For 14 years, Tim Blumenthal has led PeopleForBikes, Nau’s Partner For Change dedicated to advocacy for all forms of bike riding. Drawing on a 38-year career in cycling that’s taken him from editorships at Velo News and Bicycling Magazine to leading the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), Tim has helped grow PFB into a powerful voice for bikes with over a million constituents.
In this interview, he shares how PeopleForBikes is changing the conversation about cycling in the US, and why his favorite ride is close to home.
For those who aren’t familiar with PeopleForBikes, what does your organization do?
We work to get more people riding bikes more often, and to make bike riding better for everyone. When we say, “everyone,” we’re even talking about people who don’t ride or will never ride a bike—and that second part is really important to get broad buy-in and support for better bike infrastructure.
You’ve been at PeopleForBikes for almost 15 years. What’s changed in that time?
Well, one thing for sure is we’ve helped change the way that bicycling is viewed by government. Whether we like it or not, the rules that the government set, and the funding the governments provide is absolutely central and crucial to the bicycling experience.
We’re really proud that the federal government has invested 10 billion dollars in bike infrastructure and related programs in the last 15 years. That investment has been essentially doubled by states, counties, cities and towns. It’s about 20 billion dollars. Money’s not everything, but bike infrastructure has improved.
What else have you tried to change?
I think we’ve had some success in changing the mainstream image of bicycling from being something that is quirky and a fringe activity that only certain types of people do. We have more work to do, but the image of bicycling as both practical and fun is changing. We’ll know that we’ve really succeeded when just about anyone feels like they can ride a bike without ever self identifying as a cyclist—the simple idea that the bicycle can be a practical and cost effective way to get quickly from point A to point B.
The idea that it’s more than a recreational activity.
Yeah, and we’re on the right track there. Then, I think we’ve elevated the credibility of the economic benefits of bicycling. The bike business—you know, bikes, helmets, clothing, tourism—provides a lot of economic benefits of all kinds. We’re telling that story and that really has helped us in our relations with government.
So what are you working on now?
We’re really getting transportation planners and cities to recognize that painting white stripes on pavement is not going to be enough for most people to feel safe when they ride bikes. We’re expanding the concept of protected bike lanes, and also complete networks. The idea of thinking of it as an interconnected system that offers a broad variety of experiences.
It’s funny, but it seems like in the places with the best cycling infrastructure—places like Amsterdam—bikes have transcended ‘bike culture’ to just become part of everyday life.
Yeah, we really resist the term ‘bike culture’ because—not to be too critical—but we don’t want the helmet or the clothes, the lycra or the fitness to discourage people because they say, “That’s not me and it’s not going to be me.” So we try really hard to go broad with our images. We’re trying to redefine what it means to ride a bike.
So how do you achieve that?
Well, we divide almost everything we do into “PeopleForBikes” and “Places for Bikes.” When we say people, it’s people as a political force. We have now 1.23 million people in the PeopleForBikes network. We have the ability to contact them and encourage them to weigh in with their mayors, their city council, their county executives, their state government. Even, occasionally, congress and the administration.
On the places side, we lobby government, we give grants, we work with partners, all to develop better places for bikes. That’s going really well in cities. Suburbs are a challenge. It’s going pretty well in some spots in rural areas and in some places it’s just really difficult and has to do with the way that roads were built. The way that communities were developed.
Why do you think this work is so important now?
If I had to stack it, I would say first would be climate and environment. The second would be health benefits tied to bicycling. Third would be economic benefits—and they’re all kinds, including increasing retail sales where there’s good bike infrastructure. Certainly higher property value, higher quality of life. Four might be just the lifelong benefits of just being happy and having fun.
You know, I think there’s a tendency in our society at this time to look first at complex technical or technological solutions. There’s almost an unwillingness to believe that something as time tested and simple as the bicycle could actually be really, really helpful in improving our lives and improving our planet. We know that’s true, but it’s also very important for us not to be smug, condescending, or over the top. We have to be measured, even though in our hearts we’re wildly enthusiastic about the upsides of bicycling.
Do you think cycling is facing policy challenges today?
Absolutely. In the United States, our net population gain is about 2.5 million people a year. When you add 2.5 million people to a finite space, even a big space, chances are good that a lot of places are more crowded than they’ve been. And unfortunately our country is not keeping pace with international standards on developing and maintaining infrastructure. So we have a lot of work to do to develop a seamless multi-modal transportation network that moves people and goods more efficiently. It’s a big opportunity for bicycling.
So how can people get involved?
Well, the number one way is just to simply go onto peopleforbikes.org and sign up.
I would also would recommend that people pay attention locally. A lot of communities have solid bike advocacy groups. At the very least, every community has city or town management that’s working on new infrastructure, parks, things like that.
The third thing would be to introduce a neighbor, a family member, or friend to riding. It’s as simple as going out with somebody for 45 minutes on a community bike path network. Going slow and just showing them around and showing them the possibilities. Usually good things happen after that.
What’s your favorite ride?
I ride to and from work every day. It’s only three and a half miles, and I try really hard to go a different route every time. It’s always amazing and it keeps me really connected with what’s changing in my community. I never get tired of it.
I get lots of ideas for ways to make bicycling better. One of the things that we have here in Colorado is a lot of bike underpasses. This may seem like a funny detail, but not having to stop and wait for a light just makes the experience really great. I count my lucky stars because if had to go street level, it would be probably 9 or 10 lights.
So you’re optimistic we can expand that kind of infrastructure in the US?
You know, there’s this idea somehow that something is fundamentally different in places like the Netherlands or Denmark—that the water is different, or those places are completely flat or people think different. But that’s not the case. Both Denmark and the Netherlands went through this period where they were developing road gridlock and injuries and fatalities went way up and the air quality went way down, and they just said, “You know what? We can’t stay on this path, the price is too high.”
They’ve been working steadily to make bicycling and walking safe and appealing and absolutely we can do that too. People should not think that we’re doomed or we have only one option. We absolutely can and will make it safer and easier for people to drive too, because a lot of people have no choice for most trips but to rely on a car. We have to broaden the community, not be divisive.