BY LYNETTE CARPIET
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Bike Summit broke records last month as 525 advocates, transportation and health officials, suppliers and retailers donned power suits—and fluorescent bike pins—to make a case for bicycling at the nation’s capital.
That’s 100 more than last year. Almost half of the total was first-time attendees.
“This movement has reached a tipping point,” said Trek president John Burke, who attended six meetings with congressional members and staff for the state of Wisconsin. “It used to be a party trick, but now this is serious stuff.”
Burke, a founding member of Bikes Belong, attended the first Summit eight years ago when it was a group of some 100 advocates clad in Lycra who met in the bowels of a dingy hotel.
“The importance has remained the same,” he said. “This is the easiest way to grow our business.”
The industry seems to be coming to that realization, with some 70 retailers and 60 suppliers participating this year, according to estimates from the League of American Bicyclists, the event’s organizer.
“We have the CEOs of Trek, Giant, Pacific, Fuji, SRAM, Saris and QBP,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League at a dinner that kicked off the three-day event.
Feeding that growth was the National Bicycle Dealers Association, which awarded $1,000 scholarships to 25 dealers to cover their travel and lodging expenses. Bikes Belong also sponsored several advocates, suppliers and retailers, and gave $5,000 to the International Mountain Bicycling Association for it to award as scholarships.
“I used to feel the Reagan Center was too big for us. Now I feel the break-out rooms were too small,” said Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, the event’s lead sponsor. “It was the first time we came close to filling the theater on Wednesday morning.”
Break-out sessions on the second day covered local, state and municipal efforts to encourage biking as transportation, sources of funding for cycling projects, cyclists’ rights and the National Park Service’s Centennial Initiative, which was one of the asks this year.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a staunch supporter of cycling, delivered a moving welcome, urging attendees to fight for bikes as part of a solution to the nation’s infrastructure crisis, global warming and dependency on foreign oil.
Transportation leaders discussed how biking is gaining leverage as a legitimate mode of transport—pointing to more buses and trains equipped with bike racks and the $4.3 billion spent on bike facilities in the past 16 years through the federal transportation bill’s Transportation Enhancement Program.
That bill won’t come up for reauthorization until next year, however the League still armed delegates with asks to bring to their representatives. These included:
• Signing on to Congressional Resolution 305 introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). It identifies 20 specific benefits of cycling to make a case for a national strategy that includes cycling in efforts to tackle climate change, obesity and congestion.
• Cosponsor or support the Complete Streets Act of 2008, introduced in the senate by Tom Harkin (D-IA). The bill requires states and metropolitan planners consider the safety of all users including motorists, pedestrian, transit users and bicyclists in the design and construction of new roads.
• Co-sponsor or support The National Park Centennial Challenge Fund Act. The campaign seeks to infuse $2 billion into national parks to restore and repair them by their 100th anniversary in 2016. IMBA signed a partnership with the National Park Service three years ago and endorses this bill as it would improve riding conditions and access for mountain bikers.
Each state delegation then took to the Hill with its own strategy. Florida, for example, had eight delegates who split into teams and visited all 27 district and senate offices, said Alan Snel, director of the South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, an alliance of seven bicycle stores in the Tampa Bay area.
“Retailers have to become political if we’re going to survive,” said Snel, a first-timer who attended thanks to an NBDA scholarship. “We need to have relationships with advocacy groups and planners.”
Scott Montgomery, general manager and vice president of Scott USA’s bike division, was part of the six-person Idaho delegation that met face to face with senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo.
“We had such access it blew me away,” said Montgomery, also a first timer. “In a small state like Idaho, we employ 50 people—that’s important. Because we’re a smaller state, I believe we have a bigger impact and influence,” he added.
One success that came out of this year’s event was filling the co-chair seat on the Senate Bike Caucus. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) agreed to lead it on the republican side, joining Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL).
But more importantly, in meeting with lawmakers delegates helped lay the groundwork for 2009, when transportation dollars will once again be on the table.
“Next year it’s going to be critical to have a huge turnout because we’ll have a new congress, a new administration and president and the funding bill will be up for grabs,” Clarke said. “My brash statement that we need to double the number of people there wouldn’t be a miss.”