Advice for bike believers: ‘There is always a better messenger than you’

October 03, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

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Transalt's Paul Steely White in 2009. Image: Pedal Power Pete (Flickr)

In an interview last month with Rapha Performance Roadwear, the executive director of New York City's main bike advocacy group shared a memorable bit of wisdom for anyone who believes in bikes:

A hard lesson for anyone to learn, especially for self-possessed leaders of progressive change, is that there is always a better messenger than you. What I mean by that is that however articulate or convincing you may be as a bike advocate, it's so much more effective to mobilize a doctor, a real estate exec, a tech mogul, a union, or a small business association. At my best, at our best, we are cultivating and activating strategic partners who share our passion for liveable streets, protected bike lanes, and the whole toolbox of measures that make our streets, neighborhoods and cities greener and happier. That's how you move politicians. As bike advocates, we are a one note band, and they know our song. With myriad and diverse allies you can create the symphony that makes politicians get off their duff and dance.

Steely White's advice (via BikePortland) captures a big part of our thinking here at PeopleForBikes. It's related to something we discussed this week when I joined an episode of the Los Angeles-based Bike Talk podcast and radio show. My favorite insight came at 22:22, from Kevin Mayne, the development director for the Brussels-based European Cyclists' Federation. He told the story of how, 10 years ago, his organization had an epiphany about the need to make arguments for biking that aren't just about biking:

"It took us five years or more to finally sit down and say, 'You know what we're missing? Economic arguments.' ... It was a politician who bluntly looked back at us and said, 'You're not a proper movement. Because when the car industry comes to me, they bring me a business plan. When the railroad industry comes to me, they bring me an investment plan. When the developers come, they tell me what the economic future is. And all you do is turn up and moan.' ... I am really really excited at the global level that we can sit down with the UN, the EU, the federal governments, the national governments, the health sector and say, 'This is the case for cycling.'"

We hope this is the future of bicycle advocacy in the U.S., too: not just arguing that things should be better for bikes, but showing how more and better biking makes things better for everyone.

The Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook sign up for weekly emails of our lastest news here.

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