Over AAA's 107-year history, it has earned the goodwill of millions of drivers but also the acrimony of growing numbers of environmentalists. In recent years, prominent environmental groups have taken the club to task opposing funding for bike lanes and public transit, bashing the Clean Air Act, and pushing for ever more and bigger highways. So when the Oregon and Idaho chapter of AAA debuted a new bicycle roadside assistance program last week, many people were puzzled. Could the group formerly known as the American Automobile Association finally be going green?
"People wrongly assume that AAA only cares about cars," says Marie Dodds, the chapter's director of government and public affairs. "But for example, this year in the 2009 state legislature, we supported the transportation package, which had elements of mass transit, peds, and bicycles. We realized that whether it's because of the economy, the environment, or wanting to improve your fitness, bicycles are becoming a more popular option to get around. So basically we're just staying with the times."
Or with the competition. The chapter's home city, Portland, Oregon, is also HQ for the rival upstart, Better World Club, which launched in 2002 as "the nation's only environmentally-friendly auto club." Better World offers a carbon offset service (now also an option at the Oregon AAA), eco-travel services, discounts on hybrid car rental, and what was, until last week, the nation's only bicycle roadside assistance program. "We are nothing like AAA or other auto clubs," says the BWC's website, which links to a raft of stories on the AAA's lobbying record. "We have the same reliable roadside assistance, but we have a unique policy agenda."
Dodds of AAA says the club's environmental record has improved since the early '90s, when it opposed a law that allowed cities to use highway funds for public transit and bike paths. "That's something that happened 16 years ago," she says. Still, she has no qualms about the club's membership in the American Highway Users Alliance, a group that BWC opposes. "The reality is that the US is, for the most part, a car-based nation," she says. The Alliance's 2008 year-end report brags that it opposed "Smart Growth" development, the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate global warming, and an amendment to a global warming bill by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would have "included unprecedented anti-mobility provisions, increased fuel costs, and diverted funds from highways."
Are those efforts at odds with AAA's work in Oregon? Consider this: if you're on your bike alongside a busy freeway and you get sideswiped by a car, who's going to pick up the mangled two-wheeler while you're in the hospital? As the club's website says, "Wherever you drive, in the U.S. or Canada, 24 hours a day, AAA will help."
UPDATE: Talk about identity crisis. . .Treehugger reports that AAA is also planning to launch an "eco icon" in its tour book that will denote "green" hotels.