Bikes Belong: An Industry Group Finally Working for Our Interests!

Bikes Belong logoIf your local groups is looking for funding for pro-bike efforts, make sure that Bikes Belong is on your contact list. Since 1999 it has pooled the support of nearly 400 bicycle suppliers and retailers nationwide – some $2.5 million annually – to put on our nation’s agenda bike-friendly issues like complete streets improvements, road safety for cyclists, and pro-bike messaging in the media and the halls of Congress.

Working from its home in Boulder, Colorado, Bikes Belong staffers and volunteer directors bring considerable lobbying power to the effort. Indeed lobbying is in the organization’s mission: it was formed to maximize federal funding for bicycle-related projects and programs under the federal transportation law (the one that’s still hung up in Congress for this year). They report returning $4.5 billion (with a ‘b’) on bike programs for a $1 million investment in lobbying. That’s the kind of return that big business gets on K Street investment in DC.

Federal funding for bike improvements chartThis year is shaping up to be a very different picture than even a few years ago. In 2009, federal funding for bike and ped projects topped out at $1.2 billion with a record number of projects funded federal transportation funds. In California alone that year, spending on bike & ped topped $137 million – a fourfold increase over three years earlier and the greatest annual expenditure to date. (State funds have tapered dramatically to close 2011 at one-third that level.)

But this time around on the 5-year transportation legislation, some members of Congress are gunning specifically for us non-motorists by zeroing out federal support for projects that make streets safe and halving the tax deduction for transit commuters (even while keeping the auto commuter’s subsidy intact).

As Streetsblog observed, a subsidy that doubles support for driving while halving support for mass transit is exactly the wrong kind of subsidy: in a post-auto era it’s tantamount to “bribing people to drive cars.” It also flies in the face of the clear local economic benefits of increasing bike use.

Of course it is a question of politics; allocation questions are by nature political questions. There’s simply less appetite for funding programs that get people out of cars and onto bikes. Indeed, there’s considerable opposition to active transportation interests in Congress.

But the magnitude of possible cuts – dropping from $4+ billion to nearly zero – portends a difficult era for cyclists ahead. Because so much transportation funding trickles down from Washington, such a cut would eviscerate many local-level pro-bike improvements.

Bike Summit 2012 logoBikes Belong is leading the charge against backsliding if only because the health of the industry depends on it. Bikes Belong sponsors of the National Bike Summit, organized by the League of American Bicyclists. Bikes Belong also funds data collection to put evidentiary muscle behind our community’s claims – a necessity to win over policymakers in our challenging environment. Their money is behind own Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition’s ongoing Eagle Rock Boulevard economic survey.

Last year the organization awarded $62,500 in grants, including $10,000 to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for community outreach, to the Community Cycling Center to promote safe bicycling and repair skills ($10,000) and to the University of Minnesota to evaluate bike share and bike station economic impacts ($7,500). Not least, it was a  $10,000 grant from Bikes Belong that launched LA’s Ciclovia. Consider getting in touch with Bikes Belong now, before their next grant cycling opens in late February.

Looking back, the bicycle achieved a renaissance of sorts in the 1970s with the energy crisis. But then increasing wealth seemed to collectively blind many of us to the practical benefits (not to mention sensory pleasures) of a two-wheeled ride. For decades our concerns about energy dependence receded, along with the popularity of cycling.

Bike windows Bleeker Street
Bikes adord the windows on NYC's Bleeker Street this past Fall.

Then a surprising thing happened: bike sales began to increase over the past decade. Imports made better quality machinery more affordable, sure, but the price point for hot rides also skyrocketed as clouds of Spandex-clad riders buzzed around. Casual riders descended on coffee shops. And not only in Portland and Brooklyn. A new Zeitgeist emerged, and it prompted big business to take notice, and soon bikes were making appearances everywhere.

The new Zeitgeist couldn’t have come about without a greater voice for cycling interests in the national policy arena. In DC, Bikes Belong is hard at work trying to squeeze some federal bike funding from the transportation bill (again, the primary source of funding for U.S. bicycle facilities and programs) and is behind the Congressional Bike Caucus (did you know that there was one?).