Bicycle sales in the U.S. fell a full fifty percent from 1974 to 1975. The year 1976 was shaping up to be no better. The bicycle boom had gone bust. With the decline in bicycle sales was a decline in interest in bicycle advocacy in general, and specifically, a decline in interest in WABA.
After the second Meyer Foundation grant was turned down and other sources of funding failed to work out, Hudak wrote in Ride On!!, "Some foundations intimated that they though bicycling was now 'passe' and perhaps a fad that had run its course."
At the beginning of the year, WABA had about $1,700. Total monthly expenses were $410 a month, including rent, newsletter, and staff. The membership was optimistically estimated to hit 800, and dues income was even more optimistically predicted to be $400 a month. However, income just couldn't match projections. Some of that was beyond WABA's control. Atlas sales were down, reducing income. Moreover, WABA had trouble getting the income that it was supposed to be getting. At the March board meeting, it was reported that AYH owed WABA $1,000 for royalties on Atlas sales, and that this money had been owed for about a year.
Part of the financial problem was that WABA had been used to spending the Meyer Foundation money for operating costs and was unable to cut costs when the funds started drying up. For example, between April 1974 and April 1975, WABA overspent income by about $4,000. Now, WABA was in a pinch. Board members even considered a fundraising bicycle race with a $2 registration fee, but nothing came of the idea.
WABA's fears were compounded by a new bicycling organization in Washington, the Federal Bicycle Council (FBC). The group was founded by Nina Rowe, Bicycle Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
FBC was an organization of federal employees interested in working out problems of federal workers who commute. FBC viewed its scope as different from WABA's, and Rowe was an active WABA member. However, there was some concern in WABA that the functions of the two groups would overlap.
WABA's activities in 1976 were relatively quiet. One of the big events that year for WABA was, of all things, a bicycle race. WABA volunteers assisted with time trials for the Club International des Toujours Jeunes Patrons (International Club of Ever-Young Executives), an organization of French businessmen over 40 years of age. To celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, the group held time trials on June 6 over a 10-mile course along the Maryland side of George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Testifying on behalf of WABA during summer of 1976, Will Jourdin spoke in opposition to the Motorized Bicycle Act, which was being considered by the D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and Environmental Affairs. Jourdin said that the bill would discriminate against bicyclists and create conflicts between bicycles and mopeds. The bill was subsequently modified along some of WABA's suggestions.
In March 1977, the Atlas was revised and reprinted.
On Friday, April 15, WABA organized a Bike-to-Work Day featuring 29 caravans leaving from neighborhoods in Virginia, Maryland, and the District, all converging on the Ellipse. A noon rally followed.
The Bike-to-Work Day was part of a weekend program of Bike Days. On Saturday, the Ellipse was the site of demonstrations, bicycle registration booths, displays of biking and camping equipment, discussions about bicycle safety, and tours. Sunday was the National Capitol Open race.
WABA entered into a period of increasing instability. The newsletter was being published with increasing irregularity. Sometimes it was printed by offset, and other times it appeared as stapled, mimeographed sheets. The board minutes of August 1976 reported that more people were needed to help with the newsletter and that there were "major problems with volunteers and participation. There is not enough participation in the Board." Most of the work fell on a few board members. The Nominating Committee was having a difficult time getting people to run for the Board slots which would soon open at the general membership meeting.
After Lance Ringle left the WABA staff in 1975, there was one other staffer, Adlai Jourdin, who spent little time at WABA. Otherwise, the organization was left without anyone to keep the office going and to process the paperwork which comes with maintaining membership records. Work on the helmet study ended, because the clerical work was undone.
With declining income, WABA was unable to keep its office in the Dupont Circle Building, which by then cost $107 a month in rent. A language school offered to rent the WABA office from 9:00 to 1:00 each day for $75 a month. WABA turned down the offer, opting instead at the beginning of 1977 to move in with the Potomac Area Council of American Youth Hostels (AYH), which had an office at 1520 16th Street.
Rent to AYH was considerably cheaper, at $50 a month. For that, WABA had an alcove with a desk and a filing cabinet. WABA also had access to the AYH kitchen, conference table, and some storage space. The AYH office was in a neighborhood described by one member as "kind of funky...dicey." WABA's things would occasionally disappear. Once, the Office Manager came in to find a hole in the wall and his radio missing.
By late 1977, WABA faced a crisis. Shaw, who for many was the symbol of WABA's vitality, was gone. Hudak, another moving force from the beginning, had stopped down after serving as WABA's second Chairman. New leaders were not recruited. Of those who were running the organization, an observer later remarked, "They weren't dynamic enough to pick up the ball. They weren't ready to go out and bring in more people."
WABA had difficulty maintaining stability among its officers. The September 1977 Ride On!! reported that John Rost resigned as Chairman and that Pat Schooley also resigned as Chairwoman of the Maryland effort. Bob Swain was nominated to run as Chairman in the general membership meeting. But some WABA members were discouraged at the selection of Swain, who they felt would not be able to pull the organization out of its malaise. AISO7 some felt that Swain would move the organization toward more of a social club.
It was time for drastic action. Jourdin drafted a "Resolution of Dissolution," which he presented at the August board meeting. The resolution claimed that the assets of WABA "are being wasted because they are being spent for things which do not carry out the purposes for which WABA was formed," and that FBC, PPTC, and AYH can do WABA's job better. The resolution was approved by a 4-2 vote, but provided that the question of whether WABA should continue should be presented before the General membership for a final vote.
No one really wanted to see WABA disbanded. The resolution was just as much a ploy to bring some hidden white knight out of the woodwork or to shock the remaining members into action as it was a serious effort to kill the organization.
Jourdin explained in the November 1977 Ride On!! why WABA should disband. Shaw was the driving force behind WABA, Jourdin wrote. "When Cary Shaw left, however, his successors found it difficult to devote the necessary time and energy to keep WABA a useful, going organization... Meanwhile, other bicycle organizations have been taking up a portion of the slack left by WABA."
Such a severe tactic was not without its drawbacks, even if the organization should survive. WABA "suffered a lot of damage" as a result of the ploy, one member later remarked. "It took the organization a while to get over it. There were people who thought for Years that WABA had been disbanded."
Such a white knight there was in Nancy Wyeth, who was chairperson of FBC and a member of Spokeswoman, an all-woman consulting group contracted by the District to evaluate selected bicycle routes. By profession, she was an editor at the Smithsonian Institute. She first heard about WABA's difficulties at a dinner of leaders of local bicycling groups just a few months before the membership meeting.
Wyeth later recalled, "John Rost told me, 'I can't get the WABA board to do a thing.' WABA was in a state of fractiousness. Rost described a board meeting where everyone was talking at the same time, nobody could agree on anything. It was very hard to have action come out of the meeting."
"I think I needed a challenge at the time," Wyeth said. She had the right bicycling credentials, she was well-liked, and as a newcomer, was not identified with any WABA faction. She was convinced by Jourdin and others to run. Having made that decision, she plunged ahead.
The November issue of Ride On!! reprinted the resolution of dissolution, with a headline, "It's Raining in WABA Land," and ran a photograph of cyclists in the rain.
It turned out that the fateful membership meeting was, in fact, held on a rainy night on November 30 at the Church of the Pilgrims. First came the critical question about WABA's future. After emotional discussion, the resolution of dissolution was rejected, and the group went ahead with officer elections. Wyeth. the write-in candidate, won against Swain.
It was a very new WABA leadership which emerged that evening. None of the three officers had ever served on the board before. Half of the board members were new, and those who had served before had little experience.
Even with the total change over, Wyeth did not feel as though she were starting from the beginning. "WABA had assets. It had an office. It had money. It had by-laws, tax- deductible status, a newsletter. There was a lot in place."
Wyeth had the assistance of very competent Board members, even if they did lack experience. New Treasurer Jeremy Parker was a master of the technical details of facilities, and he could turn attention to details to financial books as well. Leslie Baldwin, though only 21 years old, was thoroughly reliable, and penned spirited minutes.
Wyeth lost little time getting the organization moving again. WABA was in relatively good financial shape, little money had been spent on the newsletter, and membership renewals still rolled in. However, WABA faced an enormous backlog of office work. Meeting on December 15, the Board decided to turn its cash into work by giving Wyeth the authority to hire a staff member.
Remembers new Board member Randy Swart, "We were all sitting around thinking, 'where are we going to find someone,' and John (Irwin) said, 'I'll do it.'" Nancy used her new authority to immediately hire John Irwin, one of three candidates for the position. Irwin had done fundraising and research as a staff member of the Metropolitan Washington Coalition for Clean Air, and he used a bicycle for his principal method of transportation.
More than anyone else, Irwin was responsible for pulling WABA back from the brink. He was hired as Office Manager for 20 hours a week for a 3-month period. However, he was soon granted the title Executive Director, and his appointment became as permanent. Hiring Irwin "was the single best decision I made in WABA," recalls Wyeth. "He was the heart -the motor -- of WABA. He thought of projects and he followed through with projects. He had the patience to sit there with the Scripto cards and the roaches.
Though his paid hours were never increased beyond twenty, "He put in 40, 60 hours. He may have walked in the office 10:00 that morning and he'd still be working at midnight," Wyeth said.
Swart, who succeeded Wyeth, recalls, "John was one of the great WABA characters of all times. He did taxes for H&R Block in tax season because he thought he was able to save a lot of people money and that made him feel good. He took all the strain out of being president for Nancy and for me."
Irwin launched an aggressive new membership campaign, setting up membership booths along trails during the weekends. He also made a list of bicycle fairs and tried to set up booths at each one.
One of his high priorities was straightening out the membership records, which had become near1y useless. Dues were changed to be made payable by calendar year, which would avoid the accounting problems WABA had with a twelve- month membership period. Irwin and Wyeth sat down and went through three years of membership records and came up with a smaller, more accurate list. Irwin typed the list on Scripto address cards which could be run off on AYH's machine.
WABA got back into the business of promoting bicycles. New Maryland, Virginia and D.C. Committees were formed which held meetings to discuss local problems related to parking and bicycle paths.
WABA introduced a new program, Adopt-a-Bikeway, coordinated by John Harpold. Individual members would pick a bikeway they often used, follow the planning and maintenance of the route, and get to know the government officials involved with the route.
This was followed by an "Adopt-a-Bike Shop" program. This was a way Irwin got members to volunteer to make sure their local bike shop had an adequate stock of WABA brochures and issues of Ride On!!.
WABA joined with other area organizations to file suit in U.S. District Court challenging the urban transportation plan for the Washington metropolitan area, claiming that government officials were not addressing the region's serious air quality problems. Also, Wyeth and Rowe prepared testimony to the Council of Governments on a draft air quality plan.
In 1978, WABA had another program of Bike Days activities, including another commuter caravan and bicycle demonstrations. One bright spot for District bicyclists was the experimental establishment in 1976 of the position of Bicycle Coordinator for the District. The position was filled by Eileen Kadesh, then Tom Pendleton. When the position was set to expire November 1978, WABA urged the D.C. Department of Transportation (D.C. DOT) to make the position permanent.
Despite its internal weaknesses, WABA never lost its role as the citizens public interest organization on bicycle matters. Pendleton, the District bicycle coordinator during most of 1978, later remarked that WABA was partly responsible for making the bicycle coordinator position permanent. The District looked toward WABA and its members to provide constituent input, though it was not always happy with WABA's comments, and sometimes tried to ignore them.
WABA "is a force to be reckoned with," recalls Pendleton. "It might be an irritating bug, but bugs are something to be reckoned with. One mosquito can wreak havoc."
WABA's activities were focused almost exclusively on local bicycling problems during this time. However Wyeth, Rowe, and Caroline DuBoise (Pendleton's assistant) met with a staff member on the Domestic Policy Office of the White House.
Within a year of the dissolution crisis, much of WABA's institutional memory was lost. This problem was summed up in a Ride On!! article by Bill Marker, entitled, "Memories of an Old Timer." Marker, who began attending Board meetings in late 1976, found himself as the senior member of the Board by the end of 1978. By that time, only he and Virginia Gaddis were left of those who had served before the dissolution crisis, and both were new to WABA at that time. But in exchange for experience, WABA gained new blood. It was a winning trade.
Ride On! (now with one exclamation point) became a regular, bimonthly publication printed by offset in magazine format with photographs and illustrations. In 1978, six issues were published, including a special Bike Days issue.
WABA quickly went through its financial surplus. By the summer of 1978, treasurer Jeremy Parker was predicting WABA needed 250 more members by the end of the year or the staff would have to be laid off. WABA published notecards with an 1884 illustration of bicyclists parading down Pennsylvania Avenue. Since ten sheets sold for $2, it was not likely a large money maker. Dues were raised to $6, then $8. By the annual meeting in fall, WABA membership was up to 250. That didn't seem to meet Parker's prediction, but somehow WABA survived, and was doing quite well thank you.