7 Tips for cycling and walking advocates

by Vanessa Davis

While these may be obvious, like stating an organisation’s mission at the beginning of a meeting, it can be a healthy reminder to stay focused on the task at hand.

1.     Meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.

All people in all stages of the shift have a place in the active transport effort.

I have a friend who wore button that read, “I woke up today.” Slightly infuriating as an attitude but honestly, this is where we all start.  That is all we can assume. At an instructor training for the Pedal Ready Programme, Marilyn Northcotte reiterated to us that we have to assume nothing about students’ biking skills, not even knowing how to mount a bicycle. This is a great approach to the public at large. We are not signing everyone in town up for a triathlon, no lycra suit for every man, woman and child, maybe not even a bike. But would you come outside and have a look at these lit up bike floats for the Bike Parade. Come see how much fun everyone is having. That is participating, that creates a community of advocates.

2.     Know your stakeholders.

As with transportation, everyone who travels anywhere has a voice to lend to walking and bicycling. Thinking out how to channel those voices in a constructive manner sets the foundation for all parties stepping into the effort or project. Building strong relationships with agencies and industries that have something, namely funding and staff time,  to give: like public transport, health, and tourism. When industry goals align with best interests of people who walk and bike, sustainable partnerships are more likely. Find out, as soon as possible, about the specific goals, limitations, and conditions of the funding sources. Be clear about your own agencies goals and limitations.  Then translate the incentive for stakeholders into services for active transport participants by identifying overlap.

Example: US Public Health Department received a grant from Office of Traffic Safety to help prevent bike related injuries. The outcome was participating in fairs where children receive free helmets. In this case, the point is to encourage the safety of bicycling, not especially encouraging bicycling, a fine but important line to the continuing success of the relationship between grantor and grantee.

3.     Flexible messaging with guidelines

Most proponents of walking and cycling understand that there is no benefit to polarizing any group of transport mode users. Promoting open minded, flexibility and the most appropriate transport choice for the trip, is an easy, non-confrontational position to take.

Depending on the goals of the stakeholders, the public will read different reasons about why we want to increase walking and biking in the transport network. Environmental, health, social equity, financial gain, autonomy; they are all topics that affect each of us differently. That’s OKAY. The key is to keep people at the center of the conversation, person walking, person driving, person on a bike.

Example: Seattle Language guide. Kiwis may find it too politically correct, but the point is to understand how our words shape our perceptions, especially in conflict scenarios, not because anyone should feel offended by the word “driver” or “cyclist”

4.     Understand the drivers of change

Social, political, and funding climates are intensely important in all transportation infrastructure and certainly walking and bicycling infrastructure.  Some easy steps help make a shift. Everyone can get behind the steps that don’t hurt. More importantly though, does the effort create a worthy incentive to create change?

A classic example is to make the behavior change part of school curriculum. Great, as the former Education Director of Bike SLO County, I absolutely couldn’t agree more. However, the 30 or so children who went to school with me in grammar school all loved learning about worms and composting, 25 years later I’d bet the only ones who compost live in San Francisco where the city provides separate compost bins. The point being, there has to be clear incentives, time, money, ease, increased public sector support.  As Gil Penalosa told those of us at the 2 Walk and Cycle Conference in Auckland earlier this year, “If we say yes to something we are saying no to something else.” Have you questioned a typical yes and a no today?

5.     Value the Sustainable, Flexible Effort

Part of any venture, be it business or public, includes building trust with community. Sometimes that momentum can take several forms in order for the public to have a positive outlook on the active transportation effort.

Before the long awaited separated path is available, consider closing a street like CycLAvia. Bike and Pedestrian education in schools is an example of a partnership that requires trust and dependability from both parties. Bikes in Schools and Pedal Ready have the potential to make a real impact in giving a large part of the population a foundation for the skills needed to use multiple modes of transport.

When the social, political, and funding climates are at a stand still, what progress can be made? There is always some avenue to channel support and delivery. If on road changes aren’t moving forward, tackle end of trip facilities.

Example from USA: Bike Rack Voucher Programme  Bay Area Air Pollution Control District has goals and funding to reduce transport emissions. While they are not in a position to restripe lanes of traffic, they used the funds to offer bike racks to public facilities like schools and libraries.

6.     Science and Passion, Use Wisely

Data is going to keep active transportation thriving.  So many of us simply love going on a sunset walk with the dog or feeling the thrill of adrenaline on a downhill trail. Sadly, passion doesn’t matter on paper. Passion matters with people. 

Making the case, drawing the cost benefit from these activities, gives more value to the effort in terms of funding in the long run. Quality stakeholder relationships where each party understands the tangible goals of the project or activity add to the sustainability of active transport projects.

People in the community getting passionate about some activity they like stoke the fire. They are stakeholders. It is absolutely worth drawing on the activities that we love to do for no other reason than that we love them. Know when and how to use a mix of data and passion to feed the long-term goal.

7.     Share Ownership, Share Credit

It really does take a lot of cooperation to build anything in a shared space. Everyone should feel they own some part of the change, especially if they advocated for it, or gave up a parking spot, or tolerated a detour so that people could walk or bike in a safe and attractive manner.

Taking the time to acknowledge all of the stakeholders and change makers and their efforts uplifts and values public champions.  It takes a lot for people to try something new. Knowing they made a difference, that they were appreciated, and that they own their world and get to help decide how to use is a value to themselves and the community.

Example: Kidical Mass in San Luis Obispo. Parents share leadership roles to promote family biking in San Luis Obispo. At first it was seen as risky, but now it is a promoted kid-friendly activity by the tourism board.  Kidical Mass video.