Ms. Brooks goes to Washington

This lane extends down Pennsylvania Avenue.

By Karen Brooks

In your travels by bicycle, do you have the benefit of using a bike path? Does your town have bike lanes striped alongside the spaces designated for cars? Have you ever taken a cycling vacation involving a Rails-to-Trails route? If you answered yes to any of the above, here’s a more important question for you: have you ever given thought to the advocacy efforts that likely helped create and maintain these amenities?

Behind it all, there has been and continues to be, a lot of thought, planning, and communication on the part of local, state, and national advocacy organizations. There are people that are working hard to represent your cycling interests, whether you know about it or not. One day every year, our advocates converge on our nation’s capital to plead our case to elected representatives: the National Bike Summit. It is also a gathering to reflect on past gains, reconnect with fellow advocates, and recharge for future efforts.

This year, I got a chance to attend the Summit. What follows is my impression of the event and of riding in Washington, D.C., and most importantly, some information on how you can become a bicycling advocate yourself.

All About the Ask
The first day of the Summit is comprised of seminars to help us learn about the different issues we face as advocates of bicycling, how the government works, and how to reconcile these two worlds. We started off with a heartening welcome from Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who has long been a champion of bicycle travel. Janette Sadik-Khan followed, who has helped the cause in New York City as Commissioner of their Department of Transportation. Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, also spoke.

Yes, this was a day of meeting people you read about in the news. The theme for this year’s Summit was “Acting on a Simple Solution,” and that conveyed not just our shared belief in the place that bicycles have in our society, but also the boiled-down message we strove to absorb. As with many, many other groups who aim to grab a few moments of attention on Capitol Hill, we needed to stay on-message, to consolidate our many desires into one or two easily conveyed “asks.”

This year, we expected to talk to many new members of Congress who were swept into office on a platform of fiscal reform in the face of an immense budget deficit. Not a good environment in which to ask for more money. But as we learned, bicycling infrastructure in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily need more money to continue to flourish— just a commitment not to cut funding that already exists for these programs.

I learned that there are three primary funnels for federal funding toward bicycle-friendly improvements in this country’s transportation infrastructure.

Transportation Enhancements: A fund for community-based projects that “expand travel choices and enhance the transportation experience.” This not only includes infrastructure improvements such as bike lanes and rail-trails but also scenic routes and historic preservation.
Safe Routes to School: Money earmarked “to make walking and bicycling to school safe and more appealing.” Used for things like traffic-calming measures, sidewalk additions and improvements, and bicycle facilities. Particularly important in the face of evidence that kids need more exercise—riding safely to school is naturally a great way to get it.
Recreational Trails Program: Just like the name says, this is funding for recreational trails for all kinds of uses, including equestrian and motorized. This fund is particularly important for mountain biking. Funding is authorized via the Surface Transportation Bill, currently titled SAFETEA-LU, which is now on its seventh extension. The way this bill has worked is somewhat backward: look at how much money it is available, then decide how much to put in the fund, rather than first determining how much money would be necessary to build or fix what’s needed.
Many wise thinkers in Washington (yes, they exist) have realized that continually renewing this bill is not ideal, and have begun to work on a long-term solution. A proposal currently on the table, backed by President Barack Obama, would double the money now available to $556 billion over six years and grant some significant boons to bicyclists. A much more austere bill sponsored by the Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, would set aside $230 billion over the same time span. Ultimately, all of this federal funding comes from the Highway Trust Fund, established in 1956, which in turn gets its money from federal taxes on gas and diesel fuel, and on truck sales and tires. In recent years, however, this fund has been subsidized quite a bit with money from the General Fund. The gas tax has not been raised in 20 years and is not likely to be anytime soon.

The problem, obviously, is that money is tight across the board these days. Thus our most important task was, “Will you commit to supporting continued, dedicated funding for Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and the Recreational Trails Program?”

Why Should We Get Any Pie At All?
With such a dire financial picture emerging, it started to seem like folly to march on Washington with our particular message. Projects and programs that benefit those who bike for transportation, still a minority, can be seen as boondoggles worthy of the chopping block. Fortunately, we were armed with good reasons why our cause is not only worthy, but also fiscally sound.

It turns out that money spent on bicycle infrastructure is an excellent investment that gives good returns. All across the U.S., there are examples of projects that have had a positive impact on a tiny fraction of the cost of facilities for cars. For about the cost of one mile of highway built in a dense urban environment, $50 million, an entire network of bike lanes and other facilities can be installed in a mid-size city. One mile exchanged for hundreds! Portland is probably the most famous example of this savings in action—that city invested a relatively paltry $57 million between 1991 and 2008 and saw a huge increase in cycling with resulting savings in health and fuel costs (along with a 38% increase in the value of the bicycle-related industry, to almost $90 million).

Overall, bicycle and pedestrian facilities take up just 1.5% of the money available for transportation infrastructure, but those modes account for 8% of trips. Spending a relative pittance on bicycle and pedestrian amenities results in big drops in traffic, thus keeping the roadways in better condition for a longer time and saving even more money. There is also good evidence that money invested in making a place friendlier to bicycle or foot traffic brings money back in the form of commerce. It turns out that if people can ride or walk to a business district, they tend to spend more time and money there.

The state of Wisconsin’s example is telling: $9 million of federal funding spent on bike/ped projects yielded $1.5 billion in total economic impact. One argument against federal spending for bicycling says that state and local governments should take care of such things. True, the people in each locale know best how to improve their transportation surroundings, but most projects need money from federal, state, local, and even private sources. A federal grant tends to be a good Kickstarter for securing other funding.

Our Day on the Hill
Armed with these facts, and many others specific to our home districts and states, compiled in convenient folders— the “leave-behinds”—we set out on our appointed rounds in the halls of Congress. In our case, representing Pennsylvania and districts around Pittsburgh, we met with two senators and two representatives, joining with forces from Philadelphia for the Senate meetings.

We were warned beforehand that there could be a wide variety of receptions; some elected officials already “get it” and are quite friendly, but some had not (yet) found a reason to take us seriously and would brush us off. There was also the possibility of outright arguing. But we were met with the utmost courtesy. One senator hosted us (along with other groups) at a breakfast to start off the day. Senators, representatives, and their staff members confirmed that although they saw the value in our message, times were tough. Some promised to go to bat for us when they could. We didn’t get any arguments or cold shoulders.

Meeting with a staffer doesn’t always indicate disinterest on the part of the official; during one seminar the day before, we were clued into the fact that staffers are the gateways to the people in power since one senator or representative can’t possibly meet with everyone interested. Staffers also handle research, correspondence, and many other tasks necessary to a smooth-running office, and can be quite influential.

Another “ask” for these meetings, one that was much easier to remember, was to invite our elected officials to join the Congressional Bike Caucus. Started by Representative Blumenauer, this is a bipartisan group whose main function is to promote “policies that aim to integrate bicycling as attractive transportation and recreational alternative,” and to go on the occasional group ride.

The Next Step
One big point we learned before our meetings were that if we didn’t follow up with our contacts afterward, we may as well have never been there. The point of these meetings wasn’t to attempt to make such a convincing argument, in our allotted 15 minutes, that the members of Congress would immediately see the light and make every decision with bicycling first and foremost in their minds but to start a connection that could be built upon through the rest of the year. The issues and concerns of Congress change rapidly, what with controversial bills, political gyrations, and even natural disasters, so we need to remind our elected officials that we’re here and paying attention and that our solution continues to be a good one.

Keep reading
This piece originally appeared in Bicycle Times issue #11, where you can find additional info about riding in Washington D.C. You can purchase a copy of this issue in our online store, or consider purchasing a subscription and get more stories as this one delivered right to your door.

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