If you could bottle the bootstrap ingenuity of Better Block founder Jason Roberts and the vision of former Madison, WI mayor “Citizen” Dave Cieslewicz it would be a rare vintage indeed.
Akron area leaders tried to uncork what goes into active transportation at its annual Switching Gears conference, with Roberts sharing his wildly successful DIY street makeovers in rapidly gentrifying Dallas, and Cieslewicz talking about how to change the system from the inside.
First up, Roberts is that rare combination of visionary who isn’t afraid to roll up sleeves with friends and do things. It started, he said, by wanting more places to linger, and so he led the first wave of pop up blocks. Roberts struck on an idea so viral that it launched an international movement that has spread from his first temporary cafe and bike lanes in Dallas to Pop Ups on Pearl and Rockwell roads in Cleveland to the youth of Tehran copying his tactical urbanism ways.
Roberts recounted how he leveraged being at the center of a movement into more than a few pop up shops/bike lanes and dog parks. He took it upon himself to write and win a TIGER grant for $43 million for a streetcar project that broke ground last year which he dreamed up in his basement one night. The day job as a computer programmer, he explained, meant he knew how to make a web site for his fantasy Oakcliff transit agency. If it all sounds very Forrest Gump-like, Roberts bright, enthusiastic presentation, which first went viral on Ted X, hasn’t waned despite losing a campaign for Congress and winning a battle with stage 3 cancer.
“We just forgot how to bring people together and fix places,” Roberts observed in Akron. “We know really well how to talk and plan and push pixels, but not how to work with our hands.”
His focus and can-do attitude is infectious. He says not to worry if only four people show up after your first meeting that draws 50. “Those four people are your do-ers.”
The Better Block also believes in measuring results. They use mobile, automatic bike counters and speed guns to show the impact from their experiments with chalk, white duct tape, movable planters, orange cones—cheap ways to narrow, maybe, an unnecessarily wide road with the goal of slowing vehicles down and making places more attractive for hanging out. Through trial and error—and connections (like a tree nursery client)—Better Blocks has moved from scrappy volunteer group to a consultancy with a how-to guide and insights like how to prioritize the use of shade, food, and focus on safety.
His top three lessons are:
- Show up—it’s how he got appointed as transportation liaison to the city. Otherwise all of the grumps who hate change will be the only voices heard.
- Give your project a name—“we create names for places and we celebrate them together.”
- Set a date and publish it. “Blackmail yourself," he suggests.
When he was mayor of Madison (pop. 250,000) and now as head of Wisconsin Bike Fed, Dave Cieslewicz could hardly be accused of taking a hands-off approach to active transportation. Influenced by the hordes of students biking on University of Wisconsin’s campus and with the hemmed-in geography of being built on an isthmus, Madison was naturally inclined to try biking, says Cieslewicz.
It did go hand in glove with the city’s environmental values, including preservation of the pre-car parts of town that were often attractive to the “creative class.” He subscribed to Richard Florida’s idea that not only Madison’s sense of place, but its Bicycle Friendly Community ranking would be its calling card for young, upwardly mobile professionals—like John Childress, a software engineer.
“He can go anywhere, but John looked at the BFC rankings and chose to live in Madison based on its (Gold) ranking,” Cieslewicz says, “which indicated to him that it would have a good local music scene and coffee shops and fun places to hang out. Bikes are like the canary in coal mine. If you build communities that attract more of John, it will attract companies.”
It was an “a-ha” moment for the mayor, too. He formed the Platinum Bike Committee and stocked it not just with bikers, but also the heads of the downtown special improvement district and chamber of commerce. “They were not natural allies.”
But, their report had 100 recommendations in biking’s 5Es. It also urged the mayor to make biking an integral part of everyday life in Madison.
“In order to get the kind of mode shares we’re thinking of, it needs to be integrated,” he recalls.
Cieslewicz started talking about the shoot high kind of mode share, and when he came out with a goal of 20% of the population biking regularly by 2020, “it was a big deal because we’re at eight percent (the U.S. is 1%) for biking.”
To get there, Cieslewicz proposed a “build it and they will come” strategy of painting bike lanes. In the past few years, Madison has striped 50 miles of bike lanes and built 50 miles of bike paths.
“Engineering is about 70 to 80% of the game, because it’s there 24/7.”
When he went out on a limb and closed a few residential side streets to all but bike traffic, he “got nothing but love.”
Seeing that the city was getting serious about biking, John Burke, the owner of Trek, which is headquartered in Madison, reached out to Cieslewicz with a mighty offer. It was early in the days of bike share, and Trek was investing in the B-Cycle system. Burke offered to donate a $2.5 million bike share system of 35 stations and hundreds of bikes to Madison (which gladly accepted). Burke has continued to pour in support, pushing for a 7-mile Ride the Drive event modeled after the Ciclovia in Bogota where streets are car-free. They do it twice a year and attract 20,000 people.
“Active transportation is about freedom of choice,” Cieslewicz concludes. “When you build a city that’s good for biking and walking, it’s good for everyone, even if you don’t get on a bike.”