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Alternatives to the Car: One Neighborhood at a Time

"Go" Campaign Project Manager, Maggie Melin shows off the Go Garfield Park shirt. Photo: ZappaWheels.

Over the past four years, an experiment in changing transportation behavior within local neighborhoods has been playing out in Chicago. The purpose is to get people out of their cars and introduce them to new forms of transportation such as biking, walking and public transit. And ideally to make a small change in transportation behavior.

Dubbed the "Go" Campaigns, the effort has impacted five local Chicago communities over the past four summers including Pilsen, Bronzeville, Albany Park, Edgewater, and most recently Garfield Park. ​The campaigns are a comprehensive effort at building awareness for local engagement with transportation options besides driving alone. Most impressively, they are getting results.

The Effect of Transportation Options on Community

The program is funded by a four-year federal grant (Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality) awarded to the Chicago Department of Transportation. A team including Alta Planning + Design, and the Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) were asked to implement the program. The campaigns are customized for each neighborhood and designed to help that community sustain it's own efforts.

Similar programs have been implemented in Germany, Portland, OR and other U.S. cities. Like other locations, the intent of the Go Campaigns is to support transportation options. However, the goal in Chicago is to also build community. And unlike the other locations, the City of Chicago is unique in the diversity of communities, the urban density, and the presence of alternative forms of transportation. It is the first time the concept has been tried on this level of scale and complexity.

"Go" Campaign Project Manager Maggie Melin shared the implementation process:

  1. Understand the community - meet with members of the community to learn more and identify the barriers for getting around in the neighborhood. Also identify related issues such as health concerns.

  2. Establish local ownership - identify and hire individuals within the community to help lead and shape the program. These "ambassadors" are the face of the program to the community. Typically they are employed through late spring to the end of summer.

  3. Build customized resource kits that reflect the unique resources, landmarks and relationships within different communities.

  4. Host events such as group rides or walks as a way to build awareness and engagement. These activities enlist a very human reaction: people see other people who look like themselves riding and walking, and are then motivated to try it themselves.

  5. Measure the outcomes with surveys, evaluations and discussion with residents.

Resource Kit for Go Garfield Park

The images used in the resource kit reflect the neighborhood. For instance, in Garfield Park, the golden dome (field house) and the Garfield Park conservatory are prominent landmarks in the community.

The resource kit also includes a custom map, a newsletter with local resources such as community groups and information on the heath benefits of biking and walking.

The custom map for each community is produced by Alta Planning. It includes transportation options, and community services such as food pantries, places of worship, and the local workforce center.

The custom map for each community is produced by Alta Planning. It includes transportation options, and community services such as food pantries, places of worship, and the local workforce center.

Measuring Success in Go Campaigns

Are we really changing behavior in the long term given that it's a four month campaign? That's a difficult question to answer. Maggie frames the measures of success in incremental steps. She notes, "the first question to answer, are people interested in receiving the free resources?" For Go Garfield Park, ATA defined a goal of getting 10% participation which is roughly 1000 individuals. In this regard, they've succeeded by seeing participation close to 1000 people.


Next, are residents participating in events that are held during the course of the summer, such as organized bike rides or walks. Maggie shared a recent ride in Garfield Park with Breakthrough Ministries which runs a men's homeless shelter in the neighborhood. Divvy provided bikes and a group of 10 men rode to an organic farm. The experience was completely new to the participants who were engaged and wanted to know the timing for the next ride.

Like many of the events, people showed up to be part of it. As an added measure, typically at the end of events, 24 hour Divvy free passes are distributed. The Go team then measures how many were redeemed as an indirect way to ascertain on-going engagement.

More systematic measures are collected through on-going surveys. Eventually a formal evaluation is conducted several months later. Again the results are very encouraging. For Go Pilsen, over 60% of respondents replied they bike and/or walk more often; clearly changes have occurred.

​Another measure is what residents are saying - in this regard, the evidence for transportation behavior change is amazing. Even more remarkable, are the comments that the program has created a greater sense of community in their neighborhood..

Sustaining the Go Campaigns

Photo: Go PIlsen Facebook page

I spoke with Kristen O'Toole, Planner at Alta Planning + Design, about the longer-term impacts of the program. I was particularly interested in the sustainability of the program beyond the active grant portion of May thru September. She shared examples of how each community has evolved over time.

  • ​Go Bronzeville was the first Go community in summer 2013. Ronnie Harris, one of the original ambassadors now works with Slow Roll Chicago, Chicago Department of Transportation and Divvy to offer and promote the Divvy for Everyone program.

  • Go Pilsen has an active social media presence led by Barton Crouch, an ATA Volunteer of the Year recipient. They have also collaborated on joint rides with Go Garfield Park.

  • Go Edgewater was adopted by the alderman's office who hired a summer intern from Loyola University organizing local rides including a trip to the brewery.

  • Go Garfield Park has just ended the active grant period. Interviews with stakeholders in the local community expressed clear interest in what happens next and how to continue the effort.

The team has created a do-it-yourself Go Campaign to help communities leaders bring the program to other neighborhoods. As a result, planning for Go Chinatown recently started, completely of it's own accord through interested members of the community and the Alderman's office.

Motivated to Make a Difference

Maggie grew up in suburban Michigan and did not own a car, It was challenging to get around and she felt trapped to an extent. Later after living in Ann Arbor and San Francisco, she experienced a completely different way to relate to transportation. For her, the ready access and support for transportation options beside driving alone, such as riding, biking and public transit represented freedom. (I reflected how much things have changed since I was younger when owning a car represented freedom.)

Check out Maggie's advice to bikers.

After seeing and experiencing alternatives she realized the potential for other communities. She left the high tech world, earned a master's degree in urban planning, and later a second masters degree in sustainability while living in Sweden.

Maggie lived on a farm and rode to classes in the city. After being passed by an elderly person on the way to class, it opened her eyes to how biking could apply to everyone and not just the young and athletic. Later, when she returned to the U.S, Maggie was. motivated to share what she had experienced and bring it to other communities.

She joined Active Transportation Alliance, and now manages the Go Campaigns. Maggie is very aware of how transportation options can affect behavior change and draw a community closer together. Her passion and enthusiasm for bringing about positive change is inspiring.


​If you are interested in starting your own Go Campaign, you can learn more at Chicago Complete Streets or download the getting started brochure.

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