by James Thompson, Advocacy Director, Gainesville Cycling Club
With all of the hullabaloo over the traffic-calming bike lane test on NW 8th Ave., you would think the great front in the battle to improve our city is taking place on the street. Indeed, bike lanes on paved roads have been the enduring and traditional approach to improving multimodal transit in Gainesville since the early 1980s. But the global bike-ped advocacy movement has caused us to rethink approaches to politics and urban planning.
It’s not just about building more lanes, but about getting people out of their cars, changing perceptions about safety, and urging our community leaders and government to make progressive decisions about multi-modal transit. Jeff Mapes’ Pedaling Revolutions: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities catalogues these trends across our nation. They are beginning to emerge in our own community.
While thought of as an island of peace in a dangerous cycling state, Gainesville is actually only one of nine “bike-friendly” cities in Florida designated by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). While we no longer own the only LAB “Silver Star” designation in the State (Venice, FL has one), we are by far the most bicycle-rich community in the Southern United States.
The 2010 U.S. census put us in seventh place nationally, ahead of cycling mecca Portland, Oregon, for percentage of commuters that use pedal power (about 7 percent, versus the national average of 0.6 percent). The census counts permanent residents, so the actual number is likely higher given our student-heavy demographic.
Aside from actually riding your bike, which is step one to becoming a pedal advocate, there are many organized (and not so organized) groups and activities that provide an avenue into getting involved with this community.
The Gainesville Cycling Club (GCC, www. gccfla.org) is the big gun in town, even though its formal advocacy program is less than three years old. At 1,100 members, we are the largest dues-paying organization of any kind in North Central Florida. The club was set up as a certain kind of not-for-profit that can endorse candidates and lobby. We endorsed a winning slate of candidates in the last County elections, also helping to defeat a roads tax with no bike-ped provisions.
Historically members have helped design and get passed most of our bike infrastructure, such as the extensive bike lane system built in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But they typically did so as individuals, not as a unified club. Founded as a purely recreational club, GCC has an excellent event calendar. It does archive a lot of inside information on bike-ped politics in our community. Almost all of the recreational group rides around town are run by the GCC.
The Kickstand is an all-volunteer community bike shop, largely devoted to helping the working middle class and poor fix what is often their only means of transportation—a bicycle. With social media and the growing need for non-commercial bike venues, it has evolved into a pretty fun group as well. This is probably the best place to get immediately plugged in to the active branch of our cycling community. They just got a new warehouse space as well, which should allow them to expand their volunteer opportunities. Plug in at “The Kickstand,” a Gainesville page, on Facebook.
Gainesville Citizens for Active Transit (GCAT) is, to this advocate’s mind, the most exciting new development. The coalition roundtable includes outspoken and knowledgeable advocates such as Ron Cunningham (former Gainesville Sun Opinion Editor and current C.E.O. of Bike- Florida) and South West Advocacy Group and Kickstand leader Rajeeb Das. The group is fairly new, but will likely change the face of transit advocacy in Gainesville. Talk to g_cat@googlegroups. com for more info. Help shape this group in its infancy.
County Government is an area where we most need help in bike-ped advocacy. Under Florida law, the County Commission controls almost all paved surfaces in and around Gainesville, since they are State Roads. We currently have an uncomfortable 3-2 bike-ped/transit majority at County, with Lee Pinkoson and Susan Baird typically favoring traditional car-way improvements. Pinkoson makes some good points and can be swayed. Baird has been upfront and unwavering in her opposition to bike-ped. On the other side, Commissioner Byerly leads the bike-ped threesome with Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson and Charles Chestnut. You can contact them as a group at bocc@alachuacounty. us. Remember under Florida Sunshine law, all these messages are public. The press reads each one, every day. Be ready to end up quoted in the newspaper.
While it is generally pro bike-ped, the Gainesville City Commission controls very few roadways. They are more responsible for things like putting in extra bike parking downtown, and for overseeing local law enforcement’s efforts to improve traffic education. The city also operates the Regional Transit System (RTS), an award-winning jewel in our multi-modal network.
We have a solid majority at the City on bike-ped, and an uncertain majority on public works multi-modalism (MM). “MM” is simply the interactive planning for all forms of transit, from foot to bus to train to car and more. It takes a holistic approach that neither diminishes nor elevates the reality of the automobile.
Mayor Ed Braddy is the ideologue in this case, being strongly supportive of an “American Dream” suburbia and a highly privileged motor traffic. He has come out in favor of expanded bus infrastructure, in part to capture swing votes from working class voters disgruntled with local Democratic Party political decisions. Commissioner Todd Chase is coming around, but don’t expect bike-ped votes from him just yet. These two officials and their supporters rely on emotional appeals rather than national or global data, so be careful, don’t get frustrated, and stick to your message when speaking before them.
On the positive side, rookie Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls recently solidified our 5-2 majority on larger transit projects like express bus park-and-ride and controversial de-laning trends. Hinson-Rawls cast a 4-2 “yes” vote with Commissioners Susan Bottcher, Thomas Hawkins, and Lauren Poe on moving forward with a multi-modal proposal as part of the proposed County Transportation Surtax. Commissioner Randy Wells was unable to attend that meeting, where he likely would have voted with the majority. He was critical in encouraging the start-up of GCAT.
The City is important for other reasons. The human-made trails in our city thoroughfares and park systems provide much bike-ped connectivity. The City is trying to connect them even more. A less discussed asset are the 70-odd miles of “in-town” trails in the metro area owned by the people of Gainesville through city ease- ments or through our public utility, Gainesville Regional Utilities. These fire roads and alleyways are typically groomed by volunteer trailkeepers (another opportunity to work!) and offer both connec- tivity and recreation for locals in the know. More and more of them are appearing on Google Maps under the “Bicycling” tab in green. Other communities have made these trails more open to mitigate street traffic. We can do the same.
The City Commission can be reached at email@example.com. Sunshine laws apply.
And finally, Gainesville Critical Mass. This tends towards the more libertine side of bike activism—no leaders, ad-hoc event planning, mild civil disobedience (impeding traffic) and the like. While critical masses have evolved in other towns to leave from different locations with smaller groups, ours is a more traditional mass event as of this writing. Look for flyers, ask around—the virtual group has no consistent social media and no website (by design). CM was a fun and powerful introduction to bike advocacy for many in my generation (35+), and will likely continue to be.
If you do get involved at any level, from County Commission meetings to Critical Mass, try not to get distracted by the safety warriors on one side—cycling advocates who get angry at people without helmets (fewer than 10 percent of us wear them) or who misconstrue Florida Department of Transportation data to make cycling seem unsafe. If you correct for the numbers of cyclists we have, accident incidents are lower in Gainesville than most similar-sized Florida cities.
On the other side, don’t despair of the anti-bike crowd. The classic version of the American Dream—motorized suburbs—is a powerful part of their, and our, cultural heritage. Car-only advocates prey on this ideal and try to scare people into believing we are trying to take their cars and their lifestyle from them.
While younger and family-aged Americans are trending towards less driving and more transit-oriented communities, we will be dealing with the anti-bike crowd for some time. Together we can help them and others understand our community’s needs, one voice, and one pedal stroke at a time.
If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.