waba@waba.org
Phone: 202.518.0524
Fax: 202.518.0936

Washington Area
Bicyclist Association
2599 Ontario Rd. NW
Washington, DC 20009

WABA's History

I. At the Starting Line (1972)

The memory of Earth Day was still fresh, and the environmental movement was in full bloom. Americans were raising serious questions about what was happening to the quality of the air as a result of the automobile. "Ecology" was the byword, and a 10-speed bike craze was sweeping the nation. It was 1972, the year more bicycles were sold than automobiles for the first time this century.

Cary S. Shaw was concerned about many of the issues of the year -- social justice, the quality of life, war and peace -- and he had participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But he had never led a protest or even been active in a political movement. He had received his B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in industrial management with a concentration in mathematics, and his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Such is the stuff that is hardly the making of a crusader seeking to overturn half a century of national transportation policy.

Nor was he a particularly avid bicyclist. Often, but not every day, he rode his yellow Schwinn from his home in the District's upper northwest neighborhood to his work downtown. He was generally interested in outdoor activities, including hiking, but he did not do much recreational riding and he was not a member of any bicycling organization.

In 1972, Shaw, at 27, directed the computer center at the National Planning Association (NPA), a small non-profit organization which did studies for the federal government. His duties included running programs and helping others who used the computer. He also hired and supervised a staff of two college interns who worked part-time.

Yet, he did enough bicycling to realize that the urban transportation system was not friendly to bicyclists. The Ski Club of Washington asked him to lead a bike ride and he found that other cyclists, too, shared the same problems he did. But, Shaw later recalled, "They did not perceive it as a general problem. Someone caught their bike in a grate -- they thought, well, they just caught their bike in a grate - - but I could relate to the fact that that was a problem in grate design. Someone had recently bought a bike and they decided they weren't going to use it because they were afraid of traffic. For them, it was a simple, individual decision. I could relate that that was happening to a large number of people."

That sense was reinforced again when in early 1972 when the National Park Service experimented with closing a lane of Rock Creek Parkway for bicyclists. Shaw again talked to other bicyclists about the problems they faced. He found common complaints about potholes, automobile traffic, and feelings of discrimination by transportation planners. During some of those discussions, people suggested an organization to deal with these problems.

If there was a legacy from the turbulent 1960s, it was the new feeling that the individual could make a difference. And if the individual could cause change, so much more so could a group of individuals. The massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War seized the consciousness of a nation and caused a shift of U.S. foreign policy. There was power in numbers and organization. That legacy was not lost on Shaw, who concluded that the way to deal with bicyclists' problems was through an on-going institution of and for bicyclists.

From the beginning of his thoughts, Shaw intended such an organization to be more than just a service club for its members, but to serve all bicyclists. Perhaps even more important for Shaw was the broader concept of service to the public at large. If bicyclists had problems, that was a wrong to be righted. And if Shaw didn't come forward, no one else would.

Shaw later recalled, "If the number of bicycle-related accidents was mounting, who was taking care of this? Who was taking some sort of action to help reduce these accidents and to make it safer? As far as I could tell, there was not another agency that was specifically taking care of this. I definitely had the feeling that we were engaged in something which if we didn't do, was not going to be done by someone else. This is kind of a very powerful motivating feeling.

"Very often, in your work life, if you are assigned a job, and you chose not to do it, if it's important, the boss will find someone else. But in the area of the public interest, it may be that it doesn't get done. That can happen with things like traffic safety.

"One of the role models here was Ralph Nader and what he did for automobile safety. This was a clear and present need for the safety and well-being of the public. And yet you can ask yourself, if he personally were not around, and some other people with him, would this revolution in safety have happened in that way at that time? Maybe not."

Another decision which came early for Shaw was that an organization should be directed specifically at improving conditions for commuters not recreational cyclists. He recalls, "High on our minds was an alternative form of transportation. A person who is bike riding purely for amusement will take his bike where he chooses. If he doesn't like how downtown looks, he'll take his bike out to some farm area and bike around there. But if you're commuting to work, then you want to improve your personal situation...it requires the involvement of some agencies that are affecting that specific locale."

The organization should deal with a wide range of issues concerning bicyclists, Shaw thought. It should not be limited to just trying to solve bicyclists' problems, but should help educate bicyclists and motorists, encourage more bicyclists, and change attitudes about bicycling as a transportation mode.

Shaw never considered forming a committee of Potomac Pedalers Touring Club (PPTC) or the National Capitol Velo Club (NCVC), both which were thriving bicycle organizations in the area. Shaw felt that WABA's goals were too different from PPTC or NCVC. However, Clay Grubic, PPTC's President, did provide Shaw much assistance in the early days. Larry Black, head of NCVC, also was a strong supporter of bicycle advocacy. In fact, several years later at his own expense he started a telephone taped message of current bicycle events.

"I finally decided, with all these bicyclists, with all these needs, here's an opportunity to do something where these seems to be a public need and no one seems to be filling it. I have time I can spend on it, my work had become routine, here was an opportunity to do something. I decided to form an organization. I thought up a name -- the Washington Area Bicyclist Association -- I designed a leaflet which was printed by a computer printer which had some of the basic slogans and demands and a little tear-out slip."

Armed with stacks of leaflets, Shaw went to a bike-in on the grounds of the Washington Monument during the spring and distributed as many as he could. It was on that day that Cary Shaw took the irreversible step of announcing his new bicycle organization to the world. WABA was born. The birth, however, did not come quickly. Even at the low price of only $2 for annual dues, at the end of a week, there were only nine members, including Shaw. Undeterred, the WABA founder fired off a press release announcing the formation of the new group. Though the Washington Post -- then as now -only sniffed at local events, the press release was picked up by a number of radio stations and WABA membership shot up to 100 members before the end of the month. That was an early lesson in the importance of media for WABA.

According to WABA mythology, the date of its founding was May 1, 1972. The announcement press release, mailed later that month, might be equally important. Still, another important date might be the first meeting of the general membership on May 31. The meeting was conducted in the West End Library meeting room at 24th and L Streets, N.W. The range of issues covered included many which became the focus of WABA activities -- bicycle parking, theft, motorist education, bike trails, and bicyclist education.

Even though the first regular Metrorail service was still years away, WABA members were concerned about the ability to take bicycles on the trains as in the newly created San Francisco rapid rail transit system. This was brought up at the meeting also.

The organizers of WABA felt that communication with members was important. The first issue of Ride On!!, consisting of mimeographed sheets stapled together, was undated, but probably appeared in late May. The name, complete with the enthusiasm demonstrated by not one, but two exclamation points, was a play on the popular slogan, "Right On!" which always appeared with one or two exclamation points. At the time, "Right On!" didn't have quite the radical abandon it once did, but it had not yet become part of the vernacular of the political center. Ride On!! appeared monthly during the remaining months of 1972, each issue containing WABA statements, news of WABA activities, and articles about legislative actions affecting bicyclists.

Shaw established the WABA office at his own office address, the third floor of 1666 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., not far from Dupont Circle. It was a small, cluttered rooms, with stacks of paper piled up on the sill nearly covering up the one window. WABA board meetings were held at the table in the NPA conference room, where WABA newsletters and mailings were also prepared. The WABA records were stored in NPA filing cabinets.

The WABA mailing list was kept on an NPA computer. The WABA telephone number was even an NPA telephone line connected to an answering machine Shaw had loaned.

Under the leadership of Shaw, who used the title "acting chairman," WABA moved quickly to act on its agenda. By July, WABA established eleven task forces and committees. Of these, four dealt with different parking problems. They also included a Road Conditions Task Force, Newsletter and Distribution Staff, Theft Recovery Task Force, Bikeshop Task Force, and Architectural Consultant."

Lobbying for bicycle improvements on the national leve1 was a novel idea in 1972. The revived League of American Wheelmen, located in the Midwest, was years away from hiring a legislative director. The Bicycle Institute of America, predecessor to the Bicycle Manufacturers Institute, was still located in New York. The Bicycle Federation had not yet been established. WABA found itself in unique position to influence Washington on bicycle issues in an ongoing fashion not possible since the old League of American Wheelmen abandoned the effort closer to the turn of the century.

Thus, WABA considered its scope to go beyond just the local concerns of bicyclists in the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Early issues of Ride On!! discuss issues before Congress and the federal agencies. WABA urged federal officials to review Environmental Impact Statements for their effect on bicycling. WABA criticized the Office of Management and Budget for dismissing bicycle facilities as "cosmetic effects." Ride On!! covered the progress of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1972 which authorized funds for bicycle facilities.

The controversy over bicycle lanes was address from the very beginning. The first issue of Ride On!! proclaimed, "We whole-heartedly endorse the idea of bike lanes -- lanes on major travel routes...separate from the rest of the road by a white line which the motorist may not cross."

On May 1, the D.C. Register carried a notice of the Council's consideration of a regulation which would require managers of commercial buildings to permit the bicyclists to be brought into and stored in their buildings. It also required some buildings to provide bicycle storage. WABA discussed the proposed regulation at its first meeting, and the early newsletters urged members to support the proposal.

One of the early challenges for WABA was winning approval for a bikeways system originated by a staff member on the District Council, and which became included in the District's bud get. This was before home rule, and approval of the budget required an act of Congress. However, Representative William H. Natcher of Kentucky, chairman of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, struck the bike lanes provision.

"We heard through the grapevine," Shaw remembers, "that Natcher had said, 'this is ridiculous, we don't have that any bikes, why take away the space from cars. Who want's it anyway?"' With the defeat of the budget in Congress, the whole process had to start over. It also meant that WABA had to educate Congress that someone did want bicycle facilities.

The first year's issues of Ride On!! were full of suggestions on improving the bicycling environment in the Washington area. Some of these remained controversial issues for most of WABA's history. WABA urged the Cabin John Trolley line to be used for a bikeway; bicycle racks to be placed at Metrorail stations; and bicycle storage at Union Station to be improved.

The early WABA activities were surprising for their diversity and number. Between May and December 1972, WABA:

Sent a letter to the National Capitol Parks asking for regular communication. Helped clean up the Rock Creek Park bikepath following the disastrous flood brought on by Hurricane Agnes, and gained positive television coverage in the process. Gathered statistics on bike thefts. Sent WABA volunteers Wentworth and Rich Liroff to lobby Congress for passage of the District budget which included a provision for bikelanes. Began a petition to urge the District Council to hold hearings on bike theft, parking, and capital improvements to reduce road hazards. Sent WABA legal counsel Joel Joseph to testify at a hearing of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in support of free or low-cost bicycle rentals at Metrorail stations and major bus stops. Began a collection of maps, traffic regulations, registration laws, and other information which it made available free to members. Organized recreational rides. Through word-of-mouth and early recruiting, WABA membership grew rapidly. Membership reached 162 by late May. By the end of June it was more than 200, and it rose to 430 by September.

 


 

 
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