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A Brief History of LAB

by Bill Hoffman, LCI #33, LAW/LAB Member since 1971, Life Member since 1976

Beginning Years:

LAB began as the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in 1880.  The early League championed the rights of cyclists, who were then a new breed of highway user.  The League published the first touring maps, and led the fight for good roads.  At the time, few roads were paved; even some city streets were dirt.  The Good Roads movement gathered wide support.  LAB became a political force to be reckoned with.

LAW membership peaked at 102,000 in 1898, after which time, as the number of automobiles increased and bicycling declined, it decayed to just a few thousand by about 1920.  There was a brief resurgence during the 1930s and 1940s in response to the Depression and gasoline rationing during World War II, when bicycles again became transportation for the poor, the carless, and those with low gas allocations.  After WW II, as suburbia developed across America, bicycles again were relegated to the status of children’s toys.  Only a few adults rode, and they were accorded low social status.  The League became dormant.

Boom and Nearly Bust in the ’60’s & ’70’s:

In the mid-1960s, as the modern bicycle boom was about to begin, a group of long-time Chicago-area League members got together and revived the League.  Among them, only Phyllis Harmon, LAB’s recently retired Director Emeritus, is alive today.  In fact, Phyllis, a League member since 1937, was for many years the thread that held the League together.  She edited its magazine, maintained its archives, and provided member services.

As the bike boom peaked, the bicycle industry, flush with profits from increased sales, underwrote the establishment of our first permanent office and full-time staff.  The thinking was that a larger and stronger League would help sales of bicycles and accessories.

The office, located near Chicago, opened in 1973.  Morgan Groves, the first Executive Director, was hired that year.  New Bylaws were put into place that established 15 regions, each electing a vice-president.  These people constituted the Board.  The plan was for LAW to become self-sufficient within three years, the period covered by the industry’s grant.  But it didn’t happen.

The ED, partly with the naïve acquiescence of a neophyte Board (I was one of them), drove the organization into technical bankruptcy within two years by spending money on the expectation that the membership would grow from about 10,000 to 1 million within that time.  The projection would have the League grow to ten times the actual membership peak reached in 1898.  But membership never got above about a quarter of the 1898 peak.

Recovery and Golden Years:

Dedicated members rescued the organization.  Phyllis Harmon, then the office manager in addition to magazine editor, got some of her local friends to volunteer to keep the day-to-day office operations running.  This arrangement lasted for almost two years, until the finances had recovered enough to allow the staff to be paid.

Using dedicated volunteers from around the country, member services were ramped up despite the financial crunch.  A network of Touring Information Directors was started, consisting of members knowledgeable about bicycle touring in their home state who would provide guidance to other members wishing to tour in or through that state.  Hospitality Homes were established; this was a list of members who offered overnight accommodations to other members passing through.  A printed list of such Homes was made available.  A Membership Roster was published annually and made available, first free, later at nominal cost.

LAB provided legal services through a list of member lawyers who offered free advice to members who had legal issues, such as fighting unjustified citations (tickets) or seeking recovery for damages or injuries from crashes.

The League, either directly or through affiliated clubs, ran several rallies each year, where members could socialize and attend seminars on topics related to cycling.  One such rally, held every summer in a different location, became the League’s annual meeting.  The rallies in the East, which had the largest concentration of members, drew over 2,000 members at their peak.  The rallies became a revenue source for the host club(s) as well as for the League.  Clubs would aggressively bid to host these events.  All these services were provided in an organization with less than 20,000 members.

It was also about this time (late ’70’s) that LAW began to delve in earnest into advocacy.  Prior to that, when cycling was considered almost entirely a children’s activity, scant attention was paid to subjects such as riding properly, ending discriminatory laws, fair law enforcement by police and better road designs to accommodate the rising number of adult recreational and commuting cyclists.  As more adults took up cycling, these issues gained greater awareness.  We hired Ralph Hirsch as legislative director and a structure was put in place under which members volunteered to serve as Legislative Coordinators in their respective states and Congressional districts.

Communities were starting to build bicycle “facilities”, mostly “sidepaths”, (paths beside the road) with little engineering design guidance.  Skilled cyclists knew that these were dangerous and that their proliferation could lead to a reduction in cyclists’ rights to use public roads, with no compensating increase in safety.  In fact, at that time, most states had laws that required cyclists to use sidepaths where provided, and cyclists were prohibited from the adjacent roadway.  LAB supported better and safer cycling laws by publishing in 1982, a survey of cycling laws across the country.

An excellent education program, Effective Cycling, developed by John Forester, was adopted as a League program in 1976.  A system for training instructors was implemented, and the program, even though it remained not widely distributed, provided the only high quality cycling training regimen in the country.

Nearly Bankrupt Again in the 80’s:

In 1979, League headquarters was moved to Baltimore, to be closer to the federal government in Washington.  Advocacy was becoming a larger part of LAW operations, but we could not afford a Washington address.  Nonetheless, we did have a part-time presence in the capitol, although day-to-day interactions with government bureaus that deal with transportation issues were limited.  Most of our Washington activity dealt with federal legislation.

In the mid-1980s, the League endured its second brush with bankruptcy, again the result of an aggressive and unrealistic membership growth campaign that tried to “modernize” the League by eliminating the name “Wheelmen” in favor of “Bicycle USA”.  They were trying to promote the organization as “all things to all cyclists.”  This, too, failed.  Don Trantow, the executive director who promoted this policy left.  Most member services remained, however, because they were basically no-cost programs, performed by volunteers.  It was several years before the membership numbers rebounded from the loss brought on by this policy.

In the late 80s and very early 90s, LAW operated with an Office Manager instead of an Executive Director.  To outsiders and probably many members, there was no functional difference.  If nothing else, the salary expense was probably lower, but the administrative trains still ran on time.  LAB was able to operate efficiently, and at lower cost, with an OM instead of an ED

In 1994, an effort by a few directors and some members to substitute “Bicyclists” for “Wheelmen” in our name was approved in a referendum.  (The original term “Wheelmen” was retained as the legal name.)  There was some dissatisfaction over this among old-time members, because “LAW” suggests our right to use the roads and that we should ride according to traffic law.  No one has ever been able to show that the more “modern” name has resulted in faster membership growth, one of the reasons given by the proponents for change.

The Education Program, the League’s Crown Jewel:

In the mid-90s, a concerted effort was made to expand the education program’s reach, and the number of instructors increased greatly in a short time.  The curriculum was shortened to enhance its marketability, but the core principles remained.  However, John Forester revoked the League’s permission to use the name Effective Cycling because the League had abandoned its mission of protecting cyclists’ rights in favor of advocacy for separate bikeways that threaten our status as legitimate users of the roads.  We renamed the program BikeEd (now called Smart Cycling) and continued to train instructors and embody the Effective Cycling principles he had established over 20 years before.

In 2001, the instructor training program was seriously weakened by eliminating the prerequisite that instructor candidates pass Road I, (the 10-hour abridged adult entry-level course) before being accepted into the training program, by making the written test “open book” and, in some cases, optional and by shortening the instructor seminar.  A poorly-qualified Program Director was allowed to rewrite the instructor materials.  The Education Committee has since fixed many of the problems but only after bitter complaints by several long-time instructors.

Turning Towards Lobbying and Fundraising:

In 1997, shortly after she was hired as ED, Jody Newman persuaded the Board to move the headquarters from Baltimore to a prime office suite on K Street in Washington.  The move would, it was claimed, increase the League’s effectiveness with the major players in the government and enhance partnerships with other not-for-profit organizations that have complementary missions.  Hardly any of the Baltimore staff relocated, so new staff was hired, fewer people at first because the League was again in a financial crisis.

As the crisis passed, largely because of membership donations, the staff was increased.  In 2002, larger space was rented in the same building.  Although the staff’s workload had grown, there were fewer member services than years earlier when the League had a smaller staff and a smaller budget.  Nearly all the membership services mentioned above had been abandoned, without any investigation as to how effective they were, how extensively they were used, and whether there was still demand for them.

In 1998, the board president proposed an all-appointed board.  This president was a corporate lawyer who thought LAB should act like a corporation.  His rationale was to broaden the “skill set” and enhance alliances with related groups, such as the physical fitness industry or “car free” groups, by adding some of these outsiders to the board.  But the 1998 president made one tactical mistake: He told members in advance.  This idea generated so much opposition among long-time members and other directors, that the president took it off the table rather than suffer defeat.  Since then, changes to the board have been made quietly without telling members and with minimal notice to directors not part of the ruling faction.

As a compromise, the Board subsequently decided to appoint four of twelve directors, without allowing the members to vote for these directors and without notice of this important change in League governance.  In 2003, another appointed director was added making 5 of 12 board members appointed and in 2010, the board voted to make 7 of 15 directors appointed.  These decisions weakened member control over the Board.  In 2003, the appointed directors became part of a faction that seized control of the Board.  Their tactics included interfering in the 2003 election to defeat a reform candidate and in recent elections, deciding that dissident candidates were “not qualified” to run for the board.

During its tenure in Washington, LAB has clearly become a larger and more respected player in the legislative and regulatory field, and has cultivated partnerships with other associations whose missions are thought to be aligned in some way with ours.  This enhanced status has come at the expense of LAB’s core mission.  That core mission, the reason for the League’s existence, is to defend our right to use the roads, to teach the best practices of cycling, to demand equitable laws and fair enforcement and to provide service to members.  No other organization is equipped to, or interested in, pursuing this core mission.

A few years ago there was a partial return to the core mission, as evidenced by the “Share the Road” campaign.  This was most welcome but I have not seen any mention of it in League documents or statements recently.  Too bad, because this should take precedence over any campaign to build cycling “facilities” and other peripheral issues that are consuming League resources.  We still have too close an alliance with the bicycle industry and with bicycle consultants and planners, whose interests are not always the same as ours.  However, I should mention that the Nat’l. Bicycle Dealers Assn. did put money into Smart Cycling a year or so ago.

Which Way LAB?

Many Board members (particularly the appointees) do not understand or appreciate the best practices of cycling as taught in the League’s education program.  Because of this attitude, important League programs operate at cross-purposes to the principles embodied in the League’s education program, now called Smart Cycling.  Indeed, some programs, particularly Bicycle Friendly Communities, are actually harmful to our interests because they uncritically endorse facilities that are dangerous and that compromise our right to the roads.

LAB faces a new leadership crisis.  Already many experienced cyclists have been driven away by an organization indifferent or even hostile to their interests.  Frustrated former members have discussed founding a new organization or turning the education program over to an outside group, such as the Red Cross.  If the League does not soon return to its roots, then the “corporate memory” will be lost.  This is why a group of long-time members started LAB Reform to reform the League leadership and restore our traditional values.

Was the “Share the Road” campaign quietly abandoned, or was it just a catchy slogan to promote more separated and segregated facilities while trying to appear to those members and others, who believe that roads are the best cycling facilities, that the League was actually listening to their concerns?

If LAB’s traditional objectives can be restored, it may be reasonable to consider ancillary activities (health and fitness, environmental concerns, etc.).  But we are far from this goal:  dangerous and discriminatory traffic laws are still being written against us, enforcement against errant motorists is still woefully inadequate, most cyclists still ride poorly, and roads are still being designed or modified in ways that sometimes hamper cyclists’ safety and mobility.

It is not realistic to expect the LAB national office to pursue all of these problems, or even to be aware of them.  That’s why a strong grass-roots organization is needed.  Most of these problems must be solved at the local and state levels, but the current LAB Board has done little to establish, or more correctly, bring back, a network of local member representatives who can carry out these functions, as well as the member services they used to provide.  The Board has even opposed member initiatives.

Instead, the Board focuses on the ancillary activities, especially obtaining grants from the federal government and foundations.  While LAB obviously needs money to operate, too much reliance is now being placed on outside funding for the League’s regular operations.  If this funding declines, LAB’s ability to remain financially viable is in serious question.

The magazine and the electronic newsletter uncritically praise Board activities, without mentioning that opposing views exist, particularly among the long standing members.  (I am obviously one such member, or I wouldn’t be writing this.)

LAB Reform has tried for over six years to return LAB to its historic mission. Until recently, we believed the League is was worth saving, but now it may be time to start a new organization that will serve cyclists and will operate more openly and democratically, and less paternalistically.

Please join us and help restore the BikeLeague to members.

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See www.labreform.org to join LAB Reform.

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