In 1985, the sociologist Robert Bellah and four of his colleagues wrote about a “crisis of civic membership” in America. The people they interviewed were engrossed in their private lives and increasingly reluctant to get tangled in their local politics. As one interviewee put it, only “suckers” think in terms of the common good in a situation where everyone else is quietly pursuing his or her own interests.
If this was a ‘crisis’ thirty years ago, what word can we use to describe the present pitch of political disillusionment? After an endless suite of national scandal, local fraud, and public deception, we no longer believe that participants in our government are suckers. They’re more like scoundrels, oiling the democratic machinery to the tune of their own profit. The Pew Research Center reported last year that nearly three quarters of Americans accuse their elected officials of placing their own interests ahead of the nation’s welfare.
I read Bellah’s book, Habits of the Heart, last summer—just before beginning a yearlong internship with Amanda Poncy, the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. One of my responsibilities, I was told, would be to keep minutes for the little-known Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC for short). Bellah’s observations floated into my mind, joined there by a cynical quip I had seen on the back of a taxicab: “Committees: they keep minutes but waste hours.”
Yet my suspicions about BPAC were soon put to the test. If the meetings are long, the issues discussed are of undeniable importance. One evening’s agenda might include making suggestions to Public Services director Lance Stewart on more democratic snow removal, clearing routes for people on foot as well as those behind the wheel. This might be followed by a brainstorming session on how to get the business community more engaged in multimodal planning. BPAC members told me that they especially value the chance to vet site plans for street projects, ensuring they will be friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and the disabled.
The committee members themselves—a humorous, sometimes prickly bunch—gave me as thorough a lesson in civic generosity as anyone could wish. Asked why he joined the group in 2013, Jake Fox told me a story.
“I was on a bike ride with some friends out on Woodlands Road, just past the reservoir. A truck hit me with its trailer as it tried to pass us too closely around a blind curve. But when I called the police to report the accident, they told me that unless I was injured badly enough to go to the hospital or had suffered $1,500 in damage, there was nothing they could do.” Since only the most upscale bicycles cost more than one thousand dollars, this means that unless they cause a medical emergency, bicycle accidents go unpunished and unrecorded.
“If bicycle and pedestrian accidents just disappear from the record, there’s no way to address them. We can’t get the right laws, the right education, or the right infrastructure for the most vulnerable road users,” Jake said. “I had a bone to pick.”
Jake didn’t just grumble, though—he looked for ways to prevent other people from experiencing what he had. He enrolled in a course to earn certification as a League Cycling Instructor and began teaching courses about bike skills and safety. He signed onto BPAC and, together with his co-chair Lena Seville, helps set the monthly agenda and is always ready to volunteer for outreach. In April, he installed a pop-up wayfinding system for bicyclists and pedestrians, pointing them along the best routes to get to local parks, schools, and transit centers.
Another committee member, Peter Ohlms, said he joined BPAC in 2010 because he likes to complain. But complaining ought to be done responsibly. “People ask, why doesn’t the City fix this problem? Well—did you tell them? BPAC is a valid way to make your voice heard.”
Even this rigorous attitude hardly justifies Peter’s unswerving engagement. He attends nearly every BPAC meeting, keeps the other members up-to-date on current issues, and lends considerable expertise as a multimodal research scientist for the Virginia Department of Transportation. His involvement is even more impressive given he and his wife have two spirited boys at home, ages three and six. Less than a quarter of Americans in Peter’s age cohort reported ever attending a local public meeting (National Citizens Survey, 2014).
BPAC was founded in 2008 as the Pedestrian Safety Committee at the behest of then-City Traffic Engineer Jeanie Alexander. Alexander handpicked a set of citizens to address a chain of serious pedestrian accidents. Two years later, the group grew to include bicycle activists, wrote itself a charter, and began meeting more frequently. There remains no formal election or appointment process, though—instead, anyone with an interest is heartily welcomed.
Today BPAC is a diverse crew of men and women who range from recent college graduates to seniors. Some are keen bicyclists while others enthuse about convenient access to transit or pleasantly shaded sidewalks. Most of the work they do is long-term visioning whose benefits they will never see. This sets them firmly apart from the traditional citizen ‘stakeholder’ whose involvement in local government goes no further than protesting change.
So why do they keep coming? Those I asked hemmed and hawed. “It just made sense,” Peter concluded. “Sometimes we just spin our wheels,” Jake joked. “But when we actually get something done, it’s very gratifying. It’s my favorite way to volunteer.”
If you want to learn more about BPAC, you can visit their website here. You can even join BPAC yourself (please do). But there are many more boards and commissions to choose from; Charlottesville is currently seeking applicants for 22 different bodies, all of them to remain open until the positions are filled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claudia Elzey is Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning Intern for the City of Charlottesville and a policy research intern for the Southern Environmental Law Center. A Charlottesville native, she graduated from UVa with bachelors in Urban Planning and French in 2015. This fall, she's off to Philadelphia for a new adventure--studying for her masters in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Claudia was an intern at Charlottesville Tomorrow in 2013.