Progressive bike policy offers a number of benefits to personal, environmental, and community health; in my last post, I put the spotlight on Minneapolis-St. Paul, one of the most bike-friendly metropolitan areas in the world that has already reaped the benefits of greater bike utilization and bicycle commuting. But what if your community isn’t so bike-friendly yet?
Biking alongside traffic can be dangerous even for experienced cyclists, and it is certainly intimidating to those new to biking. Biking on the sidewalk is illegal in some jurisdictions, and it is actually linked to more accidents than road biking, according to the League of American Bicyclists . The Washington Post reports that cyclist-automobile accidents and air pollution can create real dangers that are mitigated by progressive bike infrastructure such as dedicated bike lanes and trails .
To recap the community benefits of biking, the United States and much of the developed world is struggling with rising rates of illnesses related to poor diet and lack of exercise. Biking—especially bicycle commuting—is a great way to get your CDC-recommended 2 hours and 30 minutes of weekly exercise , and good infrastructure also benefits community members who may not be able to afford a car: The Simple Dollar, a financial planning website, featured an excellent breakdown of the comparative costs of driving, biking, and walking, which also accounted for time and health costs and benefits—and biking was the clear cost-effective winner . Bike infrastructure is also enormously beneficial to local economies, the American League of Bicyclists outlines in its 28-page report on the link between bicycle advocacy and the economy .
The benefits of bicycling may not be in question, but local government’s willingness to improve bike infrastructure often is. Here, I’ve collected three community organizing strategies to ensure that your politicians are serving your best interests and the best interests of your community.
In addition to providing strength in numbers, bicycle leagues like the League of American Bicyclists often offer toolkits for local activists, and may provide funding and a body of research to help you persuade local politicians. Local leagues may offer even more targeted assistance, including help with interpreting local laws. The League of Michigan Bicyclists even offers an easily generalizable advocacy toolkit ! There are also special-interest bicycle leagues, such as the Major Taylor Bicycle Club in Minnesota, for African-American bicyclists .
If you don’t have a local league, first check for other types of advocacy organizations. For example, Our Streets MPLS is a Minneapolis-based advocacy organization that supports both pedestrians and bicyclists in advocating for safer infrastructure . If you find that there are no relevant local organizations, consider starting one! The League of American Bicyclists offers a helpful guide on how to do so .
Local politicians often will not act unless you can provide a plan to reach your goals and concrete evidence to support it. Having a summary of potential costs and benefits at hand can only be an asset to your efforts! Local universities and colleges may be able to help you conduct policy analyses (and are also a source of student volunteers). Think about what types of progressive bike infrastructure would benefit your community most: bike lanes? Off-road bikeways? A bike-share program? Factors such as local climate, average income, and population will all influence the effectiveness of infrastructure.
The University of Kansas’s Community Tool Box program offers an excellent guide to community-based participatory research that will give you a head start on study design, statistical analyses, how to increase participation, and more . Less-formal measures like community surveys, town halls, and focus groups can also help you to determine the needs of your community and the best way to advocate for them.
While tactics like rallies are also highly effective, I have chosen to highlight letter-writing campaigns because they can be less daunting for new community organizers and involve less of a time commitment from community members. Be sure to enlist as many community members as you can in your campaign: a handful of rogue letters isn’t likely to be taken seriously.
Keeping your campaign focused on a clear “ask”—requesting bike lanes on a certain avenue, for example—is the key to success. Letter-writing campaigns usually involve letters both to news outlets (especially letters to newspaper editors) and politicians. Create a template and a list of addresses for community members to use when writing in, and encourage people to add their own comments about how progressive bike policy would benefit them personally. Consider holding letter-writing events in conference rooms—often available to rent cheaply at local libraries—and provide stamps, envelopes, and other materials. Posting flyers in community centers, places of worship, libraries, schools, and other communal spaces is one way to drum up interest. Letter-writing campaigns can also be coordinated via email.
Letter-writing campaigns can be held at multiple stages in the advocacy process. One campaign might be held at the beginning to request research into better bike policy; another one might be held once all research has been completed in order to spur politicians into action. Letter-writing is often done in conjunction with petitions. The League of Michigan Bicyclists has even more information on organizing successful letter-writing campaigns in their toolkit .
The tide is turning towards better bike policy worldwide, and I hope that you can use these tools to bring those policies to your community.
For more information on the benefits of progressive bike policy, see the previous post in this series, “Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Area Leads on Progressive Bike Policy.”
 “Bike Law University: Sidewalk Riding.” League of American Bicyclists. Retrieved from bikeleague.org/content/bike-law-university-sidewalk-riding
 “How safe is bike commuting? Perhaps less than you think.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2016/05/12/how-safe-is-bike-commuting-perhaps-less-than-you-think/?utm_term=.a9771368c612
 “How much physical activity do adults need?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
 “Walking, Bicycling, Driving, and Cost-Effectiveness.” The Simple Dollar. Retrieved from www.thesimpledollar.com/walking-bicycling-driving-and-cost-effectiveness/
 “Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure.” League of American Bicyclists. Retrieved from bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/Bicycling_and_the_Economy-Econ_Impact_Studies_web.pdf
 “Advocacy Toolkit.” League of Michigan Bicyclists. Retrieved from www.lmb.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=185&Itemid=311
 Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota. Retrieved from www.majortaylorminnesota.org/
 Our Streets MPLS. Retrieved from www.ourstreetsmpls.org/
 "How to Start a Bicycle Club or Advocacy Organization." League of American Bicyclists. Retrieved from www.bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/bikeleague/bikeleague.org/members/club/pdfs/how_to_start_a_bicycle_club_AO.pdf
 “Community-based Participatory Research.” Community Tool Box. Retrieved from ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/evaluate/evaluation/intervention-research/main
 “Letter Writing Campaigns.” League of Michigan Bicyclists. Retrieved from www.lmb.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&Itemid=311&id=308%3Aletter-writing-campaigns
Maggie Tiede made the move from small-town Minnesota to the Twin Cities in 2014 in order to attend college. She majors in public health at Hamline University and will graduate in December; in addition to being a student, she works as a writing tutor, public health researcher, and freelance writer. Find her blog on life, health, writing, and reading at www.maggietiede.com.
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