What We Learned In 335 Miles

The team at City Thread helped five cities build 335 miles of bike lanes in two years. Here’s what we learned along the way.

The evidence from all over the world is clear: Bike lanes are popular. Bike lanes make cities more enjoyable. And bike lanes increase everyone’s ability to move throughout a city—whether that movement is powered by feet, bikes, scooters, buses, or cars.

And yet, one truth remains: Building bike lanes is much harder than it should be. Progress comes too slowly. City leaders fail to recognize widespread “silent” support for bike lanes in the face of small but vocal opposition. Bike advocates fail to assemble diverse community groups into a united coalition. And local media advance the persistent myth that bike lanes are for guys in Spandex and no one else. In many cases, it’s all of the above.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The partners at City Thread were fortunate enough to help five cities build 335 miles of bike lanes in two years. Now we’re taking what we learned in Austin, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Providence, and inviting 10 more cities to join us in the next iteration. (Yes, your city can be one of them!). Here are the ingredients that we identified as the most critical to success, phase by phase.

The Players + The Promise

Our work starts with a 3-6 month process, where we answer these questions: What is your city’s bike network like today? What are people saying about it? Who’s interested in what happens next? Do the critical players—from community advocates to politicians—support the idea of expanding and improving that network?

“Making any change in a city is hard,” says Sara Studdard, partner at City Thread. “Every city needs someone in an elected position who champions the work and does the hard stuff: listening to the vocal minority who are against removing parking places, continuing to provide momentum during difficult times, and supporting city staff doing the day-to-day work. All those supports make it so much easier for city workers to do bold, ambitious things.”

“We’re not trying to convince communities to do something that they don’t already want to do,” says Kyle Wagenschutz, partner at City Thread. “We need to be sure everyone is working towards the same vision.”

One person in City Hall isn’t enough. And a beloved biking group that clashes with the mayor won’t work either. City Thread’s team can help any city expand a small coalition over time, but if the key players don’t agree on fundamentals, the odds of success are slim.

“The pressure cooker that comes with quickly creating and expanding a bike network isn’t the place to sort through problems on the fly,” says Wagenschutz. “If you’re baking a cake, you need to get your ingredients straight before you put a single thing in the mixing bowl.”

Plan the Work

The second phase can be summed up in a quote (mistakenly) attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “To cut down a tree in five minutes, spend three minutes sharpening your ax.” Planning and preparation aren’t sexy, but those foundational elements speed up the process of actually “chopping trees.” (NOTE: In spite of the metaphor, we love trees.)

“When we use the word ‘plan,’ a lot of people start jumping ahead to where actual bike lanes go and when they’ll be constructed,” says Studdard. “But before that, you need to have a process: How do you engage the community? How are decisions made? How do residents submit feedback? And if the feedback you get from several neighborhoods conflicts, how do you decide which direction to pursue?” City Thread found that cities lacking a formal feedback process typically required two to three times as many community meetings as a city like Austin, Texas, where a process was formally approved by the city council. And that inability to gather momentum can kill a project before it’s even started.

“These ‘process’ conversations may sound tedious,” says Wagenschutz, “but when you’re trying to get your city to do something it’s never done before, you’ve got to think about everything from community engagement to materials procurement to engineering, contracting, and bidding—and timelines for every step.”

It’s a complicated dance that requires sophisticated choreography, so City Thread typically invites key players for a city tour—not only to get a better understanding of the challenges, but to let all the dancers get better acquainted with one other. In between learning from local officials and exploring the city, teams can hammer out little details like key contacts, email preferences, and meeting frequencies, which may seem trivial, but actually lay the foundation for success. From there elements like public polling, messaging, and branding and communications are far more likely to succeed.

Work the Plan

If the second phase is all about getting the right people on the same page, the third phase is all about activating that coalition—setting up a table at farmers markets, launching text-message campaigns, placing ads, and getting media attention.

In the first iteration of the program, undertaken when Studdard and Wagenschutz worked at PeopleForBikes, cities were given funding that they could share with community groups: Providence issued a small grant so a ballet company could hold a public event in a local park. Although that sort of generosity may seem unrelated to the task at hand, it encourages wise use of public space and forms a bond with a beloved cultural institution that also wants what’s best for the city’s residents.

Of course, this hands-on work differs dramatically from city to city, and it will almost certainly evolve over time.

“The plans that we created in early phases were rarely executed to a T,” says Wagenschutz. “New Orleans faced a cyberattack which left the entire city without computers for months, so we had use everyone’s personal accounts; and the city couldn’t solicit bids for construction because their servers were down. The plan always has to be flexible enough to adapt to real-world challenges.”

And no matter what, there will be setbacks: In one New Orleans neighborhood, residents were upset about the visual impact of the white plastic posts in front of their homes—a simple design element that didn’t raise concerns until the work completed. For the best cities, those little snafus represent learning opportunities—a chance to see where the plan didn’t succeed and make sure the mistake isn’t repeated.

But when all the right players come together and execute collectively, the end result is much more than a few bike lanes—it’s a network that meets the needs of more residents than you can imagine.

“With so much of this work, everybody wins,” says Laura Dierenfield, Division Manager for the Active Transportation and Street Design Division in Austin. “Add a bike lane and you’ve created a buffer that protects pedestrians, and you’ve shortened the distance a pedestrian needs to walk in front of traffic to cross the street. We’re even growing our green infrastructure—things like trees and rain gardens in medians, which filter rainfall before it goes into our creeks, and also make it easier for a kid to cross a street on the way to school; a tree on the side of the road can offer shade to people waiting for the bus. Because at the end of the day, streets aren’t just there to move cars—they’re public spaces, and we need to think of them that way.”

City Thread is looking to help even more cities with technical assistance in 2023. Find out how we can help.

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City Thread is a national, non-profit organization working to connect people and communities. We collaborate with diverse teams of elected officials, city staff, community leaders, funders, and residents to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and develop a shared vision to accelerate mobility and place-based projects. Our custom strategies prioritize local coalition-building to develop organizations and launch campaigns that achieve success for everyone.ers think broadly about their projects and outcomes.

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