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How to Get Involved by Pete van Nuys

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

Links to Bicycle Advocacy Groups: HERE and HERE.

Partial List of CA Bicycle Advocacy Groups; CBC has an extensive list, with links here.

California Organization of Bicycle Organizations

How to get involved by Greg Raisman

Here’s Greg’s Bio…

Greg Raisman lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Beth and dog, Dot. He’s been bicycling for transportation for more than a decade. He had an advocacy background in poverty, homelessness, and environmental issues when tragedy led him to become a bike advocate. Read about it HERE.

Greg currently works for the Community and School Traffic Safety Partnership at the Portland Office of Transportation where he specializes in bicycle safety, school traffic safety, drunk driving, red light cameras, and crash data mapping and analysis. Greg also assists with “green streets”, pedestrian safety, and traffic calming.

The most effective cycling advocacy I’ve seen has been a mixture of fun and a bunch of other wonky stuff. The more fun you have, the better advocate you’ll be. As much as possible, the core elements of advocacy are building networks of people, gaining knowledge on policy and the “toolbox”, and creating a framework to convince others that your ideas make sense.

Sometimes fun advocacy can be pretty simple. You can have fun and advocate just by riding your bike. I think there’s a strong case that can be made that as more people ride, even more people start to ride. When it becomes very realistic that the person you just passed on a bicycle could have been your neighbor, friend, or family member, the whole equation starts to change. The perspective changes both from a “I should be more careful around that person” and a “Should I ride my bicycle?” viewpoint.

Photos by Brad Reber

The more you ride your bicycle, the more likely it is that your friends will ride. Suddenly, the trip to the restaurant may grow by 5 minutes in length, but you’re having fun with your friends and getting some exercise along the way. It’s as if your groups are being passive advocates (and also ambassadors – so watch those stop signs and red lights).

Also, the more you ride your bicycle, and as more people join you, the less likely it is that crashes will occur. Safety is consistently the top reason people don’t ride. Safety in numbers has been playing out in every city in the world that has seen explosive growth in bike riding (safety for everyone, not just cyclists). Check out this excellent article for more background: HERE.

You can notch the fun up by recruiting total strangers. In Portland, there is a monthly event called Breakfast on the Bridges. This simple event can happen anywhere. You meet new friends, build a network of advocates, create a predictable reason to ride your bike to work on a Friday, and drink coffee. Here’s a great short video about BonB.

It’s interesting, Fridays look to be the day that fewest people ride. A scientist at a local hospital was tracking bicycle use on his hospital campus. He eventually came up with a regression analysis that quite accurately predicts into the future how many people will ride to the hospital. Here’s how it looks *dork alert* Total bikes on campus = 5.675 + .309(temperature) + -.295(wind speed) + -.307(cloud cover) + -1.673(Friday). Cloud cover is a 1-10 scale (0 = very clear, 10 = very cloudy). The model is significant at the p<.001 level. Thankfully the 5.675 has to keep increasing as the number of cyclists grows each year. The basic message: CREATE REASONS FOR PEOPLE TO RIDE ON FRIDAYS.

If you really get into things, you can start having all sort of bike fun events. In Portland, we supposedly have upwards of 2,000 bike related events a year. Some are wacky, some dorky, some pretty wholesome. Who wouldn’t want to take their family on this ride?

“1:00pm
Ramona Quimby is one of Portland’s most beloved literary characters. Most folks know she lived on NE Klickitat, but where else did she go? We’ll go for an easy ride around the neighborhood, visiting some of Ramona, Beezus, and Henry’s favorite spots and learning a little history, too. Everyone that comes gets a free Ramona related goody!”

So task one: Have fun and get people out riding.

The rest of the tasks are not as much fun (unless you’re a dork like me). You need to learn your stuff. Become knowledgeable about your rights and responsibilities under state law and local ordinance. Learn what the rules of the game are for managing the streets, for building new roads, for building new developments, for tenant improvements, for bike parking, for whatever your particular interest is. No one can master them all, but there should be elements in the movement that can give real input when the opportunity arises. A lot of this stuff is about incremental change.

You’re going to try to tell someone that things can be better than what’s in their current comfort zone. Remember that the people you’re going to try to convince are not your enemy. They likely haven’t thought about bicycles as much as you have. In a lot of ways, it’s about finding mutual interest so that they don’t see you as the enemy either.

Here’s one approach that the Bicycle Transportation Alliance offers to share the idea of Bicycle Boulevards with people. This video is not geared towards “cyclists”. It tries to express why bike boulevards are good for those not in the choir. Check it out. Use it. Or, if you don’t think it will work in your neighborhood, modify its message – then use that message. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyfiCUPV9PI

For even more background on bike boulevards, including a toolbox overview, check out www.bikeblvd.com.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that you make a difference. If you’re advocating in Long Beach, you have a jump start on a lot of places. Bike Station is a world-class model for an “end of trip facility”. Parking, repairs, security, services. It’s a gold standard that creates a place to organize from. If you’re not in Long Beach, find out if your community has a similarly amazing jumping off point.

Do you have a bicycle advisory committee? Join it. Volunteer for Bike Station or another local advocacy group. Run for your neighborhood association board. Start your own effort. Support local and state funding efforts that provide the necessary resources. Attend every street project meeting you can. Remember that as we increase safety for the most vulnerable roadway users, we increase safety for everyone.

Thanks for making the world a better place by riding your bike.

Greg Raisman
Portland, Oregon