SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

After years of effort, instead of holes in the sidewalk and pavement through which you could see the river below, the BU Bridge now has solid surfaces and (drum roll….) bike lanes!  It is a major victory for the Better Bridges campaign.

True: the bridge isn’t any wider than it was before, so the sidewalk is still too narrow.  There still isn’t a way to get from the Boston-side steps, over Storrow Drive, to the Charles River embankment.  On the Cambridge side, there still isn’t a way to safely walk under the bridge along the river bank rather than having to add to the confusion of the crazy Memorial Drive traffic circle.  The sudden incline on the curving entrance to the bridge from the stop-line on the Cambridge side is still dangerous for cyclists; and it would have been better if there were flexible bollards on the span separating the car and bike lanes.  Traffic congestion on the bridge isn’t significantly lower than before, but it’s clearly no worse despite there being only three car lanes instead of four – there is now one lane entering the bridge from either side, two lanes exiting on the other end.  (Advocates have been saying, for years, that the problem is in the intersections leading to the bridge, not the bridge itself – turns out we were right.)

But in many ways the area is both safer and more welcoming to a broader range of users than ever before – walkers, cyclists, people in wheelchairs, as well as those driving cars.  The extra right-turn lane off the bridge on to MIT-bound Memorial Drive is gone, no longer allowing cars to speed through a hidden crosswalk even when pedestrians thought it was safe to step out.  The lighting works, illuminating both the span and the river for the benefit of night-time rowers.  The view remains totally magnificent.  And the !bike lanes!  Amazing!! What an improvement!!!

Winning Campaigns

This victory didn’t happen by accident, or simply through the generosity of government officials.  Advocates fought long and hard to gain this “Better Bridge.”  How did it happen?  How did we win?  There are some key lessons from this phase of the multi-year “Better Bridges” campaign, both about how to fight and what we are fighting against.

As with most of life, successful advocacy requires balancing.  Advocates need to be involved with both movement building and organizational development.  They need to both mobilize public anger and channel it into support for negotiated partial-victory compromises.  The more urgent the issue they’re dealing with the more they need to demand immediate action while understanding how long it takes to push through significant reforms when the situation hasn’t yet reached crisis levels.  They need to work within coalitions while finding ways to build their own group.  They need enough technical expertise to critique official plans while developing trusting relationships with people inside the same agencies they are agitating against.

The following divides key BU Bridge Campaign lessons into three overlapping areas.  The first two discuss Advocacy strategy and the third examines the engineering assumptions that still underlie most transportation planning.


Patience and Persistence

The Better Bridges campaign has actually led to relatively quick results.  It was only six years ago that LivableStreets’ first advocacy effort – a last-second intervention to get Boston to include bike lanes on Commonwealth Avenue – drew attention to the BU bridge area.  And it was only five years ago that LivableStreets mobilized several hundred people to protest the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) plans to use newly available Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) money to simply repair the Charles River bridges “as is” — meaning missing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change these key transportation bottlenecks from car-dominated spans into 21st century multi-modal, and safer, community connections useful to all no matter their level of ability or mode of movement.  (See Will Our River Crossings Be Bridges or Barriers?)

To their credit, DCR got the message – a top official actually came over at a subsequent meeting and thanked us!  When Transportation Reform moved most of the bridges to MassDOT, key staff went along and kept the same orientation – which was also supported by top MassDOT leaders, again to their credit, despite advocates’ feeling that gaps too often remain between official policy and final results.  It was only two years ago that MassDOT held public meetings to discuss BU Bridge plans and listened to the many people who spoke of the need to serve more than cars.  Now, partly due to the short deadlines set for ABP funding (and the need to quickly deal with the escalating deterioration of these ancient structures), we are beginning to see results.

When you’re dealing with the built environment, five or six years is a heart-beat.  Creating change usually takes a long time – 10 or 20 or even more years – most of which is spent doing the same things over and over with seemingly no impact until all of a sudden something happens.  It’s a bit like what I used to tell my kids about job searches – you need do endless networking and submit endless applications, each one no more substantial than a single spider thread, until at some always unknowable-in-advance moment, there’s enough there to catch the fly. Which helps explain why during those five years there were an endless series of public meetings, informal discussions, comment letters, phone calls, fact sheets, and pushing back against countervailing pressures without any guarantee of success, or even a sense of progress.

Up until the final moment, rumors abounded that the proposed multi-modal design was being killed by back-room pressure from Boston University, MASCO, and even some City of Boston engineers.  And there was much public confusion – it isn’t immediately obvious that smart road design and careful traffic light timing allows just as many cars to pass through a stretch of road even if the number of lanes is reduced; or that bridge area congestion is caused by factors away from the span even though the bridge is the landmark with which the problem is identified.  But, at the end, all we were asking for was putting the paint in a slightly different pattern than it used to be.  (See IF YOU TAKE IT AWAY, THEY GO AWAY: Why Traffic Doesn’t Stop When Roads Get Worse.)

Protest and Partnership

LivableStreets wouldn’t have been able to demand attention for a different way of implementing the Accelerated Bridge Program unless it had upset the apple cart at the initial DCR meeting; but we wouldn’t have been able to successfully influence the process if we hadn’t then been willing to work with agency officials to explore better alternatives.  It’s a delicate balancing act between being outside agitators and inside players.  (See ADVOCACY: Weaving Together Protest & Partnership.)

Advocacy rests on the strength of larger societal developments.  Advocates operate in two kinds of spaces.  First, in the dysfunctional gap between changed circumstances and old institutional practices, often combined with efforts to close the ethical gap between desired values and actual institutional impacts.  In this sense, Advocates are helping “save the system from itself” even when their own goal is to transform it through a total paradigm shift.  (See Why Transportation Policy Is Finally Changing.)

Second, Advocacy occurs in the political space created by mass protest movements, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Tea Party to the Occupy efforts, that have made transformative change imaginable and made bureaucracies (or at least some people within them) feel that it might be possible to try new ideas.  At the same time, because successful struggles take so much longer than most protest movements last, Advocates need to create sustainable organizations, a conservatizing dynamic that forces them to put enormous energy into administrative details and remain attractive to potential funders – which distances them from the energy and creativity of the empowering grass roots movement (disheveled, disruptive, and undefined as it may be).  As individuals, Advocates can take risks.  As organizations it is hard to let go and trust the flow. (See THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part I) and (Part II).)

LivableStreets managed the tension by treating the Better Bridge effort as a full-fledged “campaign” –  setting policy at the Board level; letting the open-membership Advocacy Committee (which includes Board members, staff, and activists) take the lead deciding when and how to push the state’s decision-making process as well as what technical alternatives to push for; having the staff mobilize the organization’s extensive network of volunteers for actions on the bridge or to attend meetings; and utilizing the groups’ publications and public events to keep the broader public informed – while always following a core strategy of creating broad coalitions so that walking, cycling, and transit groups couldn’t be played off against each other.  Ultimately, the victory couldn’t have been won without on-going collaboration among MassBike, WalkBoston, the Boston Cyclists Union, the Institute for Human Centered Design, and others.

Simultaneously, Advocates have to reach out to potential allies within the very government and business organizations they are struggling with.  Protests can stop the undesirable, but “stop it” efforts can’t shape what replacements are offered – and Advocacy means desiring particular alternatives, which means working with decision-makers rather than simply denouncing or demonizing them.  It may also mean giving officials the curtsey of letting them know that you are about to criticize them, giving them a chance to examine the situation for themselves and change course before you go public, or at least prepare an informative response .  And partnerships work best when each side appreciates the other’s contributions.  The LivableStreets staff mobilization of volunteers to solicit signatures on “thank you, MassDOT” postcards the day after the BU Bridge bike lanes were painted was masterful and extremely smart.  As every spouse knows, flowers work wonders! (See the volunteers do their stuff:[email protected]/)

Advocates have the greatest chance of success when there is a split among elite stakeholders, with at least one faction favorably disposed towards the Advocate’s vision.  But taking advantage of those high-level differences requires detailed knowledge and careful maneuvering.  The initial Commonwealth Ave bike lanes, for example, were won only because a now-departed state official was willing to risk agreeing with LivableStreets’ request to hold up a ready-for-construction project despite opposition from other public agencies.  (See What Makes for Effective Advocacy?)

Acting as a partner also requires Advocacy teams to have enough expertise to offer professional critiques and technical suggestions.   (LivableStreets Alliance, for example, has partly positioned itself as a nexus for progressive professionals – both veterans and those just starting their careers.)    On the other hand, this tends to make advocacy groups less accessible to low-income, non-white, and non-English-speaking people as well as those without college degrees.  So avoiding self-segregation and the perpetuation of societal inequalities requires paying careful attention to the issues the group addresses and the alliances it seeks – roads and intersections and parks and transit that focuses on underserved areas.  This isn’t easy – there is a reason that businesses are able to dump their worst externalized impacts and costs on poor people and their neighborhoods:  the poor are weak.  And no matter how Just or Fair it would be to meet their needs, almost every institution in our society is set up (even if unintentionally) to preferentially serve the higher side of nearly every hierarchy – all the way up to the 1% at the top.

So focusing on projects or issues that only serve low-income groups is a dead-end.  Back when I was primarily working around housing issues, the insight was that “housing for poor people turns into poor housing.” We need to find issues that have universal benefits, or at least benefit the bottom 85% of us, while simultaneously making sure that they are designed from the “bottom up” to have a disproportionate positive impact on the neediest.  This is why Social Security is such a wonderful government program – and why conservatives are so desperate to privatize it, as well as to prevent anything similar from being implemented in health care.

At the same time, an Advocacy organization can’t win anything for anyone unless it has a reputation for being able to get things to happen – which means having a successfully track record.  To avoid getting caught in this Catch-22 smart groups develop a portfolio of projects and issues, allowing them to take on some of the morally imperative fights along with the more politically viable ones.

Big Visions and Small Steps

Few people love meetings.  Especially after work; especially at dinner time.  For all the ease of email and the success of, only a small percentage of the population is willing to write letters or make phone calls about an issue.  So public mobilization requires an issue important and appealing enough to energize people beyond everyday routines.  It is not coincidental that politicians make big promises, or that movements proclaim grand visions, or that Advocates say that they’re working for systemic change.  Public leaders sometimes feel that they’ve got to promise the sky in order to get people to climb the mountain.  (See DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action.)

However, the world turns very slowly; progress usually occurs in small increments. This isn’t bad.  My father loved the saying that it was “better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”  Getting bike lanes on the BU Bridge is wonderful.  But it’s really only a baby-step.

For the Better Bridges Campaign, LivableStreets raised the broader argument that it wasn’t enough to keep people from falling into the water; the real goal was to transform the bridges from overwater mini-highways into livable streets that facilitated connections among the communities on either side of the river.  We (along with WalkBoston) also championed designs that treated bridges not merely as a travel corridor between places but  as locations in their own right – places where people can sit, eat, talk, and enjoy being.  (See Bridges As Livable Streets. And look at LivableStreets’ initial proposal for the Longfellow Bridge – sent to MassDOT nearly five years ago.)

Even more important is that this victory was part of a larger advocacy effort to change institutional decision-making dynamics and raise people’s expectations for more.  At least partly because of Advocates efforts, MassDOT (usually) now has initial public meetings to discuss plans at the conceptual stage when the overall framework of the project is being shaped instead of waiting until the 25% designs which represent the locking-in of key decisions have been prepared – much less at the 75% design level when all that’s left to discuss are details.  At least partly because of Advocates efforts, the official state pedestrian and cyclist advisory committee, the Massachusetts Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board (MABPAB), is being revitalized.  At least partly because of Advocates efforts (and partly because top MassDOT officials understand its importance),  previously ignored District Bike/Ped Coordinators are getting more support for their supposed function of insuring that every project provides maximum feasible bike/ped accommodations.  (See Improving MassDOT’s Bike/Ped Advisory Process.)

But it’s really easy to over promise.   The reality is that car congestion will not disappear anytime soon.  So it is important that Advocates for a more sustainable, equitable, and effective transportation system not oversell their proposals.  It is vital to claim every victory we can.  But it is also vital to remind people that this is a long-term fight. (See Fixing the Bridges Won’t Solve Traffic Congestion.)

Opposing Culture and Practices

Successful Advocacy requires figuring out strategies to accomplish three inter-related core tasks: creating political will, ensuring technical capacity, and mobilizing public support.  All three require intimate knowledge of the context within which you are operating because you can’t dance unless you can anticipate your partner’s steps.  And you can’t successfully advocate unless you know the decision-making agency’s culture and practice, in addition to their official mission and policies.  (See Thanksgiving and the Nature of Power.)

For over 50 – and perhaps 100 – years, the traffic engineering profession has been focused on getting ever more cars moving at every faster speeds through ever larger stretches of our country.  Prioritizing traffic “efficiency” is deeply embedded in the skills and tools – the problem-analysis models and forecasting formulas – they’ve been trained to use.  But going from car-centricity to a truly multi-modal and slower-speed, environmentally and energy sustainable, “place making” and people prioritizing system requires more than just minor adjustments to past practices.  It requires a radical re-examination of every assumption, a transformative break from the past, and a deliberate prioritization of previously under-utilized options – meaning putting the needs of pedestrians (including the slower or less attentive), cyclists (including the less bold or experienced), transit users (including the more burdened or slow) before those of cars.  Supposedly, this is what “Complete Streets” requires, with its mandate to “design from the outside inwards” by locking-in the optimal size for sidewalks before even considering traffic lanes.  But, in reality, traffic planners still mostly evaluate plans on the basis of their impact on car traffic, at best giving a little more space for other modes – but only to the extent that their forecasting models show that there will be minimal negative “Level of Service” impact on cars.  (See ReDEFINING TRANSPORTATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making.)

When LivableStreets Alliance began a few years ago, there were few people in any Massachusetts public agency experienced in creating bicycle facilities, from bike lanes to bike racks – much less cycle tracks or buffered lanes.  (To be fair, most of the engineers working for city or state transportation departments were – and are – also very conservative around car issues; simple but powerful innovations such as “reverse angle parking” were – and are – barely used.)  One of LivableStreets founders’ first tasks was to attract more multi-modal-skilled firms to town and to convince local officials to give them enough contracts that it was worth their while to open local offices.  Once the new niche was created, several of the old-line consulting firms began upgrading their own staffs, although some are still notoriously resistant to anything that weakens a road’s car-carrying capacity.  And even when the designs are better, many of the regional road construction firms have still not abandoned work-zone practices that block walkers (baby carriage pushers, the elderly, and the disabled) and cyclists.

Part of the struggle over the BU Bridge came from the traditional traffic engineering assumption that car-carrying roads should be designed to handle maximum and emergency conditions, including “overbuilding” to create a margin of safety to reduce the consequences of driver inattention, error, or speeding.  But this not only locks in the majority of available space for car-only use, it also encourages dangerous driving.  As we all know from our own experience, people drive as fast as the road design allows them to feel comfortable doing – roads built for travel above the speed limit invite exactly that behavior.  Roads that are “driver tolerant” actually encourage driver distraction because it is so easy to get away with not paying attention – cell phone anyone?  On the other hand, hundreds of pilot projects around the world have proven that slowing traffic through the use of traffic calming measures, increasing the numbers of bicyclists or walkers, and forcing drivers to pay attention to their surroundings, significantly reduces the number of accidents – not only do fewer cars hit pedestrians or cyclists but fewer car occupants are injured as well!  (See If You Build It They Come — But What Happens If You Take It Away?)

Best of all, although counter-intuitive and not often acknowledged by traffic engineers, research shows that well implemented urban multi-modal spaces allow just as much car through-put as car-centric streets, partly because it eliminates much of the frustrating stop-and-go nature of busy streets – what my mother used to describe as “drag racing to the next red light.”  Research also shows that designing roads for “normal” most-of-the-day conditions, but building in flexibility to handle peak and emergency situations, creates a much more user-friendly transportation environment. For example, curb extensions may slow fire trucks needing to make a turn, but they also guarantee that cars won’t be parked so close to the intersection that turning is impossible.  Similarly, an ambulance can use the bike lane to get around stalled traffic, or the full width of a road could be used for bus traffic during a disaster evacuation.  (See Traffic Engineering Myths Revealed.)

The point is that Advocates need to be able to translate grand visions into technical descriptions.  The grand vision is important; it helps remind Project Managers that there are larger values and benefits at stake despite his/her understandable desire to protect the project’s budget and schedule by narrowing the scope of work as much as possible.  It also helps tie the specific demand to the official policies and (usually) idealistic mission of the planning engineers’ employer.  But you also need to move from the abstract to the very concrete -– inches and seconds count!


The BU Bridge is a wonderful victory.  But there are a half-dozen other bridges being worked on in the Boston area – most iconically the Longfellow – as well as several old highway overpasses.  The rest of the road system, especially those parts still under municipal control, will also need serious re-evaluation if they are to meet 21st century challenges.  Our mass transit system is nearing bankruptcy, despite the regional economy’s dependence on its continued functionality and expansion.  There is much to do, and the struggle over the BU Bridge has much to teach us.  (See What To Do About the Longfellow Bridge.)


Related previous posts:

How To Prevent Bridge Repair Gridlock

THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together

BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation

COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

What To Do About the Longfellow Bridge

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