The news has been trickling out for some time now, but in an effort to not crowd out our other exciting December news like our Bohemian Foundation Pharos Grant award, and our end of year fundraising, I held off on making this formal announcement till now. Today, January 5th, is my final day at Bike Fort Collins. In December, I accepted a position in San Jose with California Walks. I’ll be spearheading their vision zero campaign and working to make the south bay safer, healthier, and more sustainable.
I can’t tell you exactly what’s next for Bike Fort Collins regarding succession and leadership. Stay tuned for more on that in the coming weeks, but I wanted to leave folks with a few stray thoughts I have about my tenure and the future of the org and the region.
When I arrived in Fort Collins, 13 years ago, it was supposed to be a pit stop. I’d just spent most of my 20s in Chicago, where I’d fallen in love with bikes & transit, urbanism, multiculturalism and activism. Eventually the weather got the better of me- as it gets the better of so many former Chicagoans- and my newfound love of cycling. So I packed up and headed west, in search of my next (warmer) urban adventure.
But that trip stopped short when my Fort Collins recharge accidentally morphed into marriage, parenthood, homeownership, and, eventually, an unlikely career change that allowed me to finally take a public role in a conversation that I’d long felt passionate about.
Just over two years ago, I accepted the position of executive director at Bike Fort Collins and set out to explore three important questions:
- What is the role of a bike advocacy nonprofit in a platinum rated bike friendly city, where the city’s own effort to promote bikes is better organized and resourced than the nonprofits’?
- How can we call ourselves a bike friendly city at all, when that experience of bike friendliness is so wildly disparate between neighborhood, without asking serious and sometimes uncomfortable questions about root causes and historic inequality?
- Why are the neighborhoods and individuals whose health, safety and access to opportunity are so tenuous, also so under-represented in conversations about transportation and the built environment’s impact on health, safety and opportunity.
Meanwhile, along with these lofty existential questions, I was tasked with plotting a course towards long term revenue sustainability for the org. Like so many nonprofits, a succession of volunteer leaders and informal accounting and operating plans had left me with an org with a lot of passion and goodwill, but without a strong brand identity- without a distinct and resonant vision that would sustain our work.
This has been a joyous, stressful, challenging, and inspiring couple of years. At the end of it, at the dawn of a new year, we as a city and as an organization have a greater sense of how interconnected the threats to our long term vibrancy and health are. From affordability to growth to transit to pollution to social segregation to immigration and more. Its clearer than ever that real sustainability means not just environmentalism but also social and economic health and justice (what good are bike lanes when the workforce increasingly can’t afford to live close enough to ride to work?)
We’ve asked tough questions of our leaders, our community partners, the public and most importantly, of ourselves. In an era of uncertainty, its increasingly clear that technology alone won’t save us, that Washington won’t save us, that our fate as a community is in our hands, that being engaged in local budgets, in City Plan, in boards and commissions, in local nonprofits, in local and regional elections, is non-negotiable. Even at a moment when Northern Colorado feels relatively prosperous and seemingly insulated from many of the marquee threats in the US in 2018, there are clouds of uncertainty on our horizon. The world our children will inherit is being forged in small ways every day both through our deliberate plans and though inattention to creeping threats. That shouldn’t be frightening, but it should be sobering.
A close friend of mine asked me recently what is MY vision for Fort Collins in 20 or 30 years. This conversation was inspired by our divergent views of Elon Musk’s efforts to bring vacuum tube transit to the front range. If I didn’t buy Musk’s vision of salvation through innovation, what did I believe in?
Its not that I don’t believe in innovation. The way we move, communicate, allocate resources, combat disease are changing at a breakneck pace. But I think that history has shown that technological prognostication is a fool’s errand. Technology and culture inevitably zig and zag and have unintended, unforeseeable consequences- some good, some bad. If you ask me my vision of a healthy future city, I won’t spin stories of exotic vehicles or magical healthcare breakthroughs, or new ways to generate power or grow food. Though we will certainly continue to see all of those. I’ll say, simply: my healthy future city is one where the priorities and vision are created collaboratively, by everyone who lives here, not by those who have the most, and therefore have the most to protect. Technology might help us answer questions, but without community engagement and empowerment, without INCLUSIVE leadership, how can we know we’re asking the right questions in the first place?
For me, Bike Fort Collins is not a platform for celebrating or mythologizing bikes as a lifestyle or identity. There are plenty of amazing clubs and teams that convene around “bike culture”. We are dedicated to working with communities and community organizations and asking how active transportation can serve a larger strategy for addressing their specific challenges and reaching their potential. We want to ensure that the countless community members who rely on bikes for transportation and recreation have as much say as the bike nuts do.
On this, my final day at BFC, I look back at my time here and feel we’ve made big advances in our understanding of all of these challenges. As I turn over the keys to the next person lucky enough to steer this organization, I’m confident that they will inherit an org with a strong vision, a healthy financial future, a respected, credible voice, and a critical role in a number of local coalitions working hard to ensure a safer, healthier more inclusive future for Northern Colorado.
I’ve left our board a list of suggestions and priorities that I’m sure they will sort and parse, but I know a few big action items for 2018 will include informing the City Plan process, informing the 2019-2020 FC City budget. and diving into the 2018 midterm elections where there are several impactful local and county races where we think we can both inform candidate platforms and educate the public about where various candidates stand on active transportation and built environment issues.
We will continue to grow our flagship Safe Routes to School program. we will continue to promote and grow our national leading Bike Friendly Business network, we will continue to run the Fort Collins Bike Share as the technology and policies around bike share changes seeming daily, we will continue our direct service programs like our Neighborhood Active Living Plan, Upshift, and Chain Reaction, and we’ll continue to promote our busy calendar of rides and events like the Ride of Silence, RAT Rides, Tour de Farms, Ride with Pride, and of course Tour de Fat. The people who run these programs, and who sit on our board are amazing, talented visionaries and I know they’ll continue to work tirelessly to get more people on bikes, build safer and healthier streets and neighborhoods, and strive for an advocacy platform that is inclusive and empowering of Fort Collinsers of every ability, gender, race, age and identity.
As for me, I am looking forward to a change of scenery and catching my breath. This last two years was a tremendous honor, but running a small nonprofit takes a lot out of you, and my tank was pretty low going in, after years of organizing races and rides and writing about cycling in Fort Collins. It has been tough on my body and spirit, and I look forward to being a smaller part of a larger org and city, where I can continue to learn and grow, but also work on balancing work and life better (and maybe even spend a little more time on the bike).
Happy New Year,
Chris J. Johnson