December 17, 2013
Zach Vanderkooy, Green Lane Project program manager
Why do some city governments stand out as leaders in the development of better bike lanes, while others languish?
Political dynamics, staff culture, and appetite for change all ebb and flow. But here at Green Lane Project HQ, we've watched these cycles and we've observed which cities overcome them. Here's how they do it.
Travel can seem like a luxury in times of municipal budget shortfalls, but it’s never been more important. Comparing notes with peer cities not only helps good ideas spread more efficiently, it gives city officials the confidence, vision and experience necessary to make bold decisions. That’s why the best cities encourage staff and leaders to get out and see how things are done in other places, whether it’s the next town over or across an ocean. Chances are, they have a lot in common. “Pushing an innovation forward can be like dribbling a soccer ball down a field with your head down,” said Rob Burchfield, city traffic engineer of Portland, Oregon. “Until suddenly you look up and realize you have teammates all around you.”
Ask a marketing professional or anyone who’s been to a community meeting on a contentious project: messaging has the power to make or break a street makeover. Word choice matters. The smartest cities don’t talk about building better bike lanes to make life better for the people already riding bikes (though the lanes certainly do that). They describe how the street will work better for everyone, make the community safer and more pleasant, and create conditions where businesses can succeed and residents can get around easier. Lots of good things happen when cities build protected bike lanes. Having better places to ride bikes is just one of them.
“The biggest problem in the public sector has been career-level bureaucrats saying 'no,' said Gabe Klein, the entrepreneur and former transportation commissioner of Chicago and Washington DC. "It’s easier to say no. It’s safer to say no.” Most of us have faced professional or personal decisions where fear of failure stifled the desire to improve. The most innovative cities have leaders who foster an agency culture where trying new things is encouraged and learning from mistakes is valued. They don’t tolerate recklessness as far as safety is concerned, but they start with the assumption that it's possible to do any project safely. “When you come in with a more positive attitude, saying 'yes,' it opens up a whole new spectrum of opportunities,” Klein told Chicago Magazine. When that works, it's thrilling.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) publishes the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the most complete compendium of American know-how on the nuts and bolts design of protected bike lanes and related street improvements. Putting an official stamp of approval on the Guide is like a permission slip that opens the door for your city's engineers and planners to supplement Federal and State guidance with NACTO's state-of-the-art, peer-approved techniques.
Traditional transportation thinking uses two primary metrics to decide how well a street works: mobility (read: moving as many cars through as quickly as possible) and safety (causing as few people as possible to be injured or killed in the process). Those are both important goals, but there’s a lot more to it. Forward-thinking agencies are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to street design that treats them as a valuable and limited public resource and a way to generate social, cultural and economic value. The best transportation and public works departments understand their mission as not just to pave streets and connect pipes, but to create the places that help their cities thrive.
Changing the way streets work is never easy. But it’s worth it. The most successful cities have cultivated balanced, trusting partnerships between elected officials, professional staff, business interests and community groups to get projects done. Not all projects are popular initially - some require political horse trades and some require design compromises. Other times, projects are so wildly successful that a queue forms to claim credit. The best agencies know how to spread the costs and the glory around so that everyone shares in the victory.
How could we leave this out? Early in 2014, we’ll be choosing the next round of cities
to lead the way in building better American bike lanes. We’re expecting
more than 100 cities to apply. Even though only six will be chosen as
focus cities, the act of gathering the consensus and commitment
necessary to complete the application will be catalytic spark that
builds support for protected bike lanes in cities across the country.