Not every civic campaign succeeds on the first try. In fact, many don’t. What we’ve found is that across the board, the ones that end up being successful are the ones that stick with it after the first or second failure.

This lesson was brought home to me recently while participating in a benchmarking trip to Denver. Along with a hundred other fellow Pittsburghers representing the business, civic, philanthropic, and political communities, I learned how many times Denver failed at something before getting it right.

And believe me, Denver really has gotten it right.

John on Rented Bike

Out for a spin on a Denver B-cycle.

Take for example Denver’s amazing transit services. This is a classic story of how early failures can lead to big wins if you stick with it, learn and adjust. First, some quick facts:

  • With an anticipated population growth of 1.5 million by 2035, Denver needed a new transit system that could serve the needs of its new residents.
  • Within the next several years, Denver will have added 120 miles of light rail and commuter lines, with 57 new transit stops. Not to mention 18 miles of new rapid transit bus service.
  • The total cost of these upgrades? $4.9 billion, with the Denver voters agreeing to pay for half of it through self-imposed higher taxes.

All of this wasn’t as easy as it may sound. Here are some of the setbacks along the way:

  • In 1972 Denver voters defeated a referendum to host the Winter Olympic games, fearful of the potential cost and negative impact on the city’s growth.
  • In 1980 voters defeated a referendum that would have built six regional transit corridors.
  • In 1997 voters again defeated, via referendum, a plan proposing a radically overhauled 100 mile transit system.

Yet in the end, all of these defeats eventually paved the way for – and helped cultivate – the “Big Win.”

In 2004 voters finally approved a .4% sales tax increase to fund FasTracks, the 122 mile light rail expansion project. Yet we have to wonder – why did it succeed this time after so many early failures?

Here are a five lessons from the Denver success which all civic campaigns could learn from:

  1. Timing is everything, and in this case that was true to a “T.” With the huge population surge and changing demographics of the city, voter profiles and attitudes shifted. The early defeats actually helped raise awareness – and subsequently the importance – of the public transportation issue in the minds of Denverites!
  2. “All or none” was the mantra of the 25 regional mayors that coalesced and worked together to help promote the transit plan. The regional mayors stuck together by highlighting the plan’s benefits for everyone, rather than the old “my piece of the pie” thinking.
  3. Bottom-up, rather than top-down, was ultimately the right way to get Denver on board. The 2004 effort definitely appeared to be a grassroots, people-driven campaign – and after several failures it needed to be viewed that way in order to win. Don’t be fooled, though: usually there have to be a lot of top folks helping plan, coordinate, and push any successful bottom-up approach;
  4. It’s all about message, message, message. In 2004, the message wasn’t transit. The message was development, growth, and quality of life. Transit was just pitched as a way to make those three factors a reality.
  5. The biggest takeaway, however, is that big civic campaign projects can take time – sometimes decades – and almost all require a few failures at first.

To be sure, Pittsburgh has had its fair share of successful failures: the 1997 Regional Renaissance Initiative, the Fifth/Forbes Corridor efforts, and the Early Childhood Initiative, just to name a few. To read more on our own successful failures, check out this article I wrote a few years ago, and remember: sometimes, failure may be the only way to win.