Why We Need a Little More Chaos: An Interview With Andy Clarke
League of American Bicyclists President Andy Clarke shared his thoughts and experiences with us at PPS on what bicycling means as a movement and how it has changed over the last 25 years. Andy, having been a part of the movement in the US since it involved just a handful of eager cyclists, shed some light on why passion is not enough, and what eager cyclists need to do today, more than ever, to keep the movement going. Before joining the League in 2003, Andy provided technical assistance to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center on site at the Federal Highway Administration, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for America Bikes, and as a member of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals.
Can you tell us what is new and innovative in the bicycling world?
What I see happening in the bike movement is a realization that we are indeed a part of something bigger, and that we are not just a special interest group. We see that through things like bike sharing and open streets events with activities and programs that are much more open, public, and acceptable than they have been in the past. Times have changed from when we were a little bit more focused on the lycra-clad, recreational, weekend warrior-type rider. We’re finding that image very limiting in terms of where the bike movement needs to be, and how it relates to the urban environment and the creation of great communities. In order to be successful, and to thrive and grow, the bike movement has got to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience.
We are coming to realize and accept that bicycling is only as good as the walking environment and transit system allows it to be. We live and die together; we have to understand that in order for bicycling to flourish, walking must thrive and for transit to work, bicycling needs to be part of the mix.
You referred to this as a “movement”, which suggests one of Fred Kent’s favorite terms: the “zealous nut.” Can you talk about how this group of “zealous nuts” has turned bicycling into a movement, and what people who are interested in Placemaking might learn from that success?
When I first moved to the US from the UK twenty-five years ago, the movement was pretty slow. There were not many full-time bike advocates at the national level. There were a handful of states that had bike coordinators, there were lots of riders’ clubs and events, and lots of riding activity going on, but it wasn’t really a movement. I think we’ve seen that change quite dramatically and I think there is a lot to learn from how we’ve managed to achieve that and in some cases change perceptions. One striking growth is the National Bike Summit. For the first two or three years we quite literally had to remind people not to wear lycra just to prove a point. We’ve got to grow up as movement.
The Placemaking movement has got early adopters and the passionate smart people who are way ahead of the curve in realizing this is where we need to go with our communities. Twenty-five years ago, as far as most people were concerned, the American City was dead and buried. Now, that has changed completely because of those pioneers from CNU and elsewhere. There’s a point at which that passion has to turn into some degree of normalcy, and it has to become a part of the planning, landscape architecture, and architecture vernacular. It has to become something that everyday traffic engineers aren’t going to think is going to get them in trouble or have them lose their license over. We all have to grow up, and that will piss off some of the purists in movement. They’ll think we’re selling out by becoming more mainstream and pragmatic.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Federal Transportation Bill, and what it will mean for those who like to ride their bikes?
It means that people who want something different from their communities, and from what DOTs typically offer, have got to show up and be part of the process to ask for, demand, and insist better places, streets, and communities. My big fear is that the new Highway Bill is a huge throwback to the 1950s. Many state DOTs, unfortunately, will take the opportunity to revert back to where they’ve always felt more comfortable. I think where the biking, walking, and Placemaking community needs to come together and focus on effecting change is at the city council, municipal, and especially the state level. They need to make sure they’re raising their hands and saying, ‘We don’t want more six-lane divided highways. We want more places where people can live, breathe, and travel safely and conveniently.’
You’ve been a part of Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place since it was just called Pro Bike, back in 1988. What changes have you noticed, other than the name, of course?
For years, Pro Bike had almost exactly the same number of attendees; we used to joke that it had an audience of 234 people, and that was it! I think we’re at a point, now, where our movement could easily sustain a 1,000-person conference every year. Over the last 25 years it’s grown in leaps and bounds in terms of sophistication, our technical knowledge, our expectation of what our professions should be doing, and how we can participate in those professions.
I remember in 1992, in Montreal, we wanted to start up the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, and 60 of us got together at a meeting room at Pro Bike and said, ‘You know what? It’s more important that we are well represented within the American Public Works Association, American Planning Association, ITE, and other existing professional organizations.’ At the time, there was a burgeoning interest in the potential for those associations to address bicycling and walking issues. Within two years, when we met again in Portland, Oregon in 1994, we realized we needed to be working within all of those professions, but there was still no one looking out for us. There was still no one making sure that there was a career path, and that there were professional development opportunities for bicycling and pedestrian professionals. The movement and the profession have grown in size and the momentum is quite incredible.
Why should Placemakers care about walking and biking, and why should walkers and bikers care about Placemaking?
We are one in the same. When you look at great places, you see people walking and riding bikes in them. In reading the blog of some students from the University of Oregon who recently spent some time in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, it was really interesting to see the differences that they saw between these two cities. Copenhagen, they felt, was more immediately transferable because there was much more of the same kinds of corners, streets, and engineering, but there was this kind of amazing attraction with Dutch Placemaking. In Amsterdam it’s all negotiated, there isn’t dedicated space or order. It’s all a little bit more chaotic but it’s much more civilized…you wonder how it works, but it does!
I think understanding the intangible and seeing a place work is something that, when you’ve been doing this for awhile, you just know—but it’s very hard to document or put down on paper. I think there’s a certain segment of the cycling population that wants to know where their place is, but we will all benefit from a little more chaos! That seems to be the key to Placemaking: if a place is too sterile, too ordered, too segmented, it just looses vitality. That vitality is what we want! It’s what attracts people to those places.
The League of American Bicyclists is sponsoring the appearance of Mikael Colville-Anderson at PWPB:PP. Can you talk a little bit about why you think it’s important that he address our audience, and what he can teach us about Copenhagen?
Mikael is an immensely talented presenter and speaker, very challenging and iconoclastic. Anyone who thinks they’re doing something “hot” is going to get a rude awakening when Mikael comes and looks at their stuff. He is not afraid to slaughter a few sacred cows and call things out when they’re stupid, and I think we need that. When we gave Portland our top bicycle friendly community award for the US, Gil Penalosa pointed out that Portland would be a pretty shitty Dutch city—the standard we’re using in this country is not exactly world-class! Part of the attraction of getting Mikael to come to Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place is that he has no hesitation pointing that out. He’ll do that with gusto, I’m sure, but in a very informative, helpful, and well-presented way. I’m looking forward to it.
The National Women’s Bicycling Summit, organized by some of your staff, will take place immediately after PWPB:PP. Can you talk about why you’re supporting that even, and what you hope it will accomplish?
We are excited about the interest in the topic, but I don’t know where it’s going to take us; it’s not my place to suggest it either. It’s an extremely timely event that speaks to the fact that we have been a very Type-A personality driven group for a long time. Even on my daily commute, I pass through places where, if you’re not on the bike trail, you have to be pretty alpha male to ride on these streets. As you get into Arlington, you see that change completely, with a much greater diversity of people riding for everyday activities. It’s really critical that we use this as an indicator of how well we’re doing, and if we’re not serving that segment of the population, we’re simply not doing our jobs.
This article was cross-posted from the PPS Placemaking Blog. Click here to visit the original post.