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Protected Bike Lanes & Gay Marriage

I often hear from city officials in Rhode Island that the changes I propose to them make sense, but that their hands are tied by RIDOT regulations. In practice, a lot of streets in cities are not controlled by the cities themselves, but by the state DOT, and that makes it harder to change the way they're designed. S. Main Street in Providence is controlled by the state, as is Westminster Street on the West Side, and Broad Street in Central Falls.

I think this is an understandable but lame excuse, and it's high time that we put it on its head.

There's a degree of truth to blaming RIDOT, which legally holds responsibility for the streets in question. "I might want to do exactly what you want," said an official, "but I can't. RIDOT won't let me." The reason I continue to put pressure on cities as an activist, rather than focusing my attention on an even more frustrating state process, is that I don't believe that change can come through the state. Cities will lead, or nothing will happen.

Seattle activists pushed SDOT towards permanent changes with tactical urbanism.

In many cases, RIDOT has moved slowly towards a less Neanderthal-like perspective on bike and pedestrian infrastructure. RIDOT officially allows cities to "consider" NACTO guidelines for street design instead of AASHTO ones, which opens the door to much better design. "Consider" doesn't mean anything in practice though. Many engineers working on behalf of RIDOT are used to what they're used to, and without forceful changes in policy, the same things continue to be built. The same city official I quoted earlier told me that for one project in his purview, RIDOT engineers arrived to the meeting unaware even of the terms of the debate. "They didn't even know what a protected bike lane was, or a sharrow." RIDOT engineers blocked additional street trees, saying it put them over budget, insisted that pedestrian bump-outs would harm street width, blocked bike lanes of any kind, an ultimately (reluctantly) gave in to sharrows on an arterial street. This is progress, I guess.

The best example I can think of of cities actively thumbing their noses at the authority of states is gay marriage. In many states, gay marriage continues to be illegal, and even more menacingly, in some states it's totally legal to fire people from jobs for being someplace on the queer/gender-queer spectrum. But where we have made progress on changing the culture around gay/bi/trans rights, it has been because activists and local officials took control of the situation and put opponents on the defensive.  Before California ever had gay marriage, mayors like Gavin Newsom started officiating weddings with full recognition that they would not be respected by state officials. But this had power. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Gay SF-ers stood in line to marry (illegally) in 2004.
City officials must do the same with transportation. It is an unacceptable excuse at this point in the game, with the stakes as high as they are, for cities to claim that they have to follow jurisdictional rules about who controls the street. Cities like Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls need to say, "We're putting this bike and pedestrian infrastructure in. You try to stop us." The state may very well respond in exactly that way, removing something that the community wants, but that will completely reset the debate. Now the state will have to explain why it is doing such an unacceptably stupid thing that goes against official USDOT policy. RIDOT leadership does not take initiative on these issues as they should, but my guess is that if someone put them in that awkward position, they might fold. Whenever a bureaucratic, opaque decision-making process exists to continue policies that are bad for the public, the best way to destroy the power of that process is to put the terms of the debate out in the open, where they look ridiculous.

Activists and advocates have an even greater responsibility to ignore state guidelines. I've had numerous friends in bike advocacy try to sit down and explain to me "how things work" after I've published an article calling for x, y, or z thing. I understand what these advocates are trying to say, but what they're actually doing (most likely without intending to) is policing the boundaries of their movement instead of putting their efforts into policing the state DOT. Mayors being willing to officiate unofficial gay marriages became an almost blasé way for them to show support for the LGBT community--a dog whistle. We need to make it so that people yawn at the idea of a mayor pushing back against a state DOT, and breaking protocol. And the only way we can truly do that is to speak as if our expectation is for mayors to do that. When advocates adopt the existing timetable that RIDOT uses to explain what's possible, they corral progress into tightly bordered, very limited areas.

Civil disobedience only works when a policy has latent support, but the support isn't strong or universal enough to warrant most people taking action on it. At that point, a minority has to step forward and declare that things have changed. If an issue is so unpopular that no one agrees with it but the small minority, the action will fail. But gay marriage was in 2004 what protected bike lanes are today: an issue that most people will not give the time of day to, but which most people will happily accept after the fact. It's our job as activists, as advocates, and ultimately, as allied local officials to ignore the timelines that have been put in our way, do what's appropriate for the community, and let the state respond. 



  1. There are a few distinctions between acts of civil disobedience in the context of the marriage debate and the context of the street. If a local/city traffic department chose to go against the state's interpretation of the MUTCD they may open themselves up to increased liability.

    Further more, the traditional flow of funds to local transportation infrastructure projects goes from the USDOT to the state DOTs to the local municipalities (city, county, regional planning). While congressional reps and the state legislature play a part in those decisions the analysis and resource allocation assessments go through the state DOTs. Nobody wants to mess with that gravy train.

    If we are to find a mechanism to force state DOTs to take clear positions, it's more likely to come in the form of carrots than sticks. For example, it might be better to lead them towards more institutional knowledge of bicycle facilities with Bicycle Tourism initiatives to support shoulder widening of state highways. That allows DOTs to put a feather in their cap with a business friendly initiative.

  2. Part of what I hope to get people in the bike advocacy community to take away from an article like this is understanding the different roles different groups of people have. A lot of times I feel like advocates have too much empathy for the city/state officials above them. We do too much explaining for them, instead of asking them to explain yourself. That isn't to say that the particular points people make aren't true. I know that city officials are definitely not going to listen to what I said here if it's in a vacuum. What would make them consider doing this is if there were enough advocates pushing for them to do it that it seemed politically safer to do it than not to do it. What frustrates me about advocates over-empathizing and over-explaining official responses is that we're abdicating our role to be that pressure force. And implicitly, I agree with a lot of what people say in response to these types of articles anyway. For instance, I assume that the city officials are largely a "choir" I'm preaching to. I'm not under any illusion that they're up in their offices twirling Snidely Whiplash mustaches and plotting away. What we need to think about as advocates is how we can push each person to a higher stage of activation:

    *How can we make more people into advocates who don't advocate?
    *How can we get some advocates to take the next step and do some pushier activism?
    *How do we get city officials we agree with us but are afraid to act to be city officials who agree with us and do act?
    *How can we either convince or force the hand of RIDOT to cooperate with these city-level officials?

    So let's start thinking about that.

    Step 1: Do not reaffirm to city officials that they should not do a particular good thing because they'll be taking risks. Tell them why what they're doing is not a risk.
    Step 2: Do not assume the role of protecting people in positions of authority. They can handle themselves.
    Step 3: Be courteous, but firm, and have consequences for when people don't listen. We have no consequences, so everyone we speak to *at best* can only walk away agreeing with us but feeling isolated among colleagues that don't, and *at worst* can walk away disagreeing with us and feeling no pressure to compromise.

    I think the first people to step up to the plate and take more responsibility have to be the advocates and activists, to create the conditions for change.

  3. *explain themselves, not yourself (typo)