Women & the All Powerful Bike Lobby

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Shown above: Leah Shahum Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition by Lisa Beth Anderson.

"You're kidding me, aren't you?"

That’s the most common response I get when sharing a fascinating and unexpected story of what is happening right now in California politics. This story does seem incredible based on our historic obsession with the automobile, especially here in the Golden State.  Yet just as David outmaneuvered Goliath, the humble bicyclist has emerged as a politically savvy operator in urban California.

And the most exciting part of this story? Women are playing the role of David. Here's her tale and what it foretells for the future of other American cities, I'm not kidding.

San Francisco may be the most culturally international of America's cities. Imported Asian and European influences blend with Yankee nativism creating a genuinely unique place. San Francisco's citizens share this special place with pride and govern it with robust democratic engagement that is also unique, but not unlike other vibrantly healthy American cities.

In 2004, significant power bases in San Francisco politics included neighborhood associations, churches, business groups, municipal labor unions, Democratic party clubs, ethnic groups and gays - not necessarily in that order. That year the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) had an already impressive 4,500 passionate members and marginal but growing political power.

Today SFBC has over 10,000 passionate members and is ranked third behind municipal labor unions and the LGBT community in political clout. Led during this time by visionary Executive Director Leah Shahum, SFBC is a full participant in local and sometimes state election contests. Under her leadership SFBC endorses bike-friendly candidates, hosts candidate fundraising events, conducts voter id. phone banks, polling and social media campaigns, and get out the vote efforts. All of these strategies are honed to early stage perfection and are growing smarter every day.  SFBC endorsed candidates win 80% of their races. Consequently, local and state candidates are paying attention.

Gavin Newsom was San Francisco's Mayor during most of this time. Newsom witnessed the emergence of this influential voter block as it grew in size and sophistication. By 2009, he embraced it and became a champion of SFBC's broader vision of civilized streets and urban active living by bicycling and walking. Newsom led with calling for a bikeshare program and launching a wildly successful Sunday Streets (or Open Streets) program now being replicated throughout the state and nation.

So who are these bicyclists, why do they care so much about their issues and how do candidates capture their trust and therefore their votes?

Before answering those questions let's note that other California cities are experiencing the same evolution of political power as San Francisco. San Diego's cycling community has demonstrated its respect within City Hall. Recent approval of an updated Bike Master Plan mandated two impactful measures: a Bicycle Advisory Committee and an implementation strategy – both firsts for the City. At this writing, their Mayor's race has two bike-friendly finalists, (one Republican, one Democrat), competing head to head for bicyclist’s attention and are proposing aggressive implementation strategies should they be elected.

The same political scenario is unfolding this spring among Long Beach mayoral candidates, all are competing for the ‘urbanerd bike vote”.  In Riverside, bike-friendly Mayor and cyclist Rusty Bailey was recently elected to lead this more conservative inland empire city.  And recently elected Los Angeles Mayor and cyclist Eric Garcetti is already demonstrating leadership on the cyclist agenda and is inspired by New York City's successful efforts to incorporate cycling into their urban streetscape.

Secrets of the "All Powerful Bike Lobby"

Who are they?

These bicyclists aren’t necessarily your father's road bike club nor Lance Armstrong wannabees, although there is certainly some growing crossover. These new voter/bicyclists are younger, hipper and more urban. They begin as young as the 20 something Millennials, but the core are Gen X’ers in their 30's and 40's. They identify as much with their urban lifestyle peers as they do their ethnicity. They’re eclectic in their careers - creatives, professionals, laborers and baristas. They dress for the destination, not in racing lycra. They walk, run, ride bikes, use transit and occasionally drive. They are multiracial and about 40% are women but growing quickly. And lastly, these voter/bicyclists range from the very rich tech millionaire to the very poor and from libertarian to socialist.

Why do they care?

They live in relatively safe urban neighborhoods where their most dangerous activity is sharing streets with cars driven by sometimes distracted, irresponsible drivers.  They identify as both bicyclists and pedestrians, and they see themselves as stakeholders and community stewards who have a voice worth respecting. Their attitude is, "It should not be a death-defying feat to cross the street!" They know design and engineering solutions exists for these dangers, they travel and have been to other cities, states, countries and experienced them. So they join their voice with others and say, "There is a better way."

Then they show up for bike-friendly candidates. SFBC’s Shahum reports that these voter/cyclists are particularly active in campaigns. “Not only do they identify as bicyclists, they identify strongly and they take the time to get involved by showing up at public hearings, calling and writing their representatives, and getting involved in on-the-ground campaigns for change in their communities. For instance, members of the SF Bicycle Coalition contributed 14,000 volunteer hours last week – the equivalent of 7 FTE’.”

How do candidates reach and persuade the voter/bicyclist?

Developing trust, which leads to bicyclists voting for bike friendly candidates, looks a lot like the seduction of other voter groups.  Bike-Friendly Candidates (BFC) listen intently, respond genuinely, focus on common ground, and identify initiatives that could be championed upon electoral success. BFC's distinguish between their strengths compared with their opponent weaknesses, they communicate their passion for the cycling agenda and they walk the talk.

BFC’s host bike tours of their district, they champion quality urban parks and shop local campaigns, they advocate for alternative transportation and mode share measures as hot button issues, and they integrate safe street and complete street policies into an agenda.

VeloVoter Tactic #1

Go for a ride with a group of bicyclists and listen to their concerns. Then host your own ride and invite them to ride with you. Make the ride about observing the city by bike, not about speed or distance. Then invite the whole city or district to ride with you, or at least the registered voters.

VeloVoter Tactic #2

Seek endorsements of Livable Streets Coalitions, bike/walk/transit advocacy groups and do candidate speaking series, interviews and questionnaires to maintain communications and an understanding on issues important to these voters.

In 2013, after a bikeshare program was launched in New York City, a Wall Street Journal columnist coined the term for this secretly powerful voter group, the "All Powerful Bike Lobby". Those of us who have toiled in the bike movement since being in the backwater of media attention find the label both flattering and ridiculous. Compared to the obvious national clout of the auto/highway lobby, bicyclists are still very much Davids. 

But what is true within this power hyperbole is the emergence of significant political clout in urban areas in California and being mirrored across the rest of the U.S. This growing clout is often being led by women who are quite ambitious about seeing more civility blossom such as the previously mentioned Leah Shahum, Corinne Winter the Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Renee Rivera Executive Director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Jen Klausner Executive Director of the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, Sam Ollinger Executive Director of Bike San Diego and my own California Bicycle Coalition Board President Alexis Lantz. 

And their sisters are probably plotting in your town right now. I am not kidding.

About Charlie Gandy

Charlie Gandy consults with cities on active living campaigns and is the Vice President of the Board, California Bicycle Coalition. Write to him at Gandy.Charles@gmail.com.

About Ed Clancy

Ed Clancy, renowned San Diego political strategist, contributed to this article and is a member of the AAPC panel. Write to him at Emaclancy@gmail.com.