Thursday, April 28, 2011

a question of clarity: what is the BTA for, really?

This past week, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance held its annual Alice B. Toeclips Awards Banquet and Auction. Admission was $100 a plate. Needless to say, I wasn't there.

Comments following's coverage of the event range from congratulatory to dubious. As has been the case since the BTA's organizational woes began to snowball a couple of years ago, those who remain dubious are waiting for a clear mission statement from the BTA, and feel that they haven't yet seen one. I must admit that I remain in that camp as well. Rather than offer a reply at Bikeportland, I thought I'd give myself more room and flesh out a larger argument here.

I think the reason that the BTA's Alice B. Toeclips Awards Banquet continues to raise hackles among some bike activists is because of how it relates to the BTA's current lack of clarity about its mission and methodology.

The challenge of remaining committed to the BTA is, as I see it, a matter of how individuals relate to that mission and methodology.

The BTA began as a grass-roots organization in a time when much of bicycle activism was still underground and grass roots, and activities were person-to-person, street-level, and often run on a shoestring budget with lots of sweat funding the work. In the ensuing decades, the entire world has become more professionalized. People running non-profits now have multiple advanced degrees, a corporate business background and very often an upper-middle class salary history that early organizers either didn't have, couldn't have or didn't need at the time. But we have all grown up, and grown older; our needs have evolved. More than a few of us have felt it necessary to earn more money not only as a way of securing a more stable personal future for ourselves, but also as a way of growing our influence in the parts of the world we care most about.

As someone who encountered a glass ceiling early and often in my efforts to join the ranks of the professionalized, I realize that at its heart, the issues swirling around the BTA and that still-dissatisfied portion of its constituency remain, first and foremost, class issues. Class issues are about power and access to that power. Class issues are about keeping people divided into smaller groups, by manipulation, fear and mistrust, in order to prevent bigger groups of people from uniting and organizing around larger issues that threaten the status quo of those with money and power. The professionalization of certain segments of the non-profit workforce at the expense of more grass-roots activism is a symptom of this division; while parts of the process of professionalization feel haphazard and even accidental, the overall effect is no real accident at all.

The BTA, long ago a realm of grass-roots activists who simply wanted to make the roads safer for bicyclists – by reducing automobile use and even eliminating it outright – has become a venue for power-sharing by a professionalized minority. These “Transportation Professionals” understand that the rules of the game have evolved to more greatly favor those with power (i.e., money and political connections) and that only the most pragmatic will ever have a hope of succeeding in this more professionalized (read: white-collar) landscape.

What does this mean for someone like me, whose access to money and therefore power are sharply limited by forces I have little control over? It means that the BTA membership I allowed to lapse two years ago is unlikely to be renewed anytime soon.

What might change my stance?

-- Returning the “Living Lightly” membership fee to something that is acknowledged on paper rather than a thing you have to know about in order to ask for;

--Creating Alice-type events of celebration and honor for bike activists that don't cost an arm and a leg to attend;

--Reaching out to the bike-riding public who aren't part of the “Bicycle Community”, people who ride bikes because they can't afford anything else, and helping them to see the benefits of commuting by bike on a larger scale;

--Issuing a truly honest and clear statement of the BTA's raison d'etre, even if it means that the BTA admits it is little more than a professionalized lobbying organization which exists to make pragmatic deals with state and local lawmakers in order to maintain the delicate – and precarious – balance of power in the world of Transportation Demand Management.

Two words of caution to the BTA leadership: in politics, as in casinos, the house always wins. Also, the most radical members of any activist community are pretty good at smelling bullsh*t. Remember that if you decide to try and be both grass-roots and pragmatic at the same time, you will probably fail; better to pick a constituency and stick to it, even if you lose some people along the way. Clarity should always be the order of the day, especially when we're talking about a non-profit organization with an annual budget exceeding six figures.

Monday, April 25, 2011

the weather can be such a tease

Saturday: high of 70 degrees, sunny; Sweetie and I enjoyed our first outdoor Shabbes Nap of 2011 on the lawn, working on the "base coat" (with sunscreen, of course).
Sunday: high of 50-something, showers.
Today: a total piss-fest of rain, highs in the mid-50's; and just for fun, a high-wind warning in place for much of the day. The radar graphic on my computer screen is filled with a large green blob indicating buckets of rain.
I really want to do some recon out at PIR with Stompy (short-track begins in 8 weeks and my off-road practice time has been limited so far); and friends are racing tonight on the oval there. But if the moto section is going to become a cyclocross-esque bog, there's no point in taking Stompy out with fat dirt tires.
I am SO over the rain. Enough, already!

Friday, April 22, 2011

i've been doing this a long time

at citybikes, circa 1995

(Circa 1995, at Citybikes Workers' Cooperative.)

I found the photo this morning while reorganizing my desk and recycling papers I no longer needed anymore. Was I that skinny once? Yes. We all were in those days. I seem to remember that there was a weight limit on that little portable truing station and none of us came close to approaching it. Sweetie had never seen this photo before -- she gasped and smiled in wonder at how young I looked.

I've been doing this bicycle thing a long time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

some things don't change

This weekend they ran the Little 500 at Indiana University in Bloomington. For the uninitiated, this is the race made famous by the Oscar-winning (and, in my case, life-changing) film Breaking Away.

As in past years, each team is comprised of students at IU, and the race is a relay race with hand-offs; every team must ride the exact same bicycle. In the film, I believe the bikes all came from either Huffy or AMF. This year they were provided by Schwinn, which is now owned by Pacific and is not even remotely like the Schwinn company of old.

A closer look at this photo reveals that the bikes haven't really changed much since the late 1970's. They are still single-speed bikes with rear coaster brakes, and -- gasp! -- cheap, one-piece (aka Ashtabula) cranks.

I love how some things -- even goofy things -- don't change.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

the sound of job security, and so much more

Four. Dollars. Per. Gallon.

Music to my ears, I admit it. When gas hits four bucks a gallon, that's enough to make driving hurt, and that pain is enough to make people consider walking and bicycling to more places. So yeah, I'm not crying over four bucks a gallon.

When gas goes to five bucks a gallon, I may just throw a party. If it stays there, I'll block off our street and hire the March Fourth Marching band to come play.

Seriously, I recognize that high gas prices will cause the price of other things -- like food and clothing -- to go up as well. I know that I will pay more for milk and vegetables at the grocery store because the cost of getting those things onto the shelves will go up with gas prices. I get all that. And while money is definitely tight at Rancho Bikelovejones, as it is in many other places, I am not complaining.

Because the last time gas prices went up this high, people actually paused to consider their transportation choices. And quite a few of them began driving less, and walking or bicycling more. The best part was that I and my co-workers were here to help them figure it out. Back in the summer of 2007, while oil and automotive executives were doing the cockroach on the boardroom floor, it seemed that every third or fourth person coming into the shop was asking about "practical" bikes, bikes that could function as real transportation, because they couldn't afford to drive as much.

And while it's true that the rise in oil prices also drives up the cost of things like rubber (for bike tires and inner tubes) and plastic (for fenders, shifter pods, lights, handlebar grips and so many other things on a bicycle), I am totally okay with that. It is still far cheaper to choose the bike every time, and I get to prove that every damn day when I leave the house and ride my bike somewhere.

Gas hit four bucks a gallon in lots of places around the country this week, and I cannot wait to be of help to the new wave of folks who are ready to consider the bicycle as real transportation. I will welcome them with open arms and a friendly smile, and I will help them to know that driving less and bicycling more is a doable thing, an affordable thing, and a helluva lot of fun.

Dear readers: If you know of someone who is struggling to make this choice, help them. Offer to make them lunch, and take them to the local independent bike shop, and hold their hand while they look at bikes and edge ever closer to choosing the bike as real transportation. When they've gotten their bike, offer to go on rides with them -- for coffee, to the library or movie house, to your house of worship (if applicable). If you ride a bike and your friend sees you enjoying it, chances are s/he'll be more interested in joining you. This is how new transportational bicyclists are born: one at a time, by example.

Four bucks a gallon. If you approach it the right way, it can be music to your ears.
Happy riding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

battle of the brain, revisited

Some days, I roll out of my driveway, make it to the first major intersection along my commute, and stop.
I feel lazy, or underslept.
I don't feel like riding up the long gradual incline of Sabin Hill.
And so I wait for the bus, toss my bike on the front rack, and catch a lift that cuts my commute in half.
I admit that most days it's just laziness, a lack of motivation, that makes me do it.
Some days, I just know that I will have to pull over and huff on my inhaler, and the thought of having to do that more than once on a morning commute can sometimes be enough to make me opt for public transit instead. Because since being diagnosed with asthma last year, it has been a drag trying to ride and breathe at the same time on some days.

But lately, I've been skipping the bus in favor of riding all the way to work and home again.
I'm still lazy, and I still have trouble sleeping fully some nights.
And when I ride up the hill I am still slow.
But since I started working out in December -- weights a couple of days a week and maybe some yoga too -- I've noticed a difference.
I can pedal up the hill without wheezing quite as much.
I don't reach for my inhaler quite as often.
And when I get to work -- even on the coldest, wettest days (of which we've had our fill this winter, thank you), I feel refreshed and glad for the ride.

So this morning, with the sun threatening to peek out from behind a cloud any minute, I swung my leg over The Rivvy (feeling sorta "roadish" today) and headed up the hill. It was still cold outside. When I go to the top, I felt pretty darned good. And sweaty. I took off the top layer and rode the rest of the way in jeans, a wool shirt and sweater-vest. I felt the strength of my legs turning the cranks, saw the daffodils going crazy in every front yard, admired the dogwoods bursting forth, and smiled a little.
By the time I got to work the fog was lifting, the sun was coming out, and I was a little sorry my ride had ended. Because I still felt good, still felt full of breath and energy, and I wasn't ready to stop and go inside.
But tonight I get to ride some more.
And it's still dry and sunny out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

longtail cargo bikes: they rule

In the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly, publisher/editor/main writer Jan Heine undertook a test of the Surly Big Dummy, the longtail cargo bike that has become almost ubiquitous around Portland and other bike-friendly cities.

Jan rode the bike with several loads of cargo, including boxes of mail and on another ride with his children riding on back. In every case he mostly didn't like the ride. It was slow, it didn't carry big loads well, and the frame was too flexible for his liking.

To be fair, Jan is an engineer by training and a lifetime bicycle rider and enthusiast. He has extensive experience as a racer and randonneur, and has tested hundreds of bicycles over the years. What he has to say about bicycle design is often spot-on. But sometimes, Jan's bias towards front-loading bikes -- those sleek, French-designed "Porteur" bikes with the big front racks and fork rake designed to require a front load over the axle just to stabilize the handling -- shows in his opinions. I would say that's the case with his review of the Surly Big Dummy, a rear-loading, longtail cargo bike whose geometry is decidedly not influenced by French constructeurs.

Let's be fair also to the design of the Surly. Lots of BD owners have figured out all sorts of ingenious ways to extend the cargo capacity of the bike, either by the way they load the cargo on or by adding pieces to the framework to accommodate larger or oddly-shaped items. Lots of BD owners haul stuff all over town -- including up and down some significant hills -- with virtually no problem at all. About the only thing objectionable about this bike, in my opinion, is the name "Big Dummy", which I think was a bad idea. But I'm happy with the bike's performance:

out with the old

out with the old

(Both photos taken December 2009)

I think that if you're going to haul big loads by bicycle you simply have to adjust your relationship with "speed" and embrace the fact that the bigger the load, the slower the ride. No problem.

Happy riding, wherever you head this weekend.