Maximum Impact Bicycle Advocacy

The development of serious and dedicated bicycle infrastructure is a requirement for any car centric culture, such as the US, to be able to get people utilizing bicycles for transportation in any serious way. The Netherlands and Denmark are the best examples of this.

My Xtracycle Edgerunner on Tucson’s River Path Bridge at Mountain

As a US based bicycle advocate, this is a depressing reality.  Without serious investment in bicycle infrastructure, bicycling will remain a fringe way for adventurous, athletic and highly conscious folks to get around.  And it is a chicken and egg problem.  Without bicycle infrastructure, there are not enough voters who are active cyclists to persuade our politicians to prioritize building cycling infrastructure.

My understanding is that cycling infrastructure was prioritized by the Dutch government in the 70s.  They built the infrastructure and the cyclist came.  I don’t know why the government had the foresight to invest in this direction.  Perhaps the Dutch governments ability to build dykes in a coordinated effort, put the mechanism in place for easily coordinating other innovative but costly public works projects.  The Dutch are also know for being practical and inventive.  This certainly would help.

Understanding how things came to be in the Netherlands cycling paradise does not give me hope.  And as a bicycle advocate I would like some hope.  I would a reason to feel like I am contributing to a movement that could go somewhere impactful.  So that brings to mind all of the ways that US cycling advocates are attempting to make change happen.

Here is my breakdown on the primary focuses bicycle advocates take:

  • Reaching out to Politicians: Forming coalitions, going to Washington, writing our politicians
  • Local focus: Creating local organizations to promote cycling and build infrastructure
  • Culture: biking is fun, healthy and cool (if you’re a hipster)
  • Technology: Bike companies making commuter bikes, cargo bikes, electric bikes, bike sharing

This post is not in any way an attempt to undermine the dedication and efforts made in any of these arenas.  Without these efforts, bicycle advocacy has no hope whatsoever.  And even if there is very little hope for a major shift in transportation priorities to occur in car centric cultures, these various efforts are instrumental in supporting the cycling fringe.

What I am pondering though is what efforts have the greatest impact on bicycling advocacy.  What moves the needle and gets a serious change in transportation infrastructure spending to happen like it did in the 70s in the Netherlands?

I definitely don’t know the answer.  But as bike advocates, as we spend our time and resources attempting to scratch the surface of shifting momentum, we should keep asking this question.

Often times I think that the opportunity for bicycling infrastructure will be if/when there is another substantial increase in oil prices.  A doubling or tripling of prices could open up the opportunity.  And the purpose of bicycle advocacy is really just laying the groundwork to seize upon that precious opportunity if/when it arises.

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7 thoughts on “Maximum Impact Bicycle Advocacy”

  1. fred_dot_u says:

    I’d like to see more cyclists on the roadways, not more infrastructure being built to get cyclists alongside those roadways, subjecting them to even greater danger from uneducated and inconsiderate motorists.

    When I read a blog post suggesting that the United States needs more infrastructure to put more people on bikes for transportation purposes, I rarely see any reference to providing education and instruction to both cyclists and motorists.

    There will be a line or two in a driver’s manual that might as well not exist. How many cyclists do you, the reader know who have taken a cycling safety course such as Cycling Savvy or LAB’s offerings?

    I would be astonished to learn that any motorist has taken a cycling safety course to learn how better to manage a cyclist encountered on the roadway, yet such an education for the driver would improve safety for all.

    Why is education overlooked as an answer? Ask an attendee of one of these courses for an opinion of the value of the education received and you are likely to get a very positive response.

    The infrastructure already exists; they are roads. Road users, especially those operating motor vehicles, are poorly educated in the safe and proper use of the roadways. We don’t need more laws, we need smarter road users. We don’t need more infrastructure, we need smarter road users.

    Why can’t we have that? It’s going to be far less expensive in the long run, yet no one appears to recognize it.

  2. Kevin Love says:

    The way that Dutch society changed in the 1970’s does give me hope. It was about safety for children… and everyone else.

    That is a message that is just as relevant today. See:

  3. matt says:

    Education is right, but now it is relegated to children. I think that adults are embarrassed to admit that they never learned or forgot how to ride. Getting them … And us as a culture … though this emotional hurdle is key.

    Maybe more important is a cultural need/want/thirst (?) for “power.” Americans want personal power… control over one’s own immediate and long term destiny. Bicycles are perceived as weak. Cars/engines are perceived as power. Even soccer moms “feel safe” in big vehicles… Expressing the power they feel over their own destiny.

    Until we overcome the “power conundrum,” it will be a long ride to bicycling respect.

  4. Jason says:


    You have a point, but only up to a point. There are a lot of roads in the U.S. that are really not good for sharing because of their design for speeds and volumes that keep even confident cyclists away.

    I have to admit that I am also surprised that the argument is still being made that we just need to educate cyclists. That’s no doubt one of many things that should be done, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that sticking to the “vehicular cycling”/share the road approach will keep the bicycle mode share tiny. The U.S. cities with the biggest mode share have significant infrastructure. The European cities with huge bicycle mode share have really good infrastructure.

    The reality is that many people feel too vulnerable on many streets they would need to travel on to get somewhere. An LAB class (an organization which, by the way, is also pushing for more infrastructure) is not going to change that by itself.

  5. Josh Lipton says:

    Jason, thank you for your reply to Fred.

    Fred, I am curious if you have an example where education alone was sufficient enough to support a cultural shift in transportation emphasis over to cycling.

  6. James says:

    The first comment on this article is the reason the Dutch went in one direction in the 1970s and the U.S. went in the other.

    The #1 rule for getting something from politicians: decide what you want. Politicians can’t give you what you don’t ask for / demand.

    Giving up on infrastructure in the 1970s (except for a tiny handful of places like Davis, California and Boulder, Colorado and – in the last 5 years – New York City), we’ve been trying to make cycling mainstream with education ever since. For 40 years.

    How has that worked out for us?

    My one specific idea is that – just as a control – we agree to concentrate our educational resources and initiatives in one single state.

    The League of American Bicyclists will set a goal of multiplying the number of LCIs by a factor of 10 – in that one state.

    We will find millions of dollars to make cycling educational materials and classes available absolutely free to everyone – in that one state.

    Advocates from all over the country will swarm the state legislature and/or transportation agency to get a *whole chapter* about cycling included in the state’s drivers manual – in that one state.

    We will get Hollywood star directors to make a public service announcement starring every “A” list celebrity in Hollywood and we will find millions to air them – in that one state.

    In the rest of America, we’ll do cycling infrastructure.

    And then we’ll see how that works out over the *next* 40 years.

    “fred_dot_u”, what state do you live in. I will nominate your state to be our cycling education paradise.

  7. Kristina says:

    I took an urban bicycle course this June, and the first thing I thought was why isn’t this a mandatory module in every drivers education course? It made me a better driver as well as a more confident vehicular bicyclist. I learned why cyclists do certain things – like the dutch left turn, or not biking right next to parked cars, and when/why they take the lane.

    While I agree, this isn’t going to help increase bike transportation share, infrastructure that allows me to take a cruiser bike to the grocery store at a leisurely 16mph, instead of feeling like I have to keep up with traffic would be alot better!

    But I see Fred’s point, getting every driver to share the road as a bicyclist for a day could improve attitudes. That’s a good starting point.

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