Stories From the Field with Warren Logan: 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 Warren Logan, the Mayor’s Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations in Oakland. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Master of City Planning program and has worked in numerous cities before joining the Oakland team over a year ago.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Thank you for giving us your time today. Please tell us a little about your organization and the role you play within that organization currently.

I’m the Mayor’s Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations. I partner with our city administrator to work directly with the transportation department. I also help supervise the public works department as well. Part of my role is to try and build working groups and teams across each of these different departments and with other public agencies, whether that’s AC transit, BART, other neighboring cities, PGE, etc.

I've been really fascinated by the work you all have been doing lately, what you have accomplished in such a short time. I know even on the East Coast, you all are looked at as one of those proud examples of what everyone else could be doing positively around completing streets, etc. So, let's move or transition into a conversation about complete streets. For you either personally or professionally or both, what makes a street complete?

I think that from a transportation planner standpoint, when we talk about complete streets, whether you're traveling by car, by bus, train, walking, or biking, that there is space for you, that you feel safe. One of the other aspects, though that I'll share just as a human being, and then by extension, a Black man in space, is that a complete street also means that I belong and that my humanity is also thought of. And not even just thought of, but carried compassionately throughout the decisions that are made. Whether there's a curb here, a tree there, but also what are the activities that are allowed to occur in that space. And who is enforcing behavior in that space. And I think that when people say complete streets, it's been interesting, in fact, to return to that almost from a political standpoint, to think more about people who are using that space and less about the mode of travel.

Are there any personal experiences you're referring to in regards to the need to emphasize the importance of feeling like you have the right to exist within that space?

Absolutely. I can speak to a couple of examples. So, even just recently before COVID, I bike all over the city and as a bicyclist, I recognize every day that there are plenty of streets and spaces that feel incomplete to me, where there's no bike lane, there's no buffer. That's one example.

When I was 16, I had just gotten my license. I was driving a car and I lived in San Diego and I was driving in my neighborhood where I lived, which was predominantly white. And I was driving and I got pulled over for speeding, simply. The questions that I was asked while I was pulled over were not about the speed that I was driving, but about who I was and why I was in this neighborhood and whose car I was driving.

And of course, the irony would be that I was only a few blocks away from my house, which my driver's license would show, and that I owned the car, which the insurance would show. And it reminds me now looking back, you know, 15, 16 years later that, again, sort of circling back to my first point, it's not enough to say “Oh, I striped the street now to allow for cars and buses and bikes” if you're not thinking about the people who are using that space and the experiences they have. And so that that drives you to see the intersectionality between transportation planning and engineering, public health, and police and fire and public safety. And that's really, to me, the thrust of the effort that we're about in Oakland. It’s taking on those intersectional concerns, those challenges, those passions, and being really authentic about what that means to really help people thrive in their community, on a street, in their homes, etc.

Well, let's go there and let's talk about some of those intersectional challenges right now, especially in regards to how they may relate to your ability to advance complete streets policy adoption and implementation at the city level, the regional level, and the County level as well.

Sure. Maybe first we'll talk about what happens when you don't have a complete street, and then by extension, the intersectionality of what those challenges look like. So when I think about an incomplete street, I'm primarily thinking about one that is only for cars. And not only just for cars, but streets that allow people to drive recklessly and fast in neighborhoods and communities.

I recall a number of times, really tragically that people have been hit by cars walking their children home from school. Just this year we lost, I think, two mothers who were in a crosswalk next to the school where they were picking up their kids. And when you think about the impact of any collision, specifically a fatal collision between a car and a pedestrian, someone walking, it’s not just a number. It's also neighborhood trauma. I want to go into that for just a second because tragically so many of these collisions result in fatalities that occur next to places where everybody can see them. And so, I want you to imagine, and this is really sad, that a mom is picking up her kid while everybody else is picking up their kids. All these kids are out there on the lawn waiting to get picked up and all of them see this woman get hit and fly into the air and lie face down on the ground. Think about how traumatic that experience is. And how this      really isn't just about a public health issue, right? Death is its own indicator, but so are the kinds of historic trauma that these communities and these young kids start to realize and start to really feel at such a young age. One of these fatal collisions was at an elementary school, with kids between ages five and 10. So if you're an eight-year-old, your parents may not allow you to walk in this neighborhood again. You begin to fear the community around you. That's the first issue that I want to touch upon -- the fear of even being allowed to exist in your neighborhood because there's a force that could take your life at any moment.

So not only do you have this fear that communities are feeling. The other component is about trust in government. Let's say for example, that you're in this community and you say, this isn't fair. We, this community, deserve safe streets. You go to your neighborhood crime prevention group. You go to the city and you say, we demand a crosswalk. We demand stoplights. We demand stop signs, brighter crosswalks, whatever. And you're told that it's going to take years to get that into place. Maybe even at all. That's also not fair. And what that tells people, especially in these Black and Brown low-income communities, is that your life doesn't matter. And that no matter how traumatic the world is around you, the people who are really responsible for keeping you safe, which is not just your parents, your doctors or nurses, but also the government, are not doing that. And I think that that has a really important impact on the way that people experience their lives. I think transportation planners think about complete streets as paint on the road, and then suddenly everything is good. But we don't talk about the trauma that people have experienced, about what it looks like to heal community, not just with infrastructure, but with compassion and storytelling. And that's really hard.

One of my first weeks [on the job], I was in an elementary school talking about this mother that had been killed just a few days before. It was heartbreaking. And so it really changed the way that I saw the mission that I see both for transportation planners and by extension, myself and the mayor's office to champion -- not just complete streets from a transportation perspective or from an engineering perspective or from infrastructure, but about championing life and how people thrive in their community --  and that there are a number of ways to help them do that. And one of them is transportation.

Why do you, if you feel, that empathy and compassion haven't been normalized in cities across America.

I think on one hand, America, all of America for a second has been so dominated by cars that people only see that as the way forward, both figuratively and physically, and anyone who doesn't do that is outside of the norm. And then by extension, anyone who is risking their lives to do something else like walking or biking or taking transit, that's their fault. And that they should own whatever risk comes with that behavior. I think that that's ridiculous. But there are people who will really push back on safety improvements. We have a number of bicycle projects in the city, for example, but even pedestrian crossing improvements, where people will say, “don't put a stoplight there. I use this to drive to work and that will slow me down.”

We, as a culture, value expediency in travel over human life. That's across the board and the case for even in Oakland people say, well, I'm going to widen this freeway. Forget the fact that you're widening it into other people's communities, or better yet, let’s turn back to the forties and fifties I’m going to build a freeway through your neighborhood and kick you out because this will be better for most people who drive, irrespective of the fact that people physically live there and not everybody drives. I think there's been a pivot to respect people's lives a little better in Oakland and by extension in California and a lot of other cities across the country, because more people are choosing to live in cities. They are recognizing that there are other ways to get around besides driving and would like to be safe doing so.

I will say, honestly, bluntly, that I think there's something to be said, too, about the people who are now the champions of bicycle and pedestrian safety, which are oftentimes white men. And if you know anything about power and institutional power in this country, it's often held in their hands. And I think that plays a role in why it is that suddenly complete streets are the new trend of the day. But, I think that had Black and Brown people have been saying, “Hey, you know, we deserve safe bus stops. We deserve safe walking spaces.” I think that we haven't been listened to, to just be honest.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you score public outreach and engagement in your city?

I think I'd score it an eight because I know that we have plenty of work to be done. I would say that a lot of cities are a one. There's one thing to say that you're engaging with people, you're having a dialogue, but then there's also outreach. There's informing, which is, “I posted a notice.” I think we really do mean to engage with people and that a lot of times those conversations are difficult and challenging and people start yelling at each other and we come back for more. That's engagement.

What role do you think universities could play in complete streets?

What I think is so powerful about universities is that they constantly question whether or not the pace that government, for example, has been traveling in the right direction. It's sort of like the media, right? It's a good check on whether or not we're doing the right thing and to explore almost in a test lab, right, other types of opportunities that we as government bureaucrats might sort of wall ourselves from even allowing or to think about. And I think that that's an important factor.

Great. So, what do you think the future of complete streets is now for marginalized communities, given the impact of COVID19?

I can talk about that in a couple of ways. I think that our Slow Streets program is one way that I think complete streets is going to morph. And it's funny because slow streets originally, we caused a lot of people a lot of headaches, which is to say that many people were not enthusiastic about this program at first. There are plenty of people who are still not enthusiastic about it. And it's given us an opportunity to not just expedite the planning process, but really be more iterative and playful in how to achieve whatever our shared vision is. And mind you, we're only less than two months into this.

But many people say what they really need help with is crossing bigger divides to get to a grocery store, to get to the clinics, get to the pharmacies. Those are the essential places that we're now working to connect neighborhoods to. I think the mission of complete streets, and then by extension, the department of transportation is going to be to push toward rapid responses [to transportation needs] that may not be perfect, but we're now having a conversation about “how might we” instead of “if we will.”

[What are] the challenges of having an incomplete street? Look at how many people die on our streets every day. It's its own epidemic. And we should be meeting it with a similar level of expediency and emergency response that it deserves, just like COVID. And don't get me wrong, COVID is a pandemic and that's its own force. But I think what's been exciting is that we've really opened up and can address concerns and still keep in constant communication with the community. I think that that's just been the exciting component. The last piece I'll say though is that I think our teams are also learning how to challenge even the communities and the advocates. I'll just use an example within slow streets again to highlight what I think a post-COVID world might look like from a trust in government, engagement standpoint. Before all of this, I think that a lot of people in transportation planning thought that equity meant to [just] speak to Black and Brown people. And there we go. Now equity is complete. That is not how this works, right? You are talking to a group of people who have been institutionally marginalized for such a long time that there’s that trauma, healing that has to take place.

So, when you just go ask “how can I help you?”, their initial reaction might be like, “I've been burned enough times. You can just stay away.” And that's I think what we also heard a little bit from slow streets. But you need to go back to them. You have to confirm with people, you're telling me to get rid of safe streets in your neighborhood? Is that really what you mean? And when I asked them bluntly, many of them say, “wait, wait, that's not what I meant. I just think that it should be done this way.” If barricades remind [people] of past traumas have different barricades that remind people of the beautiful culture in their neighborhood instead of a construction site. I think the really critical lesson learned here, and I've been sharing this widely with anyone who asks, is that we need to be permanently engaging with people on an authentic level that asks people deeper questions rather than, do you like it or do you dislike it? That's not real. That's not engagement. That's phoning it in. But to really examine, “Tell me what it is you're trying to accomplish. You want safe streets. How is it that we need to adjust this to meet your goals?” Turns out some people said, “Oh, I don't like the slow streets because I don't like these signs. I want them to be roundabouts. I want these to be trees. I want there to be planters.” And [as a planner, I listen and say] okay, let's do that. That's engagement. And that's what I hope becomes permanent through this whole iterative process that doesn’t wait for the perfect solution 10 years down the line.

Excellent. You've identified as a person of color. I identify as a person of color. How important do you think it is for us to be, or play a role, in planning our cities? How important is that representation?

It's absolutely essential. I think it's essential because there's something about living our truth that is really important. I'll share a story from my 103-year-old grandfather who was the first African American president of the board of realtors in San Diego, and probably in California. And my dad was the second. And one of the things he told me was that you have to be in the room. You can't trust people to make decisions for you. You have to be there to be in the conversation, even if it's challenging. He said it's important for other people to see us, to see us doing it, even if we're not perfect. So that if they have someone that looks like them, they feel comfortable sharing their stories with, and hopefully that representation empowers them to also participate in planning, in government.

I can tell you that I know what it's like to be Black in America, and I think it's really important that that voice be presented in these types of conversations. When someone says, “I've got an idea, let's just send the police down here and make sure that people aren't speeding.” That's probably not the best task to move forward with.

So let's make sure that even people coming up with what they think are good ideas are checked by people's real experiences.

In closing, what are some concrete solutions we can implement today or tomorrow?

I think the first of which we've learned is slow streets. To not be afraid to try something, even if it's cheap barricades on the street corners to say slow down. The other that I really want to remind people is about what authentic engagement looks like.

In the last few months, the mayor's office, including myself, have really challenged the city to be thoughtful about how we reach people no matter where they are.

We did this amazing thing called the Great Oakland Check-In. We call people in their homes using the Census dialer program, and we reached over 2000 people just to check in on them and make sure that they were okay and to connect them with resources. I think that that's the even bigger lesson learned is that engagement needs to look totally different and we need to be highlighting these rich stories in our community and using those as the driving force for all of our decisions.

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 Warren Logan

Warren Logan

Mayor's Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations

City of Oakland

What makes a street complete?