Neufeld at the Kinzie protected bike lane, at Kinzie and Clinton
[This piece also runs in the Active Transportation Alliance's newsletter, Modeshift.]
Last night Active Transportation Alliance (originally Chicagoland Bicycle Federation) marked 25 years of sustainable transportation advocacy with a gala on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Suzanne C. and Ben H. generously offered Steven and me seats at their tables so we could report on the event. We’ll soon give you the skinny on what went down at this gathering of some of the key figures in the local and national green transportation scene.
In the mean time, check out this interview I did last year with Randy Neufeld, Active Trans’s first executive director, looking back at the nonprofit’s quarter century of pushing pedaling, and other green modes. In 1987 Neufeld, a former political organizer approached the fledgling organization with an unusual proposal: he would work as the group’s first staff member for free until he could raise funds to pay himself.
Neufeld served as Executive Director until 2004 when he handed the reigns to Rob Sadowsky and created a new position for himself as Chief Strategy Officer, exploring ways to expand the organization’s mission, such as promoting walking, transit use, and cycling, and successfully lobbying for Complete Streets policies in local and state government.
In early 2009 Neufeld left Active Trans’ to take a job helping SRAM, a Chicago-based bike component manufacturer, promote bike infrastructure and advocacy through donations. He’s still active with Active Trans, serving on the board of directors, and he also works with other green transportation advocacy groups. We talked about his work with SRAM, the significance of Active Trans’ 25th anniversary, why Seville, Spain can serve as a model for Chicago, and how he learned to love bike lanes.
Tell me about what you’re doing at SRAM nowadays.
I got hired in July 2009 as the director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. At the beginning of 2009, SRAM set up a fund that gives $2 million a year to promote cycling advocacy. I’m the primary point person for recommendations on where the money goes. The main focus is infrastructure for cycling, both urban transportation and mountain biking facilities and trails. The fund covers the U.S. and Europe, where we have the majority of our customers.
The other part of my job is a continuing leadership position in advocacy. I’m president of America Bikes and on the boards of the Alliance for Biking and Walking and Active Trans. I’m also working with the National Complete Streets Coalition. Complete Streets is one of the most important policies to change the overall transportation environment in the U.S.
Active Trans is marking its 25th anniversary next year. You’ve been with the organization since 1987. What do you think it means that this organization has survived for a quarter century?
It’s not just survival. I’m really happy with the health of the organization now, and its level of strength and influence. They’re making a difference in the city and in the suburbs. They have a lot of key alliances – they’ve maintained a strong base of cyclists and now have added pedestrian and transit interests. I think cycling will remain the core of the activity, but it will be even stronger as part of an active transportation package.
I’m proud of the role I’ve played over the years, coming in a year and a half or so after it started and becoming the first staff person and executive director through 2004, and then helping to shepherd the shift to a multi-modal organization. Now I’ll be involved as a board member and as a partner through the SRAM Cycling Fund. So to me it’s a very positive story.
What accomplishments of Active Trans are you most proud of?
When we started there was very little cycling in Chicago. There wasn’t much in the way of bikeways, bike parking, or official bicycle promotion. The city made several attempts to add bike route signs in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s but there wasn’t a bicycle program or an active cycling culture.
I see the development of the bike parking program, the first bike lanes, the improvement of the Lakefront Trail, and the overall basic cycling infrastructure as the major accomplishments. In terms of a written legacy, there was the Bike 2000 Plan, an initial agenda for cycling in the city of Chicago. This was later greatly expanded into the Streets for Cycling Plan and eventually the Bike 2015 Plan. The details of those plans give a good, holistic picture of how to realistically build cycling in a city like Chicago.
Other big accomplishments: allowing bikes on trains, buses, Metra, and CTA, and an improved bicycle-parking situation at transit stations. Active Trans had an equally pivotal role in the establishment of bike culture in Chicago. I think the most important change is that there are more people riding and that for many people the bike is a regular part of their lives.
You can look back over the programmatic things that the city, the State of Illinois and various suburban municipalities have done to promote cycling and find a trail leading back to Active Trans. There’s obviously a lot more that can be done. You can look to Europe and see what the potential is – it’s exciting.
I was a little humbled [on a recent visit to] Seville, Spain. In 2006 there was no bicycling to speak of in Seville. As of the end of 2009 about six percent of trips are made by bicycle, about triple what Chicago is. Chicago has a long trail to go, but miraculous things can be done.
How did they accomplish that in Seville?
In Seville a lot of people didn’t have access to bikes because apartments are small and they don’t have a place to put them. Seville spent a lot of money on a bike network and on public bikes, and basically did it in about a year.
I don’t think we have the same issues in Chicago; a lot of people here have bikes gathering dust in garages and basements. But I still think a public bike system would be an important development here
Has anything surprised you about the way things have developed at Active Trans over 25 years?
I started working for them in December of ’87. In the very beginning I was not a big fan of bike lanes, but when the first bike lanes appeared I was surprised by how significant a line on the pavement was in terms of attracting people. Bike parking was also a big deal. There was all this latent demand for cycling and if you gave people any sort of official indication that bikes were supposed to be used in the city, people just started doing it.
I think the main reasons more people aren’t riding are that they don’t feel safe and they don’t feel it’s easy and comfortable to ride. I’m sold on the importance of infrastructure and doing as much as you can to attract people from cars. If the goal is to make cycling mainstream, we will have to ramp up the infrastructure in a more European way.
The change to Active Trans in the fall of ’08 – it’s just amazing how many doors that change has opened to cycling. I knew it was a good idea, but I didn’t know it would resonate so well with some of the audiences we were struggling to reach. In low-income communities, they got the bike thing when it was packaged with other sorts of options. In the suburban areas, they got the bike thing. Many people saw themselves as cyclists if you talked about cycling in a different way.
Even though we were trying to get away from it, people couldn’t get away from the Lycra image of cycling. But Active Transportation people see it as themselves. It’s opened a lot of doors in terms of meeting with people, participating with government, and resonating with Congress and the state legislature. I thought it would work, but I’m surprised at how well it worked.
Anything you’d like to tell me about the 25th anniversary?
The one really exciting thing about Active Trans right now is that there are a lot of leaders in a lot of different areas. I think that’s a sign of an organization that’s ready for the next 25 years.
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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