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!”
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.
- 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.
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.
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.