Don’t Call It a Merger: America’s Big Three Bike/Ped Advocates Join Forces

Last week, three leading organizations advocating for biking and walking issued a communiqué [PDF] about their intention to unify. According to the plan, hashed out two weeks ago at a top-level meeting in San Diego, the League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and Bikes Belong will become one organization, with one board of directors. 

Streetsblog spoke with Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, and Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, about what the merger will mean for the movement. To begin with, Clarke said it wasn’t a “merger” but a “unification.”

Andy Clarke is looking to maintain the 132-year history of the League of American Bicyclists while creating a new organization. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2010/09/30/league-of-american-bicyclists-president-says-forest-park-decision-disappointing-40396##Bike Portland##

Andy Clarke: A “merger” suggests that one or two organizations are being subsumed by or merging into one of the others, and that’s really not what we’re doing here. We are unifying three organizations and creating a new organization together. All three organizations are in good shape and we’re realizing that we could do even more together.

This isn’t a case where one of us is faltering or one of us wants to take over the other one. This is not a hostile, commercial-style corporate takeover. We’re not at odds on any issue of policy or strategy or anything like that, but inevitably, because you’re different organizations, there are institutional things you have to work around. We’re three organizations that work together well, that are all thriving and doing well, realizing we could do even more if we remove some of the boundaries or barriers that exist naturally because you’re part of different organizations.

Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, hopes the unification will transform the movement. Photo: ##http://www.peoplepoweredmovement.org/site/index.php/site/about/C190#150##Alliance for Biking & Walking##

Tanya Snyder: How are they going to maintain their own identity?

Jeff Miller: They’re not.

TS: They’re not?

JM: We are all going to feed into and become this new organization. And each of our existing organizations will most likely fade away. There are a lot of details to be worked out, and of course ratification by our boards, but if all goes well, we’ll create this new organization which effectively will inherit the good programs of each of our organizations which all of us want to see move forward: the Bicycle Friendly America program, Bikes Belong’s Green Lane Project, the Safe Routes to School – the National Partnership is absolutely going to be continuing forward — the Alliance’s work around capacity-building, the trainings and retreats and the benchmarking report are all going to be continuing forward under the tent of this new organization.

AC: So, there only will be one set of logos on [the bike racks in front of the building where the League, the Alliance, and America Bikes have their offices].

We want to be able to use the reach of the People For Bikes list of 500,000 people that Bikes Belong has, marry that with the policy-wonking that we do at the League office, with the incredible grassroots network that the Alliance manages, and not have to worry about which group gets the credit, or who goes first with the action alert, or who writes the press release that gets picked up by Streetsblog. We don’t need that kind of organizational inefficiency. We need to cut through that and get on with our job leading the bicycling movement.

TS: But the League has been around for –

AC: Your question is about the history and tradition and how we keep that alive. That is part of what we desperately want to do. That continuity with the 132-year history of the League is important to all of us.

The League of American Bicyclists does business as the League of American Bicyclists, but we’re still the League of American Wheelmen. You wouldn’t pick that name if you were starting a brand new organization today, because it’s somewhat rooted in the history of the time. But you don’t want to lose that connection back to that incredible story. We’d be fools to throw that away, but equally we’d be fools to try and get people in the future to join the League of American Wheelmen.

But we could still be the League of American Wheelmen but be doing business as this new entity. We could keep the League of American Wheelmen as one program element. We could have the League of American Wheelmen’s legal defense fund as a project of this new entity.

So we’ve shied away from saying that the League, the Bikes Belong Coalition, the Bikes Belong Foundation, or the Alliance will be dissolved because we don’t know yet if that’s the right step to take.

TS: Obviously the bicycling movement is very concerned right now about the transportation bill – both versions of the bill would be devastating for cyclists. I’m assuming this new entity is part of the strategy for moving forward in a post-dedicated-federal-funding world. What is the strategy going forward, once dedicated federal funding is out of the picture (at least for the next eighteen months to six years)?

JM: There is a lot of writing on the walls that there is going to be some devolution. Certainly there is the possibility that there won’t be any federal funding. But we’re still fighting like hell, and I don’t think any of us want to consider that fully yet.

But regardless, there is an incredibly important role at the state and local level. That’s where the decisions are made. That’s where the money is spent. And it’s also where the vast majority of the money comes from. If you look at the state and local funding that goes into transportation infrastructure, it dwarfs the federal funding.

So there are a lot of opportunities for us. And some of our organizations at the state and local level have been playing that game and working it really well and making a lot of improvements.

So one of the things that the Alliance’s leadership is excited about, with this unification, is the focus of this new national organization on working with and dedicating significantly more resources to state and local organizations.

TS: So the state and local piece will become more central, post-transportation bill (if there ever is such a thing)?

AC: You’ll see from the program of the National Bike Summit. We’ve got workshops that are focusing on if, in the worst case scenario, we do lose dedicated funding, there’s a session on how the cycling movement can participate in the elections in 2012. There’s a workshop on what we can do, and what is already being done, to preserve funding levels through state action. There’s a workshop focused on how to be more effectively organized at the state and local level to keep the momentum going.

We’re already well aware of the need to not be completely focused exclusively on the federal level and of the value of having a strong state and local constituency. That’s always been true. We’ve always benefited from an incredible grassroots organization and voice that we’ve got. We’ll just see how much more effectively we can organize that.

My suspicion, if I had to guess now, is that you’ll see a membership-based organization emerge from this that supports a national effort, but where we meet people is very much at the local level, whether that’s through a recreational riding club or a local advocacy group or a mountain bike trail crew or a local bike shop. That’s where most people get their experience of cycling; that’s where most people get engaged or involved in the cycling movement.

We need to make sure people at the local level can find a quick and easy way to plug into the movement and have their voices heard. And I think we can do that better, more proactively, with the three organizations working together.

TS: Even if this would be a smart thing to do, it’s hard for organizations to just will themselves out of existence. Is there any voice of opposition here?

JM: I’ve had a few organization leaders share some concern – they’re concerned about the cultures of our organizations and how different they are.

TS: How are they different?

JM: The thing I hear highlighted from some local leaders is that they see and appreciate and really value the ground-up role that the Alliance plays. We exist solely to serve these state and local organizations. My board is made up mostly of leaders of local organizations. They know they have a voice with us.

And there may have been times when our partners may have been a little more top-down. So there’s that concern I’ve heard a few people raise. But most people are really psyched. They see the opportunities for improved efficiency and communication.

I think we really have to prove ourselves, particularly to state and local leaders and partners on the ground, of the value that we can bring and the support and resources that we can provide. And it may take a year or two or three to do that effectively. But it is very much my hope that we will prove ourselves worthy as partners and allies and that a couple years from now we will look back and realize what a transformational move this was.

UPDATE 8/16/12: The three organizations have announced that they’ve decided not to merge after all. 

  • Skeptic

    Instead of three groups bugging Washington they’ll have one. Nothing better than doing a big internal reorg when the real world starts sucking too much. Makes mgmt feel like it’s doing something.

  • Barney

    It will be really amazing to see a new organization emerge from these three accomplished groups. Their skill sets fit together well: the inside-the-Beltway experience of the League, the vast state and local grassroots network of the Alliance and the business voice of Bikes Belong.

    It’s good to read that these leaders are working to better connect constituents with their members of Congress in the fight for federal funding for biking, walking and Safe Routes to School, and it’s also good see that the League and the Alliance recognize that, while federal funding is important, the action to improve biking and walking really happens at the local level.

    It will be interesting to see how this develops! Not a simple task, but there’s so much potential power in a new unified group, it’s definitely worth spending the time to figure it out.

  • Morris Zapp

    The unified plan makes sense — strength in numbers and all that — but I wish there was a more pronounced focus on pedestrian advocacy, referenced here only in passing. 

  • Chris Morfas

    The California Bicycle Coalition (www.calbike.org) is very pleased to see this unification in the works. Achieving national-level streamlining and nurturing local, grassroots activism should go hand-in-hand. The unification will result in a more efficient and transparent bicycling movement with far greater appeal to prospective funders and allies. Andy, Jeffrey and the others involved in this are to be commended for their courage in tackling this challenging task.

    Chris Morfas, President, Board of Directors
    California Bicycle Coalition

  • Over here in “Europe” we’re forming three organizations – good cop, bad cop and in-between – which all have the same goal of ensuring that the new USAsuperbikepedorg has a pro-choice helmets & hi-viz policy and also does not use the word “America” in its name.

    Good luck with everything!

  • JK

    This non-merger/merger must make sense to the people doing it, but it doesn’t at all as explained in this article. Either you are merging (why is this a bad word?) or you’re not, and it sounds like you are. Efficiency comes from clear lines of responsibility and authority. Somebody will be in charge. There will be priorities. Can’t wait to see it all explained clearly. 

  • I think this could be a very dynamic merger but as a member of the League of American Bicyclists, I am concerned about the loss of 136 years of history and identity too.  The other too fantastic orgs are really just recent start-ups. 

  • Jeff Miller

    In response to the concern on pedestrian issues, we do fully intend to maintain access to biking AND walking organizations to the capacity building work (trainings, retreats, resource sharing) as the Alliance does now, but not mentioned here is that a closer working relationship with America Walks will be important to us all.

  • OHLCI

    As a 40+ year member of LAW/B, I am waiting to see how the heritage survives. I also have some concern about having a fewer number of organizations promoting bike/ped concerns.
    I hope that their respective functions are retained: the League’s education and “Friendly” recognition programs, the Alliance’s local club advocacy development, and Bike Belong’s dealer/industry representation.

  • Barney

    On the federal level just remember that to people in Washington who work on Capitol Hill and elsewhere there’s just “the bike people.” They don’t get that there are different groups; it doesn’t matter to them. The differences between the existing groups are too nuanced to get through to legislators and Hill staff. The only thing they hear is that some people are for bikes and some are against.

    That being the case, I think that the people for bikes are about to get a lot more organized and more powerful.

    This is so exciting because it’s about the future. To me it’s about harnessing the skills and experience of all these advocates and building streets where parents are comfortable letting their kids bike. I want change. I want a more bike-friendly country tomorrow.

    I can’t wait any longer to get rid of the out-of-date 1950s mindset of this country’s transportation policy. It’s beyond obvious that cars are bad for American’s health and get our country stuck in expensive foreign wars over oil (not to mention that they kill 10,000s every year and are damaging the Earth’s climate). Why are we still primarily design our transportation system around this hurtful, money-wasting technology? I hope this new group pushes the debate in a big way!

  • Brhinobiker42

    The new entity will not be operating under the old name. That’s a merger. It will lose it’s distinctive mission in favor of a newly defined charter. That’s a merger. The one project identified in the article as worthy of continuing, “the League’s legal defense fund,” doesn’t help bicyclists who get ticketed for impeding traffic. Even though the League was instrumental in getting the first paved roads, even though the League helped establish the first traffic laws, it has sold out cyclists who ride on the road. And now it has been bought up off the auction block by the bicycle industry lobby groups. 

    Bicycling education, the hallmark of the League and its most important contribution in the last 40 years, is not even mentioned in the article, which is appropriate, since the League’s Commander-in-Chief, Andy Clarke, recently threw Education under the bus, so to speak.

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=352882854723515&set=oa.10150546905694940&type=1&theater

    Now is the time to withdraw from the League, as it no longer serves the interests of experienced, law-abiding, responsible cyclists.Burchfield et al. letter in January 2012 ITE JournalTo the Editor:In John Forester’s letter to the editor critiquing “Physically S…See MoreBy: Bob Shanteau

  • Thomas Bowden

    I had no idea they were all in the same building already!

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Senate Finalizing Transpo Bill — It’s Up to Boxer to Preserve Bike/Ped Funding

|
According to Congressional insiders, members of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works are meeting today and tomorrow to hash out the details of their proposal for a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill. Hanging in the balance of these negotiations may be the federal government’s only programs dedicated to funding infrastructure for biking and walking. […]

Federal Bike-Ped Funding Sets New High, With Much More Room to Grow

|
Graph: FHWA [PDF] Federal funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects reached a new high last year, according to a report released yesterday by the Federal Highway Administration. In terms of dollars, federal investment in walking and biking more than doubled compared to the previous high, set in 2007, thanks largely to an infusion of $400 […]

Funds for Walking and Biking Under Attack in Congress This Week

|
Funds for walking and biking infrastructure account for a tiny portion of federal transportation spending. Safer streets don’t cost much, though, so for the cities and towns that count on these programs, a few dollars from the feds can be a huge help. Despite the relatively small sums at play, walking and biking programs are a constant […]