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How Lightbulb Moment Turned Into 30 Miles of Bike Lanes

This post originally appeared on the Alliance for Biking & Walking’s blog and is reprinted here with permission. This post was written by Tanya Snyder.

On St. Patrick’s Day, residents of the city of Atlanta approved a $250 million bond package to fund transportation projects. The referendum came two and a half years after the defeat of an initiative known as T-SPLOST that would have implemented a one-cent sales tax for a huge array of transportation projects throughout the state. T-SPLOST was rejected by nine of the state’s 12 regions.

Last month’s vote passed overwhelmingly, though with record low turnout. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition — an Alliance member, a recipient of an Advocacy Advance grant, and the alum of Alliance Winning Campaigns Trainings — worked hard to assure the bond measure’s passage. Just yesterday, they got some good news about what fruits their labors will yield. Afterwards, I caught up with Rebecca Serna, director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.

What will biking and walking get from this package?

I was very excited to hear the mayor talk about it this morning at our Atlanta Downtowns annual meeting, and he said we’ll get 30 miles of bike lanes out of the bond. It was the first time I’ve heard a concrete number.

We also think the complete streets projects on the list will be 13 to 15 percent of the total. Our goal was to get to 15 percent and we think that with the local projects we should be able to get to that figure, so that’ll be about $32 million. But the project list hasn’t been finalized yet — the Council will vote on it in April.

What did the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s campaign look like?

There was only a 7 percent turnout rate in the city of Atlanta, and we think our members turned out as a really high percentage of that total. Because if you’re riding a bike in a city that hasn’t been maintaining its streets for a long time, you notice every pothole and you realize just how badly that funding for maintenance is needed.

And about a third of all the public comments received specifically asked for bike lanes and complete streets. So we think that was, in large part, due to our efforts to get people to participate.

There were three rounds of public involvement. And in each round, we created Facebook events for the meetings, we invited people, we had people invite their councilmembers, and we held a ride to the final meeting at City Hall called Ride the Gap, where we highlighted what we felt was a gap in the project list. There’s a project we really like, a complete street on Dekalb Avenue, but it ends a little under a mile from the next section of bike lanes. And so we felt like that’s a big opportunity, if we can close that gap. 

Is there more you can tell me about your advocacy?

We encouraged people to contact their councilmembers, and one of our volunteers created an online contact tool — it’s really simple, but it was the first time we’ve used something like that, that was so direct and so customizable. And we can see how many of those were opened, and how many emails were generated.

It was also our first time sending out a piece in the mail about a vote. Normally we’re restricted by our 501(c)3 status, but in this case because it was a ballot initiative it was something we were able to take a more proactive stand on. 

How did ABC’s Advocacy Advance grant figure into it? 

Not just the grant but also the trainings that the Alliance and Advocacy Advance have offered over the years: It was like a lightbulb came on for me when I realized we should be running campaigns. Going back to the Winning Campaigns Training I took part in a couple years ago, it really shifted our mindset. And the grant gave us the resources to be able to dedicate some time and energy to a campaign.

That’s great. Before you had taken the training how would you have confronted this referendum?

We would have gotten people out to public meetings, but I think we wouldn’t have taken a stance, and I know we wouldn’t have been so assertive in making sure people knew about that stance.

Another big takeaway for us from the grant is that everything you do as an advocacy organization can and should tie back into these campaigns. We learned to take a more integrated approach, where we were doing events, we were generating new members, we were generating media, and then tying all of that back in. Even our Open Streets event has gotten more of an advocacy slant: We’ve tried to focus on places that could be improved by the addition of bike facilities.

One of our big campaigns is for Lee Street. We’re still trying to get that onto the bond list; it’s on the potential list of projects for one of the local councilmembers, so we’ve partly succeeded. That effort has been tied back in with the bond and Open Streets. So it’s been a very cohesive thing.

Is there anything you did that you felt didn’t work? 

You know, getting people to public meetings is really hard, and public meetings are not the most exciting. I wish there had been more ways to get people involved and giving feedback that was still visible. 

T-SPLOST also won in the city itself, though not in the metro region as a whole. Can you talk about the relationship between those two? Is this actually a better package for the city than T-SPLOST?

The thing this package doesn’t do is add transit capacity or operational funding. T-SPLOST would have added a ton of transit capacity and really started to create an actual public transportation network in metro Atlanta. This is really just abut bringing our streets up to a state of good repair, and while we’re at it taking the opportunity to add some complete streets, sidewalks, safer crossings — not as many as sidewalks as we’d like to see, but you gotta start somewhere.

Where do things go from here? I guess you finalize the project list.

And then working on the local level list. And then there will be a 13-person oversight committee, and we’re hoping to get seat on that.

Any idea when concrete will start getting poured?

I would really love to know the answer to that.

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