Get to Know the “All Powerful” Bike Lobby

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Last week Dorothy Rabinowitz singled out the bike lobby for pushing through New York City’s bike share. But just how powerful are they?

The bike world had a good laugh last week when The Wall Street Journal took aim at New York City’s bike share program with two zany, bike-hating oratories by its Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Dorothy Rabinowitz. For those who don’t want to watch the two five-minute videos, Rabinowitz basically says that tyrannical mayor Michael Bloomberg and his leftist thugs have ruined the city’s best neighborhoods by forcing the bicycle share program down citizens’ throats.

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Rabinowitz assertion that the blue bikes represent a step toward an Orwellian dystopia spurred a flurry of blogosphere mockery and was the focus of this parody by the Daily Show with John Stewart. But perhaps her strangest argument is that the bike share was pushed through by the nefarious “all knowing bike lobby.”

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“You could get many community leaders all of whom are terrorized by this thing that really exists — the bike lobby,” Rabinowitz said. “Have you seen anyone running for office who dares to say a word about the cyclists?”

Rabinowitz’ reference to the all-powerful bike lobby raised a series of questions. What is the bike lobby? How is it funded? What influence does it actually have?

Unsurprisingly, the bike lobby is puny compared to more mainstream special interest groups. According to The Washington Post, the National Rifle Association’s 2010 budget was $220 million, compared to the roughly $7 million annual budget for Bikes Belong, the industry-funded and largest lobbying group. Of the 2,000 or so lobbyists in Washington focusing on transportation issues, between four and 10 lobbyists work on bicycle issues. The bike lobbyists I spoke to were actually overjoyed with Rabinowitz assertion that they could actually influence lawmakers to that degree.

They also expressed an affinity for the fake Twitter handle @bikelobby, which sprung up shortly after Rabinowitz’ video.

There are many regional and municipal bicycle advocacy groups across the country, and a handful of national players that advocate for bicycle rights, such as the League of American Bicyclists, the International Mountain Bike Association, Rails to Trails, the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

Below I’ve profiled two of the major players below to give you a sense of how these groups operate.

Bikes Belong Foundation

How it works: The largest organization in the bike lobby is actually split into three subgroups: the trade association, the citizen’s campaign and a political action committee. The group funds bicycle and pedestrian projects across the country (bike lanes, bike parks), raises awareness about pedestrian and bicycle rights and meets with lawmakers to discuss the benefits of the projects.

The Bikes Belong trade association is funded by approximately 5,000 retailers and 400 suppliers, and its board of directors includes CEOs from major bike companies, such as Trek, Shimano and Specialized. The citizen’s campaign is funded by public donations. The PAC contributes around $60,000 each year to congressional campaigns.

“The contributions get us on their radar screen and sometimes it leads to a face to face meeting,” said Tim Blumenthal, president of Bikes Belong. “We pick a small number of elected officials and we get to make our case.”

How big is it: Bikes Belong has a total annual budget of around $7 million, with $4 million coming directly from the bicycle industry. The group has a staff of 42 employees. It’s mailing list reaches 725,000 people.

How much influence does it have? That’s open for debate. Regionally, Bikes Belong has funded hundreds of bike lanes, bike parks, safe zones and other pieces of bike infrastructure. In Washington D.C., Blumenthal said Bikes Belong has the ear of one third of Congress’ 535 members. Its closest allies are Oregon Democrats Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri and incumbent transportation secretary Ray LeHood.

Bragging Rights: The group helped fund Seattle’s I-5 Colonnade urban mountain bike park. Currently it is spearheading the “Green Lane” project, where it will help fund bike lanes in Austin, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Memphis and Washington D.C. But Blumenthal said the group’s biggest triumph is that, since 1999 — the year of Bikes Belong’s founding — federal spending on bikes and pedestrians has increased from $200 million to $1 billion.

“Bike advocacy used to be long on passion, short on self-discipline and sophistication,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve helped change that.”

Transportation Alternatives

How it works: New York City’s largest cycling advocacy group devotes most of its energy to outreach and communication. It sends armies of volunteer street teams into communities within the five boroughs to hand out flyers and speak to people one-on-one about the benefits of bicycle transportation and safety. It also staffs bike valet at concerts and sporting events, and distributes its messaging there as well.

The group also researches various policies and programs that are friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, and presents these to lower-level community leaders and elected officials.

“Connecting policy with neighborhood groups is the secret sauce,” said Paul White, the group’s executive director. “We’re at our best when we’re simply amplifying the public demand that is already there.”

White and other executives then meet in Albany with officials to discuss the programs one-on-one.

How big is it? Transportation Alternatives has an annual budget of around $3.5 million, all coming from donations and annual dues. The group has 28 full-time staff and approximately 30 part-timers and 1500 volunteers. Just over 100,000 New Yorkers subscribe to its mailing list.

How much influence does it have? The group definitely has the ear of Bloomberg’s Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has become the face of New York City’s surge in bicycle infrastructure. White and Sadik-Khan shared the 2011 Rockefeller Award for their work surrounding bicycle infrastructure. The group is now spearheading bike lanes along Queens Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, which are notoriously dangerous throughways.

Bragging Rights: Three years before the city’s bike share program became a reality, Transportation Alternatives contacted students at Harvard Business School Club to explore alternative financing models for a bike share program. The group proposed a corporate sponsorship model, which Citibank eventually adopted to pay for the program.

“We have a seat at the table. We’re a legitimate force now,” White said. “It’s not just a fringe movement anymore.”

Rabinowitz: Dorothy Rabinowitz argues the bicycle special-interest groups have more power than you think.

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  • Roman says:

    90% of things she said are demonstrably false & the rest are gross supposition.

  • Todd Shaner says:

    All the major cities in California have supported biking as an alternative means of transportation for over 25 years. I’ll grant you NYC is more congested than most of California’s urban areas, but that’s all the more reason for supporting alternative transportation. Biking reduces congestion, air pollution, and parking problems, while increasing personal health, fitness and mental clarity. Perhaps Dorothy Rabinowitz should try biking in NYC before dismissing its benefits. How can you be an authority on something you’ve never experienced firsthand!

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