Across North America, cities are putting in bikeways to a combination of fanfare and derision. The backlash in Seattle and New York and many other cities seems at times ferocious.
I understand! I’ve been there! Back in the 1990s in Portland, we were regularly castigated, as I describe in Joyride. Even today, Portland suffers painful slings and arrows. Check out this recent, brutal news story on a new bike lane in a previously under-served area of town, one that had been begging for bike lanes for many years: http://www.katu.com/news/specialreports/94053299.html. Ouch!
Some of the criticism is about the perceived lack of process. Each city should have done more to talk to local businesses and residents, suggest the blog and media reports. In New York, for example, “The administration should have done more community outreach before it started building new lanes, especially the “protected” ones, which are separated from the street with physical barriers.” (NY Daily News)
What exactly is public process? For some communities, it means one poorly-attended public meeting; in others it means years of extensive discussions. The projects we manage at Alta often entail a wide range of public outreach, from surveys to stakeholder interviews to citizen advisory committees to public meetings. In my experience, even as more intensive processes take longer, they result in a stronger end product. When we are working in cities like Santa Barbara, CA or Madison WI or Minneapolis MN, the public is highly involved, and the process seems slow, but the community is making indubitable progress.
I recently gave an overview of our transportation history in Portland to a Japanese audience. The first question: “You actually talked to residents???”
“Sure,” I replied, “all our plans are based on extensive public involvement.” For the next hour, that’s all they wanted to talk about, from the concept of neighborhood associations to ballot measures.
One of the most brilliant things the City of Portland does is educate residents about transportation through a class at Portland State University. Instructors include representatives of each government agency. Students represent advocacy groups and neighborhood associations or are just interested in improving the community or perhaps have a bone to pick. This class was borne out of Cong. Earl Blumenauer’s insight (back when he was a City Councilman close to 20 years ago) that the many residents who complain about traffic issues can put their energy to better use if they know how to effect change in a constructive way. When I, as a young bike coordinator, took the class, I gained immense understanding of both the complexities of our system and ways to influence it.
And yet, no matter how literate or involved the public is, it can be very hard to get buy-in for bikeways, especially from folks that haven’t gotten on a bike since they were kids. And the best, most thoughtful and engaging public process is for naught if politicians have thin skins and/or aren’t willing to bite the bullet for change. No matter what, it’s a hard, long, challenging process to encourage the masses used to a certain way to open their minds.
The backlash isn’t just urban and it isn’t always rational. Down in Colorado, a Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes (who lost badly) warned about how Denver’s bike sharing system is part of a vast U.N. plot to take over American cities. Silly? Of course, as are the myriad of fear-based objections we constantly hear: bikeways will bring crime, lower property values, facilitate bad behavior, erode privacy, reduce safety, harm wildlife, drive businesses to ruin, increase congestion, worsen air quality, and bring on the ten plagues. Part of public involvement is helping leaders move forward in response to both rational and irrational beliefs.
Stay tuned in 2011 for some tips for surviving – or preventing – the bikeway backlash. Sign up here to receive notification via our RSS feed.
How’s your community faring?