Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Op-ed: The Oklahoma Bike Summit

Here's what I wrote yesterday about the Oklahoma Bike Summit:

Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, addressed the meeting after lunch. Clarke is an engaging speaker and covered a wide range of bicycling-related topics. He spoke of Copenhagen, where the average number of commuting cyclists would be considered a huge turnout for any North American tour. Clarke brought out the 'safety in numbers' argument, which seems to indicate that increasing numbers of bicyclists do not lead to a proportional increase in bicycle crashes. He said, “We need complete systems, not just infrastructure.” That includes promotion, marketing, and education.

Clarke was concerned over the possible loss of transportation enhancement funds due to the political wrangling in Washington. He strongly advised those present to contact their senators and congressmen. “It's all about showing up,” he said, referring to the political adage that policy is set by those who make an effort to attend meetings.

When asked about the Reed Bates case in which a cyclist was arrested and jailed for riding on a public roadway, Clarke said, “His case was a disaster waiting to happen. It would not have set a precedent. He was not a sympathetic character.” Clarke defended the League's record regarding challenges to cyclist's rights by saying, “We have been involved in a number of such cases over the last several years.”

There was much more, of course, and most of it was omitted for the sake of brevity. I'll say this for Clarke, he's an excellent speaker. He pushed all the usual buttons: Copenhagen, safety in numbers, 'normal' cyclists, trip distances, bike sharing, and a statistic saying that a single traffic fatality has a $6 million cost. Clarke is concerned over the possible loss of transportation enhancement funds in the coming fiscal year, and like other cycling insiders, he seems to be concerned about demographics.

Demographics cut to the heart of cycling advocacy. Bikes Belong has a demographics report on the website detailing many items of interest to cyclists. The bar graph showing the age distribution of survey respondents caught my eye. It indicates that the average age of an 'enthusiast' cyclist is in the mid-forties. Now, please remember that this is a self-selected survey, so the results should not be regarded as representative of the entire population of cyclists, but the last census put the median age at about 37, well under the supposed average age of cyclists. Experienced bike riders are an aging population, and since they're the League's membership, the clock is ticking on an eventual downturn.

In the 1990s, the Amateur Radio Relay League surveyed their members and found that the average age was in the mid-fifties. ARRL pushed for some changes, eliminating Morse code entirely, simplifying the license structure, and updating the technical aspects of their testing to more modern standards in an effort to attract a younger crowd. Should LAB consider similar changes, and if so, what changes should they make?

There are huge, untapped demographics that go largely unnoticed by most of organized cycling; the poor who use bikes for basic transportation, and those young bike riders in their teens and twenties who comprise fully half of all bicyclists. Among the experienced cyclists, roughly half ride for transportation if only occasionally, but the bulk of their rides are for fitness and recreation.

Grist had this to say:“Contrary to popular convention, the biggest share of bicyclists isn't yuppies, it's low income people. In fact, the lowest-earning quarter of Americans make nearly one-third of all bike trips.

Clarke obliquely touched on this when he said that he wanted cyclists to be 'normal' in the sense that they don't need to ride in dedicated cycling clothing for short trips. Meanwhile, those low income cyclists are already riding – to work and back – in ordinary street clothes. They don't have much disposable income, meaning that they won't consider spending money to join an organization unless it provides some tangible benefits. At present, LAB doesn't do that for existing members, so enormous changes would be demanded if the organization wants to tap this demographic.

Seventy percent of the respondents to Bikes Belong were happy or somewhat happy with existing facilities. The message is that the loss of transportation enhancement money would not have a great impact for them. It would seem natural that LAB would pivot on this and push their education program because it teaches cyclists how to use all streets safely, not just those with bike lanes. Education has been the red-headed step child at LAB for quite some time. It would be a heartening change to see it given greater emphasis.

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Blogger Steve A said...

Am I now going to be required to buy "special" clothing in order to continue to ride my bike to work or is it OK if I simply label myself as "poor, but not as old as I look?"

5:39 AM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Steve, we all think you're "special" and if the world economy tanks, we'll all be poor anyway.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Yokota Fritz said...

"If" the world economy tanks?

3:25 PM  

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