Stories From the Field with Esther Rivera: Complete Streets, Equity and COVID-19

What makes a street complete?

In the Spring of 2020, Charles T. Brown, Founder and Managing Principal of Equitable Cities LLC, sat down for a series of virtual interviews with Esther Rivera, the Deputy Director of California Walks; Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations at the City of Oakland Mayor’s Office; and Tracy McMillan, Senior Associate at Nelson\Nygaard. Brown led conversations with each transportation professional about complete streets, equity, and COVID-19. The video "What makes a street complete?" highlights each professional’s insights on the meaning and future of complete streets. 

This installment of Stories From the Field features the interview with Esther Rivera, Deputy Director for California Walks. Esther works to advance statewide policies, and she leads the Focus Cities work which provides technical assistance to local government and community-based organizations in seven cities throughout the State. Esther graduated from California State University, Fresno with a Master of Public Health with a focus on Health Promotion. She is a first-generation Mexican American born and raised in the Central Valley where she still lives today.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Do you mind telling us a little about your agency and then a little specifically about the role you play within that organization?

We are California Walks, so we are the statewide voice for pedestrian safety in California. I currently am the deputy director and filling in as interim executive director for just a short while longer. We do a lot of work across the state to promote not only walkability and bikeability, but also communities. We've shifted over the past one to two years to focus on the right to exist in public spaces, free of harassment and safely, and we recognize that that goes well beyond transportation, which is where we've typically focused on. So we've been doing a lot of work in the past year or two around extending our partners. I'm really looking at how to work more intersectionally and being sure that we are lifting up policies or pieces that come from partners that deal in the sectors around people experiencing houselessness, women's rights, LGBTQ rights. We are really trying to focus on what it means to be able to navigate your community safely and all of the pieces that come with that, which also include things like policing and how that affects someone's ability to move around safely.

What made that shift happen?

I think it came naturally in our work. We focus on communities of color and disadvantaged communities across the state and try to bring more voices into planning, and learn how communities really invest in informed safety. As we started doing this work, we realized this isn't just about transportation. There's so much more that goes into someone's feeling of safety in their community. It goes beyond just, do they have sidewalks and are they able to bike in a bike lane, or things like that. And so, we can't just stop there with the infrastructure or even with programs that encourage walking and biking. So, we focused on trying to incorporate equity into our work.

This next question is at the heart as to why we are here today. And that is what makes a street complete?

I think in my mind it really depends on the community and how the community wants to use a space. When I think of this, I think of where I grew up in the Central Valley in California. There were no sidewalks. It definitely puddled and created issues with walking to school when I was younger. So, when I think of an incomplete street, I think of streets that make it difficult to navigate by any other mode than a car. So, I think about does it have a sidewalk? Is there lighting? Is there shade, especially in the places that get very hot in the summer? Is it an area where you feel like you're able to walk and navigate? And I think that that's different by community. People talk about gold star standards for complete streets, but I think it really is up to the community to inform what they would like to see on that street. Is it wider sidewalks, sidewalks in general? Is it a bike lane? Is it not a bike lane? Can you get around using anything other than a car?

So you sort of touched on this earlier, but now given the fact that we're moving into my second question, which gets at the impacts of complete streets, one, you talked about the importance of intersectionality, and then secondly, you talked about the importance of the right to exist within public space. Can you expound on that idea or that thinking, why is it important to just simply have the right to exist? And why should that be considered a sort of component of an incomplete street?

It's about things that make you feel unsafe even being out. So even if there's a sidewalk, if there is excessive enforcement where someone feels unsafe, then that would definitely hinder someone's ability to be out in these spaces. I think of children whose parents have a fear of walking in their community because of things like gang violence or gang recruitment. Even just the perception of that safety is another piece that keeps people from walking and biking. And some of that has to do with just perceptions and not reality, but still it needs to be considered in terms of how people feel safe, just existing in public spaces. Another key piece, especially for myself is, do I feel safe navigating this space alone as a woman? Do I feel like I can easily have an out if I feel unsafe all of a sudden? I'm lucky to have a trail near      where I live, but I definitely don't feel safe at certain times of the day when the visibility is      low or just in terms of my own personal safety as a woman. Do community members feel safe with their various identities on that street or roadway?

What professional or personal insights have you gained about safe and complete streets since the pandemic? Are there ways that COVID has influenced your thinking around this idea of what makes a street complete or incomplete?

I think professionally, I continue to see the injustice of how we plan communities. And I think this is coming through a lot with the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing how decisions are being made and how community voices are continually left out in terms of informing how cities are using funds, or in the discussion around complete streets, slow streets or open streets. I continue to see that injustice and think about the long-term impact.

What are the long-term impacts that we're creating?

I see the neighborhood where I grew up and see continued disinvestment vs. the privilege I have in where I live. And I think a lot personally about my children and the fact that they may not see those same things, so I am trying to make sure that I am passing on awareness and empathy and the fact that we're lucky that we can go out and walk if we choose to or we can take a bike ride.

You made a really good point that complete streets are contextual. And a lot of that depends upon how the community views the street in terms of its overall completeness. You also touched on this right to exist when it comes to you and your children. Talk about some of the social challenges you may encounter or your children may encounter.

I think about this a lot with my son in how we navigate certain environments. The way we are looked at sometimes in certain communities that are predominantly white where there aren't a lot of people of color. I want my son to grow up being able to exist and be safe in whatever space he's in. What we can do to make sure that, regardless of where children are growing up, regardless of where you live, you have that same right? And I know that right now that's not the reality.

Do you feel that within the current movement around complete streets, people don't often talk enough about the world of history and the role of politics in creating these environments?    

Definitely. I don't think we talk enough about how transportation and complete streets in general have evolved. In general, we don't go back often enough to reflect on decisions that were made poorly to make sure we're not repeating history. Now, as we're living through this pandemic, we're seeing that communities are being left out of conversations. We know that's not the way to plan, and yet it feels like we're in danger of repeating that same cycle. I know that there's a lot happening right now, which is great on the surface in terms of, for example open streets. But then also let's talk about where that's happening. Are we shifting funds away from communities that really need more infrastructure, or even just programmatic work to support walking as a mode of transportation versus walking and biking for recreation? Not that it's not important to be able to walk and bike for recreation, but are we shifting funds away from communities that really need it just to be able to walk to transit, or to destinations that they really need to get to.

You've mentioned how it is important to recognize the technicalities of complete streets, but you also touched on the modal aspects of it as well. Let's put cars aside for a second. Let's talk specifically about biking and walking. For some reason it appears that bicycling is sexier than walking. How can we kind of shift that sort of narrative so that we can truly have complete streets?

When we use terms like pedestrian, people think “in the box” of a person as someone who's only walking, not using a mode of transportation. So, I don't know how to make it “sexier” other than just talking about why we shifted and why we are looking at how we get more to the heart of what we do. It's not just for people who rely on walking as their sole mode of transportation. It's really about everyone and how we can make spaces easier to navigate.  It’s not just for people who are walking, but people who need an assisted mobility device, too.

When it comes to advancing complete streets policy adoption as well as implementation, what has been some of your challenges? What keeps you up at night in regards to the challenge of advancing complete streets in California?

I think some of the challenges I see are that the decision makers do not fully understand the impact of complete streets. I think there was a failure to see the benefit of it at the time. We were really trying to encourage the state department of transportation to be more efficient and effective with the funds that are used to fund complete streets. I think there isn't a full understanding of how this really benefits everyone because there isn't that understanding of the fact that everyone's a pedestrian. Everyone needs to walk at some point. And so, I think what keeps me up is just the decision makers not understanding that full piece. And not just that, but understanding the connection to complete streets. Understanding the connection of transportation to health, transportation to equity, understanding of the intersectionalities. My background is in public health, so I didn't come from the transportation sector. And the field of public health is much more advanced in seeing the different linkages that impact health. I think we've started to see a shift in that in California over the past year. One of the things I want to get at in comparing public health and transportation is the lack of minorities in power positions in both sectors, although to a lesser degree in public health.

Can you briefly talk about the importance of having more women in a leadership role as well as racial or ethnic minorities in leadership roles in the context of creating a more complete street.

There’s often, as you mentioned, people who are making decisions who don't represent the communities we are trying to bring to the table. I would say that is more seen in transportation than in public health--having women in the room is just something you hardly see [in transportation]. It’s really difficult to navigate as a woman and a woman of color in those spaces, of being taken seriously, of not being talked down to, of feeling like your ideas are not immediately shot down or that you don't understand. This is really frustrating because we know the benefits of making sure that spaces aren't just diverse, but inclusive. So it’s not just that there's someone there who looks like me or who represents a particular community at the table, but that they hold the same power as others who are there. I think we have a long way to go.

You touched on this idea of the right to exist in public space and on the importance to be seen and to be included in these power positions. I want to ask you, how important is it in the complete streets movement to see people that look like you in the photographs, the renderings and the other things that are created around encouraging a complete streets development?

I think it's really important because I don't think traditionally it is what we see. I think this goes back to some of the conversation around biking being sexier. You see typically white people biking or white people on the brochures doing those things. Someone like me thinks, well, that's not for me. I don't see myself walking on that street or biking in that way. I think making sure that we are represented, where anyone can see themselves navigating complete streets. We all need to be a part of that discussion - and inform it - so that any      investment is reflective of the entire community and not just what we typically think someone who is white would feel safe navigating.

How important is the language we use in that same context?

Language is big. Living and working in the Central Valley, we always make sure we default to Spanish to help people feel included in the conversation. I think this goes beyond complete streets, but in general how they plan communities to make sure that in whatever way we're engaging communities, we're doing it in the language or communication style that best suits their needs. I think it's really hard to get clear information out there, not only in promoting complete streets, but in planning communities if we're not considering how we're communicating. Literacy level is another thing. If we're doing flyers and people aren't able to read the material or it's just written at too high of a literacy level, how are we really meaningfully engaging all individuals?

One of the questions I want to ask you is there’s a lot of discussion out there that in communities of color, things such as bike lanes or completing the street will lead to gentrification and displacement. First is that the feedback you're receiving from the people you engage with on the ground level? And then the second, what's your personal thoughts about it? 

I have heard that in some of the workshops we've hosted. What we heard was a lot of concern from a community around bringing in bike lanes. And immediately it was, you're trying to take our neighborhood away. You're not planning with us. I think it was a misstep in terms of the way the workshop was promoted. That's another reason why, when we do work around complete streets, this [work] needs to be informed by the community because we don't want to push bike lanes or sidewalks on communities that really don't want them. When we talk about the active transportation program at the state or about how cities are planning, we need to be aware that the planning should be with the communities who are there now and not planning for the communities that will come in later. And that benefits from any project benefit the       communities that they were planned for and that they are not creating gentrification or displacing anyone. Dr. Destiny Thomas talks about how just the thought of being displaced has people       automatically searching for somewhere else to live. So, the best way to make sure that we are addressing that is to include those communities from the start.

How would you generally score public outreach and engagement efforts around complete street implementation in this state on a scale of one to ten, ten being great?

I'd say overall across the state, three or four. But I think it depends. That's more of a general average. I think there's some cities who are doing really well who maybe would score higher.  It's not just thinking about how a city's planning, but then how does that District for Caltrans plan in those areas. And I think we have a long way to go. I think a lot about the work that has been done locally and how even things like providing interpretation, providing food, providing childcare to make sure that community members can meaningfully engage, looking at the time of day that you're hosting a workshop, where you're hosting a workshop [are not focused on]. We know what needs to happen as far as the advocacy and local partner side, but I think getting cities, counties, and the state to really comply with those best practices, is really where there's a big lag.

What role could universities play in supporting the work that you’re doing?

I would love to see universities push the envelope a little bit more. I've seen a lot of projects get funded through the state for academic institutions and in some cases, it's not really advancing anything in transportation. And I think that's a concern for how we're using funds and whether or not those funds are being used effectively. And if they're not, how do we go back and revisit that to make sure that we're actually going to come out with something that's usable and that can inform future transportation.

What are some solutions that we can implement today for the future so that we can make it better for your kids and their offspring moving forward?

The best thing we could do now is actually slow planning down. I think given the pandemic, given the way things have traditionally gone, there's this constant reaction and need to create a solution right away. What I would urge us to do is really slow down in how we're thinking to make sure that we're not repeating the mistakes of the past. And if we can't engage communities now, we shouldn't be making decisions. We need to figure out what the best course forward is by talking to those communities and figuring out how we make it easy to participate in this COVID-19 world. I worry that with some of the shifts that have happened with the pandemic, resources are being pulled even more from the communities who really needed it. I worry about what that means not just in terms of complete streets, but also with transit. I know that the communities who have historically suffered from disinvestment are the same ones that are going to suffer from impacts of the pandemic.        

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 Esther Rivera

Esther Rivera

Deputy Director

California Walks

What makes a street complete?