You might think opening up 70+ miles of streets to the people would take a while, but Oakland mobility policy director Warren Logan shares how alignment—not agreement—helped the city move quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic to make the streets safer for everyone.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Logan: Warren Logan
Cohen: As we talked about last week, trust between government and citizens is an important component to bringing about change. This week, that theme continues with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s mobility policy director Warren Logan but with the added element of the importance of a vision of what could be, a vision that Warren and his team are making a reality during this pandemic with the Oakland Slow Streets initiative. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: So on Twitter last week I saw Emily Castor Warren, an Oakland resident and “Episode 034” guest on this podcast, share that Oakland was opening up 74 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. That was four times the next biggest closure here in the U.S. for shared streets during the COVID-19 pandemic. So that really got my attention. My guest today is Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. And I’m here to talk to Warren about how they did it, what they’re learning, and what other communities can do to bring shared streets to their communities. So welcome to The Movement, Warren.
Logan: Thanks you, Josh. It’s great to be here.
Cohen: So let’s start by just giving our audience an overview of what the Oakland Slow Streets initiative is.
Logan: Sure. I’m very happy to share all about our Oakland Slow Streets, but first I kind of want to give folks a little bit of background on the different angles or challenges that we are trying to address. Oftentimes in meetings we start with, “What is the problem we’re trying to address?” So one of the first areas was that Oakland is so blessed to have a lot of really fantastic parks. Unfortunately during this time, we can’t have people congregating. And we were finding that as people were going outside to walk their dogs or recreating, taking a jog, or even walking to essential locations, our parks were becoming overcrowded.
Similarly, even though people are sheltering in place, staying at home as much as possible, there are plenty of people who first of all still have to make trips to work as an essential duty. The second is there are people who just generally need to walk to get their groceries or bicycle. Our demographics especially in our communities of color have a pretty high dependency on public transit and low access to cars. And so nothing about COVID changed the demographics of Oakland, which, again, rely on all of these alternative modes of transportation. And we recognized, “Okay. Well, given those challenges, what are some of the quick ways that we can address the overcrowding, make sure that people are able to travel safely throughout our city for their essential trips, and, frankly, from a real-estate or a land-use standpoint what is something we have a lot of that people aren’t using very much of right now?” And that’s our streets. Our streets make up, I think, 20% to 30% of our landmass for Oakland. So look no further; right?
Logan: And so we thought, “Okay. Well, how do we get people to spread out? How do we provide safe avenues for people to walk?” and perhaps most importantly, “Where did we already plan for this type of an initiative so that we don’t have to recreate the wheel?” given that, again, time is of the essence. And so we landed on using our bikeways, our neighborhood bikeways that we had just designated last year. We went through a yearlong community engagement process with thousands of people to help us identify which streets they wanted to use to walk safely and bike safely or stroll with their kids to and from local destinations. So we’re basically delivering on a promise that we made last year just a lot faster hopefully.
Cohen: Wow. You know, I like what you kind of said there, because you kind of did a lot of this legwork already. Right?
Logan: That’s right.
Cohen: You know, certainly, you announced this in the last week or so, but this had kind of been in the hopper, I guess, for a while planning for this. What other things did you need to do in order to make sure that this order was able to be implemented so quickly?
Logan: That’s right. So I’ll kind of explain a little bit about how the government works in an emergency. So we have our regular government. Right? We’ve got our council; we’ve got our mayor, all the departments. During really challenging times we also set up what’s called an emergency operations center, which is this whole standalone group that pulls amazing people from every layer or our different departments, our different councilmembers, etcetera, to help streamline that communication process as much as possible so that we can deliver on whatever the objectives are for that emergency.
So I’m situated in a group called Resilient Oakland, and I’m the lead on resident support. And so this initiative came out of that and from, again, our great work at DOT. And so when you ask, “Okay. Well, how do we implement something like this so quickly?” it’s like, “Well, what are the bottlenecks that we have to be thinking about?” Right? Normally, the first one is process. Right? Like, we have to do community engagement; we have to get it through all of the different checks and balances. And, again, very fortunately we had just adopted this plan; so we had really just come off the heels of all of that process, all of that baked-in bureaucracy and engagement that is so necessary for safe streets and, frankly, any initiative in the city, in any city.
The second element though was one that’s pretty practical, which is, “How many barricades do we have? How many cones do we have? How many people do we have at our—you know, how many team members do we have at our disposal to help us implement this quickly?” And I’m sure we’ll talk about this later; we had to kind of think about those different materials and say, “Well, what do we have quick access to?” because surely you’ve seen what other cities are doing around closing major streets. And we just don’t have the materials or the people, you know, the manpower to close a Broadway, close a Market Street in the same way.
So we had to look towards streets that were naturally already kind of closed off, were already supposed to be safe. And, again, that’s how we landed on the neighborhood bikeways. They’re super narrow; they don’t continue for very many blocks, and actually you don’t want to drive on them to get virtually anywhere if you were to look at a map of these streets. So we were trying to do ourselves as many favors as possible just with the streets we picked to make this as seamless as we could.
Cohen: In that way—I mean, this almost seems like this is, you know, like these were already quote-unquote “slower streets” anyway. Right? They’re not the major arterials that folks are going to be necessarily choosing to drive down on a regular basis. Although I’m sure some people were cutting through and so forth. But in some ways what I think is kind of fascinating about this is this kind of just gives this almost, like, imprimatur of the city saying, like, “We want to codify this more than just kind of this neighborhood bikeway, which is great, but, like, we’re actually going to really kind of put the weight of the city behind this a little bit more.” That’s what I think is so interesting about this, because it fundamentally doesn’t change the fact that these are already streets that people are already going slow down anyway, or mostly. Right?
Logan: I think that’s mostly true. I will speak, though, candidly that we still do have safety issues in our city. And we recognize that people who get hit by cars walking and bicycling are disproportionately older people of color. And so it’s not that—well, obviously these streets are safer because people just naturally want to drive slower. It does not mean though that they are all safe streets. And so you’re actually right, that the city wanted to really lend its weight where it could to remind people, frankly, these streets are supposed to be safe.
I grew up in a neighborhood, you know, 30 years ago where I could play in the street. I could hang out with my brothers, throw a ball, and then if a car was coming we’d say, “Car!” and, you know, the car would listlessly but go slowly through our makeshift lot. And I wish that people were able to remind themselves that that can still exist. And in this case, of course, we’re not telling people to play in the streets. We’re reminding people that they deserve safe passage to their essential duties. Right? Like, it shouldn’t be groundbreaking or controversial that the City of Oakland or, frankly, any city declares that people should be able to walk safely in their neighborhoods. You know?
And when you really think about, frankly, all of the news that we’ve kind of ginned up from this release, it’s also a little bit disheartening that this made the news in a way, because it shows how much work we have to do. Because when you really dig into it it’s like, “Okay. The mayor said that you deserve safe streets in your neighborhood. Here they are. Here are your neighborhood streets.” And for people to react so viscerally and say, “Wow. That’s groundbreaking,” says that we have a lot to do in terms of transportation planning, in terms of public safety, you know, with or without COVID.
Cohen: Yeah. No, I think that’s totally fair. And I think we’re seeing that a little bit with healthcare as well. A lot of us are saying, “Wow. Like, why exactly do we have this healthcare in such a way that, like—oh, yeah—the insurance companies are saying, ‘Oh, yeah. We’re just going to allow all this testing and all this treatment for COVID-19. We’re just going to—you know, don’t worry about that. We’ve got that covered.’” Just like, “Oh, interesting. Okay.” You know? It’s like we really are kind of fundamentally kind of accepting some things that I think—or the pandemic is allowing us to see some of these things that we really shouldn’t be quote-unquote “celebrating.”
Logan: That’s true. And I think, you know, one of the questions that the community resilience team in our operations group consistently asked ourselves is, you know, “How do we respond to the crisis right now?” But we also ask, “Who do we want to be? Who do we want to be at the end of this? What kind of a community are we looking to have created or held tight through this pandemic?” And so when we think about the kinds of strategies that we try and implement or, you know, initiatives that we try and implement, this is one of those that really pulls at my heart because obviously I want people to be able to make their essential trips during a pandemic safely and with physical distance from their neighbors. But at the same time I want people after this to remember that they deserve safe streets.
Cohen: Yeah. No, totally. I think you’re 100% right. So let’s maybe segue into that a little bit, which is, you know, you maybe touched on this a little bit there with that answer; but I want to kind of maybe ask a little bit more directly, which is what are some other outcomes of this initiative that you’re hoping for both from a strategic point like you just mentioned but even from a very tactical standpoint both in the short-term and in the long-term?
Logan: Sure. In the short term, I want to make sure that people are safe. I want to make sure that people are able to travel still all the while our bus lines are down, BART is running a lot fewer—BART, which is our subway system, is running a lot fewer trains. I want people to still have their essential mobility. That’s first and foremost. Additionally, from a public health standpoint, we know, as transportation planners or even as neighbors really reading the news, that car collisions and traffic fatalities occur very, very frequently. It’s actually one of the leading causes of death in the entire country. And sometimes it’s more than guns, to be honest.
And so in a time when our hospitals are overcrowded and our stress on our medical system is so high right now we cannot afford to have anyone getting hurt unnecessarily, you know, as if it wasn’t the case before, but really now. Because even if you aren’t fatally injured from a collision or, you know, just bicycling around for example, we don’t want you going to the hospital because that means you’re exposing yourself then to the pandemic. And that’s the exact opposite of what the goal is right now. In the long term, I’m really hoping that people really feel a sense of a community that I already know that they do but that they also attach that to the place that they really are able to walk and bicycle in their own neighborhoods.
We’re very fortunate here in Oakland that we have a number of mobility advocates, you know, some transit advocates, some pedestrian advocates, and some bicycle advocates. And they went out on Saturday, you know, the first day that we launched just last week, and they took videos of kids playing in the street with their parents. And they asked them just some questions, “What do you think about this? How’s it going?” And this one woman said that she normally drives her kids to Lafayette, which is not close to Oakland, just so that they can ride their skateboards in a parking lot. And that breaks my heart, you know, that people feel like they can’t own the streets right outside their house.
And so I want people to be able to see that—you know, whether or not we make this permanent is sort of separate. Right? There’s lost of different ways to affect slow streets. But I want us to be able to engage the community moving forward with everyone reminding themselves, being able to pull from this seminal moment so that when I say, “Hey, community X—” let’s say, okay, I’m going to go to the Fruitvale, which is one of our Latinx communities just east of here—“I want to help make your streets safe,” the response I hope to get from that community is, “That’s so exciting. Please do it now. And I have some ideas based on something that happened a few months ago, a year ago, during the pandemic. Remember that time when you closed down those streets and suddenly I felt safe to just walk outside? Let’s do that.”
And right now—and this is sort of the long-term thinking. You know, before this crisis when I and all of our safety team at the DOT, our Department of Transportation, go to people and talk about safe streets, it’s like we’re negotiating with them whether or not they deserve safe streets, whether or not they want safe streets. And it just—again, it really hurts because you’d think that if I told you I’m giving you medicine, you know, because you’re sick you wouldn’t have to negotiate whether or not you would want to take it. And that means that we just have a lot of work to do in terms of building community trust and, frankly, proving that we can deliver on our promises. You know, one of the biggest pillars that the mayor always tells us is, “Trust in government is critical.” You know, no matter how big or small the promise, you have to deliver on it because otherwise people aren’t going to trust you.
Cohen: Yeah. Boy, there’s a lot there. What I love though is talking about that trust and moreover kind of painting this vision and allowing people to experience that vision. So that’s what they’re doing now. So what you’re giving folks is the ability to take something that prior to this they may not have had a really good, healthy understanding of what exactly you meant by that. And now you’re kind of thrusting a tangible example in front of them to allow them to actually, tangibly see exactly what safe streets can look like. It’s almost like, how would you describe a cup of water to someone who is marooned on a desert island? Right? You know, if they never had it before, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” It’s just like, “This will taste really good.” You know?
Logan: That’s right.
Cohen: It’s a really tough, tough think to—like, how would you describe that? So, I think, to me, part of the real power here is taking something that people can’t even describe except in real fuzzy terms and making it real. And, I think, to me, that’s the most powerful part of this, I think.
Logan: That’s exactly right. You know, what’s interesting is we have something close to this when we close blocks, small blocks for a few hours for, you know, a community block party or something. But for people to experience for perhaps a not a small amount of time—right? Like, I can’t speak for how long this pandemic is going to last—but to at least say, “You know, you don’t just get to enjoy Sunday Streets on Sunday. Let’s see what this feels like every day for a month.” And it’s something that I really hope every community not just in Oakland but across the country is able to sort of really consider, is, like, “What are the kinds of things that are possible that we used to think were impossible?” whether that’s transportation or healthcare or, you know, workers rights.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure. No, there’s a lot there. And I think that speaks to the leadership of the mayor and of your team there to really look at this opportunity, to really help advance some of these critical issues in your community. Let’s maybe use that as a jumping-off point to go to something that you would want to share with other communities. What could they learn from your experience so that they could potentially replicate this in their community? Because I know, you know, we certainly have listeners who are fellow policy folks, fellow transportation leaders in other communities. And so I’m curious both from a strategic and from a tactical standpoint what you might recommend from your experience that they could use to help replicate this in their community?
Logan: Sure. Speaking to all the cities across the world, I think one of the critical things people should remember is that the way that we set up this project, the program, let’s say, is that we actually looked at other cities and said, “Okay. A few cities are closing down major streets. Others are kind of doing the other end of that, which is taking neighborhood streets kind of like what we did and just making them soft closures.” And so it’s not necessarily that I would recommend each city try and replicate what Oakland did, because every city is a little different, but what’s similar across all of them is that everyone deserves safe streets.
I can’t tell you how you’re going to accomplish that because your neighborhood might be a little bit different than mine, but if you start with that principle that you deserve safe streets no matter what time, pandemic or otherwise, I think it helps people really suspend a lot of other firewalls that they otherwise would have place on those types of policy initiatives to say, “Okay. Well, how might we accomplish this?” Because if you assume this has to get done instead of, “Maybe this won’t get done, and I have to put up a barrier to it,” I think it changes the way people really look at these types of initiatives.
And I will share actually a quick story with you that circles back [INDESCERNIBLE] before, which is that when we brought this initiative to our emergency operations center, our emergency services group said something that they’ve never said before. So typically—which is police and fire, and I love those guys because they work tirelessly. Typically when we talk about safe streets, most transportation planners know that that can be a source of friction because transportation planners want to narrow the streets and understandably our fire department is like, “I gotta get this truck in here so that the building doesn’t burn down.” You know, and that’s typically a trump card. But, that said, by us just saying, “We’re going to do this, but I can’t tell you how,” it kind of helped people who typically have challenges sort of like going over those barrier to say, “Okay. Well, we’ve assumed this is happening, so let’s just figure out what the minimum requirements are to make everybody whole.”
And it was so funny because both our police and fire departments were like, “This is great. The streets you picked are not on our emergency routes, and if they are, we’ll just review the map and we’ll continue about our way. Just make sure that you have 12 feet so we can get in there.” You know? And that was one of the fastest reviews I have ever seen from our entire team on a program that normally would have taken maybe a year to have launched. And we had this series of conversations over the course of maybe a week and a half, which is unheard of. So I guess, you know, to sort of circle back on your question, you know, what other cities can learn is maybe not exactly how we did it. Right? Like, we had a few barricades and some a-frames. Another city might have something else like a sawhorse or whatever. That’s not the lesson learned here. The lesson learned, I think, is that each city needs to take an approach of, “How might we?” that’s sort of the design thinking. Instead of, “Could we? Should we?” it’s, “How are we going to accomplish this principle that we all believe is shared across the board, that people should feel safe in their neighborhoods walking and bicycling?” and then have each of the different stakeholders identify how to make that work instead of kind of putting people at odds with each other.
And so I’m really hoping that not only the City of Oakland but others across the country are able to sort of remember that, like, lots of different things really are possible if you just take a breath and think about how it could be possible. I’ve seen some cities criticizing us because they’re like, “This could never work.” And it’s like, “Maybe not in your city, so try something else.” You know, let’s see what’s possible in other cities.
Cohen: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean, I want to kind of pick your brain a little bit on this, which is, you know, the City of New York took a much different approach. And they’ve since kind of rolled back the closing of some streets that they had there. They took a much more kind of people-required approach with a lot of police officers with, like, kind of keeping cars out and so forth. You know, I’m not as familiar with all the details of that. They may have picked some bigger streets and so forth that might have required a little bit more. That’s fine. I guess my question for you is more related around this concept of these shared goals and the shared community principles.
And so I’m curious about how much of that is kind of top-down, kind of the mayor kind of saying like, “This is something that,” as you kind of illustrated before with the fire and police vehicle, “Like, this is something that we’re going to do. We just need your help in figuring out how to do it,” versus how much of this is community driven and the mayor is just kind of the representative of this. Right? You know, how much of this is top-down? How much is bottom-up or both? I’m trying to tease that out because some of these communities are going to have different kind of—they may not have the same type of leadership that you have there in Oakland. So help me understand that a little bit from your perspective.
Logan: Sure. I would say that it’s both. It is both a top-down approach, and it’s a bottom-up approach. Repeatedly, we’ve had so many community members—and, you know, again, our bicycle plan had thousands of people engaged in so many different ways. So to say that this is a top-down approach is definitely not the case. Right? Like, when thousands of people across your city—you know, and our city only has like 450,000, 500,000 people, so, like, to get 5,000 of anybody is kind of difficult—who are all saying, “This is important. We really want you to do something about the traffic fatalities that we’re seeing—”
You know, just to take a quick aside, last year we lost several people to traffic violence, two of whom were mothers crossing streets, picking up their kids from school. So—[SIGHS]—on one hand—and I’ve received a number of criticisms around this, you know, initiative itself, which people have said, “You know, did you talk to community? You know, where was my vote on this?” And I want people to kind of take a step back and say, “Okay. Are you asking me to ask the community whether or not we should have safe streets?” I think that that’s where leadership comes in. That’s where the top-down approach has to come in too, to say that some things are not debatable.
And I mean that as respectfully as possible, but if someone told me that they don’t want to make the streets safe, like, we’re just not going to align. And that’s something that I feel really strongly about, that, you know, we can talk about the methods by which we can accomplish this shared principle of safety, but if you’re diametrically opposed to that—right—like, if you just think the only people who deserve access to our roads are people who are driving, then you’ve immediately excluded people who are walking, biking, scooting, taking transit, in a wheelchair. Right? Like, across the board if you just feel that way, then we’re not going to agree. And I think that one of the things I often have to remind myself is that there’s a difference between agreement and alignment. And, I think, oftentimes politicians and transportation planners and government bureaucrats, we’re all looking for agreement or that’s what we say we are, but, frankly, we’re looking for alignment, which is that we may not agree on the methods in which we’re going to make the streets safer, but we have aligned that streets should be safer.
And so that’s sort of—it’s a turn of phrase that’s a little challenging to explain sometimes. But the thing that I just want to leave you with is that some things are not debatable. Right? I think that everyone deserves safe streets, and I’m willing to go to the mat for that.
Cohen: Yeah. No, that’s a great one to go to the mat for. Where can people reach out to you and/or learn more about the initiative?
Logan: Sure. Other than the traditional way of Twitter where a lot of people have already reached out to me, if you’re in Oakland, you’re welcome to just dial 311 because we have a whole system ready to answer questions. We also have a project website, so if you just Google “Oakland Slow Streets” it should be at the top. And that’s the best way to find out about the initiative. We update the website, I want to say, daily but probably every other hour. As people ask us questions, we add them to the FAQs. You know, we update the maps to just make them clearer. That’s typically the best way. Either people can email me, Twitter. You know, I don’t have a Facebook, but there are lots of ways to reach both me and our staff at the DOT.
Cohen: And I want to plug that website a little bit because, you know, most of the times I find that government websites aren’t particularly clear or simple, and I thought that was a really well done, simple page. It had clear information and a where, what, why, when, and how. It had FAQs. I just love the simplicity of that, and I thought that was really, really important. You mentioned Twitter. What’s your Twitter handle again?
Logan: Sure. It’s just my name. It’s @WarrenMobility.
Cohen: Excellent @WarrenMobility. So you can reach out to Warren there on Twitter, or you can check out Oakland’s Slow Streets. Warren, thank you so much for joining me on the movement. I really appreciate you sharing a little bit more about some of the things that you’re learning as you’re implementing this Slow Streets initiative there and helping make safer streets there in Oakland.
Logan: Thanks so much for having me, Josh.
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.