How can I be an effective activist?

I’m so frustrated with the city council and their lack of action in building cycling infrastructure. We know that cycling infrastructure encourages people to ride their bikes and we know that when people ride their bikes there’s less pollution, less traffic congestion, and less of a strain on the NHS because those people are engaging in physical activity which improves their health and wellbeing. It’s such a no-brainer. Why aren’t they jumping at the chance to have all these benefits?

I write to the council regularly about it. I share my experiences of cycling with cars, trucks, and buses and suggest ways they can make things better. I also highlight other examples of good cycling infrastructure around the world and all the research which demonstrates spending on cycling infrastructure produces more for the community than it costs to build. And yet they haven’t done anything about it. What am I doing wrong and how can I be more effective?

Here’s my last email to someone called “Louise” at the council who is very nice and said with honesty that most of the council are not on-board with building dedicated cycle lanes. This was my reply:

Hi Louise,

Thanks for your honesty. Have you got any suggestions for what I can do to gain some momentum with the city council because writing letters doesn’t really do very much. I don’t really understand the politics and I don’t work for any large organisation with lobbying power. I’m just an individual. Should I write letters to someone else in the council? Or should I try to arrange a meeting with someone?

For what it’s worth myself and my two children cycled along Union St at around 5pm yesterday and then onto King St and all the way to the University of Aberdeen. It was awful. There were so many buses on Union St and I’m sure they didn’t like getting stuck behind us as we were slow. I also did not enjoy over-taking them at all. It was terrifying. And then on King St we had to cycle on the right side of parked cars. Cyclists should never be put between parked cars and traffic. Parked cars open doors without looking and sometimes pull out without realising there’s a bike there leading the cyclist to swerving right and possibly under the wheels of a lorry. I try to take a wide berth around parked cars so as to avoid getting “doored” but then I end up taking a lot of space on the road and there’s insufficient room for motor vehicles to overtake me on the right. It should be pedestrians on the very left, then cyclists, then parked cars, then traffic. If there’s not space for all these modes then start taking it away from cars.

One thing I also noticed was the amount of traffic on King St heading into town. There was an enormous queue. If half of those people were on bikes instead then your traffic problem is solved. But they’re going to choose their car for now because it’s so much easier to drive for the reasons I outlined above. Who should I be telling all this to?

Best wishes,

Perhaps the next step is to create some guerilla bikes lanes. Anyone else got any better suggestions?

26 responses to “How can I be an effective activist?”

  1. Maybe get a video camera on your bike and start posting videos of how bad it is on YouTube and send them to the relevant people. Not sure what good it will do, but might be worth a try.

    • What a great site! Thank you. too 🙂

      I think you’re right. I’ll have to find some like-minded people before I’m going to get anywhere.

      • I seem to recall googling up a local group and pointing you toward it a couple years ago. This must be them.

        Obviously you’ll want to find out about their experience and plans, but offhand using the climate change (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire both have plans) and public health (lots of strong recent science on the bad effects of fine particulates) angles seems like a good approach.

        I don’t know how organizationally advanced that local group is, but if you’re unsure they know what they’re doing you should probably read up on community organizing techniques. Start with “Rules for Radicals” then try to find something specific to working with local councils in the UK.

        Is there a broader environmental group in Aberdeen? Maybe link up with it. Do they do political endorsements? That’ going to be quite different from what I’m used to what with the party list system, but perhaps there are local platforms that can be influenced? I notice the Greens are entirely out of power, but perhaps they could be gotten to take it up as a campaign issue. The local leader is the UofA rector.

        The local group linked above has a page with an interview with a joint city/shire cycling officer who it sounds like you should be in touch with. My suspicion from comparing the city and shire websites is that the interest in cycling is mainly driven from the shire side.

        Also, 43 people on the city council? Yikes. I guess they need the party system to get anything done. But surely there must be a cyclist or two among them? Hopefully the cycling officer will know. Also don’t forget to review any reports/analyses she’s done.

        Finally, schools. Do kids bike to school much there? One thing I know would translate perfectly well from local U.S. politics is the impact of kids and their parents showing up at council to demand their due!

      • Yes, you did tell me about that Aberdeen cycling group and I signed up right away and get regular email updates from them which sometimes include links to surveys and I always complete them.

        Is 43 people a lot? I have no idea about these things. They’re trying to get kids to cycle to school here and there are a few who do. I’ve also emailed the council about that because these are 12 year olds who cycle on the road with cars. They shouldn’t have to cycle with cars. I have specifically requested cycle paths around the local school a number of times. I think I need to get other parents involved.

      • “A lot” is relative, I suppose. I think what it means in this case is that getting anything of significance passed requires sponsorship by one of the big parties. But what are the pressure points for that? Find out!

        Short of that, having even one strong cycling advocate on the council would make a difference over time. Out of 43, there must be at least one good prospect.

        The guerrilla bike lanes sound great as an initial step. See what the ACF thinks!

  2. I agree with Rachel: you don’t do these things by yourself. Community activism has to be a community-based activity. It’s too easy for government officials to dismiss one person as a “kook,” but if several of you show up at city council meetings or make an appointment to visit one’s representative, they see you actually represent a block of voters interested in this issue. Is there a bike advocacy group in your area that you can enlist for your cause? Or any of your neighbors or a business that have similar opinions?

    Speaking from experience, being the lonely voice crying in the wilderness is exhausting and leads to burnout. It’s also very…lonely. And expensive. When you have a group, you can share the work, resources, and frustrations as well as the victories. And I hope you celebrate the latter soon!

  3. I think you need a clever mix of realism and idealism. I used to be a councillor myself, and I can tell you that there’s not one councillor I came across who did what they did in the knowledge that they were wrong. You’re in your bubble, they in theirs. Also remember that councils are elected every four years, so a councillor may only have four years to achieve anything, and has to pick their fights carefully, balancing what will make the most difference with what stands the best chance of being implemented. There is a MASSIVE amount of inertia involved, both in getting something moving, or stopping what’s already underway. Accept that ANY progress is quite an achievement.
    One simple thing you can do is meet with your councillor, and chat to them about what their views are, what yours are, and the kind of small details that they may not realise may make a big difference. If they seem well disposed to your point of view, give them the ammunition they need to persuade others. That way there’s at least a chance that your views will inform some of what goes on.

    • This is *very* helpful btw! Thank you so much for sharing it. You’re definitely right in that we all think we’re right and doing the right thing, even when it’s wrong. I realise it’s not as black and white as that but it’s important to keep it mind when challenging other people.

  4. Hi Rachel. I feel your frustration! Like to get involved in the Aberdeen cycle forum? There are monthly meeting and smaller groups sometimes split off to work on specific projects separately. It’s a good place to find likeminded people and combine forces. Drop me an email or come to the meeting this Tuesday at 7.30pm

    • And network with the people already listed, assuming they’re not already in ACF. Nice find!

      Also, Critical Mass rides, which I think started in SF, have spread to a number of other locations and seem to have maintained their popularity.

      Finally, the medical and public health communities might be fertile ground.

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