The Most Important Things I Learned Working For A Bicycle & Pedestrian Advocacy Organization

[A variation of this blog first appeared on the Our Streets Minneapolis blog.]

I spent the last year of my life working for Our Streets Minneapolis, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization, as part of a year-long service program called Lutheran Volunteer Corps.

I went into Our Streets as a casual biker who had never bike commuted before. I didn’t even have a working bike, but a nice LVC alum donated her old bike to me and I started bike commuting on my first day of work. While trying to find the office, I got extremely lost, rode by the office and eventually crashed head-first over my handlebars, helmet into the pavement. I showed up to work about seven minutes late, with a huge holes in my leggings, drenched in sweat, pretty unsure if I would ever bike to work again.

The bicycle I purchased mid-year.

I did continue to bike and encourage other people to do so and I haven’t flipped over my handlebars since.


Falling back in love with the bicycle

A photo from a group ride I helped organize through Our Streets.

I think one of the most important things I learned this year was how to fall back in love with biking. I used to bike to school almost every day in middle school and I think that was the last time I regularly rode a bike. Biking is very different in the city than the suburbs where I grew up, but the feeling of freedom is the same. When I was 12, my bike was my mobility; it could take me anywhere; I could go to Target or to a friend’s house without my parents. Today in the city, with my bike I don’t have to worry about parking, traffic, or bus schedules. My priorities have changed quite a bit, but the feeling is the same.


Becoming a better driver

Another really important thing I learned this year was how to become a better automobile driver. While biking more and more, I do still often drive my car. One of greatest wealths of knowledge I gained this year was how to properly drive around pedestrians and bicyclists. I took drivers ed seven years ago and learned little about road bicyclists and pedestrians and therefore didn’t know the laws, nor do most people.

I know that I am a much better driver than I was 12 months ago. It is unfortunate that I had to work for a pedestrian and bicycle advocacy organization to learn these laws and best practices because most people who drive in our city will never learn them. This leaves vulnerable road users at great risk. Educating automobile drivers, the majority of road users, is one of the most important things we can do to protect pedestrians and bicyclists behind changing our infrastructure.


What is most effective at saving lives

Changing infrastructure is the best way to save vulnerable lives. In the outreach portion of my job and even just chatting with friends about my work, I hear a lot that Our Streets should advocate for more education and enforcement of laws and that these two things will protect pedestrians and cyclists. This is a common misconception. Creating an education campaign or increasing enforcement is a cheap way to “fix” a problem.  When looking at the problem of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, the most effective way to save lives is to change the infrastructure. Changing infrastructure is expensive but data proves that it is the most effective way to fix streets permanently and to change driver behavior permanently. If a street is set up to safely allow pedestrian passage, the pedestrian does not have to rely on the driver to have seen and absorbed the education campaign or an enforcement officer being posted there and behaving in an expected way.

Infrastructure cannot prevent all mistakes and bad driving. Currently our streets are set up to get drivers from one place to another as fast as possible which creates unsafe transportation for all non personal automobile users. If instead streets focus first on pedestrians and cyclists as the Complete Streets Policy says they should, then we are likely, based on data, to see a reduction in crashes and deaths.


Accessibility is everything

The last, and most important thing, I learned this year is that walking, biking, and rolling advocacy is meaningless without accessibility. Currently Our Streets Minneapolis is working to advocate for significant improvements to the pedestrian facilities in Minneapolis as the City of Minneapolis updates its ADA transition plan. The City of Minneapolis has a large amount of outdated curb ramps and audible pedestrian signals. There are also many intersections with neither curb ramps nor audible pedestrian signals outdated or not. The city also has a problem with Metro Transit bus stop accessibility.

The biggest issue of all is winter sidewalk maintenance. During the winter, property owners are responsible for shoveling snow and clearing ice on sidewalks adjacent to their property. If this isn’t done there is no oversight unless that property owner is reported. It can take up to 8 days for that sidewalk to be cleared if reported or it may never be cleared at all. Often on sidewalks that are cleared, street plows will come by and leave large piles of snow covering the sides of sidewalks so one has to climb over to get out of the sidewalk.

For those with mobility issues of any kind, an unclear sidewalk or sidewalk intersection can mean an injury or can render them completely immobile. Able-bodied folks are also more likely to slip and injure themselves on slippery, uncleared sidewalks causing mobility issues. The City of Minneapolis will NEVER be accessible until the winter sidewalk maintenance problem is solved.

It is also important to continue to push bicycle facilities and organizations in a more adaptable direction. Creating cheaper, easier biking for those who need adapted bikes is important and pushing bike companies to do so is advocacy we need. Even just pushing folks to create bikes for shorter and taller folks. It is ridiculous that I have never been able to ride a Nice Ride bike and that I most likely still will not be able to when the dockless system launches. If biking can mean mobility for people like me, that it should also mean mobility for people of all sizes and ability.

About Frances Stevenson

Frances Stevenson is a communications professional for a Twin Cities nonprofit. Her background is in professional journalism. When not advocating, biking, walking or contacting her elected officials, she can found reading or finding dogs to pet.