AAA’s Minor-League Error, and Bike to Work Day

I don’t want to write this post. The upside is negligible and improbable. Since I work in the same sector as the subject, the downside is… let’s just not dwell on that. And this is going to veer away from the relatively irrelevant stuff I used to blog about. Sorry in advance.

Last week, a paid professional spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic gave what could be the , worst interview-while-sober ever, calling a critical local blog editor “developmentally retarded,” and comparing his colleagues and readers to the Ku Klux Klan. When this sort of thing spews forth from such thought leaders as Lindsay Lohan or Lady Gaga, it is rightfully condemned, sincere-sounding apologies are immediately issued, acts of contrition are performed, and ‘teachable moments’ are declared. While few walk away terribly satisfied with the whole transaction, we at least have a bit of hope that we have nudged the future decency needle just a bit higher.

Instead, AAA M-A issued a twitter-only apology that looked for all the world like a “non-apology apology.” The organization pinning blame solely on the man it pays to talk on their behalf, a cryptic spanner of doubt thrown in about “attribution,” and an assertion that “statements were presented out of context and mischaracterize the discussion.” Author Aaron Weiner pulled back the curtain on the context, and AAA M-A did not come out looking not worse.

I was among those who signed onto the byline of Greater Greater Washington’s response, and have waited for this past week for something to happen. A real apology, a firing, an act of contrition, maybe a donation to the R-word Campaign… Nothing. A few people cancelled their AAA memberships, folks checked into Better World Club, the Examiner ran a comparatively banal AAA M-A quote, AAA National warned us about the “breaking point” on gas prices, somebody started a parody twitter account, and AAA Safety reminded us that we can die on our bicycles. In other words, a return to normalcy.

I must admit that I have never liked AAA, either National or our regional chapter. Whether it is their local ‘war on cars‘ talk, their national lobbying against bicycles as transportation, or the many other instances where AAA at all levels has shown itself to be reliably opposed to the interests of sustainable transportation, I am irretrievably pessimistic that they will ever pass my own personal bike-ally litmus test [Would you answer 'yes' when asked, "If more people rode bicycles for transportation, more often, would that be a good thing?"].

I do not think they deserve a role in our big events, like DC’s Bike to Work Day, for those reasons alone. I have felt this way for a number of years. Many (many many) disagree with me, have told me so (sometimes angrily), passionately arguing that detente can be reached, that AAA is key to educating the driving public, and a ‘big-tent’ strategy is necessary for advancing bicycling. All fairly debatable points, and I only raise them so you may attack my motives, dear reader.

But last week, things hit a new level. And AAA M-A’s decency debt has accrued interest over this past week, at least with me. We are past the apology zone. Regardless of where you stand on the good-cop/bad-cop issues described above, I think many would agree that AAA M-A has burned its last bridge to our community. And their main arterial into our local community has always been their confounding sponsorship of DC’s Bike to Work Day.

It is time for that sponsorship to end. Establishing detente with unrepentant organizations who try to excuse their own hate speech is just not possible (at least I hope not). I challenge the organizers and co-sponsors of Bike to Work Day to:

  • Condemn AAA M-A’s recent conduct as incompatible with the ‘big tent’ of DC’s bicycling community. We gave AAA M-A ample opportunity to show themselves as allies. They have not only failed, but have since shown the darkest sides of themselves.
  • Ask that they refrain from taking part, either in-person or online, in any Bike to Work Day activities. It is too late to take their logos off the signs, but it is not to late for AAA M-A to exhibit a smidgen of shame.
  • Make clear that they will not be welcomed back as a Bike to Work Day co-sponsor without substantive organizational changes. DC’s bike community has sufficiently matured to the point that we do not need the endorsement of our foes for the sake of legitimacy.

I am not asking that people withhold registering or participating in Bike to Work Day. You should. Sign up now. Bike to Work Day is not only too important, but with Bike DC going back into hibernation, and the fact that we will not get an Open Streets event here until completion of the Global War on Terror, this is all we’ve got. You should enjoy it. Assuage any guilt by signing the R-word Pledge. Maybe Sharpie over the AAA logo on your t-shirt. Or just dismiss me as an oversensitive prat.

But barring some change, I will probably lay low on May 17th. The AAA’s R-word slur has put a stain on the day that AAA bikewashing will only make worse. I’ve participated in most (maybe all) Bike to Work Days since 2002, and I’ve got the garish neon rainbow of t-shirts to prove it. It is a testament to all involved that my staying away would cause an undetectable ripple among the sea of 14,000+ partying bicyclists, and I wish you all the best. But as it stands, it comes down to AAA Mid-Atlantic, or me.

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7 Responses to AAA’s Minor-League Error, and Bike to Work Day

  1. Pingback: Teaching Police How to Use Laws That Protect Peds and Cyclists | Streetsblog.net

  2. Dealing with AAA M-A is like dealing with North Korea. Is it better to engage and hope to moderate their behavior? Or is it better to cut them off? John Townsend might be more rational than Kim Jong Un but he’s just as blundering.

    I think it’s better to engage. I’m sure there are a lot of people inside AAA who are mortified by Townsend. He’s embarrassed the organization and brought unwanted negative press to them – a remarkable achievement for someone in public relations. If I worked there, I’d wonder why he hasn’t been fired. I’m sure AAA M-A has fired people for less. Would you want AAA M-A on your resume now? Townsend has made them synonymous with stupid, clueless, old-fashioned, ham-handed and destructive corporate communication. He’s made the organization a joke.

    For this reason, I think it’s better to engage. It’s better to keep the lines of communication open and encourage the reformers within AAA. I’m sure there are some, as there are bikers and pedestrians who are AAA members.

    • bikepedantic says:

      Just a fantastic analogy. Very jealous that I didn’t think of it…. To take it a step further, for me (just me, personally), the angry despot using the r-word and papering over it was the equivalent of launching that nuke they say they have. Not many seem too steamed about it, because it harmlessly splashed down well west of the Aleutians. But for me, I just can’t stomach the engagement anymore.

      Regarding ‘engagement’, that is a popular view throughout the community, it seems. Having never worked in advocacy, bike or otherwise, I’ve never seen, and can’t readily think of, the case study where it delivers. I would like to think that reason lives somewhere within AAA M-A. And I guess if I had my way, any chance of that reason bubbling up is squashed.

      But yeah, I don’t begrudge anyone that long view of the situation. But for now, it’s gone well over the line where I can personally stomach seeing that logo associated with DC’s only big ride left.

  3. darsal says:

    I think of BTWD like an abused spouse. Maybe they used to love AAA, maybe the relationship had a hopeful future at one point, but ever since the gasoline bubble of 2008 put more bikes on the road, ever since DDOT dusted off the back pages of the 2005 Bike/Ped Master Plan and started dedicating road space to bicycles, every time Mid-Atlantic cyclists try to stand up, the Mid-Atlantic AAA chapter smacks us down.

    Now, maybe, we remember the good times and wish they could return, or at least wish they’d leave us alone. They’re controlling the discussion and actively working against our interests, except for a few times a year when they mumble a few words that sound like they still love us too.

    But then they insult our ideas and the people who hold them, using slurs that are unwelcome in any civil discussion? After working against the very bike lanes that carry much of the city to the BTWD central pit stop.

    WABA is so shell-shocked that they mounted a PRE-PROTEST SUPPORT CAMPAIGN for the L Street cycletracks against the AAA backlash! That’s not a partner, that’s not a healthy relationship – that’s not even civil. DTMFA!

    It may be hard for us to leave. They’ll make it harder – if this is how they treat us as partners, imagine how they’ll act as we walk away, as we offer a real alternative to the 20% of their members who would switch to bike commuting if the conditions were better. At some point we need to grow up and let them deal with their own problems, without giving them the satisfaction of calling our hollow and damaging interactions a “partnership”.

    • bikepedantic says:

      Though, i don’t think sponsorship decisions are made by WABA, MWCOG runs things. We don’t really know where WABA stands vis-a-vis AAA M-A in general, or their BTWD gatecrashing or public hatemongering in particular. I’m assuming MWCOG kept renewing AAA M-A out of intertia, and insufficient motivation to change. Maybe the sponsors (and maybe even riders) have the chutzpah to force a change.

  4. darsal says:

    I’m assuming about the same. PhilK’s mention that the 2013 sponsor list was set in 2012 seems to indicate something like that too.

    MWCOG works with WABA and a bunch of other sponsors and more localized advocates to make BTWD happen. AAA’s message to them is not to get too active, not to succeed too well, or they’ll become the next target of the Lon & John dirty tricks show.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t care if I’m counted among the 14K participants for BTWD 2013 because I’m going to bike to work that day like I always do. That may not be exactly true – if AAA has a table at the downtown pit, it’s not every day I get an opportunity to picket and protest directly in front of something like that.

  5. Pingback: EPA post for Bike to Work Day | bikepedantic

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