For LivableStreets, Transportation is a Social Justice Issue

LivableStreetsLivableStreets. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

“Streets are for people, and for all people, whether they’re walking or biking, [or] taking public transit,” says Louisa Gag, sitting across from me at a large wood conference table in an office that houses a total of five desks, two bikes, and one bathroom.

It’s hard to imagine that so many projects across Cambridge and Boston are run out of this one room, and Gag realizes that.

“We often hear people who are surprised to know, ‘Wait, you only have five staff?’” she says with a laugh. 

The office we’re sitting in is home to LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation advocacy nonprofit that serves Cambridge and Boston. The organization was founded in 2004 by Cambridge resident Jeff Rosenblum, who saw a gap in transportation advocacy efforts and a need for safe and equitable streets.

“We were the first multi-modal transportation advocacy organization in the Boston area,” Gag, LivableStreets’ program coordinator, tells me. “Multi-modal” means that LivableStreets doesn’t limit itself to just one project or cause. 

“Jeff Rosenblum, our co-founder, was speaking with advocacy organizations across the country and hearing … that being pigeon-holed by a mode restricted being able to work across transportation, or across streets,” Gag explains.

Instead of being restricted, LivableStreets is well-connected within its communities. They work with officials across the cities, advocate to push projects forward, and of course, train volunteers.

“We call them Street Ambassadors,” Gag says, “and the idea is [about] training folks from their community to go out on the street and meet people where they are.” 

These volunteers make it possible for the five people to accomplish hundreds of projects. Like the name suggests, these volunteers act as conduits between the city and its people, educating passersby about ongoing projects, advertising community meetings, and collecting people’s stories about their experiences with their city streets.

Encouragingly, these stories promote real change. Kristiana Lachiusa, the community engagement coordinator, mentions a recent transportation success between Union Square and Packard’s Corner in Boston.

“A shared bus/bike lane is coming to that section of Brighton Ave. So it’ll help the 57 and 66 buses move more quickly and more reliably, but also provide a 12-foot-wide bike lane for cyclists,” Lachiusa says.

The project was propelled by volunteers. Street Ambassadors collected over 230 stories of people’s experiences with buses on Brighton Ave. in 2018, according to LivableStreet’s website. 

This project was a part of a larger initiative that Lachiusa oversees called “Better Buses,” which is aimed at improving bus efficiency. Slow, unreliable busing hits certain neighborhoods harder than others, and can take an unjust toll on the people who live there.

“Black bus riders spend 64 more hours per year on a bus as compared to their white counterparts,” Lachuisa explains, quoting a recent equity report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Aside from powering three projects (Better Buses, the Emerald Network, and GoBoston 2030) and many individual volunteers, LivableStreets supports Vision Zero, an international standard for street safety and reducing traffic fatalities. Cambridge has joined Somerville and Boston in a VisionZero Coalition.

Of the many improvements outlined, LivableStreets is particularly interested in street design. LivableStreets is advocating for design changes like decreased speed limits, added speed humps, and narrower lanes.

“You can change the behavior and make the streets safer, if you design them differently,” Gag explains. 

Part of LivableStreets’ ability to promote these changes comes from holding people, specifically city officials, accountable. 

“Sometimes you’re really supporting a partnership, and sometimes you are holding their feet to the fire,” Gag explains. 

An example of this “holding feet to the fire” is the progress reports LivableStreets creates about how well the City of Boston is implementing the premises of VisionZero.

Photo by Sasha Pedro.

“Two years ago, our partnership was really focused on wanting to see more resources and staffing for transportation, and we did end up winning that,” Gag says. In fact, the city funded 20 new staff positions for transportation.

Gag says it’s useful to be in direct communication with the officials who are charged with upholding these initiatives.

“One of the great things about doing this progress report or status update evaluation in partnership with [the City of Cambridge] is that rather than just providing recommendations, we’re working with them to determine next steps.”

As LivableStreets continues to support projects and communicate with city officials, the team is excited for a new initiative: candidate questionnaires for city council races in Cambridge, Somerville, and Allston that are centered on transportation.

These questionnaires can then be used as accountability tools for whoever gets elected. 

“It’s just a cool way to kind of make sure that folks are educated about what candidates support these issues,” Gag says. 

In addition to its other projects, LivableStreets hosts an advocacy committee, made up of volunteers who may see problems within their neighborhoods. Rather than organizing tasks for these volunteers, Livable Streets prefers to uplift volunteers’ own agendas.

“We try and … provide them resources so that they can advocate in their communities and gather groups of their own neighbors to move projects that they see, so that they can do the work themselves,” Lachiusa explains. These projects could be anything from fixing a pothole to adding a speed bump. 

“The end goal is quality of life,” Gag says. “Transportation is a tool to get there.”

This story originally appeared in the Technology & Transportation Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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