Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bicycle Advocacy: Allies Are More Exasperating Than Enemies.

Last night I left work early and rode into Seattle to hear Mia Birk talk about her wonderful and inspiring book, Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet. I could tell you that Mia is a wonderful speaker (she is) or that her book is a lovely collection of inspiring stories and you should rush out an buy it (it is and you should) or that riding at night in the city is peaceful and liberating and one of the great joys in this world (it is). Since I've just told you those things very briefly, I'll speak now at greater length of controversy, energy, passion and hatred. I'm speaking, of course, of the world of Bicycle Advocacy.

Last night's event was hosted by the Cascade Bicycle Club. Cascade is the largest bike club in the U.S. Cascade members host rides every day and the club does a wide range of things to promote cycling in the Puget Sound area. They work on making trails and streets safer for cyclists, bring great speakers like Mia to our city, lobby for cyclist rights and do a host of other things to make our area a better place to ride.

At the moment a lot of people are very worked up about what the club is doing, what the club should be doing, what certain people are or are not doing and so on. The club Board of Directors and the club's long serving Executive Director, Chuck Ayers, had a dramatic parting a few weeks back which generated a lot of heated discussion, actions and counter-action. I tried to find an unbiased accounting of events to give you some background as to what this is all about, but it's kind of like flipping between FOX News and MSNBC in hopes of finding something "fair and balanced."

This article at Crosscut: Culture clash divides the Cascade Bicycle Club, sums things up pretty well, while my friend Eric over at Tubulocity goes right for the sensational headline with his: Leadership of largest bicycle club in America overthrown in bloodless coup. The Seattle Times take on events is presented in an article titled: Politics, friction reshape influential Cascade Bicycle Club. If you're at all interested in such things I encourage you to follow the links I've posted above and I'm sure if you Google around you'll find some other stories on this topic. And you'll probably shake your head like I did and say "wow, what a mess."

I'm mentioning Cascade's woes because I think they illustrate a truth, something I've discovered in my years of working as a bike advocate in various roles and in various organizations. The truth of the matter is that when you work to promote something you will find that a huge percentage of your energy and time goes not into arguing against your foes, but in discussing technique and focus with your allies. I could list dozens of examples and perhaps if I was getting paid by the word here I would, but I assume that both your attention and my time is finite so I'll stop at a few stories to illustrate my point.

Last night before Mia's talk I saw my friend Brad walking through the bike department of REI. Brad was fired up and he's firmly in the "the board went too far and they are out of touch with the membership and should be recalled" camp. Brad's got a petition and I think if he can get enough signatures he'll show that he's got a point. I also think he's got a right to rabble-rouse. A few minutes later I meet another of my friends, Gary, and Gary clearly stated his view that "your friend Brad is dead effing wrong on this board thing." Gary goes on to express that starting a new board from zero would be a huge effort and you know how hard it is to recruit board members and, well, Gary makes some good points. And that's my point, it's complicated, it's work and it's effort and it's not really making it easier for another cyclist to get to work or making Stone Way any safer. And it's a microcosm of what happens in advocacy groups every day.

When I worked at the Bicycle Alliance of Washington there were countless conversations of the form "I can't believe you are working on X and not Y!" The Alliance had a board member resign when the Alliance backed the county-wide mandatory cycling helmet law. I use a helmet but don't favor helmet laws but that wasn't a personal deal-breaker for my working for and with the Alliance. But friction points abound in the cycling world. Many "vehicular cyclists" argue loudly against bike lanes and paths. People debate the efficacy and value of groups like Critical Mass. Here's an example from the U.K. of one cyclist blasting another's attempt to promote cycling.

In any effort involving more than one person there will be conflicts. It's not at all amazing that a 13,000 member group like Cascade will, it would be astounding if it didn't. What is remarkable is that despite the intensity of views on all sides of this issue, the club still functions. Every day volunteers are out there leading rides. Staff members are still going to work, making things better bit by bit for cyclists in Seattle. Cascade brought Mia Birk here to Seattle to tell us that if we keep at it, bit by bit, things will get better. Even while we put up with the efforts of our friends, who we are sure are misguided. Those friends are just as sure that we're the mistaken ones.

Last year Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (the Puget Sound's big mountain bike club) went through its own drama and still managed to open up Duthie Hill, get a ton of trail work done on Grand Ridge and countless other things. We cannot, should not, put aside our passions, for our passions and our beliefs are what drive us. We'll drive our friends crazy when they realize we don't think exactly like them. And they'll drive us crazy in return. But somehow, we'll muddle through. Maybe someone changes someone else's mind or maybe we just disagree. Maybe we'll go for a bike ride or maybe we'll take a break. I don't have the answers. But I do know that very often my allies are more exasperating than my enemies.

Something unites us, a brother-and-sister-hood of the wheel. We balance and wobble and yell at each other but we love something with many spokes. Wheels hold their shape through tension. We do our best to do the same.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA



9 comments:

dan said...

Great post, Kent. Your observations and advice ring true for a lot of volunteer organizations, I think.

Your closing line, "Wheels hold their shape through tension. We do our best to do the same," is really great. You truly are the Confucius of cycling blogs.

bikelovejones said...

Excellent post.

How would you like to come back to Portland and sort out the mess at the BTA?
Heh-heh...

Yokota Fritz said...

Same story all over the world and no matter the issue -- it's the same thing that leads to religious schisms and heated politics, and it's a natural result of our open and free society and inquiry.

The real value in good leadership is finding a way to navigate through disparate views and find common ground. In San Francisco, for example, a significant portion of cyclists are vociferously anti-car, while the SF Bicycle Coalition realizes much of their membership probably drive and work toward some kind of co-existence.

Anonymous said...

Another well reasoned analysis: http://totcycle.com/blog/turmoil-in-tyvek.html However it resolves, it will be interesting times. It's actually nice to see people getting fired up about such things, finally. On a lighter note, have you seen: http://biseekell.blogspot.com/ Off topic, I know, but you started it by mentioning VC. Val

Anonymous said...

Great post. In my own efforts to inform myself on bike advocacy issues I've come across giants swamps of vitriol that make it daunting for a newcomer to figure out where to spend his or her energy. I would love to figure out how to get involved in helping to convince "them" to help "us," but so many debates seem to devolve into us vs. us.

I wonder how much of it is the nature of group dynamics, vs. how much is due to the way that issues are expressed and debated on the Internets these days -- it's so easy for everyone to assert viewpoints in such extreme ways.

Eric Shalit said...

well said!!

Neibaf said...

Excellent post Ken, even if I think cascade made a mistake firing Chuck.
That's one membership I will not renew.

JuliaR said...

I sent this link to the members of a charity board to which I belong, as it is objective enough about group dynamics that anyone can benefit.

BiketoWork Barb said...

Great read. When I work on things as a volunteer (biking or anything else) I hope I'm building something that eventually doesn't need me.

A cause worth supporting brings in new supporters. The crazy-making part is that they won't do things "my way" or "your way", they do things their own damn way.

But isn't it wonderful when you don't have to lift it all by yourself anymore? That requires an ability to let go that doesn't come easily to passionate advocates.

@BarbChamberlain