Leadership and Bike Advocacy’s Future

Advocates make things happen. Photo via the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

A little over two years ago, I made a commitment to bike advocacy. A few trusted friends convinced me to incorporate the organization and transform my website into a proper non-profit organization. BikeSD launched as an “official” organization in late September 2012, building on the work I had been doing for a number of years.

To my amazement, we were extremely well received. My assumption going in was that BikeSD representatives would occasionally attend a handful of public meetings and act as the voice for the bicycle riding community. I’m happy to report that, more than two years later, our non-profit has obtained some substantial wins.

Prior to BikeSD’s launch, I did a small online fundraiser. Twenty four trusting individuals donated enough money to allow me to attend my first Leadership Retreat in Long Beach, CA. I worked hard at that retreat, taking notes, networking like a madwoman. Since that retreat, I have put the lessons I learned into practice by working every day to build a strong grassroots group. This group – I am very proud to say – was awarded the 2013 Advocacy Organization of the Year award at the annual Alliance Advocacy Awards held in Washington D.C.. Gobsmacked doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about that accomplishment.

This year, I applied for and received a full (very generous) scholarship to attend the Leadership Retreat, the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference and the Future Bike conference. I was lucky enough to do this thanks to a generous scholarship from the Alliance for Biking and Walking. I came home completely inspired and invigorated. My scholarship came from a fund that was established from the insurance settlement resulting from the death of an advocate, Susie Stephens. Susie was killed while crossing the street by a turning touring bus. Her mother, Nancy, established this fund to award “scholarships for new and growing advocates to attend trainings.”

It is not lost on me that the funds that opened the doors for me came from the untimely (and completely preventable) death of an advocate who left a void in the bike advocacy movement that is still felt viscerally.

To those of us who work trying to make our streets better, it can feel like change happens glacially. Sure, there have been wins. But people are dying and continue to die on our streets every single day. Meanwhile, our local media runs half-baked rants demonizing both cycling and its advocates. When I step back and observe all of this, it seems so unbelievably and unnecessarily cruel. Wanting barrier protected pathways to safely ride a bicycle or walk alongside speeding traffic isn’t a difficult thing to implement and shouldn’t be ignored. Reducing our speed limits on neighborhood streets shouldn’t require a process akin to the Warren Commission Hearings. Yet that’s our reality. More than two years after David Ortiz was killed on Balboa Avenue at the intersection of I-805, nothing has been done to slow down the merging traffic. The hit-and-run epidemic is well-documented; yet it hasn’t been enough to get our governor to act on it. It’s almost like we as a society want people to die on our roads.

But what does any of this have to do with what I learned back east? What I learned was something my vice chair, Dr. Esteban del Rio, always reminds me of: livability. We have to focus on the livability of our neighborhoods and public spaces- and reclaiming our streets as public gathering spaces that they once were. The idea of livability fits into our concept of culture. Living in one of the most car-centric cities in the country, we have to find other ways to facilitate mobility outside of the automobile. And this means that we have to talk about broadening our movement in a very explicit, deliberate, and focused way. While bike advocacy is probably not going to be a solution to every single societal ill, we as a movement can effect change. And I’m hoping that with the lessons learned, we at BikeSD can be a model of effective advocacy that will serve to inspire both within and outside the bike advocacy world.