A Conversation with MassBike's New Executive Director

[caption id="attachment_23650" align="alignright" width="300"] Photo courtesy of Russ Campbell. RussCam.com[/caption]

MassBike’s Board of Directors has named well-respected and experienced promoter, announcer, and journalist Richard Fries as our new Executive Director. Fries takes over the helm of the statewide organization as bicycling and bicycle commuting is growing in popularity across Massachusetts. He most recently worked as marketing director for the Best Buddies Challenge rides and as a development advisor for People for Bikes. (View the press release for Fries' appointment.)

MassBike Board member Colin Durrant took a few minutes to ask Richard about why he chose to take the job, how a wide variety of stakeholders can work together to create safer cycling in Massachusetts, and what he sees as the challenges and opportunities ahead for MassBike.

Colin: Let’s start off with a basic question. How do you think MassBike is doing as a statewide advocacy organization?

RF: I am going to use a racing analogy to answer this question because it fits. David [Watson], as well as the current and former staff, have provided me with a fantastic leadout.

I first got involved in MassBike in the early 1990s when it could not maintain a single paid staff member. David’s tenure has created a powerful foundation for much bigger growth. Whether we are discussing rail-trails, bike lanes, police education, pending legislation, or awareness programs like Mass in Motion, the achievements have been staggering. And, importantly, they yield enormous benefits for every resident, not just cyclists.

Colin:  What role do you think MassBike has played and must play in building better, and much safer, bicycling across the state?

RF: The biggest change mirrors changes seen elsewhere in the nation. We have altered the wiring of the planning process to include pedestrians and cyclists in not just the discussion but in the formal planning process throughout the transportation grid. We worked really hard to get a space at that table. We don’t always get everything we want but we are part of that discussion.

Going forward I believe we now need to shift our focus slightly from not just working to get a share of the public road, but also to working for a share of the public mind. Instead of bicyclists being tolerated, we need to work on being embraced as a positive element of transportation and recreation.

Colin: You have a deep history of involvement with cycling in Massachusetts and nationally. Why did you think now was the right time to lead MassBike?

RF: Many viewed my career as the dream job. I have been able to travel and ride all over the world and do a lot of meaningful work, all of which involves the bicycle. Much of it I will miss. But I have a love affair with Massachusetts, and I truly saw this opportunity to bring many of the cultural elements and physical infrastructure from places like Colorado, California, Oregon, Denmark, and the Netherlands to the Bay State.

I look at all the potential we have here - ranging from compact urban design that pre-dates automobiles to perhaps the best transit network in America - and I see nothing but opportunity. The ingredients are all here. The next step is to foster the cultural will to embrace bikes on a much larger scale.

Colin:  Do you have a few priorities you know you want to tackle right away in the coming year?

RF: The first is to increase membership. We have more than 700,000 people in Massachusetts who ride a bike at least monthly. But we have only about 3,000 members. Just one percent of those folks would put us at 7,000 members. Most of the folks I ride with every week are not members. That’s low-hanging fruit. More members means more clout. To date, bicycle advocacy has largely been led with an agenda that prioritizes legislation and engineering, which is important. One of my first goals will be to build on that by approaching bicycle advocacy from a marketing and communications angle.

Colin: Bicycling is growing in popularity, both in urban areas and recreationally. What are some of the greatest opportunities for building a stronger bicycling community across Massachusetts?

RF: Again, pardon the racing metaphor, but I intend to do what my coaches taught me: train your weakness, race your strength. We have had such success in urban infrastructure and enlisting those riders. But out in the suburbs and farmlands and orchards, where thousands of people in our target demographic are riding, we have little or no presence. These riders are not engaged at all in advocacy. They have economic strength; they have political clout; and they are often in professional positions of power. No bike shop could ever exist without catering to that market; why should an advocacy group feel they can flourish without their strongest asset?

Colin: Massachusetts has been making great strides in transit recently as well. What are some of the greatest opportunities for strengthening our coalition with transit riders?

RF: Our transit system distinguishes Massachusetts from the rest of the country. While I’m a hard-core bike commuter, having a transit option truly enables mainstream students and workers to commute by bike. Putting our effort and energy into making those critical transit lynchpins bike friendly yields perhaps the greatest return on investment. And yes, you can have automobiles as part of those systems.

The model to replicate is the Alewife MBTA station, where you have a subway connect with buses, automobile parking, and the Minuteman Bikeway. Look at the bike cages. They are filled to capacity. But when weather or darkness deters a cyclist, transit is there to help. So let’s do that in every MBTA station - let’s prioritize round-the-clock, roll-on access.

Colin: And how do you see bicycles fitting in the larger context of a transportation system that includes transit, cars, pedestrians, and commercial trucks for example?

RF: Advocates work really hard to get bike lanes put into place. And then to have them used as loading zones, drop-off zones, taxi lines, parking spots, turning lanes, is understandably frustrating. I’ll go back to what I said earlier: having a share of the road is one thing; having a share of the mind is another. Demand must precede supply.

For example, look at motorist behavior in Cambridge’s Inman Square, where the bicycle mode share matches anything we see in Portland, Oregon or Boulder, Colorado. There are so many bikes in the flow that the typical motorists and pedestrians there seem hyper aware of the bike traffic and are accordingly aware and polite. But as we build up to that level of mode share elsewhere, we need a strategy. You get what you tolerate. We need a lot more education and media outreach so every user understands the bicycle’s role in our transportation system.

Colin:  You just spoke to the public perception of bicycling, but you’ve also said your experience cuts across the “disparate tribal elements of bicycling: sport, industry, culture, and advocacy.” What can be done to bring these elements closer together to encourage collaboration and setting of common goals?

RF: I’ve always been a “big-tent” guy. We are too small of a market to separate into correct and incorrect cyclists. But look at the bicycle industry, which ranges from the bicycle retailer all the way up to the manufacturer. At issue is the enormous pressure they face to either make that month’s payroll or that quarter’s sales goal. That pressure is important to appreciate. There is the choice to either focus on selling that $400 bike to a student, which may be the first of say 20 bikes purchased in her lifetime, or focus on selling that plastic surgeon the last bike he’ll ever purchase for $13,000. But I see it less as a choice and more as a question: how do we as advocates help the industry to develop BOTH customer bases?

This is also where I believe the racing community is really important. Advocates have been unwise in failing to recruit them to their ranks. Those riders are the alphas who are spending upwards of 30 hours per week on the roads interacting with motorists and pedestrians. They also impact the behavior and purchasing decisions of other cyclists. Most of them evolved through the purchases of equipment and apparel to foster a true cycling lifestyle that involves training, touring, AND commuting. Improve their conduct and you improve all cycling conduct.

The club ride is arguably one of the most important things we do as a recreational cyclist. A club ride in the Netherlands is a modicum of proper cycling to be emulated with every ride. Ride with a pro, a real pro like Tim Johnson, and your group will churn along smoothly without ever hearing a car horn. But a lot of group rides are run with a Lord of the Flies attitude. This is something bike shops and clubs need to discourage - it sets us all back.

Colin: On a related note, many might not know that Massachusetts has a strong and growing bicycle industry. What role do you think they can play in supporting statewide bicycle programs?

RF: Had you told me in 1978 that Italians would fly to America just get a bike made in New England I would have pulled over laughing. Just look at Seven, Parlee, and Firefly to start. This is like having Ferrari and Lamborghini in your backyard. Then consider that Craft, Todson, Kryptonite, Vittoria, Pedro’s, and others are anchored here and you get a sense of the power we have. But they have not been as engaged with local advocacy as they could be. These brands may not have a lot of disposable income but they have considerable energy and impact that we need to engage. Our job is to tell their story as part of our story. Look at what Trek has done in Wisconsin. That has worked for both the state and the company.

Colin: Speak for a moment about what originally drew you to bicycling and what keeps you coming back for more?

RF: The bicycle is the world’s most perfect invention. I grew up riding bikes but I truly embraced cycling at age 17 when I started commuting during college. I’ve been a passionate cyclist for nearly 40 years. That includes racing at the pro level, year-round commuting, charity rides, some epic touring, and my coffee shop rides on the weekends.

I often say that every cyclist, myself included, is a work in progress. We each enter this lifestyle through a variety of doors. For some it may be a charity, for others it may be fitness or recreation. But I believe the biggest draw to cycling - especially in Boston, the world’s biggest college town - is the economics. I go door to desk from Lexington to Boston in as little as 37 minutes without ever running a red light. No parking. No insurance. No gas. No traffic jams. And at age 54 I still wear the same size jeans I wore in high school despite my fondness for sausage and craft beers.

Colin: Let’s wrap up with what advice you would tell someone who is considering getting on a bicycle for the first time.

RF: Invest in a good bike that fits properly and buy stuff at real bike shops. Then ask questions. Too many cyclists quit learning way too soon. I still learn something every time I ride.

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