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Nathanael Fillmore felt his life was in danger every time he rode his bike on unsafe streets to his job as a computer scientist in Cambridge, Mass. (9.2% Latino).
So he took action.
Fillmore helped launch the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group, and they eventually pushed Cambridge to become the first U.S. city with a municipal law mandating construction of a network of permanent, protected bike lanes on local roads.
They did it in three big steps:
- Build public support on an issues through community organizing
- Translate public support into political support
- Use political support to pass a law
“Our focus was to work with elected officials to pass legal binding policy to change structural environment among staff and get a network of protected bike lanes built out,” Fillmore said.
Fillmore said it all started with recognizing the problem.
Streets Are Not Safe, Equitable for Bicycles
Fillmore knew biking was unsafe for more people than just himself in Cambridge.
“So many people that I know who have been biking here for a long period of time have been hit by cars,” Fillmore said.
Like many cities across the country, Cambridge streets are designed for vehicles. They are not designed for people walking and biking.
A person biking is involved in a serious crash almost every three days in the city.
“If you want to bike to work, you are putting yourself at risk,” Fillmore said. “I don’t think that is right.”
Fillmore also recognizes that unsafe streets are an equity problem.
“Bikes offer a way for low-income people to get around in an affordable way,” he said.
However, of the “3 Es” of safety—education, enforcement, and engineering—low-income, Latino, and other communities of color only receive education and enforcement, said Charles Brown, researcher at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, according to Bill Lucia, Senior Reporter with Route Fifty.
“Whereas their counterparts receive a disproportionate share of quality infrastructure,” Brown said.
Non-Transportation Folks Start Group to Promote Safety for People Biking
Fillmore didn’t have any community organizing skills. His background is in computer science.
Motivated by his desire create safer roads for bicyclists in Cambridge, he ventured out of his comfort zone. He began talking to a group of residents interested in promoting safety for cyclists of all ages and abilities in Cambridge.
Together, they launched Cambridge Bicycle Safety.
But Fillmore didn’t know how to build, translate, or use political support to improve bike safety.
“I had never been politically engaged on an issue like this before,” he said.
So, Fillmore and others in Cambridge Bicycle Safety did their homework. They spent a few months learning about transportation decision-making.
“We got the lay of the land from mentors in city council and community organizers who had been around the block,” Fillmore said.
Then they discussed how to make a meaningful difference.
“Many people in the group care about equity and have focused on the need for the city to make it safer to get around,” Fillmore said.
Shift from Project-Level Advocacy to Policy-Level Advocacy
Fillmore and Cambridge Bicycle Safety decided to try to change the built environment by adding protected bike lanes on city streets.
But they grew weary of fighting for bike lanes one road project at a time.
“We would engage on specific projects for bike lanes, but just kept losing,” Fillmore said. We kept having experiences where we didn’t have leverage to get what we wanted done.”
Why were losses piling up?
“There is no democracy at a project-level public meeting,” Fillmore said.
That means community input doesn’t have a huge impact because city staff members or political appointees─not politicians themselves─usually make decisions at the project level.
“The political part of government isn’t set up for community members to intervene on low-level decisions about whether there is a bike lane or not in a project,” Fillmore said. “The political part of government is set up to make laws.”
Chicken or Egg: Staff or Politician
Elected officials are responsible for policy decisions on transportation, police, and human resources.
But officials often rely on city staff members, who are often experts in these fields. These staff members have a lot of power in how projects are presented to elected officials.
“Unless it’s a big, controversial project that rises to the level of political leadership, staff are making the decisions,” Fillmore said.
Fillmore noticed city staff members had little interest in pushing for a network of connected bike lanes.
“Staff has been reticent to make changes if a local person complains, even though [a project] may conform to stated strategies and policies,” Fillmore said.
And without staff support, Fillmore knew they couldn’t get political support because elected officials often go with city staff recommendations. So, without staff or political official support, they could not achieve protected bike lanes in city road projects.
That’s when Fillmore and others with Cambridge Bicycle Safety decided to focus on structural change.
“Without policy, you have no leverage with policymakers,” Fillmore said. “Without support from policymakers, you have no leverage with staff.”
They wanted to work with elected officials to change policy to ensure staff would build bike lanes.
Cambridge Bicycle Safety sought a new ordinance that would make it a requirement for the city to build protected bike lanes on streets being reconstructed, if those streets are included in the 2015 Cambridge Bicycle Plan.
“People are riding right now and they are being hit and killed, and many are low-income without choices,” Fillmore said. “The city is responsible for this unsafe situation.”
How would they get started?
1. Build Public Support on an Issue Through Community Organizing
Cambridge Bicycle Safety members were motivated to push for a safe, equitable policy for protected bike lanes. But again, they were still new to organizing and advocating.
“We were motivated by action to accomplish an objective, but we had no special expertise,” Fillmore said.
Some were communications specialists. They decided to build a network of followers and channels to communicate with them.
Street corner canvassing helped them build an email list of supporters.
“In building public support, we had to build our ability to communicate with followers,” Fillmore said.
They got some help with community organizing from other transportation advocacy groups. They also raised funds to distribute flyers. They reached out to Anne Lusk, researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, for advice on bike safety.
Safety and equity were key in their messaging.
“Protected lanes have consistently been shown to make roads safer for all users, reducing speeding and enhancing protections for both bicyclists and pedestrians,” Fillmore wrote. “They have also been shown to boost local business.”
They hosted rallies and parties to continue drawing attention to the need for a network of protected bike lanes while also building their list of digital supporters.
“We have a group of 15 people that have put in tons of hours,” Fillmore said. “We have met almost every week for four years.”
It started to work.
By 2018, 64% of online respondents and 60% of telephone respondents said they wanted to see the city install more protected bike lanes, according to a survey. Only 26% were opposed.
“There was tons of enthusiasm for bike lanes,” Fillmore said.
2. Translate Public Support into Political Support
Cambridge Bicycle Safety had the support of the public.
How would they turn that into political support for an ordinance making protected bike lanes a requirement when streets on the bike plan are reconstructed?
In 2017, with a Cambridge City Council Election around the corner, Fillmore and Cambridge Bicycle Safety considered endorsing candidates or asking candidates to sign a pledge.
They felt that endorsing candidates did not align with their overall goals. They didn’t want to pick and choose between candidates.
“We wanted a meaningful commitment that would make real change,” Fillmore said.
Cambridge Bicycle Safety decided to ask the 20 candidates to sign onto a pledge stating they would vote for a municipal ordinance that requires the buildout of the bike lanes.
“We wanted the pledge to be very specific and something we could hold candidates to after the election,” Fillmore said.
So, they interviewed each candidate and ended up getting signatures from 16 of the 20 candidates.
“They had their ear to the ground and saw that this was politically popular,” Fillmore said.
Part of the messaging used by the group questioned why city councilors spend all this money and time getting community input on and developing a bike plan if they don’t follow it.
“The only thing council can do that is binding is passing municipal ordinances,” Fillmore said. “All we are asking is that the city follow their own plan.”
After the election, seven of the nine councilors had signed the pledge.
“With a majority on council, that enabled us to work with the city manager and staff on the ordinance,” Fillmore said. “It’s in the context of this political support that staff would be willing to work with us on technocratic issues.”
This was what they needed to push the city manager and staff to work with them on the ordinance and bring it to city council together.
“First step is to build political power in community to do organizing,” Filllmore said. “Then, translate that to support among elected officials. Last, draft the ordinance.”
3. Use Political Support to Pass a Law
With public and political support in hand, Cambridge Bicycle Safety raised funds to hire a lawyer to help draft an ordinance that would be in compliance with the city charter.
A member of the group who was a law student also helped.
The group then negotiated with the city manager because they knew council wouldn’t go against staff.
“We spent a month or so in a bunch of meetings with city staff and manger working on language,” Fillmore said. “We were willing to go ahead regardless, but we wanted their support.”
Fillmore and the group recognized that although they had public and political support, they avoided a lot of controversy by negotiating with the city manager.
“It was important that we did so much legwork in advance,” Fillmore said.
It was also important that they had the political pledges.
“They pledged that they were going to vote for it,” Fillmore said. “The trick with pledges is they need to be something specific you can point to. Bike safety is too general.”
Fillmore and the group counted their votes before they brought it to city council for approval.
“If you are fighting in public, it’s probably not good,” Fillmore said.
In April 2019, the City Council voted to make Cambridge the first U.S. municipality mandating construction of a network of permanent, protected bike lanes.
“Our focus was to work with elected officials to pass legal binding policy to change structural environment among staff and get network of protected bike lanes built out,” Fillmore said.
However, the ordinance did not include a timeline.
Now, Cambridge Bicycle Safety is pushing city leaders to complete implementation of the Bicycle Plan within the next five years.
People are riding right now and they are being hit and killed, and many are low-income without choices. The city is responsible for this unsafe situation.Nathanael Fillmore
Co-founder of Cambridge Bicycle Safety
“The city staff properly can and should make certain technocratic decisions with community input, but city staff should not be making large scale policy decisions about overall transportation within the city,” Fillmore said.
For cities without bike plans, Fillmore recommends a variance of their strategy.
When drafting the ordinance, the first step could require the development of a bike plan within 12 months. The second step would be an ordinance that requires the buildout of the bike lanes according to the plan. Or, the first step could require the development of criteria for streets to require protected bike lanes, such as speed greater than 20 mph, and the second step would be an ordinance that requires the buildout of the bike lanes according to the criteria.
“The status quo is not safe,” Fillmore said. “We wanted to change that.”
Now, city staff have the law on their side if residents complain about protected bike lanes.
Explore More:Transportation & Mobility
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.