People love progress… until it inconveniences them.
For example, people are generally supportive of new bike lanes… unless the bike lane is on their block. Then they fight it.
This is a real problem plaguing cities nationwide, as residents derail plans for new bike lanes. As a result, bike lanes are growing at a far slower pace than many cities planned — and more people are dying.
How can we fix a problem like this?
Cambridge, Massachusetts has an interesting solution. The city managed to shortcut the resistance to bike lanes — and it might teach us all a lot about how to shift conversations towards more productive means.
What was the solution? Read on!
Fun fact: Roads were not originally made for cars. They were once full of commerce, recreation, and many modes of transportation. The first highways, in fact, were made for bicycles! (The history is fascinating; I made a whole podcast episode about it.) But by the early 1900s, of course, cars took over.
This has come at a cost. Traffic deaths are a persistent problem; even in 2020, when driving dropped during the pandemic, there were 6,721 recorded pedestrian deaths in the US — about 5% more than the previous year.
Most experts agree that we need safe ways to share the roads. Bike lanes accomplish this well, because they can drastically reduce deaths and injuries from car accidents. Just one protected bike lane on New York City's 9th Avenue led to a 56 percent reduction in injuries on the street. There were 57% fewer injuries to cyclists and 29% fewer for pedestrians. The new lane also decreased sidewalk cycling by 84% (because cyclists moved to the bike lane), which is doubly good for walkers.
Bike lanes are also good for cities in general. In the four years after New York and Washington D.C. implemented lanes, bike commuting doubled.
Cities have a hard time building bike lanes, according to an interesting report in Bloomberg. That’s because dissenting neighbors — who, among other things, are worried about the loss of parking spots on their street — often destroy plans and punish supportive politicians. In 2015, for example, Los Angeles adopted a plan to make its streets more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — but at the rate they’re moving now, the plan will literally take them 200 years to complete, according to Bloomberg. In the meantime, LA’s traffic deaths are going up: Fatalities rose by 21% in 2021.
Cities must figure out a way to build bike lanes, and yet most cities are lagging.
But one city is trying to change things.
Whenever the city resurfaces or rebuilds a street, it must, by law, implement a planned bike lane.
“By passing a law that mandates bike protections, rather than administering a policy that merely calls for them, the city has created politically strategic armor to shield its transportation objectives from detractors,” Bloomberg reported.
As a result, the dynamics have changed.
When city officials meet with residents about bike lanes, they are no longer presenting a plan that could be shut down. Instead, they are presenting a plan that must happen. The only question is: How will it happen?
“[City officials] will say, ‘This is what we have to do by law. We’re going to build protected bike lanes and that is not up for discussion,’” Christian MilNeil of Streetsblog MASS told Bloomberg. “Then they’ll talk about what are the other things that are negotiable.”
This way, the conversation gets reframed. It is no longer about opposing and killing a project; now it’s about working with the city to make the project a success for everyone.
To be clear: Like many people, I believe that government often does not know best. And you could certainly argue that Cambridge's solution is taking control away from local residents. But I'd argue for an exception here. Local opponents to bike lanes are often a loud, impactful minority, who hijack use of public space for their own limited benefit. Cambridge's law aims to utilize public space for the greatest public good. I live in Brooklyn and have seen this first hand: When the city wanted to install shared Citi Bike docks on my street years ago, my neighbors flipped out. But it happened anyway, and you know what? The shared bikes are awesome. The block lost nothing meaningful, and gained something substantial.
I love how Cambridge's approach anticipates our natural reactions to change. Because here’s the thing: When we have a choice between grappling with something difficult or just opting out of it, we’ll often opt out. It is easier for residents to stop a project than to engage in it — to protect what they know, instead of envision something new. And it's easier for a city official to back away from conflict, rather than push through it.
But when you take the “opt out” option away, you drive people towards the conversations that matter. What should the lanes look like? Should they get their own traffic lights? When residents weigh in on these issues, they become involved in progress.
The Cambridge example reminded me of a study I once read about “policy bundling”. The abstract summarizes the problem well:
So what’s the solution? How do you get gain to loom as large as loss? The answer, according Wharton professor Katy Milkman and her coauthors, is to bundle multiple bills together — “in which related bills involving both losses and gains are combined to offset separate bills’ costs while preserving their net benefits.”
In theory, people aren’t resistant to progress. They just see loss before they see gain. Our job is to reverse that perspective — and it starts by changing the terms of the discussion.
Of course, nothing is perfect. The Bloomberg story I quoted was from 2019, when Cambridge's law was new. Flash forward a few years, and the city just missed a deadline for building an important bike lane, in part because community resistance hasn't fully gone away. But the city is not giving up. The project moves ahead. Progress demands effort.