In their quest to provide economic opportunity and competitiveness as well as quality of life and sustainability improvements, many cities have made sizable investments into so-called “alternative transportation” modes such as bicycling and walking. It’s difficult to hear mention of Portland, OR and not imagine a bicycle (and perhaps a beard). On the other side of the country, New York City’s CitiBike program has been so visible that it earned its own cover on the New Yorker. And it hasn’t just been iconic liberal communities that seem to have taken the leap: we’ve seen major pushes in Memphis, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City.
What has led Oklahoma City to invest almost a billion dollars in bike facilities, parks, and trails, when peer cities like Tulsa or Omaha are not? Why is Atlanta installing bollards, planters, and other barriers but Orlando isn’t? Perhaps the answer lay not in geography or ideology, but in the leadership of those communities. Take the case of New York City, where bike lanes seemed to crisscross the city over night. This push came from the dynamic duo of former Mayor Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan, his transportation commissioner. According to Sadik-Khan, the city’s leadership choose a new vision for the built environment, and the Mayor stood firmly behind that vision and the people implementing it. I heard similar things out of Portland, where a former city councilman-turned-congressman named Earl Blumenauer put his weight behind a fledgling city bike planner (Mia Birk) who built relationships and fought for small wins twenty years before many other cities would follow. Now, those twenty years passed, Mayors in Atlanta and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were all pushing for bikeways.
That was the dominant narrative coming out of these cities: that their investments in bicycle infrastructure were due to the leadership of a central figure, who could connect the dots and find the funding and push policy change. This explanation lines up quite well with a significant perspective in the world of public policy, where the Multiple Streams Framework has earned a place in textbooks as an explanatory model of policy change. According to Multiple Streams, communities experience independent “streams” of problems, policy options, and political context. When circumstances align, and the context is right (this is called a “window of opportunity”), a skilled “policy entrepreneur” can attach a particular policy solution to a salient problem and create change. On their face, these narratives matched well with what the framework would expect, so I decided to use these and 200 other cities to test the theory.
The importance of this work is not just in testing a theory, or in understanding why a few cities built some bike lanes. It matters because the greatest challenge in building better communities is not identifying effective policy solutions (like protected/separated bicycle facilities), but helping communities prioritize where they spend limited political and financial capital.
There are two divergent perspectives on how to actually study something like local-level policy change. As with most science, there are disagreements over the validity of any particular method, and as with most of life, both are (somewhat) right. To that end, I used both a quantitative approach, and a qualitative one. I wanted to see whether bicycle infrastructure implementation, by both objective measures and the subjective evaluation of residents, was associated with local elected official leadership, the presence of a window of opportunity, or other circumstances (like how liberal the city was, or how wealthy).
To test my hypotheses, I surveyed city bike planners and/or engineers at the 200 most populous cities in the US. I chose these cities because I knew they would have much in common (allowing for a more valid method of comparison), but also because they would provide a sufficient sample of cities that were building bikeways. I also invited local citizen advocates to participate and contribute their perspective on behalf of each city. I tossed in a bunch of important city-level variables and Census data, and ran my models.
For the other side of the study, I used my survey data to identify three pairs of cities that were statistically most similar to each other (for a total of six case study cities), and then sat down and interviewed staff, advocates, and citizens in each city to understand their current conditions, progress, barriers, and experiences, and develop a deeper understanding of the experience of a range of cities.
The first takeaway from the study was that cities are very aware of bicycling as an “alternative” mode of transportation. Every city I studied was considering bicycle infrastructure, and most were actively constructing some and had plans to build more (and protected facilities as well). And it does seem that those policy entrepreneurs—those local leaders like Bloomberg and Blumenauer— made a difference in this; strong local leadership made a difference in getting protected facilities onto the agenda. But actually putting high-quality bikeways on the streets relied on having a supportive local political context; one prominent proponent was not enough to push policy change. Unique opportunities also helped to open a window of opportunity, through external funding awards or significant change in staff priorities or perspectives. Another important influence was the support in the community more broadly, which was strongly associated with the level of implementation.
Not all questions about the factors swaying local sustainable transportation decisions are answered by this study. There are some particular unique elements to transportation as a policy area that influence how change occurs. For example, it takes a lot of time to overhaul an entire transportation network. Change here is not black and white, but rather a continuum of color. This is an important piece of the puzzle, I believe, explaining why a singular actor is less meaningful here than a network of connected individuals acting across the community. Creating change requires buy-in (and extended support) from planners, engineers, citizens, and officials – none of the parties can move the needle alone. This is the most important takeaway from my entire project, particularly when viewing other local policy issues through the same lens. The real lesson here is this: Want to build a bike lane? Start by building relationships!
(Check out the published first part of this study here)