Sitting In with Leslie Luciano, Director of Advocacy
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog you like bikes like we like bikes. Be they on road or off, cargo carriers, tandems, heading to work, barreling towards a finish line, or rolling down a sidewalk to school, we love bikes and seeing people ride. But it’s not an easy thing to do for many riders in a number of parts town. And there’s plenty of trepidation for newer riders who might otherwise choose to go by bike, regardless of whether it is for leisure, exercise, or transportation, but ultimately don’t. Decisions against riding, even for riding’s sake and even by more experienced riders, are often made in light of this week’s recent tragedies.
There are some ways that each of us can change this. We can try to encourage people that have an interest in cycling. We can help them with their riding questions, introduce them to trails, show them some of Austin’s new cycling infrastructure, like the Rio Grande Cycle Track. But each of us is but one person, and our individual reach is as limited as our circle of would-be riders. And to the non-rider, we’re also often but one voice for riding.
Seeing the conundrum and trying to get organized on improving cycling for everyone while making our favorite pastime more accessible too, Bicycle Sport Shop took the unique step of hiring a full-time Director of Advocacy late in the Summer of 2004. Since then, Leslie Luciano has worked tirelessly to make going by two wheels better throughout Central Texas.
I sat down with Leslie recently to get a better idea of what she does and how she does it and learned that her are lots of hills to ride when pushing for better bike riding.
I know Spring is a busy time Leslie, so thanks for sitting down with me. Right off, let’s talk “big picture” and your overall goal. What does that look like?
Overall my mission is to constantly improving cycling infrastructure in order to increase the number of cyclists. To that end, I work on policy at the local, State, and Federal levels, partnering with advocacy groups and non-profit organizations on all levels. I also work to grow the number of cyclists working with schools to increase commuting by bike to school via the Boltage program in partnership with Safe Routes to School.
That’s some big picture. How does that happen on a daily basis?
Every day is a new day. Because issues come up in real time, I often have to jump into action at a moment’s notice. This is particularly true regarding political issues, for example earlier in the year when bicycle and pedestrian transportation funding were under attack at the Federal level, or when there is policy being challenged or ordinances being considered at City Hall, like the three-foot passing rule or banning texting while driving to reduce distracted driving.
During the legislative sessions at both the State and Federal level I work closely with certain lobbying groups to add some corporate clout to our “asks.” And in connection with schools interested in a program like Boltage, if they are ready to commit and pull the trigger for a kid commuter program launch, I have to respond to their timing and schedule to make it happen since every school is different in their approach and their needs.
Who are you primarily working with towards the overall goal of improving cycling infrastructure.
On the local level I work closely with the Mayor and City Council, the Austin Cycling Association, the League of Bicycling Voters, Yellow Bike, and Safe Routes To School. On State level matters, I work closely with BikeTexas–our only State advocacy organization. On the Federal level I work closely with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Bikes Belong, the Alliance for Biking and Walking, the League of American Bicyclists, and BikesPac. It’s a juggling act, but a fun and interesting one. I’ll often learn something in the context of one effort that I can translate over to something at another level.
There has been some press recently on racers getting into the advocacy scene. Where do you see that going in Austin, where there is a large racing/fitness riding community?
I think the more national level advocacy with elite racers will trickle down eventually to the local scene by way of example. Bicycle Sport Shop requires its racing team members to volunteer for events and participate in advocacy as part of their contract. Advocacy is key in growing new cyclists. This has finally been acknowledged by industry leaders, including racers in all disciplines.
What are some of the programs that you put together or were a part of that have seen great success?
Boltage! We have launched 5 Boltage programs in schools here in Austin, in the last two years. Boltage is a great movement, designed to get kids walking and biking safely to school, and rewarding them for their efforts. The kids enjoy the activity of getting to and from school, as well as the competition with their peers, and neighborhood streets once the domain of cars start to become viable places for walking and riding for everyone. It’s amazing to see.
In these two years we have educated over 4,000 kids, and as a result we have over 1,000 new regular bike commuters. At Doss Elementary for example, which was our fifth school, they now have 550 out of 800 kids commuting by bike. That’s huge!
We also successfully passed the City’s three-foot passing ordinance, and the texting while driving ban. Unfortunately, rather than becoming State law both were vetoed by Governor Perry. So in an effort to put pressure on his office we have brought the Austin ordinance’s language to other cities throughout Texas which have then implemented their own ordinances.
What have the staff of the shop been able to add to your efforts?
Staff at Bicycle Sport Shop worked a membership drive in house to sell BikeTexas memberships, which helps fund the organization–of course–but also spreads the message of the important work they do. Shop staffers also stepped up to the Trek Challenge to collect the most signatures for the People for Bikes campaign out of all Trek dealers in the country. Of course, many of my co-workers volunteer their time at BikeTexas, at our school events, for IMBA, the list goes on.
What is still being worked on?
Federal transportation funding for biking and walking is a mere 1.5% of the entire Transportation budget and it seems it is almost always a fight to protect those dollars, especially during election cycles. While that federal funding has been extend 9 times since 2009, Congress has also threatened several times to eliminate bike and pedestrian funding all together. 800 lobbyists including myself descended on the Hill in February to specifically ask that they get a clean extension if they weren’t going to write a new transportation budget. We succeeded in getting it extended 90 more days.
Locally we work closely with the City’s bike and pedestrian professionals, to support implementation of the 2009 Bike Plan, which is focused in part on increasing cycling infrastructure throughout Austin. And again, at the State level we are still working to move the safe passing and no texting ordinances forward.
What’s the biggest challenging facing Austin as you see it from your unique vantage point?
Reaching the greater public about the value of investing in cycling infrastructure and the benefit to their communities is the biggest hurdle. People have a natural tendency to resist change. Therefore they put a lot of energy but not as much critical thought into making positive changes that enhance their quality of life. Once we’re able to deliver our message though, people are receptive and interested in seeing what cycling can do for them and their communities.
What’s it like to go to the National Bike Summit and what goes on there?
It’s 16 hour days of intense education sessions, networking, and lobbying. Presenting at the Summit is always an honor, and building the coalition of advocates helps increase cycling throughout the nation. The Keynote speakers are always fantastic, and face-time with Congressman and Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is priceless.
If anyone wants to get involved, where is the first place they should start?
It really depends on what level they want to be involved. I can direct people where their passions are essentially on any level. One of the first things everyone should do is become a member of the advocacy organizations that are working for you. BikeTexas, for example is membership and grant driven and is the only state advocacy organization in Texas, making cycling better for all Texans. Another easy way is to get informed on candidates and issues and VOTE! There are clearly candidates who have a proven record in supporting cycling and many who don’t. Supporting candidates that support cycling is arguably the easiest way to join the cycling advocacy movement!
Thanks for taking the time, Leslie! Passionate cyclists need to band together not only to support each other and our love of bikes, but also to help bring others into the fold, regardless of how or why any of us ride. If you have qustions about getting invovled in the bicycle advocacy movement, please contact Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.