Professional Engineer turned Executive Director of Lehigh Valley CAT (the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation) Scott Slingerland is at the forefront of changing hearts and minds towards a greener future. Since the organization’s inception 24 years ago, CAT has sought to educate the public and influence “the powers that be” to achieve an internal and external landscape where cyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and motorists can respectfully coexist. I was intrigued by Scott’s story and the important work he’s doing at CAT. I asked some questions. Here are his answers.
PBE Is your position at CAT full-time? Do you freelance as a PE? (From Engineering to non-profit/advocacy is a big career change- What prompted the switch?)
SS I am full-time at CAT, but we have a great core group of volunteer leadership as well. I previously worked as engineer on burners/emissions controls from large power plants burning fossil fuels (prehistoric until you consider that 10 years ago, 50% of the U.S. electricity generation was coal). I left that world 10 years ago because I saw the need to simplify my own life, to make changes to shrink the scale of my daily life and energy consumption. What I discovered is a tremendous richness that lies within the towns, neighborhoods, and people that I previously passed by when driving my car. Since letting go of my car and my house, I feel more adaptable to changing daily needs. I have a good place to live, but I no longer feel ridiculous for cultivating a large lawn just to look at.
I still get to interact with engineers and planners through CAT’s work with PennDOT, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, and regional/local transportation projects. Transportation engineering is a very interesting world, because it involves so much public behavioral input. Types of street designs, the adjoining buildings, and natural features create a vibe. This vibe influences peoples’ relationship with the space that subconsciously affects the speed they drive. Bottom line, if traffic engineers and planners can create more richness and fewer wastelands, drivers will slow down and people feel more comfortable walking and bicycling. If there is a place for speed, let it be on the interstate highways.
Our biggest job at CAT is to create a culture of cooperation between people driving bicycles & cars, walking, and riding the bus. This starts with individuals understanding the law and their rights, but just as important is the opportunity that bicyclists and pedestrians have to clearly communicate their intent to work with motorists. Every single time I ride my bike, I have multiple opportunities to acknowledge motorists with a friendly wave, to use my lane position and signals as indicators to (a) invite motorists to pass me, or (b) tell them that we need to be patient and wait 10 seconds. A course that we teach locally is CyclingSavvy, which details many strategies for a behavior shift.
PBE Can you describe a typical day “on the job” at CAT?
SS A typical day at CAT doesn’t really exist. Three days a week, we open the CAT bicycle cooperative to the public – a space for youth and adults to demystify their bicycles. People come in because they can earn a bike through volunteering, or even if they buy a new bike from a bike shop – they want to learn mechanics or on-road strategies. The other four days of the week involve local advocacy visits such as testing traffic signal detection for bicyclists, pedestrian crosswalk improvements, supporting our adopt-a-bus stop volunteers keeping it clean with 2,500 bus riders per day. Our team also studies local bicycle/pedestrian crashes-to respect the victims by learning crash causes to inform our outreach. And all this doesn’t even speak to organizing LVBike2Work Week in May or our youth bicycling education in schools which covers most of April-June and reaches ~3,000 kids per year.
PBE What’s the first thing you tell someone who is trying to decrease their car dependency?
SS My first suggestion would be, try to live without your car for one day on a weekend, like a Sunday. Instead of staying in bed all day, plan a short local adventure of 5-15 miles. Ride to a neighboring town for lunch, and stop on the way back to visit a friend who doesn’t know you’re coming. This is the essence of car-free or car-lite living. Planning trips to be efficient and multi-purpose.
PBE Do you have a ready reply to the “haters” who are so entrenched in car culture that they’re resistant to alternatives?
SS I don’t find many haters. I have many car-aficionado friends who are also cyclists. I meet car-drivers every day in parking lots who say, “that’s great you’re riding a bike”, “wish I could too”, “I used to ride a bike all over and it was enjoyable”. The biggest haters are car drivers who resent bicyclists who get away with violating traffic laws, or those don’t understand why a bicyclist would ride in traffic because they’ve seen too many crash stories. They don’t realize that driving in a car is pretty dangerous too, and in both cases the danger can be mitigated by knowing the leading crash causes. Riding with clarity and confidence can coexist with humility – this can disarm the haters.