What Bicycling & Walking Advocacy Can Continue to Learn from Gandhi - by Charlie Gandy

I think presently the concept of the “All Powerful Bike Lobby” is the best oxymoron since the idea of “Donald Trump’s Humility.” This pointing-to-the-opportunity, yet sadly not-yet-a-reality title was coined in 2013 by Dorothy Rabinowitz. A Wall Street editorial board member, Rabinowitz gave a clever name  what she felt was a conspiracy to vent her driver privileged rage at the audacity of the launch of the New York bikeshare program. Rabinowitz and others were so vocal in their dismay over the new bikeshare program even my hero John Stewart and his Daily Show team had to weigh in.

We've all seen how the national media and other organizations like to create lists of rank for influential interests. Usually they are judged by their money (i.e.Wall Street, Apple, Microsoft) or their membership clout (i.e. NRA, NAACP, AARP). On these lists the "All Powerful Bike Lobby" would rank down around the power of say assorted widows, orphans, veterans and others with relatively weak political voices.

At present in our capitalistic, survival-of-the-fittest world where economic might makes moral right, people who both like and need to ride bikes are more often seen as political road kill than power mongers. Highway contractors, car and truck manufacturers, and the people who love them need not fear the “All Powerful Bike Lobby." Yet. But there are signs that this is changing. Now as in my earliest years in biking and walking advocacy there's fresh energy, passion and voices to move the dial, and the rapid expansion of bikeshare programs across the country is a wonderful game changer we've been looking for.

Not convinced? What if bicyclists are right? What if in spite of our current political weakness, people who both choose and need to ride bikes are actually morally, ecologically and economically right? What if what we’re asking for - to be equal on the road - is starting to make sense and resonate for more Americans, especially young ones? We hit our peak number of hours spent in cars in the U.S. in 2005 and it's been dropping ever since. The combination of high tech allowing for social connectivity and the triple burden of a challenging job market, college loan debit, and rising cost of living, means the millennial generation no longer sees the car as the end all be all of American freedom and independence. Many simply aren't getting driver's licenses.

Recently some very large organizations have announced a change in the language of how they see themselves illustrating at least lip service to a change in their mindset about who they're serving. The California Department of Transportation has adopted the California Bicycle Coalition’s own very specific goal of tripling the number of people bicycling by 2020. And perhaps even more surprising, Ford Motor Company no longer thinks of itself as simply a car company but a personal mobility company. They’ve even branded their very own electric bike.

Illustration by George Starkey was part of the propaganda from the Auto industry to change how Americans thought about our streets.

Illustration by George Starkey was part of the propaganda from the Auto industry to change how Americans thought about our streets.

But to move the dial beyond lip service to true culture shift, to truly become a powerful political force, we need to move beyond the early adopters and advocates if we want America to be safe for those who want and need to ride bikes (and make it safe for those who want and need to walk while we're at it). To this aim need a much larger percentage of our population to wake up to the reality that we weren't born with a God given right to drive cars. This conviction so many Americans feel was a actually a series of savvy marketing campaigns from the auto industry in collaboration with the newly burgeoning job position of city traffic engineers.

A huge shift happened in the 1920's. That's when we were first convinced via a concerted marketing campaign from the auto industry, that streets were no longer the public space they had been for thousands and thousands of years. We were convinced instead the street was the place for the car, and the only truly civilized way to travel. The term "Jay-walker" was coined by cities to shame and put the blame on people crossing streets at the newly deemed improper place so that people driving wouldn't have to be so wary of them.

Image courtesy of the Hemmings Daily blog.

Image courtesy of the Hemmings Daily blog.

Notice if you will that even today car advertisements never show a car doing what it actually so often does - sitting in traffic. No, car companies learned in the 1950's Mad Men ad men era to sell on emotion, to promote cars as an extension of a man. Yes, men very like Don Draper seduced us into believing that the car was the only way to travel if we wanted to hold our head up in society.

We too need to sell on emotion if we want to win what has been dubbed often in the media as cars vs. bikes. It doesn't need to be this way. We can have win win propositions.

In the world of moving from powerless to powerful politically there can be no better example than how Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi led India to a peaceful revolution to kick out their long ruling British overlords. I was introduced to the writings and accomplishments of Gandhi as a political science student at the University of Texas, Austin in 1978. To have one's name mean "great soul" must be a daunting task to live up to, and he did it with aplomb.

Of course my first level of attraction to this historic hero was our similar last names. Gandhi and Gandy were close enough for me to immediately bond with and identify with him. Reading his autobiography and assorted works led me to appreciate his bold courage, creative risk taking, testing of innovative ideas, and his moral conviction. A few years later while serving as a young member in the Texas House of Representatives, a thoughtful friend attached an ironic nickname to me that stuck, Mahatma Gandy. I wore it with relish.

Twenty-five years into my journey as a professional biking and walking advocate I realize it's time to go back to school on Gandhi to reconsider how powerful the application of Gandhi-esque tactics can continue to be for bicycling. Gandhi represents to me charismatically moral leadership at its best. With no conventional power initially beyond his own personality, Gandhi mustered his moral conviction and used it as a well of seemingly endless motivation to act, engage, and empower. Along the way he captured the imagination, hope, hearts and support of his countrymen which led to a victory that astounded the world.

Starting in 1994 I began to travel the country to teach those passionate about growing bicycling and walking in the U.S. in Gandhi style political organizing from my position as the Director of Advocacy for the Bicycle Federation of America. In the process helped launch over thirty biking and walking advocacy organizations across the U.S. including the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and the California Bicycle Coalition.

In 1996 I organized the first leadership retreat hosted by the Bike Federation for these new organizations and held it at the Thunderhead Ranch in Dubois Wyoming. The range was owned by the well-known trial lawyer Jerry Spence. It was Spence, by the way, who convinced me in his book "How to Argue and Win Every Time" that we all decide on important issues with our hearts - and then use our minds and facts to create the argument to support our position. Even men aren't immune to this way of seeing and arguing for our way in the world.

The Thunderhead Retreat was a hit and continues to this day, now moving each summer to a new location and on even year's hosting in the same location as the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference.

By 1997 key leaders from the retreat had decided to organize an organization called Thunderhead Alliance which is now known as the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Since 1997 the bicycle and pedestrian political movement has coalesced into over two hundred professionally managed and sustainable advocacy organizations across the country at every level of government. But we still have more lessons to learn and emphasize from Gandhi.

Students of political organizing will appreciate the parallels between Gandhi’s pioneering tactics and those of active living advocates. From Gandhi, The Traditional Roots of Charisma, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph report on his strategy to create sustainable advocacy organizations:

On his return to India in 1915 he applied the ideas and methods that he had developed in South Africa to the first political organization he joined, the Gujarat Sabha, converting it from an ad hoc society that met annually to pass resolutions into a permanent structure whose executive conducted a year-long program of activities. Gandhi was quite explicit about his intention to make politics more professional and to associate it with permanent specialized structures:

Conferences do not, as a rule, at the end of their deliberations leave behind them an executive body, an even when such a body is appointed, it is, to use the language of the late Mr. Gokhale, composed of men who are amateurs.  What we need are men who would make it their business to give effect to the resolutions of such conferences. If such men came forward in great numbers, then and then only will such conferences be a credit to the country and produce lasting results. At present there is much waste of energy.

– Gandhi speech a Gujarat Political Conference in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, XIV, 49-50.

In the US bike world back in the mid 1990's, along with the handful of fledgling advocacy organizations I mentioned previously, two other key groups existed but were not politically engaged. Bike clubs were established in almost every major city in America. As social groups they organized rides for their members and hosted other social events and activities. Political representation was not a high priority for most of them. “I just want to ride my bike,” was, and continues to be, a popular response. So while they supported better conditions for riding bikes, they didn’t/don't yet act on their convictions very much. Organizations like Seattle's Cascade Bicycle Club illustrates beautifully how a club can actually do both.

The other key group was the business of bicycling, those who manufacturer and sell bicycles. With the exception of very limited efforts to stage promotional campaigns encouraging people to ride bikes, the bike industry was apolitical. They were asleep to how street design had changed and was now dominated by cars therefore excluding many potential customers from riding due to safety concerns. They had yet to understand how much the riding environment, both on and off road, affected bike sales. Once they figured out “more trails equals more sales” however, the bike industry began to engage in advocacy. Bike advocates could see the possibility of combining thousands of bike enthusiasts with bike business interests and creating a sustainable advocacy voice with a broad base of support.

I'll share more on how Andy Clarke, Cosy Simon's and I led a group to exponentially change the bike industry's involvement in advocacy in an upcoming post.

Next in this series on Gandhi - why charisma and confidence are key to leading strong political and social justice movements.

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.