Using “Pop-Up” Strategies to Realize Lasting Impacts in The Public Realm

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

What does it take to affect change to the built environment that promotes safe conditions for walking and bicycling? How can temporary installations of art and infrastructure—also known as tactical urbanism—spark a conversation? What are the best ways to foster in people a willingness to change how they get around their community, to travel without using fossil fuels?

These and other questions were featured in a number of sessions at this year’s MOBILIZE, the annual sustainable transport summit of the Institute for Transportation and Development (ITDP). During the Summit, urban transport and development practitioners come together alongside world-class researchers to celebrate best practices and accelerate implementation of sustainable transport projects grounded in equity.

In the session titled Pop-Up to Permanent, four practitioners—from Colombia, Brazil, India, and the United States—shared their work, meant to assure a built environment that is safer and more hospitable for pedestrians and cyclists. Below is a gathering of stories, reflections, and insights gleaned from “planning while doing.”

Colombia

Lina López, City Adviser with C40 Cities, is based in Medellín, Colombia, where she’s been working to create more plentiful opportunities for non-motorized transport. Specifically, she was co-founder of Medellín’s bike share system, and helped develop the long-term bicycle master plan for the city and its surrounding region.

“Twenty-four years ago, construction of Medellín’s first metro line in the city—a north-south line—was completed. While many residents gained access to public transportation for the first time, people living in Medellín’s slums were wholly disconnected from the mobility system,” Lina explained. In response, she and her colleagues set out to create a more integrated transport system in partnership with the local government that was focused on creating more carbon-free public transport offerings.

Together, they implemented two new cable car operations, and a new bike share system. But, in spite of making these integrated improvements, motorization rates doubled during that time. “Even though 75% of trips are now made by public transit, rates of motorization continue to grow rapidly,” Lina said. “We knew we needed to focus on getting more people walking and cycling. But there were a number of obstacles we had to navigate in order to realize an integrated transportation system that could work for everyone,” she said.

For starters, the team had a political hurdle to surmount. “Medellín is highly urbanized, and yet our city lies at elevation in the middle of the mountains, so there are hills all around us. Our city has been car-oriented for a long time,” Lina explained. The team also encountered technical and cultural barriers. “There was a widespread lack of understanding about the use of bicycles as a means of transportation,” said Lina. “Many people struggled with embracing the bike share concept. There was a good deal of skepticism. People had concerns about personal safety, and about whether the bikes would get stolen.”

Finally, there was the socioeconomic hurdle. “We needed to find a way to make bike sharing affordable enough for even the poorest people in the city,” said Lina. “We knew such paradigm shifts had been successful in other places, across many cities in South America especially, so we assumed our vision was possible,” she explained.

With these hurdles in mind, Lina’s team first established the EnCicla bike sharing program as a pilot. “We wanted to see what it would take to implement bike-friendly policy. We needed time to observe how the public would receive it. We needed to collect and analyze data about the bike share so we could understand how people were using it,” she said. In 2010, Lina’s team started the bike share with just 105 bikes across six stations. “We tracked the numbers closely. Ridership increased quite rapidly in the first two years, so much so that by 2013, we were able to triple the size of our fleet,” she said.

When asked to what her team owed the rapid adoption of bike sharing by members of the public, Lina pointed to her team’s incremental approach. “We started slowly. We used data to inform our steps. Each new phase brought more small changes. Once we established the initial fleet of bikes, we started reclaiming car parking spaces for bike sharing stations and bicycle parking. And we kept going from there,” she explained.

“In a number of major thoroughfares, we piloted temporary cycling paths, and tracked how they were being used. Once we had data to demonstrate their widespread use, we advised the city to make those temporary bike lanes permanent,” Lina explained. “What we saw was a very clear positive correlation between infrastructure and bike trips. As we increased investments in bike-related infrastructure, we saw an increase in the number of bike trips citywide—both private and bike share trips.”

Another successful strategy Lina highlighted centered on the “seeing is believing” premise. “We photo documented use of the bike share quite extensively. We organized bike trips with students to and from school. We helped people see that even those with higher incomes were using bicycles and bike-sharing,” said Lina. “In short, we showed people that cycling and bike-sharing were possible in Medellín, and the community responded in kind by embracing it.”

Brazil

Paula Manoela dos Santos is Active Mobility Manager with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Brazil. In this capacity, her charge was to engage fifteen Brazilian cities in a comprehensive capacity building effort designed to promote the adoption of a “complete streets” approach to public realm investment, and a more inclusive built environment for people.

“To ensure full participation in the program and create a more lasting impact, we sought communities whose leaders volunteered their involvement,” said Paula. Many of the cities who self-selected already had some understanding of the ‘complete streets’ paradigm, but “over the course of the program, we saw that each participating city’s team had matured in their conceptual understanding of ‘complete streets’ and how it could be applied in their community.”

Tactical urbanism featured prominently in the program. “Many participating cities were already implementing some form of temporary, experimental infrastructure,” said Paula. “What their involvement in our program meant, in most cases, was that the teams’ pilot projects became integrated into their cities’ master plans. We were able to help cultivate a sense of permanence—that this paradigm is here to stay.”

Measurement of this progress was an important part of this work. “We developed a set of impact metrics to help us measure the effectiveness of our program,” said Paula. “The added benefit was that it prompted each team take stock of their own work, and encouraged them to celebrate the incremental growth they experienced as a team bringing new energy to their community.”

Another feature of the program involved peer learning. “There’s great value in bringing city teams together to share their experiences, to create ties among them,” said Paula. Face-to-face exchange helped build trust and developed a recognition of shared goals. “We know it’s difficult for most people to open up and share a challenge they’re experiencing, or ask for help. The cohort model really helped eliminate that discomfort. It leveled the playing field among them, and it encouraged honest exchange of support and ideas,” explained Paula.

Seeing successful project implementation and policy changes in the first fifteen cities, in 2018 Paula’s team began the next phase of their work: expanding their impact beyond that first cohort of communities. “We developed online seminars and we began offering them to any community in Brazil that expressed interest,” said Paula.

At the same time, her team reached out to, and engaged partner organizations across Brazil either already working on, or interested in, the ‘complete streets’ approach. “In the online seminars, we showcased the work we supported in the first cohort of fifteen. We showed that it’s possible to implement ‘complete streets’ in many kinds of places, and in many different ways,” explained Paula.

With many more communities now engaged in the program, Paula and her team are now focused on ways to maintain its sustainability well into the future. “Our next phase of work will be to engage and train university professors across Brazil so that they will begin to integrate the practice of tactical urbanism into their curricula,” said Paula. “It has been a highly informal strategy in the urban realm,” Paula explained, “but want to tap the capacity of our universities to keep it going because it’s been so effective.”

Over sixty scholars have become engaged to date. As a team, these representatives are working with Paula and her team to answer the question: “How can universities help advance complete streets in their home communities?” Already, the scholars are developing curricula and formalized methodologies for student-driven work—collecting data, managing projects, training students, implementing applied research, and more.

India

Aswathy Dilip is Senior Program Manager with ITDP in Chennai, India, where the number of privately owned and operated automobiles on the streets is rapidly on the rise. “Currently, one third of all trips in Chennai are done by walking or by bicycle,” explained Aswathy. She said another third of all trips are made on public transit, most of which also involve first and last mile travel on foot or bicycle. “Given the increase in cars on the roadways in recent years, we began projecting out how all those extra vehicles would impact air quality and quality of life in our city. That helped our team move to action,” says Aswathy.

In 2009, her team set out to build support among local government officials for creating a built environment more hospitable for walking and biking. “When we met with city officials, we presented them with examples of roadways designed for multiple users,” she said. “We worked hard to broaden their concept of the street, and highlighted the fact that there are multiple kinds of users there. We asked them: ‘As our city continues to evolve, how can we develop one roadway infrastructure that supports all of those user types?’ To help local officials develop an answer to that question, we used four strategies:

  1. Inspiring champions and building partnerships
  2. Adopting policy to embed change
  3. Promoting institutional reforms and capacity-building
  4. Developing national best practice standards

Our very first step was to take our highest-ranking municipal leader on the street for a walk. Within minutes of starting our walk, he remarked ‘there’s no safe space for pedestrians, there’s no comfort to be found in this roadway,’” said Aswathy. “Later, in describing his experience to his colleagues, he shared this a-ha moment: ‘I walked with my heart in my hand.’ The experience clearly helped shift his attitude almost immediately.”

From there, Aswathy and her team developed a series of pilot projects created in collaboration with local designers. “The designers offered their services pro-bono, and redesigned a streetscape we identified as particularly unsafe,” explained Aswathy. “Seeing is believing! Allocating resources for these kinds of projects became far less difficult once we had changed the mind of our city’s chief executive and other elected officials.”

Soon after, a local policy mandating allocation of capital to projects that support walking and cycling was developed and adopted. “In a short time, nearly sixty percent of the city’s transportation budget had been devoted to investments in walkability and bike-ability,” said Aswathy, “but we didn’t stop there.” She and her team knew that expanding these positive outcomes would require buy-in from people across the municipal government.

“We organized a trip to other cities in India where the ‘complete streets’ approach had been implemented successfully. We had all the city’s engineers visit and see for themselves the kinds of changes we were talking about,” Aswathy explained. “And when they got back home, our team engaged those engineers in a program we designed to train them in ‘complete streets.’ Between the training and the tour, we helped them see it was possible to realize this kind of approach in Chennai.”

In parallel, Aswathy and her team saw an opportunity to fully institutionalize bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly practices—not only in Chennai, but across the region. “Within our Urban Metro Transit Authority, all departments come together on a monthly basis. It just so happened that the Authority’s departments had begun looking to create master plan for entire region,” Aswathy explained.

“Our team offered up street design guidelines that the Authority then integrated into the master plan. The plan called for expanded planning across ten cities in the region, and advancement of any effort to create walking and cycling networks. This alone helped facilitate over 1,000 kilometers of transformed roadways across the state,” said Aswathy. “Soon after, our team developed a set of national best practice standards to encourage adoption and implementation of ‘complete streets’ across the nation.”

United States of America

Dr. Genevieve Giuliano is a professor at University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center, where she leads research that informs more intentional consideration of the impacts of freight in the public realm. She rounded out the “Pop-Up to Permanent” session by sharing how her and her colleagues’ work helps cities consider the impacts of freight in their ‘complete streets’ planning.

“As a researcher coming to these kinds of conferences, I keep seeing the same pattern over and over. Where are the trucks in all these ‘complete streets’ presentations?” Genevieve explained. “We keep saying ‘complete streets are for everyone’—and I’m preaching to the choir here—but freight is never explicitly mentioned, even though it is an essential component of how cities function.”

Genevieve offered an example of this phenomenon from her own community. “Figueroa Street in Los Angeles was recently rehabbed as a ‘complete street,’ but freight delivery and loading zones were not contemplated at all. And now that it’s complete, we’re seeing conflicts arise between cyclists, pedestrians, and freight deliveries. These are conflicts that could have been avoided with more intentional planning and design that factored in the essential freight delivery functions that are part of everyday life in the city,” she said.

In response to these kinds of scenarios, said Genevieve, “my colleague Alison Conway at the City College of New York has been developing a ‘complete streets’ guide for freight and emergency services.” Genevieve identified a host of common commercial vehicle challenges the guiding document will address, including “navigation, conflicts with other users, intersections, speed reducing infrastructure, route access prohibitions, space for parking and loading, and maintenance of safe paths from parking to sidewalks and buildings, among other things.”

Genevieve says the guiding document is being designed to assure greater safety for pedestrians and cyclists in any urban streetscape. “There are a number of solutions this tool will offer,” said Genevieve, “things like dedicated spaces for loading and unloading, bike boxes painted in the roadway to keep cyclists away from heavy trucks, flush bulb-outs to allow for a truck’s turning radius, draft zoning language that mandates dedicated freight loading and unloading in non-roadway spaces, and numerous other strategies that promote safe pedestrian crossing in the midst of freight deliveries.”

Reflections and Insights

Facilitator Dr. Giuliano used the balance of the session to field questions from the audience, which can be gathered up into two bundles:

  • “What aspects of your work do you believe made your team successful and impactful?”
  • “What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work—and/or anticipate in this work going forward—and how can they be surmounted?”

Aswathy cited the intimate understanding of their particular audiences, and how that informed the development and use of nuanced communication, as critically important aspects of her team’s work. “This is especially true when you’re working with people who are skeptics, those who fundamentally disagree with what you’re trying to do,” said Aswathy. She explained how her team’s first-hand walking tour with engineers helped change their mindsets, while her team’s engagement with the media was important for changing prevailing public perceptions.

Two other facets of her work to which Aswathy attributed to their success in gaining traction included the implementation of tactical urbanism pilot projects near schools, which “was very effective in motivating parents because the safety of their young was under consideration.” She also highlighted how her team spent time “organizing ‘early adopter’ stakeholder groups who became our biggest and most important advocates, particularly during a recent change in administration” within the local government.

Lina offered that her team’s collection, analysis, and sharing of data was essential to demonstrating proof of concept and building an evidence base to expand the work. “In particular, what we saw was that the data helped us become more pragmatic. Just 17% of our bike share users left their cars or motorcycles at home. Knowing this fact helped us re-frame our work. It wasn’t so much eliminating car ownership, but more about changing prevailing norms and assumptions associated with automobile use and promoting more thoughtful use and ownership of private motor vehicles,” she explained.

In terms of challenges, Aswathy cited the continual need for will-building and shifting of priorities. “There’s quite a lot of money around for roadway improvements. Large infrastructure projects always seem to get the money they need. Our challenge is moving portions of that money to smaller, high-impact projects we see need for working on.”

Paula echoed this sentiment regarding the need for re-prioritizing investments for walking and cycling. “We’ll need to create a narrative to change this dynamic. And more than that, we need to create different narratives for all kinds of actors within the system. Everyone has a role to play in realizing these changes.”

All the panelists agreed about the need to help decision-makers trust and believe that change is possible. “For instance, everyone thought rampant bike theft in Medellín would be the inevitable downfall of our bike share program, but it just didn’t happen that way,” explained Lina. “Our early adopters were the ‘rock stars’ who helped change hearts and minds simply through their passionate embrace and adoption of cycling.”

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