“Going for the Gold!”
Guest blog by Ron Cunningham
[Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May, guest bloggers including FBA board members and staff will be writing blogs of interest to our members for “National Bike Month.”
I live in Gainesville, Fl., a great college town and a better than average bicycling community.
Our city has, for many years, held a silver-level bicycle friendly community designation from the League of American Bicyclists, and we aspire to the gold. We have a respectable and still expanding system of off-road multi-use paths and rail-trails, miles of on-road bicycle lanes, and now the city is making plans to designate at least two “bicycle boulevards” in town.
Oh yes, and you ought to see our nifty new double helix-shaped bicycle bridge that crosses over 13th Street just west of the University of Florida’s campus. It’s a spectacular “gateway” to our city.
Our transit buses have sported bike racks for years. The racks in our downtown business and entertainment district are almost always full. Our city has a “Complete Streets” policy that emphasizes alternative modes of transportation.
My point is that the cycling culture isn’t exactly new to Gainesville; we’ve been steadily improving conditions for cyclists (and pedestrians) for years.
Funny thing, though, in the past couple of years I’ve witnessed something of a backlash against cycling here in Gainesville. It shows up most frequently in letters to the editor in our local newspaper that often portray cyclists as “freeloaders” and heedless of the rules of the road. But anti-cycling rhetoric has also become all too familiar at local city and county commission meetings.
The elimination of two traffic lanes and the addition of bike lanes on a one-mile stretch of NW 8th Avenue – a stretch that runs through a city forest and past a public park to approach an elementary school – created a public outcry that very likely cost an incumbent city commissioner her seat recently. And a similar “calming” of Main Street to create a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly (and business-friendly) downtown, likewise elicited howls of outrage from motorists who claim that the result has been absolute gridlock (actually a city study shows that the redesign of Main Street has lengthened the average daily commute on that road by about a dozen seconds or so.)
As a result of the last election the commission is likely to reverse the calming of 8th Avenue, and one commissioner has proposed the city require licensing of bicycles, primarily as a revenue-raising strategy to help ensure that bicyclists “pay their fair share” for the roads they use. That notion of cyclists freeloading at the expense of the motorists who actually pay for the roads flies in the face of reality (the reality being that driving is one of the most highly subsidized activities in America). Nonetheless it seems to be gaining currency in our city.
Personally, I own two automobiles and three bicycles. Every time I leave the motorized vehicles in my driveway and use one of my bikes to get around town, I’m adding to, not detracting from, the life span of our streets and roads.
That Gainesville of all places is showing signs of a bicycle backlash is an indication that we in the cycling community may be losing the public debate over the use of our public streets and roads. There is ample evidence out there about the health, recreation and economic benefits of cycling, but if nobody is using that evidence to counter the anti-cycling vitriol that sometimes seems to dominate our public discourse, we are all of us the losers.
Last year several of us got together and formed GCAT, or Gainesville Citizens for Active Transportation. As the name suggests, it’s an advocacy group that exists to speak up for the rights of cyclists, pedestrians, transit users and others who want to get around the city using some form of transportation other than an automobile. GCAT’s mission is to ensure that when cycling, walking and transit are on the public agenda, someone will be on hand to counter the political rhetoric and vitriol with facts, figures and reason.
GCAT is off to a good start. Our members are writing letters to the editor of their own to counter the myths and distortions that have spread regarding the redesign of 8th Avenue, Main Street and other transportation-related controversies. During the last round of city commission elections, GCAT interviewed candidates, issued endorsements, and even sponsored a candidate forum. Our members have spoken at commission meetings and public hearings, lobbied individual commissioners, and otherwise participated in the public discourse whenever transportation issues are up for debate or discussion. We’ve got a Facebook page and are working on a web site.
Has all this made a difference? Frankly, it’s difficult to tell at this point. GCAT is still a relatively new entity and we’re still introducing ourselves to the community. But over the long term our goal is to establish GCAT as a recognized, credible player in the ongoing transportation debate in Gainesville.
If there is indeed a cycling backlash unfolding in this cycle friendly city, we believe GCAT and like-minded organizations are necessary counterbalances. Along with the Gainesville Cycling Club, with its large and active membership, and other partners, GCAT intends to be part of the active transportation solution to the city’s complex transportation problems.
Ron Cunningham is executive director of Bike Florida and serves on FBA’s board of directors.