With Citizens' Help, Cities Can Build A Better Bike Lane — And More | KUOW News and Information

With Citizens' Help, Cities Can Build A Better Bike Lane — And More

Sep 15, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 9:39 am

There's a new term that has become popular in city planning circles: tactical urbanism. The idea is that small experiments, done cheaply and quickly, can make cities better, and more nimble.

Some of the tactics are guerrilla methods: citizens might paint a crosswalk where they believe one should exist, or post their own road signs where they find the official ones confusing.

Across the country, DIY urbanists have been leaving their mark on cities — and now city governments are trying to bring them into the fold to harness their ideas.

'How can they say no to kids?'

At first glance, the battle for a bike lane in Burlington, Vt., seems like the sort of thing that plays out in town meetings everywhere. A group of concerned citizens wanted a protected bike lane by the elementary school downtown, to make it safer for kids to get to school.

But there are a few things that make this case different. For starters, the bike lane was really a symbol of something bigger: showing that streets could be made better for everyone, and that citizens could lead the way through experimentation.

Peggy O'Neill was one of the strongest advocates for the bike lane. She and her family had just come back from a semester in Bogota, Colombia, the city that invented Ciclovia — closing streets to cars, and opening them to everything else.

"It's the entire city," she explains. "Avenues, huge avenues! Open to bicycles. Dogs. Skateboard riders. Rollerbladers. Everything! Not cars. So you have this privilege and priority in the streets."

She was fired up to bring some of Bogota's ideas to Burlington. Along with many others, O'Neill tried to get the city to approve the protected bike lane for a week, a day, or just an hour.

"Every meeting I would go in feeling optimistic," she says. "How can they say no to kids?"

But that's exactly what happened.

"It was incredibly discouraging," O'Neill says.

Empowering citizens

"We really wanted to say yes to it," says Miro Weinberger, Burlington's mayor.

He says he wants Burlington to be the sort of place where citizens' energy can flourish — noting that city governments can be the instigators of tactical interventions, too. He points to New York City, and the success that city had in remaking Times Square from a traffic-choked bottleneck into an incredibly popular pedestrian plaza. And New York started by just trying it out, one Memorial Day weekend, with some orange plastic barrels to reroute cars and lawn chairs to sit on.

Part of Mayor Weinberger's vision is to make Burlington the best biking city on the East Coast.

"But we've got a long way to go to get there," he says, "and we think it will be accelerated if citizens are empowered to help us do some of the work that's going to be necessary."

So the city created a tactical urbanism policy, making it easier to greenlight projects like O'Neill's. And it published a 50-page tactical urbanism guide, offering ideas for projects citizens might propose, from curb extensions that shorten pedestrian crossings, to wayfinding signs that make it easier to explore the city.

'I need to be strategic'

Brendan Hogan is another bike lane advocate. At Open Streets, Burlington's now-annual, much smaller version of Ciclovia, people of all ages biked past, on a mile and a half of streets closed to cars. O'Neill and her family were there, making pedal-powered smoothies on the back of a bike.

Hogan said the city's new efforts felt like a victory, even though he didn't get everything he wanted.

"The city was not ready for a bunch of citizens proposing changes to their streets, us laypeople without civil engineering degrees," he said.

But Hogan says their efforts laid the groundwork – for both the city and the citizens – to do this kind of thing in the future. And for advocates like Jason Van Driesche, deputy director of the Vermont walking and biking nonprofit Local Motion, the unsanctioned methods still have an appeal.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say that at times I have been sorely tempted to go out with a can of spray paint and paint a damn white line on the street. But my better self remembers that if I want something permanent, I need to be strategic."

As Burlington and other cities adopt the scrappy tactics of their citizens, they'll need to show that they can make good on tactical urbanism's original principles — to move faster, try new things, and not be afraid to fail.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of a woman who wants to make cities better. She's part of a movement called tactical urbanism trying to change cities one little thing at a time. She's the latest focus of our series Boundbreakers about people who break through barriers to create change. Her name is Peggy O'Neill, and she's trying to get a dedicated bike lane near a Burlington, Vt., elementary school. But as Laurel Wamsley found on a recent trip there, she's hit some roadblocks.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When Peggy O'Neill first started pushing for the bike lane, she had just come back from Bogota, Colombia, the city that invented Ciclovia - closing streets to cars and opening them to everything else.

PEGGY O'NEILL: It's the entire city. There're like avenues, huge avenues open to bicycles, dogs, skateboard riders, rollerbladers - everything not cars, so you have this privilege and priority in the streets.

WAMSLEY: She was fired up to bring some of Bogota's ideas to Burlington along with many others. O'Neill tried to get the city to approve the protected bike lane for a week, a day or just an hour.

O'NEILL: You know, every meeting I would go in just feeling like, OK, I'm optimistic. How can they say no? It's kids.

WAMSLEY: But that's exactly what happened.

O'NEILL: It was incredibly discouraging.

MIRO WEINBERGER: We really wanted to say yes to it.

WAMSLEY: That's Miro Weinberger, Burlington, Vt.'s, mayor. He says he wants Burlington to be the sort of place where citizens' energy can flourish, noting that city governments can be the instigators of tactical interventions, too. He points to New York City and the success that city had in remaking Times Square from a traffic choke bottleneck into an incredibly popular pedestrian plaza. And New York started by just trying it out one Memorial Day weekend with some orange plastic barrels to reroute cars and lawn chairs to sit on. Part of Weinberger's vision is to make Burlington the best biking city on the East Coast.

WEINBERGER: But we are a long way to go to get there, and we think it will be accelerated if citizens are empowered to participate in that and help us do some of the work that's going to be necessary.

WAMSLEY: So the city created a tactical urbanism policy making it easier to greenlight projects like O'Neill's, and it published a 50-page tactical urbanism guide offering ideas for projects citizens might propose from curb extensions that shorten pedestrian crossings to way-finding signs that make it easier to explore the city.

I met up with Brendan Hogan another advocate for the bike lane at Open Streets, Burlington's now annual much smaller version of Ciclovia. People of all ages biked past us on a mile and a half of streets closed to cars. O'Neill and her family were there making pedal-powered smoothies on the back of a bike.

O'NEILL: There you go.

WAMSLEY: Hogan said the city's new efforts felt like a victory, even though he didn't get everything he wanted.

BRENDAN HOGAN: The city, I think, was not ready for a bunch of citizens proposing changes to their streets, us laypeople without civil engineering degrees.

WAMSLEY: But Hogan says it laid the groundwork for doing this kind of thing in the future and for advocates like Jason Van Driesche, deputy director of the Vermont walking and biking nonprofit Local Motion. Unsanctioned methods still have an appeal.

JASON VAN DRIESCHE: I'd be lying if I didn't say that I have at times been sorely tempted to just go out with a can of spray paint and paint a white line on the street. But my better self remembers that if I want something permanent, I need to be strategic.

WAMSLEY: As Burlington and other cities adopt the scrappy tactics of their citizens, they'll need to show that they can make good on tactical urbanisms original principles, to move faster, try new things, and not be afraid to fail. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Wamsley in Burlington, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.