The civic ecosystem
Different types of civic organizations play different roles, but all can be useful in building your agenda and maintaining support for it. Examples are:
Research organizations, sometimes affiliated with universities or sometimes independent nonprofits, specialize in collecting evidence, developing proposed policies, and publishing reports that inform and influence local leaders. Examples include the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in Pittsburgh and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, which studies residents’ preferences about transportation, among other issues.
Membership-based advocacy groups, such as those that represent transit riders or bicyclists, can turn people out to testify at public hearings, collect signatures, and mobilize interested citizens in other ways. Examples include Ride New Orleans, Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, and Riders Alliance in New York City.
Business organizations often understand the link between better transportation and economic growth. The Downtown Denver Partnership championed a large expansion of light rail and changes to the pedestrian environment. The Indy Chamber has been one of the foremost advocates for expanding bus service in Indianapolis (and helped to pass a transit tax measure in 2016). At a smaller scale, merchants’ associations and business improvement districts often work on transportation, parking, and streetscape improvements at a local level.
The more diverse the civic ecosystem’s organizations and skills, the greater the likelihood that a new idea launched into the public sphere will evolve into a political mandate.
If there are few civic groups working on transportation in your city, you may need to work with local foundations, community groups, and/or business leaders to change that: You can convince existing organizations that transportation is relevant to their work, or you can help to create new civic groups.
The MARTA Army, for example, is a new volunteer organization working to improve transit stops in Atlanta. RVA Rapid Transit is a 3-year-old pro-transit group that has helped shape changes to bus service in Richmond, Virginia, and grew out of faith-based organizing efforts. Local and national foundations (disclosure: including TransitCenter) have provided support to help both organizations grow.