Episode 143: Making Society Better One Street at a Time
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Thompson: Stacy Thompson
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: Like me, you may have thought of Boston’s LivableStreets Alliance as a transportation advocacy group. But, again like me, you’d be wrong. You’ll hear directly from executive director Stacy Thompson the best way to describe the organization’s work and how they’re doing it, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Stacy Thompson is the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, an advocacy group based in Boston, a position that she has held since 2015. Prior to that, she was the director of events and sponsorship for Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit. Welcome to The Movement, Stacy.
Thompson: Thanks so much for having me.
Cohen: All right. Well, let’s get started by introducing us to the LivableStreets Alliance and your mission and what you do, all of that, all that good stuff.
Thompson: Yeah, so—yeah, as you mentioned, I’ve been at LivableStreets for a little over six years now, and I often say that we are not a transportation organization, that we are an access and equity organization, and the way we achieve that is by focusing on our largest shared public spaces, which are our streets.
And a lot of things can and should happen on our streets, like walking, like biking, like creating green space, space for play, transit, and of course commerce, things like outdoor dining. So we do all of the things, and we have increasingly been focused on affordable housing and land use as well.
Thompson: So, you know, maybe 10 years ago folks would say, “LivableStreets is a bike organization.” But I try to dispel that a little bit and say, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re trying to make society better one street at a time.”
Cohen: Oh, I like that, “Society better one street at a time.” You know, it’s interesting. I’ve had several guests on here that talk about the role of the public in the street. And it’s one of these things that I think when people stop to think about the times that they’ve enjoyed their city the most, it usually involves closed streets to cars, like it’s on a street fair, it’s on a neighborhood block party, it’s, you know, a slow street, it’s a pedestrianized plaza, something like that. It’s really interesting to see, like, that kind of juxtaposition, and yet there’s still sometimes a lot of pushback to some of these fundamental things that y’all are trying to get done.
Thompson: Yeah. Well, so to be fair, what I would say is that sometimes it is a trade-off. Right? You know, sometimes it is re-guiding a car; maybe you do have to park a few blocks away. But sometimes the trade-offs are real. Sometimes it’s about balancing transit. Sometimes it’s about the sort of cost of redesigning a street or limitations. But what I think is—yeah, what I think the public—you’re right; people like fairs, people have those moments. But what I actually think is more valuable is when people don’t think about their streets at all: when a street works so well that you aren’t constantly complaining about traffic, that you aren’t scared for your life when you’re biking, that you’re not sitting at an intersection trying to cross the street for three minutes because the signals don’t work.
To me, like, you know, I think that we’ve maybe overcorrected in our pictures of pretty plazas, “And that’s the future, and that’s what we need,” when I’m just like, “If you could just bike to work every day and not think about it, isn’t that the best kind of end game?” In the same way you turn your tap water on, like, it took a lot of thought and a lot of work to build that infrastructure in our cities to have clean water. And that’s what I want for transportation, too, for it to be so good that you just don’t think about it.
Cohen: I like that. So almost making it mundane in its—in how easy it is and acceptable it is.
Cohen: And calm and—rather than kind of a special event.
Thompson: [INDISCERNIBLE]. Exactly, exactly.
Cohen: Okay, that’s fair.
Cohen: I like that, I like that. I’m down with that. And certainly, that’s a good goal to have, from that standpoint, because when it is as simple as running water, and I guess that’s—I believe that was Travis Kalanick’s—he used a similar analogy talking about Uber, you know, wanted to be as kind of accessible as running water. And I think that’s actually a really good analogy because, you know, we don’t think about that water, and it’s so important. And, you know, we obviously—living in any city or town that obviously has a robust water system, you just take that for granted probably. And I think having a really robust transportation and ecosystem—and not even transportation, but just livable street, I guess, to maybe use your alliance name there, I think is a great thing to aim for.
Thompson: Yeah. No, I use running water a lot. I also remind folks that really not until the 21st century did we have a reliable way to predict weather, and that the sort of global weather system is another intentional choice that governments made and people made and they invested in. And it really matters. It means that, you know, all kinds of commerce, all kinds of lifestyle.
I mean, imagine a future where you woke up in the morning and you couldn’t check your Apple app or the news to tell you what day you might be having. And we get angry when we’re like, “Oh, it said it was rain, and then it was only cloudy.” And I’m just like, “You know, where I grew up in Minnesota, not too long ago, a child would be walking back from school and hit a blizzard and, like, die in a field somewhere. And that was a normal experience.”
So I point to these big ideas because not too long ago having access to running water in your house, knowing what is going to happen with the weather, getting mail, were intentional governmental choices that took a lot of time, energy, effort, and attention, and were not givens in society. And I think that that is where our streets need to go if we’re going to survive climate change.
Cohen: And what I love about that, too, is to think back on those changes. Right? Is that now they’re just accepted and they’re just normal and that’s kind of the vision you painted there before with kind of that mundanity. Is that a word? I don’t even know if that’s a word. But mundaneness of kind of just the street that just works. But I think that’s also important to remember as it relates to some of the pushback that you sometimes get when you make changes—right—is that eventually, a lot of the pushback kind of goes away after a little bit of time.
Thompson: Yeah. And I think it’s really important to think about pushback in two different ways. So when you’re trying to make change, if it’s really rooted in an equitable outcome, then it’s pretty easy to see bias, racism, sort of structural inequity built into some of that pushback, but there are plenty of instances when governments have made choices that are bad for Black and Brown and low-income communities, and who just made unilateral decisions that then have had really bad consequences for those communities and our cities.
So, I often find that I’m in conversation with urbanists who sort of have this line, like, “Well, of course people are going to push back on parking, and we just have to plow through.” And I’m like, “No, we have to put our listening ears on.” We have to be rooted in systemic inequity because it will help us understand if it is—if the pushback is rooted in privilege and bias, or if the pushback is coming from a real place, where maybe what we actually need to do is make sure that there is a good loading zone for those small businesses so that they can receive goods and services and then there will still be space for that bus lane and that bike lane. Right?
We see this all of the time in urban planning, that sometimes the pushback is valid, and sometimes it does involve creating a space for a car. You know, if it’s a space outside of a senior center or a rehab facility, where someone truly cannot cross the street on their own, we have to make space for that. But that does not preclude or assume that we are going to have unsafe conditions for people walking, biking, or taking transit. So it’s a balancing act, and I think it’s about, if we want to do it right this time and we want to correct the wrongs from the past, it’s about listening hard, and then when that pushback is rooted in assumptions, is rooted in bias, being willing to take the heat and experience that pushback. Because, to your point, that kind of pushback dies eventually.
Cohen: I want to maybe go one layer further on that issue. When you talk about pushing back on that, are there some tactical ways that you’ve been able to push back on some of these issues that has been more effective than others?
Thompson: Yeah. So there are two things. When we are proposing a project that we know will work, we do push for tactical interventions to demonstrate what’s possible. So several years ago, we worked with the City of Boston and the MBTA, our transit authority here, to put down the City of Boston’s first bus lane in a decade, which involved removing residential parking for about a mile. So, just imagine that ecosystem.
But part of it was that we said the first step was to put cones down and do a pilot, to demonstrate that it—you know, we knew that the city and state had done homework to know that there was enough capacity for everyone who was parking on that street to park elsewhere. We knew that it would not negatively impact traffic or congestion. Like, we had the data, so we’re like, “Let’s just throw the cones down, survey people, get the data, prove it’s right.”
So I do think that there is a time and place for tactical interventions, but I also think that elected officials, particularly those who want to make change but who want to make sure that their constituents back them up—the most important think we do at LivableStreets is work through our Street Ambassador program, which is either paid folks or volunteers who talk to their neighbors on their streets about projects. And we do a lot of work to educate folks in the community. And by educate, I mean make sure that people have the same language and knowledge that we have. So we assume that people know that a bike lane will slow down traffic. Most people do not know that that helps.
Thompson: So if you live in a community, and you just want to cross the street, and you just want to take your kid to the park, and you never want to get on a bike, you need someone to have, like, a real fair, honest conversation with you and say, “Look, did you know that if we put these bike lanes down, it’ll make the distance for you to cross shorter? And it should slow the traffic down. And how do you feel about that? And would you support this bike lane under those conditions?” And it changes the conversation.
So, yeah, sometimes it’s about throwing a pilot out, but sometimes, depending on the community context and the kind of intervention, it’s about having honest and fair conversations and then soliciting support. And then sometimes that means we can go to an administration, we can go to an elected official and say, “Look, we talked to 600 people in this neighborhood, and we can demonstrate that two-thirds of those people said that they will support this project.” And then it’s not about getting people to show up at a public meeting.
Thompson: Most people aren’t going to go. Right? But it is—I mean, literally we put people in orange T-shirts, give them clipboards. Sometimes, during COVID, they were just calling their neighbors and asking for numbers and contact information and doing a phone tree. That really works. It’s old-school, and we find it to be one of the most effective parts of our programming.
Cohen: Hmm. Well, speaking of your programming, I wanted to ask you about one of the programs you do, the Gender and Mobility Initiative. I know that’s something that you helped start, and you’re working with some other folks. So I’m curious to see, because I feel like this is an area that is not studied as much as it should, and so was it difficult to find the collaborators and the funders for this? And what do you hope to get out of it?
Thompson: Yeah. Well, so this was really the brainchild of Luli, who is on our Emerald Network team, which is our greenway program. And she was very interested in visiting this work out of—you know, post-graduate school. And I was—you know, at LivableStreets, we are a fully female team, which often surprises folks because transportation is perceived as being so male-dominated. And I’m like, “Cool. You want to talk about the gendered experience? Go for it.”
And so, you know, I would actually say that it was not hard for us to find academic partners and a couple of limited funders. It is tied to a larger program that we’re working on. But, you know, I think that it is still surprising to people how much of our transportation policy and the way we design is really rooted in the male lens, and particularly the White male lens.
Thompson: And that this is an area of study. You know, we are not the only people doing it. But things like how buses and transit are designed, and if they accommodate people with strollers and in wheelchairs.
Cohen: Yeah, that’s a big one.
Thompson: People are carrying groceries. Right? Light under overpasses. Being stuck at a bus stop if you are alone at night and you are a woman. These are design issues that have design solutions that are frequently not considered in classic urban planning.
There’s been a lot of good thinking on this. There’s a lot of good authorship and research. And we are happy to support Luli in her effort to add to this growing pool of research. But, you know, I just really wish that it was the norm. And not to just—you know, often, I’m using stories that are centered on typically like familiar, cisgendered female experiences. But we have, you know, a range of gendered experiences that aligned with, like, multi-sectional, intersectional identities, and we need to start thinking about that when we plan our public spaces, because that is what makes them inclusive; that’s what makes them safe, and that’s what makes them work.
And I think that there’s a lot more work to be done in the urban planning field to start thinking in a more intersectional way, to pull in some of that—those soft sciences and sociology into our engineering hats.
Cohen: For sure, for sure. Yeah, I think that’s so true. And, you know, I had Sarah Kaufman from NYU on a few—I guess she was one of my earlier guests; it’s probably been a couple years now. And she’s done some research on the pink tax in New York City and kind of the additional costs for women, whether it’s having to take an Uber home or a Lyft or taxi home late at night because service is not running as efficiently or you don’t feel safe, to some of those other issues that you mentioned. So I think that’s a really, really great point, and I also love your point about kind of these lenses through which we look at this tend to be very much kind of our lens—right—the ones that we live with. And I think it’s really important that we do acknowledge that the people that are using our transportation system are as dynamic as our whole world. So, like, that transportation system needs to recognize that dynamic as well.
Thompson: Well, yeah. And, I mean, the example that is used constantly is crosswalks. That, you know, crosswalks and sort of those—that your ability in a wheelchair to move through a crosswalk efficiently and sort of ADA-compliant benefits everyone. And so when you start to take an intersectional approach and an experiential approach to urban planning and street planning, it doesn’t create a condition that harms other people who have more privileges in society.
Thompson: Right? Like, if you have more lighting, if it is safer, if you run more late-night or early-morning service, like, who does that hurt? What is the negative outcome from that experience? And so it is—it’s a net positive to be thinking more about the most challenging set of conditions or identities in a particular space ensures the best possible outcome for everyone.
Cohen: Yeah. You know, that reminds me of an episode we did a couple months ago, I think in July, with—we did a special, kind of a two-episode series on people with disabilities and their challenges with mobility. And one of the users that we talked to used a mobility device, used a cane, a white cane, and the thing that really jumped out to me from our conversation was he talked about roundabouts.
Cohen: I’ve always just accepted roundabouts as like, “Oh great, less traffic crashes, easier flow of movement, yadda yadda yadda.” And he’s like, “Roundabouts are the worst if you’re blind, because you don’t know when the—you know, there’s no signal, if you will, to tell you when to”—and I was like, “Wow.” I guess I really hadn’t considered that from that perspective, and it really just shows the bias that I have from looking at that through the lens of, mostly, driving and less walking, because most of the roundabouts I’ve seen are not in a dense urban environment, they’re kind of in a more suburban environment. So—
Thompson: Mm-hmm. Yeah, no. And it’s—I think that’s also true of—well, let me back up. We have a great ecosystem of advocacy organizations in Boston, which I’m privileged to be part of, and WalkBoston, which has existed for 30-plus years— they work statewide—they work a lot with folks who have mobility challenges for, you know, a variety of reasons. And thinking about the experience of a person who has sight impairments in a tactical setting is really challenging.
Thompson: You know, that isn’t—if you can see the change, that’s great. But oftentimes that tactical setting doesn’t include sound cues or other cues that are really necessary for people who can’t see as well or at all. And, you know, one of the things that we’ve seen around outdoor dining on streets is that, yes, from a tactical perspective it’s great; Boston really needs to maintain its wonderful outdoor dining and plaza spaces that have been created during the pandemic, but there’s a real ADA compliance issue.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure.
Thompson: And are we giving these small businesses the resources they need to pay for those shifts and making sure that we have ADA compliance? You know, it’s complicated, but it’s really important because we need to make sure that everyone in society can go enjoy a cocktail and a snack in the street. Like, I want that to happen, but it does require intention.
Cohen: For sure, for sure. Well, we were talking about gender earlier, and I want to, you know, acknowledge today, we’re recording this on Tuesday, November 2nd, which is election day in our community here in Durham, North Carolina, and also in Boston. And so Boston, this is kind of a historic election because, though you do have a person of color and a woman who’s currently acting mayor since the resignation of Marty Walsh in March of this year, you’re going to have your first female and first person of color elected this year. So that’s a pretty exciting kind of milestone for Boston. I’m curious what you think that representation will mean for the community around issues of transportation access and safety and even greenway expansion, especially because I didn’t realize this, but I—I was kind of—when I did some research, that Boston is now over 50% women and 50% people of color. So that—it’s actually been a big change over the course of the last probably 50 years.
Thompson: Oh, yes. It is a very exciting day in Boston. In some ways, I feel like whatever I say is going to be null tomorrow, but I’m going to do my best.
Thompson: So, to answer your question, and for those folks who are listening who don’t believe Boston is the center of the universe—
Cohen: The hub.
Thompson: —for context, Mayor Walsh became Secretary Walsh in the Biden administration this spring, which triggered a couple of interesting things. Kim Janey, who was a city councilor and a city council president, became the acting mayor. At the time, there were already two women of color, Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, who had announced that they were running for mayor against Marty Walsh. And then as soon as Marty left for D.C., there was a wide range of candidates who came into this very wide pool. And as you mentioned, we’re now down to Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu, who are both women of color, and both were previously on the city council.
So it’s really exciting for a number of reasons. But, you know, I often look back to what it was like to work with Marty Walsh early in his tenure, and we did do some positive work together, but it required all of our advocacy to sort of explain Vision Zero, and explain a bus lane, and prove ourselves, and bring data to the table.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey does not own a car and was an active bus rider. So within days of her taking over as acting mayor when Mayor Walsh left, we had a free buses pilot. We have, you know, moved a number of projects in the city because there was none of that conversation, none of that proof of concept. It was, “What can we get done? How do we get it done?” because we had someone sitting in a place of leadership who understood the importance of the bus, and who understood what it was like to maybe not have the resources other people have to call a Lyft or to drive downtown and pay for parking.
And so, you know, we’re already seeing that happen with Mayor Janey. And then both Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George have also worked with advocates on these issues. So while they take vastly different approaches to the topic of transportation, neither of them are coming from a place of not having any knowledge. Right? Like, we can come to the table as advocates, which is our job, and say, “Look, these are the things we need,” and start from a different place.
And I think, regardless of who, you know, is the next elected mayor of the City of Boston, that is a step forward, and something that I think we’re seeing in cities across the country, is that it matters if the person who is your governor or is your mayor has ridden a bus in the last five years.
Thompson: Right? Like, it really matters. So I do think that that experiential piece matters, and I do think that voters really valued that when they made their choices in the prelims a couple months ago.
Cohen: Yeah, I wrote a piece for Streetsblog a couple months ago. I think the title was “Your Mayor Should Be Riding the Bus.” And it was, you know, that exact kind of thesis, which is that if you don’t—you described it perfectly with Mayor Walsh, which is, you know, it’s one thing if you’re like, “Oh, okay. Someone explains it to me. Sure, we can add that to our list of priorities.” It’s another thing, if you waited for that bus, and it’s 12 degrees out, and it’s snowing sideways, and you know the headway should be, you know, 15 minutes, and a bus hasn’t shown up in 27, and you’re like, “This is a problem.” Right? I mean, that is a totally different experience as a leader. Right?
Thompson: Yeah. No, I—as an aside, and many, many folks in Boston know this, but I love the Queen of England, and fun fact, the Queen of England, pre-COVID—I think less so now—takes the train, and does take the train at least a few times a year for engagements and to go to her Christmas home. And so I generally say as a rule of thumb, if you are an elected official in a city or a state that has a major transit component, if the Queen of England is taking transit more often than you are, you have a problem. [LAUGHS] So—
Thompson: You know, that should be—if the Queen of England can get on a train or a bus a few more times than you can, then, like, you need to make the time to check out your transit system.
Cohen: On top of that, she’s 90, I think. So, like—[LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yeah, there we go. Yeah, she’s 95.
Thompson: So we’ve got the accessibility issues. We’ve got aging in place. You know, but sometimes—but my understanding is that it is often more efficient for her and her team to take the rail train car wherever they’re going, which is also just—I think it’s illuminating and a good gut check for anyone who lives in a major city. Are you taking the train more often than the queen?
Cohen: Yeah, that’s interesting, and certainly President Biden—
Cohen: —has a long history of taking Amtrak. And so, yeah, no, I think that’s super important, and that is a good rule of thumb to have in mind, certainly as it relates to how often you’re doing that. And I’m curious about, you know, expanding that. You know, certainly I saw an article the other day talking about Eric Adams, who is likely to be the next mayor of New York, and stating that he’s likely to be the first real cyclist to be mayor, as opposed to someone who’s just done it for photo ops. And again, I’m curious to see where these little small inclinations—and I’m kind of—maybe a bigger question is whether we’ve turned a corner on that, so that the future is not where we have to convince someone that it’s important that people don’t die from auto crashes, but it’s a—just something that they just know in their bones because they’ve been a vulnerable user of the sidewalk or street or bus or whatever.
Thompson: Yeah. No, I do think that the experience of biking and walking and taking transit in a city does really impact where leadership comes from. But, you know, in thinking about my experiences in Boston, I also think it really matters—we shouldn’t forget the teams that exist inside city hall who are working on this stuff too.
And what I would say is, as sometimes I see the Chief of Streets in the city of Boston biking. We live somewhat in the same neighborhood, and so it’s great to see—I see city staff, who are working on transit, biking and walking and taking transit in their everyday lives. And I think that that also contributes to the success and quality of any project. Right? You can have a mayor who believes in this stuff and who wants to go in the right direction, but it’s the folks who you don’t always see, who sometimes have been there for 20 years, but who actually care and who actually want to get it done, who have the literal boots on the ground, and who are going to be the architects of the change, the literal architects of the change.
And so I’m also very interested, both in Boston and there are several other critical elections happening in neighboring communities, in Cambridge, in Somerville, in Everett, in Lynn, for folks who know the geography here. These are all really big elections. And it’s not just who’s elected major, it’s who they bring in, whose voices within their city and townhalls they lift up and give leadership, that I think will dictate—not what change, because as advocates we will make sure there is change, but how quickly that change is implemented and how well it is implemented in the next, you know, three to four years.
Cohen: That’s a great point. I had lunch with our director of transportation here in Durham a couple weeks ago, and, you know, we met at a place that’s—I think it’s—I don’t even know the best way to describe it. I guess maybe a stroad. It’s a very high-trafficked, almost suburban-style road. And he rode there from his preschool drop-off on his cargo bike. And, you know, it’s like that makes a huge, huge difference. And again, that stretch of road is not for the faint of heart. And, you know, I don’t think he’s taking his kids on that part. But, you know, I do think that makes a huge, huge difference when the members of—not just the leadership team of the city, but also their staff are also kind of experiencing that directly. So shout-out to Sean Egan here in Durham.
Thompson: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I would agree. I think it is literally every person regardless of what their role is inside a transportation department, all the way up to the highest levels of elected leadership, who you want to have experience. But I also think the role of listening and empathy are really important because another former city councilor who is an incredible bike advocate is Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who has been a longtime partner of LivableStreets, of the Boston Cyclists Union, of MassBike. She cochairs the Congressional Bike Caucus. Ayanna Pressley, I think, would admittedly say she’s not biking everywhere in Boston. But her mantra has been—you know, she says it over and over again, “The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.”
And she’s a deep listener and, even in her time in council, understood that, while she may not be biking to City Hall every day, there are a lot of vulnerable people who are reaching out to her with real problems, and that it was important to have that empathy and listening happening. And now, you know, she is showing a tremendous amount of leadership on transportation issues. She filed the Freedom to Move Act, which is also related to transit, because she gets it. And, you know, you don’t—I think this is also true of anyone listening; you don’t have to take transit or bike every day.
Thompson: But you do need to listen, and you do need to be empathetic and center the needs of people who are more vulnerable in those spaces.
Cohen: I’m really glad you say that, because I think there is this kind of default kind of binary kind of way people think about this, “Oh, you have to do a hundred percent one way or a hundred percent the other.” And you know what? Every choice you make, you know, if you bike once a week or maybe even less frequently than that, every time you get on that bike or every time you take that walk instead of driving or whatever, you are experiencing something different. And that’s one data point, and that’s one empathy point, and so forth, that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I’m really glad you brought that up. That’s a really great point.
Well, let’s wrap up here with, where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing at LivableStreets and learn more about the organization?
Thompson: Yeah, so you can find us at livablestreets.info. I did not choose that. [LAUGHS] A dot-info feels like a relic of the past. But, yes, livablestreets.info is our website, and you can learn more about our programs and our work. I would also shout out that we have a StreetTalk series. You can watch previous StreetTalks with folks like Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Katherine Clark joined us, a lot of great big names. You can watch our previous series online, and we will be hosting another StreetTalk in early December. So if folks want to get on the mailing list or check out some of that learning, now is the time to do it.
Cohen: Awesome. Thank you so much, Stacy. I really appreciate this introduction to some of the work you’re doing, and it’s an exciting time in Boston, and hopefully more exciting times ahead for some of the work that LivableStreets is doing.
Thompson: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.