Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Unified bicycling advocacy?

Fresh off the wire, sort of. In other words, it happened today and I finally got around to typing this.
"Waddaya think? Should we merge?"
screen shot from Breaking Away, if you missed it

 Looks like the League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong, and the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking may merge, subject to their governing organizations agreeing to all this. Here is the BRAIN article and there are press releases at the three sites linked above.

I agree with several other folks that we need to see what, in detail, is proposed regarding what sounds like a corporate merger. But I'm willing to be the optimist and take a pull at the front with these folks unless convinced otherwise by future events. Hey, the more folks in the peloton, the merrier, right? Well..maybe. As long as they are all taking turns at the front and pulling in the same direction. This could be quite good.

This merger has, optimistically speaking, the potential to add considerable power to the voice(s) of cyclists in the realm of local, regional, and national lobbying efforts. For example, what could have happened had all the local bike shops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as agents of BB, working with advocates, thrown their considerable resources into recruiting, transporting, and feeding a myriad of cyclists riding to or catching rides to the Roundhouse for Biker Day? Maybe we would have had a lot more lycra present amongst the leather. Hmm.  And, as nationally known bike lawyer Steve Magas says over on his blog, there is plenty to lobby about if one sees the bicycle as part of a bigger picture in addition to a personal avocation: "...Bicycle advocates have fought for many years to try to secure some federal recognition of the importance of cycling to society.  Cutting emissions, reducing reliance on foreign oil, improving traffic conditions by cutting down on the number of cars on the roads, decreasing childhood obesity, increasing fitness, decreasing long term medical costs – these have all been cited to the House as rational reasons to support and encourage cycling..."

Having said that, we also need to ask whose voice or voices will be heard the loudest. That's a serious concern--diluting a membership based organization, although some would say we are all in bed together already. My guess is the big money is in Bikes Belong (if there is any big money to be found in bicycling, that is, LOL--see LAB Board member Diane Albert's comment to the contrary). The most experienced and dynamic spokespeople, not to mention those familiar to cyclists, will be in LAB and the Alliance. Will we all play well in the sandbox together once we are all wearing the same jerseys? Will all the major US bike corporations want to share the same jersey? Will Fred the Bicyclist be center stage in the sandbox? This all needs to be elucidated and signed in ink.
Fred asks "what's in it for me?"

A similar concern is that while all three organizations share many common interests, they differ in their historical clientele, sensu stricto, and in their governance. The LAB has historically been a membership organization of serious road bicyclists. In recent years, it has become more DC-centric as a lobbying organization for cycling rights, cycling advocacy, and enlarging the cycling base through avante garde urban planning and in addition, has taken on increasingly corporate governing style. Some of these changes have created friction with some of the "traditional" LAB members. But LAB is still and remains a member based organization and as such, responds to membership, in my estimation.  LAB, in addition, has a strong national educational program (LCIs), the Bicycle-Friendly America program, and has in recent years been more deeply involved in state and local issues such as fighting municipal bike bans. (For those critical of the BFC program, the BFC award was the stick/carrot that LAB held over Albuquerque during the Duke City's abortive attempt to ban bicycling from a popular road).  Bikes Belong is the lobbying/advocacy face of the bike biz, so its primary thrust must presumably be grounded in selling bikes; how these are used may or may not be secondary. But BB's Tim Blumenthal has been involved in bicycling as a serious bicyclist and bicycling journalist since God was a child. BB funds a lot of advocacy.  The Alliance for Bicycling and Walking is the recent reincarnation of the Thunderhead Alliance, which was an advocate-centered grassroots organization dedicated to developing strong local and state bike advocacy organizations. Personally, I thought they sometimes sounded a little too much like true believers but they do very good stuff and they have some very, very good people on their Board and Staff (in the way of full disclosure, I once interviewed for the Alliance ED position).  Of the three, only the LAB, though, was based on individual membership cards.

Cyclelicious asks some good questions. Who will be the lead dog? Will all dogs be created equal? In which case, will they fight like dogs?  Will this be a member grounded organization?  Whose agenda will dominate? Will corporate money rule or will the new merger, assuming it goes through, realize that it needs to be bicyclist-grounded? Or, will no individual agenda dominate? How will this new conglomerate be governed? What will the bicyclist's role be?  Will membership have sufficient influence and/or control over the Board of Directors to make this a true member-based organization or will we be along for the ride? The devils, as always, will be in the details.

I agree with Steve A, who left this comment on the LAB site: "I think we will all be interested to hear what is proposed. I, for one, plan to keep an open mind about how this can work to the benefit of LAB members and look forward to seeing the details of what sounds like a corporate merger." Indeed. I second that notion.

I certainly hope this works and given the stakes, I'll do what I can to make it work. But it will take considerable skill, horsetrading, sausage-making, control of egos/power, and trust. Given the cycling community's reputation for being as easily led as a herd of cats, this could be difficult. Hence this video (warning--don't hit "play" if F words offend you).

For extra credit, find Andy Clarke and John Forester in this skit.
Just pulling leg, guys...

But as Ronald Reagan would undoubtedly say, "trust but verify".  Lets see where this goes. I guess we have a few months to listen to the details and send in our votes and our $0.02 to LAB. Stay tuned, and stay optimistic. And, of course, stay on yer bikes. And unlike me, don't try to outsprint a car on your way home from work and yank a shoe out of a pedal with the bike at a considerable angle to the vertical. That, frankly, is for young guys. Fortunately I stayed upright and was able to clip back in and keep pedaling. Lets hope this proposed new organization does, too.


Steve A said...

In the worst outcome, it'll make things simple. Actually, in the best outcome, it make things simpler as well. I really wish you could have been on the LAB Board through this. There is one Director from Texas which helps some.

Khal said...

I'd like to hear Gail and Diane's opinions of this plan.

Diane said...

hello- Gail Spann served on the committee that is comprised of reps from all the organizations. Gail has always been a fierce supporter of LAB and believe me, she is protective of LAB. This merger was not initiated by LAB - the other orgs came to LAB. LAB Board members have the interests of our members foremost - and I think that a unified organization might be more financially wise and stronger. We shall see! Please contact me if you have any questions.

Steve A said...

Diane, thanks for your comments on this. Every iota of evidence I have suggests your assessment of Gail is precisely correct, and perhaps even a little understated.