I’ve come to appreciate that there are three distinct personas that come together to make cycling advocacy work. Like a chair with two legs, an organized advocacy effort without all three is bound to be unstable.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience cycling from many angles – first as a rider, then as a member of an advocacy group, and eventually as an engineer designing the infrastructure. The experience of having been an advocate allows me to understand my role as a professional much better, and I’ve come to appreciate that effective cycling advocacy involves three distinct personas.
While a single person may not match a single persona, or may change personas based on the situation, you will generally find all three of these present in a well-organized advocacy effort.
The Relentlessly Positive Advocate
The Relentlessly Positive Advocate thoroughly loves cycling and they want to spread the joy to others. Their advocacy tool of choice is a bright smile, worn while riding around town that is so contagious it catches eyes of curious bystanders. This advocate understands that for cycling to appeal to new people, it needs to look fun and desirable, and they make it their objective to be the posterchild of this. If they catch wind that a coworker or a friend is interested in trying out cycling, they’ll go out of their way to help answer questions and might even offer to ride with them for the first few times.
Within the advocacy community, the Relentlessly Positive Advocate plays the role of helping to boost morale. The real value of this advocate though, is their ability to reach new people, through a positive and inclusive approach. When you’re dealing with someone who is “interested but concerned” about cycling, the most effective medicine is a relentlessly positive and supportive attitude.
A positive attitude alone though is not enough to spark change, and where this advocate can fall short though is their ability to challenge plans and be critical of politicians. This is where the next two types of advocates come in.
The Relentlessly Critical Advocate
The Relentlessly Critical Advocate is truly never, ever satisfied. You could show them the plans for a shiny new bike-friendly intersection and they would immediately start critiquing it: not enough setback, not enough protection, separated signals needed, etc. But therein lies the value of this advocate: their insatiable nature is what creates the necessary gap between what is and what could be, which drives progress.
If every cycling advocate who showed up to a consultation was satisfied with what the municipality was proposing, there would be no one to counteract the subset of community members who will inevitably show up to oppose the project. The government may then see it as acceptable to dial back some of the project elements. In the long run this hinders progress and breeds complacency. The Relentlessly Critical Advocate prevents this cycle from happening, instead sending the local official back to the drawing board to think about how they can make the project better for people who ride bikes. Next time you’re in a meeting with a Relentlessly Critical Advocate, thank them for their important role.
But this advocate is not without their flaws. Carrying a constant attitude that “nothing is good enough” can really bring down morale, not just for the Relentlessly Critical Advocate but for those around them, and you definitely don’t want this person to be the first point of contact for new people interested in cycling (they’re more likely to end up convincing the newcomer that there’s not enough infrastructure so it’s too dangerous to try).
Within the advocacy community, it is essential to have Relentlessly Positive Advocates to balance this out. It’s also important for other advocates to understand and accept the Relentlessly Critical Advocate’s predispositions, rather than spending energy trying to convince them that a project is good enough. In other words, agree to disagree.
The Strategic Advocate
The Strategic Advocate is the true political mastermind of the advocacy operation. After a Relentlessly Critical Advocate leaves a meeting shouting and red-faced, this advocate swoops in to broker deals and compromises with government officials and politicians to solidify progress. If advocacy is a big game of tug-of-war, the Strategic Advocate has their eyes on the centre of the rope and inching it forward.
This advocate is most likely to be found in leadership positions, where they have the ability to influence decision-makers. They form key executive positions on cycling advocacy organizations, but can also be found working “under cover” in less obvious places. Any shrewd consultant, councillor, or even municipal staff with a desire to see better outcomes for cycling can subtly play this role on projects as well, with lines like “I really think we need to listen to these critical ideas brought forward at the public meeting”.
The Strategic Advocate depends on the Relentlessly Critical Advocate; the day where the RCA is satisfied is the day where the Strategic Advocate is no longer needed (which is about as likely as snow in July). Being the leader of the advocacy community also means recognizing the great work of the Relentlessly Positive Advocate; when the RPA brings new and interested members into the fold, a wise Strategic Advocate takes the opportunity to recognize the new individuals and make them feel welcome and needed.
These three personas form the foundation of cycling advocacy; any organized effort with a shortage of one of the roles is like a chair with two legs. Together they form an effective army: the Relentlessly Critical Advocates are the foot soldiers going to battle for progress, the Strategic Advocates are the generals watching the fight and deciding where to push and where to concede, and the Relentlessly Positive Advocates are the medics and scouts mending hampered morale and finding new recruits to join the effort.
People may move between roles depending on the occasion or solidly fall into one of the categories. Though I have moved between all three over the last 10 years (Twitter is a great place to find Relentlessly Critical Advocates) I have found that as a consultant in the field, playing the Relentlessly Positive Advocate is the most professionally acceptable, while still being part of the process for change.