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

This question comes up again as Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White departs for Bird.

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

  • Well, Bird is at least talking the talk. https://www.curbed.com/2018/8/2/17641604/bird-scooter-safety-bike-lane If it gooses this city to create more badly needed protected bike lanes, I’m willing to wish Mr. White and Bird all the best.

  • Big companies are hiring advocates and that’s good news since those advocates will fight the good fight on the inside. But the even better news is that big companies aren’t hiring ALL the advocates! TransAlt is still staffed by lots of amazing people who will continue to lead the movement. Plus, the advocates on the ground in various parts of the city have never been stronger. Just look at the organizing happening in Queens right now; it’s a model for the entire country.

    It stinks when good people move on and I challenge anyone to find better people than Caroline Samponaro and Paul Steely White, but the movement for safe streets has never been in better shape. This is a positive development all around.

  • Luddite

    What happened to “active transportation” and promoting actually riding a bike as a way to use travel time to stay fit and happy? Does anyone really believe that electric vehicles are going to get people out of their cars in places like NYC? Why? Which car trips are going to become e-scooter trips? And, has anyone asked the bicyclists if they want to share bike lanes and paths with electric vehicles or are we just having powered vehicles rammed down our throats by Silicon Valley VC money? Seriously, what evidence is there that these vehicles are actually helpful to people who already ride?

  • Canonchet

    I have no doubt that TA’s strong advocacy of electric-bike legalization and inclusion on bike lanes and in bike-sharing programs in NYC and elsewhere is based on what the organization believes are objective arguments for expanding ‘transportation alternatives’ for people who might otherwise be commuting and doing errands in cars, such as the elderly or those who live in hilly areas like the north Bronx or have commutes they would consider too long and/or difficult on a regular ‘unassisted’ bike. The donations and commercial sponsorship of TA events and activities by electric-bike manufacturers and bike-share companies flows logically and on balance defensibly from that policy position. Yet as TA execs leave this nonprofit advocacy world to take PR jobs with the nonprofit’s commercial patrons in this e-bike industry – companies which have very specific business-driven public-policy interests in this area – it runs the risk of retroactively tainting TA and its own policy stances and advocacy priorities. (Not everyone believes e-bikes belong in bike lanes, for example, but honest disagreements about such issues shouldn’t be colored by a suspicion or presumption of donor-driven bias at a leading nonprofit advocacy organization in that field. ) It would be sound ethical management policy for TA (and similar nonprofits) to contractually bar this kind of ‘revolving door’ practice, where its leaders and spokespersons move directly to employment with its private-industry benefactors.

  • eastphilliamsburg

    For close to a century, car companies have used their multi-billion dollar wealth to inflame public opinion, shift government policies and help build the car-friendly world that has destroyed the health of ourselves and our planet.

    Personally, I am thrilled that a well-capitalized sector of the economy recognizes the importance of our safe streets movement, and is willing to put that money to use against the car-dominant status quo.

  • Komanoff

    I agree. And also appreciate your constructive, nuanced way of making your point.

  • Joe R.

    As White noted, companies are going to want to push the limits in terms of speed, which could create friction with traditional bike advocates.

    If we want to eventually make human-powered and small electric vehicles viable isn’t pushing the limits in terms of speed exactly what we need to do? There’s the 30 minute rule, at least for human-powered vehicles. Bicycle (or walking) mode share will drop precipitously for trips taking longer than 30 minutes. The only way to increase the radius which can be reached in those 30 minutes is to increase the speed.

    From my point of view the prevailing opinion of many advocates that human power is only viable for short, “last mile” trips of 3 miles or less is short-sighted at best. Sure, if you think bikes should never exceed 12 mph, and stop at red lights every 2 or 3 blocks, then 3 miles is all you can do in 30 minutes. Ignored here are the possibilities of eliminating stopping through design, increasing speed either via aerodynamics or motor assist, and designing for safe passing so users of both fast and slower vehicles can safely coexist. In my human-powered vehicle nirvana we would have non-stop HPV highways, and human-powered vehicles would have the aerodynamics to be able to cruise at highway speeds. Even if we don’t get that far, a combination of electric assist and aerodynamics which enable 20 to 30 mph cruising speeds, combined with mostly non-stop bicycle infrastructure, could largely replace or supplement traditional urban rail rapid transit. Slower riders going long distances would opt for e-bikes. You would be able to go from the outer parts of the outer boroughs to midtown Manhattan in 30 to 40 minutes. This isn’t a pipedream, either. It’s something which could easily happen if we decided to invest even 5% of what we spend on car infrastructure towards bicycle infrastructure. If e-scooters and e-bikes are the catalyst needed to get this level of support, so be it.

  • Joe R.

    Keep in mind that people eventually need to earn a living. TA and similar advocacy organizations rely on unpaid volunteers. My hat is off to anyone willing to work for years with little or no pay. However, the fact is unless you have a trust fund or other support system eventually you need to earn money, if for no other reason than to support yourself once you’re no longer able to work. There has been a lot of criticism that many advocacy groups are staffed with mostly rich, white people. And the reason is obvious. People who have to work for a living can’t devote years of their lives to an unpaid position at a non-profit. A situation where former volunteers are free to eventually use their influence to cash-in at private industry makes sense if you want to increase the diversity of staff at these advocacy organizations.

  • Joe R.

    I share your views on active transportation but I’m willing to accept anything within reason which increases our advocacy base. E-bikes and e-scooters do exactly that. If there are issues with them sharing bike lanes, it’s mostly due to the same poor design which prevents faster cyclists from also using such bike lanes. 20 to 25 mph electric vehicles should easily be able to share space with 12 to 15 mph cyclists if bike lanes are properly designed. In most of NYC they’re not. Only increased demand and funding for bicycle infrastructure will get us there. It looks like e-bikes and e-scooters are what can garner that support.

    Note also that while I strongly favor increasing the speed of human-powered transportation, I think we should do so via better aerodynamics rather than with motor assist. For example, a Milan SL velomobile would enable me to cruise at 37-38 mph using the same power I now need to maintain 20 mph on a road bike. No motor required.

  • macartney

    Paul Steely White was making $193,387 at Transportation Alternatives in 2016. Caroline Samponaro was making $139,501 the same year. There are many of us who volunteer unpaid for TA but the two folks mentioned in this article who have recently moved to the private sector (and presumably gotten raises) are not among them.

  • Joe R.

    I wasn’t aware that TA pays anyone on its staff, much less pays those kinds of salaries. Thanks for the info. I could personally retire in less than a decade making that kind of money.

  • Daphna

    TA pays all of it’s staff personnel. There are also members who volunteer for TA, but their staff are paid salaries with benefits.

  • Komanoff

    Wow. My salary during the nearly six years I was TA prez (mid-1986 into early 1992) was zero — appropriately so since my position was a volunteer one (board chair), even as I was putting in 30-40 hours a week (re)building the org. And even when we got to where we could afford paid staff, like the fabulous young Jon Orcutt (still fab now, just older), the pay was barebones.

  • steely

    Both of you should apply! We could benefit from your altruism and frugality. Lets discuss further, presumably on a blog not owned by a billionaire

  • I think this is a trend to watch very closely. Relationships are everything and now we have several veteran advocates who no longer represent the greater good and who now represent a for-profit corporation. I say that as someone who has a ton of respect for Nelle, Caroline and Paul. I know how complicated it can be to weave friendships into work and the complexity of being “on the same team” yet having different coaches/owners/bosses.

    This trend also brings to mind other things like… can nonprofits remain strong if the best and brightest are snatched up by deep-pocketed companies? The brain-drain away from advocacy worries me.

  • This feels like a natural outgrowth of folks demanding that tech-based mobility companies work in partnership with cities. Who better to lead that work than the people who’ve been serving for years as liaisons between community members and local governments?

  • mx

    I agree. I think it’s super important to be aware of the places where what’s best for companies differs from what’s best for the community, and to speak up at those points, but how can you go around saying “these companies need to work with cities and communities” and then be upset when they go out and hire the people who know how to do exactly that?

  • Yep. And I don’t think this was an overly suspicious article; it’s a reasonable question to ask, at least. But it’s also worth recognizing how amazing it is that companies like Bird and Lime, which deal solely in climate-friendly mobility devices, are seeing so much success that they’re being lumped in with “big business.”

  • MidtownApt

    The reason biking works so well in many European cities is that people DON’T ride fast and DON’T ride against the flow of traffic and DON’T run red lights. For biking as transportation to work, everyone needs to bike by the rules, i.e., the same rules of the road that govern cars, motorcycles, and trucks. The people in Lycra need to slow down when they leave the velodromes or the parks. As a 50-year biking veteran of NYC streets, I’ve seen things get significantly worse over the past 4 years in particular, not only due to the traffic generated by Uber, but due to the dangerous habits and practices of many cyclists.

  • AMH

    You may have already seen this, but I thought the Fort Collins grade separated paths would interest you.

    https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a23676188/best-bike-cities-2018/

  • very good article. White and Samponaro are true believers and we all trust they will do the right thing by their beliefs and the public. but It will be difficult to sustain overtime because of the brutal nature of VC backed companies and the corporate framework they will be working in. Many have tried to stay true in corporate environments, but it always come down to a Faustian bargain.

  • Joe R.

    I didn’t see it but that should be a model for places like NYC. For example, when we build out the Queens Boulevard bike lane in concrete, part of that should include overpasses at all major intersections.

    Interesting, Seattle timed its lights for 23 mph. That’s just about perfect for bike commuting.

  • Joe R.

    Keep in mind a few things before you generalize about European cities:

    1) The Netherlands especially systematically removes traffic signals from bike routes. That means greater compliance at the very few signals remaining. Generally you’ll only hit signals when you’re near the city center, and most have short cycles so you’re only waiting 10 or 15 seconds. Contrast this to NYC where you hit 30+ second red lights every 2 or 3 blocks on virtually any major street within 10 miles of Manhattan. The Dutch wouldn’t comply much with red lights if they hit them that frequently, either. The only way for NYC to get widespread compliance with red lights by cyclists is to REMOVE most traffic signals from bike routes.

    2) Many streets which are one-way for cars are two-way for bikes. That means there are few instances where a cyclist needs to ride against bike traffic for an efficient route. Now wrong-way riding is one of my pet peeves, but I sort of understand the rationale for it given NYC’s penchant for overusing one-way streets to speed up car traffic.

    3) European cities, outside of Paris or London, are very compact. For example, a few miles from the city center in Amsterdam you’re passing cow pastures! Given this, most useful bike trips in these cities are under 3 miles. While going faster will still save time, it will only be a matter of a minutes on a typical trip. For example, averaging 15 mph over 3 miles instead of 12 mph only saves you 3 minutes. In general, people will only bike if they can make the trip in 30 minutes or less. After that mode share drops off precipitously. If we want to make bikes more useful for more trips, the only way (besides safer infrastructure) is to increase speeds so as to increase the travel radius in those 30 minutes. NYC is huge compared to European cities. A lot of useful trips are 10 miles or more. If we can get average speeds up to 20 or 25 mph (possible with velomobiles and mostly non-stop infrastructure), then those trips are viable under human power.

    4) The speed limit on most NYC streets is at least 25 mph. On some arterials it’s 30 or 35 mph. Few cyclists can maintain even 25 mph for any length of time, much less significantly exceed it. Given that, why is there any need for cyclists to “slow down”? So long as they don’t exceed the speed limit by the same amount which would merit giving a motor vehicle driver a speeding ticket (this is generally 5 to 10 mph over the limit), which frankly is close to impossible for most cyclists, your concerns about speeding make no sense. I’m tired of double standards where we say cars should go 25 mph, or whatever the speed limit is, but cyclists have to adhere to some mythical lower speed limit which exists only in the minds of a few people with warped ideas on how cyclists should behave.

  • Greg Riessen

    I believe it serves the best interest of the sustainable streets movement when its advocates circulate between the private, public and nonprofit sectors. Congrats Caroline, Paul and Secretary Foxx on your next endeavors! We look forward to your continued hard work.

  • Andrew

    FYI: Drivers in New York break the rules, too.

  • Asher Of LA

    “As White noted, companies are going to want to push the limits in terms of speed”

    Not exactly what White said – and the companies involved don’t unilaterally gain from higher speed, far from it. As an operator at the whims of cities for permits to operate, and as owners of the vehicles, these companies aren’t like carmakers who can afford not to care what happens to the vehicle. Completely different business model. These firms have seen plenty of adoption with 15 mph vehicles.

    ““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,”

    Why is a newcomer peddling piddly vehicles being expected to solve a problem that a) predated it by decades, b) it did not create, and c) most importantly, is not suited for the problem at hand? Because Bird or Lime is maybe politically vulnerable, and Ford isn’t?

  • Chrigid

    Beware of co-optation.

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