Safety Story with Colin Parent

Safety Story with Colin Parent

Executive Director, Circulate San Diego

For this installment of Stories from the Field, Berkeley SafeTREC’s Lisa Peterson chatted with Colin Parent, Executive Director, at Circulate San Diego and Councilmember for the City of La Mesa, California. Parent discusses public policy strategies for advancing safer streets, the importance of working with the press and decision makers, and the role of empathy in getting to zero traffic deaths and injuries. Read his Safety Story below!

What is your current role?

I'm Executive Director and General Counsel at Circulate. I took that role in 2017, when the title was Policy Council, and my job in that role was to lead our policy work. Now, as Executive Director, I lead the organization as a whole, but am still deeply involved in our policy team and our efforts there. When I initially got involved in Circulate as a member of our policy committee, I was at the public housing authority in the city of San Diego, at the San Diego Housing Commission. And that was my first participation in a transportation advocacy organization and role. I'd really come to this with more of a housing background, but had worked in politics and public policy previously, and was already on board with the notion that housing and transportation are interrelated.

What inspired you to work in active transportation?

When I joined Circulate, I wanted to continue to work in the public policy space. I had been working in affordable housing and land use policy, and at Circulate, it was to join an organization that had worked on housing, but also was working in the transit and active transportation space. I got to learn on the job how active transportation and transportation advocacy can be done. When I joined, we had already started taking steps toward a campaign for Vision Zero. And while I was on the policy committee, a future colleague pitched to us that we should get involved with Vision Zero and make that a big focus of our efforts. At first, it didn't make obvious sense to me. But when I joined the organization, and got to know the team a little more and understand more in depth how they were looking at engaging in active transportation through the lens of Vision Zero, it really clicked. It was a more urgent way to look at the issues that we were working on and have been working on as an organization. And, it really helped me appreciate the value of working on an issue in a space that I hadn't had a lot of prior experience.

Some of the advocacy around active transportation I had seen in the past was more about aesthetics. It was sort of “Wouldn't it be nice to have a fun, nice place to walk? Wouldn’t it be pleasant to have bicycle lanes that we could enjoy on the weekends?” I think these are perfectly legitimate public policy rationales but, they're also not as compelling as saving people's lives and making sure that people are able to access public infrastructure, without being in mortal peril. And, thinking about active transportation with a Vision Zero lens helped me really appreciate that this was an issue about social justice, equity, and equal access to public resources, which are things that are more personally compelling to me than the sort of aesthetic values that oftentimes inform interest in urbanism issues. And, so that helped me appreciate the value of what we're doing. It also helped inform how we approach these issues from a policy advocacy and political perspective, and how to make these issues more interesting and compelling to decision makers and to a broader audience of political stakeholders.

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

Circulate San Diego Community Event on city street with participants, all wearing masks, facing the camera with a thumbs up

Circulate San Diego Community Event (Photo credit: Circulate San Diego)

At Circulate we have two sides of the house as an organization. First, we have our public policy work. That's where I came from, and continue to be most involved. We do a variety of things related to advocacy, primarily around Vision Zero. Initially, we proceeded with a big report that we put out in 2015, titled “Vision Zero” and talked about the concept, what we need in San Diego, and the tools we need to do it. We've also done a variety of other things to try to pressure decision makers to do the right thing, to spend money in the right places, and to make the right choices to make our streets safer.

On the other side of our house, we have a fee for service program. We have a team that focuses on community engagement, active transportation planning, and training, especially for schoolchildren, but also for other community members about how to walk and bike safely. On our planning side, we'd like to be a good partner for agencies when they have chosen to do the right thing. For us, these are really different activities, with generally different staff engaging in them. But they're both in service of our mission, and of helping people engage with the street in a safe way.

What does that look like to do the right thing? What does that mean to you?

Well, it depends on the scope, right? It's actually the jurisdiction that has decided what they want to do, and how they want to work with us through a contract. They prefer to contract with us than a private firm because we are value oriented, we're nonprofit, and we have that community spirit. Frequently, we contract with the County of San Diego or the city police department, doing education for school kids about how to walk and bike safely. That means, in normal times, we'll go to a school, and we'll do assembly presentations, take kids out on bike rodeos, and other on-the-ground activities. And it's fun, right? But sometimes, it's much more technical, where you have a jurisdiction that says, “We want to make this corridor more safe.” So we'll work with that jurisdiction. We'll meet with the nearby residents, and business owners, hear what they're thinking, memorialize that, do workshops, help do some design, and much like a private planner would, help a jurisdiction go through the process that they need to evaluate their choices, prepare for writing grants, and help them implement those projects. And so it's a diversity of things, but it's all in service of making our streets more safe.

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

It depends on whether or not we're looking at something on our policy advocacy side, or are we looking at something on the planning and engagement side? For us, on the policy side, it's usually relatively easy to determine whether or not we won the campaign. Not always, but usually, we have something we're asking for, and we can judge whether or not we were successful by whether or not the jurisdiction or public agency said “Yes”, put money behind it, and implemented the project. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, though.

 Five Year Update report, May 2021

Hope for Vision Zero: Five Year Update report, May 2021 (Photo credit: Circulate San Diego)

For instance, we got the city to adopt the Vision Zero commitments, but we are five years into it, and they’re not on track to meet their goal. And it's good that they said, “Yes”, but we're not finished yet. So, is that a success? I think it's a more complicated answer. For our planning work, it's are we really going to help those jurisdictions who are doing the right thing? Are we helping them do that? Are we actually getting projects in the ground? Are we helping more people to walk and bike safely? Those are the metrics that we have. It's not enough just to finish the project and get paid for it. It’s not enough to had a press conference with the mayor. We have to really make sure that we're actually achieving the goals that the mission of this organization is seeking to achieve.

What do you think are some of the methods, approaches and tools that are important to help you get there?

On our public policy side, we have a model for advocacy that I think is proven to be pretty effective at moving the ball forward. We begin with identifying the problem. The problem could be, people are dying in the streets. We recommend a solution, oftentimes with a public policy report. But it could be something more minor, like a letter, or even just testimony. And then, what's key is that we spend a lot of time and energy reminding the public, mostly through the press, who is responsible for solving that problem. That means we do press conferences, tweets, all these kinds of things, to get attention to the issue, remind the public who is responsible for fixing this problem, and to bring political pressure to the decision makers to get them to choose to do something about it. And then crucially, the fourth point on our strategy is that we have to be willing to congratulate the decision makers when they solve the problem, even if it's somewhat different than we might have proposed. Those four things in tandem are how we are able to make progress.

Generally, for us, decision makers are almost always elected officials. You can't use that kind of pressure tactic on some public works director. If the mayor doesn't want them to do what we're asking them to do, there's no pressure that we can put on them that's going to make them change. And so it's usually the mayor that is the target or the city council member in the district. I think a lot of advocacy organizations have a hard time moving away from criticism to congratulations. And I think that's a really necessary component of success. We also have to be open to saying yes to solutions that aren't the ones that we came up with. We may say, “You've got to build this bike lane right here in this exact way.” And they may say, “Well, let's build your bike lane, but our engineers feel like we should do it a little differently, I'm going to do one block over.” We have to be open, our focus needs to be on solving the problem. And it needs to be less focused on our particular preferred solution. And, where you draw that line is sometimes challenging. So that's sort of our formula for moving the needle on our public policy work.

What lessons or key takeaways have you gained from that work?

We had a campaign a few years ago, with our initial Vision Zero report, where we identified eight corridors, where there was a large concentration of injuries and deaths. We said to the City of San Diego, "you really need to update these corridors and do some updated plans." And the city auditor came out with some data subsequent to that, that showed that if you got a little more granular, you would see that the injuries and deaths are even more located on specific intersections. Many of those intersections were on those main corridors, but when we really dug into it, it was really specifically intersections as opposed to midblock crossings. So, we launched a campaign called Fix the Fatal 15, and called on the City of San Diego and the mayor at the time to update and retrofit the 15 most dangerous intersections in San Diego. We did a press conference, among other things, and the city's response was a little tepid. They said, “We're going to fix 15 intersections, but only six of them are going to be the ones that you've identified.”

At first, we weren’t sure what to do with that, but we got some advice from our policy committee for thinking through what we're going to do in the next year, and they said to just go after the next 15. And so that's what we did. We took the seven off that they fixed, we added seven more, and said, “Now, fix the fatal 15.” We took some of the lessons from that first campaign, and doubled down on it. We just turned up the heat, and realized that we needed to remind the decision maker, the mayor, that we weren't going away, and that they needed to do this.

Colin Parent, Executive Director for Circulate San Diego, at a 2015 press conference in San Diego about MTS including stored value to their former Compass Card.

Colin Parent, Executive Director for Circulate San Diego, at a 2015 press conference in San Diego about MTS including stored value to their former Compass Card. (Photo credit: Circulate San Diego)

One of the other particular things that we do well, is that we rely a lot on the press, and we're very effective at getting our message out. But we also up some of our inside game, too. So, in this case, we talked to some of the political aides in the mayor's office. We made it very clear that, if it wasn't obvious by reading the newspaper, I want to make sure that, you know, we're going to keep pressuring the mayor for inaction on this. And we’ll lay off of the mayor if you talk to the engineers and tell them to fix these intersections. And they did, to their credit. Then, we very quickly pivoted to recognizing that his administration did change and did agree to fix them. And it was very much a validation of our strategy. We got invited to the press conference, we fixed the 15th intersection, and that was kind of neat. Then, he had his State of the City address, a month after that, and announced he was going to fix hundreds of intersections. It was really very much a validation that it's not enough just to beat him up until they do the right thing. You also have to acknowledge that they're doing the right thing and sort of develop this culture of, “Okay, well, if I do the right thing, not only is Circulate going to get off my back, but like, maybe it might help me as a political figure.” I think we did develop some credibility that, if they did focus on safe roads, we could help benefit them.

Is there anything you'd like to share about how COVID has influenced the work that you do to try to make communities safer for walking and biking?

I think COVID has introduced a lot of people to walking and biking in their neighborhoods. And I think there's a lot of opportunity that comes from people having had that experience. But it's important for advocates not to rest on our laurels and understand that, if we want to continue to benefit from that momentum, we're going to have to continue to keep on pressing this and making sure that that experience is not lost to people, so that they can continue to have a future.

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

Just one superpower? I think it would be to cultivate greater empathy amongst the drivers and decision makers. And I think if people had stopped and thought for a minute about what was more important to them, you know, ease of traffic or the lives of their friends and neighbors, then they would reach a similar conclusion that a lot of the advocates have.

Anything else that you’d like to share?

You know, it's like the work that we do is life and death, it’s super important for people and advocates should approach it with… it's not enough just to be passionate, you also have to be savvy and you have to understand that decision makers make their decisions, and it's not the way that you always want them to. Sometimes they don't have the empathy that we would like them to have. We have to be smart about how we do it, because the stakes are high.

And when thinking about this empathy and Vision Zero, aiming for zero traffic fatalities and injuries, your #CrashNotAccident campaign, and trying to make visible the cost...can you speak more to that? What are the levers to create empathy?

Panel discussion held on August 6, 2020 about the #CrashNotAccident movement nationally and the ways language shapes our perception of traffic violence

Panel discussion held on August 6, 2020 about the #CrashNotAccident movement nationally and the ways language shapes our perception of traffic violence (Photo Credit: Circulate San Diego)

I think we try to approach this in a multifaceted way. The #CrashNotAccident campaign, that's one way to get people to think more empathically about this, and understand that these are humans, and we should try to care for them and not just treat these things as unavoidable, that's one way. But we also do things to pressure and reward politicians, and also in the language that they speak, which is a different approach. And they're both necessary. Just as the things that we do to get the mayor into doing the right thing are different than we would do to try to persuade a driver to be more careful. And they're both important. The approach to Vision Zero, it's such a systemic, challenging, multifaceted issue, that it's also going to require more than one solution, more than one tactic, more than one campaign to address it. And so, we try to fight those battles, on every front that we have the tools to.

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.

Headshot of Colin Parent

Colin Parent

Executive Director

Circulate San Diego


Crash Not Accident: A Panel on Safe Streets, Journalism, and Word Choice