Meet Jonathan Fertig, a Bike Advocate Who Isn’t Afraid to Challenge the Status Quo

Known for unapologetically confronting car-centric public officials, Fertig says Denverites can and should demand more.

Jonathan Fertig is bringing his talents to Denver. Photo: David Sachs
Jonathan Fertig is bringing his talents to Denver. Photo: David Sachs

Jonathan Fertig’s expectations from a city are simple: He bikes and walks most places and doesn’t want to die in the process. That’s really not too much to ask for.

From that basic premise sprang a remarkable run of advocacy in Boston, where Fertig was known for challenging public officials to change the car-first status quo with physical street interventions, known as tactical urbanism, and cutting Twitter take-downs.

Now that he’s moved to Denver, Boston’s loss is our gain.

I sat down with Fertig at Denver Bicycle Cafe recently to get his take on our wide streets, why we should all #DemandMore, and when Denver can expect a people-protected bike lane. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

How did you get started advocating for a more bikeable city?

I think it begins with being an architect and being trained to observe your environment, and always question why things were designed the way they were. As I started biking more frequently in Boston, in architecture school, I started looking at streets more than buildings. Maybe it’s because it was my own personal safety that’s threatened, but it felt much more pressing to call attention to bad streets than to bad buildings.

What made you transition from observer to activist?

I was spouting off on Twitter a bunch and people started listening to me. I guess I became a little bit more well known when I dropped flowers and cones after a woman was killed riding from Cambridge into Boston over the Mass Ave bridge. That was my commute, and was very personal to me. I remember just really being flattened by her death. I had been really frustrated with the sense of movement in the city for a long time, I knew the dangers of where she was killed, and I was super, super mad.

Fertig placed cones and flowers on a bike lane to keep cars out of it. Photo: Jonathan Fertig
Fertig placed cones and flowers on a bike lane to keep cars out. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

To the city’s credit, they had just done a relatively quick intervention and dropped a turn lane and put in a buffered bike lane there. But they hadn’t protected it. So I put flowers and cones there and it sort of blew up. I got coverage in the Boston Globe, Streetsblog, and it really struck me.

On a whim I started a GoFundMe page and raised like seven grand in three or four days. It completely blew me away. So now I had money to buy materials for more interventions.

Tell me about #DemandMore.

I made a huge sign, like six feet wide, that said “Demand More.” So that became this hashtag I used, for lack of a better word, to brand all my interventions. And then other people in other cities started using that, and it formed this solidarity among advocates — that people can get out there and do stuff on their own. That was really the turning point for me, because then I started getting attention from politicians in the city and other media.

You were brought into the corridors of power.

That was the most surreal part for me. Because I had just sort of been a mouthy activist doing it in my free time, and more and more people started listening to me. Michelle Wu, who was the city council president, set up a meeting for me with the mayor’s chief of staff, the director of transportation, the head of public works, the city’s chief transportation planner, and her. And me. I was just a guy.

Fertig teamed up with artist Photo: Jonathan Fertig
Fertig teamed up with artist Bekka Wright and placed cutouts like these along bikeways around Boston. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

What happened in that meeting?

We had an hour-long meeting and I just sort of let them all have it, because that’s just sort of how I do it. And I think it was probably a different kind of meeting than they typically have with advocacy organizations, because those people tend to be more diplomatic and they don’t want to ruin their access. This was access that I was just happy to have once, and I didn’t really care whether I ever saw them again. It was like a one-day term limit so I’m just gonna go out blazing.

Since you have fresh eyes, what are the first things you noticed about Denver’s streets?

The most noticeable, the most egregious thing here, is the multi-lane one-ways. Three-lane one-ways are bad enough and there were a couple of those in Boston. But four and five lanes with parking? These streets are built to carry 100,000 people a day, and I know they aren’t. So I look at the traffic counts and they’re carrying 7,000!

My geographic experience right now is primarily in the core. But the stuff in the core just seems like it’s the easiest pickings. It has the highest population density, it’s the most walkable — theoretically — and it just has these car sewers flowing through the city.

What else?

The double turns on one-ways are mind boggling. The left on reds are insane. The lack of crosswalks. The fact that on one-ways, street signs only face the direction of vehicle flow, so if you’re walking on the street in the other direction, you don’t know what the streets are. That’s just so hostile to pedestrians.

What kind of tactical urbanism projects do you want to see activists do here, whether it’s you or someone else?

One of the last things I did in Boston was a people-protected bike lane. It was in the middle of December on like a Friday night. And I got like 50 or 75 people to show up with under 24 hours notice. It got some great press and got the city on its heels again.

Does that mean you’re going to have a people-protected bike lane sometime in the future?

Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt.

What advice do you have for people who want to make the city more bikeable but don’t think they have the chops?

Getting people involved in activism on their own is super important. If people feel like they have to wait for the rallying cry from the advocacy organization in order to do something… if they have an idea, they should just do it. It’s a lot more effective if there’s a more dispersed effort and a more diverse effort of people trying their own stuff out — especially when the streets are so wide. It’s a literal blank canvas. The prospects here are super exciting.