The big unification plan announced last February by America’s three largest bicycle advocacy organizations will not move forward. The three groups announced today that they “affirm shared goals and continuing collaboration” yet they “decide to remain separate.”
Here’s more from the official announcement:
“After months of steady dialogue and face-to-face meetings, the leaders of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, Bikes Belong and League of American Bicyclists have decided not to pursue full unification at this time. The three groups continue to operate independently, in close collaboration, to make bicycling safer and more enjoyable for all Americans.”
The unification idea was touted as a way to “transform” bicycling and “speed progress in creating a bicycle‐friendly America”. The thinking was that if the resources and membership bases of these three groups could be melded under one banner, the national bike movement would have a more powerful, unified voice on the national stage. However, the devil was in the details.
The groups’ announcement today mentioned the challenge of streamlining the different legal structures, membership bases, project priories, and even how to merge the various headquarters locations. Each organization would also have had to get their respective Boards to agree to the plan.
From my perspective, this announcement is not a surprise at all. To have made this work, these groups would have had to be willing to sacrifice their own distinct brands and associated egos (and I use the term ego in a broad sense, to describe how people feel about themselves and their work) for a greater good of unifying the bike movement and making it more powerful. In other words, it would have meant — to some extent — sacrificing individual fiefdoms for a more powerful, united empire.
As someone who has watched the non-profit bike advocacy world as an outsider for several years, I knew that would be a tall order.
At the National Bike Summit last March, I got a sense from one of the groups involved in the merger talks about just how politically difficult and sensitive the unification would be. I was invited to cover a meeting which staff from one of the groups would moderate. Once word got out that I’d be attending with my notebook and camera, it set off a commotion. I was told I must meet and talk with the group’s leader before I got to the meeting. What’s the big deal? I wondered. Turns out the group was very concerned with how my reporting might reflect on their involvement with the meeting attendees and how that involvement might impact the highly sensitive merger talks. I was shocked at how concerned they were over what was really an innocent story. That incident raised a red flag for me about how difficult this unification plan would be. If they were nervous about one reporter in one relatively unimportant meeting, how could they manage a complicated merger of three huge organizations?
Local advocacy groups would have reaped huge benefits from the merger. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s Executive Director Rob Sadowsky told me shortly after the unification plans were announced that, “I’d say the locals like the BTA have the most to gain from the new model, something we have been dreaming about for years.”
The dream was to combine the financial power and marketing prowess of industry-backed group Bikes Belong, the membership base and national lobbying presence of the League of American Bicyclists, and the Alliance for Biking & Walking’s connection to local and statewide advocacy groups.
“Imagine one advocacy card in your pocket,” is how Sadowsky explained it, “A unified [membership] database that can tap into a very large advocacy machine.”
Perhaps this decision against the unification is symbolic of the wildly diverse opinions about bicycling that exist in America today. Is it even possible to expect “American cyclists” to speak with one voice and join-up into one big family? I’m skeptical. Wide chasms remain in how people feel about everything from separated bike facilities to helmets. I don’t think this diversity is bad; but from a political — and advocacy — standpoint, it’s messy.
The three groups said today that the unification talks and negotiations helped them re-affirm their “shared vision,” but for now, they’ll work on those visions as separate entities.