Q&A: Lessons from Denver’s crowdfunded bike lane success

February 19, 2015

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

Rendering of the future Arapahoe Street: Alta Planning + Design.

From Memphis to Portland to Kansas City to Denver, crowdfunded bike infrastructure has been gathering momentum.

But the point of a crowdfunding campaign isn't actually to raise money. It's to raise a movement.

That's the lesson from Aylene McCallum of the Downtown Denver Partnership, the business association that led a successful charge this winter to raise $36,000 for a protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street through the middle of Denver.

The new bikeway will create a northeast/southwest route through downtown, complementing the perpendicular 15th Avenue route that opened last year and the parallel route on Lawrence Street expected in 2015. (A fourth protected lane, on 14th Avenue, is slated for 2016.)

But even more important, Arapahoe's crowdfunding campaign was the lead-up to what would be the first crown jewel of Denver's central-city biking network: a protected lane on Broadway, whose important route crossing diagonally through the grid and into the neighborhoods south of Downtown could create a transformative biking highway like San Francisco's Market Street or Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue.

The biking fans in Denver's business community know a Broadway bikeway won't be built without broad-based support. In a conversation this month, McCallum talked with us how Arapahoe was in some ways the first step of building Broadway.

Congrats on hitting your fundraising milestone! What did you learn from this campaign that you didn't know last time we spoke?

I think the biggest thing we learned is that there are people absolutely willing to support this, but it took a lot of effort. You have to ask people. you can't just have a post on Facebook or send out a mass email. It's personal emails and personal phone calls that brought in the big donations.

Whether they were business people that could donate $1,000 or residents that could donate $10, you had to ask them. Didn't matter who it was. you had to ask them for money. I could tell when people on our steering committee would send out emails to people, because that's when the donations would come in.

Also, having a specific dollar amount in mind. If you ask and you don't have a specific dollar amount in mind, then unfortunately people just give the smallest amount they can afford, or the amount they have in mind. So we did a lot of thinking for people as to what would be an appropriate amount from their company.

How much of your staff time did it take?

I was working on it pretty intensely for about two months. And then another month — two weeks on the front, two weeks on the back — just kind of low intensity.

Any estimate of the number of hours you spent?

Maybe, like, 100?

And you're a pretty skilled fundraiser. Does that make sense as a return on investment?

Our mission wasn't just to raise money for this bike lane. Our mission was to build a community that supported this. Our mission was to build advocates in the business community and in the larger community.

The community rallied around this a little bit. I think that brings a lot from an organization perspective to get more projects like this funded.

Now we can say, 'Remember what happened on Arapahoe Street? We want to do that on Broadway. Different strategy: we don't need you to raise money, but we need you to write a letter to the mayor, we need you to call your city council member.'

Do you think you'll do another crowdfunding campaign?

Not in the near future. If we think there's a good opportunity for a fundraising effort or something. You match the problem with the strategy for solving it appropriately. It is something in the toolkit, and we would consider when an appropriate time would be to use it again.

I want to ask you about a cautionary tale that I think about sometimes with these crowdfunding projects. Last year, we wrote a story about the sidepaths of the early 1900s, which were basically the world's first protected bike lanes. They were developed by bicycling advocates in response to the arrival of cars on the roads, and many sidepaths were built across the country with charitable donations. But the government couldn't figure out how to pay for them. People who used bikes wouldn't pay a toll or licensing fee. People who didn't use bikes wouldn't support building them with general tax dollars. And after a few years, people got less excited about them, the voluntary donations dried up, and the whole thing fell apart. Meanwhile, the gas tax was invented and immediately auto infrastructure exploded.

The lesson is that the people who were funding the sidepaths never were able to insitutionalize the funding for the sidepaths. And yet somehow those roads were institutionalized.

Of course it's not sustainable to say that we're going to only fund bike lanes and bicycle infrastructure on a crowdfunding basis. No! If we want people to get from point A to point B, we need to fund them in an institutional manner. I can say pretty comfortably that there is no appetite for using crowdfunding as a sustainable funding source for bike lanes. It's super important to see it as a tool to demonstrate support and a tool to rally a group of advocates.

That makes sense. When's the Arapahoe protected lane going in?

The city has told me unless there's some crazy weather that gets in the way of installation or some major design problems that come up, we're looking at a 2015 installation. 2015 could be a big year for Denver, downtown in particular.

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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