Friday, October 1, 2010

My Beef With AAA & Why If You're A Member, You Should Make The Switch To Better World Club

One of our first bike only roads.
(Riding a rural CA bike trail adjacent but with wide separation from highway on AIDS Life Cycle. Was one of my favorite parts of the route. No cars whizzing bye with their noise, their pollution, and their threatening presence.)

Some of you may have heard that Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, known best for it's conversion of decommissioned rail lines into biking and hiking trails, began circulating a petition to call on AAA to support funding for biking and walking. This all came about when the CEO of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of AAA called for Congress to kick bike and pedestrian path projects out of the surface transportation bill. Projects which presently represent an anemically minuscule portion of that total funding.

AAA did not specifically state to not fund bike projects, but to make those projects compete for some other funding dollars. Rails-To-Trails contends that these funding channels within the transportation budget have already existed for quite some time for these kinds of projects, and have their own criteria for funding selection. They argue that to kill those funding streams with no alternative funding currently in place, could kill or significantly delay the future of the kinds of projects Rails To Trials advocates for.

One of AAA's points is that they claim the surface transportation bill is a user fee for drivers and should only fund auto projects. Except that it's not. As any transit nerd following all this stuff knows, the federal gas tax has not been adjusted for inflation in more than a decade and the transportation bill stopped being covered by gas taxes long ago. It is already loaded with money appropriated out of the general fund to stay solvent, money we all pay into. That includes bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users, not just motorists. To make the federal surface transportation bill be completely auto-centric in spending without first increasing taxes on drivers to actually fund the thing without general funds, would essentially be robbing money from every other mode of travel to subsidize driving.

Given how little bike and pedestrian trail funding is actually included in the federal budget, making us a target to cut funds reeks of a mode bias agenda. This is hardly the first time AAA has tried to advance automobile interests by trying to kick other modes of travel out of the picture. When D.C. was recently planning bike lanes on famous Pennsylvania Ave., AAA released an op-ed piece calling it a "War on motorists", and actively lobbied against the proposals. Lon Anderson of AAA called this "war" a huge concern for their "80,000 DC AAA members". I don't think most members who only know of AAA as the company that helps change their flats and gives out maps, are aware these kind of lobbying efforts are being done on their behalf.

Closer to home, there have been a number of streets going through speed limit increases in the L.A. area, mostly in the Valley. Many residents were outraged at some of the speeds proposed, but had almost no input in the matter. That's because state law dictates that speed limits can only be enforced with radar if they be set by the 85th percentile principle. Which essentially means that if 85% of drivers are speeding, than the speed limit goes up. Since L.A. drivers generally find it's always okay to go a little bit over the limit (unless congestion is forcing them to stay far below it), usually these periodically mandated changes push the limits upward.

Streets Blog LA has been covering the whole topic pretty closely, and a reform bill, A.B. 766 was introduced with local support to change the law. It would have added an exception to speed limit increases on radar enforced streets if it presented a danger to pedestrian and bicycling traffic on a street.

So what does this local speed limit issue have to do with AAA? They were there lobbying in Sacramento to help make sure A.B. 766 was dead on arrival. So if you're a AAA member, your membership dues may sometimes be paying for lobbying efforts you may not agree with.

The Big Parade LA 2010
(One way of dealing with speeders..)

If you dig a little deeper, AAA has historically been involved in numerous lobbying efforts. Some seem genuinely nice enough but they are not always benign. They were involved in various capacities in efforts restricting pedestrian rights in the city, a necessary step to ensure auto dominance in urban planning at the dawn of the automobile. They were lobbying to give private autos the same priority as trolley car systems, which killed the efficiency of the electric trolley lines in many cities like Los Angeles. AAA was constantly pushing for land development patterns that favored the car over other modes, aka sprawl.

Downtown Parking

If you think our currently highly automobile dependent urban design is a bad thing, you can thank AAA for being there every step of the way to push our cites to be car, car, car. Closer to modern history, they've been involved in fighting landmark environmental protections like the Clean Air Act, and fought almost every bill introduced to improve emission standards in cars. Of the Clean Air Act, AAA wrote, it would "..threaten the personal mobility of millions of Americans and jeopardize needed funds for new highway construction and safety improvements."

I used to be a AAA member as did my wife. I got rid of AAA when I got rid my car, but was mostly clueless then how involved they were in advocating for automobile dependence in America. My wife has been considering selling her car, but for the moment we still have it. She had AAA, and was a long time member, but I convinced her to get rid of it after I read books like Fighting Traffic and Republic of Drivers, which describe in detail how our country became so car dependent. It is an appealing service they provide with their convenient road side assistance, but the thing is, they aren't the only game in town anymore, so there are choices. Signing a petition is a way to call attention, but I think a louder message is to ditch AAA for a competitor that doesn't have an anti-bike agenda.

Enter Better World Club. Better World Club was co-founded by Mitch Rofsky who started his career working for Ralph Nader at Public Citizen. Nader of course was first launched to fame by his tireless fighting against the carelessness of the automobile industry starting with his infamous book Unsafe At Any Speed, before going on to be involved in numerous safety and environmental regulation efforts on a variety of issues. Rofsky saw the fights environmental groups were having with AAA, and thought there was room to compete with a similar service but a different message.

BWC makes a point of being the socially responsible road club, and not only does it not lobby against alternative transportation modes, they encourage them. They are for tougher environmental regulations on automobiles and improving air quality. They support transportation dollars being allocated for public transit service. The best part is they also provide road side assistance for bicyclists nationwide, something AAA does not offer, though the local AAA branch in Oregon is now flirting with bike service. Especially as someone who is interested in long distance bike tours, a nationwide bike assistance service is a great peace of mind, even if you hopefully never have to use it. So as readers of my Twitter feed already know, I have been encouraging people to make the switch from AAA to BWC recently.

That first twitter to encourage people to switch from AAA to Better World Club is partially how I was spiraled into being compelled to write all this up. In reply to my suggestion to @BikeSwarm to look at Better World Club instead of AAA, I got a tweet from the PR wing of AAA back at me and a number of others who re-tweeted my tweet. To which I wrote back a number of stinging replies and rants without further response on their part. If they thought they could win me over with a tweet and some PR fluff that's not reflected in their real lobbying efforts, they have another thing coming.

Well hello there @AAACares, spin, spin, spin. I have to admit, I kind of enjoy watching irresponsible powerful interests squirm a little because a bunch of people on the internet are poking at them. Then seeing their efforts to PR spin blow up in their face. So I was compelled to write my own big blog post that couldn't be contained in 144 characters. I also left a comment on the facebook page, linked to in their tweet.

AAA's little denouncement of bicycling funding in the transportation bill is perhaps some of the best marketing for Better World Club yet. I think I've converted a handful of people yesterday my self already with a few tweets. I encourage any readers still with AAA to look into Better World Club, or other road side assistance alternatives. AAA has over 50 million members, who they evoke when lobbying government, with little outreach to inform their membership what they are up to in their name. They don't need your help to advance their anti-bike agenda, and you don't need their help with road side assistance if you sign up with another group.

If you need a little more convincing, I suggest reading the following articles that summarize some of the lesser known activities of AAA:
The Secret Life of AAA - [The Amicus Journal]
Smitten with a Club - Your AAA dues fuel pollution and sprawl - [Harpers]


Chewie said...

Just made the switch thanks to the suggestions of yourself (in a comment on Biking in LA). And Justin N (Riding in Riverside).

Well done.

Ross Hirsch said...

Agree 100%.

Vote with your feet (and bicycle wheels if you so desire)--let them know how you feel about their (backwards) policies with one of our greatest weapons in our collective arsenal--our choice.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the write. I will definitely switch from AA

Adam Villani said...

If a great many AAA members aren't active in the organization's politics, wouldn't there be more bang for the buck in getting a critical mass of environmentally-minded AAA members to take over its Board of Directors from within?

Gary said...

Reforming a massive institution with a long history of efforts that run contrary to those of many cyclists, walkers and transit users, seems like an undertaking easier said than done. The chapters are all spread out, and I get the impression that they are not entirely unified, so it would be separate battles all over.

The AAA website has a plan in PDF form that sounds like a reasonable and sensible vision for a way forward in transportation, that acknowledges importance of different modes. However the lobbying happening under the AAA banner at both local and national level are not reflected by their "Making America Stronger" campaign, which mostly looks like a watered down rip off of documents by Transportation 4 America.

If someone wants to take a charge at changing AAA from within, more power to you, but I think a simpler solution for me is to withdrawal support of AAA and put that money into organizations that are already doing the right thing and reflect my values. If enough people make the switch in mass, the losses to cash flow may inspire them to start switching their own values to stay relevant.

Additionally I recently learned the 3 foot law proposal that was tried by NorCal advocates a few years, ago, AAA was involved in the lobbying to shoot that down. Having safe passing room can be life and death issue, and AAA seems to be on the side of motorist convenience over life and well being of cyclists.

That's not an organization I want to talk to, that is an organization I don't want to be in the same room with. Like someone who is Jewish probably doesn't want to sit at a round-table with NeoNazi's and have a shat about reforming their ways to be more accepting. AAA has never been supportive of alternative modes, their whole history is tied to advancing cars by suppressing other modes of travel.

Anonymous said...

Do you have a link to something which documents their lobbying against the 3 feet law?

Gary said...

Regarding AAA against 3 feet law, I don't have a link associated with that yet, but I'll see if I can find something. The first I heard this was in recent conversation after this post was written, with Danny Gamboa, the L.A. area cyclist who won the campaign slogan contest that resulted in Give Me 3 being the message on the posters around town.

PlebisPower said...

Thanks for calling the AAA out. The Auto Club made Los Angeles what it is today. Like the Chamber of Commerce, they've managed to nurture a mom-and-apple-pie facade that conceals a well-connected and powerful, near single-issue lobbying arm: defending the prerogatives of motorists.

Gary said...

Took a bit but I tracked down a news article connecting AAA to past lobbying efforts against 3 foot passing law in CA when it was being tried a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I dropped AAA in the early 1980's when I saw that they were lobbying. The were open about it then. Now they say that they advocate for "transportation" and even use the word "green" on their website.

Adam Villani's comment has merit. Historically, the AAA was pro-environmental. The AAA is a non-profit member organization (tax-paying) see:

Regarding rails to trails, my only objection is that they are sometimes have been at odds with LRT or commuter rail projects, which also have merit.

Mark Elliot said...

I'll tweet this article lo these many months later because it's still a critical issue. AAA lurks in the background, working Congress and state legislatures, much like the Chamber and its affiliates. Mostly to no good end.
Back in the late-nineteenth century, it was cyclists advocating for the right to mobility and better roads. Until relatively we've let that ball drop, but we're back, baby.
And throttling AAA pro-car activism is a great opportunity to move the pro-bike ball. Thanks Gary!