Pedal Power Needs People Power


By Daniel Herriges

Here at Strong Towns, we spend a lot of time talking about the built environment, of course. But there’s something even more important to success in building resilient and productive places, and that’s all the work of building the kind of culture and community that both demand and sustain a Strong Towns approach. Such a culture can only be grown from the bottom up.

Take bicycling, for example. It’s an incredible way of getting around if you can do it, and it facilitates really good places. It’s a no-brainer for almost any city of any size to prioritize better bike infrastructure in its transportation planning. But building that infrastructure is a small piece of the puzzle. Most of the work on the ground is building a bicycle culture: one that supports and grows the number of people who feel safe and encouraged to get into bike riding, and one that can turn out an undeniable base of supporters to advocate for the public investment side of things when it’s needed.

We are endlessly impressed with our Strong Towns members because they are on the ground, in thousands of cities, towns, and neighborhoods across North America, doing this kind of work. No starting point is too small.

Two bicycle-related stories of members taking powerful local action crossed our desks recently. This is just a small sampling of the range of inspiring and effective things our members do all the time. But we wanted to share it with you:

Broomfield Bikes

A few years ago, John Hubbard, an IT professional living in Broomfield, Colorado, stumbled upon the word “stroad” in the comments section of a local news story about a car crash. Investigating the unfamiliar term led Hubbard to Strong Towns. He is now a Strong Towns member who credits the movement with developing his sense of how—and why—the suburban development pattern he sees around him is broken, from the isolation it breeds to the ever-present danger of speeding vehicles. “Strong Towns really resonated with me,” Hubbard told me. “It explained the differences between how cities look in kids’ storybooks growing up, versus how they look in real life out our windows.”

But Hubbard also sees in Broomfield the possibility of change. A utilitarian cyclist more than a recreational one, Hubbard founded Broomfield Bikes in 2017 to be a gathering point and resource for those who would like to be able to ride safely and see more of their neighbors do the same. He was inspired by a program at his church called the Complacency Project, in which participants did a different challenge each week for six weeks…and one of those challenges was, “Don’t drive for a week.” Doing this exposes just how difficult our cities make life for those who don’t have the option to hop in a car.

(Source: Broomfield Bikes.)

Broomfield Bikes has organized a bike giveaway (“anyone who needs one, let us know, we’ll find one for you”), and community events to encourage neighbors to get out and ride, including “family friendly Friday” rides, and “bike to food truck nights” in a park. “It’s an amazing contrast sitting down with your neighbors in the grass, under some trees, versus a drive-thru fast food meal,” says Hubbard. The group is hosting a bike repair workshop this summer, and partnered with the city to install a repair station on a popular trail.

All of this community-building is aimed at raising the profile of practical bicycling, and thus creating a more visible constituency for the changes to the built environment that need to happen in Broomfield. “People in Colorado want to be outdoors and be healthy,” Hubbard told me, “so open space and trails have always been a priority here. But the trails don’t always go to the real destinations people want to reach.” And once you’re off them, you’re in stroad-land. Hubbard and others have participated in focus groups on safe active transportation and are working to get the city to hire a bike or active-transportation coordinator, or create a citizen committee. Currently, there is no one on staff whose specific charge is to encourage people to bike or make it easier or safer to bike.

Advocacy at City Hall is only one piece of what Hubbard and Broomfield Bikes are hoping to do, but it’s an important piece. “Kids aren’t going to go to meetings and advocate for themselves for safe routes to school,” Hubbard says. “I see it as part of my goal to be an advocate for those kinds of people.”

Williamsport Bicycle Recycle

David and Louisa Stone of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, launched Williamsport Bicycle Recycle in 2012. They were inspired by community bike shops they had seen elsewhere, which helped get “cheap but serviceable” bikes to people for whom they could be a lifeline by recycling and refurbishing old bikes and parts, and offering low-cost cooperative bike repair.

Williamsport Bicycle Recycle took up residence in a historic complex that was once the world’s largest pajama factory, alongside woodworking, photography, and clay studios, all under the auspices of a non-profit organization called Factory Works. Last year, their volunteer staff took in over 1,000 donated bicycles—in a city of only 30,000 inhabitants!—which were repaired and either given away to families in need or sold at low cost.

(Source: Williamsport Bicycle Recycle.)

The demographics of Williamsport could hardly be more unlike those of Broomfield, Colorado. Although the area, nestled amid Central Pennsylvania’s Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, has a population of recreational road cyclists and mountain bikers, most of those who ride on the streets of Williamsport are bike users by necessity, not by choice. David Stone describes the groups served by Williamsport Bicycle Recycle as ranging from people who are homeless, recently incarcerated, or have prior DUI convictions, to “doctors and lawyers who want bikes for their kids.” The Stones’ philosophy is simple: to serve a diverse community, “We just open our doors to them and try to serve everybody equally.”

Williamsport Bicycle Recycle’s mission involves community building as much as it does bikes. Customers are asked to stick around and participate and learn while their bike is repaired. The shop has helmets and lights available for people who don’t have them, and does basic bike-safety and traffic-law education as well. One of their regular volunteers joined up after bringing a bike to a regular bike shop, only to be told it wasn’t worth repairing.

Williamsport lacks adequate infrastructure for those who use bikes as basic transportation in town, like the guy David Stone recently photographed pulling two baby carriages and hauling his groceries home. The groups of people who are really dependent on bikes in Williamsport are not those who are readily seen and heard by policy makers. And recreational riders do their riding outside of town and aren’t necessarily plugged into street safety issues. This means that progress toward infrastructure changes can be slow going. Stone and other advocates got the city to adopt a Complete Streets ordinance, “but unfortunately, they put in the word ‘should’ rather than ‘must,” he told me. (This will elicit a knowing eye roll from anyone familiar with how local governments drag their feet on their written commitments.) “[Another] one of my frustrations is when they get some money, they always use it to hire another consultant. The actual changes on the ground seem to come very slowly. They’re very much into the grant culture rather than marshalling local resources to do things that are worthwhile.”

David Stone is a retired Professional Engineer, and found a kindred spirit when he discovered Strong Towns via a book review. At 81, he still gets out on his bicycle in Williamsport and uses it to run errands. And he and Louisa are still exemplars of what it looks like to be out there doing the work of building a stronger town.

We’re honored to support members like these—and, very possibly, like you—in creating community and positive momentum for change. If you want to be a part of that effort, then join the movement. Become a Strong Towns member today.

This post was previously published on Strong Towns with a Creative Commons License.


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Photo credit: Williamsport Bicycle Recycle


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