Grassroots Advocates Advance the Complete Streets Movement

alliance logoToday’s post comes from Carolyn Szczepanski of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, an organization on our Steering Committee.

In 1996, two dozen bicycle and pedestrian advocacy leaders from across the nation met at the Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming to share their experiences and strategize ways to build a powerful national movement.

From that small retreat, the Alliance for Biking & Walking was born (originally known as the Thunderhead Alliance).

It didn’t fit the standard mold. Inspired and empowered by their collective experiences as on-the-ground advocates, the founding group envisioned a new kind of organization — not one that lobbied Congress for federal funds or fought for bike lanes in specific communities, but one that existed solely to serve and strengthen grassroots leaders.

In its first year, the Alliance had just 12 member organizations, but the idea took off fast. By training, assisting, and funding grassroots advocates, the Alliance supported new organizations and spurred the growth of established groups. In little more than a decade, our ranks have swelled to more than 160 local, state, and provincial advocacy organizations across North America.

Now, nearly fifteen years since that gathering in Wyoming, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy is no longer a fringe issue advanced by a handful of activists scattered across the country. We’ve matured into a professional, engaged movement that speaks with authority and stretches from coast to coast.

Like the Alliance, the concept of Complete Streets was born and raised by grassroots leaders.

A decade ago, local advocates pressed their government officials and city planners for “routine accommodation” of cyclists and pedestrians. While it sounded somewhat clumsy, routine accommodation was a transformative idea. It represented a holistic approach, ensuring all transportation projects were built or redesigned with facilities for users of all ages and abilities. But the term was uninspiring to decision makers. Worse, it was stale jargon to community members. To make meaningful progress, everyone knew we needed a vibrant phrase that captured the spirit of our vision. Positive and pro-active, “complete streets” became the new rallying cry — and caught fire fast.

The Alliance is a proud partner of the National Complete Streets Coalition because we share a common vision — streets that invite active transportation because they are safe, accessible and enjoyable for bicyclists and pedestrians. We rely on the Coalition to highlight best practices, centralize key resources, and lead the charge for complete streets at a federal level. We work closely with the Coalition, because we recognize Complete Streets campaigns are one of the most powerful tools for grassroots advocates to transform their communities and build their organization’s capacity.

A young advocate. Photo: Brent Buice
A young advocate. Photo: Brent Buice

It may not be a silver bullet, but, simply put, a well-written and enforced Complete Streets policy makes the advocate’s job easier. Instead of fighting for accommodation on each and every road construction or redesign, grassroots leaders have an avenue to shape the vision for their community and partner with their transportation officials to make it a reality.

Complete streets help grassroots advocates build partnerships, too. Health care professionals and environmental activists recognize the role of incomplete streets in fueling climate change and feeding an epidemic of obesity. Groups that advocate for students, seniors, and those with disabilities understand that complete streets liberate and empower citizens of all ages and abilities.

So it’s no surprise that complete streets is often the hottest topic at the Alliance’s Winning Campaigns Trainings. Participants are eager to use the three-day workshop to jumpstart a complete streets campaign in their community. They’re fired up to make their streets safer, rally more members, and build new relationships. And, thanks to the National Complete Streets Coalition, they know they’re part of an exciting, growing movement that spans the globe.

Learn more about the Alliance’s work and Winning Campaigns Trainings at

Complete Streets