The Birth of the Modern Bike Movement

Who would believe there are bike lanes between the White House and the Capitol? And if you’d told me that New York City, once one of the worst places to bike in the world, would have all these bicycles on its streets, I would have said you were crazy.
— John Burke, President, Trek Bicycles
Screen Capture Davis 1966 Fiat Lux Collection.PNG

In July of 1967, the very first official bike lane in the U.S. was created on 8th Street between A Street and Sycamore in Davis CA. It was the first time that a lane for the preferential use of bicyclists had been designated as part of an existing roadway meant for cars. Davis has over 100 miles of designated bike lanes and paths within its eleven square miles and has more bike commuting residents per capita than any other city in the U.S.

Actually, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the modern age of bicycling in the US. In July 1967, the first official on-street bicycle lane—inspired by widespread Dutch infrastructure—was constructed on 8th Street in Davis, California, followed shortly by others on Sycamore Lane, J Street and 3rd Street.  Davis can still lay claim as America’s biking capital, with one out of five commuters around town traveling by bike—the highest rate in the country.   

But it took another three decades before bicycling began to make inroads into a large number of towns and cities. 1997 was the year local bike advocates across the land joined forces with the bike industry to expand federal funding for bike infrastructure, which sparked tens of thousands of miles of bike-walk trails, on-street bike lane and other improvements to make riding a bike more safe, convenient and fun.

“If you look at the bike infrastructure we had 20 years ago and what we have today, it’s mind-boggling,” says John Burke, president of Trek Bicycles.  “Who would believe there are bike lanes between the White House and the Capitol? And if you’d told me that New York City, once one of the worst places to bike in the world, would have all these bicycles on its streets, I would have said you were crazy.”

Biking enjoyed a steady uptick in ridership throughout the ’70s and ’80s thanks to baby boomers becoming the first generation in 60 years not to ditch their bikes at age 16.  The Department of Interior considered plans to create to create 100,000 miles of bikeways as early as 1970, but nothing much happened until 1991 when Senator Pat Moynihan of New York and Representative Jim Oberstar of Minnesota (inspired by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy co-founder David Burwell) delivered the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) to President George H.W. Bush, who signed it in December of that year.

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In 1996 in his role as Director of Advocacy for the Bicycle Federation of America Charlie Gandy hosted the first "Thunderhead Retreat" at the Thunderhead Ranch in Dubois WY. Originally called "Charlie's Fly-fishing, Hitchhiking & Bike Advocacy Summer Camp" it would be a key "peer to peer" training ground for many of bike advocacy's thought leaders. Above a snap from year two at the camp.

The Thunderhead Retreat gathered together some of the people who would be key to growing bike advocacy on the regional, state and national levels including Deb Hubsmith, Randy Neufeld, Martha Roskowski, and Dave Snyder.

Andy Clarke, then of Rails-to-Trails, first spotted the threat and reached out to Gandy, a former Texas legislator who knew something about political haggling. Joining with other biking and walking advocates at the 2nd annual Thunderhead Retreat at a ranch outside of Dubois Wyoming, they launched a political campaign to save the funding called Bikes Belong. Linda DuPriest, then of Specialized Bicycles, enlisted her boss Mike Sinyard to help. An early breakfast meeting was arranged at the national Interbike trade show in Anaheim a couple months later with bike industry leaders.

Clarke, Cosi Simon (then head of the League of American Bicyclists) and Gandy representing the National Bicycling Federation of America made the pitch.

“It was a typical drab room at a convention center,” Gandy recalls. “But there was a full-on breakfast. That probably made all the difference.”

At first, deafening silence met the advocates’ pitch for $300,000 for the campaign to preserve federal bike and pedestrian funding. Then John Burke of Trek stood up, pledging $100,000 with one condition—other bike businesses match it two-to-one before the end of the conference.

“We spent the next couple days feverishly working the conference to get matching donations,” remembers Andy Clarke, now with Toole Design Group. “And we made it!”

The Bikes Belong campaign was born, and the team rallied with other bike advocates for a David vs. Goliath showdown. Their only weapon was that ISTEA enjoyed substantial public support. Crucial to the campaign's success was a media outreach campaign that resulted in positive support from about twenty papers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Austin American Statesmen, and the Los Angeles Times.

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As the Field Director for the Bikes Belong campaign Charlie Gandy travelled the country meeting with members of the bike industry, bike shops, local grassroots advocates, politicians, and the media to garner support for the campaign. Key early support and strategy for the campaign came from Leslie Bohm the Founder of Catalyst Communications of Boulder CO.

"Our campaign focused on 20-30 key congressional districts. We organized not only the grassroots bike advocates, but bike dealers as well. I can't tell you how many editorial boards we met with, but it resulted in positive
support." notes Gandy.

Industry leaders were now on board pushing for better bike conditions alongside grassroots advocates. Working together they helped promote the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21) which was enacted on June 9, 1998, and expanded rather than slashed, funding for biking and walking projects.

This victory marked the debut of a coordinated movement to make bicycling safe, convenient and comfortable in all corners of the country. The bike industry liked the results of the Bikes Belong campaign so much they used the name for their own new advocacy organization, now called PeopleForBikes.

This blog post is an excerpt from Jay Walljasper's "The Surprising Promise of Bicycling in America" report.

Note: This post is from the upcoming book we're collaborating on with author Jay Walljasper "The Surprising Promise of Bicycling in America." We're crowdsourcing thru Jan 2, 2018 to complete the book and publish it by March 2018. If you believe the story of the work of  the U.S. Bike Movement and the real people heroes making it happen deserves to be told please support our campaign. Perks start at just $3: