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Monday
Apr142014

Stupid is as Stupid does

There are a lot of cities out there – a lot of staff members and a lot of elected officials – that would like to make changes in the direction their community is heading. There are many, in fact, who desire to move away from the financially-ruinous auto-dominated building pattern and into something that would provide for more opportunities for biking and walking. This can be scary, especially when these urges are relatively new, not well grounded in a coherent worldview, completely inconsistent with the local government’s other actions and being done in a place that is lacking a culture of walking and biking.

This Thursday we are having a member webinar event called Beyond Complete Streets. If you're not already a member of Strong Towns, now is definitely the right time to sign up. We not only have ongoing member events but we are actively organizing and engaging members to help us accomplish the important work of the Strong Towns movement. Get involved today by becoming a member.

Have no fear. Today I’m going to provide some tips – some do’s and don’ts – for public officials to help them navigate this difficult transition.

Do: Ensure that your proposed bike lanes connect places people may want to bike to.

Don’t: Simply add a bike lane to a random project where there is little demand, or even reason, to bike.

To be successful, a bike lane should actually allow a biker to get somewhere they want to go. For your first project, pick a location where you have destinations already in place. For example, a commercial node with restaurants, a barber shop and retail stores would work well. Schools and parks also make for good destinations for bikers. Your proposed bike trail is not likely to be embraced if it, for example, begins at a highway intersection and ends in a field with nothing but a church (more on that later) in between.

It is important that new bike lanes actually connect desired destinations, at least if there is an expectation that they will be used.

Do: Ensure that your first foray into real biking and walking transportation infrastructure will be a success by going where there is already a demonstrated demand.

Don’t: Simply pick the next project on the capital improvements plan and try to convince people who are not already biking and walking that they should be.

This might be a successful, and non-controversial, place to invest in some biking or walking infrastructure.Remember, if you want to build bike lanes throughout the community – and you really need to if you want to restore the city's finances to health – then you need to build demand for biking infrastructure. You can try having public meetings, use the power of persuasion (you’d better be charismatic), put together a report and apply for some federal/state grants OR you can simply look around and see where people are trying to bike and walk today, but struggling, and make their efforts a little easier.

In almost all communities, this low-hanging-fruit is everywhere. You just have to get out from behind your desk and actually go out in the community and observe. Where that mom with the stroller is trudging through knee high weeds, you could probably use a sidewalk there. Where those kids are biking on the sidewalks despite the street being void of cars, well there might be a reason they don’t feel safe in the street. Where people run across the street – even at a crosswalk and even at a stop sign – you might have a situation where some intervention would help.

The ideal scenario should be where you install your bike lanes and, within hours, people show up and start using them. Look for that situation and start there.

Do: Zealously advocate for common sense approaches within your community.

Don’t: Appear to be completely impotent in the face of state mandates that require you to do ridiculous things.

If you are going to truly advocate for biking and walking infrastructure, then do it. It is going to appear disingenuous – if not simply laughable – if you, for example, routinely meet with your legislative delegation to discuss a project that will spend millions and take away from walking and biking opportunities within the community yet you claim state rules that require two additional feet of roadway width prevent the installation of bike lanes. Are your legislators briefed and mobilized to get such a destructive and ridiculous rule changed, something they could do without spending any money?

You will not appear to be trying very hard if you claim, for example, that this street pictured below cannot legally – according to state rules -- accommodate biking lanes without expanding the roadway by two feet or removing the non-existent parking lanes, especially if that is the end of your story.

In order for this very low volume street to meet state standards for parking (??) and bike lanes, the street would need to be widened by two feet. In other words, an insurmountable obstacle.

Do: Build neighborhood coalitions and avoid making unnecessary enemies.

Don’t: Make your first project one that will only impact one very well-organized group.

When embarking on something new, something that runs counter to past and current practice and the general culture of the community, it is important to have allies. For example, local non-profits – especially the type that have a blog with hundreds of local readers and tens of thousands of national readers – can be a valuable ally in promoting a new agenda. Neighborhood activist groups, if they were supported and not simply feared or loathed, would also help out in this regard.

It might be best to avoid, for example, a church, especially if your proposal is not going to have broad support and immediate use but will remove parking used by parishioners. Christian churches tend to, by design, be somewhat organized with well-established leadership and an ingrained spirit of activism. Try to avoid picking an unnecessary fight with a church before you’ve had other successes and the demand for bike lanes throughout the community increases.

Do: Advocate for infrastructure to support biking and walking because it is a high returning investment within the community.

Don’t: Consider biking/walking infrastructure as a recreational amenity instead of transportation.

This is particularly important when your community is considered poor, has a large percentage of its budget as unreliable state aid and has lacked growth for decades. If biking and walking infrastructure is presented as some kind of recreational amenity, it will be the first thing cut the next time budgets tighten.

Successful biking and walking infrastructure is not recreation but transportation. It is also an extremely high returning investment, one that not only disproportionately grows the tax base but allows local money to stay within the community longer.

For example, the average car costs $9,122 per year to own and operate. If your city’s neighborhoods were made more walkable and bikable so that a family could relocate there and go down to having only one car, that is a huge amount of savings per year. If that amount were applied to a mortgage, the family could buy an additional $140,000 in housing. That’s a game changing amount of investment just sitting there waiting to be captured from the oil companies, car manufacturers, insurance companies and bankers that all reside outside of the community.

Do: Have a coherent dialog – or at least enunciate a coherent vision -- on why building biking and walking infrastructure is essential to the financial health and well-being of the community.

Don’t: Simply embrace the latest fad of the planning and engineering professions because that is what the APA newsletter suggests you should do.

If you do things like prioritize a recreational trail along a river or refer your community’s biking and walking policy to a committee not scheduled to report back for three years, well….you are going to lack credibility, to say the least. These things might score high on the sticker chart at your scripted visioning session, but look around and notice who isn't there giving input: most residents. You are not going to be taken seriously by the broader community and, when you do stick your neck out, people who would naturally be your allies are not going to defend you. They may even publicly call you names like “stupid”.

If you want to build biking and walking infrastructure, you first need to understand why. Why is this important to the future of the community? Why should people who will never use the bike lanes or sidewalks care that they are there? Why is this a priority worth fighting for, worth putting ahead of others things we might do when we are so cash-strapped? What exactly is at stake here?

The people who ripped apart our neighborhoods decades ago, destroying the historic fabric that was naturally walkable and bike-friendly in order to give priority to the automobile, those people could answer all of these questions. No problem.

If we’re going to stitch our neighborhoods back together and build a nation ofstrong towns, we need to be able to answer them just as clearly.

 

The latest from Chuck Marohn – MoneyHall – is set to be released in May. Sign up to be notified when it is available on Chuck’s site, MoneyHall.org, and while you are there, check out Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, a great primer on Strong Towns thinking.

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