The last three days I spent participating in these two events were a slice of bicyclist advocate heaven. Although I’m not being literal (read my post In Bike I Trust: The Faith of an Agnostic Athiest Cyclist for my thoughts on all that), it was a smorgasboard of education, networking, lobbying, and of course, bike riding. The first-ever event hosted by the board, staff and volunteers of Bike Texas brought 40 people together from many parts of Texas. I volunteered to attend as one of three representatives of Bike Austin. The summit was held Saturday-Sunday and the lobby day was today, Monday. If you’ve read this far, you may as well keep going to read the rest. You know you wanna!
The Many Faces of Texas Cycling
There was too much factual information presented in workshops to present in a blog. But I can give you an overview. Topics included diversity, engaging the community, historical victories, fundraising, social media, working with millenials, and more. It was a lot to take in but great to see what others are up to. Attendees came from Laredo on the border with Mexico to Denton near Oklahoma, Midland-Odessa and more far-flung towns like Sachse and Yoakum. Texas, with its many geographies and cultures, has a diverse set of problems and types of bicyclists, too.
The challenges of bike advocates vary widely. While Austin might be spoiled and boast of being a League of American Bicyclists Gold-level Bike Friendly Community, others aren’t ready to be on that list. We may have more funding for bike lanes and such, while other towns are having to fight for their infrastructure to be funded and built. People are doing good things though to implement changes, like pop-up bike lanes, real grassroots organizing as well as high-level talks with the police, fire, parks and many other departments. The amount of volunteerism was very impressive.
We heard presentations from the various groups, all working in different and interesting ways. Cities like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are dealing with higher levels of bike and pedestrian-related fatalities. In smaller cities like Laredo, they are just getting things off the ground, but going gangbusters. In other towns where there are more fatalities and fewer facilities, bike safety is higher profile. That in turn fuels more opportunities for advocates to sound off, chime in and be at the table with municipalities. One advocate, Nicole of Ft. Bend, managed to get her conservative representative to sponsor a bill.
This is both disappointing and encouraging. To hear my colleagues talk about how hard it is to get from point A to point B, and about their friends who died just riding their bike, was really sobering. They are also doing good work demanding change. We in Austin can learn from that, because we may have become a little complacent. As one woman said, “We need Austin to kick ass (in leading the way on bike advocacy) so that we have something to live up to.” In Austin, we can get a bit lax since we do have quite a lot to be thankful for. But we still have a long way to go to make biking and walking truly safe.
One neat feature of both days was that we took two 12-mile bike rides. This was to show our out-of-town visitors some of our unique bike infrastructure. Some of these features included: bike crossing lights, two-way bike lanes, buffered and separated lanes, bike lockers at the train stations, bike boxes at signal lights, and several trails. This was a highlight for many of us since it was a great way to bond with each other outside the rather dark large meeting room. I mean, bikers gotta bike, amirite?
Some of the presenters were pretty cool, too. City Councilmember Ann Kitchen came by to talk about regional and city efforts. She invited me to call her office to follow up with some road sections that the state and the city can’t seem to decide whose responsibility it is. Former Bike Texas director Gail Stallings told a great story about how biking was almost outlawed on 30,000 miles of Texas rural roadways. Instead, 1,000 cyclists wrote in and showed up at the Texas Capitol to object in 2001. They actually got their opponent on board to support a bike-friendly bill.
By video we had a presentation about the power of stories, the one on social media, and the head of the League of American Bicyclists, Bill Nesper. He spoke about the synergy between local, state and federal efforts, some of the programs the League offers, and how we can work together to better move the dial on safety, access and equity for all vulnerable road users. Long-time Bike Texas director Robin Stallings was the League’s 2018 Advocate of the Year. One thing conferences do is dispel the notion that we’re lone voices, shouting into the wind in the wilderness. So even though I only knew the local folks, by the end of the two days I had made some new friends. If I visit any of their cities or they return, I hope we’ll hang out.
Biking in Suits to Get the Lege to Do the Right Thing — Protect Cyclists!
This fun and important event has been going on a while, although it was my first time. With the added troops of another 35 or so North Texas folks who bused in, we first biked a few miles — with bicycle police escort! We then blanketed the Texas Legistlature with colorful bike pins. For the staffers of the Representatives and Senators, we brought packets with information about the pedestrian, bicyclist and vehicle-driver fatalities for their district and the state in 2017-18. They also included information about three bills we were advocating, all of which were sponsored by Republicans, which should make passage easier:
- Definitions of and regulations for e-bikes. Currently, there is nothing that explains the three types of e-bikes (pedal assist, throttle, and pedal-assist with higher speed). The industry wants this corrected, as do cyclists, so that the growing population of seniors, those with disabilities, or just people who want to be able to get around town and up hills a bit easier can have their rights to ride on roads, bike lanes, trails and so on. We’re lagging behind other states in this basic area. This bill is a no-brainer that won’t cost anything.
- The Texas Trails Network was based on a bill that passed in 2005, and a study came out in 2017. Bike tourism is a huge industry already in the US, and in Texas we were given a statistic that it’s $1 billion a year. So increasing and connecting the historic trails and other roads that feed into the national network of bikeable roads is an economic generator. Bike tourists buy food, rent hotel rooms, and go to bike shops, spending $164 per day. We want the Legislature to pass this resolution to ask the Department of Transportation to, for example, when they repair roads, to bring them up to national standards.
- Safe passing is the most important bill. Although it actually passed under the previous governor, he vetoed it since he believed it was already safe enough for cyclists on the roads. He was incorrect, because the fatalities and injuries have mounted, raising emergency room, insurance and related costs. Even though 27 cities have this law, if you’re biking in an unincorporated area, the driver might not even be cited if you’re run over by a dumptruck. This happened in Houston to a woman who was in a crosswalk. Had she been walking, the driver would have been at fault. But she’s still dead. Outrageous!
It was interesting speaking with the staff. Most were very young, as in just out of college young. Nothing wrong with that; they were enthusiastic or at least professional and courteous. We had our talking points and packets, and I was happy to sit back while those who were constituents talked about their local needs. I’ve done lobbying before, and it can be stressful, but this really wasn’t. Everyone was pretty pleasant, and nobody said “I hate bikes, go away!” In fact, several of the young aides were bike riders themselves. I only met one representative by accident, as he was greeting another group; he declined a bike pin. My state rep Sheryl Cole was previously on City Council and her staff reminded me she sometimes biked so is an ally.
I hope that our efforts talking to staff will lead to all three bills passing. Also, I hope that the weekend of being around other advocates, some of them quite young and really smart women of color, will rub off on some of us old white guys who tend to be the majority minority of bike culture. But that’s changing. Together we can all, no matter what age, race, type of biker or whatever, move the dial forward and make biking safer for all Texans who want to do it. And to that, even this agnostic athiest can say Hallelujah, Amen and pass the cornbread. I want to thank Bike Austin for allowing me to attend as their rep!
How about you?
- Are you happy with the safety level of biking where you live?
- If not, have you spoken truth to power for bicyclists and pedestrians?
- What would it take to get you to write, call or visit your elected officials at the local, state or federal level?
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