I spent most of last week in Washington, DC, at the League of American Bicyclists’ “Bike Summit 2012.” It was two days of workshops on what to say and, then, a day to say it to our Congressman and two Senators.
I didn’t want to have a car in the city but I couldn’t find a practical alternative to get there. So, after contacting some local people to find out where you’re allowed to park a car for several days, I drove to Gaithersburg, MD, parked my car, and rode my folding bike to the Metro station. A half hour later, I was in downtown Washington with a bike, ready to reach all the interesting places without being hampered by a car. My hostel was only a few blocks from the conference venue and both those places were only a 10 minute ride from the Capitol and all the office buildings we meant to visit.
The point of it all was fairly simple. The House had just passed a budget bill that literally stripped out all funding for bicycling and walking enhancements, for rail trails, or for projects like safe routes to school. The Senate had passed a much better bill, one that LAB felt would be very good for our interests. But, as usual these days, Congress was stuck with two diametrically opposed blocks unwilling to collaborate. So, it was an opportune time for us — over 800 people strong, the most that had ever assembled for one of these lobbying events — to get our stories straight and tell them to the lawmakers.
A very clear survey of our message, along with a sense of who was at the conference, is in the StreetFilms video.
On Thursday, appointments had been set up for us to visit our Congressman’s and both Senators’ offices. I was one of only three people from Maurice Hinchey’s district and we had a very pleasant visit with the young aide and, then, a surprisingly unhurried visit with Hinchey himself when he walked through the waiting room. Of course, he was very cordial and sympathetic to our pleas — even in a lame-duck term, we were his constituents.
Senatorial visits were less personal. There were some thirty of us in the New York delegation and we were met only by aides — very pleasant, incredibly well-informed young people who took the time to write down any information or requests we cared to make. At Schumer’s office we crowded into a small conference room, but Gillibrand’s staffer marched us to the end of a sunlit hallway where we stood and speechified for some 20 minutes.
These were really intense days, long hours in the information sessions with almost no time to get outside at all. The LAB people had really prepared a very thorough educational campaign for us. By the time we set forth to see the legislators, everybody had internalized the pitch as second nature. Thursday came the office visits. Mine fell at 10:00 am, 11:00 am, and 4:00 pm. In between, people congregated in a church basement near the Capitol and I found my way to lunch with some attendees in a Senate cafeteria.
At 5:00, all the lobbying was done and we were treated to a final gathering in a House conference room. Caterers set up tables of mysterious morsels and free drinks — several kinds of wine, Bud, and Bud Light. I took a Bud just to reconfirm how little I like it. A couple of the VIPs turned up as well — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave a few words and the indomitable Rep Earl Blumenauer gave impassioned thanks to all of us for making a difference. When LAB president Andy Clark took some time to talk, I found myself standing next to Blumenauer and took the opportunity to thank him for the tremendous support he has given to us non-motor fans.
On Friday morning was the part of the event that made me want to go in the first place — a bike ride around the city. It’s called the “Congressional Bike Ride,” and I was told this is because some Congressional bigshots actually join in sometimes. Not this time, though. The route was a bit of a puzzle. I expected to see the postcard scenes along the Potomac, monuments, memorials, and such. Instead, we headed in the opposite direction through some residential streets, then an industrial-looking area, eventually skirting a naval preserve where we were forbidden to enter that morning and finally, somehow, emerging by the Washington Monument and winding up at the start by the Capitol. Well, any ride is a good ride, especially after three solid days of talk and confinement. On the ride I had a chance to greet the now-considerable number of people I knew, including Leo Anderson, from Texas, someone I had been on bike tours with. About eight of us on Bike Friday bikes got together at the end of the ride to take a photo — brand loyalty, there’s nothing like Bike Friday brand loyalty.
As soon as the final picture was snapped, I headed back to the hostel, where they generously let me delay checkout by an hour so I could get a shower before collecting my belongings and heading home. A short ride to the Metro and a half hour on the train brought me to the Shady Grove station near Gaithersburg. Riding my bike out of the station was frustrating, as all the traffic seemed to be routed in the opposite direction of where I needed to be going. But, eventually I found my way out, retraced the route to where my car was parked, and settled in for the drive home.
Following the news, it’s hard not to be cynical and dismiss government as a lost cause. But I think the reality isn’t quite that stark. Yes, there is much that’s wrong, there are no doubt many legislators swayed by interests other than their constituents. But, there are also an incredible lot of conscientious, smart people in Washington and at every level of government. I think we got to speak to some of them and, to that extent at least, it felt like a few days well spent.
The Bike Summit is over, but the work needs to continue. This is a good time for you to get in touch with your elected officials in Washington. They truly are paying attention to voices from their home districts. Look up their contact info and shoot them a personal message saying why you value federal funding for bicycling, walking, safe routes to school, rail trails, and the like. It will make a difference.