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A Southern Success Story

Cross-posted from the Advocacy Advance blogIn 2011, Advocacy Advance awarded Model Grants to advocates in Pittsburgh and Atlanta to provide multi-year support for efforts to significantly increase public investments for biking and walking. Three years later, these grants have come to a close, resulting in exciting progress, major wins, and stage-setting advocacy in both communities. 

The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (ABC) is a model for organizations working in cities that are not traditionally known as bikeable or bike-friendly and are working to kick-start a cultural shift in order to effect city-wide transportation system change.

“Our approach has been to make latent demand visible to agencies and elected officials through community-building, inclusive events like open streets, beginner-friendly rides and classes, and socials,” says Rebecca Serna, Executive Director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “As our numbers for these have grown, we’ve continued to emphasize that participation demonstrates demand for shift in infrastructure priorities towards more bikeable, walkable projects and communities.”

Atlanta Streets Alive, organized by Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, is the city’s open streets event where streets are opened to people who can freely walk, bike, and have fun in the streets. In 2014, over 130,000 Atlantans attended Atlanta Streets Alive. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Streets Alive.

As a Model Grantee ready with Advocacy Advance’s guidance and resources, ABC initiated campaigns that speak to a wide audience to translate those demands into funding. In addition to opening Federalcongestion mitigation and highway safety funding programs up to eligible bicycle and pedestrian projects, the City of Atlanta approved $2.5 million in local dollars for bike projects, which will add 15 miles of high-quality infrastructure. ABC also launched a Connecting the City campaign to prioritize a network of connective corridors through the city and are working with neighborhood liaison groups to identify bike friendly neighborhood projects from the grassroots level.

“[Advocacy Advance] trainings, online resources, and one-on-one guidance have all been invaluable,” says Rebecca. “We’re still learning, but this grant has made a tremendous difference to our organization and our city.”

Working in tandem with government agencies

Rebecca and her staff also experienced success with their emphasis on working in tandem with government agencies, rather than in opposition. By showcasing examples of success and maintaining a constructive approach to criticism they’ve created a positive feedback loop that gets things done.

Lessons learned:

  • Understanding formula models (or knowing people who do) is important, so you are advocating for things that are within the realm of possibility, but…
  • …the politics of decision making and being part of the decision making process has a greater impact.
  • Creating a few champions takes a lot of background work and relationship building over months and years. The mayor of a large city doesn’t get on a bike overnight – he has to see it and hear about it, from constituents and staff, to make it happen.
  • It’s less important that the mayor or other elected officials become true believers than that youmake the political equation add up for them. “By showcasing our mayor as progressive on biking issues, we’ve helped amplify the voice of important constituencies (millennials, young professionals, families, workers, the health community), thereby giving everyone motivation to keep things rolling,” says Rebecca.
  • Activating membership to not just occasionally email but really get to know their councilmembers pays off in a big way.
  • Finding ways to build political capital while holding electeds to their promises can be tricky. Diplomatic, positive messages generally work best. 

 Atlanta Mayor Reed joined some 150 Atlantans and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition on a bike ride. Mayor Reed spoke warmly of the rise in biking in Atlanta, and celebrated National Bike Month. Photo courtesy of Cameron Adams / Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.

Future campaigns

What’s next? This year, Atlanta was chosen as one of the next Green Lane Project 2.0 cities. They have a goal of including 15% of funding ($37.5 million) for bikeways and complete streets in the City’s 2015 transportation bond. Staff and board also worked with Advocacy Advance to plan a campaign to add a surcharge on private parking to fund “Good Streets” with biking and walking components.  And, this January, ABC and Advocacy Advance will co-host a symposium of active transportation advocates in the south to discuss ways to build political will and explore local projects – what is working, as well as what hasn’t.

Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s exhaustive work had led to a shift in the city’s notorious car-centric attitude towards a more inclusive, active transportation interested culture. The Advocacy Advance team has been proud to support and work with ABC over the past three years.

Click here to learn more lessons from other Model Grantee, Bike Pittsburgh.

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