What placemakers can learn from bike/ped advocates
Mark Plotz is the director of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, a resident program of the Project for Public Spaces. What that means, in practice, is that Mark is the man who makes Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place happen! Mark’s been poring over the results of last September’s conference in Long Beach, CA, and we recently had the chance to sit down with him when he made the trek up to HQ, to get a sense of how people responded to the new “Pro Place” focus. Mark also offered some teasers about the lead-up to Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2014, which will take place in Pittsburgh, PA next fall.
What were some of the trends that you saw in terms of what conference-goers voted for with their feet?
The good news is that Placemaking sessions fared very well, which is encouraging because it shows that the conference theme of “Pro Place” was resonating with people. One session that did very well was led by Victor Dover and John Massengale, who spoke about street design where we’re not just talking about paint and asphalt and dimensions, but really paying attention to context and creating beautiful streets.
Women and cycling was a popular subject. I could definitely see a lot of broad interest in making cycling a lot more reflective of this diverse country that we live in. A lot of bike advocacy has been geared toward the alpha-male bicyclists for too long, and now there’s a growing realization that there’s a whole new population that’s really interested in cycling and ready for alternatives to the car. We’re trying to be supportive of that in how we plan for the next conference, because people are indicating that they’re really interested in taking advocacy in that new direction.
Building on that advocacy theme–as much as people were coming to the last Pro Walk/Pro Bike and learning about Placemaking, us Placemakers all have a lot to learn from biking and walking advocates about how to run a campaign. Can you talk more about that?
Fred talks a lot about Zealous Nuts in his presentations, and there are no more zealous or nutty people than bike advocates! We’re very good at organizing, and showing up to meetings, and writing congressional offices. We’re a highly motivated crew. I think that Placemakers can learn a lot from rubbing elbows with bike advocates.
Bikers are sort of tribal. When you get a bunch of them in a room together, the conversation always seems to gravitate to the last a**hole you had an encounter with out on the road. That’s one of the things that really bonds bikers together: we’re out there and we don’t have much in the way of protection, so we’re dependent on the goodwill and skill of drivers, and also the DOT to give us a safe place to ride. So safety is a big shared concern.
You have to take the long view. The first Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference was in 1980, and it was about a hundred people in Asheville, NC. We had 900 people in Long Beach this year. From what I’ve been told by those who were there, the folks who showed up in Asheville were a bunch of idealists, working outside the system. But through the years, biking has been institutionalized, so a lot of those advocates became the first state bike/ped coordinators, and later the first local bike/ped coordinators. Over time, they were co-opted into the transportation establishment, which is a great thing.
There are still advocates out there, because that bike/ped coordinator still needs support from the public, and to know that people want this stuff. So advocates give him or her the cover. And I wonder if maybe that’s where Placemakers need to go now: to organize as advocates, develop a common agenda, and then hopefully get co-opted into transportation, governance, all of these places where our government already spends money but builds a bunch of crap.
How did that co-opting happen? How did these folks go from being the idealists outside of the system to being the inmates running the asylum, so to speak?
I would say it was ISTEA in 1991. It helps if the Feds are saying “look, if you want to get this money to build trails and other enhancement projects, you need to have a state bike/ped coordinator.” That was a major boost for the movement. But there was demand for that legislation. Back when Dan Burden was hired on as the first state bike/ped coordinator in Florida, biking was pretty popular. The Feds saw demand, and they wanted to answer it.
Any other thoughts on where PWPB is heading in 2014, and how it will continue to evolve?
Well, of course, I think that we have the smartest conference attendees out there! And we function best and are most effective when we can demonstrate that the improvements we’re arguing for benefit a community. That when you rightsize a street, for instance, you’re not just doing good things for people who walk and bike, you’re adding value back to the property that the road had subtracted from. Placemaking is always going to be a part of it, if we’re smart. We’re seeing that in the attendance in 2012, and that’s going to continue in 2014.
The people in Pittsburgh are very excited. One of the reasons that they wanted to host the 2014 conference is that they want to kickstart their bike/ped plan implementation, but they also want to do more with Placemaking. I’m looking forward to doing interventions around the city. We’re going to do a warm-up event in the fall of 2013, and I hope to see a lot of good things come out of that, a lot of project ideas. PPS has budgeted for staff involvement with the city.
Pittsburgh is a great laboratory for Placemaking. That city has a lot of people in foundations that are interested in place, they’ve got a burgeoning tech sector, and they’ve got a couple of great people, like the guys from Walnut Capital who re-purposed an old Nabisco plant…you don’t have to sell these folks on the principles of mixed-use neighborhoods! They want more of this. They want to get developers there so they can evangelize to them and get city councilors there to see that this stuff works, and that there’s demand. That’s exciting.
Coming from the bike advocacy world, I believe that we’ve made a key mistake in thinking that federal legislation is the be-all and end-all of what’s going to make this country bicycle-friendly and walkable. But it’s more complex than that, especially when you’ve got a Congress that’s not interested in solving big problems. It’s going to be incumbent on us to engage with the private sector. It helps when you’ve got people who’ve shown that this can be tremendously lucrative, and that people want it.