Editorial-RL Policar: We recently asked Pete van Nuys to help us with this awesome article on how to get involved with bicycle advocacy. Pete van Nuys is a lifelong cyclist, Executive Director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, and owner of Urban Bicycle Outfitters in San Clemente CA. We hope you enjoy it!-Thanks again Pete.
As a bike commuter you’ve chosen a different path in life, the road less traveled to work. But when your bucolic bike ride is interrupted by reality, what can you do?
Your choice is A.) take action, or B.) blow it off.
Many times “B” is correct. Life is too short to tilt at every windmill. But when enough is enough— the lights refuse to turn green no matter how long you sit, the potholes just get bigger in the bike lane, or the bike lane itself gets removed by some mysterious force of government– it is time to take action.
There are both good and bad ways to take action. Consistently popping red lights, for instance, is bad. It will get you through a stubborn red light, but in time it will also get you ticketed, injured, or killed. The good, effective action is to contact the Traffic Engineer in that signal’s city hall. Every city has an engineer somewhere their bureaucracy whose job it is to get signals to respond to legal traffic. And you are legal traffic.
You ferret out this professional with a little online research. Find the city’s web site; it will almost always end with “.gov.” Cities have other sites for tourism, the chamber of commerce, real estate people, but the one you want is city hall’s own government site.
Look for Public Works, City Engineering, Traffic or some permutation. All else failing, call the main number. Travel down rabbit hole ‘til you get the name, title, and email address of the head of traffic engineering. Talk directly to that person; be polite, respectful, but firm. Tell them:
* You bicycle westbound on First every morning and the signal for through traffic at Main St. doesn’t turn green for you.
* You are a legal road user, and the light’s malfunction forces you to run the red light every morning.
* You’re not the only bicyclist who must take this action; the light is dangerous, creates liability for the city, and you’re letting him know this condition exists.
* How long will it take to correct the light?
Then, please– this is important– follow up in writing. An email will do.
* Thank Mr. Engineer for his time and concern.
* Be specific about the signal, the pothole, the bike lane stripe, whatever you discussed. Mention the danger the condition creates.
* And, also important: copy in the Mayor and City Manager.
Done all that? Congratulations! You’re now an Activist. And you remain an activist whether or not the city fixes your issue. Because you will be riding through that intersection regularly and you will notice the improvement or lack thereof. And having taken initial action it will be twice as easy to follow up. Go ahead, call Mr. Engineer again. Say “Hi, how’s it goin? And by the way, we talked about that signal/ pothole/ bike lane and I notice it’s still not fixed. What’s the story?”
If the answer you get doesn’t satisfy you, it’s probably time to attend a city council meeting. Not that big a deal, but it does cut into your evening TV time. On the plus side, it’s usually very effective.
First, it’s back to the city’s web site and/or switchboard. Find the City Clerk. Ask for the next council meeting’s Agenda; believe it or not, you’re on it. Find Public Comments– that’s you.
Comments are usually limited to three minutes. Write out your comments– it’s usually easier to read your prepared statement than it is to present from notes– and practice reading it in under three minutes. Don’t wing it; you don’t want to get cut off. Three minutes sails by before most new activists can even get to the point.
Show up before Public Comments. Grab a Speaker’s Card (blue, green, whatever…), fill in your real name and contact information and turn it in to the Clerk; you want to hear back from these people.
After “good evening Mr. Mayor…” and all that, get to your point.
* You bicycle to work through the intersection of First and Main, and the light won’t turn green for you.
* You notified Mr. Engineer of the condition because your were
1. concerned for your own safety and the safety of others,
2. concerned for the city and financial liability this signal created
3. concerned because malfunctioning signals encourage disrespect for traffic law and fosters dangerous and unpredictable behavior by otherwise law-abiding cyclists.
4. Ask that council consider directing the City Engineer to take action.
You will probably be the first real live bicycle commuter the City Council has ever heard from. They will take note of you because, again believe it or not, you’re cool. Cities are under pressure to Go Green. They’re trying to be Sustainable. They’re trying to get their heads around Complete Streets. And you are green, sustainable, and the personification of complete streets.
Now here’s a plug. Join your local bicycle advocacy group. One lone Activist can make a difference, but working with others can make miracles. In the above scenario you may not have been an actual resident of that city. Residency matters because, presumably residents vote, and voters really matter. Voters put council members in office and pay taxes.
Advocacy groups cut across city limits, unite bicyclists with common interests, bring groups of local residents to council and committee meetings. Advocacy groups get out ahead of the issues. They amplify your voice.
Advocacy groups need activists, experienced bicyclists with real live stories to tell, and if you’ve been commuting for even 6 months you’ve undoubtedly got stories to tell. So go ahead, reach out to your group, below, and feel empowered.
Partial List of CA Bicycle Advocacy Groups
Partial List of CA Bicycle Advocacy Groups; CBC has an extensive list, with links here.