How Two Oklahoma Republicans Restored My Faith in Bike Advocacy

By RICHARD FRIES
Executive Director, MassBike


I arrived at Thursday's National Bike Summit reception forlorn. For I had just experienced exhilarating success on Capitol Hill.

Seems ironic, eh?

In this 15th edition of the Summit, every Congressional leader of Massachusetts had pledged full support for everything the Massachusetts delegation had asked. Markey, Neal, Warren, Capuano, Moulton, Kennedy, Keating, Lynch, Tsongas, Clark, and McGovern had all opened each meeting positively: “Whatever you want we are behind you.”

But by day's end the elation I had felt from this overwhelming stance of support soon turned to dread as my predecessor David Watson reported the following:

“They would support everything we wanted but noted that not one thing would pass,” he said ruefully.

The Vision Zero bill in the House? Dead on Arrival.
TAPIAS in the Senate? No freakin' way.

Dead. Done. Morto.

I solemnly shuffled towards the buffet of surrender with about 700 colleagues, all wearing our colorful lapel pins, wishing to drown our sorrows in fried food and dips. With the reception doors bolted shut, I hovered patiently with a few friends and honestly questioned why we were here. All seemed, well....tired. This would be my eighth National Bike Summit. Each year this pep-rally – three of which I pedaled 500-plus miles to attend – proved sufficiently uplifting to keep my faith for 11 more months.

But this edition proved unequivocally down.

Mind you this was an internal response. The external reaction was powerful. The speakers, organization, exhibitors, and guests and attendees were as scintillating as ever. But knowing that the red state lawmakers, in their car-only approach to transportation, were determined to scuttle each and every initiative.

Watching all the younger attendees in the breakout sessions focused on such issues as “gender diversity” and “Vision Zero” I could only hang my head. They were innocent lambs to the legislative slaughter.

But amid this flotsam and jetsam of the summit I could swim to several pieces of wreckage on which I could cling for hope.

The first would be the comments of our Tuesday night keynote speaker Mick Cornett, Republican Mayor of Oklahoma City. (The thrust of his comments made us are pretty much mirrored in his TED Talk here.

So allow me to frame this picture for you. Here is a mayor of a conservative Midwest city in a conservative Midwest state focused mainly on their oil and natural gas heritage who is proudly reporting how his commitment to bike-ped infrastructure helped his community lose a collective 1 million pounds. His tale is poignant, side-splitting humor. But it is truth.

But the wind of that speech had faded by the time I reached the end of the summit.  All of the effort and preparation of our Massachusetts delegation seemed about as wasteful as military infantry training for World War I. Fast or slow, weak or strong, prepared or not, we were all simply getting mowed down by the Republican machine guns in control of the high ground.

My lamentations were not tolerated by my friend Jack Johnson, marketing director for Landry's Bicycles and a perennial attendee of the Summit. “You have to go back 30 years and look at it like smoking,” he said, noting that efforts to ban smoking in public buildings were scoffed at for 40 years before it became the norm. Nowadays one could not light up in a school, an office, or a restaurant without drawing the wrath of others. They shifted the paradigm.

I sniffled that he was right...but I did not truly feel any better. I felt like quitting.

Then I encountered Caron Whitaker, a native of Beverly, now serving as Vice President of Government Relations for the League of American Bicyclists, which hosts the Summit. I whined a bit. But she stopped me mid-sentence.

“Did you see Inhofe's quote in Politico?” she asked.  I said no. She pulled up her phone to reveal the quote from Senator James Inhofe.

She texted me the quote from the Oklahoma Republican who heads up the Environment and Public Works Committee and is widely considered to be the number one opponent to having any federal funds directed towards bicycling. Some of you may have seen Senator Inhofe when he pulled a snow ball out of a Ziploc bag last month to show his Senate colleagues proof that global warming was a hoax.

So one can imagine how hysterical his views may be against bikes. But word is out that he is personally quite friendly with California liberal Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who is strongly aligned with bike advocates, and Mayor Cornett is a dependable supporter for Inhofe during election years.

Perhaps those two political leaders are softening him up.

Here is the clip:

UPHILL BIKE BATTLE UNLIKELY: National Bike Summit attendees can breathe a sigh of relief. Kevin (Robillard) caught up with Senate EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe, who says while he would prefer not to have bike/pedestrian programs in the transportation bill, he also knows how to keep it real. “I would be one to fall into that category, but I'm also a realist,” Inhofe said when asked about calls from conservative groups to remove the programs. “And I know that in this environment we have right now, we won't be able to do what I would like.”

MORE FROM THE MAN: “The argument conservatives are using – and some of the conservatives are running for a higher office, so they're motivated a little differently than I might be – is that anything that doesn't directly relate to gasoline shouldn't be part of this. You can argue that about mass transit and a lot of other things.” But Inhofe said he didn't see “any danger” of the bike programs being removed from the bill as a result of the conservatives' talk.

Sometimes by simply not going away, we go forward.

I had to recall the mantra of the Delta force assembled to find, capture and/or kill Osama Bin Laden. While most people would lean towards a strategy of fire, they deployed a strategy of being like water: strong, fluid, and constant.

I realized we in bike advocacy need to adopt the same mentality. Many of us enter the world of bike advocacy with a strategy of fire; but after 15 years of the National Bike Summit, the polite pressure we have brought to bear on Congress – like water: strong, fluid and constant – is working.

I'll be back in 2016.

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