As some of you may know, I’m pretty engaged in the bicyclist community. I serve as the Vice Chair of the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Co-Chair the Steering Committee for the River Roll and Stroll (a very cool open streets event in its second year) and also volunteer as a Bicycle Maintenance Instructor at the Holyoke Urban Bike School.
A general effort woven throughout my life is trying to improve biking conditions, certainly a consequence of being an almost-daily rider since I was 18. I even did it professionally as the Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) from 2011 to 2014. Since then, I’ve worked in the public sector, first for MassDOT and now for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. So I’ve seen both the nonprofit and the governmental sides of transportation planning.
This Saturday, I am going to be putting that decade-plus of experience to use at the MassBike 2018 Advocacy Boot Camp, an event where bicycle boosters from around the state can learn and network with other folks who want to improve bicycling. The title of my panel discussion is “Mass Mobilization: Working Within the System,” and I’ll be talking about how advocates can engage with public sector staff to further better biking conditions.
Here are three points I plan on making at the panel on Saturday.
1. Throw Their Own Policies in Their Faces
Bike advocates should feel like they have the wind at their backs in Massachusetts. That’s not to say that all fights will be easy, but there are many things going in our favor. For example, MassDOT released a Project Development and Design Guide in 2006 that prioritizes biking and walking facilities in roadway design. One of the most powerful arguments an advocate can make is that, for state roadway projects, MassDOT engineers need to stick to their own design guidance. Many municipalities also have Complete Streets policies – hold municipal staff accountable to the policies their own town/city has adopted.
Be polite. But don’t let them off easy if they are violating their own guidance.
2. Get Letterhead
Public sector professionals, especially those who engage the public frequently, have to deal with what I will generously call “zealots.” These are people who have a pet cause and, at every opportunity, speak at length to that cause. They will corner public employees, electeds, and anyone else to discuss their issue for extended lengths of time.
They undermine their own credibility by being so fanatically focused on their one issue, when public employees have to balance a number of competing issues at the same time. One way to avoid this pitfall is to instill the sense that, when you are advocating for better biking, it’s not because of a personal obsession, it’s because you represent a movement.
As one advocate put it (I’m paraphrasing), “I thought one day, ‘Hey, it’d be cool to have a bike path on this old railroad right of way. So I put together a website, Friends of the Community Path. Next thing I knew, a local newspaper picked up the story of a new grassroots movement that had formed and was demanding a new community path. And I got an email from a local elected official who wanted to talk to the group’s president.”
So get letterhead, a logo, business cards, a website, and anything else that will help to legitimize your cause when you talk to decision makers.
3. Don’t Wear Stinky Day-Glo
The stereotypical image of a bicyclist usually involves a lot of day-glo and lycra. I have been to so many public meetings where at least one attendee is a dude wearing his bike clothes, freshly sweaty from his 15 mile bike ride to get to said meeting. It may not be fair, but that first impression is probably not a good one. And then, after assaulting the olfactory senses of the planner or engineer running the meeting, you make your pitch for why bike facilities should be included.
It’s an uphill fight.
Instead, an advocate should consider taking the bus to the meeting, or maybe arrive early with a change of clothes and a stick of deodorant. You want these planners and designers to see you as a peer, to see themselves in your shoes. And, believe it or not, most people will go their whole lives without donning day-glo for an hour-long bike ride to get to a semi-professional meeting.
Public Employees Count on Advocates
In the end, any public sector employee who cares about the work they’re doing really depends on advocates to help them do their jobs. Even though civil servants should be apolitical, their work is still directly impacted by elected leadership. Mayors and City Councilors give policy direction which the staff is carrying out. So we depend on advocates to make the phone calls, write the letters, and show up to public meetings to demand that we do the right thing.
Without effective advocacy, we’ll keep getting the broken post-war urban development model that has failed our cities in so many ways. The most enlightened and dedicated civil service won’t change that without advocates backing them up.