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AAA more cycle-friendly, except where money is concerned

AAA Mid-Atlantic has made a welcome effort to be friendly toward pedestrians and cyclists since the controversy over their hateful reaction to Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. But while they might preach "share the road," it's certainly not "share the budget," as AAA Mid-Atlantic argued in a recent editorial for taking away ped, bike and transit funding and reallocating everything to cars.

Photo by Carlo Nicora on Flickr.

Nationwide, AAA has a reputation for often lobbying against transit and pedestrian and bicycle programs, but many local clubs have tried to work more positively with users of other modes, even establishing bicycle roadside assistance (which Better World Club, AAA's main competition, has always offered).

National AAA even distanced itself from AAA Mid-Atlantic's Lon Anderson's press release slamming the installation of the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes. AAA spokesperson John Townsend and social media manager Kim Snedaker assured us they "are not anti-bike", and replaced the inflammatory press release with a more conciliatory one. (Neither is still available on the Web.)

Since then, the constant venom we had been previously seeing from Anderson and Public Affairs Manager John Townsend transformed into a more pro-coexistence message. For example, Townsend spoke positively about bicycling for WAMU, saying, "Part of living in the city is finding common ground and using common facilities for the greater good." Townsend urged both motorists and cyclists to follow the rules.

Cycle advocates and AAA also found common ground following the death of Natasha Pettigrew in Maryland. An SUV driver hit Pettigrew on her bicycle and continued driving for four miles. Townsend told WTOP that Maryland laws are inadequate for punishing drivers who kill negligently cyclists.

"They're killing people on the highways and they're only getting a slap on the wrist and being charged a fine," he said. "We need to close that loophole now." And, writes WTOP, "Townsend emphasized that in this situation the person outside the car is the victim, 'even if he contributed to the crash.'"

However, while AAA Mid-Atlantic may not "hate cyclists," want drivers to share the road amicably, and believe in laws that allow punishing negligent drivers, they want to take away the federal dollars that cover most transit, bike and pedestrian programs.

Don Gagnon, President and CEO of AAA Mid-Atlantic, published an editorial in the July/August AAA World magazine recommending that Congress reallocate the entire transportation trust fund to road programs in the upcoming reauthorization.

Rails to Trails Conservancy sounded the alarm and have asked AAA members nationwide to ask national AAA to disavow this.

AAA Mid-Atlantic is again not representing the will of their members in the region.

According to Rails-to-Trails, Americans in a survey wanted to spend 22% of transportation money on pedestrian and bicycle programs. 10% of trips are walking or biking trips. But only 1.1% of this federal money goes to ped and bike programs, and Gagnon wants to cut it to zero.

While they're free to say what they want, Gagnon and others are drawing their salaries from members across the region who just want roadside assistance. Yet their dues are going not only to pay lobbyists who fight against pedestrian and bicycle projects in Washington but to a magazine that spreads these messages to unsuspecting members.

Gagnon is careful to emphasize that AAA Mid-Atlantic isn't specifically advocating for funding cuts, but just to dedicate all of the existing trust fund money to highways. This is a distinction without a difference. Kim Snedaker repeated the party line in an email:

Do we think bike trails, hiking trails, sidewalks, museums and transit ought to be funded? Of course! Don did not in any way suggest we should stop funding any of the list of items, but simply change the federal account from which they are paid to improve road conditions and motorist safety.
I appreciate Snedaker's work to be nicer to cyclists, but this statement seems very disingenuous. Gagnon's editorial is not suggesting a new, alternative revenue source for the existing ped, bike and transit programs. It's not suggesting ways to expand the pie for everyone. Instead, they "simply" want to "change the federal account" to take all the ped, bike and transit funding and give it to highways.

While we're at it, let's "simply" also change the federal accounts so all federal money that goes to California goes to DC, Maryland and Virginia instead. But no, we're not suggesting actually cutting any aid to California. It's a little insulting to our intelligence, actually.

National AAA has denied lobbying against transit in the past. But either that's splitting hairs on what "against transit" means, or else they're just hiding behind the fact that their affiliate around Washington, DC does the lobbying for them.

Rails to Trails can only ask its members nationwide to push national AAA on this issue. But we live in the AAA Mid-Atlantic region. If you're still a AAA member, switch to the Better World Club. And tell AAA you might consider being a member again only if they focus on their real mission, providing services to drivers, and stop trying to lobby against transit, pedestrian and bicycle programs.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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David, your quest against AAA is getting very tired.

In terms of all the players of the "road lobby" I suspect AAA is 3rd or 4th tier.

And you argument in parts is extremely disingenuous.

1. You criticize AAA for saying all the federal transportation trust fund money should go to roads. That is the money, remember, that drivers pay via the gas tax.

2. According to Rails-to-Trails - ANOTHER ADVOCACY GROUP -- Americans want 22% of their transportation money -- not just the federal money - to go to walking or biking. And you cite that figure of 1.1% of money federal money going to walking.biking.

3. But of course, what AAA is complaining about isn't the walking/biking money. They are talking about the 1/3 of the federal highway trust fund that is going to transit money. That's a huge chunk of money, and I can see why AAA isn't happy.

There may be some benefit to drivers here in DC to get more people on Metro. However, I suspect in most cities you don't see that.

by charlie on Sep 27, 2010 10:40 am • linkreport

1. You criticize AAA for saying all the federal transportation trust fund money should go to roads. That is the money, remember, that drivers pay via the gas tax.

Drivers PAID via the gas tax. The trust fund got a $6B infusion in bond money last year. That's going to be paid back by income tax.

by Omri on Sep 27, 2010 10:52 am • linkreport

While full of useful facts, this post is not as constructive as it might be. AAA's mission has long been both to provide that service and to advocate on behalf of the interests of the driving public, which includes most pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users in greater Washington. AAA is here to stay, and encouraging their members to help get them back on track is far more constructive than telling people to quit. Are you trying to start a food fight? Why be polarizing when there are other possible course of action?

AAA's duty to its members probably lies somewhere between what you assume and the positions you criticize. It is certainly in the interests of the driving commuter public to have better bike, sidewalk, and transit facilities because no reasonable driver wants to be in an accident; and those facilities reduce peak traffic. But there will be times when the interests of drivers diverge from cyclists and transit users, and in those cases AAA has a duty to represent its members.

Rather than being disingenuous as you suggest, I think that in some cases they simply are wrong because they have not studied a given issue as thoroughly as they might. Consider speed cams: Up to a point, drivers benefit from higher fines for traffic infractions since drivers are at the greatest risk of infractions that are discouraged. So it ought to be possible to persuade AAA to recognize that the theory of optimal deterrence means that speed cams should raise some money, equal to the damages caused by speeding. Their opposition to high fines stems from a misguided belief that they are defending their members from paying the costs of city government. AAA is a behemoth and when pointed in the right direction can do alot of good. We need their help.

by Jim on Sep 27, 2010 11:06 am • linkreport

Rails to trails petition signed. Too bad there was no place to put my AAA membership number down.

by Jasper on Sep 27, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

3. But of course, what AAA is complaining about isn't the walking/biking money. They are talking about the 1/3 of the federal highway trust fund that is going to transit money. That's a huge chunk of money, and I can see why AAA isn't happy.

The actual number, based on tax receipts and transfers, is about 15%, not 33% (1/3).

by Froggie on Sep 27, 2010 12:05 pm • linkreport

David. It is unfair to place the onus of determining the best alternative funds for walking/cycling on AAA Mid-Atlantic without also asking Rails to Trails to identify a more realistic solution to America’s decaying roadways. While AAA M-A is in full support of multi-modal transport, the American Automobile Association, at present, remains largely focused on automotive funding. Again, it is important to note that a large focus on automobiles does not denote no focus or intolerance of other transport methods. This “for us or against us” mentality must cease on both sides. It’s unfortunate that R2T chose to create a petition based on conjecture simply to attract press and email addresses, overshadowing the positive impact of their program. Perhaps as unfortunate as seeing your post go up prior to my issuance of a full response and creating a deeper schism between cyclists and motorists.
Kim Snedaker, Social Media Manager, AAA Mid-Atlantic

by Kim Snedaker on Sep 27, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

I already told AAA that I was switching to BWC because of Lon Anderson's comments. They said that they had no idea what I was talking about, but still offered me several months free.

by SJE on Sep 27, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport


I personally emailed AAA Mid-Atlantic (with my membership number) and got a similar response to what David had put above. "It's not our job to figure out where trail money to come from. We just want to make sure they're not using 'our' pot of money." It was also laced with self-righteous complaints that AAA is being mis-interpreted where I still don't see any difference between what AAA is advocating and what people saying they are advocating.

If this is the best AAA can do, they really don't need me. There isn't a schism between cyclists and motorist. There is a growing gap between AAA members who care about more than driving and AAA Mid-Atlantic. I will probably help decrease this gap, by not renewing my membership.

by Dan on Sep 27, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

Last time I checked the second A in AAA stands for Automobile. They make no attempt to disguise the fact that they advocate for the interests of drivers and describe their objective as "AAA seeks to protect and improve the rights and safety, comfort and economic resources of motorists and travelers." (

Criticizing AAA for promoting a car-centric worldview is no less ridiculous than attacking WABA for favoring cyclists over drivers.

by Jacob on Sep 27, 2010 1:06 pm • linkreport

Jasper, SJE & Dan: I am sorry to hear that you would no longer seek to renew your memberships. While I disagree and feel that R2T has misrepresented AAAÂ’s concern for highway funding sources with a desire to cut cycling/pedestrian funding, I support your commitment to your interpretation of the situation. I would also note AAA M-A is quite obviously well aware that its Members do not care solely about driving as evidenced by our participation in the conversation. We truly value dialog such as this.

by Kim Snedaker on Sep 27, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

I'm still missing something. Where is R2T misrepresenting AAA concern. R2T says they AAA wants to use money that is currently for trails to go to roads and that AAA doesn't care where that money for trails will come from. You said the exact same thing. Could you please be specific on how R2T is misrepresenting you? Participating in a conversation and saying you don't care about sources for trail funding doesn't sound like concern to me.

by Dan on Sep 27, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport

@ Kim Snedaker: I am sorry to hear that you would no longer seek to renew your memberships.

Euhm, I signed a petition... I didn't say anything about renewing my AAA membership.

by Jasper on Sep 27, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

Kim: We are going to judge AAA by everything it says and does. So, thanks for the nice words and outreach, but I also note Lon Anderson's hostile comments, or AAA lobbying hard to take away the meager crumbs cyclists and pedestrians recieve. You can't have it both ways.

by SJE on Sep 27, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

@Jacob: I recognize that AAA is an automobile club, which is fine. However
1. Being pro-car does not mean you have to be anti-bike.
2. AAA does better PR nowadays with the cycling community, but is frequently caught saying different things to different audiences and then pleads "oh, you misunderstood" whenever the contradiction is noted. At least with the NRA I know where THEY stand.

by SJE on Sep 27, 2010 3:21 pm • linkreport

1. Being pro-car does not mean you have to be anti-bike.

I'm living proof of this one...I'm pro-TI (Transportation Infrastructure), PERIOD.

by Froggie on Sep 27, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

Dan: R2T stating that "AAA wants to use money that is currently for trails to go to roads" is a misrepresentation because the highway trust fund was not originally established to support trails - it was established to support highways only. Since the reverse is actually true, it brings up an interesting way to position this. What if there was a fund established specifically to support bikes and trails and over time, other entities began requesting those funds for things that are also important such as cars and highways? And then your bike/trail fund begins to suffer a huge shortfall and is no longer receiving its funding. Would you still be willing to expend bike dollars on cars? Perhaps a "drive a mile in our car" perspective should come into play a bit here.

As far as "AAA doesn't care where that money for trails will come from" statement - this is patently false. What we've stated is that it should come from the general fund.

We remain happy to engage in any conversation, so long as our positions are correctly stated.

For now, it appears that we'll have to respectfully agree to disagree on where the funding should come from.

by Kim Snedaker on Sep 27, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

Newsflash people: AAA wants to tax your bike. AAA wants to tax your bike. More at 11.

by charlie on Sep 27, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

Here we go again with Lon and Jay. Take a look at Mid Atlantic's financial report some time: $243M in membership dues, $8M payroll, $81M expended on member services and publications--in 2009. This is not a small organization. I don't have a problem with AAA advocating on behalf of its members. I do have a problem with its general lack of transparency--towards its members--regarding its lobbying activities and legislative agenda. I also have a problem with AAA national waging a proxy war with cyclists through Lon and Jay. The only reason those two yahoos continue to have jobs is that AAA national and MA find useful their war on drivers rhetoric.

These guys aren't going to change until they get some honest competition.

by bikermark on Sep 28, 2010 8:21 am • linkreport

Could you clarify your explanation? Does AAA want transportation enhancements to stop funding bicycle accommodations? Regardless of what the original intentions may have been during the 1950s, they have been funding bicycle infrastructure for 20 years. So if AAA wants them to stop funding trails, then it would certainly be accurate to say that AAA wants to divert funds that currently go to trails. Your complaint with R2T would be logical if they had said: "AAA wants to use money that was originally for trails to go to roads."

The rest of your argument makes sense from an empathic standpoint. If cyclists were all taxed to pay for interstate highways that cyclists could not ride, we would indeed be upset.

But more realistically, people who rode horses were very upset when cars were allowed on them, because it scared their horses. SOme of them saw clearly that eventually, the cars would drive the horses off the roads. But for a long time those roads had shoulders. More recently, the continual upgrade of roads has eliminated the shoulders and sidewalks, for the sake of moving the cars faster. See the colonial road from Bladensburg to Annapolis, later called US-50 and now called MD-450.

So indeed, road improvements have taken resources away from cyclists and pedestrians. The pendulum swings, and now there is an impetus to correct that. The trail enhancements and other infrastructure are quite small compared to the value of all the shoulders that have been converted to travel lanes. And this does not even address the adverse effects on neighborhoods--the beltway divided neighborhoods that still don't have a pedestrian bridge.

Up to a point, funding bicycle and sidewalk infrastructure with the gas tax is in the interests even of people who never walk or ride a bike, because of the accident prevention and improved traffic flow. So up to a point, using highway dollars for bike-ped improvements **is** a roadway improvement. After that point, one can quibble over whether the gas tax is simply the most convenient way for people like me to pay for a facility I use. But note that in Maryland, sales taxes and property taxes fund far more roads than the gas tax. So overall, the general taxpayer who may not drive is funding the highways.

AAA's attempt to ensure funding of highway construction and improvements is understandable, but trying to raid budgets of other travel modes is a divisive and counterproductive tactic. Maybe you could go after the 50% of enhancement funding that has little to do with actual infrastructure (e.g. cultural centers). Or maybe AAA could forthrightly endorse a separate tax for bike-ped improvements. Why should SHA maintain highways but not the sidepaths along the highway?

by Jim on Sep 28, 2010 8:45 am • linkreport

To add on to what Jim said, this money has been going to things besides cars for years. Whether or not AAA likes it, that is the fact on the ground. Saying things should be different doesn't make it so. Saying this is money currently going to trails that AAA wants to allocate towards roads is not an interpretation.

Also, if AAA is so concerned about decaying roads and infrastructure, I'm curious what is AAA's policy for deciding whether to support the building of new roads like the ICC that take away huge chunks of money needed to repair our crumbling infrastructure?

by Dan on Sep 28, 2010 9:39 am • linkreport

Yesterday I was walking near Clarendon.

I saw a car heading east, in the far RIGHT lane, slow down and prepare to make a RIGHT-HAND turn. The car had a great turn around.

Then I saw a bicyclist -- without a helmet -- coming up perpendicual to the car in her far LEFT-HAND lane/sidewalk. First, she was going AGAINST traffic -- which cyclists shouldn't do. Second, she was lacking helmet.

She pulled out half-way in front of the approaching car. The car had a green-arrow and right of way. But the car stopped, honked at the cyclist. The cyclist rudely gave a finger and continued to wait until she could cycle IN FRONT of the car (with a green light) still in the lane against traffic. Her light was red, by the way.

I was shocked.

As a pedistrian, I'm often concerned about cars -- but ALSO CYCLISTS who ride on the sidewalks against traffic. That's against the law. What the cyclist did, she should have gotten a ticket (and would have, if she had been a car).

Until more CYCLISTS start obeying the flow of traffic, I don't have much sympathy. One can be sure if that cyclist had been hit by the car, despite being in the wrong lane and pulling out even though she had a red light, she'd be saying the car was at fault.

For those cyclist who DO obey the law (and wear helmets) kudos -- hopefully you can convince other cyclists to do the same...

by Jonathan on Sep 29, 2010 7:17 pm • linkreport

@Jonathan, It's not clear what you mean by lane/sidewalk, but cyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalk in most of Virginia. See:
I don't think there is no legal issue of with or against traffic when you ride on a sidewalk.
There is also no law requiring adults to wear helmets while biking.
I don't know about VA, but, thanks to a new law, a cyclist on a crosswalk where there is a traffic light actually has right of way over a car, even with a green light.

Based on what you wrote, the cyclist might have been in full compliance with the law. Sounds like she was doing some stupid things, but stupidity isn't illegal.

Even if the cyclist broke the law, what does pointing at an example of an individual law-breaking means we shouldn't set policies to protect law abiding cyclists?

by Dan on Sep 29, 2010 8:03 pm • linkreport

Here's a link summarizing the new Maryland laws including right-of-way at crosswalks:

by Dan on Sep 29, 2010 8:04 pm • linkreport

@Dan -- actually in Virginia a bicycle is a car and expected to flow with the traffic. I think this is the case with most cyclists -- they don't get to "choose" which flow they want to make.

And in some county, sideWALKs (emphasis on WALK) are only to be used by cyclists who are learning how to ride or when there are unsafe conditions like snow/ice.

I do have objection about cyclists who assume the sidewalk is for them at the expense of pedestrians.

Also have objection in general to cyclists who don't where a helmet -- they should be ticketed if they forget to wear a helmet. If they get hit, they're going to need major surgery (assuming they survive) which drive up insurance premiums for us all.

Lastly, no, in Virginia a bicycle equals a car, and thus should follow the same rules as cars.

Please explain the Maryland law -- it doesn't make sense the way you characterized it. I read it as "if a bicyclist has a green light in THEIR DIRECTION, they have the right of way over a car".

No pedestrian I know has the right of way to walk in front of a car they itself has a green light, and it wouldn't make sense to give that to either a cyclist or a pedestrian. People could just walk or ride out in front of incoming cars, which violates the whole signaling mechanism. It DOES make sense for cars with red lights that might want to turn on red, but -- if a bicyclist or pedestrian has a green light -- do not have the right of way.

Is that the correct characterization?

Finally, I'm just observing that (A) the cyclist should have been ticketed, (B) cyclists have a responsibility to educate their fellow cyclists of the law and safety responsibilities (i.e., helmet), and (C) don't forget about the RIGHTS of pedestrians too.

Cyclists sometimes forget about pedestrians, focusing on their rights and forgetting those who walk or run.

by Jonathan on Sep 30, 2010 9:05 pm • linkreport

AAA is clearly on a major PR campaign right now - anyone who is a member of the League of American Bicyclists should check out the puff piece on AAA in the current issue of American Bicyclist (not available online yet, will be at in a month or two).

by Alexander Dupuy on Oct 5, 2010 9:27 pm • linkreport

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