Engineers generally shy away from using the term advocate to describe themselves because they want to avoid the perception that that they aren’t taking an objective or well-reasoned approach to transportation infrastructure. Occasionally, the title bicycle advocate is used to describe individuals who support or demand biycle infrastructure with little regard for the needs or desires of other roadway users, statistics, facts, or political or financial realities. To some, advocates are those who don’t understand what engineers understand.
I think this perception of both engineers and advocates is a little simplistic, and the pitting of engineers against advocates isn’t useful when you’re in the middle of a planning or engineering project. Both groups can agree that cyclists need safe, useful, attractive, and efficient facilities. Many individuals that proudly carry the title of bicycle advocate are well-informed individuals who approach roadway infrastructure as a collaborative effort between users with varying preferences. They often have a sound understanding of engineering principles, and they are usually not ignorant of academic transportation research or the political and financial realities facing communities. This is especially true of advocates who are employed by or aligned with agencies or organizations whose mission is to promote cycling. In most cases, these individuals have chosen to dedicate the majority of their efforts towards promoting a specific set of ideas because of what they have learned about how cities work. Of course there are advocates that are biased, careless, or uninformed, but this is true of engineers as well.
I like to think that my support of bicycle infrastructure, and my personal decision to ride a bicycle, are merely evidence of the same well-reasoned analysis of our overall transportation situation. I like to think that I support bicycle infrastructure because of my experience, knowledge, and observations about our transportation network and my training as an engineer, not in spite of it. I hope that I support an increased emphasis on bicycle infrastructure because of my engineering judgement and because of my knowledge of the financial and spatial implications of expanding other transportation modes, rather than a selfish desire to promote my own interests at others’ expense. I consider riding a bicycle to be a logical conclusion for an individual or family to reach after systematically, quantitatively, and objectively considering the costs and impacts of using other modes. The fact that riding a bicycle happens to be a lot of fun is simply an added benefit. I consider investing money in bicycle infrastructure to be a logical investment for cities to make in their effort to limit roadway congestion and overall transportation infrastructure costs. The fact that people use some of this infrastructure for recreation in addition to utilitarian purposes is simply an added benefit. Everyone (engineers and advocates) can also agree that cycling isn’t for everyone – some people just aren’t interested – and that’s fine too.