Bike politics in person: Frank talk from four mayors

September 10, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

It's always a treat when mayors cut loose a little.

In a revealing panel Tuesday at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference, four pro-bike mayors — from Pittsburgh, Memphis, Morgantown W.V. and Philadelphia — talked with attendees and each other about how and why they personally connected with biking as an issue, how they deal with bikelash and what bike advocates can do to keep them winning.

Here are a few of the most interesting things each said.

Mayor Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh

On why he realized that bikes were worth investing in:

The reality of the day is competition. If people have the opportunity to live wherever they want, to be able to work, you have to be able to provide not the amenities, but the necessities, to keep them.

On Pittsburgh's three new protected bike lanes, which went from lines on a map to fully installed in six months:

What's happening in Pittsburgh is culture change. Watch as we do five miles in the next two years and continue to do it like we do paving schedules.

On using rapid project delivery to inoculate against anti-bike backlash:

The most loved and hated Twitter feeds that I've received are about bike lanes. You're sitting there at 10:30 at night, you're watching your Twitter, and there are people who are just ripping you apart. The tradeoff comes to: How far can we push it before people start going in the streets with pitchforks and torches? It's sort of like ripping that Band-Aid out realy quick. We knew there was going to be this pushback, but we wanted to show it [the new protected lane] and let people see it. That type of a reaction starts to dissipate and go down over time. That's the tradeoff. I have to represent everybody. And I know what the right thing is: It's about creating multimodal options. But I also know about the pushback from people who don't see it that way.

On what bike believers can do to help friendly mayors:

It's not enough just to vote. Great change comes from the bottom up and it always has. And that means you need to organize. You need to be able to survey some candidates to find out where they are before they're in office, not try to change their minds while they're in office.

On his political debt to advocacy group BikePGH:

2,600 members in a city of 320,000! 2,600 members is bigger than the Allegheny County Democratic committee. And I wouldn't be here now if the members of the group didn't get behind my campaign.

Mayor AC Wharton, Memphis

On why he decided to invest in better biking after Bicycling Magazine named Memphis the worst city in the country to ride a bicycle:

We had a chip on our shoulder. We were that place where everybody talked real slow and ate a lot and got real fat. ... Every table that came along in North America: "worst, worst, worst." I was like, boy, I am going to get that chip off our shoulder.

On infrastructure, race and class:

When we did the longest stretches of lane, it was in predominantly Black neighborhoods. It might not be used by a lot of people yet, but we wanted to send the message. ... This is for everybody, not the Spandex crowd.

On preparing for backlash against bikes:

It's not a cakewalk. Get ready for that. You have to be twice as intentional in ensuring you get the first things first. Never put down bike lanes when you have potholes in them. Fix the potholes first. For every 15 minutes you spend on communicating ahead of time, it will save you time on the end.

On the federally funded "fiction" that the main justification for bike projects is that each one takes a car off the road:

Why can't we not simply have funding for bike lanes because they're just a doggone good thing to do? It's healthy, it's socially liberating, it brings social equity. There's so many things. We shouldn't have to put square pegs into round holes. I would hope that we could have a good, sound national policy on biking for its intrinsic worth.

Mayor Jennifer Selin, Morgantown, WV

On the need for advocates to keep showing up, even with an ally in office:

You have a few wins; you have some budget setbacks. If there isn't some sort of push from the community, these improvements kind of fall to the wayside. I'm familiar and enjoy bicycling, but I can't put it forth as my only agenda. It has to come from all the people.

On how advocates can support friendly mayors:

Be the reasonable bicycle-pedestrian-place advocates. We have a few individuals that make such a big deal about things. If my city manager can't work with you or can't work with a couple of your colleagues, he will be resistant to work with you. You can complain, that's fine. We hear it. But the person that comes to us and has a solution, has a suggestion, has a grant that we can apply for, wants to help write that grant. That's the way that you're heard.

Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia

On backlash:

If you need people to love you every day, you're in the wrong business. You should have worked in a pet shop. I guarantee you that in Philadelphia, someone is complaining that it's hot outside. And someone else is complaining that it's not warm enough in September. Someone will always complain about each and every thing that you do.

On why he personally decided to invest in better bicycling:

We've had the largest population increase of Millennial population of any city in America, and a lot of those people get on bikes.

On how he responds to people who say in a meeting that any given policy is the simplest, clearest, win-win project and why doesn't the city fund it:

I'll tell you the truth: about 10 minutes into that conversation, checked out. Because everyone says that. Every program can't be the most important program created in the United States of America. What's your idea, what's the program, what's it cost, did you identify some possible funding sources? Nobody's checking out of that conversation.

On Mayor Peduto's Twitter habits (with a smile):

Note to staff: please have the mayor less reading of the Twitter comments. It'll make you insane.

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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