Talking Headways Podcast: How Oakland Got it So Right

oakland headways montage

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This week we’re joined by Warren Logan, policy director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations for the City of Oakland. Logan talks with us about the city’s coronavirus response including how they came up with initiatives to respond to the crisis and some of the specific implementations such as the Slow Streets Initiative. We dive deep into public engagement and how to think about coordination between different departments in new ways.

Now, some of you out there may prefer to read rather than hear the news, so a transcript is below:

Jeff Wood: So let’s talk about the Safe Streets Initiative a bit. How did that get started and what was the process for moving forward with that? I guess first off, we could tell us what it is and what you all are doing. Then maybe tell us a little bit about how it came to be.

Warren Logan: I’ll start with the problem that we were trying to solve. So first, Oakland is so blessed to have a number of parks around the city and one of them being the largest Lake Merritt, which is kind of next to downtown. A lot of people have reached out to us and said, “Hey, the parks are overcrowded. I don’t feel safe walking here and a force of driving here, but I still need outdoor recreation.” So that’s, that’s one challenge that we’re trying to address.

The second is that frankly, people are still making essential trips. Just because there’s a shelter-in-place mandate does not mean that people are not driving, walking, bicycling, you name it, to the grocery stores to get their medication or what have you. And there are people who are still working in essential jobs. And perhaps, underneath all of that, Oakland’s demographics haven’t changed overnight. Nothing about COVID changed for the better that people have a lower access to cars and are low-income neighborhoods.

So just the same as, as we’ve seen bus service going down because their workers are also getting sick or are also sheltering in place, and as we’ve seen, BART is reducing its service, it means that all of those people who are traveling, whether for exercise or for essential trips, need a way to do so safely across our city. And so the folks in our parks department and our public works department and our department of transportation put their heads together and said, well how do we address all of these different challenges knowing that we need to do so extremely quickly, right? We’re in a pandemic, it’s a crisis and we have limited bandwidth, right? We’d have fewer people who can implement anything, because again, we’re addressing multiple challenges all at once. And what is a way in which we can make sure that we distribute whatever this new widget is — this resource, this policy — that it is distributed equitably throughout the city.

And so, very fortunately, our DOT said, “Well you know, we’ve got this bike plan that we’ve just adopted last year where thousands of people were engaged and are still engaged in that process.” And we ask people at the time during the bike plan — it’s called “Let’s Bike Oakland” — what are streets that you, residents, workers, neighborhoods, community groups, which streets do you feel you would like to see are safe for people to walk and bicycle around your neighborhood? And our bicycle network not only includes, you know, the buffered bike ways, the protected bikeways, our vision network. We also have neighborhood bikeways that are distributed sort of throughout the entire city. Those are the 74 miles that we just sort of said overnight that we were going to dedicate to this Oakland Slow Streets Network.

From there we decided, “OK, we’re going to start with this network that has been vetted by thousands of people, was adopted by our council unanimously right?” To say, “OK, let’s work with something already. Let’s not recreate the wheel.” And from there we said, “OK, how do we make our streets even safer?” And that’s the Oakland slow streets initiative. We’re taking the 74 miles sort of judiciously each week, rolling out about five to 10 miles each week with soft closures where we put barricades at critical intersections to remind people that if you’re not local traffic, you can’t use these streets. That’s fundamentally what Oakland slow streets is about.

JW: I’m curious how the process for engagement came about during the previous process, not necessarily during this COVID-19 situation where it was rolled out in a quicker fashion.

WL: Sure. If you’re asking about the engagement process for the bike plan, it was kind of cool because it’s award-winning. It’s frankly a model about how to do community engagement well. We had an online system where people could draw lines on a map. We had that same system allow people to comment on the ideas that both staff and other residents were providing. We also put in a lot of person-hours. In fact, our staff went out to nearly every single community group and asked them, not to come to us, but we went to them. You know, during Dia de Los Muertos, we’d set up a stand where people could just show up and provide their feedback frankly about about anything they wanted around transportation.

Google “Let’s Bike Oakland” and you will see an entire chapter on how our engagement went. And then we’re just so proud of that because we met people where they were, both figuratively and physically. We went to them and ask them what they wanted and I think that that’s critical for any type of engagement.

I think that we have a lot of apologies to make about how quickly we rolled out this program. I know that a lot of people, including our major advocates, felt like they were kept in the dark.

I do want to say though that there are a couple of things here. The first of which is that the streets that we chose were not sort of drawn magically from a hat. They are adopted streets that frankly we just reminded people were our safe network. The second thing is that because of the pandemic, we unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of doing a year long study on how to roll this out best. We are very much building the plane as we fly it. And so we’re trying to take a page out of the book of our innovators of sorts and move fast and apologize along the way. I hope that we’re not breaking things, but I also just recognize that while normally we have the privilege of taking our time and taking a measured approach, we also just need to move quickly. I’ve said this a number of times in, in a series of interviews, I’m not here to debate whether or not streets should be safe. And very fortunately we are building on a plan that has already gone through that engagement process.

JW: How have people responded so far?

WL: Candidly, I think people have responded really well. On one hand, we’ve got groups who are saying, wow, we should’ve done this a long time ago. Some of our advocates have gone up to folks just this last weekend with their smart phones and videotape them and ask them, you know, what do you think about this? There is this mom that said, “Wow, you know, I usually drive my kids to a parking lot for them to be able to scoot and bike in and now they can just do it right outside our house. Why didn’t we have this before?” There are people who are asking frankly and understandably, “Why didn’t we have this before?”

And that’s a good problem to have. I want people to be thinking about that.

On the other hand, there are people who distrust the government, and we really do need to earn their trust. I know firsthand why people feel like they don’t trust the government. And I say this with some certainty that one of our main initiatives, no matter what we’re doing, is to build trust in government. And when we don’t keep people in the loupe about our decisions, we break that trust. And so for that, I’m sorry.

That said, I hope that while we rolled this initiative out very, very quickly, nearly overnight, frankly, I hope that people trust that we at least have their best interest at heart, that we really are trying to respond as quickly as possible with the limited resources and bandwidth that we’re all working with during this pandemic.

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