Whether it’s grounded in monetary costs or perceived traffic impacts, new bicycling infrastructure often raises a heated debate.TRANSPO TAKEAWAYSelling stakeholders and the public on transportation projects requires a unique mix of empathy, data, and advocacy.
But in Calgary, Alberta, the stakes were higher than normal when the issue of protected bike lanes came up for a vote by the city council in 2014. The city had proposed not just one lane project on one street, but an entire pilot grid system of protected lanes in its downtown. In his session at this month’s TransportationCamp D.C., “Selling Bikeways,” Stantec senior principal Rock Miller explained what went into the work of garnering critical political and public support for a project that would transform Calgary’s downtown bike infrastructure overnight.
While many might consider Calgary an isolated cattle town, it actually has a dense downtown, a robust transit system, and a network of bike lanes along the Bow River (see our earlier blog post about biking in Calgary here).
The problem, as Miller described it, is that those trails lack connections to their destinations downtown. To fix this, the city proposed a “European-style” network of protected, two-way lanes, to be installed all at once, so that no bicyclist downtown was ever more than a few blocks from a low-stress route. But the ambitious proposal drew serious backlash from some stakeholders and decisionmakers.
Understand what opponent’s concerns are
Convincing doubters meant developing a better understanding of the factors that were holding them back from committing support to the project, as Miller put it, “becoming politicians ourselves.”
At the outset, six representatives of the 15-person city council were completely opposed to the project, while the six members representing parts of downtown Calgary were supportive, leaving three on the fence. Despite the fact that polls of all Calgarians consistently showed high levels of support for the project, several hesitant councilmembers eventually admitted they had to oppose the plan because of re-election fears.
As a transportation consultant, Miller was forced to acknowledge how he appeared to the project’s skeptics. He already had a history as someone who had helped build new lanes in other cities, and was a bicyclist himself. To bike lane opponents, this looked unfair.
Also, one opposing councilmember even stated that nobody rides bikes downtown, despite Calgary’s first protected lane on 7th Street boosting ridership years earlier. To many people who have never biked in a city, bicyclists on the roads may seem statistically invisible. “I never knew how many Priuses were out there until I bought one,” Miller said.
Tout the data
Tracking these bicyclists, and using data-based arguments in general, was a major part of how proponents countered these types of arguments.
Counts from the earlier installation of the 7th Street protected bike lane in June 2013 – the first of its kind in downtown Calgary – showed the number of people increasing in just a year’s time from 250 to more than 1,100 per day, a 430 percent jump. (Daily counts can be easily found through an unofficial Twitter bot, @yycbike_count.) And ridership in Calgary has increased overall, too, by about 26 percent from 2007 to 2013.
For Miller, Calgary was the first city in which he had worked that used polling to its benefit. The aforementioned polls reported widespread support, with about 60 to 70 percent of residents wanting better bike lanes – even as negative comments dominated some public hearings.
And while Calgary’s overall bicycling modeshare was fairly low compared to major biking cities, zeroing in on ridership in specific census tracts gave a better picture of who was riding and who would use the new lanes. Some of Calgary’s neighborhoods showed as many as 16 percent of residents commuting by biking.
Make it human
The flip side of statistics is also key: put the project in human terms.
According to Miller, one of the skeptical councilmember’s staffers played a pivotal role in connecting the infrastructure debate to real people and their safety. The employee, a bicycle commuter, rode to work on a route that would receive a protected lane under the proposed project. If the councilmember voted against it, she threatened to quit. Stories like this helped solidify for stakeholders that people would depend on these lanes as safe routes in their everyday lives.
On a larger scale, advocacy groups were essential for getting bicyclists involved and promoting the benefits of a downtown lane network. Miller cited their strategy to keep track of negative comments and ensure that the positive ones were well represented in turn. Overall, the project had 85 public workshops, and six study/informational sessions.
Ultimately, these strategies paid off in 2014, and the protected lanes became a reality in downtown Calgary the next year, with only one of the many lanes not making it into the final plan. While the entire pilot project is due to be voted on again this year, Miller is confident it will be re-approved on and eventually be expanded. Now installed, the lanes are already helping sell themselves, drawing commuters from all over the city.
Photo: Top, bike commuters ride Calgary’s 7th Street protected bike lane, installed prior to the grid project (Bike Calgary, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, the final cycletrack map (City of Calgary).