Three bicycle advocacy groups call off merger

By Peter Suciu in Detroit, Michigan | Tuesday, September 4, 2012 6.58pm

In a move that was designed to bring bicycle advocacy and cycling-related issues in the United States to a single group, the three largest U.S. bike advocacy groups announced this past winter a merger. It would give a single and unifying voice for bicyclists. But in August the three groups announced it wasn’t to be.

The groups, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, the League of American Bicyclists and Bikes Belong, met in San Diego earlier this year to discuss a merger with a goal to reduce confusion over cycle advocacy issues and to present a united message.

At the time it seemed to make sense for all parties involved and would help cyclists across the country.

“This is very important to understand,” Tim Blumenthal, president of Bikes Belong told BikeRadar in March. “The League has individual membership and a very large membership base, the Alliance has city and state bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups, and Bikes Belong has manufacturers and retailers.”

However those same facts remain issues that couldn’t be overcome.

Logistics and geography also were factors. Bikes Belong is based in Colorado while the two other groups are based in DC. In addition there are three separate boards of directors and three separate staff teams. Trying to merge three groups, and meet the early 2013 goal was simply not possible.

Instead all three groups will remain independent but will work together on a number of goals.

“All three groups share common goals for improving bicycling and we will continue to work at improving our own efficacy to realize this vision,” said Jeffrey Miller, president and CEO of the Alliance for Biking & Walking. “While we invested 110 percent of our energy and effort into a unified organization, I do think that the three separate groups has some benefits in the different audiences / constituencies we work with and the ability for one group to focus on an issue while each focuses on other priorities.”

Going forward the three groups will also strive in partnerships that will help make the roads in America safer for the average rider.

The three advocacy groups did use the time working towards a merger to address goals that would see an increase to five percent – up from just one percent in 2012 – on the nationwide percentage of trips made by a bicycle; work to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities by 50 percent; and provide half of all Americans with front-door access to a bicycling network that could take them to destinations within two miles exclusively on low-stress streets, via bike lanes and trials protected from high-speed traffic.

The groups will also work together and with state and local planners and politicians to influence the two-year federal transportation bill, MAP-21.

“We have some critical work to do to ensure the new federal transportation bill doesn’t gut spending on cycling nationally,” Elizabeth Kiker, executive vice president of the League of American Bicyclists, told BikeRadar. “We also need to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of the growing number of people who are using our programs to transform cycling in their communities. We’ve got to stay ahead of the curve, and, with quality programs and a strong staff, we’re confident that we will.”

Whilst these groups appear to be in good shape, with solid partnerships in place, does this decision by the groups not to merge even affect the average American rider? Perhaps, but only for the good – that is if there is even an “average rider” in the first place.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as an average rider,” said Tim Blumenthal, president of the Bikes Belong Coalition. “We’ve got recreational road riders, all types of mountain bikers, families on bike paths, a growing number of transportation riders and a hundred other sub-groups and types of riders.”

“Everyone who rides a bike benefits from a strong, effective advocacy movement that pushes to make bicycling safer and stress-free for all Americans,” Blumenthal told BikeRadar. “Unification would have enhanced this effort, but regardless of how it’s structured, the movement and bicycling conditions will continue to improve. For most riders, these are the most important things.”

More importantly, Blumenthal says that the efforts have allow the groups to identify some tangible goals for bicycling that will be pursued together in the next few years.

“We knew each other well before the talks began; now we know each other better,” Blumenthal stressed. “This will help us partner more effectively.”

And the goals from the different groups could see more partnership, with the result being real improvements for riders.

“The bicycling experience will continue to improve in most U.S. cities because mayors recognize the many benefits of bicycling and are generally committed to making bicycling easier and safer,” he noted. “Their push to build green lanes, for example, is a really good thing.”

However, every silver lining is often within a gray cloud. But combined efforts could clear the skies.

“The state-by-state picture is less positive: state governments and state departments of transportation don’t always see the value of supporting bicycling and they’ve been given more flexibility to reallocate money – away from bike projects – in the new transportation bill,” said Blumenthal. “So, that’s something to focus on.”

However, Bikes Belong did stress that it will continue to be very concerned about distracted driving and tension between car drivers and bike riders on the road. Additionally, everyone who bikes can help this by riding predictably, stopping at stop signs and lights, and signaling turns.

And while the messages to riders comes from all the groups, those aforementioned differences do remain enough that the groups should remain separately run.

But together it could still be a very strong voice for American cyclists, and one that shouldn’t change the rules of the road but should make those roads safer.

“The League and the other groups have been supporting and advocating for the average rider for decades and that won’t change,” said Miller. “As a matter of fact the talks revealed that we do all have distinct and clear strengths and those are better served by continuing to partner rather than unify.”

And unlike business mergers – which succeed or fail – the rule is that if each party goes away a little unhappy it was a fair deal. In this case the merger didn’t happen but everyone remains as happy as before.

“The League and Bikes Belong are very important partners and friends,” said Kiker. “Through this process we got to learn even more about each other and we have a huge amount of respect and appreciation for the role each group has and the passion their leaders and staff have for making the world a better place through bicycling.”

So the best thing riders can do is just continue to ride.

“When people ride bikes, great things happen—and not just for the people who bike, but for everyone,” said Blumenthal. “We will continue to respond to critics who say that support for new bike infrastructure is a waste of money that only benefits bike riders. Actually, these investments are cost-effective and provide a variety of important benefits to individuals, communities and the nation.”

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