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Misplaced Advocacy

by Bill Hoffman and Fred Oswald

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Hurting the Image

What is the public image of cycling?  When they think of it at all, the public thinks that using a bicycle is a casual recreational activity, or for children.

The public thinks it dangerous to operate on the street without a separate place “protected” from traffic.  They also think that road cyclists are “playing” in the street where they do not belong.

We are thought to be incompetent and inferior trespassers on the roadway.

So what is our Bike League doing to correct these erroneous impressions?  LAB advocacy says we need “safe places to ride” and that we should not have to “fight for space with cars”. 

The League is reinforcing these negative stereotypes, rather than correcting them.

Experienced cyclists will tell you that the existence of a separate “bike path” or lane leads to increased harassment from motorists convinced that a cyclist on the road is wrong and should be “put in his place”.

Correcting LAB advocacy is another important reason why we need LAB Reform.

We have been sharply critical of LAB’s advocacy efforts (addressed elsewhere on the LAB Reform site).  We present here our views on the kinds of advocacy the League should be doing, and how it should do them.

First, let’s make clear that we’re talking about advocacy for cyclists, not “bicycle advocacy.”  Bicycles need no advocates; they are inanimate objects.

Cyclists’ greatest advocacy needs are in the areas of:

  1. Education of cyclists in proper on-road operation, and of motorists in dealing with us and respecting our rights
  2. Traffic law — including promulgation and enforcement (or lack thereof)
  3. Preserving and protecting our rights to the road
  4. Highway design and maintenance — making sure that new roads and existing roads being modified or reconstructed, provide safe and equitable accommodation

Ultimately, education of cyclists (item 1 above) is the most important advocacy.  Education impacts all of the other items as well.  The education area is primarily locally focused, but it is affected by national and state policies and programs.  The American Bicycling Education Association’s Smart Cycling for example, is a national program.  State affiliates might support a law requiring X hours per year of bicycle safety instruction in public schools.

The next two items (rights and laws) are inter-related and are almost exclusively the domain of state and local governments.  LAB needs to be able to react to proposed laws or regulations (good or bad), and to be pro-active in proposing law reforms that will help cyclists.  It is impossible for the HQ staff to keep abreast of law and regulation changes in all 50 states and thousands of localities.  That is why a field network of representatives is needed to constantly monitor state legislatures plus county and local governments and be prepared to act when needed.

Years ago, LAB had such a structure, with State Legislative Representatives and (US Congressional) District Legislative Coordinators.  Not all states and Congressional districts were covered, but the largest states and many districts having influential Congressmen were.  That structure, or one like it, should be restored.  Members who volunteer or are selected to fill these positions should be given training and staff support, not only in League policies relating to issues of importance to us, but in the most effective ways of getting our message out to decision makers.

The LAB administration is afraid of long-time members who remember the League as an advocate of competent cycling.  They consider anyone who resists their current ideas as a “loose cannon” who cannot be trusted.  In contrast, other national advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club “deputize” local members to speak on behalf of the organization so long as they follow policy guidelines.

Highway design (item 4 above), is also primarily a state and local matter, although there is some important federal guidance relating to highway design and maintenance, and a large fraction of states’ transportation funds come from the federal government.  Highway design and maintenance policies are usually set at the state level, but in some states localities have great authority over their own roads.  The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is an important trade organization that publishes design guides.

Bicycle facilities are often designed to AASHTO guidelines [1].  Unfortunately, these standards are flawed; some bike lanes that comply with the standards direct cyclists to ride much too close to parked cars, in the “door zone” and other bike lanes create intersection conflicts.  We discuss these and other problems in the article Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions.

State and regional bicycling advocacy groups and coalitions can perform many of the functions that LAB might otherwise do.  Where these organizations exist and are effective, LAB should support their efforts and partner with them.  So far, that has been done only sporadically.  On occasion LAB has supported, or failed to oppose, coalitions that have advocated measures that are harmful to vehicular cycling.  LAB now has a Director of State and Local Advocacy; it should be his job to help these local groups work for measures that promote vehicular cycling, and against programs or ideas that are harmful to that philosophy.

In the education arena, we are pleased to say that LAB is now doing a reasonably good job with the Smart Cycling program.  Smart Cycling is the only national program that is based on vehicular-style cycling principles [2].  These principles need to be invoked routinely when LAB publicly comments on pending legislation or facilities.

Unfortunately, LAB’s other programs are doing a terrible job of cycling education.  The “Bicycle Friendly Communities” program completely fails to encourage communities to educate citizens about best practices.  Instead, it focuses on building facilities and spending money on planners and consultants, most of whom do not know how to operate bicycles properly.  In contrast, the Ohio Bicycle Federation has started a “Cyclists Friendly Communities” program that will really benefit cyclists.  The difference is that knowledgeable cyclists are running the OBF program, rather than misinformed staff.
Wrong way

The League uncritically endorses the “Safe Routes to School” program without trying to correct misstatements.  Safe Routes has many good ideas.  Unfortunately, it also includes some serious errors.  One glaring example is at right:  a cover photo from the “Safe Routes” booklet [3] showing a child riding on the wrong side of the road.  You can see more examples of misinformed “bicycle advocacy” including a photo from the web site of American Bikes, a partner organization to LAB.

In recent years, LAB has focused mainly on building separate “facilities” for cyclists and getting more government money authorized for such facilities, rather than on policies that promote vehicular cycling.  This is mistaken for two important reasons: (1) such advocacy reinforces incorrect public perceptions that cycling on roads is dangerous and cyclists do not belong on the road; and (2) the best bicycling facilities already exist — they are the public roads.

The public perception of cycling being dangerous and of bicycles not belonging on the road is one of the major deterrents to widespread bicycle transportation.  So what do “bicycle advocates” tell the public?  “Riding on the road is dangerous.  We need ‘safe’ places to ride” (meaning separate facilities off the road).  The truth is that many of these separate places are less safe than the road alongside for a variety of reasons.  In addition, only an insignificant amount of cycling, especially for transportation, can be done without using main roads.  Since people are taught to fear riding on these roads, it is no wonder so few people use bicycles for transportation.

LAB misdirected advocacy was caused by two things:  failure of the Board to direct the staff’s advocacy activities, and the staff’s insufficient knowledge of bicycling, which is necessary to know which types of facilities, or roadway improvements, are good and which are bad.

There is another problem with LAB’s advocacy.  The Executive Director [4] has undertaken too many initiatives that are not related to our central mission, and that divert resources away from our core mission.

LAB’s mission is not to combat obesity, the public’s lack of exercise, the perceived lack of safe routes to school, or suburban sprawl.  There are other organizations to fight those battles.  We can support these groups when our goals coincide (so far, they rarely have), but leave the “heavy lifting” (for non-cycling advocacy) to them.

Only when cyclists’ rights are unquestionably assured throughout the country, when cyclists ride properly, when the police diligently enforce the law where cyclists are concerned, when roads are routinely built or modified to safely accommodate bicycles, when cyclists are not treated as second-class citizens by employers, the public, and the courts, might it then be OK to consider (not necessarily adopt, but consider) these other initiatives.

Vision for a Cyclist Friendly America

LAB Reform promotes the following Cyclists’ Advocacy goals:

  • Everyone knows that bicycles are vehicles used on the same roads, under the same rules, with the same rights and duties
  • Everyone understands the best practices of Vehicular Cycling
  • All bicycle traffic laws are fair and promote safety
  • Law enforcement officials enforce the laws fairly to promote safety
  • Road rage and other crimes against cyclists are not tolerated
  • Driving a bicycle is a grown up activity that children are allowed to do
  • Parents understand that a bike is a child’s first vehicle
  • Traffic engineers treat bicycles as design vehicles
  • Every road is regarded as a bicycle facility and every lane a bike lane


[1] Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 1999

[2] A new and very effective education program, Cycling Savvy has been developed by The American Bicycling Education Association.

[3] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Safe Routes to School, DOT HS 809 497, Sep 2002.

[4] Since this was originally written the LAB Executive Director resigned and was replaced.  However, the problems continue with the new director (now called “president”).

Please join us and help restore the BikeLeague to members.

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