Car maker hits pedals for bikes

Tim Johnson gets wired for the trip.

Jonathan Browning built his career on four wheels, but his passion rides on two.

Browning, Volkswagen Group of America's top executive, doesn't see why cars and bikes can't — to steal a slogan from the automaker — coexist on the road of life.

"Almost every family in the country has a car and a bike in some condition in the garage," said Browning Tuesday morning as he sat in the lobby of a downtown Baltimore hotel, cycling helmet in his hands and a blue Volkswagen jersey stretched across his lean torso. "Cars and bikes complement each other. Each has its place in our lives."

Browning came to Baltimore to join six-time national cyclocross champion Tim Johnson and about 35 pedaling enthusiasts for the final 38-mile leg of a Boston-to-Washington fundraising ride for Bikes Belong, an advocacy group for improved bicycle safety and more safe cycling opportunities for youngsters.

Volkswagen sponsors Johnson's "Ride on Washington." That's why there were three Volkswagens parked curbside, filled to the roof with bike parts and topped with spare frames and wheels for emergency repairs and replacement.

"I feel like a bit of a fraud showing up on the last day, but I'm here to support the team," Browning said.

This is the second consecutive year that Johnson, 34, has taken the Bikes Belong mission to the nation's capital. Johnson, whose bike racing specialty is a bit like steeplechase in the fall and winter, is trying to raise $100,000. While in Washington, cyclists will lobby members of Congress to invest in trails and bike lanes as part of the National Bike Summit.

About 20 cyclists — called "long-haul bombers" — have made the entire journey so far from Back Bay Boston to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. At the start of each leg, the "escort fighters," as they call local bike jockeys, saddle up to provide road knowledge and a morale boost.

"Bicycles should be part of our personal Department of Transportation," said Steven Mitchell, a Volkswagen dealer from Connecticut and a board member of the East Coast Greenway, a Maine-to-Florida trail. "You don't need a 4,000-pound vehicle to go a mile to buy a half-gallon of milk."

Browning and Johnson nodded in approval.

"It's not even about us," said Johnson, gesturing at his fellow cyclists. "It's about the kids who may not be able to get on their bikes because their parents think it's unsafe or there isn't a bike path or bike lane around. That's the real change we want to see."

Over 13 years, Bikes Belong has awarded 236 grants totaling $1.9 million to municipalities and grass roots groups in 46 states and the District of Columbia; those grants have resulted in more than $657 million in matching funds from government and private sources. Baltimore's One Less Car program received $5,000 to help promote cycling to work and create a demand for bike lanes and multi-use paths.

Bikes Belong has attracted support from organizations as diverse as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and REI, the Seattle-based outdoor equipment retailer.

Volkswagen's two-year sponsorship of Johnson's ride runs through next year and continues its long tradition of sponsoring cycling events and athletes. But it also is burnishing its green credentials, touting its clean diesel technology and a new Passat plant in Tennessee that received the building industry's highest environmental rating.

Getting corporations to employ green business practices is important, but ultimately, Browning said, "consumers have to say, 'This is important to us' and demand that businesses react in a responsible way."

Browning, 53, learned the lesson as a youngster growing up in England, where pedaling to school was encouraged and racing bikes was considered a team sport.

"Engagement with cycling early on teaches youngsters independence, a lot of life skills and good decision making when they're out and about," he said. "But it's also a frame of mind that you acquire and can come back to later in life."

The jump from England to the company that gave us Fahrvergnügen involved getting a master's degree from Duke University and tours of duty in Detroit with General Motors and Ford. Since October 2010, he's been based in Washington as Volkswagen's CEO and still gets in a 20-mile workout on his commute from suburban Virginia.

Cycling impediments he sees are infrastructure that doesn't create a safe environment and the lack of promotion as a commuter option. Elected officials should think about what cycling has to offer as they contemplate solutions to traffic congestion, energy security, health care and childhood obesity.

"It's not a silver bullet," Browning said. "But it's an important piece to that overall jigsaw."