Lobbying Your City Council

Michael Bridgeland, Southwark Cyclists London, U.K.:

The impact of our cycling group changed when, two years ago, we started to act more constructively. We got our borough’s cycling officer out on a bike with us to look at some of the facilities in the borough. Instead of telling him “this is crap” we’d say “what would happen if you were to change this slightly?”

Now the cycling officer actually rides his bike to work and understands the problems much better.

We thought big but started small. State the ideal, but be realistic, e.g., “What’s needed here is a complete redesign of the entire junction, but if we were to move this island a bit and make it a bit bigger, maybe that would help.”

We started making suggestions on strategic issues, for example our idea of a local network to compliment and link into the current network of planned routes. We proposed a short route as a flagship route of this local network. We brought this up in every casual conversation with the council, promoting it as the way to get every person in the borough closer to a safe cycle route. Six months later, our council has this great idea! How about a local network?

We have built up mutual trust with the council without losing our independence. We avoid “slagging them off” in the press; there is no point jeopardising the future for the sake of a rant. Many of us take part in actions such as the London Critical Mass, but as individuals, not as a group. Image and professionalism can count for a lot.

We accepted that this campaigning lark is a long game; you can never expect instant results. We always try to get something out of our defeats as well as our victories. Pat backs when things work, look to the future when they don’t and learn from these lessons. Two years ago we would have to demand meetings with our council. Now the cycling officer and his “chief” ring us up regularly saying “What do you think of this idea?”

Teo Anastasoaie, Tinerii Prieteni ai Naturii Timisoara, Romania:

An important factor in any lobbying campaign is the position of your group in the city’s community. We are a student group based on a wellestablished student campus, a factor which cuts us off from the wider community. This has proved a significant barrier to our lobbying. A member of the city even stated, “You are not serious, you are not from the city.” We have found that by making it a conscious strategy to integrate ourselves in the local networks and seek strong contacts we have improved the situation.

Evert Hassink Milieu Defensie Groningen, Netherlands:

A strong anti-car policy was formed in Groningen in the ’70s but town officials are now becoming more tolerant towards car-traffic from the fear of losing economic development. Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Groningen) has been fighting this trend by exposing local authorities’ failure to follow their official (anti-car) policies. We’re now fighting a several-millionguilder proposal to build a giant car park under our central square. We have formed a broad coalition to oppose it, consisting of political (Green and even Christian) parties, bicycle groups, public transport users, neighbourhood groups, and individuals.

We have attracted press and political attention by emphasising that big sacrifices must be made for the sake of this project, and that projects like this have got to stop. Our efforts have helped keep non-car transport and the importance of a compact city on the planners’ agenda. To publicise our campaign, we organised a friendly blockade last winter against V&D, a big department store that has threatened not to invest in the city centre unless the underground car park is built.

Ferenc Joo, Hungarian Traffic Club, Budapest, Hungary:

We have found the environmental committee of the municipal government to be the best lobbying target because this committee has a strong voice in the assembly. Unfortunately its members can still be convinced by persuasive planners, especially as most members of the environmental committee are car users.

We have tried another approach, teaming up with citizens’ groups who organised demonstrations and blockades, against the passage of lorries through a densely populated area of South Buda. This was a success; the chief transport planner eventually promised to erect traffic signs forbidding lorries there.

Every year we try to influence the city transport budget. We present arguments in different committees about the need for better public transport, how more roads do not solve congestion, etc. It is always important to know some of the economic aspects of projects you are opposing, such as external costs, and to present alternatives.

Each year we have a petition campaign. This spring we went one step further, renting a bus, and decorating its sides with slogans such as “We are waiting for better public transport!” and “Do the decisionmakers ride with us?” We drove the bus around town for a week and as a result, 113 organizations (mostly non-environmental ones) signed it.

To strengthen our campaigns we often use a study that we ordered from a city consulting firm. We have dubbed this study “Our Shocking Transport Habits.” It shows most inner-city congestion is caused by cars travelling from the suburbs, not from circulation of traffic within the city.

Fred Rollet, Pour une Ville sans Voitures Lyon, France:

In France, a lack of environmental activists often means petitions and actions don’t work. Building a relationship with the council via letters, meetings with the “right” people, approaching speakers after public debates and discussions over a drink often proves more effective.

We have learned you must chose who you target in the council very carefully. Politicians are more easily seduced by the technicians and engineers than the public, therefore it is often interesting to try and convince these people first. It can be hard to sift through the layers of bureaucracy and find the appropriate council department to target but after a few tries you find the one which most closely echoes your ideas.

If you are to be taken seriously, you need to study the planning and transport documents that you can obtain from the council. Show that you consider the economic arguments, since you will often be fighting the commercial sector, with their “dollar-sign” philosophy.

It is not impossible to learn your facts so well that you know the files and the project proposals better than the politicians. You can then trip them up in public, at some television event or public meeting, when you expose the faults in their arguments.

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