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What the bicycling movement could learn from the climate movement

Keya ChaterjeeSometimes when I’m biking to school with my five-year-old son and a person gets too close to us with their car, I feel a surge of rage that only subsides when my son pipes in and says something like, “Wow he must have had a really big emergency if he was driving so fast and almost hit us.” After hearing my son’s ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes, I usually calm down. I channel my energy into the organizations I work with to change things for the better because, as my son says, “we should have no more tailpipes blowing in our faces when I grow up.”

By day, I am Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Evenings, I serve on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. For the most part, I’ve kept my advocacy worlds separate, but recently at the National Bike Summit & Women’s Forum I was challenged to reflect on why maybe they shouldn’t be kept quite so separate. It reminded me of my son’s ability to take on different perspectives, and I tried to take a moment to look at the climate movement with bicycle lenses and vice versa.

Here’s my working hypothesis on our views:

1.  Most climate advocates know someone who rides a bike as their primary form of transportation and many climate advocates regularly commute by bicycle, but don’t see bicycling as a relevant solution to climate change because bicycling doesn’t get you huge and immediate reductions in carbon pollution.

2.  Most bicycle advocates understand the climate crisis is an existential threat to society and that riding a bike is a way to use less fossil fuels, but they do not talk about climate change in their advocacy. They find more saliency with messages about individual health benefits rather than leading with the less tangible societal benefits of reduced pollution.

3.  Bicycle advocates and climate advocates feel that they are already marginalized groups and don’t need to associate with another marginalized group that is barely relevant to their core work, so the movements move in parallel.

And maybe we are right. Maybe it makes no sense to combine forces. In one sense, climate advocates and bicycling advocates are already on a roll. Bicycling mode share is increasing in major cities, with bike share spreading through large cities like wildfire. Climate activists have gotten massive pipelines rejected, secured huge international treaties and are on the cusp of regulating greenhouse gases from the electricity sector.

The reality, though, is that neither movement is anywhere near where we need to be to be to save humanity. And that is why we should consider learning more from each other.

Below are some lessons we might bring from the climate movement to the bicycling movement and vice versa.

Lessons from climate to bicycling

1.  Diversify yourselves and your approaches

The climate movement has been called out for being overly wonky, non inclusive, and lacking diversity. So what can be learned from us?

First, learn from our mistakes! Communities of color and low income communities are hit first and worst by climate change, tell us in polls they care deeply about the issue and only now are we finally celebrating the leadership from those communities. We should celebrate leadership from communities of color and low income communities more! We should diversify our staffs — both in bicycling and in climate advocacy, and we should take leadership from communities of color and low income communities who rely on bicycles to get to work. We should embrace economic justice as a core end goal and highlight leaders in our movement who lead with equity and economic justice.

Second, get bigger. We need three things in place to create change: an activist base, a majority of the public that is sympathetic to or permissive of our views and political leadership. The climate movement has organizations that focus on direct action and civil disobedience, organizations that focus on engaging corporations and conservatives to our positions, and organizations that focus on securing political leadership. The bicycling movement could develop far more activists and grow faster with a richer ecosystem of approaches.

2. Think communally and think about the end game

The climate movement’s language is more about society benefiting from a just and fair transition from fossil fuels than about any individual homeowner’s benefits from solar panels. The vision of the climate movement has a particular end game, and it involves everyone in society. This kind of communal thinking can help everyone see how they are part of the solution. I definitely hear communal thinking in bicycle advocacy, but it doesn’t seem to be what we lead with. And yet the societal benefits of bicycling are palpable. Imagine a city where many people can choose to avoid the $8000/year of owning a car, a city where people who need to get to work before transit opens are protected, where kids can bike to school and where asthma and heart disease rates go down year after year. Imagine a city that lives the example of what it looks like to tackle climate change head on and have a transportation infrastructure that can pop back up hours later after climate-related extreme weather hits. That’s a city that probably has at least a quarter mode share and a lot of protected infrastructure. That’s a city I want to live in!

Conversely, there is so much I have learned from the bicycling advocacy community that would take another article to delve into. The climate movement needs to celebrate leadership from city councils and other local elected bodies, integrate with communities through events, showcase how we fit in with the new economy, show off the jobs we create, get infrastructure built well from finance and planning to implementation, help our activists embrace their identity as a part of the movement and have more fun!

At the end of the day, I identify both as a bicycling advocate and as a climate advocate. Transportation is 23% of greenhouse gas pollution in this country, so the two issues are inextricably linked. I’m in both struggles for the long haul because both movements have to win to realize my son’s vision of a world where he is grown up and there are no more tailpipes blowing in his face. 

Keya Chaterjee is Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network