Bike Lanes – How You Can Advocate for a Bike Lane in Your City

So the road in front of your home or the blocks you ride on to get to work feel more like a real-life version of Frogger than a city street you feel comfortable riding on. What you need is a bike lane, but how does an average citizen go about lobbying for infrastructure changes?

While we’d love to see more bike lanes in the U.S, there are many things you’ll want to do make that dream a reality in many communities. Experts Joe Cutrufo, communications director for New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, and Karen Campbell, director of development and communications for BikeWalk K.C. in Kansas City, Missouri, offered their thoughts on how you can gather the information you need, who you need to talk with, and how you can keep that bike lane protected long after it’s put in place.

Do Your Homework

Is there a history of close calls between vulnerable road users and vehicle drivers on your roads? Have people been injured, or even killed? You can use anecdotes of your own experiences, but multiple accounts and hard data are even better. If your local police department has records of crashes on the street, try to determine if your proposed infrastructure might have prevented it.

It also helps if your city has an inventory of roads slated for repaving or reconstruction. Check to see if your street is on that list. If so, you may have a leg up when it comes to advocating for a bike lane. If your city has a bicycle masterplan, get a copy and see where your street and its proposed lane might fit in. Not only do most large cities have these bicycle masterplans, many mid-sized communities also are creating them as they look for cost-effective ways to battle traffic issues.

Your city-planning office should be able to answer any specific questions you may have. If your city doesn’t currently have a masterplan, this is your time to lobby for one!

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Get Community and City Buy In

Talk to your neighbors. Contact your local bike-advocacy group. Get to know your city counselor. You’re going to need all of them to get a bike lane built.

“Organizers shouldn’t be the only ones doing the lobbying; it’s more effective when professional advocates team up with those directly impacted, like local residents and traffic crash victims,” Cutrufo said. “There are thousands of New Yorkers who are engaged in our work who speak up for safe streets, who show up for rallies and protests, who lobby their elected representatives, and who donate their time and resources to creating a better city for people on bikes.”

Some of your most important allies may not be your fellow cyclists, but rather families who want traffic-calming infrastructure to help keep their children safe when playing or elderly residents who want to see the neighborhood become more pedestrian and wheelchair friendly.

“Ask them what they want, and then invite them to help (lobby for and) design it,” Campbell said.

When it comes time to share your case to the city, Campbell recommends budding advocates keep their pitch concise and to the point, bring facts, and be respectful.

“A good story from a local resident stays with a legislator long after they hear it, but facts keep them engaged when you’re talking and lend credibility to the points you’re trying to make,” Campbell said. “(Likewise), legislators will immediately tune you out if you call them names, or threaten and demean them. Channel your passion into making a compelling case.”

Prepare for Opposition

In many cities, the only thing drivers hate more than cyclists riding in a traffic lane is having to walk an additional five yards when they can’t find convenient parking. If your proposed project takes away on-street parking, be prepared for a fight.

“New York isn’t a car-centric city, but you’d be surprised how entrenched the car culture is here,” Cutrufo said. “There’s an aversion to change, and local community boards are often reflective of that aversion. But things are changing, slowly.”

Anticipate opponents’ arguments and have evidence at the ready to refute them.

“In one project, some drivers were complaining that traffic delays had increased significantly since the installation of new infrastructure,” Campbell said. “But the data we received from the city staff showed that the changes added only 30 seconds per driver to move along the section.

Keep in mind is that some drivers can’t be convinced, no matter who speaks up for something and what the data says, Campbell added.



Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

Sometimes getting community and city buy-in on a bike lane is the easy part. The hard part is getting a design that works for all road users.

In the past, many cities would stripe a narrow line of paint on the road and call it a bike lane. Unfortunately paint doesn’t emanate a protective force field that prevents drivers from encroaching on the lane. Protective infrastructure, such as bollards or concrete barriers, adds both cost and complexity—two things every city employee hates—to any bike lane design.

Design questions can sometimes be solved using a process called iterative implementation, where the city or a community organization installs a pop-up bike lane to allow residents and street users to experience the design before permanent paint and fixtures are put into place. (It’s not unusual for neighborhood residents armed with paint and toilet plungers to do this on their own without city approval.) It also allows for design experimentation and tweaking based on input from residents and the public, Campbell said.

If you don’t think a proposed design would work on that road, offer alternatives. Have examples of similar projects that you can point to when you provide your case.

Settle in for the Long Haul

Don’t expect to go to a meeting or two and have a bike lane magically appear on your street a few weeks later.

“Part of the reason the community may be skeptical in the first place is because of how potential projects have been handled in the past,” Campbell said. “The city would sometimes say that they were going to do a project, and then not do anything for years. When they finally do build a project, leadership in a given neighborhood has changed, and often, priorities as well. (You need to) hold the city accountable to the promises it makes.”

Even if the bike lane is constructed, be prepared to fight to keep it, Cutrufo warns.

“On Dyckman Street in upper Manhattan, a pair of protected bike lanes was torn out less than a year after they were built because local politicians caved to a politically-connected business owner who demanded space for illegal double parking,” Cutrufo said. “It was finally replaced more than a year later with a two-way protected bike lane.”

Is it going to be a lot of work? Yes. But will it all be worth it if even one life is saved? Undeniably yes.

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