Many bicyclists get
involved with cycling issues due to some perceived injustice or ill treatment by
government, police, or motorists. They usually charge in, all steamed up with sparks
flying and corks popping, but generally accomplish nothing except to convince the powers
that be into believing cyclists are a bunch of hot heads and malcontents.
Wouldnt it be easier to use the system to work in our favor? Wouldnt it be
nice if we cyclists could actually make suggestions, give input, and take actions that are
listened to and acted upon?
Well, we can. And the method I propose below is far more likely to yield positive
results than are any number of critical mass rides or whiny letters to the editor.
Starting out by pissing everyone off seldom gets you anywhere.
Size and Tactics
Other than being a significant majority, the only way to get what you want in the area
of public policy, spending, infrastructure investment, etc. is to be right. And being
right entails being persuasive. Being persuasive is more easily accomplished with a good
running head start.
Bicyclists, commuters, club riders, and recreational cyclists, amount to two percent of
road users. Far more of us have and occasionally use bicycles. There are far more bicycles
than cars in the US. But most of those bikes are hanging in the garage, used only for a
ride around the park, and never venture out onto the road.
As roadway users, we constitute 2%. On a good day... In summer....
Therefore, we have to be very right and very persuasive when we are attempting to
convince city hall that this or that measure is needed for the benefit of cyclists.
In fact, asking for anything specifically for cyclists and only cyclists is a pretty
good recipe for failure. Luckily, most of what bicycle riders need is also needed by other
segments of society. We really need only ask for good roads, built to modern standards.
Alliances with other organizations or groups can be useful to balance the numbers, but
often come with requirements for compromise, some of which may not be desirable. For
instance, working with recreation organizations, such as the local Parks Board, may bring
a few more bodies to your side, but casts you in the same light as little league baseball,
or soccer teams. You will be politely smiled upon, then ignored when you ask for
accommodation on the road.
Therefore, we need to align ourselves with compatible groups or we need some plans on
going it alone.
How can bicyclists have a voice in the public process, and given that voice, what
should be said, to whom, and why? We hope to answer some of these questions and build an
action plan with which you can work toward better bicycling for everyone.
Ahead of the Game
Key in getting anything done is not to wait till you are good and mad. You are unlikely
to be effective when you are angry, and waiting is not too good of an idea. If you have
just found out that some street or road is to be closed to bike traffic, and you want to
prevent it, you are already behind the eight ball. "They" are already doing
"it" to you.
On the other hand, perhaps you are reading this page in preparation for an upcoming
construction project in your area, or in preparation for mounting a campaign to accomplish
some improvement in the bicycle oriented infrastructure. Good, you are ahead of the game.
We are already at that point where I make my first recommendation. Attend
the Meetings. In fact, call the agency in charge of the project and ask to be
put on the notification list. Get an email address of the public information officer, or
your State or Local Bicycle Coordinator and send email asking to be kept informed of any
developments or planned meetings on the project.
You may think that attending public meetings and such is for old fogies and politically
oriented people. These are the types of folks you see at public meetings, and you may feel
you dont fit in. Why are there so many older folks there?
There is a good reason for that. Having been to a few of these meetings over the years,
those old fogies have learned that the public meeting and public input sessions are where
a lot of the work is done. They have learned that if you want something, you can get it a
lot sooner by helping to formulate the plan than you can picking someone elses plan
apart. When you start from your position, you almost always end up closer to your goal
than when you let someone else specify the starting place.
Participation in the public processes can be difficult and intimidating. Difficult,
because just finding out who is doing what and why can be daunting. Intimidating
because there seems to be a lot of "suits" running things and they all seem to
know each other.
How to get involved
Lets see if we can level the playing field a bit. We would offer these
suggestions as an aid in easing you into involvement in the processes from which your
citys bike plan or new road design emerge. If youve never been involved in
local government this is the easy way to get started. Helpfull information is available
from the Bikes Belong Coalition in the form of their "Guide to Bicycle
Advocacy". Download it and read it.
Big hint number one: It's easier to get involved sooner rather than later. It's
easier, it's less intimidating, you have more opportunity for effective input, you will be
forming the plan rather than trying to change someone elses plan, you will have time
to rally support, etc.
The key to changing public processes in any direction you seek to change them is to get
involved with the process early. You dont have to attend every assembly meeting. God
knows they are boring. By and large, things are cut and dried by this stage anyway. (You
might wander down on your bike some evening and sit in on one when you have nothing else
to do. Watching the process can be very educational. It prepares you for the day you may
need to offer on-the-record testimony.)
Most public projects
for infrastructure or regulation first appear in the public awareness as a small
announcement in the local paper. Perhaps it concerns a new road construction project, or a
widening of an existing road, or the closure of a bridge to certain kinds of traffic.
These announcements are all proceeded by a fair amount of discussion at
"official" levels. Engineers have already studied the road, measured the
traffic, counted the accidents, consulted the budget and usually have a preliminary design
on paper before there is any significant opportunity for public input. It would be nice if
you could have been involved in these earlier studies, but chances are that you
They arent trying to pull a fast one by calling for public input when they have
plans already drawn. This is their job. They design roads. The have an innate
understanding of the need, the feasibility, and the method. There are standards that they
are supposed to adhere to, and rules they should follow. They usually do.
Pay attention to these small notices in the paper. Read them. Do you ever bicycle
through the affected areas? Even occasionally? Are you aware of any sharp corners, bad
road surface, difficult to cross intersections, wheel-eating drain grates, high volumes of
turning traffic, traffic signals that dont react to bikes, or anything else that
notice while bicycling in the area? If so, plan to go. It's usually more entertaining than
that Star Trek rerun that is scheduled for the same time.
Early citizens meetings
Since public projects
are not all engineering, and, in the modern era, there are legally mandated requirements
to keep the public informed and accept public input into government projects, you will
almost always have an opportunity for serious input to these projects.
Even highway engineers want the respect of their community, and dont want to be
seen as forcing a road down the publics throat. They hold these meetings because
they are required to, but also to see if they are likely to stir up a lot of public
resentment and controversy. (Controversy is the boogieman of government bureaucracies).
I have found State Highway engineers and City Street departments far more eager to
accept input from local citizens in these early meetings than they are later on. They
havent got as much prestige invested in the plans yet. They are still willing to
make changes, and accept suggestions. The longer you wait, the less willing they become.
These early meetings are characterized by the presentation of large wall-covering
drawings of the project area, showing the blueprints of the new road. Often there are
smaller versions available as handouts. Make sure you get one of these. It is hard to
digest a wall full of drawings in one sitting.
Trace your normal cycling route on these drawings. Find your difficult intersections.
Are stoplights planned? Where you encounter that high volume of turning traffic is there a
turn lane planned?
Have they drawn in a bike path beside the road? RED ALERT!! You have some educating to
do. Dont these guys know bike paths are so dangerous that the U.S. Department of
Transportation specifically recommends against them. Whats worse, the 50-something
woman wearing the bifocals is saying how nice it is to see bike paths in the plan, because
now her grandchildren will have a safe place to ride their bicycles.
This is going to take some effort and planning. What are you going to do now? To
think you might have spent the evening watching James T. Kirk!!
Much of the early meeting hours are spent in education. Those conducting the meeting do
some of this education. Unless it is a very cycling oriented meeting, a great deal of the
education task with respect to bicycling issues may fall to you and your fellow cyclists.
There are many honest and sincere citizens who attend such meetings who are simply
unaware of proper cycling practices or even of those things that are of concern to
cyclists. Many of these people believe that riding a bicycle on the street is dangerous.
Occasionally you will find that some of the proceedings at the meeting are going a
little astray, and things are not quite right. Be aware
of the ploys used at such meetings by various groups, and be ready to counter them.
You will have to deal with these issues effectively and confidently, yet graciously.
There is no reason to make someone else feel like an idiot. Use some of the information on
this web site to gently bring them around to the point of view that cycling is safe when
properly done on properly built roads and streets.
Kooks and Troublemakers
Often, if it is a road project, you will see people stand up and rail against those
%$#%& bikes, and demand to know what can be done to get them off the road, and object
that there are no bike paths in the plan.
These are the most difficult people to deal with. They are (in my experience) unlikely
to stick around through the entire series of meetings. They come to one, unload their
venom, and usually do not return. Still they take up valuable meeting time and have to be
educated. They leave a bad taste in everyones mouth.
You can patiently explain that:
- Bikes are legal vehicles
- Bicyclists have all the same rights and duties as drivers of motor vehicles
(doesnt hurt to have a photocopy of your States regulations in your notebook)
- Bikes do not delay motorists
- More people on bikes mean more parking spaces for others
- Bike riders pay more for their use of the road than do motorists
- Wrapping ones self in 2500 pounds of steel and plastic does not make one a special
character, or give one more rights
- Bike paths beside busy roads are dangerous
You have to judge for yourself whether you are making any progress with this line of
discussion. If it is a properly run meeting, it is unlikely to get out of hand, and it is
quite likely that the officials will confirm your position with regard to the laws of your
However, it occasionally happens that someone simply does not believe that bikes are
legal or belong on the roadway. After pointing out that this is the law in all fifty
States and all the Canadian provinces, you may exclaim your amazement that someone could
achieve your antagonists years and still be so uninformed about the law. That is as
close to name calling as is warranted, and usually has the desired effect.
If no headway is being made, ignore the troublemakers. Deal with the rest of the
citizens and the officials that are there. This will not be lost on the others in
attendance, and you may well have others come up to you after the meeting and congratulate
you on your handling of the "kook".
Its vitally important that you not come off looking like
the kook. You are in the minority, and will be seen to represent all cyclists.
perfectly permissible to arrive by bike, and be dressed in bike clothing, but by all means
conduct yourself intelligently.
Dont Be Too "Clubby"
Avoid spending all your time talking only to other cyclists or only about cycling
issues. Engage the other citizens and project officials in discussion about the good and
bad parts of the project in question. Voice you opinion as a cyclist, as a motorist, and
as a taxpayer.
If you are a member of a bike club, try to get as many of the club members to attend as
possible. DO NOT send your club officer to represent you. This gives the appearance that
no one else in the club cares enough to attend. Clubs should avoid complaining about road
conditions where they race or hold criteriums. This will not go over well, and it will
appear that you are asking for playground improvements, and anything else you say after
that will be dismissed.
However, cycling clubs, and bicycle commuters are far more aware of poor quality road
surface, dangerous drain grates, unresponsive traffic lights, areas where cyclists are
"right-hooked", and poor site lines than are the average motorist.
It is therefore, reasonable to make a few phone calls, or send a few emails to club
members and build and offer a consolidated (and organized) list of problems IN THE PROJECT
Dont be a Nuisance
This point is key: Do not waste everybodys time complaining
about road conditions across town. Deal with the project area as specified. The road
engineers assigned to this project are powerless to do anything about other areas. They
are assigned to this project, and you do your cause no good by whining about potholes
Do not digress into unrelated conversations. Find subtle ways of leading the
conversation back on track.
Finally, dont waste peoples time with the obvious. There is no need to
complain about existing potholes when discussing a re-paving project, unless the re-paving
is going to be a year or more away. Avoid asking for unreasonable guarantees. The
engineers are in no position to guarantee the project will be completed on time, or to
assure you that there will be no unreasonable traffic delays.
Do Point Bicycle Specific Problems Out
If the project concerns new construction ask specifically about traffic sensors that
can detect bikes, stop light timing that allows bikes ample time to cross, proper drain
If the project is maintenance-related present your pot hole list, your poorly
maintained road edge list, etc. Take pictures of areas that are difficult to navigate or
seem dangerous to you.
It's not uncommon for problems to crop up in the design of a new road or the creation of
a new master plan that will negatively impact somebody. There is almost always a potential
for governments to get heavy handed in this regard. Cyclists need not join in this parade.
Those new to cycling always seem to want bike paths. Bike paths end up taking private
property and costing a lot of money. Bike paths that provide a short cut are often good
idea, both for commuters and children. But not if it takes half of someones yard;
this will simply make another enemy of cycling. Look for alternative routes.
Dont expect to get everything you ask for. You may ask for bike parking
facilities at all popular destinations, but you will likely end up with less than that.
Cities will generally provide such facilities only at public buildings (libraries,
schools, etc) but are loath to pass ordinances forcing the local supermarket to install
bike parking. Avoid reaching. Ask only for what you need and can reasonably expect.
Approach the supermarket manager directly about bike parking.
Trade off knowing what you can bargain with
There are some things that you can use as bargaining tools when participating in public
meetings or work groups relating to bicycling issues.
Capitalize on the trade off provided by bicycle commuters vs. automobiles, with regard
to reduced demand for parking, reduced traffic congestion and lower road maintenance. A
bike rack in a covered area is a small request when compared to loss of two parking spaces
in an already crowded library parking lot. Every patron that arrives by bike saves one
Lobby for a half-second more "green" at intersections where you have to cross
more than two lanes. Half a second makes a big difference to bikes. Try for a second and a
half, and settle for a half-second. Traffic Engineers are really stingy with green.
Mention that the pedestrian walk cycle triggered by the push-button at the side of the
road delays motorists more than having that extra half-second.
Insist on having proper vehicle detectors installed that can detect bikes at
Bike lanes next to parallel parking are very dangerous. If bike lanes are to be imposed
in this situation, lobby for the exclusion of on-street parking. Motorists would rather
drive around bikes than give up a parking space.
Sub Committees and Work Groups
There will often be
an opportunity to participate in planning groups, or advisory boards with respect to road
projects, long range planning documents and policy formulation task forces. The names vary
from region to region and from project to project.
With regard to bicycling, there are often "non-motorized transport" plans
(these used to be called bike plans until the planners discovered that pedestrians are
killed with far greater frequency than cyclists, and federal emphasis has expanded toward
greater inclusion of pedestrians). These plans are often developed with input from
cyclists, because planners and transportation engineers have very poor tools to register
cyclists and cycling needs (bikes dont register on those little rubber tubes
stretched across the road to count traffic), and they therefore rely on direct input. This
is to your advantage, and I highly recommend you get involved with and serve on these task
Such groups usually produce a long-range planning document. The actual production of
this document is usually done by the planning staff, and this is the area where the "Now you See it, Now you Don't" tactic comes into play
(seemingly accepted suggestions simply disappear after the meeting). Also, watch out for
These long-range plans are only as good as the use to which you put them. Public
officials have a habit of forgetting these things once the grant money with which they
were funded runs out. Hang on to these documents. They can be useful in subsequent years
when construction money turns up. You can use these when objecting to or lending support
to future projects, by pointing out that this or that feature was in the master plan (or
was specifically excluded from the plan) as the case may be. If the plan was constructed
and approved and called for 14-foot lanes with 4-foot shoulders, then all subsequent
construction projects should have these, and cyclists would do well to see that they do.
Work groups and citizen committees are also often used to designate bike routes. Bike
routes are largely a figment of traffic engineers imaginations, because you have to
go where you have to go, not where the bike route goes, unless it just happens to
go where you want. Designation of some streets and roads as bike routes is tacit admission
that bikes dont belong on other routes. Cyclists should think twice about
participating in these planning committees or should participate with an eye toward
changing the process to one where certain streets are labeled as "dangerous to
cyclists". This puts the burden on city, county, or state to correct the situation,
because it can not admit officially that these facilities are dangerous and then disclaim
all responsibility for them.
Up the Ladder
After the work group or subcommittee has finished its recommendations and prepared its
report or master plan (or whatever the work product is to be) the process gets kicked
upstairs, usually to a board or commission. The number of intervening levels depends
almost entirely on the size of the city you are dealing with.
If you have timed your entry into the process correctly, you will be involved in the
first work product and its submission to the next layer of government.
Task Force to Commission
When a recommendation or planning document is forwarded to the next level, you will be
dealing with people who are in many ways starting from ground zero, where you were a few
weeks or months previous.
Because these people are responsible for a larger number of projects and because
bicycling issues are not usually their top priority you will find that they are even more
naive and less knowledgeable than the group you were working with previously.
This progression from the specificists to the generalists requires your close attention
and participation. Do not rely on any governmental officials, planners, engineers, etc.,
to carry the plan forward. These government employees are, after all, making
recommendations to their bosses. All your work can be overthrown by one casual suggestion
to delete a phrase here, or change emphasis there, and many times the planners, engineers,
or whomever you were working with in the subcommittee or work group are powerless (or too
spineless) to prevent it.
You must attend these meetings, with as many of your cycling friends as you can muster,
and offer on-the-record testimony in support of the plan you worked to prepare. Often this
involves reading a short prepared statement, or "winging it" with a statement in
support of the document.
At this point it is often good to have something good to say about past work of the
commission, agency, or department you are dealing with. "Ive been impressed
over the years with the job done by the street department, and I believe this plan
presented here tonight will allow the department to continue their essential work in the
direction most useful to all citizens" or something along those lines. It may
sound trite, but it saves a lot of face for the agency you are trying to point in the
Expect to Educate Again
Expect some of the most incredible questions to be asked by people serving on the board
or commission to which your work product is being presented. Often these people need a
great deal of education.
Organize your group of bicyclist supporters so that each of you will speak to separate
areas of the work product in a way which passes a lot of information without the
requirement that the board members or commissioners read every word of the report. Quite
frankly, they probably do not have the time. And if they don't understand it, they may
well send it back for revision.
- Have one person speak to the dangerous drain grates and the liability they impose on the
city, and how glad the speaker is that they will be scheduled for replacement.
- Have another mention the road width issue.
- Have yet a third briefly explain what a right hook is and how the plan youve been
working on will educate cyclists and motorists alike
- Finally, it may be wise to point out that cyclists operating according to the rules of
the road are safer than motorists, and decry the misbehavior of miscreant cyclists etc.
You want to leave the impression of bicyclists as proper citizens, not as members of a
Sent Back Down or Kicked Up Stairs
Out of the commission, department, or committee, your work product will next usually go
to the Assembly, City Government, County Commissioners, or what ever is the next higher
level. Or, it could be sent back down to your work group with instructions to change
or delete certain sections, address other areas, etc.
Sometimes this is a setback, other times it is an opportunity, especially if you were
earlier forced to accept compromises, but were able to convince an assemblyman of the
defects in your own plan. (Hey, nobody said you had to stop working for your
position just because your taskforce completed its work.)
If you really want the plan to go forward, you may ask the body (if opportunity for
public input is still available) to reconsider, due to the extensive work you have done on
the document and because it represents the state of the art in the area of safe bicycle
transportation (presuming of course that it does). Often, however, sending it back to your
work group, once mentioned, is unavoidable. Face must be saved...
This usually means you will have to make some modification to the work product, and
even more effort to convince the members of the commission, assembly, or what ever, via
private discussions that your plan is really the best.
Often this requires more political leverage than you possess. Third parties can be
helpful in this case. If you cant get an audience with the Street Commissioner, try
going through the Health Department (cycling is healthy) if you have friends there.
Letters or visits to your elected officials to explain items, concepts, or the reasoning
behind the recommendation are sometimes useful. You can explain concepts one on one more
effectively than you can to a group. Remember to indicate that you vote.
In spite of these efforts, your committee will mostly likely have to make some changes
in your work product if for no other reason than to allow the higher authority to save
face. The idea is to minimize the damage.
Commission to Assembly
Presumably you will eventually get your plan or recommendation
approved by the intermediate authority, and have it forwarded to the City Council or
County Board of Supervisors or whatever is the higher authority.
The higher it goes, the less the chance of it being changed significantly, because of
the increasing weight of the authority behind the proposal.
Still you should not abandon your work product to its fate. Accompany it to the very
end. Be there to offer testimony in its support. Often at this level you will have to
appoint a spokesman as the higher the authority, the less time there is for public input.
Procedures to Expect
Cities and Counties operate on a variety of different rules around the country.
However, some procedures are fairly common.
The Consent Agenda
Many things that come before elected bodies are mundane items that need to be
rubber-stamped as a matter of law. Many such items are lumped together on something
called the "consent agenda". This is the list of items about which there is no
controversy. Usually things on the consent agenda are "moved" en mass, and voted
in one fell swoop.
If your work product is relegated to the consent agenda, REJOICE. It may seem
anticlimactic, but on the consent agenda, your chances of getting it passed intact are
Sometimes a malcontent will request that an item be "yanked" off of the
consent agenda for further discussion. Often one single citizen can request this. Usually
with little or no advance notice.
This is why you must attend and be ready to offer support. As soon as you see the item
is being or has been pulled from the consent agenda, sign up to testify (there is usually
a sign-up sheet, often one for each issue before the body).
It is important to speak up if your plan comes under scrutiny. Even a few words, well
chosen, can make a difference. (A long ramble will get you "gonged", as the
amount of time allocated for public input at this level is often limited to 1 to 5 minutes
Mention the reduction of risk, liability, and accidents that a well thought out bicycle
plan, or an improved roadway design will bring. Mention lessened contention for parking
that comes with increased bicycle usage.
Organize your forces so that each speaker does not cover the same ground, be brief, be
polite, and be quick to counter any criticism that is aimed toward the plan. You will,
after all, be very familiar with all the issues by this point due to your early
involvement. Use this to your advantage.
It may seem like a lot of work, and quite frankly it is, but participating in the
process can put you well ahead of the game in securing a bicycling agenda, or preventing
discrimination against cyclists.
Getting into the planning phases extends your reach several years ahead, because you
can always point to the plan in the future. If something is already in the plan and
has already been accepted by the powers that be, you can use this to your advantage in
shooting down or supporting future projects.
Cyclists fare well in the planning and public input process simply because they care
more than do most motorists.