Wearing his signature bow tie and Velcro strap around his pant leg, Congressman Earl Blumenauer arced his arms over his head and brought his palms together as if beginning a yoga workshop, not a plenary address. Looking out at the more than 700 bicycle advocates gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, the Democrat from Oregon barely cracked a smile as he asked the crowd to repeat after him.
“How many people are stuck in traffic right now to ride a stationary bike in a health club?”
To the general public that might sounds like a daily annoyance. To the attendees of the National Bike Summit, it sounded sadly ridiculous.
Each year, the League of American Bicyclists orchestrates a convergence of hundreds of bike advocates from across the country. For three days we network with other grassroots leaders, learn about federal transportation issues and deliver our bike-partisan message directly to our members of Congress. Each year the circumstances and politics are different but the aim is the same: Pushing for a nation where riding a bicycle outside is so safe and so conducive to daily transportation that the notion of spinning aimlessly inside is nothing more than the punchline of an ironic joke.
To fire us up on Wednesday, the League went to their go-to guy. Second only to former Congressman Jim Oberstar, Blumenauer is the foremost voice for bicycling on Capital Hill. He set the tone for our Congressional visits by noting the historic moment. Never before has Congress been so hotly divided, Blumenauer said. Never before could you visit two adjacent offices, occupied by equally sincere and intelligent people, and encounter such wildly different worldviews. Luckily, he said, bicycling bridging the deep and wide philosophical divide.
“It’s something that speaks to every single item on the front page of our newspapers: Oil instability in the Middle East, health problems, congestion,” he said. “Everybody on a bike is somebody who is not in front of you in a car, competing for a parking space.”
Making the shift from an expensive transportation system built around the automobile to a more efficient network that accommodates all users may be good logic, but it’s also a leap of thought. “The pivot point is not easy,” Blumenauer acknowledged. “We have habits and politics and mindsets that are entrenched.”
But bicyclists aren’t asking for much. We know times are tough. We know difficult decisions will have to be made in cutting projects and programs from the overstretched budget. But biking and walking make up nearly 12 percent of trips and get a mere 1.5 percent of federal spending on transportation. All we ask in these tough economic times is that our members of Congress have the foresight to retain popular and successful programs, like Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails.
“On Capitol Hill, you’re asking them to keep in place a framework that has transformed cycling across the country in past 20 years — all they have to do is not screw it up,” Blumenauer said. “You’re not asking for anything extra. You’re asking for near parity. You’re asking for attention and engagement. You’re asking them to listen, and, if you find someone who’s a little hesitant, suggest that they don’t cut what they haven’t visited.”
The second speaker, another rock star of the transportation movement, kept those wheels spinning. Janette Sadik-Khan, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, has plenty to brag about. She’s been the catalyst for a massive increase in dedicated infrastructure (a 250-mile bump in bike lanes) and, not surprising, a rapid rise in bicycling mode share (a 28 percent increase in 2009 alone) as folks of all ages now have safe, comfortable alternatives to the automobile gridlock in the Big Apple. But Sadik-Khan took the opportunity to boast about the efforts of advocates in other communities, flipping through a slideshow of smiling cyclists cruising down green painted bike lanes in cities across the country.
“It’s important to recognize how far we’ve come in such a short period of time,” she said. “You can see the kinds of progress all of you are making on some of the most famous streets in the country. You see this on Pennsylvania Avenue, an incredibly historic symbol. You see this on Broadway in my town, on Market Street in San Francisco, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago and pretty much every street in Portland… The movement is there, the projects are there, and none of this was there just five years ago. All across the country we’ve seen tremendous breakthroughs thanks to everybody here in this room. It’s hard painstaking work, and I have a little feeling what that pain is all about. There are setbacks and disappointments, but that’s to be expected when you’re in the business of change.”
Thanks to Sadik-Khan’s vision, that change is measurable in New York City. Separated bike lanes — even the controversial project in Prospect Park West — have been shown to reduce travel speeds and cut traffic fatalities. “When we put down a painted bike lane, there’s a 50-percent reduction in fatalities for all users of that street: cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists,” she pointed out. “So when you put these bike lanes down, you are improving the safety of everyone that uses that street.”
Because of those impacts, Sadik-Khan has become an inspiration for many. But she turned that appreciation and awe right back on the Bike Summit audience. “To see what you’ve done in the past five years gives me so much hope for what we’ll do in the next five years,” she said. “I think it’s unstoppable.”
Blumenauer agreed. “This wave is cresting and I think we’ll be astounded about what happens over the next two to three years,” he said. “What’s driven at the local level, to me, is the tide that cannot be stopped… That tide is coming in in a way that will be transformational and, five years from now, this Bike Summit will barely be able to recognize how much progress we’ve made.”
I, for one, am proud and eager to be another drop in that unstoppable tide.
Photo: Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Congressman Blumenauer. (League of American Bicyclists, credit Chris Eichler)