The Advocate's Dilemma: A National Bike Summit Warm-Up

With the curtain about to go up on the 2011 National Bike Summit, advocacy has been on our minds at Commute By Bike (well, and handmade bicycles, but also advocacy). The Summit is the year's biggest advocacy event, and bike wonks travel to the nation's capital from places near and far to discuss everything from environmental issues to distracted driving, and to speak to members of Congress regarding current legislative issues related to transportation and cycling.

The long, diverse list of presentations from last year's Summit is an interesting depiction of what we are calling “the advocate's dilemma.” This dilemma is a little bit like the chicken-and-the-egg cliché– which came first: bicycles or bicycle advocacy?

Photo: Library of Congress

It makes sense that the bicycle came first. After all, how could you advocate for something that does not yet exist? Although, it is also reasonable to assert that some sort of advocates had to exist who were seeking a new, more convenient, human-powered machine, leading to the invention of the first two-wheeled vehicle.

Does it matter which came first? In thinking about the advocacy today, it is an interesting consideration, as we often encourage people to ride bikes because of all of the amazing benefits of cycling while simultaneously advocating for better infrastructure and better education.

There is an ongoing push to prove demand for cycling infrastructure by bicycle advocates in an effort to secure funding to make cycling more accessible for potential riders. There is also the need to demonstrate to potential cyclists that riding for transportation and for fun is possible and reasonably safe.

And therein lies the dilemma. We need more people riding to improve facilities and education, but we need better facilities and education to get more people riding. We need to improve safety for cyclists, but an overemphasis on safety may reinforce the misperception that cycling is dangerous and discourage new riders.

The Wright Brother's Shop
The Wright Brothers' Shop | Photo: Library of Congress

What's an advocate to do? Focus on one issue or the other, or strike a balance of both (or many) aspects of advocacy? The appropriate approach will vary by city and by neighborhood, and there is no magic formula for advocacy. Fortunately, we have an increasing number of examples to learn from around the world, and the Summit is an event in which we can both educate and be educated as advocates.

For now, we'll pose the question, and as we absorb as much bicycle advocacy information as humanly possible at the National Bike Summit from March 8th to March 10th, we will be sure to revisit the advocate's dilemma.

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