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The Big Initiatives

May 25, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

What are the big initiatives—or the most-effective strategies and tactics—we can use to make the world a nicer place for cycling and for walking, and consequently a nicer place to live?

We all need to continue doing the good work we’ve been doing, but this is my attempt to list some of the initiatives that I think cycling and pedestrian advocates should use to make big changes in the immediate future.

After attending the 2008 Austin Bicycle and Pedestrian Summit (pdf) (thanks, CAMPO), I feel like I’m now knowledgeable enough to share my non-expert advice. Though there is no particular reason anyone should listen to anything I have to say, I hope we can agree on a general strategic outline for success.

Here are some of the things I think advocates of bicycling should concentrate on:

1) Actively and passively push commuter cycling into mainstream consciousness by: [link]

Getting bicycle directions on Google Maps (what this website/petition is all about!)

Making bicycle maps available in a more readily available, user-friendly, and productive format—say, on Google Maps instead of on a PDF that requires PDF viewer software (This is a smaller focus of our website/petition)

Supporting the one or more national bicycle advocacy organizations in whatever ways we can. Whether it’s Bikes Belong, the League of American Bicyclists, the Thunderhead Alliance, or whatever, we need a very strong and visible national bicycling advocacy organization that speaks for all of us. Every bike shop in the country should have at least two brochures at their checkout counter: one for the local advocacy organization, and one for a national bicycle advocacy organization. Every bike advocacy organization and blog should have a prominent link to their local advocacy group and a national advocacy group.

Enlisting the support and cooperation of national bicycle retailers and chains. This means Performance Bike, but it also means Wal-Mart, Target, REI, and all the others.

Coordinating year-round national marketing and advertising campaigns for bicycle and pedestrian advocacy. Part of this coordination includes the creation of a consistent message about the benefits of bicycling and walking culture, as well as the destructive nature of car culture. A side effect of this coordination effort will be that every bike and pedestrian advocate will have a vision for where we are trying to go, and they’ll be able to relay that vision whenever they need to, and that vision will be roughly consistent with what every other bike and walk advocate is saying. We should all agree, for instance, on an appropriate metaphor to promote the right types of transportation, such as the Transportation Hierarchy pyramid seen here and used by Transportation Alternatives. We should all be able to state clearly and concisely why car culture is so harmful, and why bike and pedestrian cultures are so beneficial.

Promoting Ciclovías (or, Cyclovias). Here, I’m specifically referring to “the temporary event closing of the street to automobiles to allow dominance by other users.” Made popular with the help of StreetFilms, the ciclovia in Bogotá, Colombia is a great, inspiring example for us all. Every town needs at least one Ciclovia event per month—a closing down of a significant portion of some part of town to bike and pedestrian-only traffic.

Close down some or all parts of a park to pedestrian and bicycle-only traffic on certain (or all) days. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and others managed to get a Saturday closure added for Golden Gate Park after tireless work. There is The Car-Free Central Park Campaign in New York City. I remember having to dodge speeding cars in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park all the time. Parks are not for cars, and they’re certainly not meant to be alternate highways for speeding cars.

2) Promote and improve car-sharing programs (Austin CarShare, ZipCar, [link]

We have to start promoting car-sharing right alongside cycling. We have to be ready, willing, and able to address the real concerns of people who currently rely on their cars to do some things or everything. Car-sharing will help move people out of their cars and onto their bikes, so we need to promote car-sharing. It’s that simple. Cycling and walking advocates need to reach out to car-sharing companies, and the car-sharing companies need to reach out to us. It doesn’t matter who calls first; we just need to make it happen. [Baltimore and Ithaca coming online.]

Car-sharing companies need to do a better job of marketing themselves and making it easier for full-time drivers to move to car-sharing. The current value proposition to a potential car-sharer goes something like this:

If you give us, the car-sharing company, a hundred bucks up front and your credit card number, apply for membership, sign your life away in various ways, and buy some monthly service plan that you don’t even know if you’ll use or not, then I’ll let you borrow a “community car” once in a while…maybe…because it may not be available when you want it. And you’ll pay for how long you use the car—either on an hourly basis or sky-high daily basis—and you’ll still have to pay for your own gas, of course. And you’ll still be paying for the insurance, maintenance, and other associated costs for your own personal car, of course.

It’s a non-starter. Why sign up for something like that? We need to do better—a lot better. How about a free trial? A money-back guarantee? Some quality guarantees? A limited trial membership? Free signup? I mean, give us something to work with here.

3) Continue building bike-sharing/bike-rental programs (Velib, SmartBike DC, WheelHouse Detroit). [link]

4) Continue building college and university-based bicycle programs and co-ops (Velorution Project, Bike Cave, Orange Bike, Bike Emory). [link]

5) Lower barriers to entry for beginner cyclists: [link]

Offer bike shop “commuter packages (like this triathlon shop does for beginning triathletes), and continue to entice prospective commuters by showing definitive numbers on cost savings, calories burned, emissions reductions, and so forth. Commuter packages should include bike riding and bike maintenance training, route-finding, memberships to local and national advocacy groups, shower facilities, and more.

Push for bicycle-only and pedestrian-only routes of traffic and areas. These can be greenways (like the Minneapolis Greenway, the Atlanta Beltline, the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, the San Francisco Bay Trail, etc.) or exclusive lanes like in NYC. Zero-automobile areas are ideal for walkers and cyclists and will promote bicycle use. In addition to just working on particular paths and bikeways, we should consider lobbying for the shut-out of all auto traffic from high-use downtown and other “town square”-like corridors. Dublin, Ireland is considering closing down parts of their city center to private automobile traffic, allowing only buses and taxis to enter. Presumably pedestrians and bicyclists and other human-powered modes of transport will be allowed.

Focus on personal security issues, such as how to prevent the harassment of all cyclists, with particular attention paid to female cyclists. We need to think not just about safety issues inherent in riding on busy roadways, but the safety of riding and walking in isolated and dark areas. At traffic lights, I feel like cyclists (and pedestrians) are too exposed to fumes and harassment. Maybe bike boxes are a step in the right direction, or maybe not, but at least we’re working on ways to make folks more comfortable on a bike.

6) Promote “lifestyle” cycling (like this bike-to-work poster does; bakfiets [aka work/cargo bikes]). [link] This should extend into any business areas, too. We should ask our local Postal Office to look at using bikes instead of trucks. We should try to incentivize businesses to start getting their employees to use bicycles for some trips, including jobs that might require cargo bikes—the Postal Service, home cleaning services, (pizza) delivery, and so forth.

7) Push for laws that respect pedestrian and bicycle access as a requirement for any new (re)development. [link] Such laws would put us advocates in a much stronger position — proactive rather than reactive. Instead of waiting for developers to drop their latest proposal on us any time they feel like it, they’ll have to do actual up-front planning that addresses bicycle and pedestrian issues, giving them the prominence they deserve when considering any new development (that is, more prominence than cars).

8 ) Find/(re)create/(re)organize the largest/most-effective coalition of lobbying/activist/advocacy groups/organizations possible. [link]  In Austin we have a few active organizations, and they all do good work, but I’m not convinced we have found the best mix yet. Do we combine organizations? Create a new one? Shift the focus of one organization or another? We may find that some particular mix of advocacy groups works best. Every town will have to find that right combination of advocacy groups for themselves, but we need to make sure that we’re all working together, cooperating, and coordinating to make sure we’re as effective as possible.

9) Continue building and supporting non-profit and volunteer-oriented groups and co-ops (Austin Yellow Bike, Boise Bicycle Project). [link]

10) Reach out to the non-English-speaking community, and other folks in your community who may not look/act/speak/be like you. [link]  The Atlanta Bicycle Campaign recently started hosting its first Spanish blog. Our website offers a couple of translations and direct access to the Google Translate widget. Whatever the particular makeup of your community, do your best to reach out to them in whatever way is most appropriate—whatever will allow people to be most receptive to your message. I am very interested in making sure that everyone can participate in our movement, not just because it’s obviously in my/our own best interests, but because it’s the right thing to do. I’m particularly concerned that ethnic and social minorities may be left out of our movement. Let’s make sure everyone is included in this awesomeness that we have going.

11) Form coalitions and work with: [link]

• other bicycle groups.

• non-bicycle groups. This includes walk/pedestrian groups in particular, but also with mass transit groups and anyone else you can think of, like local gardening advocacy groups, perhaps.

• local groups, and non-local groups. You might team up with non-local groups in creative ways, maybe using the Sister Cities model (also known as town twinning), or maybe even enlisting their help.

12) Create a mass-transit advocacy group, or make sure that your advocacy group is watching mass transit issues, too. [link]  Transportation Alternatives is a New York City-based group that is NYC’s advocacy group for “bicycling, walking and public transit.” The BayRail Alliance looks after rail-related transportation in the SF Bay Area. There are groups like that look after rail, aviation, and inter-city bus transit.

13) Create and promote a “town hall”—virtual and/or physical—that can connect the entire bicycle, pedestrian, and mass-transit community. [link]  The virtual place could be something like, which is an incredible resource for the people of Portland who care about these issues. BikePortland helps connect all the people of Portland involved in bicycle, pedestrian, and mass-transit initiatives and helps to keep them informed of what everyone is working on. Every town deserves a I have been planning to launch a blog network to do exactly this, and StreetsBlog (New York City Streets Rennaissance) has already started implementing something like this with their original New York City-based website, as well as their still-relatively-new Los Angeles-based site. (If you might like to be involved in this, please get in touch.) Further, I would like to have a physical space where advocates could go to find like-minded folks, and just casually be able to run into each other, chat, and talk about new ideas. It could be a coffee shop, a bike shop with a coffee shop, a low-key monthly gathering at the local pub…it can be whatever you can think of. The idea is to make it easier for us to communicate with each other, to make real person-to-person connections, to increase the variety and vitality of ideas, etc. Maybe some place like the Centre for Social Innovation could be this physical space.

14) A continued commitment to research when considering solutions to our problems. [link] Research like this (study) can help us stay focused on what is actually important in making informed public policy decisions. I feel like the bicycling community already has a healthy respect for the validity and usefulness of transportation research. We need to continue that mindset, promote further research, and then capitalize on that research, making sure it sees the light of day and is put into practice.

15) Push to get local cyclists, walkers, and mass transit riders to support local advocacy groups. [link]  Not everyone has to support every local advocacy group that is doing work in their community, but everyone should be contributing something, like time, money, or other resources (equipment, services, discounted rental space, etc.). If you have no money, contribute time. If you have no time, contribute money. Find a way to help out. Lots of people are just trying to make ends meet, (believe me, I know this experience intimately) but we still need to expect everyone to help out in some way, in whatever way they can.

16) Hold fundraisers for local advocacy organizations. [link]  (Thanks to Linda DuPriest for presenting this idea at the recent Austin Bicycle Summit (pdf).) Lots of the runs, walks, and other events we all participate in have the goal of raising money for various charities, and most of the time they seem like very worthy charities. We should support other worthy organizations, such as our local bike/walk/mass transit advocacy orgs. The Cascade Bicycle Club has the Pedal Power program that lets riders raise money for any number of charities, some of which are bicycle/pedestrian-related. The new Toronto Cyclists Union is hosting a Pee-Wee Herman Picture Show (hey, whatever works, right?) that will include folks like Broken Social Scene. The Bike the Drive event in Chicago seems like a lot of fun, too.

There are lots of good ideas for big growth. I hope I’ve hit at least one of them in the sixteen shots I took above. In addition to these ideas, here are a couple of other ideas I’m not as sure about:

  • I passed an older gentleman on a recumbent trike (tricycle/three wheeled-bicycle thing) the other day. I thought that would be awesome for lots of other folks. One of the reasons I ride a bike for exercise (in addition to other uses) is because I cannot comfortably run at the moment (thank you, soccer-related injury). The baby boomers in America are already exploding into retirement. They need bikes. They need trikes. They need anything and everything to get them going and keep them active and healthy. Let’s face it—doing the hamster-on-a-treadmill routine inside some dank and nasty fitness gym is not for everyone. But two-wheeled bicycles can require a lot of athletic ability and balance; let’s address the older, less mobile crowd by making sure you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy riding a bike. Let’s push recumbents and trikes into the mainstream.
  • I’d like to see more bicycle-oriented get-togethers and conferences to keep energy high, and to promote cross-pollination of ideas. I thought a visit from a Danish national to Austin, and your town, would be cool because of the awesomeness of Copenhagen bicycle culture. I wrote an email to the Danish Embassy in D.C., and I found this list of Danish consulates and trade commissions around the U.S. If you live outside the U.S., you might want to check out the very-cool official Denmark home page, or the wiki page. Maybe a visit from a high profile Portland national would be cool, too. :)   [Great news!] [And don't forget the Bicycle Film Festival.]

Finally, just for fun, a video from the Ripon College Velorution Project:

How wrong am I on these? What big things did I miss?

…I knew I’d forget something. This is one of my favorites:

17) Create and aggressively market a ‘Corporate Cycling Certification’ program that will help large companies move more of their employees onto bicycles. [link]  In particular, companies with at least one large corporate campus should be primary targets, but just about every business is a potential customer. This is the type of program that can be run by a national organization (League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong, etc.), or a larger regional organization (Cascade Bicycle Club, Bicycle Victoria). Businesses are concerned about saving money; we need to figure out how putting employees on bicycles does that for them.  Businesses will be worried about liability.  We need to address that concern with training and certification.  We need to do all the thinking up front for companies, so that their HR/health/wellness personnel can just call us up and ask how much the certification program costs, and what the business can expect in return.  What if the company doesn’t have bike racks?  What if they don’t have showers?  We need to be ready with answers - preferably published on our new ‘Corporate Certification’ site.  Large businesses don’t employ a majority of the American people, but they do hold a large place in our hearts and minds.  Google, Dell, Apple, Microsoft, GE, Coca-Cola, IBM, Gap, Nike - all these companies and more vie for top talent.  The top talent increasingly want work/life balance - some companies have already seen the light.  Great employees want to work in bike-friendly towns, and they want to work at bike-friendly companies.  There are designations for bike-friendly communities.  There are designations for bike-friendly states.  How about a designation for bike-friendly companies?  Hospitals might be a good place to start, since they know the value of being healthy, and the cost of being unhealthy.  Healthier employees are happier and more productive employees, and there is an increasing body of research to suggest that aerobic exercise is not just good for your heart, but also for your brain.  It seems some tech CEOs, like Enrique T. Salmen, are going the ‘super endurance’ route, too - they’ll know the value of a bike ride.  Search Google News for ‘health’ and ‘wellness’ and see what employers are doing to incentivize employees to just get up and walk around the block once in a while; employers need us — we just have to meet them half way.