The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

modeshift volume 4, issue 3


Get started in grassroots advocacy

By John Lankford

It happens all the time: People see a need for a change in their community, but they end up not pursuing it because they don’t know the most effective plan of action.

Perhaps you’re a parent who wants people in your neighborhood to have access to a park that sits just on other side of a busy street. Maybe you want a longer walk signal at a local traffic light so that children and seniors can cross safely. Maybe you want to extend a local bus route’s operating hours. Or maybe you’re interested in getting a bike lane in your neighborhood.

Photo credit: T.C. O'Rourke

Whatever the type of project, here’s a brief introduction to the strategies that you can use for organizing and advocating at the grassroots level for better biking, walking and transit.

1: Assemble a team

To influence the decisions made in your community you must lobby and work with your local political representatives who make decisions about transportation planning and infrastructure. These are usually members of a city council, a village board or a township board.

The first step is to gather a group of people who have similar concerns and live within your community. In Chicago, that means you’ll be working at the ward level with your alderman.

The initial team need not be large; 3-5 people serve as a good starting point. As the committee develops, membership will build naturally. Start with friends, family, neighbors and activists and go from there.

If you need more involvement, ask local groups (i.e., neighborhood associations, local environmental groups and other nonprofits) to put you in touch with people who may be interested in similar issues. You can even post a message recruiting members at the local grocery store or café.

2: Find the right project

Finding the right project is extremely important. Here are some suggestions for identifying your committee’s inaugural effort.

  • Draw on the committee’s collective experience as residents of the community and ask yourselves what changes you would like to see.
  • Successful implementation of the project should be realistic. In other words, a project with a $10 million dollar price tag is likely not the best starting point.
  • The project should consider existing stakeholders in the community and should be capable of winning broad community support from residents and your local political representative.
  • Research similar initiatives that have been pursued elsewhere in the region and around the country. Was it successful? What was the timeline and strategy?

3: Put together a project package

Once reaching a consensus on an initial project, create a proposal that will help sell the project to key stakeholders in the community.

The project package should address:

  • What the project entails
  • Who will be helped by the project?
  • Where the project should happen
  • Why these changes are needed
  • When to shoot for approval and other key steps
  • How the project may be funded

Flesh out these questions as much as you can. While gathering this information may seem like it will take an enormous amount of time and energy, efforts spent at this phase are well worth it.

Political representatives and municipal staff love it when you make their jobs easier. While they may not be in agreement with all the details of your proposal, it’s useful for them to have a realistic, carefully considered starting point.

This information will also serve as your guide as you go through the advocacy steps.

4: Take it to your local political representative

Once the project package is complete and ready to be presented, schedule a meeting with your local political representative to share the proposal.

In addition to explaining what the project is and how the committee intends to move forward, clearly articulate what exactly you are asking from the political representative in terms of his or her support for the project. Don’t be shy. If you prepared well and chose a project that he or she will get behind, you can make a big ask. 

Beyond generating support for the project, it’s important to work toward building a broader partnership with the political representative. Ideally, a mutually beneficial relationship will arise whereby the representative can support the committees’ efforts, which in turn will reflect positively on the representative. 

5: Perform follow-up 

After this meeting, the next steps and follow-up after meeting with the representative will sometimes be clear and other times less clear. My experience has shown this step to be one that can lead committees astray without a clear idea of what to do next.

One suggestion is to ensure that a follow-up meeting of the committee be scheduled and announced at the meeting with the representative in order to keep a timeline in place. A second suggestion is to reach out to local resources like Active Transportation Alliance. We are eager to assist in identifying and implementing next steps for the process.

It’s an exciting time to be an advocate for better bicycling, walking and transit in Chicagoland. Enhancing livability and transforming transportation options is increasingly a prominent issue among elected officials, policymakers and advocates alike.

The time is ripe for action by local advocates working to make the world a better place to live, work and play.

John Lankford is a Bikeways Campaign Coordinator for the Active Trans.

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