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What Do They Really Think? Perceptions of Biking on Capitol Hill

We’ve got to admit: We were a bit surprised. While we often head to Capitol Hill thinking bicycling is a tough sell, turns out, most members of Congress already get it. And, thanks to new data gathered by Douglas Meyer, a consultant at Bernuth & Williamson in Washington, D.C., we now know what messages work and which ones miss the mark.

2013 National Bike Summit, afternoon and evening events—Sadik-Khan, Ray Lahood

This morning at the 2013 National Bike Summit, Meyer (pictured at left with the League’s Caron Whitaker) presented results from 30 interviews with both Republican and Democratic staff in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

“These are some small but not unimportant bumps in the road,” Meyer said.  “But with a little bit of bicycle handling, advocates can get over and past them.” There were a number of compelling findings in Meyer’s research, but the most important take-away: Biking is not a fringe movement. Advocates no longer need to pitch the legitimacy of bicycling as a mode of transportation. “You’ve been asking for a seat at the table — it’s time to sit down,” Meyer said on Tuesday. In fact, staffers told Meyer that lawmakers’ image of bicycling has shifted from  a middle-aged man wearing Lycra, to a working woman using a bikeshare program to commute to work. Adding to that credibility was the visible and vocal support of outgoing Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, who consistently positioned bicycling as an important mode of transportation. The good news: Everyone understands that biking is a key piece of the mobility puzzle. But Meyer’s research also revealed challenges — and opportunities. Other top findings included:

  • Bicycle advocates as “sore winners:” The interviews revealed that federal lawmakers generally believe bicycle advocates don’t get just how successful we were in the passage of the new transportation law, MAP-21. While opponents aimed to eliminate all funding and eligibility for bicycling, Congressional allies and grassroots mobilization kept biking in the bill. By spreading the message that MAP-21 was a loss for bicycling, has painted us as “sore winners” to many on Capitol Hill.
  • Dedicated funding is not the end all, be all: While many in bicycle advocacy have pushed hard for dedicated funding streams in MAP-21 and other federal legislation, many on Capitol Hill don’t take well to the idea. They say the funding trend is away from the federal level, and has moved toward local and state decision makers.
  • The future is a multi-modal transportation system; embrace it and use it: Rather than pitching Congress on the “bicycling movement,” staffers felt advocates would be more successful if be frame biking as a key cog in a larger multi-modal transportation system.
  • Asking for a “fair share for safety” doesn’t resonate: To lawmakers, asking strictly for funding sounds like a money grab. Asking for safer streets through performance measures — or a national goal — is far more compelling. After all, bicyclists are a “cheap date,” and provide tremendous return on little investment.

Click here for Meyer’s full presentation. And stay tuned for more from the Summit… Photo by Brian Palmer


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