Tedson Meyers

I recently had the opportunity to chat, via Skype, with Tedson Meyers. Tedson is the kind of person who has accomplished so much, and been involved with so many organizations, it’s hard to introduce him without feeling like you’re going to leave out all of the important parts, no matter how hard you try–so I’ll keep this intro short and let you get on to the good stuff.

In addition to stints with the Peace Corps and the Marines, Tedson served on the City Council in Washington, DC, before the establishment of home rule in 1973. He was also one of the founders of the Bicycle Federation of America, which has since become the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, the host organization for the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference.

So now, without further ado…

I hear you have some interesting stories about your time on the DC City Council. You were appointed by President Nixon?

Right; the council had to be balanced both in party and race, and at that moment they were looking for a white inner city Democrat. His staff had come across the fact that I was a successful crime fighter by leading my neighborhood, which was mixed black, white, and Latino, to take back our street after two dead and two wounded in eleven months. We did simple things like floodlight the street, which sent a message. We presented ourselves to the absentee landlords and said we could do a better job managing the property than their absentee agents and they agreed. That quiet little community effort that we never thought would get anybody’s attention not only made the two local newspapers but also the three American television networks, the BBC, the German national television, and a spread in Look Magazine.

What was enchanting about it all is that I had been sent up to run New York state on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. I’d been a Hubert Humphrey speechwriter as a volunteer before. We came up eight points and beat Nixon by four points in New York by changing the public relations policy to a get-out-the-vote campaign because that’s the only way New York Democrats get results without killing themselves. I had come down from New York earlier to live in Washington. According to people who heard the tapes, he said something like, ‘He beat me in New York?’ They said yes, so he said, ‘I want him on the City Council.’ Of course I was immediately terrified by the thought, but I went to talk to the Democratic National Committee people who knew me and they said, ‘Oh Lord, please do it.’ So there I was. This was in ’72. It was a very different city from the one we see today.

You were involved with thwarting the effort to build a freeway through downtown DC. There must be an interesting story there…

We had a highway director, Tom Arris, who was an awfully good man and very professional, but he’d never met a blade of grass he didn’t want to pave. He had the very bright idea of bringing I-66, which ends at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, into DC and—brace yourself!—down the National Mall as a covered trench: a four lane highway parallel to Ohio Drive on the river side of the Mall with a grilled trench on top. Then it would dive under the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River, come up on the other side, and join I-295.

Tom had gotten as far as the City Council; we were the last stop. Well, the Marine in me just turned blue. I quietly called a friend of mine who was the Chief of Police, and I said ‘I’d like to borrow a helicopter.’ He said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ So I went up with a very skilled pilot, and we hovered over the district end of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. I did some counting with a clicker and a pair of field glasses, and it was perfectly clear that the traffic was not going to go where he said it would. It was all going north. I prepared a report, but then thought better of it, and I asked the Chief if I could borrow the chopper on another day so that I’d have two complete reports. The results were the same. The City Council met, and I shared my report with everybody. I also suggested the awful consequences of putting a highway down one of the most cherished scenes in America. They voted unanimously to kill it.

It turned out that Tom was so sure he was going to win that he’d already had the red, white, and blue signs painted. What I had not known is that half the highway department detested the idea including his deputies. He knew it, but he was a good man and if they disagreed, fine. They called to ask if they could visit me and they came with one of the signs. They said, “Councilman, here is your war trophy.” That sign hung in my home for years and now it hangs in the backyard in Fairhope, Alabama.

The Freeway that Never Was

What does the sign say?

It just says “I-695 DC.” The highway that never was! Once, when it was hanging in my home, some police officers had reason to be in the house and one of them said, ‘Hey, that’s government property.’ I said ‘Well, yes, it was; but it was a gift.’ And he said ‘But there is no I-695.’ And I said, ‘do you know why?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, you’re looking at the reason!’

That, alone, is a pretty significant contribution to keeping DC bike and pedestrian friendly—but you’re also one of the founders of Bicycle Federation of America (now the NCBW).

Yes. While I was on the City Council I tried to find ways to affect the legislation of the city to ensure more bike paths and pedestrian safety. I spent a day in a wheelchair with two paraplegic war veterans followed by television cameras showing the public how hard it was to get around DC in a wheelchair. The result was those curb cuts at every corner in downtown for wheelchairs, baby carriages, etc. But I failed miserably to really make serious progress. My term ended in ’75 on the City Council, and home rule came. David Clarke beat me in the election for my seat, and I was glad that he did. He went on to become City Council Chairman, but died far too young.

The unfinished business of bikes and safety and the streets got me thinking, and I called together the crew that was helping me before—Katie Moran, Bill Wilkinson, Noel Grove—and said I’m ready to back this but we need an Executive Director, and they suggested Dan Burden, who’d just lead the Bike Centennial ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We met at the Golden Temple Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in DC, and there was born the Bicycle Federation of America.

Within a couple years it was clear that we should be having conferences. Dan’s term ended because he had an opportunity to take over and lead Florida in the biking field. Katie Moran became the next Executive Director. We had our first bi-annual Pro Bike conference in Asheville, North Carolina, with 200 hard-eyed advocates. Before the recession, my recollection is we reached almost 800 in Seattle. What’s fascinating is the nature of the attendance. The hard-eyed advocates are still there, and God bless ‘em, but it has come to a point that is ideal, I think, for where PPS wants to take it, to re-frame biking and walking as a way to create livable, healthy communities with new options for getting around.

It does seem like this year could be a real turning point, in terms of driving cultural change around the country.

We last noticed that the fastest-growing professional group in attendance at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference is traffic and transportation engineers—and believe me, we didn’t see one of them when we started. Part of the problem was an unexpected consequence of a blessing. The blessing was the Eisenhower interstate highway system, which beautifully lifted the economy, allowed people to visit family and friends where they never could easily before, and moved goods and services like we’d never had—but it also raised a generation of transportation engineers who thought there was nothing wrong with bringing highways downtown, too.

What we’re up against is reversing a trend and an attitude about what’s important in moving people around, which has so relied on the automotive industry, and finding ways to restore alternative means of getting around. One of the biggest problems is that that wonderful highway system allows our living world to sprawl far from our working world, which means people need to travel extensively. I just came back from an AARP study in South Dakota. City people probably have no sense of this, but as small towns disappear or the businesses in them fail and have to close, the distances people have to go just for groceries could be 50 miles one way. As someone said out there, “We go 50 miles and we’re not halfway to the middle of nowhere.”

We need to recognize that non-emergency medical transportation in some parts of this country are absolutely imperiled, so badly that in South Dakota, and neighboring communities and states, many women are electing mastectomy over chemotherapy because they don’t want to travel 300 miles three days a week. It’s a growing problem of epic proportions and very much a result of decentralization. The reverse of that process can be seen in the Pennsylvania Avenue plan in DC, where a plan for upgrades made sure that just one to three blocks north of that corridor, residences would be built so that people could come back to the community and walk to work. That is happening. We’re only at the bottom rung of the ladder but hopefully these conferences will start to become an important factor in addressing these issues over the next years. The nicest thing about all this for me is that we got it started.

“The Eisenhower interstate highway system…raised a generation of transportation engineers who thought there was nothing wrong with bringing it downtown.” / Photo: Matthew Rutledge via Flickr

Can you tell me a bit more about your work with AARP? You were talking earlier about going out on the street with a wheelchair and actually seeing how difficult it was for people with disabilities to navigate the city.

You know, one of the most astonishing things I learned in that wheelchair—and nobody seems to speak of it—but because our sidewalks are slanted towards the street for rain runoff, if you’re making your way in a wheelchair parallel to the street, your outside arm has to be working twice as hard as your inside arm or else you’re going to roll off into the curb. There are so many factors we don’t even consider, in terms of how our street design impacts people with physical disabilities. That’s just one example.

As for the AARP, well, folks down here in Baldwin County, Alabama, learned I founded the Bicycle Federation; the next thing I know, I’m helping to write and pass into law the Alabama Trails Commission Law. Then I joined a group of tigers, the Baldwin County Trailblazers, who are building the area’s bike-ped system. That led to my being on the board of Smart Coast, which has interest in two fields: one is health, safety, and livable communities; the other is sustainable businesses. Someone from the AARP happened to be in the room when I was doing some work, and asked me to join the Executive Council of AARP Alabama, and to apply to be on AARP’s 25-member National Policy Council. That’s a group of marvelous people who are selected from around the country—one, an ex-ambassador, one who used to be mayor of Pierre and head of the highway patrol out there—just a great variety of men and women with an excellent representation of women, especially in leadership.

The Policy Council is divided into three subcommittees: health, economic affairs, and livable communities. You can guess which one I’m on! What intrigued me is that Dan Burden is currently under a national contract with the AARP because livable communities is a critical topic since there are so many 50+ people who need to have the availability of services, alternative means of transportation, an ability to get amongst other people, and have active lives. If they’re living somewhere in a suburb, that’s often impossible to do. The Policy Council is not the advocacy side of the AARP—we recommend which of the policies should be the subject of focus; the Board of Directors decide which shall be the focus of advocacy in any given year. The overall policy decisions of what AARP stands for in any of those three fields—livable communities, economics, and health—that’s written by the Policy Council. That’s what we’re doing, and this is my first year.

What are you looking forward to at Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place this year?

On the one hand, the familiar faces—and on the other hand the new ones! The sustainability of this event has been amazing. Even in hard economic times, it seems to attract people—as it should. One of the things I love is that a number of organizations that are now healthy and long-lived began because people first met at Pro Bike and kept coming back. This is the 17th biannual conference of people who have been gathering, devoted to this subject. It’s become the expected place to meet and throw ideas into the pot, the return two years later to report on how it all worked out. I’m so delighted now that Fred Kent’s on top with Gary and Mark. It plays into the PPS dynamic just beautifully.

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Pro Walk/Pro Bike®: Pro Place is North America’s premier walking and bicycling conference, which occurs biannually. The next conference will occur in Pittsburgh, PA in September 2014.  Join more than 1,000 planners, engineers, elected officials, health professionals, and advocates to gain the insights of national experts in the field, learn about practical solutions to getting bike and pedestrian infrastructure built, and meet peers from across the country.