Biking the walk, bussing it, walking it - but as little as possible by car
Berkeley transportation activists prove themselves leaders in campaign against Measure KK
Carless in the county
April Mitchell sold her car in 2007 - replacing it with her bicycle, public transportation, and foot power. A Louisiana native, she has just a touch of the accent of the southern belle, but none of the legendary defenselessness. Four years ago, influenced by a good friend and a former professor, she made what she thought was a temporary move to the East Bay. Upon arrival, she began working full-time for Environment California. Because she shared a vision for energy-efficient public transportation and walkable communities, she also volunteered with the Transportation and Land-use Coalition (TALC, since renamed TransForm). There she met some members of Friends of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), a group formed in 2005 to advocate for AC Transit's BRT project, including Hank Resnik. Recognizing the need of the environmental movement for young blood, Hank encouraged April to join their campaign. "God bless April," Hank says. "She has wonderful energy - and is really bright and capable."
Having done some canvassing for the Sierra Club in Louisiana, April found it natural to work with the Northern Alameda Group. April describes the No on KK campaign as "a huge group effort. Everything was done in stages." To further understanding and support of BRT, she did phone-banking and letter-writing. She spoke in public forums, including the Disability Commission, since one of her strongest arguments has been that public transport should be available to all.
She is still writing and speaking. For public transportation to attract passengers, April insists that it must be reliable. Riders should want to take public transit. Although she usually feels safe on her bicycle, she wants bicycle routes to be improved, so that more people will choose to rely on two wheels rather than four.
April lives in North Oakland and bikes to work in Berkeley. Her recreational activities also allow her to avoid automobiles. She hikes, walks, camps - and even bikes for pleasure.
From MIT to MTA to ACT
One day Len Conly had an "aha" moment: seeing the close connection between land use and transportation. Already keenly aware of the connection between global warming and transportation, the MIT-trained, now-retired electrical contractor set about learning all he could about critical transportation issues. He attended transportation-themed meetings, he met and learned from transportation "experts", and he began taking public transportation everywhere he possibly could.
Len has made himself so knowledgeable about transportation and land use that he could probably write a history of activist groups and their acronyms. It was his involvement with groups like Berkeleyans for Ecological and Safe Transportation (BEST) and Livable Berkeley that nurtured his self-education in transit, and it was through them that he met Hank Resnik, who invited him to a meeting of the Friends of BRT. Len and Hank now co-chair that organization.
Len later joined Transform (at that time called TALC), as well as the Regional Alliance for Transit (RAFT) and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP, an international organization promoting sustainable transportation such as BRT around the world). Also Len, already a member of the Sierra Club, started working with the Northern Alameda Group. He has just been elected to the Group's Executive Committee.
Len serves as a watchdog, alerting other Group members to specific transportation problems, including disputes regarding bus service along some transit corridors, problems with the locations of bus stops, infrequent service on some bus lines, and gaps in service.
In 2008 the Bay Chapter Executive Committee gave Len his official watchdog title by appointing him to the Citizens Watchdog Committee of the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority (ACTIA), an agency created to implement the Measure B transportation sales tax.
During last fall's elections, Len spoke at public meetings, asked hard questions of candidates and office-holders, distributed information sheets, and wrote letters and articles on behalf of Bus Rapid Transit and against Measure KK. He served as treasurer of the Coalition for Effective Government, a partnership of many organizations that opposed Measure KK - though not all for the same reasons. (Among the members of this coalition were the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters of the East Bay, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition, and the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville.)
It isn't easy to convince all residents that a denser downtown is a major factor in reducing global warming, and that more efficient public transit will facilitate a greener East Bay. The immediate rewards are many, he affirms. He always takes BART to San Francisco - and avoids traffic hassles and parking problems. He takes the bus into downtown Berkeley - and avoids parking meters (and sometimes tickets) and busy streets. He is committed to the well-being of the area where he raised his family and where he may have grandchildren some day. And in his after-volunteer-work hours, it's a nice place to play a little bluegrass on the guitar and the piano.
People-herder in Berkeley
Like Len, Alan Tobey is a long-time Berkeley resident who kept very busy during the 2008 elections (he co-chaired the No on KK campaign). He spoke frequently at public forums and wrote articles and letters for local publications. Most useful, perhaps, have been countless one-on-one encounters, in which Alan has tried to persuade hesitant voters to change long-held ideas about transportation and housing in their own neighborhoods.
Alan came to Berkeley from the Midwest in 1970 to do graduate work in sociology. Earlier that year, he and his wife Ruth had helped organized Minneapolis's first Earth Day. Five years ago, he retired from his work in marketing and product design, and has since dedicated himself to environmental activism. During all but four months of his career, he was able to avoid a car commute.
Alan had been a Club member for many years, and his involvement intensified as the Club became more engaged in work to reverse environmental damage and then to engage people on a local level to creatively confront global warming. Alan points especially to SB 375, a state bill passed and signed last fall, which requires local governments to incorporate global-warming concerns into their local planning. This, he says, gives the Club something to work for rather than just against. There is much work to be done, Alan says, even in progressive Berkeley. Serious environmentalists must battle both apathy and opposition to more compact housing, for example in Berkeley's Downtown Plan, which has been under revision for over two years.
Alan and Ruth use their car when necessary - carting home heavy groceries, driving to Red Cross disaster locations (Alan's volunteerism extends beyond environmental causes), and getting to bird-watching sites (Ruth leads Golden Gate Audubon treks). Usually, however, their primary mode of transportation is bicycling.
Some of Alan's other pleasures can also be enjoyed without combustion engines - though his love of travel abroad does cost a few carbon offsets. He is a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, a book much more about randomness than waterfowl. He is also a gifted photographer, winning a contest last year for a photograph of a duckherder in Myanmar.
The long-distance, low-carbon activist
Hank and wife Lucienne lived and worked in Manhattan in the 1960s. One good thing about Manhattan was that it was not car-friendly; one pretty much had to rely on public transport (unfortunately, at that time not very reliable) - or, as Hank found, one could get where one wanted on a bicycle.
In the 1970s his then employer, The Saturday Review, relocated to the West Coast. Hank and his family moved to San Francisco - and then, when they began accumulating children (they adopted six), across the Bay to Berkeley. When the Review folded, Hank worked as a free-lance writer and editor, often on educational issues. In the mid-1980s, he convinced his non-profit employer that he could work as well in Rome as in Berkeley. The family planned to stay just one year - but ended up staying four years so that a son could finish high school there.
While in Rome, Hank and his family did not do as most Romans did - "destroy the city with automobiles." They rode bikes. When they returned to Berkeley, Hank was determined to prevent Roman ruin here - and he became a member of the Berkeley Transportation Commission, a City Council-appointed volunteer body of dedicated and knowledgeable people. He also went to work with small activist groups and with the Northern Alameda County Group of the biggest environmental-activist organization, the Sierra Club.
Hank no longer writes and edits full-time, and he is no longer a full-time resident of Berkeley, but he does still seem to be a full-time activist. He and Lucienne spend parts of each year in Miami and in Paris, but modern telecommunications allows him to participate in Bay Area politics even when he isn't in the Bay Area. He and Lucienne bike in Paris, Miami, and Berkeley - they have learned how to feel safe and be safe on two-wheel vehicles. They no longer keep a car in the Bay Area.
What makes a transportation activist? This set of leaders gives some clues. They all are willing to work hard, especially at mastering the details of a complex issue. They are willing to talk with a lot of people, persuading them one by one. And they have the commitment to use energy-efficient transportation in their daily lives.