“Really, Dude? Opposition Is So 70s”: Local Officials Talk Bike Policy

Carolyn Szczepanski is the Bike League’s communications director. A version of this post was originally published on the Bike League Blog.

Last year, at the National Bike Summit, Douglas Meyer from Bernuth & Williamson unveiled new research on the perceptions of bicycling on Capitol Hill. Tuesday morning, at the 2014 Summit, Meyer was back with intel from the local level, revealing the results of 40 interviews with mayors and top city administrators from across the country (full presentation above).

The top-line take-away: “Everyone is bought in and support is increasing” for biking and walking in cities of all sizes. In city after city, Meyer emphasized, bicycling is supported, accepted, and acknowledged, and the opposition is in the minority.

“The idea of quality of life came up in every conversation — quality of life as defined by the millennial generation,” he said. Closely tied to economic development, city leaders see better bicycling as a means to attract young talent and the businesses that want to employ them. Bicycling fits into a larger shift to multi-modalism and, in a smaller numbers of cities, the effort to improve health measures.

Here’s are more of Meyer’s conclusions based on what city officials told him.

What messages aren’t working (or not working on a wide scale)?

  • Environmental protection: Not a major driver in the majority of cities
  • Safety: To bring up safety can backfire if it’s seen as questioning the city’s commitment to an essential duty
  • Equity: A positive impact and outcome, but not a critical issue
  • Congestion: Not a pressing topic in many smaller or mid-sized cities

What messages are backfiring?

  • If you have a “One Less Car” t-shirt, burn it. Anything anti-car, “adds fuel to a fire you don’t want to stoke,” Meyer said
  • Suggesting that bicycling is on par with other modes, like cars and transit, is simply not seen as credible

What can we learn?

  • Mayors are driving the support for bicycling and shift to multi-modalism, but they need an internal champion to “get in the weeds” of policy and implementation
  • Now that cities are buying into bicycling and seeing themselves as supportive, advocates need to work as allies, refraining from undue public criticism
  • Having the support of businesses and developers has a big impact

What are the essential ingredients of moving from support to implementation?

  • Political leadership: Someone at the top who’s willing to invest political capital to push bicycling
  • Community support… from the neighborhoods where infrastructure and projects are going in
  • Early demonstration efforts that prove the efficacy of projects.
  • Connectivity to a larger, not just bike, but transportation network
  • Ben

    so the message is “don’t criticize cars or government officials” and “make sure you’re on the side of businesses and developers”?

    It’s telling that the “study” of what kind of activism works came from interviewing political leaders and administrators.

    I’m all for being wise as a serpent about how to succeed, but we shouldn’t take advice that tells us literally to “burn” our criticism of automobiles. The things are literally killing us. Suggesting that we just not talk about that is a little creepy.

  • Blaine Collison

    My takeaway, Ben, was that the presentation was focused on which messages/approaches have been successful and which haven’t. And right/wrong – per cars polluting, etc. – simply doesn’t carry the weight. I do climate change for a living and we see a lot of the same findings when looking at how to more effectively drive positive environmental behavior. And while it would be lovely for everyone to embrace doing the right thing for the right reasons, that outcome is both unlikely and – ultimately – less important that having folks take the right actions. There’s an ever-growing body of research that suggests that when “educated” about “the right reasons” (and I’m thinking specifically of the environment/climate change), people actually become LESS likely to pursue the desired action step. But offering them a positive message about the benefits of the desired step – even if that message ignores the environmental angle entirely – can be quite effective at driving the action.

    Also, isn’t it unsurprising that the study focused on leaders and administrators? There’s not much way of deploying cycling infrastructure/bike share/etc. without them. They are in many ways THE critical audience for this issue. Personally, I absolutely want to know what resonates with them, what issues we as cycling advocates need to tee up (and to avoid) to make it easier/more likely for those actors to say yes.

    Happy riding!

  • Gregory

    For Blaine, the author, and others: This is very interesting and useful to know. But mostly I have seen what does not work. What is it that does work with the general public?