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Interview with outgoing PCC Director Rachael Bronson

This is the first in a series of interviews of Great Bike Advocates (GBAs). Our movement is led by overworked, underappreciated superstars who are making a difference. I can’t think of a better first profile than outgoing Palmetto Cycling Coalition Director Rachael Kefalos Bronson. Her last day in office is June 29th, so join me in thanking her for dedication to South Carolina cyclists!

BIKE LAW (BL): It’s been a real pleasure watching you work and lead the PCC for the last four years. And my understanding is that you are moving on.

Rachael Bronson (RB): I am. Thank you. It’s been a really wonderful experience for me personally and professionally. I have learned so much, and it’s been really exciting to take on new partnerships, to develop projects, and to be able to work with talented people like you and try to make an impact in the state.

BL: Tell us where you’re going.

RB: I am moving to get a Masters in Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver. I’m going to shape my program in traffic engineering and mold it in the direction of bicycle/pedestrian transportation studies. In addition to coursework, I’ll be doing research on campus with some pretty interesting guys studying something called Transit Resiliency, but it’s a little more on the planning side than it is engineering.

Rachael Bronson

BL: You’re going to Denver to do civil engineering. And it just so happens you’re going to a place where it’s wonderful to ride a bike, right?

RB: Correct.

BL: That’s just coincidence.

RB: A wonderful coincidence. There are over a hundred miles of separated bike paths in the Denver metro area. That doesn’t even include bike lanes and shared roads.

BL: What do you think has been your greatest success? What has been your greatest example of really doing something that you’re proud of with PCC?

RB: I’ve done a lot with a little. The PCC is small, but our impact is big, and I’ve been able to maximize our abilities. In my time with the organization, I fostered continued relationships and built new partnerships. I’ve brought new people to the table, different people with different approaches to things, and through this I’ve built some innovative projects that serve us all extremely well.

BL: So you’ve broadened the so called stake holders? Brought new people to the table, right?

RB: Yes.

BL: Because I think the bike advocacy world can get a bit “grey haired men in the sandals” pretty quick.

RB: Right. And that is certainly an important constituency, but bicycling is amazing in that it is a lot broader than just representing one kind of person. It encompasses people of all ages and abilities. It’s the equal opportunity provider.

BL: I always think the challenges for the bike movement is that we are representing people who don’t yet know that they want to be represented. In other words, unless we have the infrastructure, like the Cooper River Bridge Lane, people who would bike aren’t going to. Folks didn’t see themselves as users until they became users, which is kind of bizarre.

RB: And they didn’t become users until they saw their friends and family using the bridge and then were able to envision themselves getting out and riding.

BL: Yes. It’s Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” The problem is that until you build it, a lot of people aren’t going to ride their bike in what is sometimes a really unsafe environment.

RB: Right. Absolutely. People want, and need, a safe place to ride. And the more we serve those needs, the more likely people will be to get out and ride—to opt to go by bike instead of by car, the more likely they will be to recreate on bike rather than take spin classes at the gym.

BL: Tell me about a specific project that you did. Obviously the Safe Street Save Lives is a really creative project that had not only a private/nonprofit partnership, but also one that went to a public state level as well. Tell me about that.

RB: Safe Streets grew out of the need for better understanding about the South Carolina bike laws, which were updated in 2008. After the reform to the laws, which was a legislative campaign that the PCC took the lead on, we saw the opportunity for a public awareness campaign. Although we had these progressive laws, the general public did not know how their rights and responsibilities had changed. So, in partnership with you, Bike law, we developed four incredibly creative video public service announcements about bicycling on South Carolina roads. Along with the videos, we launched a website and developed printed materials to promote the campaign. In the first year of the campaign, we relied on social media, public service airtime, and our constituents to grow the campaign and message.

BL: But it’s gone to a higher level, right? You applied for and got a good bit of state funding to take the message out through conventional media.

RB: We pretty quickly realized that there was only so far that the campaign could grow on its own. So, we applied for funding from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety to help us grow the campaign, and we were successful in getting those funds.

BL: What is the grant? People don’t know. Even though there was a lot of press releases and press coverage about it, a lot of folks don’t know what the grant was, so just tell us the numbers and who’s paying.

RB: The grant is from the state Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which was developed in 2007 by the SC Department of Transportation. Bicycling safety is a part of that plan, and because of that, funds have been allocated to bicycle safety efforts. So, we submitted a proposal to the managers of that plan, the Department of Public Safety, to gain funding and grow the Safe Streets campaign, ultimately to weave our bicycle safety message into the public realm. The biggest chunk of the funds, which is about $50,000, is being used to buy television ads, online ads, Facebook ads, advertising which will broadcast the videos and the campaign message. Our approach is to penetrate the three screens that we interact with on a daily basis—the computer, the television, and the mobile device—and to use these outlets to spread our message.

BL: What is the total amount of money?

RB: The grant totals $75,000, on top of which we’ve received a lot of in-kind support.

BL: Lots of good stuff. So what were the lessons?

RB: The biggest lesson for me is that of investment. In the first year of the campaign, we were largely relying on social media and public service airtime to broadcast the message. That’s all well and good, we got some interviews and we did get some good publicity, but you really have to bring some money to the table to be able to make it happen.

BL: Right. I think the bike community misses that a lot. The bike advocacy world is largely amateur-driven. Many people don’t realize that in addition to smarts, passion, and energy, it really takes money.

RB: Absolutely. And we need to remember that we are competing with a lot out there. We become so entrenched in the movement that we lose sight of how we fit into the bigger picture. We need to be mindful of the fact that our issues aren’t the only ones on the table. This is an important political lesson for us to keep in mind as we work to advocate for policies and funding that support better bicycling.

BL: But the movement is changing to include, like you said from the beginning, a greater constituency than just recreational cyclists.

RB: It is indeed. And recreational bicycling certainly has its place, but more and more people are discovering bicycling for its transportation benefits, particularly in a state like South Carolina where our weather is moderate, where the terrain is relatively flat, and where our urban centers are easily bikeable.

BL: And I think it’s interesting that recreational cyclists are increasingly becoming more advocacy minded, but it’s still a tug sometimes, right?

RB: Yes, it can be a tug, but many are realizing that in a state like South Carolina, we cannot sit back and just expect these changes to happen overnight. We must be involved, we must advocate for our vision. The exciting thing is that anyone can be a part of this positive change, simply by getting on their bike.

BL: If I gave you the controls for a day. If I gave you the purse-strings, the legislative pen, and the engineers drafting table, what’s the first thing you would do to change South Carolina bicycling culture?

RB: Without a doubt, I would put a line item in the state budge for bicycle transportation and for infrastructure.

BL: And a lot of times we (the bike community) feel the pressure of not really changing the culture all that much because we don’t have the ability, at least in the short term, to do that. I think we’re too tough on ourselves.

RB: Yes. And although some of the challenges that we face are cultural, I do strongly believe that if we had more financial resources in this state to devote to bicycling, much of the resistance that we face would fall to the wayside.

BL: It’s a very intelligent, wise, and very astute observation and again, I think what the PCC is trying to do, what Charleston Moves is trying to do, what all the state recreational groups are trying to do more and more is to try to make that happen by just putting cycling on the front the burner. At least on the stove. And everything we do is designed ultimately to get a greater allocation of resources and a greater seat at the table. But I think unfortunately, I think we are probably pretty early in that multi-generational process.

RB: Yes we are. We have a ways to go. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

BL: In the last four years I’ve seen ten times more people riding to work down King Street in Charleston. More people want to ride.

RB: More people do want to ride, and more people are demanding it than ever before. It is where we are going.

BL: I think you’re entirely right. I would love, I’m 45, I would love to be 25 on a bike these days, because I would have more friends than I did when I was 25 on bike, because there are a lot more people out there doing it, but the PCC folks my age and older, right? Does it do a good enough job capturing that energy of the next generation? Should it?

RB: We do need to do a better job at capturing the energy of that next generation, that’s my generation, but we are a really hard generation to engage. We do care about these things, but we’re not contributing our money and our time. There is a small group of folks in their twenties and thirties that are contributing and the rest are just benefiting from the fruits of their labor.

BL: From my vantage point, it has been a real pleasure to watching you work. You have a wonderful touch about you, you’re very intelligent, you make people feel good, and you have been able to bring more people to the table.

RB: Well thank you Peter, I really appreciate it. It’s been an incredible experience. We’ve got some really dedicated bicycle enthusiasts in South Carolina, you are certainly among those, and I am so proud of the work that we accomplished together.

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