Nonprofit advocacy group changing the face of Austin cyclists

Bike Austin leader Mercedes Feris at City Hall

By presenting the real face of Austin cyclists and enlisting neighborhood activists, Bike Austin is re-framing the conversation around transportation and roads, said Mercedes Feris the organization’s executive director.

On May 19, the nonprofit will host what will likely be its biggest Bike to Work Day ever, with more than 2,500 people expected to participate. The event underscores the shift in conversation that Bike Austin wants to make.

“We’re trying to change the perception about the people who ride their bikes in Austin,” said Feris. “Lots of people ride for recreation, and that’s great. But there are also a lot of people riding their bikes out of necessity or because they want to do something for the environment, and they should be able to do that safely.”

With more than 1,000 paying members, Bike Austin played a big role in advocating for the city’s $720 million mobility bond that was passed last November, speaking up not just for cyclists but also for pedestrians. Just as discussions of mobility were heating up last spring, Bike Austin released a report called “Pathways to Equity” advocating for universal access to affordable, active mobility options like cycling as a way to address the socio-economic and opportunity inequities Austin faces. Citing a study from 2014, the report indicated that for low-income residents, transportation consumes 44 percent of household income on average. The report also said, “Despite the common perception of bicycling as an activity of the affluent, roughly 40 percent of Austin’s bicyclists make less than $25,000 a year.”

Armed with that report, Feris said Bike Austin was able to send its members to neighborhood and community meetings across the city to speak up for cyclists and pedestrians. “We can’t be at every community meeting about transportation,” she said, “but we can activate our members in that area to attend. We can also activate them to vote.”

Feris said within the mobility bond, the city will make its biggest investment ever – more than $100 million – for protected bike lanes, trails and sidewalks.

Feris, who begins her second year leading Bike Austin this month, said her own experience growing up informs her knowledge of the benefits of cycling as a means of transportation. “When I was a kid, my mother would send me to the store, and I’d ride my bike. Why? Because we were poor. Access to safe transportation options really touches on equity.”

Bike to Work Day is meant to celebrate cycling in Austin, but also educate and inspire more Austinites to consider cycling for their daily commute to work and school. For bike-commuting newbies or those who want to make their ride more social, Bike Austin offers “bike trains” or group rides to help cyclists feel safer. There will also be 40 “fueling stations” along the routes offering cyclists food, drinks and prizes. Feris said the day is all about highlighting the benefits of bike commuting.

“It’s part of our culture to believe that roads are for cars,” she said. “But if we can change the mindset to the belief that roads are meant to move people, then that can become the premise of how we think about roads.”

PHOTO: Mercedes Feris, executive director of Bike Austin, at last year’s Bike to Work Day. Photo courtesy Bike Austin.

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