Interview: Gary Sjoquist, advocate

Bike evangelist from Minnesota

Gary Sjoquist is no stranger to the American and international bicycle advocacy scene. As the first full-time advocacy director for Quality Bicycle Products, one of the largest bicycle distributors in the world, Sjoquist makes frequent trips all over the country, representing the interests of QBP, Bikes Belong (an industry umbrella non-profit group established in 1995), and a handful of other groups, spreading the gospel of two wheels at the local and national government levels. Even his boss, QBP owner Steve Flagg, serves on the board of directors for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

He's also a regular attendee of the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. BikeRadar caught up with Sjoquist recently, and asked him to shed some light on the current state of bicycle advocacy in the US and abroad.

BR: There's been noticeable progress with advocacy in the US bicycle industry. When exactly was the tipping point?

Gary Sjoquist:With all due modesty, I believe there were two things, both of which I've been fortunate to be involved in. The first was QBP creating a fulltime advocacy position and letting me loose.  Being able to focus fulltime on advocacy has been huge.  The other thing was the formation of Bikes Belong in 1998, which I helped start, and then helped build it by recruiting companies to join through the end of 2004.  Bikes Belong has shown how advocacy can help create new places to ride.  

I think a lot of companies realized that working together through Bikes Belong was been better than trying to advocate individually. Advocacy has become a sound business practice - creating more places our products are used means we can sell more - 2005 and '06 have seen record sales (more bikes than cars in the U.S.).

BR: QBP is a very progressive company for one so large. How does this happen?   

It was a progressive company right from the beginning, when it was small, and the progressive culture is cultivated very carefully with new employees, new departments, building expansion, etc. The Gold LEED certification QBP received in early 2007 is a good example - most companies wouldn't have spend the time or money to go green in such a dramatic way. But QBP wanted to model good corporate green policies through solar panels, waste water technology, rain gardens, composting, etc.

BR: What organizations are you affiliated with these days? Please explain your role(s).  

I tell people I spend 75% of my time working for QBP directing their advocacy efforts; the other 75% of my time is spent directing the Government Relations (lobbying) efforts for Bikes Belong in Washington, DC, which I've been doing since 2005. I'm also on the board of the Bicycle Products and Supplier's Association that deals with tariffs, duty issues, safety handbooks, and the annual Bicycle Leadership Conference. I was a co-founder of the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, which is doing really great work on behalf of mountain biking in Minnesota, and a new project will have me trying to establish the Canadian Sprockids program in the U.S.

BR: In your opinion, what are some of the hurdles for bicyclists in the US? Solutions?   

Safety is still the largest detriment to getting new cyclists out on the roadways.  In some ways, we're making this worse by the development of railtrails, which reinforce the notion that the only safe place to ride is separated from traffic on a dedicated trail.  

Bikes Belong has started a Safety Foundation which will attempt to address the safety issue. Another significant problem is the lack of education about cyclists' rights to the roadway by motorists, but this unfortunately can only be addressed through individual states.  

A massive promotional campaign similar to the "Got Milk" campaign from the dairy industry is often mentioned, but an effort that could truly change behaviors of motorists across the country would require something in the neighborhood of $30 million dollars, which is way beyond current budgets.

BR: Describe a typical day for you.  

It's always different, which is great. Some days, I'm in a suit walking the halls of Congress, talking with Senators about bicycling issues or attending fundraisers to keep our bicycle champions in Congress. Some days, I'm in my shorts at QBP helping implement a new Trips for Kids chapter in the Twin Cities. Other days will find me giving presentations to city councils and community organizations about bicycling commuting.  

I'm often out on city streets, riding bikes with city engineers and talking about different ways to utilize bike lanes, or different pavement treatments to help make bicycling safer or more visible.  

BR: Which US and European cities are setting a prime example for their bike friendliness?   

Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Minneapolis are all good in different ways. The notable cities in Europe I've been in are Muenster (40% of daily traffic is by bike) and Amsterdam (even higher). In these cities, riding a bike is literally the easiest and quickest way to get around, so everyone rides.

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