Bike City, USA, just lost its largest bike advocacy organization. Sort of.
After 26 years pushing for better bike amenities in and around Portland, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance announced a big shift this morning: It's done focusing solely on bikes.
The nonprofit organization will add transit and pedestrian issues to its advocacy platform, and has plans to get political. The group will found a 501c4 advocacy arm—which would allow it to recruit and endorse candidates—and potentially a political action committee that would allow it to fund campaigns.
"It’s about growing the political clout to win and build communities that are more bicycle friendly," BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky tells the Mercury. "Twenty-six years ago when we were formed, bicyclists were kind of rare birds. They were the folks who felt like they didn’t have any rights. In today’s world, we bike, but that’s not all we do."
This isn't the first time Sadowsky's overseen a switch like this. In 2008, when he worked for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, that organization broadened its perspective to embrace pedestrians and transit, dubbing itself the Active Transportation Alliance. Sadowsky says the swap initially turned off some supporters, resulting in the group losing around 150 members. The Active Transportation Alliance soon gained far more than it had lost, he says, meaning more money to work with.
"It helped with opening conversations on the regional level particularly in suburban communities," Sadowsky says of the switch in Chicago. "It helped get over that us vs. them approach."
Which is a big part of the point. Portland may have the largest percentage of bike commuters of any big city in the country, but the conveyance still polarizes. Just the word "bicycle" can close doors to conversations about street improvements in the city (and its suburbs). By expanding its message to encompass safe and accessible streets more generally, BTA's board thinks it can take some of the edge off.
That doesn't mean it'll be widely accepted. The BTA in recent years has already seen criticism from some bike community members who see it as ineffectual and unwilling to take aggressive stands—say with civil disobedience.
"We may have been that kind of gusty organization at one point," Sadowsky says. "We don’t see that as the way to be effective today."
Plenty of people have stepped in to fill the gap—most recently the cloak-and-dagger Transformation PDX, which has been installing traffic cones, speed signs, and crosswalks around town without permission.
Sadowsky anticipates a mixture of reactions to this morning's announcement, including grousing from the city's cycling activists. "The folks who are really concerned in the biking movement, I would say to them, give us some time let us prove that we’re right."
Some of the shifts at the BTA will occur immediately. Others—like an eventual name change and rebranding, establishing an advocacy arm, and deciding whether to move forward with a political action committee—are still months off.