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Friday, June 29, 2007

Dave Snyder: visionary velorutionary

Image of bicycle and transportation justice activist Dave SnyderI first encountered Dave Snyder following a Critical Mass ride in San Francisco in early 1995. At the event's conclusion in Yerba Buena Gardens, he was circulating through the celebratory crowd with a clipboard and membership forms for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which at the time had perhaps 300 members. How could I not admire an activist who spent his Friday night organizing?

Shortly after that night I joined the SFBC, and I would later serve as the organization's newsletter editor, committee chair, and board member--working closely with Dave. Snyder co-founded (or resurrected) the SFBC in 1991 and served as the organization's executive director until 2002, building the organization from a handful of members to a powerhouse of 4,500. More than almost any other single individual, Snyder deserves credit for the transformation of San Francisco into a more bicycling friendly city today. In recognition of his work, Snyder received the SFBC's Golden Wheel Award in 2003.

After leaving the SFBC, Snyder founded Transportation for a Livable City (now Livable City) and served as its chief executive for two years. He later served as the director of program development for the Thunderhead Alliance, promoting best practices in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy and planning, to strengthen local advocacy organizations throughout North America. He currently serves as Transportation Policy Director for the thinktank San Francisco Planning & Urban Research (SPUR), where his job focuses on improving public transit and promoting major expansion of the public transit system in the Bay Area.

I recently asked Snyder for his impressions of how San Francisco has changed for bicyclists in the past decade, on the 10th anniversary of the pivotal 1997 confrontation between Critical Mass and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, hailed by some as the "Stonewall of the bicycling movement." Less significantly, 2007 is also the 10th anniversary of my modest bicycle commuting tips website.

Bike Commute Tips: What is the biggest positive change you've observed for bicycling in San Francisco in the past 10 years? What were the factors that facilitated this change? Could this change have happened without advocacy? Can this change be replicated in other cities, or is it unique to San Francisco?

Dave Snyder: The obvious answer is: more bicyclists! Somewhere between double and triple the amount in the last ten years. Just getting more bicyclists on the streets is the single most important thing we can do. It strengthens the movement for more improvements; it improves motorist behavior as they get used to dealing with bicyclists on the streets and learn to respect us as they meet more and more of us at the water cooler. No, it could not have happened without advocacy, and yes, it can be replicated, almost anywhere.

Bike Commute Tips: What are the key social, cultural, or political factors beyond on-street infrastructural enhancements (bike lanes, sharrows, etc.) that have improved bicycling in San Francisco?

Snyder: It's dangerous to separate these factors from each other, as the physical infrastructure and the social and cultural factors and degree of political support all reinforce each other. In every case, some factors are more important than others.

Which factors advocates should emphasize will vary somewhat by community, but there are best practices we can learn from and a standard way to determine which improvements to emphasize in specific communities. The Thunderhead Alliance publishes a checklist to help advocates prioritize. Local bicycle advocacy organizations should be a member and will have access to it. In short, whatever bike adovocates do should both (1) improve the environment for bicyclists, permanently and substantially, and (2) build organizations into a stronger, richer, better known advocacy group.

When you advocate for a bike lane, be sure to recruit members, and thank your politicians who supported you, and build your organization's reputation in the media, and throw a party to celebrate. In this manner, you'll support the growth of bicycle culture in your community, and help elect a bike-friendly city council.

Bike Commute Tips: How has the perception of bicycling as a transportation mode changed in San Francisco? How mainstream has bicycling become in political or policy circles? Are policy makers viewing it more seriously? Is the general public receptive? What are the key factors for this shift, if any?

Snyder: Bicycling is mainstream in political and policy circles only to the extent that everyone knows they're supposed to think about it, but not in the sense that in the highest levels of the bureaucracy, where real power is wielded, bicycling is taken seriously. New neighborhoods are planned which don't apply bestpractices for bicycle planning.

The Transportation Agency director doesn't really think that bicycling will ever get more than a couple points of mode share and therefore doesn't allocate sufficient funds. The Health Department director doesn't calculate how much heart disease would be prevented if we hit our 10 percent mode share goal. So while all these powerful people pay lip service to the idea, they don't actually allocate the resources necessary to meet our goal.

The media like to say the Bicycle Coalition is so powerful, and among the general public based on conversations I have in numerous social and political circles, the conventional wisdom is indeed that the SFBC is powerful, but that supposed power hasn't been used to leverage attention to bicycling issues beyond the extremely marginal role it currently has. So the answer is, the politically correct class will tell you that bicycling is important, but they won't actually deliver on that statement.

Bike Commute Tips: You were involved in the founding of the Thunderhead Alliance, and later worked for the organization assisting local bicycle advocacy groups. What is the significance of the Thunderhead Alliance? Given the dominance of the oil-auto industries in national government, is progress for bicycling more likely to come at the local level? Is grass roots advocacy the key?

Snyder: The reason why strong local advocacy is key isn't the dominance of the oil and auto industries at the national level, which is certainly the case and undoubtedly a problem, but the fact that most transportation policy decisions are made at the local level. The oil lobby lost the fight long ago to restrict federal money to highways (with the passage of ISTEA in 1991); now, local communities can spend it how they want. But most local policy makers don't take bicycling seriously.

Thunderhead works to create, strengthen, and unite local and state bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups, to give a voice and some power to our movement at the levels where it matters most. Thunderhead shares best practices in advocacy and organization-building, and should really be the first place an advocate turns to learn how to make a difference in their community.

Bike Commute Tips: In San Francisco, we have generally made progress in spite of, not because of politicians. In other cities--Portland, Paris, New York, Chicago--there seem to be politicians with more visionary inspiration or motivation. What is lacking in San Francisco? What will it take to move the political establishment to be more receptive to alternative transportation, and especially bicycling?

Snyder: What is lacking in San Francisco is the translation of the political support we actually do have into actual improvements. I disagree with your premise that we don't have the right politicians: we just haven't been strategic with our advocacy. If we asked the city to spend one percent of its annual transportation and capital operating budget on improving bicycling conditions, we'd win that fight, and it would quintuple our bicycle budget.

With that kind of money, the best planners and public relations consultants could be hired to plan and build support for the bicycle network the same way those people are hired to build major transit improvements such as BART to the airport. The SFBC should put that simple question on the ballot: "Should the MTA be required to establish a "Bicycle Transportation Account" dedicated exclusively to promote bicycling for transportation primarily through the construction of the citywide bicycle network and fund it to an amount not less than one percent of the MTA's annual budget for operating and capital improvements?" We would need exactly 50 percent plus one. It would get most of the endorsements. It would win.

Bike Commute Tips: What are the remaining challenges in San Francisco you would most like to see improved in the next decade? Based on your experience as a bicyclist and advocate, how optimistic are you that these challenges will be resolved?

Snyder: Delivering on the impression that bicycling is important in San Francisco with allocation of real resources. We've built a huge political consensus that we need to "complete the citywide bicycle network." (A recent poll of 400 registered voters found stronger support for that transportation improvement than any of five asked, including a network of transit-only lanes.) Despite this degree of support for a complete bicycle network, we don't have a plan that illustrates what such a network would look like nor what it would cost to build. The current draft plan does not come close to doing this. In a city with a $6.1 billion annual budget, including well over $1 billion for transportation capital and operating, we spend less than $2 million per year to improve bicycling! That's frankly embarrassing.

Almost everything we set out to do when I started the SFBC in 1990--17 years ago--remains to be done. I do appreciate how far we've come, but for all those who say we've come a long way relative to where we need to go, I say "phooey on your impoverished vision of a bicycle-friendly city!"

The means to get our mode share to 10 percent of all trips (up from three percent today--that's the average of what the SFBC says and what the National Household Transportation Survey says) are well known, simple, affordable, and politically feasible. It bears repeating: we know how to triple bike mode share, and there's political support for it. We can do it in ten years. I don't want to wait another 17 years only to come as far as we've come in the last 17 years, which is to say not very far.

The reason I'm so impatient is that I never envisioned bicycling as the most important urban agenda; I've wanted it to go on auto-pilot so that so many of the effective bicycle advocates can work on other issues, and in my opinion it will go "on its own" once we hit 10 percent of all trips by bicycle. With admittedly no evidence I believe that that's the threshold at which no transportation-related plan is made without assuming that bicycling is important, with or without advocacy.

The Netherlands has a 40 percent bicycle mode share with an advocacy organization one-third the size of the SFBC. Advocates really aren't needed there; the important role of bicycling in planning has made itself evident, and that day can come here. I want to see that day before I die, but if progress continues at the same pace, I won't. In another 17 years I'll be 58 years old so we have to make much more progress in the next 17 years than we've made in the past 17!

You asked if I'm optimistic, and the answer is 'yes.' The political support we enjoy is much stronger now than it was in 1990. I am working to get the city's Bicycle Program an extra few million per year to spend. That should necessitate another plan, which might seem a little silly to some considering we will have just approved a plan, but if people just appreciate that the current draft plan was written with extremely limited resources and necessarily focused on setting priorities for our current paltry budget for the next five years and not a realistic assessment of what it would take to get to 10 percent mode share, they should be happy to support the development of a new plan looking ahead 20 or more years.

Image: Dave Snyder.
Visit: Anna Sojourner: The city on two wheels
Visit: Sunday Interview: Two Wheeled Revolutionary - San Francisco Chronicle, 08.10.97
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

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