Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bicyclists and car drivers are not (usually) separate groups

An email arrived today from a colleague in another part of the country. She was posting a questionnaire her bicycle advocacy group had sent to candidates for office. Like many groups around the country, they wanted to see the candidates' feelings and attitudes towards certain issues in the community. The answers would be sent to members and shared with the public.

By the way, this is one way for a 501(c)3 organization, which are generally thought to be prohibited from political activity, to be involved with elections. Sending a questionnaire and sharing/publishing the results is fine, as long as you send the questionnaire to all candidates and don't endorse.

However, the first sentence on this questionnaire was, "We believe great places to live provide transportation independence for those who do not drive motor vehicles."

This bothered me a bit, and below is the response email I wrote.

You start off with the the statement, "We believe great places to live provide transportation independence for those who do not drive motor vehicles."
I think this is a bit of a disservice to your/our cause, and also to those of us use bicycling and walking as everyday transportation modes. I own a car and drive. But I also bike and walk more frequently, and obviously believe strongly in the necessity of having these options for all in the community. 
It is not just those that "do not drive motor vehicles" that need these options. It is all of us! We all know why, so I won't go into that.
But we need to think about how we portray ourselves, and making a sharp dividing line between "pedestrians and bicyclist" on one side, and "drivers" on the other is not going to help both our image and our cause. We are everyone. We are you. We are your neighbors, friends, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, teachers, city officials, store owners, and the rest of the people you see every day. We are normal. 
Not driving is seen as something for the poor, the very young and very old, and people with disabilities. Or worse, people who have had their license taken away (although that seems to stop few in Wisconsin, the only state where a first OWI is a civil forfeiture, like a parking ticket, and you have to have 4 OWIs in 5 years to make it a felony.) In very large cities, obviously not driving is more normal for middle class and professional people, but there are few of these places [where you live] and most states.
We know that this is not the case, but we need to point out that everyone needs good access to non-motorized transportation, not just the non-drivers. 
I see this in news articles, community discussions, and policy documents. We talk about bicyclists as if they are not also drivers. I would venture to say that 95% of the people on this list own a car and drive. When we are told, "Bicyclists don't pay for the roads," - because people think we don't pay gas taxes - we have to point out again and again that we pay gas taxes, car registration, and licensing fees, because we are also drivers. And we are also property owners, and in Wisconsin property taxes pay almost 100% of the costs of local roads, the ones that most of us use for biking. 
We also hear, "Bicyclists don't obey the law." Of course, drivers don't obey the law either - speed limits, yielding to pedestrians, full stops before entering the crosswalk, etc. But it is much easier to say, "Most bicyclists are also drivers, They probably don't obey the law when driving either." It personalizes the violation, so it's not the vehicle that causes the law-breaking, it's the person. And it points out that bicyclists and drivers are not separate, segregated elements of the community, but simply the same people making a separate choice for that trip, like running shoes, dress shoes or loafers on your feet. 

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