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.