Twelve years ago when Chip Cooper, long-time resident of Columbia, MO, shared his vision of a connected network for walking and bicycling in his Midwestern college town, he found ready allies. Then Mayor Darwin Hindman had previously led the effort to save the M.K.T. trail easement for further development and helped establish the rail banking law. Resident Ian Thomas told Chip about a historic and protected footpath network in England where he grew up. And others began to ask how they could help. So, with nothing more than a good idea and passionate people, the PedNet Coalition was founded on Earth Day 2000, symbolic of their deep commitment to respect the environment, strengthen communities, and increase healthy behaviors among all. Within two months, they had 1,000 members who supported their vision. Core supporters included the health department and the mayor’s office, along with a broad-based partnership including the public works, planning, parks and recreation and police departments, the public-access television station, public schools, various schools within the University of Missouri, local business leaders, a local hospital, and nonprofit organizations.
They began by emphasizing community enthusiasm and commitment. Under Hindman’s leadership, PedNet launched a Mayor’s Challenge: Bike, Walk & Wheel Week, which drew more than 750 people at its first event and exceeded 6,000 within six years. Over time, they added other programs and events, including Walk to School Day, a Walking School Bus program (where children walk a daily route under the supervision of trained adult volunteers), a Passport to Fitness program, a Cycle-Recycle bike donation program for low-income kids, and organized walks and bike rides. They’ve supported programs with a citywide social marketing campaign led by the health department and eventually funded by a local health foundation, pedestrian and bike safety classes for children and adults, and public recognition and rewards programs, such as “Way to Go to Work”!” for commuters.
PedNet’s theory is that programs encourage behavior change while building enthusiasm and demand for more and better facilities that support these activities. “We have always thought of our work as two mutually reinforcing components,” Ian said. “Community outreach and programs, such as the Walking School Bus, engage people in active transportation. As a result, many become advocates for the policy, environment, and public funding changes that need to take place to institutionalize opportunities for physical activity.” It seems to be working well.
Coalition membership steadily climbed and exceeds 7,000 today, generating energy and resources for significant change. Columbia’s street design standards were improved, increasing the amount of pedestrian and bicycle facilities in the City. Their various walk-to-school efforts built community-wide support for a $3.5 million sales tax initiative to build sidewalks near specific schools, and it focused more attention on travel-to-school policies within the district. Combining resident advocacy with political will was the key. “Having a strong, grassroots, community organization vocally supporting trails and multimodal street standards provided the political backing I needed to push hard for these changes with my city council colleagues,” said Hindman.
The success and growth of programs and the resulting recognition also motivated new local and state funders and helped Columbia win a $22 million federal grant from the Federal Highway Administration to plan, build, and promote use of a network of active transportation paths throughout the city. As momentum grew, the city established a ped/bike coordinator position in its public works department; the University of Missouri updated and strengthened its ped/bike master plan; and, most recently, the new mayor and council are supporting a campaign to triple public transit service in order to better serve all residents.
The Coalition itself mirrors this growth. Exclusively volunteer-driven for the first three years, Ian was hired as their first paid director after the PedNet Coalition was selected as an Active Living by Design grantee in 2003. Ian and other support staff worked out of their homes in different parts of Columbia for four years, piecing together a budget with various grants and donations. Finally, after winning a large subcontract to work on promotions and education, they were able to move into a downtown office space shared with GetAbout Columbia, which addresses infrastructure-related issues, like designing bike routes, while the Coalition remains focused on advocacy, education, support, and encouragement. Even moving offices was a bold rally for active transportation. Coalition staff, board members, and supporters rode bicycles pulling trailers and carrying backpacks to move five staff members, office furniture, boxes of t-shirts and books, and a four-drawer filing cabinet an average of three miles to their new space…all in the rain.
What started as a cool idea for those who were already excited about biking has become a city-wide movement. In 2008, Columbia was selected for a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant and expanded energy into additional neighborhoods, deepened community engagement, and, with new partners, widened the vision to include increasing affordable, nutritious food for children and families and making local streets and parks more conducive to walking, bicycling, and safe play. They are creating food asset maps, expanding community gardens and helping expand EBT/SNAP access to farmers’ markets for low-income residents. They are working to strengthen leadership through neighborhood associations to revitalize grassroots engagement on multiple issues. And they are continuing to win battles to expand alternative transportation options. Recently, community advocates helped prevent drastic service cuts and fare increases for Columbia Transit. Their goal now is to triple ridership in three years, which may very well be another Earth Day celebration soon.