limit their interaction and thus rely solely upon the ability of cyclists to follow the green lane down at their feet and to obey the signals designed for their use.

So most LCIs are finding use of their skills in training bicycle police or helping municipalities understand the kinds of features bike lanes need to promote sound and safe usage. Protected bike lanes are transportation “for the rest of us” to borrow from Apple.

Challenges Going Forward

Dearborn Bike Lane Changes© Chicago Tribune

Dearborn Bike Lane Changes
© Chicago Tribune

Bike lanes are expensive and will need to justify that expense. Users of bike lanes are likely to find themselves in future joining a more formal structure like that experienced by motorists. Right now if a municipality wants to justify more monies they ask for volunteers to come out and help them count the number of riders who make daily commutes. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that transponders will be used to generate these counts in future.

Bicyclists will be asked to pay for the transponders and in turn will gain access to special lanes through the heart of downtown districts. And counters will be erected to capture their passage allowing government to tell at a glance how many riders are on the pavement and how far their trips are each morning. The wealthier municipalities will also use this data to help them justify the soon to be increased need for bicycle parking and train and bus accommodations for mixed mode travelers. What we do not want is for their to be so many bicycles around that they overwhelm the parking facilities available. And if their numbers are growing we need constant indicators of that fact. Transponders make that possible. Licensing and registration are in your cycling future.

The transponders also mean that stolen bicycles can be more easily tracked and hopefully recovered. It will of course mean expenses that are currently not encountered by cyclists, but for that expense repair and maintenance stations can be put into place and individuals to service them can be hired. Think about the Minute Men model used on the tollroads. They come out to service emergency calls to get you back on the road as quickly and as safely as possible.

Think too of protected bike lanes that have canopies or are elevated above street level to allow for all-weather use by not only traditional bicycles but motorized wheelchairs and electrified bicycles and velomoblies. The future could be quite exciting. In a world where registration and licensing are part of the equation you are soon to see the notion of patrol personnel assigned to those routes which have a toll fee. That means safe use of trails and on-street cycle tracks rounds the clock.

Any Downsides To All This Goodness?

Bikes In Snow

Bikes In Snow

Do wild bears defecate in the woods? You bet.

There are pressures on every organization trying to get to the money trough to support their salaries to show progress. That is the main reason you see press conferences each time a new bike lane (of relative importance) is opened up. The politicians get to show that they have clout in Washington and Springfield and the advocacy groups get to show that they are influential in getting monies brought back to our state and city.

The politicians and cycling advocates are going to be “in bed with one another” for the foreseeable future. As you will have noticed there are lots of different bike lanes designs that seem to be cropping up. This is because the design of these protected bike lanes is not yet an exact science. Having a variety of them allows the municipality to see which design works best. But by implication each community is something of a guinea pig.

Some of these lane designs are going to be scrapped. Some will serve to show how a well-designed lane should look. But cycling organizations and politicians are not unlike home or strip mall builders. Once they have built the structure they (as individuals) might no longer be around. A politician might lose and election and his successor decides to either ignore existing lanes or discontinue the movement towards creation of more of them or unfortunately decide that they costs more than the value they provide and tear them down.

For instance a common complaint regarding the Dearborn protected bike lane is that the margins along the curbs (where these lanes are placed) are unsuitable for bicycle use. They have dips in the pavement that collect water and that translates into snow and ice in a place like Chicago. It still remains to be seen how effectively municipalities can clear snow from these narrow lanes without investing in special equipment for the purpose. Will that be a problem going forward. Stay tuned.

And of course everyone is counting on the Critical Mass being achieved. But in a country where healthy eating is met with resistance by your “average voter” it seems improbable that this group will suddenly decide to bike in cold, snowy Chicago year round. More probable is that visitors in the warmer months will use the lanes to travel in an around the city. But does that mean enough traffic will make these lanes worthwhile? Time will tell.

Race and Ethnicity are going to play a major role in getting by-in from Hispanics and African-Americans when it comes to bicycle lanes. Unless folks understand that aspiring for upward mobile looking forms of transportation means not looking at bicycles then friction will result. Poor people hardly identify with Minimalism. Bicycling is if nothing else Minimalism in its rawest form. It will not always translate into something positive for older Americans of color.

And this will be especially true when cuts are being leveled at Mass Transit which is the primary means by which poor residents gain access to transportation.