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Digital Grassroots:
How online media are revolutionizing the trails, walking and bicycling movement

By Tony Schaffer

Ken Bryan, Florida state director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), remembers a different time and a different kind of advocacy. He remembers stacks of postcards and letters. He recalls long nights of licking envelopes and incurring paper cuts whenever there was a message that needed to get out to RTC supporters.

"RTC has made a concerted effort to build these systems," says Bryan. "People join a cause because they want to be part of it, they want to do something themselves, and these are tools for engaging these people and challenging them to be a part of the movement."

In September 2010, RTC launched a national campaign that proved how powerful a tool these online systems could be. When an official at the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA) lobbied for trail, walking and bicycling programs to be dropped from the federal transportation trust fund, RTC tapped its e-mail lists and partner organizations, sent action alerts and effectively rallied thousands of supporters. By December, more than 51,000 people had signed a petition that RTC hand-delivered to AAA headquarters in Heathrow, Fla., demanding the organization rethink its position and acknowledge that trails are a key part of America's transportation future.

"The response we saw kind of blew anything done previously out of the water," says Kartik Sribarra, RTC's policy outreach manager. "People became really engaged. Beyond the petition, they sent their stories to our website. They independently contacted AAA and voiced their concern."

© Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
By targeting specific regions and audiences, like this
e-mail to Florida constituents, RTC is now able to
galavanize support almost overnight.

In Florida, Bryan first realized how powerful a weapon he held with RTC's online advocacy system in 2009. That year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) proposed the elimination of the Office of Greenways & Trails (OGT), a program RTC worked closely with that consisted of 25 staff members and a citizen input council.

"It was a good thing to rally our people around," says Bryan. "Here was a program we had been working with for 19 years, and they were going to eliminate all the progress we made with one swipe of the pen."

With the assistance of RTC's outreach team, Bryan segmented the national e-mail database and sent an action alert only to constituents in Florida. The targeted alert generated more than 3,000 e-mails from RTC's Florida members and supporters to FDEP and the state's legislators. At one point, e-mails were coming so frequently a secretary called Bryan to say, "We get your point, make it stop."

"It changed how agencies interact with us," says Bryan. "We carry a lot more respect because they see we're speaking with large numbers of interested people behind us. It's been an incredible tool not only to accomplish policy but to open doors that otherwise were a lot harder to open."

After the campaign, Bryan was able to send another e-mail to RTC supporters. He told them the Florida legislature had rejected FDEP's offer to cut OGT, and that all programs were being restored without the loss of a single staff member.

National Beat

RTC's ability to rally constituents and turn e-mail campaigns into positive, real-world results reflects a much broader national trend of using online media in the trails, walking and bicycling movement.

In the nation's capital, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) has established an especially active online presence that promotes its efforts to create a healthier, more livable region by improving the D.C. area's bicycling conditions.

The association, founded in 1972, launched a new website last summer equipped with an online store, a public forum co-hosted with goDCgo and BikeArlington, and a blog that helps populate the site and WABA's social network pages.

"Every staff member is responsible for adding to the blog," says Greg Billing, WABA's outreach coordinator. "We see this as one of our main ways to communicate with constituents. We're doing a lot, and we want to keep them informed of our story and priorities."


WABA's Twitter page, where they work to engage
and inform suporters in the D.C. area.

When a staff member contributes to the blog, it is automatically posted on WABA's Twitter page, which helps the organization avoid the common trap of letting social network sites lie dormant. However, as Billing warns, links to blog posts alone are not enough to keep people engaged and would fail to capitalize on the advantages Twitter provides.

With Twitter, WABA has found a means not only to communicate instantly with constituents but to do so in an intimate setting, where they are comfortable throwing out ideas and initiating conversations around possible events, classes and advocacy programs.

"It's a good way to get a feel for our followers and what they want," says Billing. "People are also more forgiving when we make a mistake or misspell things, which I think shows a little more human side to the organization."

Beyond informing supporters, WABA has also been able to use Twitter to attract volunteers, which—for a staff of 10—are essential to program and fundraising efforts.

In the last year, WABA has begun tying fundraising to specific advocacy campaigns. Right now, the group is focusing on an effort to reach more underserved communities in the D.C. area, conducting free learn-to-ride classes, manning a mobile bike shop and giving away free bikes.

Staff are using Twitter to share news about this program while also fundraising around it. So far, they have seen good responses.

"Twitter allows you to include links, and it's important for us to make sure we're taking people to the right spot on our site, directing them to the outreach effort they're interested in," says Billing.

Despite the success with fundraising, WABA realizes Twitter and Facebook and similar media are, foremost, simply tools to keep people engaged and could weaken with too many one-sided requests.

"A big part of using Twitter is building that community and building a relationship with people," says Billing. "You can't spend all the time asking for money, asking for volunteers or only putting out information. A lot of it is interacting with people, following up on their comments and giving out interesting facts and cool links. It's important to find a balance of fun and important business with pages like this."

About Face

Social network sites have not only become crucial marketing and advocacy tools for established organizations such as WABA and RTC. These days, they are vital part in creating new activist groups and building trail movements.

In El Dorado County, Calif., trail supporters first became energized when the Joint Powers Authority discussed giving a train heritage group a 30-year lease extension on a 28-mile stretch of railroad track that hadn't been used in 15 years. This lease extension would effectively end any hopes of making connections with the completed trails near Placerville and building a rail-trail that would span the entire county.

"We didn't want to see the whole thing given away without some consideration of what the trail could be," says Mike Kenison, vice president of Friends of the El Dorado Trail (FEDT). "This trail could cover the whole county and has the potential to be nationally significant."

A volunteer group of bicyclists, hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians, FEDT members started their trail-building efforts with a simple Facebook page. They sent invitations to friends and other trail advocates. They e-mailed county organizations and school districts. They posted messages on bicycling and hiking pages, announcing their presence and their mission to complete a trail that would connect Lake Tahoe to Sacramento and allow residents and tourists to witness the history and natural beauty of their county.

After a year, FEDT had more than 1,000 contacts.


Starting with a simple Facebook page, supporters of
the El Dorado Trail have been able to collect an
effective list of contacts and advocates.

"Building that number was really significant," says Kenison. "It gives us respect and weight. We can generate 300 e-mails by sending word to supporters. The county has never seen that before. When we talk to supervisors, they listen. We're a player and they know it."

In recent months, FEDT has improved its online influence by revamping its website and using creative ways to engage supporters, such as a photo contest and an online poll asking how people tend to use the trail.

FEDT has also been active outside the Internet. Members spend time on open sections of the trail, getting signatures for petitions. They attend as many public events as possible and volunteer to speak about their hopes for the trail, how much money it could bring into the county, and how much money they could save if they build on the railbed. They stay in frequent contact with RTC's Western Regional Office, based in San Francisco, and discuss legal issues around the potential trail.

"We bombard RTC with stuff," says Kenison. "They've been through the wars before, and they've been great at helping with legal aspects and the history of what's worked in the past. We couldn't do what we've done without their experts."

What FEDT has done is take a single social network page and build an effective trail group that continues to gain momentum. Every day the group finds more followers on Facebook.

"I think we need to have 10,000," says Kenison. "We have a broad connection with the community, but with 10,000 names everyone would know us. We're in a political battle, and in this fight over the railbed we need those numbers."

Yet even with its first 1,000 followers, FEDT has already accomplished a lot. On March 21, county supervisors voted in favor of a policy change, giving hiking, bicycling and equestrian trails priority on a section of track from Shingle Springs to the county line, and instructing staff to research issues around pulling the tracks.

In an uncertain time for trail funding, when federal transportation reauthorization is being debated and a down economy has created greater competition for fewer funds, organizations such as RTC, WABA and FEDT continue to innovate and expand their reach through e-mail lists and social network sites. These new media have become crucial tools in the effort to protect trails, promote bicycling and walking, and create positive changes in the transportation landscape.

Though online media will never replace on-the-ground activists and in-the-flesh supporters, these evolving platforms enable organizations to magnify their actions and amplify their collective voices. The ceiling for online growth can seem infinite. Still, behind every e-mail and every Facebook or Twitter account are real individuals, deciding to hand over their trust and add a voice to a cause they feel is vital. That relationship presents an enormous opportunity to expand reach and influence but also confers particular responsibilities on those who manage the data.

"Once people can see what a robust system of outreach we have, you have to be careful with it," says Bryan. "You have to use this power respectfully, properly and appropriately. If you deploy it for something that isn't going to resonate, you can undo what you've accomplished. The sky is only falling when it's falling."

 

Tony Schaffer is a freelance writer and 2010 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He often cycles the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis on his way to visit his niece and nephew.

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