Change is afoot once again at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. The Portland-based nonprofit organization announced today that they’ve embarked on a major transition that will result in a new name, a new mission, and a new entity that will allow them to be more engaged in political lobbying.
“This is about building a broad political tent that can move policymakers.”
— Rob Sadowsky, executive director
The organization plans to no longer focus solely on bicycling and will expand their mission to include advocacy for better transit and walking. In addition, the BTA board has voted in favor of creating a 501c4 alongside the 501c3, a move that would give the BTA more tools to influence elections and politics through endorsements, direct political lobbying, phone-banking for candidates, and so on. The 501c4 would also offer memberships to other organizations with aligned missions: like Oregon Walks, the Community Cycling Center, 1000 Friends of Oregon, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, and others. After the reorganization is complete the BTA could lead a new political action committee (PAC) that could have wide-ranging impacts on elections and policy measures statewide.
In an interview with BTA leadership last week I learned that this change has been in the works for many years.
When the BTA hired current Executive Director Rob Sadowsky in 2010 he said, “We’re going to try to build a movement not just around pedal-power, but around how we relate to the streets.” This type of reorganization isn’t new to Sadowsky. As leader of the major bike advocacy group in Chicago in 2008 (prior to coming to Portland) he shepherded an organization through a very similar change. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation changed their name to the Active Transportation Alliance and expanded beyond a bike-focused mission. Justin Yuen, a software business owner and current chair of the BTA’s Board of Directors said conversations ramped up at a board retreat in 2013.
“This is about building a broad political tent that can move policymakers,” Sadowsky says.
It’s also about keeping up with the times. The national bike movement has for years been moving beyond a bike-only narrative: The once-named Oregon Bike Summit is now the Oregon Active Transportation Summit. Agencies like the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Portland Bureau of Transportation aren’t hiring “bike coordinators,” they’re hiring “active transportation coordinators.” Some of that reflects the reality of the work being done — a more holistic, “complete streets” approach. But this is also about optics and the cultural baggage cycling carries (a.k.a. “bikelash”).
Sadowsky and one of his top advocacy staffers Leanne Ferguson say starting a conversation with bicycling first often makes it harder to win respect and buy-in from key partners.
Ferguson works with partners ranging from the public health sector to affordable housing advocates. “I think we’ve been working to overcome that [negative reaction to cycling]… We’re starting from a place of weakenss of having to only focus on this one form of transporation and for the work we’re doing with safe routes that starts us a step back. So this is going to make the story line up with the work and that’s going to bring more people along.”
“Coming at it from an advocacy perspective as a silo can sometimes set you back,” Sadowsky added. “We want to be looking at how our streets serve everyone who uses them not in a car.”
For Ferguson, who heads the BTA’s Safe Routes to School programs, the changes can’t happen fast enough. “I’m super excited because the work I’ve been doing with safe routes for the last 10 years has always been multimodal,” she says. “For me, this is our mission finally incorporating the work that I love. This is a really big moment for me and our work at the BTA to really embrace the multimodalness of the work we do.”
Think of it this way: Instead of the BTA pushing for a bikeway through a neighborhood, they’ll be working to make sure the neighborhood itself is a great place to be. “It’s not about the bike, it’s about transforming communities,” Sadowsky says, “‘Twenty-minute neighborhoods’ [a planning phrase championed by the City of Portland] is really the end goal.”
In many ways, the changes will only enshrine the type of approach the BTA has already been taking. At a meeting last week Sadowsky shared an internal BTA document that lays out their 12 guiding principles. The reorganization would only slightly change four of them. In two of them the word “bicycling” is simply deleted and replaced with “active transportation.” And in another, the words “walking and transit” have been added to a sentence that reads, “We work for…. incentives for bicycling, walking and transit.” A guiding principle that used to read, “The ride is just as important as the destination,” gets changed to, “The or the stroll is just…”.
For a glimpse into the future of the BTA, look no future than the For Every Kid campaign that was just in the headlines last month. In that work the BTA led a coalition of partners (with a diverse variety of missions) under the Our Healthy Streets banner order to solidify support for safe routes to school funding at Metro.
Internally, Sadowsky says “It feels like a natural transition point.” But for members, existing partners and the broader public, he acknowledged “We have a lot of translating to do.”
When it comes to the BTA’s existing work plan the changes are also relatively minor. Their Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School work are already multimodal by nature. Their Women Bike initiative would remain, as would the Bike More Challenge (although Sadowsky said they could do a “Take Transit More” challenge in fall). When advocating for new infrastructure on big streets like SW Barbur, instead of pushing for a protected bike lane, the BTA would work for a complete street with transit and walking facilities too.
“If a protected bike lane gets put on a street, but at the expense of pedestrian infrastructure or access to transit,” Ferguson says, “It’s not a win.”
Realizing that some members might cringe at the thought of the BTA without the “bicycle,” Sadowsky says the organization is making two key promises: “We won’t accept a partial win if bikes are cut out.” For example, he continued, “If 82nd ends up with bus rapid transit but no protected bikeways, we would not call it a win. Bikes will always be a high priority.” And the second promise: “We won’t take resources away from our current bike advocacy work and put it towards transit or walking.”
A big part of this change is about raising more money for the organization. With a broader mission that includes walking and transit the BTA will be able to talk to a wider range of potential donors. Sadowsky recalls that after Chicago went through a similar change, “A lot more resources came to the table.”
From his experiences in Chicago and knowledge of New York City’s nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, Sadowsky says a multimodal approach is the only way to create real and lasting change. “The bicyclists bring the energy and the individuals, the transit and pedestrians work brings the institutions — and a successful political movement needs both.”
When it comes to politics, the creation of a 501c4 could give the BTA wide-ranging political powers. As a 501c3, they are not legally permitted to directly engage in partisan political lobbying. Sadowsky says he wants to form a leadership training program to develop the next era of politicians and train existing ones. As a c4, the BTA could also phone-bank and directly lobby for their preferred candidate. In local and regional elections that are often decided by just a few thousands votes, this could prove pivotal. If the BTA could flex its membership — and the membership of affiliated organizations through a new 501c4 — to vote for a specific candidate they could help win majority support for active transportation projects and policies in Portland and across the region.
Sadowsky expresses regret about the BTA’s inability to directly influence Portland’s mayoral election four years ago. “When Charlie [Hales] ran, we would have loved to have been more involved. And I think the result that all of us got was kind of a weak mayor.” And now, with incumbent City Commissioner Steve Novick in a runoff, the BTA has to sit on the sidelines. They’d prefer to support him after he successfully won a gas tax increase, but their 501c3 status prevents them from jumping into the race.
These changes could also help the BTA define who they are. The organization has struggled to find their identity since the tumult in 2009 when they abruptly let go their advocacy director and executive director much to the chagrin of many members. At the end of 2009 the BTA was at a turning point. And the changes kept coming in 2010. Just months after the arrival of Sadowsky the BTA’s finance director and development director resigned and eight new board members were elected.
As the seas continued to shift, the BTA launched a $50,000 branding and communications makeover in late 2010. Then in 2012, the BTA weathered harsh criticisms from their founder Rex Burkholder. (Reached for comment today Burkholder said he wasn’t yet fully aware of the changes and had no opinion on the matter.)
Much of the tension has centered around how aggressive the BTA should be.
A group that rose to prominence for a gutsy lawsuit against the City of Portland in the early 1990s hasn’t shown that kind of fight in years. And Sadowsky says that’s by design. In Salem for instance, he wants the BTA to focus on big funding battles and high-level policy changes and, “A lot less bicycling rights.”
“I don’t really want to get involved on what an intersection design on Ankeny and 15th should look like,” Sadowsky says, “I want to be on big policy wins that are going to bring more resources down. We want to see if we can shift the dynamics of politics, that’s very different that shifting the dynamics on the street.”
Does the BTA’s shift in direction open up an opportunity for a more bike-centric group to emerge? Perhaps one like BikeLoudPDX (which doesn’t have its nonprofit standing yet)?
“We bless and encourage a group like BikeLouder[sic] to do things in a way that we don’t do and have a different set of values and principles that guide their work. They’re both equally important but the BTA has intentionally moved away from that work because we wanted to see $3.5 million for Safe Routes to School,” Sadowsky explained, referring to their recent work at Metro and the need for the BTA to focus on a major campaign instead of reacting to every bike issue that pops up.
Times have changed, Sadowsy says, and a biking-only lens on the issues is “too narrow.” In fact, if the BTA was formed today, “We would not form as a bike-only organization,” he says. “We’ve gone beyond that unimodal need, when bikers were really crazy wearing really bright gear made by the Burley Cooperative in Eugene on bikes that maybe we built ourselves ’cause there weren’t enough shops around.”
“Which was awesome, like 20 years ago,” Ferguson interjected, “But we don’t have to do that anymore.”
The BTA wants their membership to rise from its current level of 3,400 households to 10,000 households by 2021. Sadowsky feels, “The only way to get there is to go multimodal.”
He recalls that in Chicago, prior to the big name change, support for cycling seemed to reach a ceiling. “There are just only many people who are willing to write a check and say, ‘I’m a member and I’m willing to wear a bike tattoo on my arm. As biking got more successful people saw themselves as less in a club or needing to be in a club.”
It’s important to note that nothing has officially changed at the BTA yet. Today’s announcement will be followed by a series of listening sessions to gain feedback from members about how exactly the organization should be structured. There are a lot of unknowns at this point — including what the new name will be — but the BTA’s board has voted that the changes can move forward. Structural changes and a new name are expected to be in place by this fall.
Amid such major change and with many decisions still to come, Sadowsky is sure this is the right step to take. “I’m confident we’re right and that this transition is going to make a big shift for us. It’s going to make a big shift politically and that it’s going to increase our clout. When we’re proven right, you will see more things on the ground.”
We’ll have more on this story in the coming days and weeks. Stay tuned.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Our work is supported by subscribers. Please become one today.