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An Interview With Caron Whitaker: 10 Years Working At The League

This month, deputy executive director Caron Whitaker celebrates 10 years of working at the League! Caron started with the title of vice president of government affairs in 2012 and has since spent over a decade strengthening and leading the League’s federal policy efforts to secure policies and funding that benefit people biking, walking, or rolling on streets across the country. After being promoted to the title of deputy executive director in 2020, Caron has taken on the role of assisting with the organizational strategy of the League in addition to being our eyes and ears on the Hill. 

The League’s federal policy efforts have always been crucial to our work – since the late 19th century, in fact! In the last year, the League’s efforts on the Hill helped achieve unprecedented investments in safer, connected bicycle networks and pedestrian walkways and other life-saving projects in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including a 60% increase in Transportation Alternatives Funding. Thanks to our bike advocacy efforts, that’s billions of dollars in federal funds heading to communities like yours to be used on projects that make biking easier and safer.

We sat down with Caron for a work anniversary Q & A to reflect on 10 years of building better bicycling on the Hill.

Q. How did you make your way to bike advocacy in general and the League specifically?

I had been working on international environmental policy in the early 2000s and was looking for a change. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work on something that felt more local and tangible. I was a bike commuter, and living without a car, so when a one-year position for the Campaign Director job for America Bikes came available in 2008, I jumped at it.

America Bikes was a coalition of all the national organizations designed to focus on federal policy, so working with the coalition I got a sense of all the different organizations. When America Bikes went dormant in 2012, I was lucky enough to get a job at the League. I really like working for the League because of our ability to be nimble in our response to changes in Washington.

Q. What is your favorite part about leading the League’s federal policy efforts? What excites you most?

The truth is, I’ve always liked politics and policy, and I like solving puzzles. This position lets me do a little of both. I think of my job as solving two puzzles.

The first is talking with state and local advocates to find out what we as bike advocates want — what would work best to improve bicycling on the ground. I really enjoy learning about different situations and finding commonalities. Then, the second is figuring out how to get us as close as possible to our goal, while writing legislative language that fits into existing law, and garnering enough congressional support to pass. If there is a third part, it is then taking that answer and explaining it to congressional staff, our membership and the public. That is my chance to test if I got the puzzle right!

Q. What do you see as the League’s biggest accomplishments since you started here in 2012?

In 2014, when we updated our mission to include “for everyone”, and said we’d do that in part through “listening and learning”. That in and of itself was not an accomplishment, but I feel like over the last decade we have increasingly worked to implement listening and learning and improve our programs to be more inclusive. We still have a lot to learn, we make mistakes, and we’re not there yet, but I feel like we are committed to getting there — and I’m proud of the work we’re doing. 

On the federal policy side, I’d say it is the bike provisions in the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. We secured an additional $10 billion for bicycling and walking infrastructure and safety over the next five years, and we made some policy changes that we hope will make it easier for local governments to access it. 

We have come a long way in building bipartisan support for bicycling and walking. When I first started, support for funding for bicycling infrastructure was divided pretty sharply along partisan lines and very controversial. Because of the work of the community — at the local, state and national level — bicycling and walking infrastructure spending was not controversial this go around.

Q. What is your biggest hope for the bicycle movement in the next decade?

I am really impressed with the work happening at the state and local levels! I’d love to find a way to better share and support that work. Capturing and sharing those successes has a significant impact on the progress of the movement. Also, it will always be true that we need to continue advocating for federal funds, but we also need to figure out how to make the funding easier to use.  

Q. What’s surprised you the most about the past 10 years of bike advocacy?

How far-reaching the love of bicycling is, and how much people who love biking want to help others bike better. Whenever I need information or help from an organization or agency, I just need to find the bicyclist in the group. I also marvel at how much a relatively small bike movement is able to accomplish.  

Q. What advice would you give to someone who is already active in the transportation world but would like to “break into” federal policy work?

First, I’d suggest watching our webinars and following our blog to learn more, but assuming you are already doing that…

Look for opportunities to lobby —  including coming to the National Bike Summit and/or volunteering with your local advocacy organization (or me) to do district visits with your elected officials. That will give you a chance to practice listening and learning how to respond to their interests and questions. Being the eyes and ears in that office for your local advocacy organization and for the League will give you some hands-on experience in understanding the pieces of the puzzle.

Q. What’s the best piece of cycling advice you’ve received in your time here?

Keep moving forward! I think it’s a tagline from Mark Wyatt at the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

Q. What is the most meaningful conversation you have had with an advocate or decision-maker during your time here?

In 2014, we hired a qualitative researcher to do confidential interviews with congressional and administration staff in order to understand their perspective on the bike movement. What surprised me was how offices heard our message differently. I remember we had a campaign called “Fair Share for Safety.” We were arguing that states should spend more based on bicycling and walking fatalities. Specifically, we were saying that if bicyclists and pedestrians made up 15 percent of traffic fatalities, then states should spend 15 percent of their safety dollars on bicyclist and pedestrian safety.  

When conservatives heard the phrase “fair share for safety” they felt that the “fair share” of a mode that spent nothing on the gas tax was nothing. That was the end of that fact sheet. However, those same staffers did believe in the federal responsibility that our roads be safe for everyone using them. In the 2015 transportation bill, we earned several concessions on safety for bicycling and walking but did not see the increased investment we had hoped for. The next time we had a chance to change the safety language wasn’t until 2021 — but this time we were successful.