As counter intuitive as it may seem, getting adequate funding to help increase the safety of walkers and bicyclists can be a challenge in even in some of the most friendly communities for people who bike and walk. Aware of that challenge, and with support from a Voices for Healthy Kids grant, a group of walking- and bicycle-safety advocates organized a campaign to secure funding for important transportation improvements in Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Hennepin County, which includes the City of Minneapolis, is known as one of the most bicycle-focused places in the nation. For its part, the Hennepin County Board had put together bicycle and walking masterplans to improve safety and accessibility, especially in locations throughout the county that had pressing safety needs. But advocates knew that alone wouldn’t guarantee sufficient funding for non-motorized transportation improvements.
Historically, the county had not provided much financial support for sidewalks and bike lanes. So too, competing funding requests and a tightening county budget made any level of funding a challenge, and efforts at the state level to provide significant statewide investments in all forms of transportation projects had stalled out due to political disagreements.
“We wanted to see what we could do from a policy and funding perspective to get the county to invest more seriously in a manner that matched what was already identified in their plans, including in their bike-ped master plans and in their larger comprehensive plan,” said Nick Mason, deputy director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.
That effort had an opening when it became known that the county had proposed funding a new safety fund, at $1 million per year over a four-year period, and although its function and purpose hadn’t been fully determined, its overall goal was to improve safety for all modes of transportation.
The challenge was that walking and bicycle safety interests only had a three-month window to work within the county’s budget process to make sure the needs of walkers and bicyclists were not overlooked. And with fiercely competing budget interests, there was no certainty that the proposed funding could even make it through the challenging hurdles associated with that process.
A grant from Voices for Healthy Kids was used to hire a short-term campaign coordinator to organize a coalition of supporters, oversee research, advise on strategy, navigate the budget process and coordinate educational outreach to the county. The coordinator, Katie Hatt, not only had broad policy and organizing experience at the county and state level, she was also a long-time bicycle advocate.
One of the first tasks was to build a coalition that went far beyond the voices the county typically hears from on transportation issues. It included public health interests, including the American Heart Association, walking and bicycling groups, including Our Street Minneapolis and the Bicycle Coalition of Minnesota, housing interests, including the Minneapolis High Rise Council, environmental interests, including the Sierra Club, and the senior organization AARP The second task was to create and coordinate messaging that supported not only the need for more dollars for the safety fund than the $1 million proposed by the county, but also strengthened the transportation safety policy measures tied to the fund.
Key message points included the desire of more and more residents for safer opportunities to walk and bike, the fact that the fund could help reduce crashes, and the long term economic and social benefits that safer walking and bicycling paths would bring to the county. Storytelling around specific safety concerns in locations throughout the county was also employed.
“The unique coalition created around the effort was particularly effective,” says Mason. “By including voices that county officials are not used to hearing, it showed them that support for this issue goes far beyond the typical club bicyclists to include seniors, families, rural and suburban residents and others.”
Hatt said that impression was further strengthened when a county tax hearing, which was typically sparsely attended, saw 20 supporters from diverse backgrounds and interests show up in support of the increased funding and strengthened policy priorities. Having a supportive champion on the county commission who is also an avid bicyclist was also critical because of the contentious nature of the county budget process and the fact that a minimum of four votes was needed to pass any budget item.
The hard work paid off with the county deciding to boost the proposed $1 million in funding for the first year of the safety fund to $2 million. Equally important, they also agreed to put the dollars toward safe walking and bicycling projects based on data and metrics, including walker and bicycle crash data.
“That funding level will help establish an important future baseline related to the safety needs of walkers, bicyclists and drivers,” says Hatt. Mason added that approval of the increased dollars for the safety fund sends a powerful message. “It’s an important sign that change is coming, and that the county recognizes that our streets are our largest public spaces and should exist for everyone … That wouldn’t have happened without funding from Voices for Healthy Kids.”