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What Does It Mean for Bike Advocacy When Big Business Hires the Advocates?

White, at podium, with advocates and elected officials in May of 2016. Photo: David Meyer

Is it game-changing or just greenwashing?

With his impending move to the scooter-sharing company Bird, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White joined the trickle of non-auto mobility advocates transitioning to the private sector. A few days later, that trickle became a deluge: Lyft, which owns Citi Bike, hired former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, a known advocate for reducing car ownership. He joins White's former deputy Caroline Samponaro, the director of bike, scooter, and pedestrian policy for Lyft. Uber-owned JUMP has been in the advocate-poaching game even longer, having hired former Washington Area Bicycle Association Deputy Director Nelle Pierson in 2017.

With so many advocates being pulled into the private sector, it's worth asking what these companies are trying to accomplish. At Bird, White's official title will be Director of Safety Policy and Advocacy, which means he'll be keeping tabs on the company's safety record and building partnerships with "advocates and other natural allies," he told Streetsblog.

As White sees it, the "shared mobility" industry is moving on from its early days of flooding cities with vehicles and hoping customers fill in the blanks.

"The era of run and gun is sort of over in all areas of shared mobility. This is more of a marathon than a race and getting there is more important that getting there first," he said. "There’s a genuine thirst that these companies have for an advocate’s perspective. At least at Bird, I’ve seen a real reverence for that type of grassroots approach that we’ve taken."

It could mark the transition from "disruptor mode" to "partnership mode."

A year ago, scooter and dockless bike-share start-ups were dropping their vehicles willy-nilly on city streets, but now many companies are showing a willingness to play by the rules cities make. In Santa Monica, California, for example, the companies have reversed their initial strategy of dropping an infinite number of scooters and dockless bikes and are now playing by the rules of a 16-month city-run pilot. The city is requiring companies pay operating fees, which are being used to fund protected bike upgrades. 

"We should always be judging these companies by their actions, whether or not that they are helping create safer streets and more equitable transportation systems," said Carter Rubin of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It’s certainly encouraging that they are bringing on people who have a track record of advocating for those things."

Under the disruptor model, companies did whatever they could to build their customer base — to hell with local government priorities. But that strategy only got the industry so far: In 2015, Uber's aggressive lobbying and marketing strategies stopped the de Blasio administration from enforcing a cap on its fleet. This year, with the number of for-hire vehicles reaching unprecedented levels, the city council reversed course and imposed the cap. Uber and Lyft were powerless to stop it, even as they spent millions on lobbying efforts.

"The companies recognize that traditional lobbying efforts only get you so far, and that in many cities, a traditional corporate lobbying effort could do more harm than good," White said. "Cities are getting a little fed up with that sort of aggressive lobbying."

"The smart companies are looking to partner with advocates and adopt a more of an advocacy-minded approach towards, you know, just being smart about when they push, and when they pull, and when they partner," he added.

In White's view, advocates should relish the opportunity to work with well-funded potential partners with similar goals. He drew comparisons with the bike industry's partnerships with advocates during the 1990s and 2000s, when bike industry-funded People for Bikes helped steer federal funding towards better bike infrastructure.

"What we see now is really the same opportunity writ-large," he said. "Advocates now have a greater array of partners that they can tap into."

If these companies are successful, their customers could provide an overnight influx of new advocates and allies, as Lime Chief Programs Officer Scott Kubly argued in an interview with Streetsblog in July. That could give groups like Transportation Alternatives even more strength when pushing for protected bike lanes or fewer curbside parking spots, White said. Still, he advised "vigilance."

"With the bike industry, it was always pretty obvious that there was 100 percent overlap between advocates and the industry," he said. "There's an important role for advocates to play, as watchdogs, because things can easily go awry if these [electric] vehicles start impinging on pedestrian space or are too powerful or fast to operate in bike lanes."

There's still plenty reason for traditional advocates to be skeptical. Private corporations ultimately have one concern: making money and pleasing investors. An influx in money and resources could be a boon for grassroots groups pushing cities to relinquish street space historically devoted to cars. Conversely, the long-term sustainability and intentions of the nascent "shared mobility" industry are unclear, and could well prove to be a distraction from long-standing advocacy goals. As White noted, companies are going to want to push the limits in terms of speed, which could create friction with traditional bike advocates.

The industry's goals may also run up against advocacy groups' push to build coalitions and networks in New York City's diverse array of neighborhoods. Courtney Williams, an urban planner and bike advocacy consultant based in Brooklyn, said that cities and advocates need to hold the fledgling companies accountable for where and how they expand.

"There is no requirement or guarantee that they place their bikes and scooters in locations that actually solve or alleviate the transportation problems faced in most low-income and neighborhoods of color for decades," Williams said. "Laypeople and transportation advocates alike need to recognize the significance in the reality that private companies bear no accountability to equity."

For Samponaro, who’s spent the last six months at Lyft meeting with advocates around the country seeking common ground on bike-share expansion and scooter share, it's paramount to "get out of the way and make sure that the grassroots thrives." The public and private sectors should have a “synergistic” relationship.

"Think about the NRA. There’s legitimately a grassroots, but there’s a powerful lobbying force behind that. The same has been true of AAA over the years," she said.

"Me, at Lyft, supporting advocates in other cities, doesn't mean that I'm shaping their work-plan," she said. "It just means that we're investing in the goals of those advocates because we agree that they're the right goals and, also, they're the right leaders on the ground to make those goals happen."

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