Bike Texas

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.

How the Bike Became My Politics

Charlie at the 2012 Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference in Long Beach. Image by Allan Crawford.

Charlie at the 2012 Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference in Long Beach. Image by Allan Crawford.

By age 55, if you've learned to ride a bike and have lived adventurously, you have stories to tell.

My bike story is a constant thread in my life and continues to this day. It's filled with tales of youthful insights, near misses, love, courage, cowardice, and crashes.

Along the way I learned how I could influence events of the day using personal, positional and political power.  (And I learned how quickly alliteration irritates.)

My bike adventures took me from suburban neighborhood exploration as a child to riding across Europe and other parts of the planet as an adult. These adventures strengthened my spine emotionally enough to hazard into Texas politics as a college student resulting in running and winning a place in the Texas House of Representatives at 23. I discovered that politics was just like riding a bike into an unknown place. Exotic and exciting. In that world I would be an elected official, a staff member for the governor, a lobbyist, a fundraiser for environmental causes, and finally a biking and walking advocate.

When I took up the idea of championing bike advocacy initially I thought it would be a relatively easy campaign for Texas. How long could it take to put down paint for bike lanes? Ah youthful optimism and ignorance!

Instead bike advocacy became my career,  taking me from the founding of the Texas Bicycle Coalition (now Bike Texas) run now by my dear friend Robin Stallings, to the national level developing and teaching biking and walking advocacy training programs for National Association for Biking & Walking across the U.S., working closely with my friend Andy Clarke now the President of the League of American Bicyclists (who was kind enough to allow me the Western half of the U.S. while he focused on the East. I still feel a little guilty my halfincluded Hawaii), and finally becoming an independent consultant with my own company Livable Communities Inc.

For the past five years I've had the pleasure of living in my dream state of California. Here I've been able to work closely from both the city level (as I've done with the City of Long Beach and others), and the state level (as I've done as a board member of the California Bicycle Coalition.) From both the micro and macro level I've focused on the strategy, tools, tactics and team building needed to help create a great active living state - something that is possible for each and every state in this great country.

My bike adventures have taught me to face life as it unfolds. That the best plan is robust preparation for what is known and zen like flexibility for what is unknown. Here are the experiences that shaped that opinion.

Chapter One: Earnest Adventurer

I committed my first felony at age five in Euless, Texas in 1963. I was part of a lawless gang of three "community organizers" who thought it would be a good idea to collect our neighbors' mail and newspapers each afternoon on our street. Why? I'm not sure. Granted I was the oldest and therefore it must of been my idea. After all my brother Mike was four and my sister Cindy was two. As accomplices they followed my lead and helped to pull the wagon and do our rounds for about a week.

On Saturday my father opened his garage sanctuary and discovered a large box filled with newspapers and his neighbor's mail. After mom helped us with the sorting job we re-stacked the wagon and did our rounds returning the "miss-sorted and unopened" mail to our neighbors personally with mom and dad on the curb listening to their children's first mea culpas.

Lesson learned: Run your best ideas passed management first before execution. They may see some good reasons for doing something else.

Thankfully the statute of limitations passed without incident and we put all that behind us. Lawless gangs and community organizing, however, was another matter.

By age eight our family had moved to a new neighborhood, with new houses on the edge of suburban sprawl. With our father as teacher, my brother and I learned to ride on two big, heavy, old steel bikes with coaster brakes. This new found mobile capability enlarged our curiosity of the world beyond our established one block range limitations. Negotiations with our parents broadened the limitations to about a four block range of quiet residential streets. Free Range = Freedom! Autonomy Rules! We had access to friend's houses, creeks with fish, snakes and crawdads, scrub forests and prairie lands. Those old bikes with balloon tires worked fine both on and off road but were very susceptible to 3 inch mesquite thorns.

The hill between our neighbor Adam's house and ours provided and early lesson in facing a physical challenge and not giving up. Climbing it meant getting up off the seat and pulling so hard your legs hurt and your lungs pumped vigorously.  As a reward for all this effort this hill offered the excitement of downhill speed. We approached it cautiously at first and before long our prowess was proven by racing down it without hands.

Which brings up bike crashes.

In 1968, when I was ten years old, we moved to Englewood, a suburb of Denver, Colorado. There on Tanforan Drive my siblings, new neighborhood friends and I perfected our skills on the trendiest bike of the time, Schwinn Stingrays. The Corvettes of bikes. Cool. We didn't go very far but we went in style. We could pull and ride wheelies, jump curbs, jump ramps and do fishtail skids. Some of us could hold the handlebars and stand on the seat while dazzling our girl friends. All of us have scars as souvenirs of our learning experiences.

Fifth and sixth grades at College View Elementary in Denver were highlighted by two significant events. this time my organization effort bring positive results. One was a canned food drive our school held for "needy people" in our part of town. My idea was to use our beloved wagon and go door-to-door in our neighborhood asking for contributions of food for our drive. With siblings along again for this project we collected some 150 cans the first year and 300 the next. Our efforts doubled the schools overall drive numbers each year.

Enjoying my new found celebrity in school, I ran for class president. "Gandy, Gandy, he's our man, if he can't do it, nobody can!" My on and off girlfriend Christie also ran.  She had a really nice poster with lots of glitter around a smiling picture of herself. She was beautiful and she won. We remained friends until seventh grade when she dropped me. But I'm ok now and I've learned the power of an expert headshot and good graphics.

By 1970, our family had made Colorado home.  My father had learned that the state was still giving away land high up in the mountains to homesteaders, so we started a family part-time homesteading project. Our property was located about 6 hours west of Denver in Chaffee County on Independence Pass which is still one of the wildest, scariest mountain passes in America. Five miles off the road on a seriously rough jeep trail, our property started at the bottom of the valley at 11,500 ft. elevation and climbed up to the top of an unnamed mountain at 13,000 ft. Approximately 120 acres of creeks, springs, woodlands, abandoned mines, treeline and alpine meadows supported elk, deer, beavers, brown bear, mountain goats and porcupines.

Summer-times we camped, hiked, fished and explored.  Homesteading meant improving the value of the property on a yearly basis so that the property taxes would go up. After ten years of improvements the property was owned by the homesteader. So we cleared timber, cut trails, built wooden bridges across the creek, and surveyed the land. Well, my father did most of this while keeping us kids from drowning in the creek and other calamities.

Also in 1970, at twelve years old, I was ready for bike adventures beyond Stingrays.  Having saved money from various enterprises such as mowing yards, babysitting neighborhood kids, shoveling snow, and washing windows at the grocery store, I was ready to make my first big investment in transportation. My aspiration was for the King of Rides, the Schwinn Continental. Long wheelbase, sleek design, ten gears to climb the uphill steeps and face the fear of speed on the downhills. The ultimate freedom machine.

Alas the $130 Continental was beyond my budget so a sporty Azuki import was my choice. A shorter wheelbase and less quality components, but a sure enough ride for Denver's suburbs and the Rocky Mountain foothills. Now my ability to range freely expanded beyond my parents comfort zone.  They may not have been aware of some of those rides up to Red Rocks or that amazing run up to Evergreen and back down.

Lesson Learned: At age 13, while flying down from Evergreen at 40 miles per hour on my Azuki I learned the value of focus.

It was an early fall morning in 1971 that my life changed in a profound way.  I stepped out of bed and fell to the floor. Every joint in my body hurt and I couldn't walk.  I crawled into the kitchen where my mother was fixing breakfast and she responded with shock at my appearance. Serious fever from a kidney infection had inflamed my entire body, reported our doctor later that morning in the hospital.  And after days of tests he declared that somehow this infection had stimulated Rheumatic Fever and created a heart murmur. Lots of penicillin, two weeks in the hospital followed by being at home and in bed full time for the next six months was the healing remedy.

The doctor also told my parents that while my heart was mostly healthy, it was damaged and weakened. It shouldn't be stressed and that I would be susceptible to future problems. In my head, that made me a sickly kid who wouldn't live long anyway so why not set a stretch goal to live to at least thirty? And why postpone adventure?

The next chapter brings adventures in snow skiing, roller skating, work in high school, ROTC, and how a trip solo rambling around the world at 18 opened my eyes to what bikes as serious transportation. Stay tuned!

About Charlie Gandy

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 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. Charlie has recently been featured on the cover of the OC Weekly, on KPCC’s Air Talk and in the Los Angeles Times  for his leadership in bike advocacy.