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Episode 88 guest Amanda Eaken

While once thought to be a problem for our grandchildren, climate change is here now. Amanda Eaken of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge shares how the best leaders are not only attacking climate change today, but rethinking community engagement for the long term.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Eaken: Amanda Eaken

Cohen: Welcome back to The Movement podcast. On today’s episode, we have Amanda Eaken. One of the things I really loved about today’s episode and hearing Amanda talk about was the real tactical things communities are doing to make community engagement more accessible. L’erin, what about you?
Jensen: You know, Josh? I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of her learnings from her mentors. And with that, let’s just go ahead and get into the show.

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 are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: We’re excited to have Amanda Eaken on the show today, as her career is oriented around building an equitable, accessible, and green mobility future. Amanda is the director of transportation for the American Cities Climate Challenge at the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition, she also serves her community as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Welcome to The Movement, Amanda.

Eaken: Thank you so much, Josh.

Cohen: Let’s start this conversation with climate change. I mean, this has been a year that feels like the issues of climate change have been even more in our face than ever, the wildfires obviously in California where you are and Oregon, hurricanes in the Atlantic where we’ve had more than ever. And I feel like that folks are really, it seems like, really, truly feeling the impacts of climate change more than ever. And so I’m curious just from your perspective having worked in the field for so long, do you believe we’ve turned a corner here on this issue as far as people really understanding the fact that our climate is changing and we need to make decisions in the public space and to mediate that?

Eaken: Yeah. You know, Josh, without a doubt it feels, to me, that climate change is more upon us than it ever has before in my lifetime. And I think you see almost two-thirds of Americans support action on climate. There’s a Pew poll that found the federal government is not doing enough to address the impacts of climate. A Yale poll says the president and Congress should do more to address climate change. But I also think we’ve learned over the last decade that shouting doom and gloom on climate doesn’t necessarily motivate people to take action, and also it doesn’t always convey the climate consequences that we’re seeing right now. I think, for some time we thought this would be a problem for our children or our grandchildren, and it’s here with us right now.

What we found has worked is when we talk about how climate solutions also just make people’s lives better and when we push our elected officials to talk about how they’re going to take action this year, not in 2030 or 2050 or some distant future. And I just want to reflect that across the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge where I serve as the director of transportation, the 25 mayors in those cities seem to understand intuitively that climate solutions make their cities stronger and more resilient. So whether that’s Mayor Nuremberg in San Antonio who is looking to broaden his city’s transit system by bringing a transit funding ballot measure to voters this November or it’s Mayor Krewson in Saint Louis who is looking to bring clean, electric vehicles to some of his city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, the same actions that cut carbon pollution also just clean the air, save families money, and provide residents new ways to get around their cities. So these are economic solutions; they’re public health solutions, and they’re ways to make people’s lives better. And, I think, when we draw those connections, we see really, really broad support for climate action.

Cohen: I think that’s so fascinating. Because, again, it seems like if you’ve got the broad support for the climate action, then what’s the barrier? Right? Like why hasn’t—I mean, obviously these 25 mayors making these commitments are fantastic, and obviously they’re some of the largest cities in our country, so that’s fantastic, but why hasn’t there been more thus far? Is it because we’ve had a bad marketing campaign, you know, kind of this doom and gloom? Is that part of it?

Eaken: You know, the climate challenge is specifically designed to address the barriers as we understand it to cities taking action. So sometimes it’s a matter of capacity. Some of the city sustainability offices are very, very small. Some cities don’t even have a sustainability office, so this project is just bringing new capacity to cities to help them get their work done. In other cases they may lack to technical expertise or may lack the understanding of how to develop the ordinance around EV readiness or how to create energy efficiency programs. And so we bring a broad swath of world-class technical partners to help the cities, whether it’s redesigning a street to put in a bus lane and a bike lane, or if it’s drafting an EV readiness ordinance, or we’re bringing both kind of supports.

We’re also bringing communication supports to help cities talk about and help to do outreach. And particularly right now in a time when it’s so challenging to do outreach to communities around policies and programs, we’re also helping cities figure out how to pivot, how to do equitable engagement in sort of a digital, virtual workspace, a new challenge non of us anticipated at the beginning of this year, none of us anticipated at the beginning of the climate challenge back in 2018, but something we’ve had to pivot to pretty quickly.

Jensen: Can you kind of just dig into some of these projects that you’ve worked on that help address some of these inequitable distributions of air quality and transportation? And, I think, particularly some of those virtual ones, I think that’ll be really helpful.

Eaken: I would be happy to. In the City of Columbus there’s been a lot of conversation about the desire to build out a rapid transit system, which seems to be an emerging priority for the residents of the city and the region. And the Columbus leaders took the time to identify principles for equitable engagement including—and I love this part—including ensuring the participants can essentially design their own participation. Rather than asking them to fit into a more traditional comment period or public hearing, they’re really trying to meet residents where they are, make it very easy to participate, take down some of those barriers to participation, honor resident expertise, and just broaden the outreach beyond the typical circle of community leaders and stakeholders who typically tend to show up in the more traditional public-outreach-and-engagement process. And it’s called LinkUS, the Columbus LinkUS program around equitable engagement for transit, and it’s really emerging as a best practice across this project.

Cohen: What are some of the particular things that they did differently there or maybe that the community said that they wanted to do differently as it relates to how they wanted to engage?

Eaken: I mean, I think we can all recognize that holding a public hearing, you know, on a Tuesday night from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. for people who have either worked all day or possibly work shifts during that 6:00-to-8:00-p.m., you know, typical government window, that’s a time when—I don’t know—I personally am often trying to figure out food and getting food into my family and getting them to bed rather than being able to engage in a public process. I think it’s a radical innovation just to simply ask, not tell members of the public, “How do you want to participate in the process?” as opposed to start with, you know, a hearing at a time that’s not convenient for most people.

And then really just meeting residents where they are, so whether that’s going to community meetings or neighborhood meetings, physically going out and meeting people where they are or figuring out ways that by phone or by internet they can connect and share their ideas. I think we’re just all having to get really creative with the process, and I think that’s really been welcomed.

Jensen: That’s really interesting to me. So when you said, “Meeting residents where they are,” my first thought was speaking to them differently, using layman’s terms instead of a lot of this transportation or planning or, like, urban planning jargon that the average person doesn’t necessarily understand. But you’re saying that they’re physically meeting them where they are, going into their neighborhoods to talk to people, really changing the way that leaders interact with residents?

Eaken: Right. And, of course, with COVID, you know, there are concerns and constraints around in-person meetings, but maybe that’s joining a meeting of a neighborhood or community group. Rather than saying you have to come meet the city on our schedule, “When is your community group getting together by Zoom or by phone call, and can we come share our presentation with you about the transit system or about the parking policy that we’re working on?” It’s just flipping the equation a little bit.

Cohen: You know, what I love about that is it just has the humility. Right? It’s the humility of the leaders to say, “We’re not going to make you come to us. We’re going to go to you. And we know that you’re meeting in your community all the time,” whether that’s a faith group, whether that’s a community group, whether that’s a youth group or whatever. It’s just saying, like, “We’re not going to make you change your life in order to give that feedback.” I think, that’s so critical.

Eaken: Yeah.

Jensen: When I hear that, I think to myself, “Wow. That’s like how democracy is supposed to work.” [LAUGHTER]

Eaken: Yeah.

Jensen: Truly representative of the people.

Eaken: Yeah. I have another example I’d love to share. The City of San Diego did a virtual forum around their climate action plan. And they collected real-time reactions from more than 175 attendees. And when the forum host asked what changes residents wanted to see in their communities, responses popped up on the screen from air quality, coastal habitat restoration, electrify everything. And the group generated a live kind of word cloud with words like “fresh produce, resiliency, less traffic,” when the prompt came up which was, “When you imagine a sustainable San Diego, what comes to mind?” And so of course we’re all living through just unprecedented, unbelievable challenges. I think we’re also trying to ask ourselves, “What can we learn about the way that engagement maybe wasn’t working optimally even before COVID?” and, “Do any of the tools that we’re using to connect with people provide us new opportunities to do things better now but also in the recovery?”

Cohen: Fantastic. So I want to maybe transition a little bit to your work on the San Francisco MTA board. You joined the board a couple years ago, I believe, 2018.

Eaken: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And, you know, you’ve got some huge challenges ahead of you. I mean, you certainly have got the impact of COVID on both the city budget and on ridership. So I’m curious; what are some of your key priorities moving forward for SFMTA in light of these challenges?

Eaken: Yeah, I think, really first and foremost is making sure that people can safely and affordably get around our city to do the things they need to do. In the context of transit, as I think you probably know, that has meant for us a pretty significant rethink of our transit system in a remarkably short amount of time, informed by data, and informed by a commitment to serving those who are still riding our transit system every day. The typical commute pattern, as you know, of sort of office workers heading downtown from residential neighborhoods has been upended. And we’ve had to look at how we connect people to healthcare facilities, to grocery stores, to other essential services.

Another key priority though and, I think, one we can’t focus enough on is really making sure that our streets are safe so that all people can feel safe and comfortable walking and riding bikes or riding scooters to get around, because not everybody feels comfortable riding transit right now, and we need to make sure that people have other ways of getting around. I think we’ve seen the Slow Streets Program in San Francisco has been an enormous success with over 80% of San Francisco residents who respond to our surveys in support. And we’ve actually seen high numbers of support in cities all across the country that are implementing similar programs.

You know, we’re still building new slow streets. We’ve gotten dozens of requests and ideas from residents about where to put new ones through our website, but there are still critical gaps in our network. And we have tragically recently seen an uptick in Vision Zero fatalities and injuries. So I just think we need to keep working to deploy this very low-cost, quick-build solution so we can have a connected network citywide that people can use to get anywhere they need to go.

Jensen: Who are some of the climate or other leaders that have influenced you in your career? And what were some of those skills or lessons that they’ve passed on to you?

Eaken: I love this question. A couple names came to mind. I thought first about Darrell Steinberg who is the former President of the California State Senate. And we worked with Darrell Steinberg for many years to pass different pieces of legislation related to climate. The one I worked most closely was Senate Bill 375, which was the first law in the nation to direct regional agencies to develop plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through transportation and land-use plans and investments. And the lesson I feel I learned from him was that you should never give up on the goal of reaching common ground with stakeholders who usually don’t see eye-to-eye. You have to keep bringing people back to the table, make the time, put in the effort, find a way. He always felt that if we get the right people around the table and everyone leans into it, we can find a pathway, that we can find a solution. And also just really valuing people, valuing all people, no matter how large or how small their contribution was, recognizing the contribution of everybody in this fight.

Another person I want to recognize is Mary Nichols who is the Chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board and really a global leader in the movement for climate action. And I would say from her I learned that progress is not linear; it’s sometimes very messy, but if you can keep a keen eye on the goal you’re driving toward and be very open to what the pathway looks like to get to that goal. And then finally I would say Shelley Poticha who is the managing director of the NRDC’s Healthy People and Thriving Communities programs. And I think she models more than anyone I’ve ever met that inclusive leadership is the best kind of leadership.

Cohen: That’s fantastic. Yeah, Shelley was a guest on The Movement podcast a couple months ago. And I just love that visual you talked about with Mary, with the keeping your eye on the goal even if the way you get there might end up being different.

Eaken: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: It recalls that Demetri Martin comic, which I—I mean, that’s the one I’ve seen. Perhaps he didn’t originate that, but it was, you know, the way you think you get there versus the way you actually get there, which is, you know, a bunch of scrawl until you finally end up kind of where you thought you would.

Jensen: I would just add I think that some of the setbacks are probably an indication that you’re making progress, in fact, particularly if people are pushing back against it. If people have a reason to pushback against what you’re doing, I think, then it shows, “Hey, I’m doing something important, and people are just afraid of change.”

Eaken: I just remember a meeting, one of the SB 375 implementation meetings. And, you know, we were arguing something out, and the environmentalist are battling with the builders, and, you know, we weren’t getting anywhere, and everyone was frustrated. And, I think, Mary took a step back, you know, and she said, “Clear progress is not easy.” In fact, she said, “If it’s not hard, why do it? You know, we take on these things not because they’re easy but because they’re hard.” And I found that relativity really moving.

Cohen: Sure. L’erin and I actually discussed this last week. I’d love to get your perspective on this, the recent decision by California to eradicate all internal combustion, new internal combustion engine sales by 2035. What’s your view on that legislation?

Eaken: I think if we look at the analysis of what it’s going to take to achieve our climate goals, we see that transportation is the number one source of carbon pollution both nationally, in California, in many of our cities. And we know it’s going to take kind of every tool in the toolbox to be able to reach these very ambitious targets. So whether it is cities leading on creating new transportation choices like walking and biking and transit that just reduce reliance on vehicles or, as Governor Newsom’s executive order, help to accelerate moving all vehicles to clean, electric vehicles and electric sources of power, these are absolutely the policies we’re going to need to see to reach our goals.

Cohen: We’ll need more though, right? That’s not going to be enough, right? It’s just that’s one step in that direction, but we’re going to need a lot more from other states and from other communities, despite California’s status as a leader and kind of tone-setter for the rest of the country.

Eaken: I think we’ve seen a pattern again and again of California’s leadership on climate setting a standard, setting a model that other states, that the federal government, but even other jurisdictions around the world can help to replicate. So I think it’s a really important role that California plays in the overall ecosystem. And absolutely California can’t do it alone. That’s exactly right.

Jensen: Well, Amanda, how can people find out more about you or connect with you?

Eaken: I’m on Twitter. My handle is @AEaken. Can also go on the NRDC website, And you can also go check out the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge by dropping that in Google and go take a look at some of the great work the cities are doing.

Jensen: Thank you so much for joining us on The Movement podcast. It was great having you, Amanda.

Eaken: My pleasure. Thank you 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 or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.