What is bicycle advocacy? (Public version / truncated)


Most of us who are involved in bicycle advocacy are either volunteers or here thanks to money from some bigger more serious cause like mobility, global warming, public health or my favourite one, "cities", so vaguely defined that no one can argue. 

Lobbyists for the car industry keep it straight forward. They get paid by car makers. Unfortunately it's just not in the culture of the major bike makers to sponsor bike transport lobbying efforts. I realised this when I did an assignment with the heads of Shimano. Even when they think of bike transport, they do so through the prism of sport. 


Its dependence on all these other causes for its existence can lead us to think that advocacy for cycling, as transport, is nothing in and of itself, that all it is is just a little spare change clipped from the budgets of green groups, health lobbies and a few cities, to stage the occasional conference. 

What I'm going to argue with this essay, is that we're not only short-changing bicycle advocacy when we start thinking that way, but we're also leaving those "bigger" agendas without the one thing that could galvanise them as a coalition, thus giving them political clout.  

So you know I'm not getting deluded, let me make it clear that I know cycling itself has no clout at all. I felt I was among more powerful folk when I used to be involved in the cavy fancy than when I'm with you lot. I don't even think my Dutch friends in cycling have much political clout, not when your bicyclists' union has 35,000 members and your motoring body 4.4 million! But of course in Australia the bike vote is... well... I'll say hi to Sam (thanks for subscribing!) 

But is the green vote all that much bigger? In one sense, of course, but it's not big enough—at least not at a national level. Where in the world are we seeing national governments raising taxes, shutting down companies with big emissions, or any of those things we know are required to reverse global warming? Nowhere, that I am aware of.  

Where are health lobbies securing their sugar bans or bans on cigarettes? Where are city dwellers not still subsidising the suburbs with taxes based on land value, rather than the cost of service provision?

  These are the kinds of groups that need to be joined in coalitions if they want to have political sway, but what could unite them? Since their advocates keep showing up at our conferences, maybe the answer is cycling?

As improbable as that may seem, one of the world's most enduring coalitions of political parties, the one that has joined forces to rule my country, Australia, is united under a flimsier banner. The only thing both parties believe in is cultural conservatism. Swell! On the big question, money, they're chalk and cheese. One half of the coalition, the Australian Liberal Party, is all for free trade. The other half, the Australian National Party, represents farmers who want trade protection. Every day members from both parties have to go back to their constituents with bad news about some economic loss they will suffer as the result of a compromise deal, but the good news that their allies hate Eminem too.

Seen in that light (and I know I just used a straw-man argument, but that's okay, Eminem sucks) bicycling could be a pretty strong glue. In most instances, at least two of the main groups we're discussing (the environmentalists, public health advocates and urbanists, let's call them) would have their interests served by more cycling. 

Sometimes they won't, though, and you will see when we get to the topic of logical fallacies a little bit later how our habit of mistaking the benefits of cycling for cycling's essential components is causing bicycle advocacy to stumble, again and again. First though, let's quickly look at some instances where an increase in cycling would leave either environmentalists, or public health advocates, or urbanists, with what seems like a loss. 

If EVs keep getting lighter and cyclists can eat whatever they want, there may soon be countries where driving emits less CO2 per kilometre travelled. (That's a narrow way of looking at things, but bear with me for an argument's sake). 

Norway's bicycles get their fuel from meat and produce with lots of food-miles. Their growing fleet of tiny EVs gets its fuel from hydro-electric power plants. Conditions exist for environmentalists to abandon cyclists and support the guys who like running us over.

Yet if they took a broad view, Norway's environmentalists wouldn't split hairs over a few CO2 grams per kilometre traveled. You would hope first they would think of the kilometres saved if they limited sprawl to suit bikes. 

You would then hope they were thinking of the example their nation is setting to countries we know will use coal until it is too late. Do they really want India looking to Oslo—Europe's Green Capital in 2019—and thinking more cars are the go? Of course they don't! All the poor countries looking to advanced pockets like Norway and California need to be seeing cycling and trains, not Teslas that they will be charging with coal.

Example 2: 

I would love if you kept reading and joined the community I'm building of leaders from the world of bike transport. However, so I can give this work the time and attention it deserves, I need to ask you to subscribe for $2 per month. I hope you will consider it worth it. 


Shout Out!

This year the International Cargo Bike Festival moves to Berlin, and where else but Tempelhof Airport, which is already a Mecca for the bicycle advocates of that city. If you are able to go to the cargo bike festival you will see how Tempelhof could easily become a completely car free city, in the manner of my most recent book Velotopia. Cycle Logistics will be key to our future lives trading and thriving in cities.  

Now is the time to register for this event. Go there by train if you can — I don't believe it's still being used as an airport :)