How To Use Pilot Projects To Increase Collaboration

By U Cast Studios
July 8, 2024

How To Use Pilot Projects To Increase Collaboration
(NuSarnia members working on a pilot project. Source: nuSarnia.)

Many American cities and towns were originally planned over 100 years ago. A lot has changed in city planning since then.

This article was written by Seairra Jones and originally published by Strong Towns.

Almost every time a city or an engineer completes a project, there are complaints. It’s easy to point out infrastructure choices that seem nonsensical once you’ve learned about the conditions that make places unsafe or uninviting for people — but it’s a lot harder to actually work with your local engineer to change those conditions.

The “doers” of nuSarnia, an advocacy group in Sarnia, Ontario, have adopted an uncommon approach to advocating for improvements in their city: Instead of reacting in anger to things they don’t like, they’ve tried to bridge the gap between themselves and their city’s officials by supporting projects that the transportation department is already working on that do align with nuSarnia’s vision for safer streets.

“So while there are things that we wish we could change, or we wish could be different, there’s enough negative voices out there,” said Tristan Bassett of nuSarnia. “So we always try to keep things positive and supportive where we can.”

Additionally, Bassett said it’s important to not only bring positivity but suggestions as well.

For example, in the days before NuSanria was finalized as a group, one of the founding members, Ben Prins, approached the engineering department with solutions to issues he experienced on his biking route. He didn’t just share ideas; he conducted the groundwork, too. Prins reached out to private businesses along his commute, asking if they approved the updates. They did, and the transportation department responded by completing the majority of Prins’ suggestions.

Over time, as nuSarnia grew, the group continued to engage with the engineering department. “When we first met with them, we said, ‘What can we do to help with your work?’” recalled Basset. “And they said, ‘Engage the community.’” So it became a clear mission of nuSarnia to bridge the gap between the public and the engineering department, both to shed light on seemingly opaque transportation insights and to convey community feedback to the engineers.

Pitch Pilot Projects

Your city jumping on a multimillion-dollar project is a hard ask, especially when the current system has projects slated decades in advance. There are many blockages to switching course. But instead of feeling hopeless, we can suggest inexpensive, quick and easy projects as temporary studies. Proposing and executing these studies are simple, and they help bring around permanent installations later.

A memorable pilot project for nuSarnia is their Canada Day pop-up bike trail. Pitched as a temporary study, the city granted nuSarnia permission to develop connected bike trails throughout the city so locals could have multiple options for getting to Canada Day festivities. NuSarnia provided the map and all the city had to do was set out delineators to mark the new pathways. It was such a hit, with over 800 people utilizing the lanes, that the city made the pop-up trails an annual tradition.

“We want permanent, protected bike lanes, but things like this are just a little bit more palatable to maybe somebody who’s not fully bought into the idea,” said Bassett.

How Do You Pick a Pilot Project?

One key element is to start small. Another is to check in with your community. Your idea for a pilot project may not be what other locals want. NuSarnia recognized this for their pop-up protected bike lane along Colborne Road, where they updated the city’s installation — which was originally just a singular strip of white paint with bike signs in sectioned spots.

“This [project] was along my neighbors and my street,” shared Bassett. “If we had gone into any other neighborhood and done the project there and said, ‘This is what the people want,’ that might not necessarily be true.”

Since she conversed with her neighbors, Bassett knew those living next to the city’s bike lane wanted to use it but chose not to because fast traffic made them feel unsafe.

So, one day, Bassett and others from nuSarnia arrived with blue paint and plastic delineators.

(The pop-up bike lane. Source: nuSarnia.)


The setup remained in place for one week before the city disassembled the delineators. That was long enough for nuSarnia to conduct studies showing that the project reduced speeding and increased the number of bicycle users. As a result, the city decided to leave the bike lanes blue.

“The intention of the project was to be a pilot demonstration to build support for better infrastructure,” said Bassett, “because the argument at the time was, ‘Why would we invest in it when nobody uses it?’ But nobody uses it because it’s not safe.”

Another way to conduct inexpensive pilot projects is in conjunction with private property owners. For example, the city of Sarnia is working hard at developing a Midtown Trail: a walking and biking path that connects the city from east to west. They haven’t had much time or resources to beautify the trail, so nuSarnia stepped in with their advocacy skills to start making it a place for people to be, instead of just a path. They did this by contacting businesses along the trail route and offering to help develop different spaces — for instance, by creating engaging signage. These conversations helped bring more awareness to the trail and the potential streamlining of revenue for business owners.

(Midtown trail.)


Create Feedback Loops

Part of the problem with North America’s modern development pattern is the loss of feedback loops. When cities reoriented their growth systems away from incremental and local growth toward macro objectives, they started losing sight of what the community truly desired. To heal this development pattern, advocates must reignite the power of conversation and constructive feedback.

NuSarnia is excelling at this. They take special care to communicate messages between the city and its residents. Perhaps the most striking way they do this, which could be implemented in any other city, is by hosting bike tours.

But these bike rides are more than a joy spin around the city. It is a deliberate time spent engaging with infrastructure.

“A four-kilometer [2.5-mile] bike ride can take us almost two hours,” said Bassett. “There’s a lot of dialogue and there’s a lot of discussion around the spaces that we’re seeing.”

Along the route, nuSarnia shares the wins, new infrastructure highlights and projects they’re excited about. They shine a light on the rationale engineers use to make their decisions.

“We talk with [the city] regularly enough, we ask enough questions on our own, that we translate that back to the community in a meaningful way, and it makes them feel closer to the process,” shared Bassett.

During these tours, the riders give feedback and chat about their ideas for the city’s transportation infrastructure.

“And feedback that we’ve given from the ride gets actually incorporated into what [the transportation department] is doing next,” said Bassett.

(A nuSarnia bike tour. Source: nuSarnia.)


Lastly, if you’re communicating and attempting to build a relationship with your local engineering department, but simultaneously feel like you’re never on the same page, Bassett recommends developing an understanding of the other influences affecting the engineering staff.

“There’s a lot of influential voices and organizations,” said Basset. “So getting a deeper understanding of that could help.”

NuSarnia does a lot, and they’re good at it. If you want to learn more about what they do and how they “get things done,” check out their episode on Strong Towns Office Hours.

“Our voices matter and we can make this change together,” says Bassett.

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