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What can a mayor do to make a city more livable? –Streetblog San Francisco

“In most cities, mayors don’t have a lot of power,” Emeryville Mayor John Bauters told Streetsblog in a recent interview. He sees himself as part of a team with the city council, which holds most of the decision-making power in this small town wedged between Oakland, Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay.

But what a mayor can do is “set the tone,” he said. “The mayor is the person who speaks for what the community wants.” It means more than being a figurehead; a mayor “brings people together, brings them together, paves the way for [working together], and identifies what the city will do to address a concern, rectify a problem or celebrate an achievement.

“The same is true when it comes to the very sexy world of cycling infrastructure,” he adds. “My personal view is that a mayor is someone who not only encourages but also shows people the path that is possible and then encourages people to take that path – that bike path – and helps move the city ​​to what it wants to be.”

Additionally, the mayors of the myriad of cities in the Bay Area have the opportunity to weigh in on regional issues. Bauters, for example, currently also serves as vice chairman of the Alameda County Transportation Commission and sits on the local Air Quality Management District Board of Directors. There he works on regional transportation, clean energy and emissions reduction projects and issues.

“I can talk about cycling infrastructure and pedestrian safety, and I can help shift our funding priorities and the dialogue in the county towards a more inclusive multimodal system,” he said. At the Air District, he makes it a point to “model” emissions reductions by cycling to meetings — even if the missing bike lane on the Bay Bridge’s west span means a drive of more than forty miles around the northern end of San Francisco Bay to get there from Emeryville.

This type of action can be symbolically important. He tells people that there are leaders “who have a common vision for climate action, who believe that bikes are a vehicle for change, and that walking and cycling are not just healthy for ourselves. , but for the environment and for others”.

And electing people who prioritize riding their bikes “brings new people into the discussion who weren’t there before – but who are still paying for the funding decisions made.”

While bike fans may be used to feeling shunned as an opinionated minority, having champions in leadership positions can change that. A “cyclist” in an area council, for example, can ensure that, at the very least, council members are reminded of how important cycling is to planetary and individual health. When no one on those decision-making bodies understands the bike, that message disappears.

Bauters describes having to remind colleagues of their view of the windshield.

“People said, Well, you feel that way or think that way because you ride a bike. And I say, so look at the rest of you – you’re all driving. And the reason we keep spending billions on highways is because that’s what you do. I don’t want to spend billions on highways, because it doesn’t benefit me.

“So of cours I want to build a bike bridge between Oakland and Alameda, and of course I want to have an East Bay Greenway – because that’s what people use. You just never had someone sitting on that board with you who had that experience,” he said.

“I was talking to a few non-cyclists about a plan for a bike project. And they said to me, ‘Well, you know, maybe we could do it halfway – we could maybe take the cars out of half that space,’ he said. “The mindset is constantly that we have to share it with the cars. But every time we build a road, do we always have a conversation about how we have to make sure we keep half of it for the bikes “We don’t do that. The predisposition is that everyone has to use cars. We never ask that question the other way around. And we should.

“Let’s see how to actually put parity into what we’re building – because for a lot less money, you could put a lot more people on my greenway than you could with funding three miles of your freeway.”

Bauters firmly believes – based on his own childhood experience of cycling through kindergarten – that when youngsters have the freedom to cycle safely, they will never need to give it up. That’s sort of his goal in Emeryville – not so much to force anyone to ride a bike instead of driving a car, but to be to be able to do this.

“People ask me what my schedule is, but I don’t have a schedule,” Bauters said. “Other than joy.”

“I don’t believe in going out and convincing people to do something; rarely will you hear me say it has to be like this or like that,” he said. “I’m not doing anything to change your mind. I’m not trying to force anyone to ride a bike. What I offer is a space for people to find it for themselves.

“When I was a kid, my parents gave me a dirt bike. And right next to our house was this huge field with all kinds of hills of dirt and everything. And I would just go out and ride some bike and I would catch frogs and mice and watch the sunset and play in the creek, and take my bike everywhere and I would come home and my mom would make me a peanut butter and honey sandwich And it looks like this bucolic, romantic little thing in the middle of America, but the truth is, I still think about it. In my 40s. And I always come home and make a peanut butter sandwich. and honey.

“And I always ride my bike where I want and go in the water and do what I want because I know how much I enjoy it.”

Joy is lost when people cannot relax. One of the projects Bauters and his council allies were able to complete during COVID was a major reconfiguration of Doyle Street, making it a mostly car-free street that connects to the Greenway cycle path which runs through Emeryville. Because there is so little car traffic on this street now – basically it was a “slow street” or a “safe street” that has become permanent – ​​families can walk it without fear of being overtaken by cars fast.

Doyle Street.  Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Doyle Street. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

“If a person has to cycle with their child and there are cars going the other way, or if we have the police at the ends to keep people safe, they don’t just have the capacity to focus on his experience with the bike,” Bauters said. “What we need to give people is car-free spaces with just their bike and their family or friends and a sunny afternoon, and the letting themselves be without the noise of traffic and the horn and lights of a police car at the end of the street.If we give people that space and experience, we change their hearts and minds.

“They may not become bicycle commuters,” but new possibilities are opening up. They take their kids to ride the Bay Trail on weekends; they see that their child likes something – or they like it. “And now they have to worry about whether that bike path comes in and then they think about it and they email me and they say – like these parents are already doing with Doyle Street – ‘my kid loves to bike bike to Doyle Park. “My wife has always driven, but now she rides with them.”

“That’s how you make the change; not because I intended for everyone on the north side of my town to take this route, but people found it because we left it there for them.

People are starting to realize things they can’t imagine when stuck in cars – things like how much fun a scooter can be or how fast it is to get around on a bike compared to driving. , parking and walking somewhere. “It’s the kind of stuff that crosses people’s minds,” Bauters said. “I’m not trying to force anyone to ride a bike. What I offer is a space for people to find it for themselves.

Bauters has many other ideas for Emeryville. The city is planning a major overhaul of 40th Street, a major thoroughfare that runs past a large parking lot, er, a mall. The street will receive a road regime with lanes reserved for public transport, a two-way cycle path and pedestrian crossings at each intersection. The city is also redoing its active transportation plan — due out later in the spring — in which it identifies several streets it wants to make car-free. They are also working on a project suggested by Bauters colleague Ally Medina to close individual sections of existing bike paths to make plazas and parks. “We’re going to deprioritize these streets for cars by essentially cutting off traffic in a few places, so they can be dedicated to people who want to sit outside and enjoy. We’ll turn street space into something else, and we’ll have bike lanes for a largely car-free route in the future.

“It’s about creating the infrastructure and the incentives that actually help people make different choices,” Bauters said.

This interview was condensed and edited from an interview for BikeTalk. Check BikeTalk early next week to listen to the whole conversation.