Advocate's Dilemma Revisited (And Revoked)

Earlier this month, I presented “the advocate’s dilemma” in a post that I hoped would get my brain (and yours) primed for the National Bike Summit.

The dilemma, I postulated, is something of a Catch-22: bicycle advocates need to demonstrate demand to improve cycling but bicycle advocates need to improve cycling to create demand.

Caleb Teaching
Photo: Revolution Cycles

Both of those clauses are true. Advocates do need both to improve infrastructure and to create demand. But, it is more of a “little from column A, little from column B” situation rather than a mutually exclusive situation. We can do both A and B at the same time, and probably be more effective overall if we take a more holistic approach to advocacy.

I’ll offer an example from my personal experience that illustrates the holistic approach–an example that probably should have smacked me in the face when I was considering the advocate’s dilemma several weeks ago.

At Revolution Cycles, a company with a handful of independent bike shops in the DC metro area, there is a position for an Events and Advocacy Coordinator. And it makes sense. (Yes, Revolution is my employer, so I may be slightly biased, but I also get to see how this position works firsthand and am completely convinced. Or I just wouldn’t mention it, right?)

This Events and Advocacy Coordinator focuses on executing events that get people on bikes and on improving education and local advocacy efforts to make cycling safer in our communities. It’s not an either/or situation; it’s really not much of a dilemma. It’s an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Lead casual rides and teach new riders how simple and fun cycling can be, taking care of education and demand issues at the same time.

Group Ride
Photo: Revolution Cycles

There are plenty of other examples of advocates and organizations who were way ahead of me on solving this dilemma. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s (WABA) current priorities include complete streets projects and bike safety programs, but they also coordinate events like bike movie nights and bike valets at big events to get people excited about bikes.

We need a balance of advocating for bikes and enjoying bikes. If we ignore one part of the equation, we either end up advocating for something that nobody is really invested in outside of a smaller, devoted group, or we struggle to really enjoy riding bikes for transportation or for pleasure in a safe environment. And, of course, there are studies aplenty indicating that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer we all are.

Bike Valet
Photo: WABA

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5 thoughts on “Advocate's Dilemma Revisited (And Revoked)”

  1. steve henslee says:

    cool!! side note… I just bought a 2003 trek hybrid last month, here in Texas and it has a revolution cycles DC sticker on it!! just bought it off the street as well….

  2. Karen says:

    I fully agree! Lots of people say they want to cycle for transportation but perceive barriers, some of which are real for their life and environment. Reducing the barriers will create more demand.

  3. Stacey Moses says:

    Steve- that’s pretty awesome. Funny what a small world it is- enjoy your new-to-you Trek!

  4. chuck says:

    This as a generalized statement aimed toward cycling advocacy as a whole, not at a specific event…

    As I read this piece I became conflicted again about the aproach of cycling advocates and Events Coordinators. I’m a Commuter, an MTB racer and a club rider.

    Living in the Chicago area there’s always a cycling event somewhere; that’s been organized by someone; to bring the community into harmony with their bikes. But your first photo (the group of riders) is a text book example of what ultimately ends up occuring. Education failed and the message lost.

    We see a group of people (assuming this to be an organized event) collectively drawn together to sare in the enjoyment of cycling. Few of these riders are commuters, and fewer still would seek to ride the road, shoulder-to-shoulder with the cars. So they see (seize) an opportunity to ride their bikes where they wouldn’t dare ride on their own. They laugh, they smile, they take over lanes usually occupied by motorized vehicles.

    It’s a good thing to draw cyclists together and share the bond of cycling, but many of these events are too large to deliver on the promise to educate (there’s a reason schools limit class size) and the event degrades into a half-day love afair with the bike which is quickly forgotten when everyone goes home.

    As you stated, it’s a “…Catch-22: bicycle advocates need to demonstrate demand to improve cycling but bicycle advocates need to improve cycling to create demand…” Large events tend to do neither, to the detriment of cycling (IMO). Education needs to be structured, controlled and reinforced if it’s to take hold. It needs to happen on a small scale but evenly distributed throughout communities.

    I think we all see it; a lot of good seeds are being cast to infertal soil because it wasn’t properly cultivated.

  5. Stacey Moses says:

    Hi Chuck,

    I appreciate your thoughts, but-

    The assumptions that you drew regarding the people in and the context of the photo of the group ride are incorrect. I know, because I’m one of the people in the photo, and there were a fair amount of people in the group that commute by bike, and we have had people join us on these rides that do end up riding more for transportation or for pleasure as a result.

    When we do these rides, we don’t ride critical mass style- we stay in bike lanes, we take advantage of the network of paved trails in the DC area, and in this picture, we were on a back street with no traffic or bike lane, so we took the lane temporarily.

    And yes, we’re smiling and enjoying the ride. That’s how you get people to ride bikes again. If we went on a ride and people had a miserable time, they wouldn’t turn into transportation cyclists. If they have a great time and learn about bike lanes, trails, and sharing the road, and realize that riding 2 miles in street clothes really isn’t uncomfortable at all, they may try riding to work one day, and that’s all it takes.

    I would never try to assert that everyone that participates in a social ride will end up selling off their automobiles and moving to Portland. But, I think that it is unfair to say that these rides are doing more harm than good. This is not a critical mass situation that pisses off drivers and teaches cyclists bad habits. It’s the opposite- there is instruction regarding the rules of the road before the ride leaves, and there are ride leads throughout the group.

    There are undoubtedly some rides out there that aren’t great for promoting responsible commuting, but fortunately, there really are rides that can effectively educate and groups that can act responsibly.

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