Inside the Campaign: Local Spokes

Carolyn Szczepanski, Communications Director
October, 2012

Source: BikeLeague

In the July/August issue of our magazine American Bicyclist, advocates at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition gave us an inside look at their work with Spanish-speaking day laborers to create a new PSA campaign.

Continuing our effort to share insight and best practices from innovative campaigns nationwide, our latest issue includes an article that delves into the efforts of Local Spokes, a neighborhood-based bicycle coalition in New York City aimed at creating a “new model for inclusive and sustainable bike planning.”

Unfortunately, we had to condense the story to fit the print edition; here’s the full article!

Local Spokes Youth Ambassadors create models of the East River Greenway

New Leaders
Pedaling the bike advocacy movement toward transformative change
By Pasqualina Azzarello and Caroline Samponaro

Within the national bicycle advocacy movement, we often speak of a desire for diversity without tangible outcomes. This conversation, when paired with the absence of accountability, makes transformative change improbable. To redirect the culture of a national movement requires intention, effort, communication, resources, and a willingness to take an honest, collective look inside. By investing in the development of new leaders on a local level through outreach, education, and empowerment, transformative change becomes possible.

What is Local Spokes?

Local Spokes is a neighborhood-based bicycle coalition comprised of nine community-based organizations that came together in 2010 to create a new model for inclusive and sustainable bike planning. Local Spokes, which focuses solely on the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhoods of Manhattan, was founded to focus on bicycling, but is intentionally comprised of both bicycling and non-bicycling groups, as a means to further the goals of inclusive and multi perspective planning around bicycle programming and street designs.

Our primary aim is to engage local residents to envision the future of bicycling in our diverse neighborhoods. We seek to engage and understand the community’s various perspectives through multilingual outreach and a Youth Ambassadors program. This participatory process has led to the in the development of a neighborhood action plan that will result in additional resources to address potential barriers and increase accessibility to bicycling.

Why We Came Together

Local Spokes was formed in response to a perceived lack of community involvement in the planning process around the growing bicycle movement in New York City, particularly among low-income residents, people of color, immigrant communities, and youth. Our coalition was created with intention, in an attempt to add new voices to neighborhood bicycle advocacy in NYC, and to do so by ensuring that community-based organizations are the leaders in the local conversation about expanding bicycling. This means that rather than speaking about and advocating for bicycling itself, bicycling gets discussed in the context of other neighborhood concerns like affordability, housing, health, immigration rights, job training and community empowerment.

In order for it to be possible for new voices and visions to have a seat at the table, it was essential that Local Spokes was funded. Thanks to the generous support of J.M. Kaplan Fund, bike-related organizations and non-traditional partners could invest time and resources into getting at the heart of our cause. In doing so, our bicycle advocacy became rich and relevant to community needs. For bicycle advocates, this sometimes meant leaving our opinions at the door and listening. In doing so, we learned again and again that to be patient and reverent of this process was in fact a more effective and efficient approach than what traditional advocacy had taught us. If we are serious on a national level about diversifying this movement, then collaborative funding, listening, and empowering others to lead are all key.

Context of Neighborhood and Cycling in NYC

The Lower East Side and Chinatown are vibrant neighborhoods with histories as old as New York City. While the Lower East Side and Chinatown have long been the home for diverse immigrant and low-income residents, our neighborhoods have also served as places of community innovation, organizing, and progressive change for decades. Situated in Lower Manhattan, our neighborhoods are at the center of significant multi-modal transportation infrastructure. Additionally, the Lower East Side and Chinatown experience high demand for development and competing land uses that stand to challenge the long-standing residential and mixed income character of the neighborhoods.

Over the past decade New York City has invested in a substantial build-out of the bicycle lane network, and much of this infrastructure intersects in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. These neighborhoods are situated as nodes for the City’s bicycle infrastructure due to their proximity to Lower Manhattan, ready access to Brooklyn from the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, and connections to midtown Manhattan. When New York City launches its bike share program in 2012, the Lower East Side and Chinatown will be at the geographic center of the system. New York City’s bike share system will be the first in the country that is centered in a low-income neighborhood, which creates an opportunity to create a system that is accessible to riders of all household incomes and multiple perspectives on cycling.

Action Plan

Local Spokes began its neighborhood needs assessment process by developing a tri-lingual survey in English, Chinese and Spanish. The survey asked people about mobility in the neighborhood, access to transportation, barriers to biking, and rider habits. The survey was conducted over the summer of 2011 and led to 1,200 responses. It reflected neighborhood demographics from people who either live, work, or go to school in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Our analysis breaks down results by income level. The survey revealed that that low-income residents own bikes at a lower rate, spend less money on transportation, and live further from public transit. We also found that the majority of respondents desire to own a bike and would bike more often if the bike lanes were in better condition.

Next, Local Spokes conducted an extensive visioning process, engaging more than 250 residents, to gather ideas about how they would see cycling benefit the neighborhood. This process included large public community meetings and intimate sessions conducted with community partners. Issues such as accessibility for low-income residents, safety concerns, the bike share program, job creation, education and infrastructure were included.

The result of the survey and visioning process is the Local Spokes’ Neighborhood Action Plan, which identifies key findings that address local transportation infrastructure, bicycle education and safety, and the role of bicycling in creating and sustaining local jobs. The Plan synthesizes strategic recommendations generated from our comprehensive community outreach and visioning process. In the coming year Local Spokes will work to implement a core of activities from this Action Plan that furthers the issues and priorities identified through community visioning. Local Spokes will partner with public entities and ally organizations to advocate for the strategic recommendations that involve the investment of public resources and broader, systemic changes that improve cycling in the neighborhood.

New Leaders and the Future of the Movement

Also central to Local Spokes is a Youth Ambassadors program. Local teens explored the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhoods by bike and were introduced to basic principles of urban planning, bicycle infrastructure, community process, community organizing, public space, public housing, and gentrification. Participants gathered information, processed their findings, and worked together to create educational materials to share what they learned with local residents. Participants also worked with educators to create and lead free multilingual community bike tours for their families and community.

Through a guided and structured educational process, abstract concepts were demystified and participants learned that they, too, can help create our world. In the short term, youth became educators, stewards, and champions of this work. In the longer term, bike advocacy as a whole is enriched when its young leaders are encouraged and supported to envision safer, healthier, and more livable communities and are taught the tools to help build them. For after all, regardless of age and experience, we are all at once students and teachers of this effort.

Perhaps more than anything else, Local Spokes is a model of a process. In fact, when we came together as a coalition, we made a decision to honor the community-driven process regardless of its results. We were being supported to learn, to welcome complexity, to question our own assumptions about the way things work, to meet people in the place they are coming from, and to allow our decisions to be guided by what came forth. In the end, what came of this process was proactive participation, community investment, and meaningful intergenerational exchange. And what’s more, what came of this process can be trusted to lead the way. Investing in the development of new leaders ensures positive transformation and longevity within bike advocacy on a local, regional, and national scale

Read more about Local Spokes at www.localspokes.org.

Pasqualina Azzarello is the Executive Director of Recycle-A-Bicycle and Caroline Samponaro is the Director of Bicycle Advocacy at Transportation Alternatives.