For this installment of Stories from the Field, Berkeley SafeTREC’s Jarah Crowner chatted with Karen Rodriguez, Community Programs Coordinator for California Walks. Rodriguez talks about her inspiration for working in active transportation and why community engagement is vital for success in active transportation programs.
What is your current role?
As a Community Programs Coordinator for California Walks, I oversee the development and implementation of our Community Pedestrian and Bicycle Training (CPBST) Program across California. My role involves collaborating with local stakeholders to identify and address active transportation safety concerns and create an action plan with safe system strategies to address immediate safety improvement concerns.
What inspired you to work in active transportation?
Growing up in Santa Ana, I relied on walking and public transportation out of necessity. Traveling in my community was challenging because of poor transportation infrastructure, including unsafe sidewalks and roads, limited shade, inadequate parks,, and insufficient bus services. Despite these difficulties, these experiences deepened my connection with my community and fueled my passion for improving pedestrian and bicycle safety. In 2019, I took the lead in organizing the Rise Up Willowick Coalition (RUW) to address the severe lack of open space in Santa Ana and Garden Grove. RUW advocated for the development of more local public parks and equitable land use. My work in active transportation is inspired by my community and my past experiences. They have given me the perspective to deeply understand and relate to the daily struggles of communities in rural, urban, or suburban areas.
How does your work with the program encourage safety for people that walk, bike, or roll for transportation?
At California Walks, we believe that the people who reside, work and engage in their communities should be actively involved in providing input on existing and future community development plans. Our Community Pedestrian and Bicycle Training program focuses on capturing a diverse range of walking and biking experiences in a hyper-focus area identified by community planning committees. To ensure our planning process is grounded in the community’s lived experience, we collaborate with local agencies, schools, parent groups, and local community-based organizations. By involving these stakeholders, we aim to ground our recommendations and safety infrastructure solutions to be specific to each community. As we conduct our walking or biking assessment, we encourage participants to consider perspectives beyond their own individual abilities by envisioning the experiences of a five-year-old walking down the street or someone in a wheelchair trying to cross an intersection. We gain valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities for safer streets. In addition, we offer various training opportunities, including data collection, walk assessments, Video Voice training, and resource identification through community collaboration.
What are the key elements of a successful active transportation project or program?
Community Engagement is vital for the success of active transportation projects. Without a deep understanding of a community’s history and how the roads are utilized, the solutions identified may not be suitable or relevant. A thriving community is one where people see themselves reflected in the built environment. Furthermore, community members often possess unique and creative solutions that engineering data alone cannot provide. Therefore, obtaining input from community members at all stages of planning is crucial.
Strengthening local stakeholder relationships can provide great outcomes. Many times there is information that local agencies have that residents might not know, and vice versa. Fostering trust between local, regional, and even state stakeholders can create more creative and meaningful projects that generations will enjoy and benefit from. I think the healthiest relationships include equity as the foundation and the desire to find the solution that best fits the needs of the community.
Action Steps are also an important aspect of moving the work forward. Safety improvements require collaboration, and identifying areas where everyone can best support can ensure sustainable community participation and strengthen local relationships.
Karen speaks to community members at a Community Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Training in Arvin, CA
What lessons or valuable takeaways did you gain from a recent active transportation project or program?
I recently led a CPBST workshop in the City of Arvin, located in Kern County. This community faces many environmental justice and active transportation challenges. Our focus for the workshop was the intersection of State Route 223 and Walnut Dr. Students, parents, and people of all ages and abilities use this non-marked crossroad as a de facto intersection to access the local school zone in N. Walnut St. The takeaways that resonated most with me were:
- Community context is imperative and goes hand in hand with data analysis. Unfortunately, the crash data in this intersection did not reflect the need or lived experience of the community navigating between high-speed vehicles, so the operating agency, Caltrans, could not immediately place a traffic signal. Data and numbers do not always reflect the entire scope of a communities’ experience, and many barriers prevent people from interacting with local enforcement to register their experience with the state of California. Therefore, community voices and context is needed when assessing safety improvements.
- It can take a significant amount of time to implement safety improvements; however, communities still hold power and can implement short-term solutions like data collection, video voice projects, and safety messaging campaigns to help mitigate and address safety concerns.
If you had a superpower and could change anything, what would the future of active transportation safety look like?
We would not prioritize cars! We would prioritize walking, biking, and rolling. I would immediately make public transportation free and accessible to everyone by installing bullet trains, light rails, and metro stations and improving bus routes and bike lanes. Our street design would encourage art, education, and placemaking and use public space to gather and connect with others. I would also ensure there are enough parks and open space options, tree canopies, and native plants and gardens that are stewarded for and by the local community. The future of active transportation is not reserved for the few rather is for everyone regardless of their background and abilities.
This Stories From the Field interview was conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley SafeTREC. The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of SafeTREC.