BikeTexas Founding Story

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 Gadbois took over in 1994. Bike Texas was one of the very first statewide 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 Gadbois as Executive Director, then Robin Stallings followed her and continues to lead the organization today. 2017 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 four years.