The National Bike Summit’s Legislative Record: Progress or Hype?

A view of the US Capitol

A view of the US Capitol

The National Bike Summit, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, is scheduled for next week — March 4-6, 2013 — in Washington DC. As happens every year, the NBS is the “most important one yet!” where attendees voices are needed to maintain the “momentum” of the bike movement. It’s the “advocacy event of the year!

Yes, yes.

The continual breathlessness of the promotion of the event as a critical national advocacy event with past progress to maintain made me wonder: What is the actual legislative record of the Summit, particularly in regards to the annual Congressional “asks” emphasized in the Bike Day on Capitol Hill? So I went back to 2008 (the final year of the Bush Administration, and the final year of the 110th Congress) to look at the annual “asks,” the bills pushed, and the eventual outcome of each bill.

2008 (Bush/110th Congress) Key Asks:

  • Complete Streets Act of 2008 (S. 2686): Referred to Committee. Died.
  • Recognizing the Importance of Bicycling in Transportation and Recreation (H.Con.Res. 305): Passed House, referred to Senate, died in Senate Committee.

2009 (Obama/111th Congress) Key Asks:

  • Complete Streets Act of 2009 (S. 584 and H.R. 1443): Referred to Committee in both houses. Died.
  • CLEAN-TEA, the Clean, Low-Emission, Affordable New Transportation Efficiency Act (S. 575 and H.R. 1329): Referred to Committee in both houses. Died.

2010 (Obama/111th Congress) Key Asks:

  • Safe Routes to School Reauthorization Act (S. 1156): Referred to Committee. Died. Reintroduced on April 12, 2011 as S. 800 (112th Congress). Referred to Committee. Died.
  • Safe Routes to High Schools Act (H.R. 4021): Referred to Committee. Died.

2011 (Obama/112th Congress) Key Asks:

  • General request to support Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and the Recreational Trails Program. General request driven by Tea Party led budget cutting and rewrite of the Transportation Authorization. Clean extension of existing transportation bill passed as H.R. 662. Continued all programs as prior.
  • Safe and Complete Streets Act of 2011 (S. 1056 and H.R. 1780): Referred to Committee in both houses. Died.

2012 (Obama/112th Congress) Key Asks:

  • General request to maintain funding for biking and walking programs via a clean transportation extension and in a new transportation bill. Specifically, they wanted a vote against H.R. 7, the Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, which eliminated transportation enhancements, transit funds for bike/walk initiatives, Safe Routes to Schools, and rail trail funding, and a vote for the Petri Amendment, which basically saved all of the above.
    • Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 7): Referred to Committee. Died.
    • Petri Amendment: Failed to pass.
  • A final transportation bill was passed in June 2012, MAP-21 (H.R. 4348). The bill cuts biking and walking funding by 60-70%, and shifts control of enhancement funds to states — who may use the funds for road projects. Safe Routes to Schools now competes for enhancement funding.
A Minneapolis Bicycle Boulevard

A Minneapolis Bicycle Boulevard

As you can see, in the last 5 National Bike Summits, almost nothing in the key asks has passed (or left Committee, which is where bills go to die, alone, in the rain, listening to Smiths songs). The clean transportation extension was some kind of achievement, at least in kicking the transportation bill down the road for a year. MAP-21… well. The League has declared MAP-21 a “success” in certain communications, because advocacy managed to keep transportation enhancements — now called “transportation alternatives” — alive, albeit crippled. In others, they (rightly) emphasize the importance of local involvement and advocacy, thanks to the state control funding.

Meanwhile, the League continue to emphasize the event as a federal advocacy event — “More than 800 advocates, government staff, and cycling enthusiasts of all types come together to tell Congress about the benefits of bicycling.” And, truthfully, no national event in DC should go by without all the local advocates stopping in on their Congressional delegation, saying hi, eating a doughnut (or locally appropriate treat, as in the case of Minnesota’s Senators), and saying “woo hoo we love bikes!”

It is difficult to claim that the advocacy done at the Summit has no impact, despite the non-passage of so many legislative items. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to point at a single legislator swayed down a new path by such advocacy, especially in the highly-fragmented, ineffective 112th Congress. Congress is truly the opposite of progress — the progress touted by the League as an end result of its Summits.

NiceRide

Bikeshare: Progress is always local. Photo by Mike Hicks

The progress made in the last few years has very little to do with federal legislation or action or inaction. When the League touts attendance to continue the “momentum” for bikes, the truth is that momentum is almost entirely localized, and in pockets. For example, Complete Streets is making progress in states and cities, while getting edited out (or killed in Committee) every time it is proposed at a federal level. Bikeshare, something else cited as momentum by the League, is by nature a local accomplishment.

Certainly, some local progress — particularly in Minneapolis — has had federal origins. However, with current budget issues and Congressional priorities, let’s move forward knowing that an expansion or renewal of the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program ain’t happening. And with the MAP-21 funding mechanisms, it is harder to get federal funds for transportation alternatives — again, kicking the ball back to localities and their willingness to pay for upgrades.

There is nothing wrong with local accomplishment. But the type of momentum occurring suggests that the League should, in programming and approach, emphasize local case studies and learnings. The event needs to focus more on local advocates networking and sharing regional best practices for advocates from other regions to take home and try.

Many sessions already have local flavor, but there are additional things the League could do to travel down this path and reposition the event as a way for advocates from across the country to learn from one another, rather than as a woo hoo chance to influence federal policy:

  • Lightning Sessions: This kind of thing has been a hit for a number of different industries. Have a 2-hour window in which attendees from different states/organizations/etc. give 5 to 10 minute lightning talks on something awesome accomplished in their local space — what it was, what it does, how they got it done, cost and impact. Call it 10 speakers in a 2-hour window.
  • Poster Sessions: Steal from academia, and have people from state and local advocacy groups do posters about their campaigns and accomplishments. Group them by state. Have a cocktail hour in the poster hall. Serve little crunchy things. In general, one hopes organizations in a single state know each other and each other’s work, but it’s surprising how often this isn’t the case. And groups in different states can learn how different advocacy organizations with similar qualities (state-wide, regional, city or local) operate and work.
  • Tighter Content Focus: More sessions on topics like “alternative funding sources” and “exploitation of federal funding guidelines” would be enormously popular — and useful.
  • Regional Conferences: Right now, the League sponsors the big national thing. The League could serve to help coordinate multiple state organizations to have a regional conference to draw in more local advocates across a region. This wouldn’t work everywhere (Texas IS a region, y’all, it’s a whole ‘nother country), but in many places helping do a bit of coordination across states to create smaller conference pockets would reach a broader participant audience.

The National Bike Summit is a good event. It can be a better event. Honestly marketing its impact and setting more realistic (and effective) goals would be a nifty start.


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9 Responses to The National Bike Summit’s Legislative Record: Progress or Hype?

  1. Janne February 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    This is a brilliant mix of informing, analysis, critique, and useful recommendations.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    really interesting critique Julie. Have you ever gone to Minnesota Bike summit day at the State Capitol?

    • Julie Kosbab March 6, 2013 at 7:53 am #

      I have.

      I am kinder in re: Minnesota for several reasons. First, it does have a primarily local focus. How do communities make progress? How did that community make progress? Let’s celebrate some progress.

      Second, it’s only on year 3.

      Third, they have actually gotten legislation through. The Minnesota Safe Routes Program was authorized (but not funded), and the MRT was authorized (but didn’t need funding). The signature legislation, the vulnerable users law, was opposed by the powerful trucking lobby, so BikeMN retooled some and got new allies at the table. So they’re doing all the right things.

      And their marketing isn’t nearly so damn breathless given how, uh, functionally useless the LAB have been the last few years.

  3. Nick Mason March 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    While there is certainly truth to this article (every year can’t be the most important, workshop structure isn’t perfect, we don’t get everything we ask for), it’s missing a lot of key data and political insight that won’t show up in an analysis or from someone who hasn’t been to DC year after year. One, and this is certianly hard to measure, is the simple fact that there was great momentum in the U.S. House to eliminate all bike/pedestrian funding from MAP-21, the latest federal transportation bill. It was cut by 1/3 but it did not go away. Another is the day spent networking, learning from and being inspired by others from throughout the country. This year’s keynotes include the US Secretary of Transportation, New York city’s revolutionary transportation commissioner and the Mayor of Indianapolis, true agents of change. One example cited as a local effort in the linked article, Nice Ride bike share, would not have happened without funding from the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program of SAFETEA-LU. That bill, which was an annual NBS ask took more than 5 years to pass, an average timeline for the majority federal legislation. Of course, success will only happen at home if there’s local follow up and work being done. But, just ask Senators Franken and Klobuchar (bicycle champions & co-sponsors of ‘failed’ legislation cited from last year) if there isn’t a real impact from having 15-20 constituents who bike or nearly one-thousand people wearing neon bike pins (popular in nearly every congressional office) show up on the Hill. Not having an event like the NBS would imply that there’s not a united voice for cycling in America. Every year, as new and more people join the movement and share their stories in DC, bicycling becomes stronger and that much more normal. It becomes a louder voice in a movement that can change our local communities and change America. Common opposition to bicycling like big oil, the highway lobby, and Detroit to name a few are going to keep showing up in DC every year (and more often). We need to show up and yell louder than ever. Change takes time and effort required both at the state and local level and in our nation’s capital.

    Nick Mason
    Program Manager, BikeMN

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 1, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      I’m curious, Nick, if you think that Julie’s ideas would be useful or practical?

    • Julie Kosbab March 6, 2013 at 7:58 am #

      I think even with a unified event, the LAB really isn’t seen as “the” unified voice for cycling at this point. Last year’s failed merger is evidence of this.

      Most of the industry dollars are behind other organizations. And to really stand up against some of the other lobbies (the truckers come to mind), having organizations with money is essential.

      I think the merger would have helped, as it would have unified the funding sourcing. And at the end of the day, Washington politics are about money more than about citizens walking in doors and saying hi. Get 4 drinks into longtime staffers and they’ll admit this.

  4. Amber Dallman March 3, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    As a NBS virgin I found this post insightful. I’m attending as a state employee so making “asks” of the MN delegation will not be part of my role. What I’m hoping to take away are helpful tactics for MN communities supporting more active transportation. I’m also particularly interested in the women’s forum and learning from successful efforts across the country.

    I do find the idea of regional summits interesting. Especially consider how difficult it can be for interested participants to travel and take advantage of peer learning.

    In short: I agree with Julie’s take-aways, but agree with Nick in that many of the successes are likely intangible. We’ll see what I’m thinking when I return to the land of 10,000 lakes later this week.

  5. Julie Kosbab March 6, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Also, this post from Bike Portland today, covering NBS, basically says something I said in a prior comment: Money. It matters.

    http://bikeportland.org/2013/03/05/more-cause-than-cash-the-bike-lobby-comes-of-age-83821

    Rep. Blumenauer says that without money, the movement has done okay. But it really does come back to having money, and who gets elected. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken walked in their office doors supporters of cycling, as did Keith Ellison. Nothing short of a lobotomy/brain transplant/alien probe will turn Michele Bachmann into a bicycle ally.

    Especially in this Congress. People don’t sway. Compromises don’t happen.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      But this is something that the Bike Snob pointed out, there’s no way the bicycling industry can ever compete with the auto / freeway lobby…