Jason Van Driesche, Director of Advocacy and Education for Burlington non-profit Local Motion, bikes or walks to work every day of the year. That’s quite a feat in snow country, but it makes sense; Van Driesche spends his work days thinking about bike advocacy and has masters degrees in urban planning and conservation science. What would be truly extraordinary, he says, would be if Burlington became so bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly that even families with small kids or novices felt perfectly safe hitting the roads on two wheels.
In order to realize that dream, though, Burlington will need protected bike lanes, and lots of ’em. Major cities all over the country – including our beloved NYC – have been creating miles upon miles of protected bike lanes, which are basically just regular bike lanes that have been slightly separated from car traffic, by low dividers or by a snaking line of parked cars. Have you ever ridden on one? Then you know that they make all the difference. Riding on a protected bike lane, you feel about five million times safer than you would riding right alongside car traffic, with cabs swerving into your space.
“We do not have anything even remotely resembling the kinds of networks of bike lanes and bike paths and other bike facilities that other communities have developed,” says Van Driesche. “I think we’re on the cusp of starting to go there, but really the increase in biking in Burlington and in Vermont over the last decade – which has been extremely steep, and which cuts across the socioeconomic spectrum – that increase has been in spite of the infrastructure on the ground, not because of it.” Percentage-wise, about the same number of people bike to work in Burlington as in Portland, Oregon. They just aren’t always super protected while they do it.
[Protected bike lane on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West]
That’s why Van Driesche, along with his Local Motion colleagues and an army of local volunteer researchers, have teamed up to treat Burlington to its first ever pop-up protected bike lane (on Union Street), as well as a pop-up kit (stencils, cones, signs, chalk, how-to guides for choosing your street and getting permission from the police dept.) that can be reused and replicated all over town. Pop-up protected bike lanes are one of our very favorite forms of tactical urbanism, here at ioby; they demonstrate to residents, for one bright, shining, glorious day, just how awesome, safe, and bike-friendly their neighborhoods could be. They make the thing feel doable and within reach, and they feel like a party.
A wrench in the plans
When Van Driesche and his team went to the Department of Public works, though, and then to the Burlington Police Department, to get permission for the pop-up lane on Union, they found themselves on a wild goose chase, bushwhacking through tons and tons of red tape. In the end, no one could give them the green light – not because the city didn’t want a pop-up, but because it just didn’t have any protocol in place for how to regulate tactical urbanism efforts and actions like this. “We intended to mix bike traffic and car traffic in a new way, and the police department just didn’t have a model for that,” says Van Driesche.
“Burlington has a culture of placing a heavy emphasis on planning, sometimes at the cost of implementation,” says Van Driesche. “It’s clear that there is strong desire and intent to change that with the current administration in Burlington, but a deep seeded culture like that doesn’t turn around overnight.”
[Burlingon, VT has great pedestrian spaces but no protected bike lanes]
It’s been a frustratingly slow process, for the team, but, as it turns out, a necessary one. “My ideal outcome would have been that they would have said ‘hm, this made us realize that we need a protocol, let’s do this pop up right now, and then develop a protocol based on what we learn’,” says Van Driesche. That wasn’t in the cards, but the Department of Public Works has committed to doing the pop-up in the fall — and to making it quick and easy to do more pop-ups going forward. Some very important work has been set in motion.
First, Burlington’s Department of Public Works has committed to developing a protocol for green-lighting tactical urbanism pop-up events like this one. Second, Van Driesche and his team will be working with the DPW to carve out a list of criteria for evaluating which future pop-ups could be deemed “low-risk” and given a more nimble, impromptu “ready, fire, aim” approach, and which will get the slower, more cautious “ready, aim, fire” treatment. They’re also scouring the country to learn from other cities’ and towns’ pop-up protocols.
Meanwhile, the team is thrilled to see how much good they could do in the future with crowd-resourcing and crowd-funding projects like this one. “We’re providing overall guidance and strategy,” says Van Driesche, “but a lot of the work to move this forward is being done by an amazingly dedicated and skilled group of volunteers. We’re really excited about the potential that volunteer-driven projects have for getting more done faster. There’s a lot of capacity and a lot of skill among our members and supporters.”
If this grassroots effort inspires you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’re here to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Scared about the bee die-off? You don’t have to just sit there and take it. Learn how to create a pollinator sanctuary.