If you care about riding bikes in any way, shape or form in the United States, then today, 10 March 2011, is a very important day.
This morning approximately 750 attendees of the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC will descend on Capitol Hill, hoping to convince the nation’s top lawmakers that human-powered two-wheeled transportation should not be fodder for their deficit-reducing chopping block.
Instead, supporting cycling initiatives is, as the Summit’s tagline reads, “acting on a simple solution” that will help fight obesity, reduce traffic congestion, decrease air pollution and alleviate dependence on foreign oil.
At stake is government support and funding for key cycling-friendly programs such as Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements and the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), which over the years has provided financial backing for nearly 14,000 individual projects and helped communities in all 50 US states build and repair thousands of miles of multi-use recreation trails. In 2010, RTP parceled out nearly $73 million, and since its inception in 1993, the program has yielded over $775m.
Now, as the 112th Congress begins the process of budget reauthorization for programs such as RTP, National Bike Summit attendees want to make sure that their elected representatives are fully aware of the program’s important social and economic impacts.
“We know that the country is broke, we know lawmakers have to make serious cuts, but we're asking that they understand and maintain this program,” said Jenn Dice, government affairs director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which sent 100 delegates to the Summit, which is headquartered at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Washington.
“RTP is an incredible program that does so much good across the country,” said Dice. “It improves quality of life, it raises real estate values, it boosts tourism and it puts a lot of people to work. It’s also a bipartisan program, so hopefully it’s something everyone can agree on.”
That’s always a tough task in America’s politically polarized, car-first culture, but it could be even more challenging this year. There are 96 new congressmen and 16 new senators, many of whom are bent on cutting federal spending and know very little about programs such as RTP.
“Because of what we're facing with the new Congress, this could be the most important Summit we’ve ever had,” said James Moore, a bike shop owner from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Washington novices get primer on the ‘ask’
In the lead-up to today’s Capitol Hill meeting marathon, Summit attendees spent parts of two days attending a variety of breakout sessions where education and strategizing topped the agenda.
“Our goal is to have one united ‘ask’ that seeks to affirm lawmakers’ support of continued funding for these vital programs,” said Caron Whitaker, campaign director for America Bikes and the moderator for a Wednesday morning session titled 'What is our message to the 112th Congress?'. “We want you to make the point, make the ask and make the invite. Tell the people you’re meeting with to not cut what they haven’t visited.”
For the uninitiated, the ‘ask’ is DC political-speak for being very direct about what you want, a point hammered home in a first timers' orientation session Tuesday evening. The panel was led by Stephanie Vance, a former congressional staffer who now works for Advocacy Associates, a firm tasked with educating Summit goers and aiding in scheduling meetings on Capitol Hill.
“The typical meeting with a top level official lasts about 7.5 minutes,” said Vance to a standing-room-only crowd that included retailers, industry members and hundreds of delegates and representatives from various national, state and local cycling advocacy groups. “You can’t just show up and have a conversation about how much you love riding bikes. They’ll all say the same thing back about how they love bikes, too. But that doesn’t mean they won’t cut your program. You need to make sure to make the ask, make sure they understand what your message is.”
Vance also warned that most attendees wouldn’t actually meet with their respective elected official. “In most cases it’ll be a member of their staff and they’ll be in their 20s,” she said. “Capitol Hill is basically run by young people, but they're the best and brightest young people in the country.” It was a rapid-fire education for anyone unfamiliar with the convoluted federal political process.
Pro mountain biker Dave Wiens was among the crowd of first-time Summit attendees. The multi-time Leadville 100 winner is looking to raise awareness of an auspicious 45-mile trail-construction project that would link his hometown of Gunnison, Colorado with fat tire Mecca Crested Butte. Part of the proposed trail crosses an area that’s under consideration for federal Wilderness designation, which would make it off-limits to mountain bikers.
“That’s obviously something we don’t want to happen,” said Wiens, adding that his lasting impression of the Summit thus far had been seeing the cycling world united. “There’s a 360-degree view of bicycle advocacy where we're all part of a larger team. Mountain biking is one arm of that. But it’s also commuting, it’s recreation, it’s health, it’s safe routes for kids. There is a lot of crossover to all these different areas, and there are a lot of people who like bikes in a lot of different ways. That’s really cool.”
Cyclists across the country can only hope that the politicians on Capitol Hill agree.