A group with too many priorities actually has no priorities. But when every neighborhood has a bikeway that could improve, how does a local advocacy group pick its battles?
Like most organizations, the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance has always struggled to balance long-term strategy with short-term tactics. That’s why the group devoted 2,000 hours in the last year — almost the equivalent of a full-time staff position — to a massive outreach effort to its members and documentation of the group’s 16 priorities for making Portland biking better.
For many advocacy groups, that’s an unthinkably big investment — and even the BTA, one of the country’s larger local organizations, couldn’t have done it without a big grant from the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation.
But the principles applied here in Portland are ones that any bike group can mimic and adapt. So I talked to BTA Director Rob Sadowsky about five lessons his advocacy group learned while drawing up its new “Blueprint for World-Class Bicycling.”
1) Don’t ask your dealmaker to be your visionary, too.
Local advocacy is mostly about racking up wins: a road marking here, a language tweak there. That’s great for incremental progress. But only big wins have the magic to stir your followers’ blood.
And when you’re looking for too many small wins, big wins are harder to come by.
“Staff, particularly advocacy staff, sometimes have trouble thinking big, so we have different roles within our office,” said Sadowsky (right). “I think if advocacy staff had their way, we would have a list of 40 projects.”
That’s exactly what happened with the BTA’s previous “Blueprint” project, in 2005. The group selected 40 projects that looked beautiful on a regional map. But what the BTA decided it needed most this time was a compass: a set of core values that would give the organization clearer direction.
It’s only natural for professional advocates to get lost in the weeds of their day-to-day coalition-building, Sadowsky said.
“They have trouble saying ‘no,'” he said. “It’s hard. We know by picking the four trail projects that we picked, there would be eight other trail groups that would be unhappy.”
2) Give your members open-ended prompts for input…
The BTA’s outreach effort for the Blueprint was huge: 900 people filled out an online survey, and another 120 or so attended 16 meetings on the subject over the course of three months.
In the web survey, Sadowsky said the group made the mistake of asking members to choose their favorites from a long list of projects, many of which they knew nothing about.
“We asked people to rank like 1000 projects and it was just too much,” Sadowsky said. “People really responded better with open-ended questions.”
The open-ended questions took place at the public meetings, which the BTA held throughout the metro area with different target audiences.
It was at those conversations that the four-section structure for the Blueprint appeared: adding physically separated lanes to big streets, fixing bad connections in old networks, improving neighborhood greenways and building “inspiring trails.”
“Everybody was saying the same four things,” Sadowsky said. “It was very, very clear.”
3) …and then actually listen to what they say.
The BTA’s fourth project category, “inspiring trails,” was controversial.
“There were some people around the table, including some staff, who thought trails shouldn’t be in there,” Sadowsky said.
Sadowsky disagrees, and advises other groups not to draw a sharp line between recreation and transportation projects — a line he says most bike-lovers don’t draw themselves.
“In some cases it’s all about the recreation and physical health,” Sadowsky said. Although there are some people who just use it as recreation, it doesn’t help the bike community [to see that] as something that’s separate.”
4) Prove to members that their opinions matter.
Bike advocates who attended the BTA’s meetings appreciated hearing what their peers in nearby cities had said, Sadowsky reported. People tended to see it as proof that the BTA was about to listen to their opinions, too.
“If we did a presentation in Beaverton and the next week we went to Hillsboro, we could say, ‘Here’s what we heard from the conversation in Beaverton,'” Sadowsky said. “When people feel that it’s not just the teacher at the front of the room telling them, and they feel that it’s more of a collaborative process, they already feel part of the conversation. They know almost right away that the input mattered.”
5) Keep the new projects coming.
One way to think about a priority document like the BTA’s is as a checklist: You don’t add more items to the list until the first 16 are complete.
But Sadowsky’s plan is for the Blueprint to work more like a duty roster: when one project is finished, the organization will swap in another one to take its place.
One advantage of that might be to keep the organization’s efforts balanced among the four main action areas in bike infrastructure: bit streets, network connections, small streets and trails.
“While it gives our staff priorities, it also gives us a visionary framework,” Sadowsky said.
Images courtesy Bicycle Transportation Alliance, except top photo of Sadowsky by Will Vanlue under a Creative Commons license.