It is always wonderful to watch a local advocacy campaign that does almost everything right. Especially when you both agree with their goals and like the people involved.

In the late 20-oughts, after about a decade of serving on the city of Cambridge’s Bicycle Advisory Committee I was happy to term-limit off. The Committee played an important role in helping agencies – the DPW, Transportation, Facilities, even the schools – be more supportive of the city’s policy of encouraging bicycling (and walking and transit use). Its other role was to build public support for implementing that policy, especially by providing citizen muscle to push through the proposals of the city’s very progressive Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager, Cara Seiderman, whose ahead-of- the-times vision was a major reason that Cambridge streets had bike lanes long before almost anywhere else and why the city has an excellent (although slowly implemented) Bicycle Network Plan.

But I had also slowly come to understand that because the Committee was an official arm of the municipal government our scope of action was limited to supporting city policy and staff proposals. When several of us wanted to push faster or further we learned that we would have to do it as individuals or via an outside organization, not through the Committee. 

At the time, nearly 12 years ago, I was involved with helping create LivableStreets Alliance, which was initially focused on Boston and state-level advocacy. Neither I nor anyone else took up the challenge of building an independent Cambridge bike advocacy group. Until last year. And it was worth the wait – bicycle facility design has evolved so much over the past years that a victory today is worth two from the past. And worth the wait because it’s been such a pleasure watching the Cambridge Bicycle Safety (CBS) group run their campaign, a good example of how to combine old fashioned community organizing with today’s on-line networking tools.



Zeynep Tufekci’s important new book, “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest”, describes how the use of digital communications by non-hierarchal, decentralized groups to quickly spread information, build a following, and attract people to an event can leave movements without the slower-to-acquire organizational capacity to adjust their original strategies/tactics to new developments, develop stable leadership, prevent centrifugal splitting and energy dilution, or be an effective participate in long-term or complex negotiations.  CBS provides one small-scale example of how to manage those tensions.

In this time when bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities are once again increasing – there have been over two-dozen deaths in the metro region in the recent past – Cambridge has suffered three killings over a short period of time.  Amanda Phillips, Marcia Deihl, and Bernard (Joe) Lavins were all experienced and careful cyclists.  They were all hit by trucks.  They were all wearing helmets.  And each was killed.  

Bicyclists know that they are vulnerable.  But this was too much.  Upset and convinced that better road design could have prevented those deaths – and could prevent future injuries or death – a group of Cambridge residents, originally brought together by City Councilor Nadeem Mazen as part of his effort to catalyze citizen activism, began pushing the city to redesign key intersections and set up protected bike lanes along major through-roads.  They were angry and loud.  They didn’t want years of study; they wanted action – if necessary, using “pop-up” temporary methods to create protected lanes and intersection changes with barrels, paint, and signage.

The Cambridge Bicycle Safety (CBS) group was building on years of foundational work by others in a city with a famously large percentage of bicyclists who live or work in town or ride through to Boston.  CBS was dealing with a generally sympathetic city Administration, although even the most progressive professionals were often restrained by pressure from business and neighborhood community groups opposed to anything that reduced car capacity or free parking.  Still, at that moment, demands for safer streets had powerful urgency because of the shock of recent events.  And not only were three new City Councilors adamantly in favor (Nadeem Mazen, Jan Devereux, and Dennis Carlone), the young son of Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, a long-time councilor and a key swing vote, had recently been doored and even though the boy wasn’t injured the event turned his father into a supporter of improved facilities. 



Through their mentoring from Councilor Mazen and because of their willingness to ask for advice from long-time bicycle and political activists [full confession: I was one of them], CBS’s core group had a sense of how city government worked – who were the key players within the City-Manager-led administration that actually runs the city; what kinds of public pressures were most likely to influence each of the elected City Councilors; what were some of the most likely pitfalls to avoid; the need of having specific, do-able, immediate demands for visible changes while continuing to push for comprehensive city-wide, bike-safety street layout improvements. 

Turning anger into energy, an ad-hoc group of about 15 people started with a full-spectrum of ideas from education to enforcement.  Fortunately, the city was in the midst of a search for a new City Manager and, given Cambridge’s inclusive political climate, there were numerous opportunities for the group to talk with – and become visible to -- the appointed Citizen’s Candidate Interview Committee and other civic leaders as well as the City Councilors and senior Administrators.  While bicycle safety never became a major focus of the selection process, the experienced helped the still-forming Cambridge Bicycle Safety group narrow its focus to infrastructure issues.  They began using both social media and street-corner appearances to collect signatures (and emails) on a “Safe Streets” petition calling for protected bike lanes on all major thoroughfares.  The two thousand names they gathered gave them the clout to ask their City Council allies to submit an extensive series of “policy orders” directing the City Manager to require side-guards on trucks, to redesign all major roads, and to begin looking at ways to use temporary pop-up facilities.



Using email and social media, CBS packed the council chambers again and again, mobilizing their supporters and focusing people’s anger into demands for both systemic change and specific actions.  They mobilized first to present the petition, then to demand the Council pass the Policy Orders (which they did, unanimously – no one was willing to be positioned as accepting more deaths), and then again, after the Administration said that changing roads would take at least another year, to demand the Council pass another set of Orders calling for at least some roads to be done within a few months – which again got an overwhelming positive vote and allowed city staff to overcome both internal bureaucratic inertia and external opposition by saying that they were being “forced” into action.  This was all made a bit easier because CBS leaders were careful to not come across as anti-car and to repeatedly include pedestrian safety as a key goal of their demanded infrastructure changes. 

While Cambridge Bicycle Safety was largely a “virtual” organization existing mostly as an email list triggering turnout at occasional events, a core group quickly coalesced and within that a couple people worked particularly long and hard and emerged as de facto leaders.  The lack of structure gave the “steering committee” both unlimited and uncertain authority – a typical problem of both mass-media-dependent and social media-based campaigns.  Fortunately, because of the small scale, and good advice from more experienced people, partly because they effectively used different types of social media (and social events) to maintain interaction with several layers of participants beyond the core, and mostly because of the humility, wisdom, and principled unity of the leadership team of Nate Fillmore and Annie Tuan, Cambridge Bicycle Safety continued to evolve along with the political situation.  (Too often a volunteer group’s agenda and dynamics are shaped by the angriest, loudest, most aggressive, and most persistent person – which usually leads to either failure or dissolution.)



A lot of this was standard community organizing.  Cambridge and Hampshire Streets, particularly the intersection at Inman Square where Ms. Phillips was killed, have extremely heavy bicycle usage.  It desperately needed to be redone.  CBS members went door to door talking to residents and business owners about the need for protected bike lanes, better pedestrian crossings, and slower traffic – they framed it as a way to protect the high school students who use those roads to get to school.  They supported the local Neighborhood Association’s desire to preserve and expand public plaza and park space in the Square.  (In a brilliant move, they used social media to publicize a “buy local” campaign in which anyone who bought from a participating merchant could register on their web and be eligible for a raffle.  They also urged bicyclists to keep their helmets on when they went into a store to show the owner how many of their customers arrived by bike rather than car.)

They took city politics seriously.  A spreadsheet kept track of conversations with the Manager’s staff members and their evolving attitude about CBS’ demands.  They made sure to have supporters who knew City Councilors personally make the initial phone calls. They leafleted, conducted “visibilities”, wrote letters to the local newspaper, and regularly attended Council meetings to speak up in the opening public comment period.  Currently, as another Council election approaches, they are carefully reaching out to all candidates, explaining the problems they are trying to solve, soliciting support, and offering those willing to endorse the vision a chance to appear at CBS events.  

Cambridge Bicycle Safety group is not is only one following a broad approach for building public, political, and administrative support for a carefully framed list of escalating redesign projects leading towards a radical vision for the city’s entire network of major roads.  In Arlington, the East Arlington Livable Streets (EARLS) led a five-year fight to get bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue.  Afterwards, group co-founder Phil Goff summarized their role as including eight tasks:

1. Educating the community about project benefits
2. Developing supplemental graphics to the city’s material
3. Conducted door‐to‐door outreach to businesses
4. Helped elect supportive Town officials
5. Neutralized opponents’ false claims about design
6. Rallied supporters to speak up
7. Emphasized pedestrian safety impacts
8. Evaluated progress and results



Cambridge Bicycle Safety has worked down a similar task list.  And, as in Arlington, they haven’t won everything and haven’t done everything right.  The “double peanut” design proposed by the Boston Cyclist’s Union for Inman Square was not adopted, neither was CBS’ second choice to “bend” Cambridge Street rather than Hampshire.  The “pop up” temporary protected bike lanes the city has installed around the high school, prompted by the large number of students who bike each day, has also provoked push-back, even though the tension is between convenience for people dropping off teenagers and the threat of physical injury to their cycling peers.  More ominously, the large landlord who runs the Harvard Square Business Association is aggressively pushing back against the protected bike lanes in that area on the inaccurate (but widely believed) grounds that the lost parking spaces will keep customers away.  His clout makes him a formable opponent capable of significantly slowing the move towards safer accommodations for all.  Another weak link has been the lack of focused outreach to the African-American and immigrant communities, leaving the group open to charges of elitism.

Organizationally, the skill and time-dedication of its volunteer leaders gave Cambridge Bicycle Safety a more solid grounding in “real world” politics than most virtual organizations as well as the ability to change tactics and demands in response to the evolving situation.  However, long-term sustainability will require finding better ways to distribute tasks, to regularly renew mailing-list members’ commitment and implicit authorization, to continue recruiting new members (particularly high school and college students), to keep updating demands and strategies, and to strengthen outreach to politicians, city staff, the business community, and neighborhood associations.

Cambridge prides itself on being a national leader in progressive city planning.  While having a huge tax base certainly helps, the most important dynamic is developing a friendly tension between basically sympathetic city staff and an appreciative but smartly pushy citizenry.  But the public voice is not always uniform:  installing protected bike lanes does make car parking more difficult and roads feel more cramped.  The fact that the tradeoff is between cyclists’ lives (including a growing number of students) and drivers’ comfort is a message that is not automatically agreed-to by everyone.  Without the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group the city would not be moving forward as fast or as well as it is.



Thanks to Nate Filmore, Annie Tuan, and Phil Goff for comments on an earlier draft.


Related previous posts:


> BIKES NOT BOMBS:  Sustainable Organizing for Social Change


> WHY THE DUTCH DON’T WEAR HELMETS: Building Safety Into the Road

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