A planning charrette. Courtesy of @caticatang

A planning charrette. Courtesy of @caticatang

Those who have been paying attention to the daily coverage about Citi Bike leading up to its launch on Memorial Day may be struck by the marquee of tabloidal headlines like “Bike Share War Rages at Village Forum,” “Installation Of Bike Share Docking Stations Testing New Yorkers’ Patience,” or this gem, “Village Hippies, Brooklyn Yuppies Join Forces Against Bike-sharing.” Add to these headlines the stream of reports that claim Citi Bike is discriminating against overweight residents, and one would almost think that nobody told New York that bike share was coming.

Regardless of who funds, operates and owns a bike share program, the public agency overseeing the project is usually responsible for public outreach. But city agencies don’t always have the money, resources, or expertise for reaching out to the public to gain support for its programs. And sometimes city leadership can be misguided about the value of programs like bike share in the first place.

When a bike share system succeeds, cities and the system operators normally get the credit. When a bike share system flounders, cities and the system operators normally take the blame. Yet a bike share program may need public citizens and municipal leaders to rally around it as much as it needs the right kind of equipment, business model, and siting strategy. And ordinary citizens and advocacy organizations can do a lot to prepare their communities for bike sharing in the first place and to help keep the momentum going.

Transportation Alternatives (T.A.) is one of these advocacy organizations that preached the gospel of bike share. The New York City based nonprofit has been pushing for a bike share program in NYC for a long time. According to T.A.’s 2011-2012 Annual Report, Caroline Samponaro, T.A.’s current Senior Director of Campaigns and Organizing, took a trip to Paris in 2007 and fell in love with their bike share system, Vélib’.  Samponaro wanted New York to have one too.

So Samponaro and T.A. sent letters to key city leaders about it, got some grad students to help build the financial case for it, and did some early bike share demonstrations to start getting New Yorkers excited about it. And while Citi Bike was being planned, T.A. was getting the word out—sending emails, posting blog articles, and bringing together a coalition of community organizations who support bike share.

“The [New York City Department of Transportation] brought bike share to the city. But we brought the idea and the support for bike share to New York like we had seen in Paris, which is the first major city comparable to New York that has done that,” Samponaro said. “In the sense that our role as advocates is to create political space and opportunity and push for innovation, I think we were a part of brining bike share here.”

Other alternative transportation advocacy organizations have also been working on bike share in their cities. While T.A. has put a lot of effort into public outreach, advocacy groups like the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance (Active Trans) have been putting their stake in municipal advocacy. According to Max Muller, Director of Government Relations and Advocacy for Active Trans, they’ve been working on getting Chicago ready for a bike share system for two years. And this year, Chicago is getting one. It’ll be called Divvy. And it’s supposed to be the second largest bike share system in the U.S. when it’s built out fully.

Active Trans wants Divvy to work and eventually expand in Chicago. For them, that means ensuring that the city launches the program this summer on schedule to get the most riders exposed to Divvy.

“We would like to see it extended to cover the entire city. Part of making that happen will be making strong demand for it where it already exists. Part of our strategy to that end is making sure it has a really strong start,” said Muller.

Active Trans has also been working to build political and social readiness for Divvy. They’ve been advocating for a director of transportation who supports bike share. And they’re making sure that Chicago’s district representatives, called Aldermen, get how Divvy is good for their constituents.

“Aldermen have a lot of power over city projects within their ward. So it’s very important for Aldermen to understand what bike share is and what its benefits are so that they don’t veto it coming to their ward or that they don’t veto their locations based on an inaccurate understanding of what bike share is,” said Muller.

Citi Bike and Divvy are new. They haven’t even launched yet. And the work of an advocate doesn’t end when a bike share program begins. With their organizational machinery calibrated for gaining political and public support for their agendas, advocacy organizations can be crucial for places that are on the verge of losing their bike share program (like Toronto) or places that need bike share in the first place. If the rehashed and constant complaints in the news about Citi Bike’s build-out are any indication of things to come, then Muller and Samponaro have their work cut out for them after Divvy and Citi Bike launch. Yet they both see bike share as an opportunity to build coalitions of supporters both old and new.

“Bike share, literally and figuratively, isn’t a static program. It’s going to evolve and get adopted by New Yorkers. And it’s going to help make positive changes in the city,” said Samponaro. “I don’t think we would ever wipe our hands clean of bike share as much as we’re going to engage with a whole new constituent of New Yorkers who are going to have a stake in safer streets and better enforcement. And we’ll be gaining their perspective for the first time because they’ll be using Citi Bike.”