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League of American Bicyclists: Using the Mayor’s Challenge as a local advocacy tool

by Carolyn Szczepanski

LAB Mayors ChallengeLet’s face it: Bike advocates have it tough. Winning our goal of safer streets is a game played in multiple arenas, where different teams must come together and share in the ultimate victory — or defeat. Sure, bicycling may be a simple solution to many social problems, but, as Darla Letourneau explains so well, the problems that keep people from riding are… complex.

“Effectively addressing bike/ped safety issues is a challenge because so many elements are involved with many stakeholders at different levels of government,” said the co-founder of BikeWalkLee in southwest Florida. “Since no one place or stakeholder can make the change, there’s a tendency to say, ‘It’s someone else’s responsibility,’ or ‘I’m not going to lead because I don’t control all the pieces to the solution and I don’t want to be held responsible for poor results.’”

So many advocates cheered (including the League) when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced his Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets — a promising effort to galvanize leadership from cities’ most powerful player.

“Secretary Foxx is challenging Mayors and local elected officials to take significant action to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities over the next year,” Ryan Daniels, Press Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, explained. “We’re asking Mayors to issue a public statement about the importance of bicycle and pedestrian safety, form a local action team to advance safety and accessibility goals, and take local action through seven specific activities.”

Earlier this month, as a handful of leaders gathered at the U.S. Conference of Mayors first Mayors’ Bike Summit, more than 200 municipalities had signed on to the USDOT Challenge. “These communities are making a collective statement that improving safety on our streets for everyone who uses them — particularly for the most vulnerable– is a not only a national priority,” Daniels said, “but also a local priority for the foreseeable future.”

So how have bike advocates capitalized on the federal initiative and used it to advance their local and state efforts? Since Florida leads all states with 33 cities signed on to the Challenge — more than double any other state — we asked Darla Letourneau.

In Lee County, she said, they’ve have taken a building block approach to increasing safety for people who bike and walk: First the passage of complete streets policies, then the adoption of a countywide bike/ped master plan, and finally the implementation of a countywide bike/ped safety action plan. But even with a $10 million TIGER grant for its complete streets initiative (and a visit from Secretary Foxx himself), the fractured leadership landscape was undermining real progress.

“Our biggest challenge has been that once these countywide MPO plans are adopted by the board, there’s no organizational mechanism to ensure that each local jurisdiction — six cities plus the county government — are actually implementing the plan in their jurisdictions,” Latourneau said. “So implementation of the Action Plan in each city just hasn’t happened.”

“The Mayors Challenge has finally given us a way to engage the local elected officials to direct city staff to make this a priority,” she continued. “We’re hopeful that this approach will finally get us to local ownership of this issue and some of the solutions. Most importantly, we need our elected officials to use their bully pulpit to speak out on the seriousness of this issue and the need to make changes — to raise public awareness and talk about importance of improvements for city.”

“There’s been a great deal of groundwork building up to this point and without that we wouldn’t be ready to take advantage of this opportunity,” she added. “But we think this can help us make progress faster with a bigger picture strategy rather than each working separately. And having a year-long timeframe for the Mayors Challenge also adds some needed urgency.”

That big picture strategy has worked in Mississippi, as well, which has the second highest number of city signatories at 16. Over the past seven years, the Magnolia State rose from #47 to #32 in the League’s Bicycle Friendly State ranking. And, advocates in Mississippi are using the Mayor’s Challenge as a way to move the state even further up the ladder.

“Bike Walk Mississippi has been advocating for a more bicycle-friendly state since 1992 and one of the messages we continue to hear from Congressional and statewide leaders is ‘Show us that this is something Mississippi mayors want!’ said Melody Moody, executive director of Bike Walk Mississippi. “Because of this, we’ve made showing local demand one of our top priorities.”

“So when the USDOT offered its Mayors Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets, we knew this was a perfect opportunity to show the demand at the local level for these types of programs, policies and infrastructure investments,” she continued. “We also knew from our work with municipalities across the state that many mayors are eager to find ways to incorporate the types of activities, but in many cases, the lack of capacity to accomplish these issues at the local level continued to be a challenge.”

“As a solution to both issues — and as an added incentive for Mayors to take the Challenge — Bike Walk Mississippi independently offered one year of free bicycle and pedestrian consulting services to help accomplish the Challenge goals to any Mayor in Mississippi that signed up by March 12,” she added. “The USDOT commitment to assisting local communities with the Challenge along with the support of advocates like Bike Walk Mississippi resulted in 16 cities signing up — and in a small state like Mississippi is a huge commitment.”

Best of all? “During the 2015 National Bike Summit Lobby Day, we were able to show Congressional leaders what they asked for: the support and commitment of Mayors from around the state!”

“From our work in the Bicycle Friendly Community program, we know that these mayors and communities are up for the challenge,” said Bill Nesper, the League’s Bicycle Friendly America program director. “It’s clear that cities continue to be the innovation incubators and leaders are using this opportunity to connect with peer cities, share ideas, and take action to make bicycling safer, more comfortable, and convenient.”

Copyright 2000-2015, League of American Wheelmen, Inc., 1612 K Street NW, Suite 308, Washington, DC 20006, 202-822-1333. The League is a 501(c)(3) organization.

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