BikeTexas Begins

Charlie posing on his bike in front of the Texas capitol during his years at BikeTexas

Charlie posing on his bike in front of the Texas capitol during his years at BikeTexas

How hard could it be to paint a few bike lanes?

Charlie at 19 in New York at the Democratic Convention in an image by the Associated Press.

Charlie at 19 in New York at the Democratic Convention in an image by the Associated Press.

That's what I asked myself in the summer of 1990, on a sweaty hot afternoon in South Austin. It seemed like a simple enough thing to do, at a time when the rest of my life was feeling very complicated, and depressing. I was at my wits end. Ten years earlier the world had seemed my oyster. At 19 I'd been the youngest staff member of the Re-elect Carter/Mondale Texas campaign. A photo of me on at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City wearing an anti-Reagan t-shirt had even gone viral in the Associated Press. At 23 I'd been one of the youngest people ever elected to the Texas House of Representatives, followed by the infamy of being the first person on Karl Rove’s target list to be remove from office. He succeeded. But I bounced back with a terrific job with Governor Mark White.

Less fun were the years I tried my hand at being a professional lobbyist. While I'm a charming guy when I make the effort, and certainly have the gift of gab, I found the work soul sucking. Next was a stint as a fundraiser for the Texas Nature Conservancy but while I have great admiration for the organization, and all they do, its corporate structure wasn't right for my more entrepreneurial spirit. So here I was 30, out of work, and my 28 year old brother Mike had just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. To top it off I was newly divorced. Not too far in the future I'd be diagnosed with ADHD and bouts of seasonal depression. But that day I'd reached out to my friend Bill Bunch for some counseling, support and guidance and he was ready to give it.

We'd met for coffee at a now long gone coffee shop next to a trailer park, under the pecan trees on Barton Springs Road at the bottom of Kinney Drive. This coffee shop tolerated lingering and solving the world’s problems as long as you tipped decently. Both of us lived in the neighborhood and used these types of meetings with friends and colleagues to get caught up and pitch ideas. I have always loved pondering big ideas and Bill was my kindred spirit in this. We’d met a couple of years before while I was at the Texas Nature Conservancy and he was practicing environmental law, suing polluters and developers so as to protect Barton Springs and several geological wonders in the Texas Hill Country outside Austin. We shared views of the way the world should be but Bill was usually about two steps ahead of me on strategy. At this meeting he told me about his plans to create a sustainable advocacy group protecting water quality in and around Austin. It became the “Save our Springs Alliance or SOS” and is still running strong today.

Bill also had a suggestion for me that turned into a 25-year career. The state highway department (now the Texas Department of Transportation or TDOT) was up for sunset review, and suggested I ought to use this opportunity to do something for bicycling because  Bill knew I loved to ride my bike. The sunset review is an excellent management tool to keep public agencies up to date and relevant. Every 10 years in Texas whole state agencies are analyzed and reconstituted to keep them fresh. Bill knew this process would be an opportune time to inject the voice of Texas bicyclists into the political process and improve conditions for bicycling across the state.

My analysis went something like this: This is the nexus of bicycling and Texas politics. This is my turf; I had experience in both areas. Sweet! I had ridden bikes in adventures around the world. In my late teens riding across Europe, behind the iron curtain, and assorted Far East destinations gave me some confidence as a bicyclist stakeholder. In Europe I'd never felt like a second class citizen while riding a bike, and it was a heady feeling. I had learned the art of Texas politics as a Political Science major at the University of Texas in Austin. Then I spent my twenties as young member of the Texas House of Representatives, then a staffer in the Governor Mark White's office, then as a lobbyist. My strategy would be to simply go find the state organization that represented bicyclists and offer them my services as a lobbyist to put some points on the statewide, public policy scoreboard for bicyclists.

Heck, I thought, how hard could it be to paint a few bike lanes?

Turns out that painting bike lanes is really hard if nobody cares and nobody knows how to do it. And it turns out that in the summer of 1990 in sweaty Texas, bicyclists were not organized beyond the Austin Bicycle Association ACA, and similar groups of mostly male sport riders around the state. Most of them were known as MAMILs, middle-aged men in Lycra. Their voices and those of the bike industry were not heard or represented in the corridors of the capitol or in command office suites of state agencies.

My political science degree along with experience as a campaign operative, political candidate, officeholder and lobbyist equipped me with skills necessary to convert issues and aspirations into organized action. It was time to go into action.

I did my homework on who my possible early allies might be. I sat down with June Seachrist, an Austin Cycling Association member, and Rick Waring (Waring would later become the City of Austin’s first bike/ped coordinator) to figure out what needed to be done about creating a coalition of bicyclists in Texas. June led the effort to arrange our first $400 contribution from the ACA. We used the money for expenses to reach the rest of Texas with our view of obstacles and opportunities for bicyclists. We mailed notices to key bike clubs around the state and I called around talking to club presidents about bike issues. In September and October 1990 I drove to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio to meet the cycling community members and share with them what we were hearing in other parts of the state. Bike shop owners, club members and independent cyclists gathered for the first time in anyone’s memory to discuss their future.

We discovered that there were bike bans in the works in North Texas and that if not addressed quickly, could spread like cancer to the rest of rural Texas. We learned the Texas Farm Bureau had a political agenda item that wanted to ban all bicyclists from farm roads without shoulders, which was virtually every rural road in Texas. We found hostility from local electeds and city traffic engineers about people riding bikes using streets in cities and towns because they felt we impeded traffic. And we heard from cyclists around the state about a lack of respect as a fellow citizen and person riding a bike.

“The only time I feel like a second class citizen is when I am riding my bike,” was a sentiment I heard across the state from young and middle aged men who were use to being respected where ever they went.

These results were shocking and catalyzing. After the tour we sent a mailing out to our list of about 200 people who volunteered to work on organizing. We asked for anyone interested in serving on a weekend long organizing committee of 20 people to become a candidate for that group. Forty people expressed an interest so we had an election by mail and twenty people where elected to meet in San Antonio in December 1990. The Texas Bicycle Coalition was born. It’s now known as Bike Texas.

As I wrote in the first Texas Bicycle Coalition newsletter, "... this small group recognized the necessity of a political organization...  The organization would address the interests of cyclists not only during the upcoming legislative session, but would be an ongoing advocate for increased bicycling safety and education in Texas."

In one weekend in San Antonio this remarkable group of cyclists from across the state came together to name the organization that would become their statewide voice, determined the legal structure, established a dues structure (and immediately collected $1,500 in dues from those present), wrote by-laws and determined the next six months of activity for this fledgling advocacy group. And we still had time for some meals and a group bonding bike ride.

Fourteen people constituted the first Texas Bicycle Coalition Board. Its original roster included inaugural chairperson Ann Baird of Houston, Dorothy Abbott of Plano, Geoff Adams of Arlington, Joanna Bassett of Houston, Rob Crawford of McKinney, David Danford of San Antonio, Rhonda Hoyt of Richardson, Vicki LaRue of Sugarland, Lee Mixon of Houston, Charles Poteet of Dallas, John Schofield of Tyler, Paul Stephenson of DeSoto, Ed Swan of Fort Worth and me representing Austin. I was proud of the fact that through our outreach we engaged more women to be on the board than were currently represented in road cycling. I knew women were the indicator species. If we could start making inroads where women felt safe riding we’d move beyond the fast and brave road cycling crowd into growing the casual bicyclist who likes to ride for errands and fun.    

We were a scrappy bunch. Everybody took on some significant project and produced results. Dot Abbott cranked out multi-paged newsletters that shared our plans with the rest of the state’s cycling community. Ann Baird stirred things up in Houston, Charles Poteet recruited new talent in Dallas. Ed Swan delivered bike dealers and competitive cyclists in Ft. Worth. Lawyer John Schofield worked on legal issues. Steel magnolia Vicki LaRue brought first-rate fundraising talent to the table. I worked the corridors of the state capitol finding law maker supporters for our proposed legislation.

A decade later writer David Landmann interviewed me for an article about the formation of TBC. Here is how he and I summed up this organization’s first year of life:

That first TBC board led the organization through a legislative session that saw the defeat of anti-bike bills and the creation of a bicycle coordinator position in the then State Department of Highways and Public Transportation (now TxDOT). “All of our constituencies - the cyclists, the shops and the clubs - focused on accomplishment and not on process," Gandy said.  "That's one of the reasons for our success."

Early promotional image of Bike Texas.

Early promotional image of Bike Texas.

The end of that legislative session found TBC a little bit older, a little bit wiser and a lot larger.  Its membership had grown to about 800.

"We had proven that cyclists weren't just roadkill in Texas," Gandy said."And, we had hired our first executive director. Me."

I held that position until Glenn Gabois took over in 1994. Bike Texas was one of the very first state wide coalitions that was being politically proactive on behalf of bicycling. By 1994 there were more states in the game and I decided I wanted to get into the national conversation.

At Bike Texas Gayle Cummins followed Gabois as Executive Director, then Robin Stallings followed her and continues to lead the organization today. 2016 will be the 25 Anniversary of BikeTexas. I am proud to report that during this time it has been the catalytic force behinds lots of miles of bike lanes and many other benefits for bicyclists. I have always stayed in touch with the organization and I have served on their board many times, including the past three years.

I Said Good Bye to Old Red One Year Ago

Russ Roca of the Path Less Pedaled (while he lived in Long Beach) stands in front of Old Red.

Russ Roca of the Path Less Pedaled (while he lived in Long Beach) stands in front of Old Red.

I said goodbye to my Old Red one year ago. Boy did we have good times. Bought when living in the Colorado mountains in 2006, we went everywhere together. All over the state climbing 14er's, dirt trails around my home on Independence Pass, and down to Denver to taste civility. Old Red was a trusty 1993 Jeep Wrangler and was one of the most dependable cars I ever owned. Certainly Red was the most adventurous and rugged. In and out of deep creeks, up and down dangerous mountain passes, Red was sure footed and reliably strong. Red was also a good family car, my then teenage daughter learned to drive Red on mountain dirt roads.

But when  I moved to Long Beach, California in 2009 driving Red was awkward. His well worn rugged body and snagged upholstery were out of place in a town of more refined palettes. While some Angelenos appreciated his macho, trail torn torso, most opined negatively. Red's "fish out of water" demeanor clashed with their shiny BMWs, fuel sipping Priuses, and sporty Fiats. Valet parking attendants drove cars newer than Red. Sometimes they didn't even know how to shift his standard transmission!

I had moved to Long Beach in 2009 to take a position with the City as Mobility Coordinator. My passion and focus has been for creating more livable cities and communities over the past twenty-five years through growing the use of biking, walking and public transit. My job in Long Beach was to represent these alternatives to driving and move Long Beach toward a different future. Bicycling infrastructure would be designed, funded and built. Walking and transit facilities would be improved and promoted. So to "walk the walk" I moved to a home one mile from City Hall and parked Red. With the exception of weekend trips to explore California and the occasional local trip, Red rested in the driveway. My car dependent lifestyle was replaced with slower, cheaper and healthier alternatives. Red and I now had a weekend marriage. He got a little lonely.

Not all was terrible for Red in California, though. We still explored off road desert canyons around Anza-Borrego, climbed up to trailheads in the Sierras, and carved turns on mountain passes as far north as Shasta. But day to day driving around the highways of Los Angeles for appointments outside of Long Beach felt like posing. Looking around at other four wheel drive vehicles with nary a scratch, perfectly shiny with winches never used, made me feel in company with people who were virtual adventurists. These posers driving their virginal vehicles with their unused carriage clearance were just another type of cosmetic fakery SoCal is famous for. I wanted none of that. So when the transmission finally died a year ago I sold Red on craigslist and decided to do something radical. For the first time since I became old enough to drive in 1975 I adopted a car-lite lifestyle. 

Living in Southern California without owning a car? Isn't that like moving to Texas and becoming a vegetarian?

Yes it is, and when you discover that you can live in Texas as a vegetarian lite and occasionally eat bacon or tasty meat substitutes, then living without expensive beef or tortured chickens is not such a bad deal. Related to driving in SoCal, over the past year I learned some things that changed my relationship with cars and driving that have made me healthier, wealthier and wiser.

Driving in Southern California ain't what it use to be. The thrill is gone. Routine traffic jams are world class in Los Angeles. Those with choices avoid them completely because there are few things more soul sucking than the expectation of driving highway speeds but living the reality of inching along a twelve lane highway behind a wall of quasi parked cars driven by equally frustrated commuting fools. 

When I first moved to Long Beach I was invited to a dinner party in Pasadena on a Friday night. Naively I left at 5pm allowing two hours during rush hour to go approximately 25 miles. By 7pm I was still 10 miles away from Pasadena and hardly moving so I jumped off the highway onto local streets to beat the traffic. Using a smart phone map with directions I found myself at the address an hour later. Unfortunately the street address was exactly the same as one in Los Angeles, not Pasadena. I was still 5 miles from my destination. By 9pm I arrived to the party to enjoy leftovers and condolences from new friends with similar experiences. Never again would I attempt such a foolish endeavor.

Let's consider what happened in most of America in the last 40 years. Driving cars became the dominate way of moving around because our communities were designed to accommodate motorists conveniently. The alternative travel modes of biking, walking and public transit were sidelined, marginalized, stigmatized and defunded. In the late 70's bicycling became sport and recreation, never considered for transportation unless you couldn't afford a car, and who couldn't afford a car? Walking and transit wasn't taken seriously by community leaders because of the distances involved and time taken to get there. And of course there was the low social status of those who chose these options.

Our love affair with cars was enabled by traffic engineers trained to make traffic flow like water through pipes without concern for its impact on adjacent neighborhoods or business districts. Our car infrastructure was subsidized beyond what drivers were paying in gas taxes with general revenue hidden in local, state and federal transportation budgets. And all of this was supported by cheerleaders in the car selling business and motorist lobbying organizations. Not unlike a drug junkie, our love affair with cars has become an expensive dependency.

Eccentricity isn't easy. Riding a bike to work at city hall, walking everywhere and using buses and trains to go places beyond a few miles in SoCal marks one as different. Maybe crazy, or certainly a little off. My colleagues were suspicious and asked questions. Why would a middle aged, middle class, perfectly healthy man ride a bike to work every day when it would be so much easier to drive? It didn't compute for them. Some were suspicious and even threatened. By rejecting driving around town I was rejecting them. Could it be that their very identity was linked to their car dependent lifestyle?

But again I've been at this for twenty-five years. I've got thick skin and I knew I was on the leading edge of where we need to go with mobility in cities if we want healthier, more vibrant lives. And financially I was way ahead. AAA of SoCal calculates a typical driver making payments on a newer small car plus insurance, fuel and maintenance pays $600/month for the privilege, and $1,000/month for an SUV or luxury car. Since Red was paid off, and I was avoiding commuting and routine errand expenses, I was saving roughly $200/month in fuel alone. During the last year of being car free, I have been emancipated from insurance, registration, fuel, maintenance and parking expenses.

Five significant improvements have emerged in SoCal that make living car free or car-lite attractive for me. First is that transit facilities have expanded and are reliable, reaching almost all parts of Los Angeles County. The Blue line train takes me to downtown Los Angeles in about 50 minutes which is comparable to rush hour driving. And it costs $1.75 each way. Buses reach almost every neighborhood and city within the county and combined with walking or biking gets me everywhere I need and want to go. Sometimes it is not as fast as driving, but then I can't read a book while driving. 

The Los Angeles area generally has walking facilities, sidewalks and crosswalks, that accommodate this healthy middle aged man comfortably. Compared to many sunbelt cities that haven't bothered with pedestrian access, contrary to their reputations most California cities do. 

Third, bicycling in Long Beach is easy and convenient. This city is flatter than Amsterdam and the climate is year round room temperature. Santa Monica and Pasadena are included as bike progressive cities in Los Angeles County and the city of LA is catching up fast. Protected bike lanes, bike boulevards, trails and other facilities have become de rigueur. Transit agencies are embracing biking to support their first mile/last mile strategies. Virtually all trains and buses accommodate bikes and bike share systems are on the horizon in several cities. Bike friendly has become an economic development differentiator for progressive SoCal cities.

Fourth, auto ownership is unnecessary in the world of Enterprise Rent a Car, Uber, and friends with cars. I use rental cars when going out of town for a day or more, usually spending about $35/day for the car with full insurance. While I have never used Uber or other car ride services, I know they are available and relatively cheap. I do occasionally borrow a friend's car and she is happy to see more gas in the tank each time I return it.

Fifth, the stigma of not owning a car is dying. Status of car ownership isn't what it use to be and young people are leading the way. Recent reports indicate 25% of California Millennials are not bothering to get driver's licenses. They would rather spend more money living in more urban, vibrant places than buying cars and living car dependent suburban lifestyles. Their status is defined by where they live and who they live with, not by what they drive. This is why Ford Motor Company and others are rethinking their futures as mobility companies instead of car companies. Car share systems and autonomous vehicles are emerging in their projections.

Since Red died and went away a year ago I became an eccentric, middle aged, misunderstood, car-lite guy. And based on my learning I will continue to use cars when it is the right choice. But I doubt that I will ever own a car again.

About Charlie Gandy

Charlie is a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, Charlie is a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, created the Thunderhead Alliance retreat for biking and walking advocates and originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program in collaboration with Bike Long Beach.

As a program facilitator he has organized trainings in all fifty states and played a role in launching more than 30 biking and walking advocacy organizations around the U.S. including the California Bicycle Coalition, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Recently he's been on KPCC’s Bike Curious and Air Talk shows and featured in the Los Angeles Times for his leadership in bike advocacy. He is the Vice President of the California Bicycle Coalition's board and regularly takes professional organizations, civic leaders, media and others passionate about creating great cities on tours of Long Beach both by biking and walking. Image by Allan Crawford. Contact him here for a media interview or set up a biking or walking tour of Long Beach.