Being an advocate can be scary, especially when you are challenging those in power. Lynda Lopez has spent her career as an advocate confronting and overcoming that fear to both change narratives and center those who are most affected by policy.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Lopez: Lynda Lopez
Cohen: Our guest, Lynda Lopez, shared the following in today’s show and it has stuck with us; quote, “Silence isn’t an option, if you really want to do good work,” end quote.
Jensen: Yeah, Josh. It’s just such a powerful testament to the goal and purpose of advocacy. I think, as a minority woman, it can be especially frightening to stand up and challenge people in power, but in the position Lynda and others like her are in it’s necessary.
Cohen: Lynda Lopez, 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 are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Our guest today is Lynda Lopez, advocacy manager at the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve conditions for bicycling, walking, and transit and engage people in healthy and active ways to get around. I first became aware of Lynda due to her former work as a writer Streetsblog Chicago, which we’ll talk about in a little bit. Welcome to The Movement, Lynda.
Lopez: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me.
Cohen: Lynda, I’m excited to have you on here. I mean, let’s maybe get started by giving us a little bit of background on the Active Transportation Alliance and the work you do there.
Lopez: Sure. So, based in Chicago, the Active Transportation Alliance is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve conditions for biking, walking, and transit and engage people in healthy and active ways to get around the Chicagoland region particularly. And I am an advocacy manager there, and a lot of my work is focused on advancing transportation equity in the region. I co-chair the Transportation Equity Network, which Active Trans is a part of. And I have been helping to lead efforts to call for an end to a transit shutdown more recently that we’ve been seeing in Chicago since the uprisings in May after the killing of George Floyd. I also helped develop our issue briefs last year to show how topics like housing and land use relate to transportation equity.
Cohen: The transit shutdowns you mentioned, I remember seeing some news articles about that, but as somebody who doesn’t live in Chicago I—help us understand a little bit more context around what’s going on there as far as, like, how that’s impacting Chicagoans.
Lopez: Yeah, so it’s a very troubling trend we’ve been seeing since the end of May, which is kind of the aftermath we saw when George Floyd was killed by police. And in Chicago—so there was obviously a lot of anger, which led to protests, and there was also some looting. And the reaction from our mayor and the police were to stifle movement, so shut down transit for large parts of the city in the Downtown region and for miles beyond the Downtown region in addition to raising bridges to stop access to Downtown. There was also a shutdown of our bikeshare program. So that lasted for about a week, I think. And it was a little bit sporadic when we would see our transit up and running for that week. And we’ve seen shutdowns throughout the summer, whether small ones, so, like, having the trains bypass a certain train stop near a protest. So those are smaller, and those really haven’t been acknowledged by the city, but they’re happening.
We’re seeing that trains sometimes are bypassing a stop near a smaller protest that would have been pretty normal, like, last year in Chicago or any year, just gathering for people to raise an issue that they care about. So that was really nothing unusual. The unusual reaction was the shutting down of transit. And in August there was another large shutdown after the police shooting of somebody on the South Side of Chicago. And we also saw, like, protests, and there was also some looting. And the reaction was also to shut down transit, raise the bridges, and we’re also seeing the usage of city department trucks to block streets to also limit people’s movement. And so there were, like, two larger shutdowns, but we’ve also been seeing smaller ones like I mentioned.
And when the Breonna Taylor verdict was announced, I believe, in September I was kind of watching the CTA Twitter, and I saw that they were bypassing the stop near the police headquarters where there was a protest happening, which if you’re from Chicago, like, protests have happened there for a long time; that’s not unusual, so it definitely is a new phenomenon that I’ve been seeing. And the most recent one happened during election week. The trains were bypassing certain stops on the North Side of the city because of crowd surging, though just based on my informal research I haven’t been able to find any evidence that is backing that suggestion from the city that there were any kind of crowd surges near the area. So it’s definitely concerning for obviously limitations of movement and also, I would say, an infringement on the right to free speech and the right to gather and protest. So, yeah, it’s something that I’ve been really focused on for the last three to four months. I think it has huge implications for transportation in our city and in the country, really, so that’s kind of been one of my major focuses.
Cohen: Wow. I guess, my immediate reaction to that is it seems like restricting mobility seems like—I can’t almost even see how that’s even legal. Right? Like, I mean, people have to get home. Right? If they’re at work, how do you get—like, that’s just mindboggling that they could just do that. But I guess there’s some sort of statutory thing that allows them to do that, or it’s just nobody calling them on that other than you and some other folks.
Lopez: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there is a need for more information gathering, like legality-wise. I think, in May, early June, the ACLU called out the mayor for the curfew that was happening, so there’s definitely been some legal issues that have been raised with some strategies during these emergency kind of emergency protocols. I think we’re in the process of, you know, gathering more information, really understanding what’s happening, who’s making these decisions, because there’s very little transparency in terms of who’s making these decisions. They’re happening, and we’re seeing maybe—if they’re acknowledging them at all, if there’s public pressure, it’s very vague. “Oh, there was a decision for public safety reasons.” “Well, this never happened before. Can we know more about what’s happening?” And there’s also not any acknowledgement that the smaller ones are happening like the shutdowns near, like, a small protest. I haven’t seen the city acknowledge that those at all are happening. I think there’s only been acknowledgement with the larger ones where, you know, it’s very hard for kind of them to dissuade from that.
So, yeah, I would definitely question the legal ramifications of this. I think there’s just a lot more need for gathering information, and Active Trans has definitely been at the forefront of calling this out because we see the implications of this on our work, which is to create a city where people are able to walk, bike, and use transit freely. But if we’re seeing infringements on that, obviously that places a big burden on people that are trying to get around without a car. And even if you have a car, I think, this has been also limiting the movement of anyone really.
Jensen: I want to know a little bit about your journey in arriving at Active Transportation Alliance and a little bit about some particularly impactful projects you’ve worked on, so maybe we’ll hear a little bit more about the work that you and Active Transportation Alliance have been doing in regards to these shutdowns, but maybe something else. So any project that you think has been particularly impactful that you’ve been involved with, whether professionally or personally?
Lopez: Yeah, so when I first arrived to Active Trans that was about a year and a half ago. So I was initially hired to work on the Fair Fare Chicagoland report, which was a report about fare equity in the region. So I was working alongside my colleague Julia Gerasimenko. So I wasn’t working at Active Trans fulltime when I first started there; I was working on a project. So that took about six to seven months, and I would say that’s probably one of the projects in the last year that I’m most proud of. It was a big undertaking, and we were able to produce a, I would say, a pretty substantial report that outlines very in-depth recommendations for what we think needs to happen to get fare equity in the region in terms of transportation. So that was definitely at the forefront when I think of personal achievements.
Jensen: Can you tell us a little bit about that report and what some of those steps are that you guys think are necessary?
Lopez: Yeah, so the Fair Fares report kind of outlined, I think, I believe, seven or eight recommendations for fare equity in the region. And one of them was free fares for youth, which is something that different groups have been calling for for years in addition to reevaluating the farebox recovery ration, which also places burdens on transit agencies to get some of their operating costs from how many people are actually swiping their cards and using transit, which obviously can be limiting in terms of what kind of equity work can be done if it’s very reliant on how many people are paying for transit. So we also outlined that recommendation.
We also called for a reduction in transit fares for low-income Chicagoans, considering that the backbone of our transportation system are essential workers and also low-income Chicagoans. So we called for an evaluation of how we can have fares that are more reflective of people’s incomes, which has been something other cities have been experimenting with, where we saw in, like, New York City had a major passage of, like, Fair Fares New York, which is kind of where we got the name of our report, kind of inspired by different campaigns that we were seeing. So those are some of the larger recommendations that we outlined.
Cohen: And can you help us, again, for those of us who aren’t in Chicago, maybe help us understand, like, why are the fares currently as they’re structured unfair?
Lopez: Yeah, so I think one of the major reasons that we were exploring a discounted fare option was that considering that—yeah—a large portion of our city that are using public transit are low-income residents and might be living paycheck to paycheck, might be rent burdened. And we see part of the South and West Sides in the city where we do have a lot of high rates of poverty and thinking about where we can lessen the burden that people are facing in terms of having to get their daily needs met. And we interviewed—so some of the recommendations also came about from our interviews with residents around the city. And we had also a survey of transit riders, which we hired canvassers to help us canvass the South and West Sides to gather feedback in terms of, like, what do people need in terms of, like, equity in transportation. And we saw that costs came out as one of the factors that, “Oh, if the fares were lower, I might use it more,” or, “I’ve sometimes had to forego going to a medical appointment because fares were too high.”
So the survey was definitely one of our motivating factors, which was around, I believe, close to 700 residents that we were able to survey. So the survey was also a big determining factor and also our research with the UIC Great Cities Institute; that helped us also kind of understand how much people were spending as a percentage of their income on transit costs. So we’re also using some research from outside entities to help us inform that and also, like I said before, other cities experimenting with this. So it wasn’t that we were creating an entirely new idea. I think, other people were also around the country already talking about this in terms of equity in transportation. So, I think, with our report we were trying to see how this could also be something that could work in Chicago.
Jensen: This reminds me of a conversation that I had at a conference earlier this year. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the woman’s name or even what transit agency she worked for.
Cohen: Do you remember the conference?
Cohen: I’d be lucky if I even remembered the conference.
Jensen: Yeah, it was APTA Mar-Com.
Jensen: It was APTA Marketing & Communications.
Cohen: All right; good.
Jensen: So, the woman, she worked at a small transit agency, I believe, in the Pacific Northwest. And they recently implemented fare-free transit. But they did not call it fare free. They were very intentional about the name. Instead, they called it zero fare. And the reason behind that was because they said, “People who ride transit, it’s not free. They pay in other forms. They pay through taxes and whatnot.” So instead it was zero fare. And I thought that was, like, so important to remember. We’re not doing people a favor by reducing costs or eliminating costs. We all already pay into this system, and this is just us getting back out of it what we put into it.
Lopez: Yeah, definitely. I think language is very important in determining how people are kind of conducive to ideas. And I think that was something that we grappled with, like, what kind of language should we adopt. And fair fare is really—I think fair fare has resonated with us partly because it was in line with the language other people were using around the country, which I think there’s something to be said about cohesion in messaging with other places that have seen some successes. And we also really like the term fair. I think it challenges people to think about, “Well, like—” it goes beyond free fares. It’s about, like, how do we create a system that’s fair to everyone, and regardless of your life experience, your income, how can you also be a participant in transportation and in a way that works for you?
Cohen: Yeah, I love that. And, you know, I don’t know if this was part of it, but certainly one that often comes up in these fare conversations is fare capping. And, you know, that’s just such a critical one just so that, you know, if you take a certain number of trips a day or a month, you kind of work your way up to a monthly or a daily pass, as the case may be, that you don’t have to front that money up front. Which, again, for folks that are dealing with limited income, having to front a hundred dollars or a couple hundred dollars for a monthly transit pass all in one fell swoop is just—it’s just a burden that doesn’t need to be there.
Lopez: Yeah, fare capping was definitely something that came up prominently in our report as well. And we featured some stories of residents where, yeah, if fare capping was in existence they would definitely pay less because, you know, it’s a lot of money to pay out of pocket once a month for, like, a monthly pass rather than some people we were seeing paying weekly for a weekly pass because it was cheaper in the short run.
So, yeah, fare capping was definitely one of the ideas that came up prominently and, I think, also one of the ideas that are, I think, easier for people to be able to digest because I’m like—it’s very clearly, like, unjust. I don’t know if you can find many people that are going to say, “Well, people should be paying more, if they can’t afford a monthly pass.” It’s kind of hard to make that argument. And I haven’t seen anyone make that argument.
Cohen: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Well, let’s maybe take a step back. I know prior to Active Transportation Alliance you were a writer at Streetsblog Chicago. And that’s where I first got familiar a little bit with your work. And I’d love for you maybe to share if there’s a particular story or project that you worked on at Streetsblog that really just resonated with you, maybe stuck with you perhaps.
Lopez: I always enjoyed stories that helped change the narratives on issues around mobility. One of my favorite stories was one on working-class Chicagoans biking to work. I did that, I think, early on when I started writing for Streetsblog as a freelancer. I was proud of that story partly because it highlighted people I think about when I think about biking, regular people that might be on mountain bikes, they might be riding on the sidewalk, they might be Latinx, they might be Black residents, and they might be riding slowly but still trying to make a space for themselves as someone who loves to bike.
I really love writing stories when I see my community reflected, other communities I work with reflected, which is something I don’t often see in transportation advocacy. So that one definitely stands out as one of my favorite stories. I also really love, I think, kind of how I got into the transportation space. I love the stories that are able to touch on the intersection of housing displacement and transportation. I think I really enjoy stories that are able to capture nuances, like, beyond, like, transportation and the different ways that this might impact other parts of people’s lives.
So I definitely wrote a lot of stories around how issues like transit-oriented development were also tied to displacement and gentrifying neighborhoods. And I really love being able to capture the voices of tenants and residents that were experiencing these issues. So, yeah; I think those stand out as my favorite stories because I think I always feel good when I’m able to elevate the voices of people in transportation that might often not be seen as part of the conversation, even though I think that’s the people that I see as integral to the conversation.
Cohen: I love that. And you know what I love especially about that, is that I think it’s really easy to just have this dominant view of biking as kind of the, I think, the spandex warriors, I think, is the kind of funny way to frame it. But it’s the folks that are often male, often White, and maybe are riding. And it kind of feels like it’s this very intimidating kind of thing when the reality is that all different types of people bike and it is not only a great way to move around for a lot of people, but it’s also something that a lot of people just depend on because that’s the cheapest and most accessible way for them to move.
And, I think, just being able to kind of remove that spandex-warrior kind of lens and let people see that this is bigger than just, you know, White male with spandex on, but it can be, you know—and I remember from one of your stories, I remember it was—I think it was more around the concept of joy. And I think you mentioned even in there that it’s like, “Hey, I ride my jeans.” You know, like this is not—you know, this is just, “I’m just going to work.” You know? Like, “This is not a super fancy thing. It’s just how I move.” And I just think that’s a really, really important perspective to share.
Lopez: I think changing narratives is really important to me. I think that’s part of why I do this work and why I got into the work. Yeah, I want to be one voice that is able to elevate other voices that kind of changes the dominant perception. And I’ve really changed the dominant perception of, like, transportation and biking as very White centered, which is kind of the mainstream narrative. And—yeah—I think that’s kind of something that really drives what I do. I’m always thinking about, “Well, whose voices aren’t we hearing? And whose voice needs to be in the room for us to have a better idea of what needs to be done?”
Jensen: Yeah, that’s really important and, I would imagine, the main goal of what you do as an advocate. So if there was one thing you could share with advocates out there that would make them better advocates, what would it be?
Lopez: I think that something that works for me in doing the work is centering the people most affected and always being clear of the people in communities whose life you want to influence with your work, rather than the people in power you would like to stay in relationship with or don’t want to upset. I’m definitely not really afraid of being upfront of how I feel when decisions makers and people in influence are making choices that are marginalizing communities, partly because the people who matter to me are the people in my community and my family’s community. And I think that’s something that I see often in the transportation advocacy space, that sometimes we silence ourselves because we don’t want to upset the people in power partly because there’s just so many nuances of government and other bureaucracies in doing this work, agencies. And, I think, once we start silencing ourselves for the fear of making people in power angry, I think that is when we lose sight of who we need to work for.
And I think this becomes easier if you are working alongside community partners in Black and Brown communities, which is an issue obviously in the transportation advocacy space, how to get more diverse leadership and also how to get involvement of more grassroots organizations that are more reflective of populations that need the most resources. So I think that’s something that I would definitely emphasize, always keeping in mind whose life you want to better rather than, like, which rooms and which tables you want to, like, stay in access with. So I think that’s something that I always think about as I’m doing the work.
I’m like, “Well, I’m not really afraid of saying this, because if I don’t say it, then that means that this issue might not be elevated.” And then I question why I don’t want to say something, and if it’s because of fear, I’m pretty quick with convincing myself that, you know, things need to be said. And I think that’s really important for people in this space to realize that. I think silence isn’t an option if you actually do want to do good work.
Jensen: That’s really powerful.
Jensen: And, I think, especially as a Latinx person, just a minority in general, being in these spaces that are dominated by White males, it’s easy to feel like an imposter, feel like you don’t belong, feel like everyone else knows so much more than you do. And in part that’s just because they’ve had, like, more access than you. So just remembering who you’re doing the work for and not letting fear get in the way and wanting to be in those rooms, like you said, not letting that stop you, that’s extremely powerful. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it.
Lopez: Yeah. I appreciate that. Yeah, I often think about, “Well, I feel like I have access to a lot of spaces that, you know, are very privileged, and I have access to people in positions of power.” And, you know, I’m often very conscious of, you know, “Okay, if I don’t feel like my presence here is making a difference, then, you know, I don’t need to be here.” I want to be places where I can express what needs to be expressed. And I’m okay with walking away from opportunities even though it seems like a space that I should remain in because you have access to power-players, but I—yeah, I think I always keep focused on what matters and, you know, am I moving the needle to influence and provide more resources to communities that need them. And, you know, if the answer is no and I don’t see an avenue to getting there, then, yeah, I’ll always kind of keep myself in check to make sure I’m saying the right things and also putting myself in the right spaces.
Cohen: Wow. Well, I think whether this was purposeful or accidental that you ended up in this advocacy role—and I know in your career you’ve done advocacy for a while, but I don’t know if that’s your calling in life or if it’s just where you are right now, but I think it certainly fits you very, very well. Because, I think, it’s using your strengths really well, and I think it’s certainly consistent with the things that we’ve heard from other folks on this podcast as well that are trying to bring about change in their communities and the ways they’re trying to do that. I think some of the things that you’ve talked about are very consistent with that, certainly as it relates to, you know, who is in the room and whose voices are not being heard. And so I appreciate you bringing that up. Where can folks learn more either about Active Transportation Alliance or follow you or Active Transportation Alliance on Twitter? Where are the best ways to find y’all?
Lopez: Yeah, so you can go to the Active Trans website. That’s ActiveTrans.org. You can also take a look at our Fair Fares report, which is ActiveTrans.org/FairFaresChi. And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m pretty active. It’s @LyndaB08, so L-Y-N-D-A-B-0-8. You can often see me, I would say, posting daily about different issues I care about. I don’t always post about transportation. It depends on the day. I think it’s always important for me to be talking about other issues as well, and so I’m kind of all over the place in terms of talking about social justice, but I’m pretty easy to access on Twitter. So I think those are the three places I would say if people want to stay in touch.
Cohen: Well, thank you so much for joining us on The Movement podcast. This has just been great to hear a little bit of your journey and hear a little bit about some of the fear that goes through your mind and then also the way that you overcome that in order to make sure you’re sharing the voice that needs to be heard to the people in power that need to hear it. So thank you so much for joining us.
Lopez: I appreciate you inviting me.
Jensen: Thank you for joining us, Lynda. It was nice talking to you.
Lopez: I appreciate it. This was a good conversation.
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.