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On Cascade’s strange day in the spotlight

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 4.19.51 PMBetween an outreach email mini-fiasco and a Seattle Times story that suggests they are downplaying their role in politics, Cascade Bicycle Club had a weird day in the spotlight Monday.

First, a cover story in the Seattle Times carried the headline: “Cascade Bicycle Club’s new path: more riding, less politics.” Emily Heffter reports on the club’s big staff changes in the past year and new Executive Director Elizabeth Kiker’s shift to a “more inclusive path, with less emphasis on lobbying and a more welcoming tone.”

The story says that the club is doing less lobbying than it did during the days David Hiller was Cascade’s aggressive Advocacy Director three years ago. But the story (well, the headline, really) gives the idea that less lobbying means less politics, an idea Cascade rejected on Twitter saying they prefer “More riding, better politics.”

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We have been covering the shakeups at Cascade and whether there has been a movement away from advocacy work at the club, a fear some people close to the club have had. But considering they have hired Thomas Goldstein (formerly with Washington Bus) and have a sizeable advocacy staff, these fears have not yet been actualized.

One need only look back a couple weeks to see clear evidence of advocacy work, as Cascade got about 100 residents, the mayor’s office and several councilmembers engaged in an “advocacy ride” to promote a safer Westlake and pressure a group of people suing to delay the Bike Master Plan to drop the suit. Within weeks, the suit was dropped. While Cascade is not solely responsible, the ride and the club’s legal assistance against the suit certainly were factors.

Cascade has decided to focus regionally, partnering with Washington Bikes on statewide lobbying efforts. But since the two groups have long had very similar legislative desires and Washington Bikes has gathered a powerful head of steam since big shakeups there in 2012, it would be a stretch to consider their partnership as a sign Cascade is ditching politics.

If anything, I see this as a sign of just how impressive Washington Bikes (formerly the Bicycle Alliance of Washington) has been at gathering a truly statewide bike advocacy movement.

In the meantime, Cascade has dedicated staff resources to advocacy on the Eastside, where communities are becoming more and more interested in bicycling and big projects like the Eastside Rail Corridor trail deserve big attention.

If the club does seem to move away from advocacy, I will certainly call them on it. Cascade is a big organization that handles a huge chunk of our region’s collective bike advocacy dollars. They have a responsibility to work toward a Puget Sound region with more bicycling and safer streets.

But so far, I have seen the club working to create a wider tent for bicycling, where more people get active and take a leadership role in promoting safe streets in their communities (see: the Advocacy Leadership Institute). When the time comes that a big political push is needed, Cascade is betting that having more engaged people in all neighborhoods will be powerful.

Will Cascade get as much done with their new staff and style? We’ll see. But I simply don’t see evidence that they are foregoing politics as the Times story suggests.

Bike Bot

Monday morning, some people who were subscribed to Cascade’s email lists received an odd email. Written in the voice of a self-aware email marketing computer, the Bike Bot berated these humans for failing to open or take action on the club’s emails.

Some people (likely those who recently watched the Spike Jonze film “Her”) thought the email was funny. Others thought it was creepy, given all the recent NSA privacy issues in the news recently. While tracking recipient activity is a common feature of email marketing software, it is certainly strange to see it used to shame people into getting engaged.

On further inspection, even Cascade decided the joke was not very good, sending a follow-up email saying:

This morning, in trying to add a little levity to Cascade’s effort to ensure you only receive the emails you want, we crossed a line. What we thought was funny now clearly wasn’t. Our sincerest apologies.

Here’s the full text of the initial email:

Let me introduce myself. I’m Bike “I’m smarter than you” Bot, the Director of Cascade’s Intelligence Agency.*

I’m not human. I’m an internet program that’s been trolling through how many emails you’ve been opening from the Cascade Bicycle Club and how many actions you’ve been taking.**

And I have to say, I’m a little disappointed (like Siri gets when you ask her a dumb question … you know the tone). You’ve opened fewer than one out of four emails from Cascade, and you’ve never, ever signed a petition, sent an email to a decision-maker, or attended a lots-of-humans-in-the-room (ick) Cascade advocacy event.

So, I’ve instructed the human advocacy staff at the Cascade Bicycle Club to remove you from the advocacy email list. Unless you tell me otherwise, you won’t receive another Advocacy Alert from Cascade.

Yes, you’ll still receive all sorts of other emails from Cascade, like the “Braking News” emails that are sent every two weeks, which includes updates about our advocacy efforts. Also, if you’re signed up for Commute Challenge (a.k.a. Bike Month) emails or daily ride emails, you’ll continue to receive those too.

But if you want to continue to receive timely emails about important advocacy actions to improve bicycling in your community and across the region and state, well, then you need to tell me that you want to stay on Cascade’s Advocacy Alerts.

Click here to stay on Cascade’s Advocacy Alert email list >>

By the way, here’s a public service announcement for all you humans from an internet bot: don’t get any ideas from the movie “Her.” We won’t love you, we’ll play you. Siri doesn’t even like you. Plus, humans shouldn’t be stealing my dates.

Sincerely trolling through your emails to create a better world,

Bike Bot, Director of Cascade’s Intelligence Agency
Cascade Bicycle Club

P.S. Did you see that the Cascade Bicycle Club was featured on the front cover of The Seattle Times today?

* This is a joke. No such agency or bot exists at the Cascade Bicycle Club. Or does it? ‪#‎EvilLaugh‬

** Actually, this is kind of true. We know how often you open your emails, if you click on a link, and if you take action. This may seem creepy, but it’s standard information that nearly all email systems provide. And we’re trying to put the information to good use, by sending you only as many emails as you think is reasonable.

A note: Seattle Bike Blog is a fully independent news and opinion website. Cascade Bicycle Club is one of our advertisers, but their sponsorship does not impact our editorial coverage. Also, the club recently hired my partner Kelli to be their Volunteer Coordinator. Again, I intend to maintain my fair and honest coverage of the club.

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12 responses to “On Cascade’s strange day in the spotlight”

  1. Patty Lyman

    Tom,I agree with you that Cascade is not decreasing its advocacy work. It is a very important part of Cascade. There is room in the club for riders as well as advocacy work.

  2. GBallard

    I got the Bike Bot email. As a grizzled veteran of the non-profit sector, I don’t think that Cascade’s use of analytics is either unusual or unethical. But if you’re going to make a joke, don’t make it lame.

    In defense of the Cascade communications and development teams, bad humor and guilt-trip brow-beating do provide a good mechanism for cleaning up their email list. I immediately unsubscribed.

    1. Nathaniel

      I don’t know which techniques Cascade uses specifically, but I would say that some techniques adopted from spam (well, they’re almost all adopted from spam) to track email opening border on unethical (even if unintentionally so), though they probably aren’t unusual. Specifically, if they include personalized images in each email that trigger a request to a server that records when the user views the email, I personally believe this is not something that customers expect or desire, not to mention it isn’t very accurate. Gmail has recently taken steps to minimize the effectiveness of this technique because of its risk to privacy just by looking at an email. Unfortunately it’s probably just a default option in whatever email program Cascade is using, and plenty of otherwise reputable companies use it.

      Personalized links in emails, however, I think fall pretty within the range of ethical email tracking techniques, since this is commonly-used on the web in general, and anyway the automatic transmission of information on “what page was this page view linked from” is a common feature of every web browser even without personalized links (though not of email clients).

  3. Chicama

    Cascade I more interested in getting in bed with corporations than in advocating for cyclists. For example, Boeing closed cyclist access to a bridge they own near the Renton Municipal Airport. That bridge is an important part of the South Lake bike loop. Cutting access undermines one of the most important recreational bike routes in the Seattle area. Under common law and under WA law, cyclists have an open and shut case for an easement by prescription on that bridge, as cyclists have been openly using it for decades, without permission from Boeing. Despite this, Cascade has declined to pursue an easement by prescription. One wonders what is Cascade doing on the advocacy front, when it won’t even lift a finger to protect the most important bike routes in the region. The old Cascade would have sued and campaigned against cities and corporations to protect cycling infrastructure (e.g., Burke-Gilman through Lake Forest Park, “missing link” in Ballard, West Lake Sammamish in Bellevue). Cascade got big and politically influential because of its ride events and its fierce and effective advocacy. The new Cascade does not produce, and it shows no sign of wanting to.


    1. Erik

      Oh I don’t know… that new bike trail along Logan Ave works pretty nicely as an alternative to the Boeing bridge. Hardly seems a threatened bike throughway.

      1. Chicama

        The transition between the airport service road and the Logan Ave cycletrack is very narrow. Unlike the old way, the cycletrack has plenty of car crossings from a busy parking lot. The currently blocked-to-cyclists way is far safer, wider, and more isolated from car traffic. The Logan Ave cycletrack is only one block long. Why does it have to be one or the other. Cascade should be in the business of getting more infrastructure, not trading infrastructure.

  4. Bryan Willman

    Yes, the bot mail was a fine piece. It had technical errors (you don’t *really* know what I opened, and you certainly never *really* know what I do or do not do for your cause – all the tactics listed above provide is a guess.)

    But more to the point, it berated me for not reading a bunch of spam I never signed up for in the first place, from an org who’s most strident political stance (now hopefully past) drove me away.

    Yes, their list is cleaned up as I too unsubscribed (again.) And they’re on a force delete list now, so they’ll no longer have to worry about my ignoring their spam – they can instead be totally assured I’ll ignore it.

    They also don’t have to have any worries at all about my ever giving them a dime for the rest of my life.

    I do hope “better politics” means “more carefully thought through politics that will work in the real world” – we can always hope, eh?


  5. SGG

    I look forward to once again having a regional bicycle club that puts on great events and promotes reasonable advocacy measures.

    The previous Cascade administration had a burn all bridges first approach to coalition building, isolating many otherwise sympathetic bicycling supporters. I know lots of cyclists who disliked the advocacy side of Cascade.

    Someday I may rejoin and do one of their rides again if they are able to repair their damaged reputation in the community.

  6. Chicama

    SGG: “I know lots of cyclists who disliked the advocacy side of Cascade.”

    Hopefully they will feel the same way when they are run over by a sober driver who just ran a red light. I am sure your acquaintances will be happy to suffer all the consequences from this driver’s bad choices, while the driver faces minimal to no consequences. After all, we are all in this together, reckless drivers and cyclists.

  7. Bryan Willman

    What, pray tell, does abrasive advocacy that drove away many supporters and some number of in-the-middle-folks, have to do with bad driving? Pissing off property owners and upsetting other cycling groups would somehow stop reckless driving?

  8. biliruben

    I’m not at all interested in riding with 20 of my closest strangers in lycra, but I joined Cascade last year (after 18 years of riding almost daily in Seattle and not joining) because they had finally started to do some effective and meaningful advocacy. I’ll let the new leadership demonstrate, in both words and deeds, whether they are willing to maintain that level of effective advocacy before I renew.

    1. sean

      Well said biliruben. Ditto.

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