Mary Newsom / Mar 01 2013

It was a sunny Sunday in February, temperatures edging into the 60s, and the greenway sidewalk was jammed with walkers, parents pushing strollers, and bicyclists. So many cyclists were on the narrow path that I witnessed a narrowly averted, freeway-style chain-reaction collision.

The cyclists’ ages ranged from kids on training wheels to people whose joints were probably creaking the next day. If you wanted to meet a cross-section of the city’s population, that Charlotte greenway would have been a good place to hang out.

One place you would not hang out, if you were seeking a true cross-section of the city, would be a typical Charlotte City Council meeting. I suspect the same is true for most city council meetings in most U.S. cities. It’s clear that hanging out at city council meetings is an acquired taste – one many people never acquire – and it’s also clear that the more voters get involved in government doings, the better the governments will reflect the will of the people. Indeed, the problem of a perceived decline in “civic engagement” has had academics and activists wringing their hands and trying cell phone apps and Facebooking. (Just this week, the Knight Foundation announced it’s giving $9 million to three groups – Code for America, New York University’s GovLab and the TED talks – to underline its belief “in the potential of in the potential of technology to revitalize democracy.”)

Two days before my trip on the crowded greenway, I’d heard a Texas mayor talk about a decidedly more low-tech way to get people engaged. Speaking in Raleigh at the N.C. State University Urban Design Conference, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price described her “rolling town halls.”

“The days of people just getting involved by coming to town halls just doesn’t work,” she said. An avid cyclist for 20 years, she hatched the idea of taking government to the people – on two wheels. She holds a “rolling town hall” and invites people to join her and other city officials on a bike ride. “Put on bike shorts, and come and talk to us,” she said. In five months more than 1,000 Fort Worth residents have done so.

“If you’re crazy enough to put on your spandex and go out in public, people will tell you amazing things,” Price said. The stunt has engaged a segment of the city not typically engaged in civic business, she said. (Yes, they hold walking town halls, too.)

At that same conference, a lot of the chatter among attendees concerned what’s going on in N.C. state government. The N.C. General Assembly, majority Democratic for decades, since November has been in Republican hands, and the state elected its first Republican governor since 1988. In both Raleigh and Charlotte, the state’s largest cities, some recent legislative moves are seen as distinctly anti-city. In 2011, for instance, the legislature dismantled the state’s venerable and progressive annexation law.

Of course, city complaints that state legislatures don’t treat them well is not new and not limited to Democratic city officials in states with Republican legislatures. I heard similar complaints in Charlotte from both parties when Democrats ran the legislature. But it’s also fairly clear that in many states, city officials feel strait-jacketed by legislatures stingy about granting power. They feel state politicians too often don’t appreciate the importance of cities to a state’s economy. And it’s common for rural legislators, who dominate many legislatures, to dislike cities and push resources toward their home districts instead of to those grabby cities. This can make it especially tough for cities to win state funds for expensive transit projects from legislators who think public transit is a frill or, worse, a socialist plot.

How does this relate to cyclists and rolling town halls? Stay with me.

Cities are attracting young residents, many with different attitudes toward cities than earlier generations. Remember the young Baby Boomers’ yen to live in remote cabins and bake whole wheat bread in the fireplace? Moving to Brooklyn was not high on their must-do lists. But times have changed.
Young Americans today are more interested biking and transit. According to a major study released last year by the Frontier Group and US PIRG Education Fund, “Transportation and the New Generation,” between 2001 and 2009, people ages 16 to 34 increased their public transit use by 40 percent. From 2000 to 2010 the share of young people without a driver’s license rose from 21 percent to 26 percent. Compared to 2001, in 2009 16- to 34-year-olds took 24 percent more bike rides and walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently.

Yet this same Millennial generation isn’t as engaged with government as their elders. Price, the Fort Worth mayor, said that less than 1 percent of the people under 40 had voted in the last Fort Worth city election.

So, imagine what could happen if – by riding out on two wheels to meet young citizens – cities got more of those city-loving, bike and transit enthusiasts involved in local government? Imagine the increased political heft for cities if they could count on thousands of under-40s to speak up to elected representatives about the things they value, which include cities.

How different would city council meetings be if the ages in the audience and behind the dais skewed younger? How different might political decisions be if the voters for local and state government offices looked less like a typical city council audience, and more like the people who came out to ride bikes on that sunny Sunday on the greenway?

Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs, a website of news and analysis about urban issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.