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How to get started winning a bike lane in your community

In an effort to help Climate Riders interested in making their communities more bike-friendly, we’re teaming up with Carter Lavin to get some insights into how to win a bike lane in your community. Carter is a bike & climate activist in Oakland, California who helps organizations and individuals build political power, hone strategy, and win campaigns. Whether at the local, regional, or state level, Carter has helped groups win. For over 15 years he has worked with entities of all sorts, helping them win on the issues that matter to them. Businesses, non-profits, candidates, grassroots groups, and independent activists have launched and won political changes with his help.

From Carter

One of the most common questions that come up in my one-on-one and small group trainings for beginner bike activists is “where do I begin if I want to get a bike lane in my community?” The good news is that you’ve already started! Articulating what you want is essential to winning any political change. Ultimately you probably want a full bike lane network, but that’s a larger and bit more complicated effort. For now, let’s dive in to 3 beginning steps to getting a bike lane in your community:

Step 1) Refine your vision on the “where” and “what”. Do you want your bike lane on 5th Street or do you want it on 6th Street? Do you want it to go the entire length of the street or mainly just along the commercial corridor? Or would you be happy to have it go just from the school to the park? Your wants and needs for safe bike infrastructure might be limitless, but your political strength is finite, so you need to focus. Start with a clearly defined small to midsize goal that gets you excited and feels a little bit beyond what you think you might be able to win.

Additionally, make sure to pick an area that you have some sort of connection to. Maybe it’s your street or a street nearby, or a street you would bike on to run errands if it were safer, or a street that everyone in your town has a bit of a claim to like by a major park or attraction. Basically, pick a place where you have skin in the game and where you can be viewed as a legitimate voice on the subject rather than as some random outside agitator.

In terms of what your vision is, unless you have a strong reason to pick an exact design for that corridor, I recommend starting with a design goal that is a bit more open-ended like, “physical protection for people on bikes.” Unless you’d be sad if you got a concrete curb as protection rather than a concrete wall, then at the start it’s best to just ask for a “physical protection” and be flexible as to the exact form that protection takes. Make sure to say physical protection or barrier because paint, flashing lights and even flexible plastic posts aren’t enough to make a bike lane safe. Yes, a painted bike lane may be a huge step up from what you have now, but you should aim higher than that in your campaign. A stronger vision will attract more passionate helpers and it makes a lane that’s “protected” with paint or plastic the compromise position.

Step 2) Share your vision and get supporters in your area. One person does not speak for the community and is easy to ignore. 100 people all requesting the same specific thing are much much harder to ignore. The simplest way you can build political power to win your protected bike lane is to get as many people in your community on your side as you can. You also need to demonstrate to others that people are in fact on your side. Ideally, it’s also great when you can get your supporters to take action.

The stronger you are politically, the easier of a time you’ll have getting the ultimate decision maker in your community (likely your mayor) on your side. Let’s break it down a little further.

“Get as many people in your community on your side as you can.” “In your community” is vital. Unless your community is a tourist hub or for some other reason is particularly attuned to the needs of outsiders vs. residents, then the only people whose opinions matter on the subject are the residents. You also need lots of people on your side – but you don’t need everyone. Just like how most people don’t vote, you don’t need to have unanimous or even majority support to win. You “just” need a solid chunk of people who are motivated & engaged.
“Demonstrate to others that people are your side.” It’s one thing to have people support your idea secretly, but if you can’t demonstrate or prove it to a third party (like the mayor or a reporter) then you are in trouble. Claims of having support from a “silent majority” are extremely suspicious if you can’t back it up. Two of the simplest ways to get supporters to demonstrate their support is having them add their name to a petition or attend a rally. I recommend starting with a petition and using as the platform for building your petition.

Ideally get supporters to take action” If you want to be a solo act and are able to get a meaningful number of petition signers on your own, that could potentially do the trick. However, you’ll have much more success and an easier time the more you empower & equip supporters to get more engaged. Whether that’s getting their help to get more petition signatures or getting them to show up to a rally or hearing or make a call to the decision maker – the more people you get meaningfully involved on your side, the better. What additional action, besides signing the petition, is the right one to ask them to do and when should they do it? Well, that brings us to…

Step 3) Figure out & navigate your community’s process. Every community is unique, and your community might have its own process for getting a protected bike lane built. Most likely, your community does not have a set process, but rather an amalgamation of departments and decision makers who are stakeholders in the decision-making process. In other words, it is likely that there is no one directly responsible and there is no system in place– hence why that protected bike lane doesn’t already exist!

By generating a lot of political power and applying it to city hall, you may in fact inspire them to create a process for protected bike lane creation. Or as you do that, you may be told about some subcommittee meeting where designs and plans are reviewed. Figuring out what process, if any, exists will help you navigate the official channels to get your lane.

However, political power (almost) always trumps process. Having the process shifted to accommodate your newly built power can look like a wide range of things – for example, your project might get moved up in line, or get an exception, or inspire a department to find resources that it didn’t have before to solve the problem. When governments really want to do something, they tend to figure out a way to do it. Your town might have a 3-month permitting process for getting a street shut down to cars, but if the Pope announced they’ll be in town next week and the community wanted to do a procession for it, then city hall would figure out how to shut down the street for the procession.

You’re on the right track, keep going!

By being interested in reading this, you were already a few steps into the process of getting your protected bike lane. Now, you’ve got a basic campaign plan outlined and are a lot further along. Getting started can be one of the hardest, most intimidating parts and I invite you to recognize that yes– in fact, you have already started. Keep going, keep building, keep experimenting, keep learning and you’ll win. If you want help at any point in the process, I provide 1-on-1 training sessions and group workshops. Let’s talk. Email me at [email protected] to set something up.