After 30 Years of Bike/Ped Advocacy, How Far Have We Come?
In 1980, the very first Pro Bike conference was convened in Asheville, North Carolina. At the time, the movement to carve out more space for bicycling on North American streets was young, and the first conference was attended by around 100 people. Thirty-two years later, the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place is expected to draw a thousand active transportation advocates to Long Beach, California. The expanded conference title reflects the dramatic transformation of bicycling advocacy into today’s active transportation movement, as more and more people have begun to realize the importance of thinking of streets as places that tie communities together.
Recently, PPS’s Gary Toth and Brendan Crain had the opportunity to chat, informally, with Dan Burden, Andy Clarke, and Charlie Gandy, three friends and advocates who have played very active roles in this transformation. The following is a transcript of that conversation, looking back over the past three decades and reflect on lessons learned thus far.
Brendan: Can you each start out by talking about how you got involved in advocating for active transportation?
Dan: I started with advocacy around 1962, by promoting some biking events. Then very quickly folks like Charlie Gandy and I started working through the American Youth Hostels to put on even bigger events. Charlie, I don’t know what time you entered the scene, probably the mid or late 1960s?
Andy: Are you kidding? He wasn’t even born in 1960! [Laughter]
Charlie: Geez you old coot, what are you talking about? I showed up, and you and I met, in about ’85 or ’86, through Youth Hostels.
Dan: Back then, it really was the AYH playing a huge role. It was a concurrent evolution. The League of American Bicyclists had started up just about that time in the early 1960s, although the real advocacy started with recreation. The active transportation side, the health side, and the bike commuter side probably didn’t get a good launch until the early 1970s.
At the first Pro Walk/Pro Bike—actually, back then it was just Pro Bike—we honored Bob Cleckner. Bob was the first full-time paid professional in America to go around and really try to drum up interest in this stuff, starting with bike lanes; he was my inspiration. He was getting paid to go around the country and get adults to stop thinking of bicycling as something that was just for children. He worked for what was then called the Bicycle Manufacturers Association. We shared offices with them back in those early years when we started the Bicycle Federation of America [which later became the National Center for Bicycling and Walking].
Andy: As Dan said, the League was re-formed back in the mid-60s. They’d been absent for about ten years, and it was because of the support of Schwinn and the bike industry that the League got back on its feet. By the early 1970s, we started to work more on advocacy issues. The oil crisis in 1973 was a defining moment. One is always bitten in the ass by history because you think you’re doing something for the first time and it never turns out that you are. But I would be so bold as to say that the renaissance we’ve seen in the last 4-5 years in bicycling is probably the biggest boost we’ve seen since that oil crisis and the explosion of interest in cycling . Communities realized again that perhaps we shouldn’t have completely thrown cycling away.
When I moved here from the UK in 1985, the state of bike advocacy was such that we were able to convince the Immigration and Nationalization Service that letting me in here to be the League’s government relations director would not be taking a job from anyone else who was an American in the country. In 1988 there literally wasn’t anyone doing that. I think the Rails to Trails Conservancy was probably three years old? There was no America Bikes, no Bikes Belong. A lot of the groups that we work with now weren’t around yet. In the intervening 25 years we’ve seen things come a long way.
It’s very interesting—you can chart the progress of where the inspiration for advocacy was coming from and where groups were formed, particularly at the state and local level, by just looking at their names. In the 1970s the League was the only show in town, and we were doing a lot of advocacy on getting the legal status of cyclists straight. Groups that were formed in the wake of that are groups like the League of Illinois Bicyclists. Then in the 80s the Bicycle Federation took over and groups that formed became Federations. Charlie Gandy led the way in the 90s and started the Coalition movement with the Texas Bicycle Coalition (TBC). In the 2000s, groups started using declarative titles like Georgia Bikes! or Bike Delaware. Now folks are forming Alliances, and many are formally adding walking to their names as well. It’s uncanny how that catches on, and you can tell when a group was established by the title they give themselves.
Charlie: Going to Copenhagen back in ’76 and riding a bike really opened my eyes to the notion of a bicycle being a respected and valuable tool in an urban place. That stayed latent for me until about 1990, when I formed the TBC with a bunch of other interested cyclists that were looking for political respect and power. That put me in contact with Dan Burden, who was one of the first bike professionals within a state agency, at the DOT in Florida. He came to Austin, and I put him up as an expert in this field in front of our state DOT leadership. Our tactic was to get bike coordinators at the state and local level within the DOT—this was ahead of ISTEA mandating it—and Dan convinced them that it would be smarter to fold their hand and just do that, rather than take us on. It was really a powerful lesson for me as a political organizer to see Dan’s ability, as the guy from out of town, to be effective at moving an agency to do something very tangible.
That started my learning about how we could turn the crank at the state and local levels and improve conditions for cyclists, organizing to give them a cohesive voice. I started attending Pro Bike in the early 90s as the Executive Director of the TBC. Then in ’94 I went to work for Bill Wilkinson at the Bicycle Federation, with Andy and Dan. Andy and I were protégés of Dan’s, and Wilkinson was pulling the strings. I remember going to my first Pro Bike and thinking what an incredible learning institution and networking opportunity this thing was.
Gary: I think we should get Charlie talking about how he did the first Walk Audits for FHWA in the mid-90s.
Charlie: In about ’96, Wilkinson comes out with his hand up in the air barely holding onto this piece of a proposal and he says “I’ve got something here related to walking, does somebody want to take this?” At that time, both Burden and Clarke turned their heads and walked away. [Laughter] Nobody wanted to do walking stuff. But I was working on my first million frequent flyer miles, and I jumped at the opportunity to go around to Grand Rapids, and the Bronx, and Snowmass, and a bunch of other places. “Pedestrian Roadshows,” is what they called them.
Dan: Actually, walk audits really started in the 80s. When I came back from Australia after doing some work on bicycling there, I realized that the real answer to reactivating and re-energizing cities was in the walkability side. So starting around 1981, at the Florida DOT, we changed my job title instantly. And that was the origin of the first ped-bike coordinator! I was having trouble with my engineers, when they would design intersections; they were getting them completely wrong. So I said we need to go out and walk around them and understand. It was later, when Bill saw what I was doing, that he realized that there was funding that could be secured for this, and later developed the Pedestrian Roadshows.
Charlie: That was back when they were referring to the sidewalks as “auto recovery zones,” right?
Gary: So the pedestrians were impact attenuators? [Laughter]
Dan: But looking even further back, there are a few people that I’d be remiss in not bringing up, who were critical to the formation of the bikeped movement as we know it now. These people did things that nobody was doing. The first is Dr. Paul Dudley White, who was the heart surgeon for Eisenhower that really launched biking as an adult activity. He got the attention of the press, and he did it by pushing the idea that people needed exercise. Way before the modern health movement got going, he realized that benefit. He was probably doing his work starting around 1959, but he really was starting to command serious press until 61. This was around when I was starting to realize this is what I wanted to do with my life, so Dr. White was a hero of mine.
Another name that should not be lost to history is Dr. Clifford Graves, a surgeon in San Diego who started the International Bicycle Touring Society and got big-name adults to go on bicycle tours in Europe and the US. He also started bicycle clubs for teenagers in the California area, and all of those preceded anything going on with the League. Fred DeLong was an engineer that worked for one of the big battery manufacturers out of Philadelphia, and his work preceded John Forester‘s Effective Cycling program, by about four years. DeLong helped raise awareness about the technical side of adult bicycling—how to brake, how to turn, how to set up your bike—he really put the science into it.
Brendan: The idea that just getting adults to ride bikes was seen as broadening the constituency is so radically different from how we think of bicycling now. Bikeped advocates have been very good, historically, at drawing new people and new groups in, and that’s clearly been important in terms of this going from something that was very informal, driven by zealous nuts, to creating a contemporary movement that’s very broad and formal, with so many people dedicating their careers to bicycling and pedestrian issues. Just thirty years ago, there were only two or three people doing this work full-time!
Andy: It’s been really interesting to see how the bike movement has provided the passion and fuel for the Safe Routes to Schools movement, which has taken us into uncharted territory in terms of constituencies that now care about Safe Routes and the issues around that. The same is true of Complete Streets. The walking movement is such a more prominent issue for the broader public today; it’s more marketable, immediate, and unimpeachable. But without bicyclists at the start of that, there wouldn’t be the walking movement or the active transportation movement or the Complete Streets or the Safe Routes movements that we have now. It’s important that we’ve been able to, in certain cases, sort of let go and let these branches grow off.
Charlie: I’d like to build on that because, as the bicycle movement has become more mainstream, it has made sense for us to broaden the perspective and to partner up and to see the value in the coalition with pedestrians and a realization that what we’ve been talking about is Placemaking—and I remember learning early on from Dan about how instilling that vision of the place puts bicycling in context. We self- identify as bicyclists and we’ve organized a political voice around that, and we’ve found through coalition that we have more of a mainstream voice. Today, it’s the health people and women bicyclists that are really emerging, at least in the US, as fresh voices within the movement.
Gary: It seems like a lot of this type of advocacy starts with biking first and then branches out to walking and related activities; why do you think that is? And why did the bicycling movement emerge so many decades ahead of the walking movement in the first place?
Dan: A bit of historic perspective on that: the pedestrian movement was actually occurring as bicycling was emerging, but cycling came out more strongly, I think, because it had technological side to it that adults could get into—where a lot of people, even to this day, think of walking as, well… pedestrian! That it’s something you try to get away from as an adult.
I think we should keep in mind that there was a pedestrian movement that was growing up simultaneously, and it wasn’t as though the bicyclists branched out and created the pedestrian movement, although many are reaching across the aisle now. There used to be a small annual pedestrian conference in Boulder, Colorado back in the 80s and 90s; it was the only place where people were really talking about these issues for a long time. Those went on for 12 -13 years before the city council finally stopped funding them. Even a few years before that, Donald Appleyard organized one of the first meetings to talk about traffic calming, in Seattle. Looking at these early strings, we can see where they finally stitched one another together.
Once they become good advocates for bicycling, an issue they care so much about, they begin to realize they’re not the only ones that are being overlooked. So they get into the pedestrian side, and eventually they start to realize, well, we need destinations and places to go for this stuff to work, and then it broadens out from there.
Andy: This is absolutely true of Complete Streets. For the longest time, we banged on about what was then called “Routine Accommodation,” and how we wanted bicyclists and pedestrians to be routinely accommodated in all projects. We almost got that principal written into the transportation bills in ’91 and ’98, but it just wasn’t resonating. Finally, in the early 2000s, Martha Roskowski of America Bikes convened a phone conference with bunch of smart marketing people, and that was where the phrase “Complete Streets” was coined, I think by David Goldberg, from Smart Growth America. Almost overnight, Complete Streets started to carry a tune. This was something we’d written about with different names for years! [Editor’s Note: The term “complete streets” has been attributed to several people in different accounts, including Martha Roskowski.]
Brendan: Looking back over the past few decades of advocacy, what are your thoughts on how the movement has evolved, broadly? Did you expect to be this far along, or think you would be even farther? And what impact would you say PWPB has had since the first conference in 1980?
Dan: I discovered recently, while having lunch with Richard Killingsworth, that it was a presentation at a PWPB conference that totally turned around his attitude toward his work at the CDC. He went back and said ‘Folks, it’s not about curing diseases anymore, it’s about preventing them.’ But no one would listen to him. And he worked for a year and finally got folks like Richard Jackson, Andy Dannenberg, and Howard Frumkin to take a different approach. Not long after, he got funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2001 to leave the CDC and start Active Living by Design, and over time Frumkin and Dannenberg moved up to DC, and Richard Jackson went to UCLA where he’s still advocating for Healthy Places. So if we stop to think about it now, there are billions of dollars now being focused on health through active living, and that started at a Pro Bike conference. There wouldn’t have been a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation putting money into this if it wasn’t for Richard Killingsworth realizing that there had to be a new approach for the CDC.
Andy: Looking at the movement, in terms of the numbers—specifically the number of people involved, the number of staff in advocacy groups and government—the movement has come an enormous way. It’s like night and day. It’s been extraordinary to see that and be a small part of it. But on the other hand, 30 years is a helluva long time. In terms of outcomes, it’s hard to be too optimistic about the impact that we’ve had because we’ve still seen 30 years of really awful community development in the majority of communities across the country. It’s a really big ship to turn. We really have to step up our game to make a much bigger change in outcomes—not in the next 30 years, but the next three years if we’re going to have a legacy we can all be proud of. We can’t wait 30 years to have another incremental step up in the number of people walking and biking.
Dan: There’s an enthusiasm that you don’t see in other professions and other trades that is a hallmark of what the walkability and the bicycling movements. If I were to project forward about what’s coming, we have to get the vast majority of people who come into the movement to realize that it’s the Placemaking—the creation of places for social exchange—that’s the missing piece. We’ve got to get away from just thinking of it as active transportation and think of it as rescuing our cities, redesigning our cities for people, and building the economy around the scale of the human foot. Until we do that walking can’t work, and bicycling can’t work.
I agree with Andy: we can’t wait 30 years; three years may be all that we’ve got. We’re talking about a totally wrecked economy, one where we keep trying to go back to building things that cannot be sustainable, cannot even be maintained; if we keep doing things the way they were done in the past, the US is at risk of becoming a third-world nation. There’s more at stake here than just giving ourselves a nice place to ride a bike or to walk.
Charlie: One of the identifying characteristics of this group is its collaborative spirit. I’ve noticed in my travels that that’s a fairly unique thing. Throughout the past few decades, there’s been a whole lot of innovation and invention going on, and guys like Dan, Andy, Pete Lagerway, and so many others have been freely sharing these ideas. I think that’s true at PWPB as well as one on one, and I think that’s a unique element of our success.
Andy: I would absolutely echo that; that’s a really important thing to identify. You see, from one consulting firm to another, people just want to help each other get the right answer, and just want to get a good outcome. That is pretty remarkable, I think.
You’ve read about the past thirty years of bikeped advocacy–if you want to become part of the next crucial three, join us in Long Beach this September 10-13 for Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place. Remember–standard registration ends at midnight on August 10th, at which point registration rates will rise, so click here to register for the conference today!
This article was cross-posted from the PPS Placemaking Blog. Click here to visit the original post.