In honor of National Bike Safety Month, the Mayors Innovation Project brings you this interview with Mayor John Bauters of Emeryville, CA.
Mayor John Bauters of Emeryville, CA is an outspoken and progressive voice on sustainable land use, affordable housing development, environmental justice, conservationism, and active transportation policies that support equitable, people-oriented communities. Mayor Bauters is a vocal active transportation advocate who is known for his efforts to transform his city away from car-centric infrastructure to multi-modal infrastructure through ambitious, people-first policies.
Aaron Westling: How and why has promoting biking in cities become such an important part of your life?
Mayor Bauters: When I first ran for office I don’t think bikes even came up as a topic. So a lot of people say, “Why do you spend so much time on it?” And I say, because the priorities I did outline were safety, livability, community health, and a strong economy. Building a bike and pedestrian friendly community contributes to all those things. There are few better ways you can intervene to benefit people’s safety from a policy and infrastructure position than by providing safe, active transportation spaces.
First, moving toward Vision Zero is one of our city’s key objectives. People-oriented cities are safer cities – the more people you have on the street the more people you have engaged with each other in social community. You see reductions in crime and other opportunistic behaviors that undermine community safety. Second is on livability. People want to be able to go about their business without having to orchestrate a plan to drive 30 minutes in every direction to do something. Reducing car traffic, air pollution, noise – all the things that come from autocentric design – improves community livability, and with that comes community health and wellness.
And then finally is the economy. There’s a common myth that if you remove a parking space and put in a bike lane there that somehow businesses are going to all shrivel up and go away. We’re a testament to that you can actually build a community that’s got a thriving local economy integrated with active transportation. People will make better transportation choices if you provide them safe, connected, and complete routes.
“What I found [in Houston] were these giant stroads that were four or five lanes in one direction where they had removed a whole lane and put in a two-way cycle track. This created a pretty significant bike grid across the city. To have a fully separated, connected bike network is no small feat.”
AW: I’ve seen that you have spent time biking in cities around the US and the world, are there any examples of projects or policies that you wish you could just copy and paste into Emeryville?
MB: The big caveat on this one is that the street grid in my city is not a full grid. Designed off the industrial landscape the city had for a century, it has really narrow right of ways in a lot of areas. I have streets that don’t go anywhere in some places, so I have to be a lot more thoughtful because I don’t have huge streetscapes to manipulate into these beautiful spaces.
I would say the dream is the Netherlands. When I had the chance to go on the Dutch urban mobility study tour last September with a handful of other US transportation leaders I saw infrastructure improvements that helped control street speeds, prioritized bike transportation, and deemphasized cars. I also saw sprawling landscapes where there was an integration of traffic circles and rotaries with bike infrastructure for seamless movement of multiple modalities in a way that really gave people meaningful choices.
Here in the US there are other great examples, places that you might not suspect. I went to Houston last year, and I had never been to Houston before. Most people think of Houston as oil companies and being car centric – and there are things about it that are – but what I found were these giant stroads that were four or five lanes in one direction where they had removed a whole lane and put in a two-way cycle track. This created a pretty significant bike grid across the city. To have a fully separated, connected bike network is no small feat.
I’ll also be in DC in June looking at how they’ve done shared bus and bike lanes. As a city with constrained right of way space we have a couple of transit priority corridors where we want to create synergy between public transit and active transit. There’s a lot of doubt here about the safety of mixed bus and bike lanes and I’m going to go take a look and see what they’ve been doing and how that’s worked for them.
AW: Why do you think American cities trail their European counterparts in terms of cycling being used as an everyday mode of transportation?
MB: I think there’s a few reasons for that. One of them is money. When I say money I’m talking about America’s long standing love affair with oil and auto. The reality is that national politics and the national economy have been tethered to the oil industry, the auto industry, and their lobbyists for a very long time. It’s an exceptionally American thing to be in love with a car, which gets to my second point, the cultural side of it. There is this Americana, romanticization of Americans having an automobile.
It was exactly the same in a lot of European countries until the 70s and 80s, even in places like Paris up until a few years ago. Culturally, European nations on the whole, not all of them, are more open to change, and the role that private industry plays in influencing government policy is diminished compared to what we do here from an economic and political perspective.
What I think Europeans have discovered that Americans have not is that the automobile is actually a ball and chain. You’re spending tons of money on a car payment. In the United States you spend a lot of money on car insurance. You spend it on oil and gas, you have break ins, you have potholes, you have repairs, and you pay for parking everywhere. You’re making a massive financial investment. And once you’re in that mode of life and you’ve adapted your lifestyle to transporting yourself with an automobile it becomes really hard to not do that.
Also, we’ve built the entire country around the mindset that you’re going to ultimately invest in an automobile. In Europe, most communities were more densely built predating the car, so they have some advantages with that, but beyond that the government intervened at a much earlier point than we did or probably ever will. And people have adapted. Transportation lifestyle choices are one of the things that people can adapt to quickly if given the right combination of environmental and policy tools necessary to do that.
“If you want to understand what works and what doesn’t work in your system, if you really want to be in a position to make that system or that network better, you have to use it.”
AW: With decisions about bike infrastructure being touched by so many different people including city planners, public works departments, city councils, and even state level offices, what is one thing that every mayor should be doing to effectively make biking safer, more enjoyable, and more accessible?
MB: Using it. That’s the answer. If you want to understand what works and what doesn’t work in your system, if you want to integrate and engage with all the stakeholders you just mentioned who have parts in the process, if you really want to be in a position to make that system or that network better, you have to use it. I use it all the time. So a lot of what we do in our work is problem solving for things that we didn’t do before because somebody in the past says well we can’t do it for this reason. My position is we can do anything that we want to do. It takes political will and leadership to do that. It doesn’t mean that those things are free of challenges or obstacles, but the only way we’re going to really start to think about how to solve those is if we use it and we come from a place of yes.
The other answer would be modeling leadership. So using it, which I believe is modeling leadership, and then modeling leadership to staff and the community. When I get an angry email to me saying “you put all these big concrete barriers out in the middle of an intersection.” I can respond, “I’m glad you noticed our new protective intersection design to keep kids safe walking to the elementary school. The reason it slows you down and makes your right hand turn a lot more challenging for you is because we’re trying to not have any child killed in a crosswalk walking to or from school and that is our priority.” So when you use it more often and you see it from the user perspective, you come into a different place of understanding.
It’s like the bus system. We put in seats at every bus stop in the city in the span of 9 months last year. Why? Because I sat at a bus stop and I watched an old man with a cane at the bus stop across the street from me lean on a trash can while waiting for the bus last year and I wondered, “Why doesn’t he have a bus seat?” By the end of the year every bus stop in the city should have a bus seat. It’s not that hard. We don’t need to study that.
“For decades, we built infrastructure that bulldozed Black and brown communities and business districts, put freeways and stroads through what were once residential neighborhoods in lovely urban communities and we created a system that allowed largely wealthy white people to live outside of the urban workspace and be able to pass through other people’s neighborhoods to their jobs. We don’t think of cycling as the same thing, but we are at risk of repeating the same mistakes if we don’t do community engagement differently.”
AW: Some say cycling is a weekend activity for the wealthy and white. How can cities change that perception and ensure that the decisions they are making to encourage cycling consider and benefit every neighborhood?
MB: It needs to be made really clear – people use this for their daily commute. It’s not just a recreational activity. You get more people using it regularly when the system you have and the infrastructure you have is safe. Period. Twenty-nine percent of Emeryville’s population commutes by something other than a single occupancy vehicle. A lot of people, particularly lower income working people, rely on active transportation either as their primary source of travel for commuting or as a last mile solution between major transit systems.
To your question about what we can do, it comes back to community engagement. For a long time, American transportation planners would come in and say, “Here’s this thing we’re going to build. Do you have any thoughts on it? Thank you for your thoughts, we’re going to go build it the way we wanted to build it anyway.” That’s not really community engagement, that’s the appearance of it.
For decades, we built infrastructure that bulldozed Black and brown communities and business districts, put freeways and stroads through what were once residential neighborhoods in lovely urban communities and we created a system that allowed largely wealthy white people to live outside of the urban workspace and be able to pass through other people’s neighborhoods to their jobs. We don’t think of cycling as the same thing, but we are at risk of repeating the same mistakes if we don’t do community engagement differently.
I personally believe that when cities and advocates fight to build these safe spaces, we have to do that with the community at the table at the beginning and not, “Hey we have this great idea, here’s what we want to do, we hope you like it.” This is what we did for decades with other types of infrastructure and transportation planning that were not only unsuccessful, but in fact harmful to communities.
“People will say, “You’re getting rid of parking to put this bike lane in, I don’t know why, I park there all the time.” I say, okay you made a choice to drive and that choice is currently accessible, it’s staying accessible, and it’s safe. But the convenience you get from parking here means I take away a safe choice for movement and access for other people. And your choice is not a greater or better choice than other people’s choices. The storage of your vehicle is not my priority because that’s a convenience and not a safety issue.”
AW: One follow up on that. Are there ever times where you have to say, “We haven’t determined what this project will look like exactly, but we are going to make this street safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, so if your idea is to change nothing then that’s not one of the options. So let’s talk about how we’re going to achieve that.”
MB: Yeah that’s kind of my MO. Just by way of example, we had one street in our city that served as the middle section of our greenway, which is about to be finished, that would cross a whole mile from the north end to the south end of our city. We went door to door to all the businesses and residents on Doyle street and said “Here’s this vision we have. This is in our general plan to ultimately make streets safer, it’s part of our greenway. This is what we want to do.” We got all kinds of feedback about driveway access, about turning choices, about which blocks could be opened or closed. We had some people say, “I park here all the time.” And we directed people to other options that were solutions to what they told us were challenges.
So it wasn’t just, “Here’s this thing we’re going to do.” It was, “What are your concerns?” We heard those things. We addressed them. We integrated all of those things into a new seven-block design for that street. We put the temporary stuff up. We told everyone we’re just going to study it for the first 3 to 6 months. We did. It was extremely popular. People used it. Three months in we told staff, go start applying for grants to make it permanent.
Less than one year after the COVID emergency began we had fully transformed Doyle street. All the southbound parking and southbound travel lanes on two full blocks are now pedestrian and active transportation only. We closed the whole block between a park and a playground so kids could play soccer in the middle of the street.
This process built trust with the neighborhood. Now we are set to receive more money to expand the project and the city has earned the trust of this neighborhood because they’ve seen what it did for livability and safety and traffic calming and all these things. So, if we go back and say we’re going to do the next two or three blocks, we’re not going to have the same level of opposition to it that we might have had initially.
There are times people will say, “You’re getting rid of parking to put this bike lane in, I don’t know why, I park there all the time.” I say, okay you made a choice to drive and that choice is currently accessible, it’s staying accessible, and it’s safe. But the convenience you get from parking here means I take away a safe choice for movement and access for other people. And your choice is not a greater or better choice than other people’s choices. The storage of your vehicle is not my priority because that’s a convenience and not a safety issue.
AW: That’s a great way to put it.
MB: That’s how I talk about it. Some people are upset, but I always talk about safety vs. convenience. Just as I would not harm your safety, I’m not going to harm the safety of a mom with two kids biking to school or daycare. They are entitled to that safety, so that’s how I talk about it.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.