Civic Crowdfunding: Money from the Masses for Downtown Denver Bike Lane

The Downtown Denver Partnership has started the organization's first-ever crowdfunding campaign for civic infrastructure, with a $35,000 target for a protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street. Nationally, civic crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular way to bridge budget gaps.
The Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) has launched the city's biggest crowdfunding campaign for civic infrastructure to date. It's aimed at funding a protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street with a goal of $35,000.

The lane is already funded to the tune of $120,000 by the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and the Gates Family Foundation, but the project still needs the crowd to pitch in to get off the drawing board.

Aylene McCallum, the DDP's senior manager for transportation and research, says it's the longstanding organization's first foray into crowdfunding, and they're not going it alone. "We've been working with the city for over a year."

And crowdfunding inherently gets a crowd involved, and that's a key in this case. "We really wanted to engage the public," McCallum says.

But the fiscal side is also important. With federal transportation budgets becoming "less reliable," McCallum says the campaign fills a financial need. "We hope hundreds of individuals give us a few dollars," she says. "Crowdfunding, in a way, is a public-private partnership on a small scale."

Crowdfunding expert Rodrigo Davies calls nonprofit-government collaborations like Denver's "a really constructive way to use crowdfunding."

Davies first heard of the concept via Spacehive, a U.K.-based platform for civic crowdfunding, in 2011. He subsequently bore witness to a crowdfunding campaign that "plugged a funding gap" of $50,000 on a community center in Glyncoch, one of the poorest towns in Wales.

"I thought, 'There's got to be something here if they could do it here,'" he says. "People want to contribute in this way. We can get projects done that would not otherwise get done."

Davies worked for Spacehive for four months before heading to MIT to research civic crowdfunding. He's since moved across the country to Stanford University to continue his work.

Published in May, his "field study" of  more than 1,200 civic crowdfunding campaigns initiated since 2010 brought a few conclusions to light. For starters, the success rate is notably higher than the crowdfunding norm. Civic campaigns are fully funded 85 percent of the time, while the average for all projects on Kickstarter is about 45 percent.

Davies thinks that the reason for this is because a coalition has already been built for most civic crowdfunding initiatives, and that's not the case for solo artists and inventors who are looking to fund more personal projects.

"People have to have done a significant amount of groundwork before proposing the idea," Davies notes. "They've also talked to a lot of people just to have gotten to the a point of posting the project. Base-building is critical to a project's success."

In many cases, the projects are on private property, Davies notes. "They are creating some kind of community resource. Government doesn't need to be involved."

Startups and hotspots

The DDP is using ioby, a Kickstarter-like platform focused on community projects, for the campaign, in part because Memphis successfully used it for a protected bike lane, McCallum explains. Other civic crowdfunding options include trusty old Kickstarter, CrowdRise, Citizinvestor in Tampa and in Kansas City.

The various crowdfunding platforms have slightly different rules, Davies says. Some are open and others only allow city officials or approved nonprofit staffers to register. Some have all-or-nothing campaigns, like Kickstarter -- if you don't hit the target number, the campaign is kaput -- and others allow fundraisers to keep the money even if they don't hit the target.

For the Arapahoe bike lane, the DDP selected ioby because it's "not all or nothing and low fees," says McCallum. A pair of other projects in Denver have raised funds on the platform: a pedestrian push in Jefferson Park from WalkDenver that raised $8,828 and a $5,746 project to make more playful bus stops in northwest Denver.

The pop-up protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street could soon become permanent.Philadelphia was an early mover in civic crowdfunding. It was the first city to initiate an official crowdfunding program in 2012. Other cities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have followed its lead.

In Cleveland, the newly opened Downtown Dog Park raised a matched $10,000 from the crowd, and there's an ongoing campaign on CrowdRise for a bike share in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

On ioby, campaigns are notably denser in San Francisco and New York than other parts of the country. Beyond the Arapahoe bike lane, there were two active Colorado campaigns -- in Grand Junction and Telluride -- at press time. 

Unlike Philadelphia, Denver has not embarked on a crowdfunding initiative as a municipality. A mechanism for it to pursue investment in this way has yet to coalesce, officials say, at least without a nonprofit partner like the DDP.

Success stories: more than money

Davies says the biggest crowdfunding success he's seen remains the aforementioned community center in Glyncoch, Wales. A bike-share program in Kansas City, Missouri, raised $100,000 of its $450,000 from crowdfunding but Davies says he sees it as a different animal -- most of the donations were $5,000 to $10,000, and more often from businesses than individuals compared to Glyncoch.

Rodrigo Davies calls the Glyncoch Community Centre in Wales a model for civic crowdfunding.Another case study to watch is + POOL, a conceptual floating pool in New York's East River. After organizers raised $30,000 on Kickstarter to get it off the ground, the project has attracted more than $200,000 more in crowdfunds. The plan calls for donors for each of the pools tiles, and if that comes to pass, the $15 million pool will open on Brooklyn's riverfront in 2016.

Civic crowdfunders should develop a long-term plan that includes operating costs and maintenance issue, Davies adds. Another common pitfall: exclusivity to just a few spots. "Crowdfunding is unevenly spread," he says. "You see it in some neighborhoods, and not so much in others."

Davies says cooperation and collaboration often mean more than the dollars. "I'm encouraged when it's more than just a funding mechanism."

In Denver, city officials have pledged that they will maintain and support a bike lane on Arapahoe Street. The DDP's McCallum calls the protected lane "low-hanging fruit" for improving bicycling downtown because Arapahoe has "a high number of users and low barriers to development."

The lane will fill a real need in Denver, she adds. Downtown bike commuting is up 42 percent -- from 4.2 percent to 6.6 percent -- in 2012. And Millennials have been shunning cars unlike any generation in recent memory. It follows that the DDP has organized a task force to improve bikeability downtown, with the crowdfunded lane on Arapahoe the first of four priorities. Next up: devising a better bicycle parking plan; establishing a "Mile High Loop" that connects downtown with nearby attractions; and making the annual "Bike to Work Day" a monthly or even weekly event.

McCallum says the DDP has yet to plot its next push into civic crowdfunding. "It's really too early to say. We're absolutely using this experience to learn."

Davies says that the projects with the biggest impacts are usually quite small. "The majority of civic crowdfunding is really small-scale," he says. The average result is around $6,000.

But the numbers are often secondary in the world of civic crowdfunding. "I think there's a lot of potential," Davies contends. "The dollar values are small, but it can make a tremendous impact on a neighborhood."

Everyone has a little dream. I'd really like to see a footbridge installed over the Harvard Gulch in the park of the same name in south Denver. It would open up the dog-walking possibilities beyond the same old loop. I've contacted The Greenway Foundation and Denver Parks and Recreation about launching a crowdfunding campaign and will keep you posted. Send your dream projects to me here and I'll help connect the dots if I can.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts