Here are 14 tips based on my experience – what are yours?
- Run a thoughtful, thorough process that includes surveys and focus groups, public meetings, walks, rides, and plenty of one-on-one stakeholder interviews and meetings with affected groups, businesses, individuals, associations, and agencies. I suggest setting aside 25-30% of your project budget for meaningful public input. I also suggest hiring or placing your most skilled public outreach
personnel on this task, as opposed to staff whose strengths lie elsewhere. Public outreach is a task best suited to those firms or individuals who do it well and enjoy it. And document your process: make note of everyone you talk to, every comment you receive, every meeting, phone conversation, email exchange, blog or newspaper posting, and be prepared to defend it. A good public process will overcome naysaying process-busting objections.
- Take time to educate the public. It’s unlikely they will understand bike
boulevards, for example, if they’ve never seen or experienced one. Sure, a “bioswale” is a lovely green street feature that calms traffic while draining water – that’s great! But don’t expect them to know that, or understand it until you explain it in words, show them an example in slides, take them on a tour, repeat, rinse, and repeat. Be very patient. The absolute best way to educate folks is to take them on a bike tour of comparable facilities. If you don’t have any, show them StreetsFilm videos.
Communicate in many ways. When we first started the Tour de Ladd event at my kids’ school, we informed our families in eight different ways: weekly e-newsletter, listserve, paper newsletter, flyers in folders going home with kids, posters in hallways, one-on-one meetings with each teacher, weekly helmet events, and standing outside classrooms talking to parents. We barraged parents
every day for six weeks leading up to the event. With this process, we got about 95% of the parents “In the know”. That meant that a few still showed up befuddled, a few called in a panic, and a few kids shed tears that they couldn’t ride since their parents hadn’t signed the permission slip. And I learned that we’ll do our best, and not reach everyone, and that’s ok.
- Engage advocates: You cannot succeed without some level of community support. Invite the advocates in, embrace them, give them a meaningful role, ask them to recruit. If you are an advocate, you’ve got to be omnipresent in supporting your leaders. Write letters and emails of support, show up at meetings, testify, engage the media, be positive, be energetic, be there.
- Lower your expectations: In other words, don’t expect the general public to jump up and down with joy at your proposal to change their street, no matter how obviously beneficial the change from your perspective. Change, for many people, is hard to swallow.
- Build relationships with the media. One hundred people are at a public meeting, there are 99 supporters vs. one naysayer, and then there’s newspaper reporter – looking to play up the controversy, which allocates them equal column space. So frustrating. Try this: call up reporters. Befriend bloggers. Start your own blog and report relentlessly on your own successes. Thank the reporter/blogger/tweeter each and every time they get a story right. Then thank their bosses. Then feed them another story.
- The previous piece of advice is linked to this: celebrate each and every success, no matter how small. That means the city or community group should have their own blog and outreach e-list and be in constant communication. Each of these stories should be positive reflections on the work you are trying to do. Perhaps a spotlight on a business thriving because of a new bike rack, or a family that gave up their car, or a woman who got fit by cycling. Here’s an example from Seattle.
- Prepare your leaders for the backlash. Brief your politicians on the likelihood that there will be negative media attention when you open that new bike lane, cycle track, or trail.
- Prepare talking points and statistics. Get ready with succinct talking points that you share with your leaders, colleagues, and friends. Stay on message. Use both statistics on previous experience (eg “bicycle use has doubled in the last year”) and projections of bikeway use (eg “We expect to see 1000 daily cyclists within a two year timeframe.”) Include one simple statistic that will capture media interest. Example: “Portland built a 300-mile network of bikeways for the cost of approximately one mile of urban freeway.” Bolster your claims by putting your community in good company, eg “Our goal is to join the nation’s gold-ranked Bicycle Friendly Communities.” Use positive personal stories about individuals or business owners who have succeeded thanks to bicycling/walking.
“Our goal is to join the nation’s gold-ranked Bicycle Friendly Communities.”
- Try this: offer a one-year demonstration project for your bike lane,
boulevard, or bike corral using temporary materials
- Document before-and-after bike use, safety statistics, impacts on businesses and homeowners. Report back to the community. Listen to complaints. Be willing to make adjustments. But do not knee-jerk back down. Give your new project time to work.
- Program for success, meaning: if you build it, they will come, but if you build it, and tell people about it in ways that are meaningful to their lives, they will come in droves, flocks, and stampedes. Celebrate the grand opening, then host a series of events and escorted rides, distribute maps and brochures, tweet, blog, and keep coming back. Plan on at least a couple of years of encouragement activities before the new facility is accepted and embraced.
- Toughen up. Expect criticism, derision, negativity, doubt, disbelief, anger, and fear. These are all par for the course in making changes in society. The positive gains will far outweigh the pain.
- Finally, wherever you are, take heart. Persistence, patience, and faith are a pre-requisite to meaningful change.
And let me assure you that the bike lanes, cycle tracks, and trails in NY, Seattle, Portland, Easley , SC, Vancouver, BC, Jonesboro, AK, and every other community working to create a more healthy future will work fine. The world will not end if we trade off a travel or parking lane. Even if today a ton of people aren’t yet biking, they soon will be. A more healthy, safe and livable future is within your reach, I promise