Safety Story with Amelia Conlen

Safety Story with Amelia Conlen of Ecology Action

The importance of community buy-in on bike and pedestrian safety projects.

For this installment of Stories from the Field, Berkeley SafeTREC’s Kristen Leckie chatted with Amelia Conlen, Transportation Planner for Ecology Action. Conlen calls out the importance of community buy-in in order to create successful bike and pedestrian projects, highlighting two recent projects on Green Valley Road and Portola Drive. Read her Safety Story below!

What is your current role?

I am a Transportation Planner for Ecology Action.

What inspired you to work in active transportation?

I grew up in a small town where walking and biking were not the norm, but my dad was a recreational cyclist and we rode bikes to school as kids. When I moved to Seattle for college, the City had set very clear incentives to steer people away from driving, and parking around the university seemed too expensive to me. So, I bought an old road bike from Craigslist and started biking to classes. I hadn't ridden since I was a kid and didn't know anything about bikes when I started. One time my wheel fell off on the way to school and some nice person had to help me put it back on! 

I was studying urban planning, and the interrelated issues of climate change, livable cities, and health were top of mind for me. I was fortunate to be able to spend a quarter in Portland and take a bike planning class there, as well as a quarter in Groningen, the Netherlands, where I experienced what a city that is truly designed for bikes feels like (it feels great). All of these experiences convinced me that making our cities great places to walk and bike is something that solves lots of problems at once, and is key to building communities that are a joy to live in.

How does your organization encourage safety for people that walk, bike, or roll for transportation?

​Ecology Action just celebrated its 50th birthday and has a long history of supporting biking and walking. We host biannual Bike to Work Days in Santa Cruz County and offer adult programming like bike commuting workshops and group rides. We also serve 2nd and 5th graders throughout the Monterey Bay region with the Bike Smart and Walk Smart programs, which teach biking and walking safety. And, in recent years we have partnered with local jurisdictions to develop Safe Routes to Schools Plans and Active Transportation Plans, which is what I work on. 

What are the key elements of a successful active transportation project or program?

​Community buy-in is a key component of all the work we do, from the volunteers who support Bike to Work Day and our youth education programs, to the public support it takes to allocate resources towards bike and pedestrian facilities. The stronger the community support, the stronger the project in my experience.

What lessons or valuable takeaways did you gain from a recent active transportation project or program?

​As part of the County of Santa Cruz Active Transportation Plan, we recently worked on two temporary infrastructure demonstrations. We received basically opposite reactions to the two projects. The first, on Green Valley Road outside Watsonville, provided protected space for people to walk and bike and was well-received by the community. The second project, on Portola Drive in Live Oak, narrowed the roadway from four lanes to three lanes and added separated bikeways. A neighborhood planning process had established the design a few years ago, but there was a significant backlash when the installation went in.

An adult and a kid walk along the Green Valley popup, a painted planter with flowers is behind them and farms are in the background.

Green Valley Road Pop-up Project in Amesti

My takeaways were about the depth of community engagement and the challenges that come with taking space away from cars. We partnered with a school for the Green Valley project and students created art on the planters we used for the installation. That partnership seemed to build support for the project and make more people feel like they were a part of creating it. There were also few trade-offs with that project; the road was wide enough that we could create space for biking and walking without taking anything away from drivers.

On Portola, some neighbors were supportive but many people were frustrated with the additional time it took to drive through the corridor. We could have done a better job of notifying people who do not live in the immediate neighborhood and drive through Portola. One huge takeaway is that changeable message signs at the beginning of the installation are critical to let drivers know what's happening.

A person biking on the Portola pop-up bike lane, there are cars and a bus next to the bike lane along the streetPortola Drive Pop-Up Project in Santa Cruz 

The benefit of both these projects is that they got new people involved in the conversation. There is a lot of potential to harness the engagement, even when people are frustrated, into more conversations about what type of project the community would support.

How has COVID influenced the work you do?

​COVID has led to a lot of innovation among our team as all of our work has become virtual. We have shifted to offering online safety presentations to youth, online commuting workshops, and on the planning side we have been attending virtual parent meetings to learn about barriers to walking and biking. This has opened up exciting possibilities for us to reach people outside of the Monterey Bay area.

If you had a superpower and could change anything, what would the future of active transportation safety look like?

​All bike lanes would become protected bike lanes and no one would be upset about losing parking or a travel lane.

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.

Photo of Amelia Conlen

Amelia Conlen

Transportation Planner

Ecology Action