The Advocate's Dilemma: A National Bike Summit Warm-Up

With the curtain about to go up on the 2011 National Bike Summit, advocacy has been on our minds at Commute By Bike (well, and handmade bicycles, but also advocacy). The Summit is the year’s biggest advocacy event, and bike wonks travel to the nation’s capital from places near and far to discuss everything from environmental issues to distracted driving, and to speak to members of Congress regarding current legislative issues related to transportation and cycling.

The long, diverse list of presentations from last year’s Summit is an interesting depiction of what we are calling “the advocate’s dilemma.” This dilemma is a little bit like the chicken-and-the-egg cliché– which came first: bicycles or bicycle advocacy?

Photo: Library of Congress

It makes sense that the bicycle came first. After all, how could you advocate for something that does not yet exist? Although, it is also reasonable to assert that some sort of advocates had to exist who were seeking a new, more convenient, human-powered machine, leading to the invention of the first two-wheeled vehicle.

Does it matter which came first? In thinking about the advocacy today, it is an interesting consideration, as we often encourage people to ride bikes because of all of the amazing benefits of cycling while simultaneously advocating for better infrastructure and better education.

There is an ongoing push to prove demand for cycling infrastructure by bicycle advocates in an effort to secure funding to make cycling more accessible for potential riders. There is also the need to demonstrate to potential cyclists that riding for transportation and for fun is possible and reasonably safe.

And therein lies the dilemma. We need more people riding to improve facilities and education, but we need better facilities and education to get more people riding. We need to improve safety for cyclists, but an overemphasis on safety may reinforce the misperception that cycling is dangerous and discourage new riders.

The Wright Brother's Shop
The Wright Brothers' Shop | Photo: Library of Congress

What’s an advocate to do? Focus on one issue or the other, or strike a balance of both (or many) aspects of advocacy? The appropriate approach will vary by city and by neighborhood, and there is no magic formula for advocacy. Fortunately, we have an increasing number of examples to learn from around the world, and the Summit is an event in which we can both educate and be educated as advocates.

For now, we’ll pose the question, and as we absorb as much bicycle advocacy information as humanly possible at the National Bike Summit from March 8th to March 10th, we will be sure to revisit the advocate’s dilemma.

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9 thoughts on “The Advocate's Dilemma: A National Bike Summit Warm-Up”

  1. matt says:

    “overemphasis on safety” … that’s a new one

  2. tlp says:

    In my community there is a busy highway intersection that most commuters need to traverse. You can say the “safety” needs improving at that intersection. Or you can say we need better design to decrease the chances of a collision between a motorized vehicle and bicycle. If motorized commuters can then see proper design they’ll then more likely try bicycling.

  3. Josh Lipton says:

    I wonder how the NRA does it… They manage to emphasize gun safety without dampening the enthusiasm for gun purchasing.

  4. Jim G says:

    The debate regarding overemphasis on safety has been going on for years. The gist of it is this, by repeatedly emphasising safety and/or danger, we give the impression that cycling isn’t as safe as it’s proven to be, thereby discouraging those who mistakenly believe it’s a dangerous activity. This is counterproductive on a number of levels, not the least of which is that the more cyclists we have riding, the safer it becomes as drivers become more aware of cyclists overall. Discouraging people from cycling actually makes it less safe.

    As commuters or even casual cyclists who ride on the streets, we rarely mention or think about the times we spend just cycling on our merry way on a perfectly safe, uneventful, trip. The vast majority of the time. Uneventful being the key word. By a huge, huge margin, the overwhelming majority of rides on the street are uneventful, because we don’t consider an everyday, mundane, safe ride to be eventful. Therefore, we rarely mention it.

    But on the relatively rare occasion the ride is seen as “eventful” due to some perceived dangerous “event”, we tend to talk about it a lot to anyone who will listen – even writing letters to the papers, etc. Sometimes we do it to brag, by giving the impression we’re somehow brave to be cycling on these dangerous streets. And on the extremely rare occasion when there is a serious “accident”, especially one fatal to the cyclist, it’s all over the news.

    The exception can, ironically, be seen to be the rule.

    The fact remains – cycling, and commuting by bike, is extremely safe. Usually mundane, though still very enjoyable, for me at least. And it has many benefits, especially healthy ones. That’s what we need to concentrate on.

  5. Jim G says:

    Another dilemma regarding cycling infrastructure (bike paths, bike lanes) is that while they may lead to a perception it makes cycling safer, the reverse can actually be true.

  6. Stacey Moses says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jim. While I completely agree that we tend to sensationalize negative events, both in cycling and in general in the media, I don’t think that we can focus solely on the positive aspects of riding as advocates and expect conditions to continue to improve. I write about how cycling can improve your health, how convenient and easy it can be to combine bikes and public transportation, etc., and I think that it is very important to showcase the positives (and these topics are definitely more fun to write about). However, we also need to continue to reach out to transportation planners, educators and the general public to secure funding for improved infrastructure, better bicycle commuter benefits (the US is way behind the UK in this initiative) and Safe Routes to Schools programs that not only improve conditions for current riders but also encourage other people to give riding a try.

  7. Stacey Moses says:

    And Josh- I think that the NRA makes the same argument as bike advocates! If everyone had a gun, we’d all be safer. I’ll leave that debate for another blog, though.

  8. Jim G says:

    I agree. I really believe education is the key, and that we should be educating kids as to the rules and best practices in grade school.

  9. ceti says:

    Helmets are a case in point of the oversecuritization of bicycling based on assumptions and anecdotes as opposed to real comparative risk. If bicyclists *must* wear helmets, then pedestrians and motorists would have to as well.

    I have also always found helmets to be dangerous as they obscure peripheral vision, induce sweat to trickle into your eyes, and create a wind tunnel effect that further degrades your hearing.

    It also creates fear about standards. Bicycling is supposed to be about freedom, not having to fear cops busting your chops for not having reflectors or a helmet or any other aspect of “safety” dreamed up by sanctimoniously security obsessed. It discourages free riding, the greatest pleasure that one can have as a cyclist. It also encourages the further escalation of our fear-based social policy, that has cocooned our children in bubblewrapped, while robbing them of precious freedoms of childhood.

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