No unification: National advocacy groups decide against merger plan

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on August 16th, 2012 at 10:59 am

The big unification plan announced last February by America's three largest bicycle advocacy organizations will not move forward. The three groups announced today that they "affirm shared goals and continuing collaboration" yet they "decide to remain separate."

Here's more from the official announcement:

"After months of steady dialogue and face-to-face meetings, the leaders of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, Bikes Belong and League of American Bicyclists have decided not to pursue full unification at this time. The three groups continue to operate independently, in close collaboration, to make bicycling safer and more enjoyable for all Americans."

The unification idea was touted as a way to "transform" bicycling and "speed progress in creating a bicycle‐friendly America". The thinking was that if the resources and membership bases of these three groups could be melded under one banner, the national bike movement would have a more powerful, unified voice on the national stage. However, the devil was in the details.

The groups' announcement today mentioned the challenge of streamlining the different legal structures, membership bases, project priories, and even how to merge the various headquarters locations. Each organization would also have had to get their respective Boards to agree to the plan.

From my perspective, this announcement is not a surprise at all. To have made this work, these groups would have had to be willing to sacrifice their own distinct brands and associated egos (and I use the term ego in a broad sense, to describe how people feel about themselves and their work) for a greater good of unifying the bike movement and making it more powerful. In other words, it would have meant — to some extent — sacrificing individual fiefdoms for a more powerful, united empire.

As someone who has watched the non-profit bike advocacy world as an outsider for several years, I knew that would be a tall order.

At the National Bike Summit last March, I got a sense from one of the groups involved in the merger talks about just how politically difficult and sensitive the unification would be. I was invited to cover a meeting which staff from one of the groups would moderate. Once word got out that I'd be attending with my notebook and camera, it set off a commotion. I was told I must meet and talk with the group's leader before I got to the meeting. What's the big deal? I wondered. Turns out the group was very concerned with how my reporting might reflect on their involvement with the meeting attendees and how that involvement might impact the highly sensitive merger talks. I was shocked at how concerned they were over what was really an innocent story. That incident raised a red flag for me about how difficult this unification plan would be. If they were nervous about one reporter in one relatively unimportant meeting, how could they manage a complicated merger of three huge organizations?

Local advocacy groups would have reaped huge benefits from the merger. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance's Executive Director Rob Sadowsky told me shortly after the unification plans were announced that, "I'd say the locals like the BTA have the most to gain from the new model, something we have been dreaming about for years."

The dream was to combine the financial power and marketing prowess of industry-backed group Bikes Belong, the membership base and national lobbying presence of the League of American Bicyclists, and the Alliance for Biking & Walking's connection to local and statewide advocacy groups.

"Imagine one advocacy card in your pocket," is how Sadowsky explained it, "A unified [membership] database that can tap into a very large advocacy machine."

Perhaps this decision against the unification is symbolic of the wildly diverse opinions about bicycling that exist in America today. Is it even possible to expect "American cyclists" to speak with one voice and join-up into one big family? I'm skeptical. Wide chasms remain in how people feel about everything from separated bike facilities to helmets. I don't think this diversity is bad; but from a political — and advocacy — standpoint, it's messy.

The three groups said today that the unification talks and negotiations helped them re-affirm their "shared vision," but for now, they'll work on those visions as separate entities.

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  • peejay August 16, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I long for the day when all of these groups will be unnecessary.

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    • Chris I August 16, 2012 at 11:18 am

      I disagree. Autos dominate our lives, and we still have organizations like AAA. This is sad news, because we need a unified, large bike lobby if we have any hope of taking on the monstrous auto-lobby groups.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 16, 2012 at 11:31 am

        We have AAA because people like the service they provide. People don't sign up for AAA because they see themselves as advocates or part of the "motoring movement."

        I believe there's an argument to be made for PJ's point. If you see bicycling just as a regular thing - a way to move yourself from point a to point b - and not as something to join or celebrate, they why would you feel compelled to become a member/part of a movement?

        If you see yourself as needing to fight... Then you have to fight and there's a chance you will lose. And if you are smaller, less organized, and not as powerful, you will lose more often and it will hurt more.

        If you see no need in starting the fight to begin with (at least the "fight" in the classic advocacy/lobbying sense), then you can't lose. They can't beat you up if you don't fight to begin with.

        Perhaps bike groups should focus more on service (teaching people how to ride, providing insurance and other protections/amenities), and less on advocacy and politics? Then perhaps they'd end up having more impact in the long run.

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        • chucklehead August 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

          They'll still be outspent 1000 to 1.

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        • Doug G. August 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm

          True, but AAA has a HUGE advocacy and lobbying arm, fighting against things like toll increases, gas taxes, and some regulation of the automobile industry that they feel would be detrimental to business. They use all of those membership dues to levy some heavy influence on Washington. If there's a highway that people would like to tear down somewhere or a bridge that a city wants to toll, you can bet AAA is fighting against it.

          But the spirit of the initial comment is noble. Eventually it would be nice to get to a place where people join some sort of Bicycle Association of America for the personal service they provide. The powers that be at the organization can then continue to lobby behind the scenes for better biking infrastructure.

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          • anon1q2w3e4r5t August 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

            I also predict that this fourth group (mentioned in post below) will be similar to AAA of the auto world, and I believe the auto world will finally have a worthy opponent.

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  • Art Fuldodger August 16, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Jonathan, what do you see as the main differences in advocacy & policy perspective between the three groups? Or are they essentially interchangeable?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm

      They are quite different, which is one reason I think they had trouble reconciling.

      Bikes Belong is funded by the bike industry, which is enamored mostly with the racing/performance/product side of the equation. Yes, Bikes Belong funds a lot of wonky advocacy/policy stuff (grants and Green Lane Project) just to name a few... But the spirit of the org is rooted in racing and the industry side of things (leader Tim Blumenthal is a former industry journalist who worked at VeloNews). Bikes Belong is the slickest, most well-heeled group on the national bike stage (and I say that with love and respect of course).

      The League is sort of like the wise yet still spunky grandfather. They started this whole thing way back when. Today they are based in D.C. and focus a lot on national legislation and policy (hence their big event, the National Bike Summit). They are really the wonks in the movement who help many of us understand important federal legislative stuff.

      The Alliance of Walking & Biking is an umbrella group made up of all the local, city/state advocacy groups like the BTA, CCC, and so on. They are the ones who train professional advocates on how to be more effective and make their organizations stronger.

      Each one has a distinct and important role, that put together could be very interesting... I think that's what they realized when they began these talks.

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      • anon1q2w3e4r5t August 16, 2012 at 11:03 pm

        I predict a fourth group will emerge in the future to counter Bikes Belong.

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      • Lois August 17, 2012 at 8:24 am

        Tim Blumenthal was also the Exec Director of IMBA (Intn Mountain Bicycling Association) from 1993 to about 2003 and was hugely influential in IMBA's success. During his tenure, a number of milestones happened that brought credibility and trail access to mountain bikers.

        I've watched and contributed to Bikes Belong since it's inception when John Burke of Trek shocked the audience at a bicycle industry conference by performing a skit dressed as an old man reminiscing about the history of bicycling changing America. Bikes Belong is much more than a racing-oriented organization...it is about getting more people on more bikes more often, no matter what kind of bike and no matter what kind of people. Bikes Belong engages the bicycle industry in bike advocacy which is sometimes more difficult than one would imagine but is also changing due to Tim's energy, leadership and inspiration.

        Each of the three organizations has a purpose, a target audience and a different member base. They are all needed. While collaboration is necessary it is better that they stayed separate.

        There are a number of other national bicycle-related organizations that are doing great work and deserve our support, including:

        - Adventure Cycling: mission is to inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle. We help cyclists explore the landscapes and history of America for fitness, fun, and self-discovery

        - Rails-to-Trails Conservancy: mission it is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.

        - Intl Mountain Bicycling Assn: mission is to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences.

        In my book, anyone on a bicycle (or tricycle or unicycle) who is wheeling somewhere on their own power is a great thing. The more the merrier, so let's all work together and support each other to get more people on more bikes more often.

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  • GlowBoy August 16, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    I'm with Chris I. We need more advocacy (at least nationally), not less. People may not sign up for AAA because they see themselves as advocates, but AAA certainly sees themselves as advocates. We're up against a very powerful and influential adversary.

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  • chucklehead August 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    As always, preservation of the group outweighs its purpose.

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  • CPAC August 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    This is a real tragedy. With the current surge in the popularity in biking and a amazing amount of political will (Emmanuel pledging to make Chicago the most bike friendly city, Bloomberg installing all those separate bike lanes in New York...) the time for a unified national voice is now.

    And I like the idea of building membership by providing services. Imagine a BAA with roadside assistance and that provided bicycle "trip tics" along bike-friendly routes? I'd join and pay...

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  • Ted Buehler August 16, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    I'm glad they decided against it.

    There's power in a diversity of ideas and strategies.

    And constituencies.

    LAB is a bicycling organization, represents the public. Bikes Belong is industry, Alliance for Bicycling and Walking is active transportation.

    Bikes, in particular, have very few entities that look out for the specific needs of bicyclists. There's a long pattern of advocacy groups starting out representing bicyclists (mainly because of the "active transportation modes" bicyclists a) face death daily, and b) are uniquely affected by poor engineering. Then these groups tend to think that they can get a broader constituency, have a broader sway in decisionmaking, etc. if they include walking and transit. And they get diluted, and fail to focus on bicycle issues.

    I'm glad to see that we still have two distinct groups in DC focusing on bicycling issues.

    Good work, LAB, BB & A4W&B, keep it up!

    Ted Buehler

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  • anon1q2w3e4r5t August 16, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    I had this epiphany after reading a few people's posts, which were quite informative, thank you.

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  • MarkB August 21, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    I'm with Chris I. We need more advocacy (at least nationally), not less. People may not sign up for AAA because they see themselves as advocates, but AAA certainly sees themselves as advocates. We're up against a very powerful and influential adversary.
    Recommended 1

    Chris I
    I disagree. Autos dominate our lives, and we still have organizations like AAA. This is sad news, because we need a unified, large bike lobby if we have any hope of taking on the monstrous auto-lobby groups.
    Recommended 1


    Peejay was wishing wistfully for the day when those organizations would NO LONGER BE NEEDED, because they had 100% succeeded! Shift up a gear or two, huh?

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