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Take the recent League of American Bicyclist’s National Bike Summit in Washington DC this past March. This year about 600 biking and walking advocates from 47 states converged for a few days of networking and strategizing, leading up to the final day of lobbying in the halls of the Capitol. We managed to put on our Sunday best to educate Congress about national issues and bills that are important to cyclists. For the most part we met with the staff in charge of formulating their policies, as the actual politicians are out doing whatever it is politicians do all day.

The whole time we were there we kept hearing that “ears have never been so open” and that this is “the year of the bicycle.” Earlier this year, Congress passed the Bicycle Commuter Act to help defray the costs associated with commuting by bike, but more importantly, it symbolically raised cycling to the level of transportation in the minds of government. House transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair, Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN), spoke at the opening reception of the Summit and promised to pass Climate Change legislation, called CLEAN TEA, that through cap and trade measures would provide much-needed money for bicycling, walking and transit projects. He confidently proclaimed there would be money for bikes because he’s “the chairman of the Committee.” Ray LaHood, Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, has gained some surprising praises in the transportation world. Addressing the Summit one morning, he assured us that we “have a full partner at the US DOT in working toward livable communities.” He promised that he and Obama “will work toward an America where bikes are recognized to coexist with other modes and to safely share our roads and bridges.” He even blogs about it.

Just before the Summit, Obama himself talked about how the days of “building sprawl forever” are over as well as fulfilling his promise to open a White House Office of Urban Affairs. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the cycling congressman who is the movement’s strongest insider ally, had a budget meeting with Obama the day before the Summit. According to Blumenauer as they talked about transportation, Obama asked, “You mean, there’s not enough money for bikes?” Blumenauer paused and assured us with a smile that, “The big guy’s on message.”

Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a bill to coincide with the Summit that seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. The Complete Streets Act of 2009 would require states to adopt a “fix it first” policy where all new and rehabilitated streets must accommodate all users including bikes, transit, cars, the handicapped and pedestrians. Basically, we all pay taxes so we shouldn’t limit public thru-ways to only those with automobiles. The bill, intended to level the playing field by making sure our public spaces are distributed more equitably, is a major challenge to our auto-centric way of designing cities and towns.

So did the most recent changing of the guard suddenly make the stars align for our cause? Have the high gas prices and impending doom of global climate change caused a eureka-moment where politicians all of the sudden get it? I personally think we shouldn’t sit around and see what happens. The stakes are too high. On one end of the spectrum of inaction we have the expansion of car choked cities and suburban sprawl. On the other end, the extinction of the human race. On the local level, livable streets advocates are still screaming at a wall to people that believe highways can save a dying city. We’re still having to deal with a Stimulus package that, despite Obama’s promise of an end to sprawl, requires “shovel ready” projects that were designed in the pro-sprawl years. Governments have never been known to make serious changes without the backing of large grassroots social movements, or piles of money. Our movement still can’t buy off politicians with swimming pools full of cash, but what we do have are ranks that are swelling faster than anytime since the invention of the bicycle.
Don’t worry Penny, I still haven’t put my trust in the government and I still wear a Crass shirt. I just don’t wear it to meetings anymore.


The most important thing you can do is push from below and act locally.

Simple things you can do:

• Join your local bike advocacy group even if you think they’re dorks.

• If you don’t have one, start one.

• The Alliance for Biking and Walking: Full of resources and advice on how to start your own.

• Livable Streets Network: Great online resource for meeting similarly minded folks in your city to agitate with.