Connecting state and local government leaders
Emeryville, California Mayor John Bauters, who has gained notice for his punchy tweets about cycling and pedestrian issues, explains his broader vision for transforming the city.
John Bauters has gotten a lot of attention in recent months for the work he’s done as mayor of a city that most people couldn’t find on a map.
Bauters is the mayor of Emeryville, California, home to nearly 13,000 people, which Bauters describes as “a small, dense, urban community wedged between Oakland and Berkeley.” It’s where the headquarters of Pixar is. But it’s also crisscrossed by highways and freight rail tracks, and it might best be known as the place where the local Ikea is.
That makes the transformation of the small city into a haven for cyclists and people walking to their school, jobs and stores all the more striking.
Bauters credits the whole council for that transformation, but he has been the face of it, thanks to his unapologetic advocacy on Twitter, his willingness to meet biking advocates around the country and, of course, because of a recent streak of head-turning projects that are changing the local streets.
The city has been extending the Emeryville Greenway, a mile-long bike and pedestrian path that connects many of the city’s residential areas to its retail outlets. In December, it opened a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over a railyard that essentially cut off the eastern half of the city from the western half. During the pandemic, the city converted a two-way street into a new “bike boulevard” that only allows limited auto traffic, adding to its existing network of bike boulevards. And more improvements are in the works.
Route Fifty interviewed Bauters recently by phone to talk about the changes underway in Emeryville and what local officials elsewhere can learn from them. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
From my understanding, your call to action wasn’t necessarily bikes. You have been involved in housing and other issues. So how did biking end up being such a big part of your identity?
There was a dramatic uptick in the number of people who took interest in my transportation policy at the beginning of the year based on a couple of tweets. (In January, for example, Bauters tweeted: “Every time someone tweets about how they hate sharing the road with bicyclists I choose another street parking space to eliminate.” It was retweeted 2,700 times.)
I have more than tripled my followers in the last four months. The interest has largely been around active transportation. That’s not really what I’m saying. What I’m really trying to do is make communities more people-oriented and livable.
When I go to speak at events, I make it really clear to people: You invited me to talk about bike lanes, or you invited me to talk about parking or you invited me to talk about housing. But each of those things is only one piece of what I’m trying to articulate as the solution.
For me, inclusivity or creating spaces of belonging is really my mission.
What is the motivation for the work you are doing?
The origins of that go back to being a gay kid in the Midwest and really feeling that there were not places or programs that were accessible to me. I never had an agenda to run for office, but when I did, I made a really conscientious decision that I was going to unapologetically always be my authentic self.
I use the term ‘people-oriented’ because it isn’t always just about physical space. It’s also about the programs and services you offer. I do regular town halls. I’m accessible to everyone in the community who wants to meet with me. Small problems, big problems, I don’t hand select what I’m involved in. I’ve done everything from fix a light pole to address large encampment issues.
People buy in and they’re willing to support community leaders who are really authentically engaged in the work of the community.
Why has this focus on people-oriented infrastructure attracted so much attention?
One of the most attractive ways is to give more space back to the people. It’s not just bike lanes. It’s also parklets. People also love outdoor dining and restaurants. The fact that people show up for street fairs and carnivals where they close the street shows people want to be in community with each other.
A lot of people might be focused on an area where I might be the niche leader, which is around biking policy, but by no means is that the very limited goal. My goals are much broader than that. But if that’s my [way] in which other people can come into conversation with me about these broader issues of inclusivity, I’m fine with that.
What does making a city ‘people-oriented’ mean for its streets and infrastructure?
We have adopted our policies. Properties we own, we don’t just give them to a developer. We ground lease them. You can build a building, and it can be there for 75 years, but the city is still going to own it. So in 75 years, a future council can make a decision for what the city needs at the time, and it doesn’t have to come up with the money to buy it back.
We’ve got multiple developments that have just been approved or are about to be approved where we have negotiated that, when they build these developments, they’re going to build separated bicycle facilities. We’re going to remove entire streets from our grid and turn them into pedestrian zones. We have diverters in to do traffic calming.
We renewed our property-based improvement tax for a 15-year period back in 2015, which pays for the Emery Go-Round, so there’s a free shuttle service in the city. It has three routes. It’s a last-mile connector to BART. It takes people all around, so employees can take BART or Amtrak to our city. Shoppers use it. Residents use it. In 2018, despite [Emeryville] having only 12,000 residents, it gave 1.2 million free trips.
We are leveraging the opportunity to make better use of space with the tiny space we have. We can’t build out, so we build up. Our streets can only fit so many people, so what do we do? Let’s give them free transit. Let’s create dedicated bus lanes where we’re going to have [bus rapid transit].
The whole goal being to create a space where it is safe, easy and functional to choose something other than a car.
By doing that, we can see where people are going and what they want. We can build better and more park space. We can create social spaces for people to convene.
And what we know is this is what makes us attractive for all of these new businesses that are coming. I meet the businesses and the developers. They see what we’re doing, they see our philosophy, and they say, I want to be part of that.
They know that they will attract high-quality employers who will pay for high-quality talent to live here. They ask about the bike bridge and where it goes into a brand-new mall and what’s going in there. I say, a brand-new grocery store and seven new restaurants, so you can go out with your colleagues, and have a nice leisurely walk to your lunch break.
Beyond infrastructure, what have you and the council done to make Emeryville ‘people-oriented’?
We passed the highest minimum wage in the nation. (Currently, it is $17.13 per hour but will increase to $17.68 in July). We have a fair work and scheduling ordinance, which is one of only a handful in the United States. So we get predictive scheduling and paid sick leave and other things to hourly employees at those shopping centers.
We’re one of the few cities in the state that has a city-operated childcare center, where full city employees with union benefits and health care are the city childcare providers. Employees who work in the city and residents in the city can put their children into affordable childcare here.
Our policy has been to offer a combination of adding amenities like housing and active space, plus social policies that make those other amenities economically attainable.
You’ve traveled recently to Washington, D.C., and Houston. You’re going to meet people this summer in Boston and New York. What advice do you give to city leaders who want to see the types of changes you’re marking in Emeryville?
When we say, “city leaders,” let me be clear about who’s been at those events. They’ve been the advocates. I get some staff, but no elected official has come and joined me on an actual tour.
When neighbors come to me with problems [in Emeryville], like cars are speeding through the stop sign or they are going too fast around the corner, we are small enough that we can talk about those things as a city. Our transportation committee isn’t just rubber-stamping engineers’ designs. We go through the design review with them. We talk about the signage or what we can do to make a crosswalk more usable. What I’ve learned from going to other cities is that it doesn't happen there.
A lot of really good ideas come from planning staff in other cities, but political leaders are unwilling to do it, because they’re not engaged. They don’t understand why it would make them safer.
The problem is a lot of times, the narrative is fact versus feeling. I can share facts with you that a vehicle is dangerous, that this design is dangerous, that the planet needs alternatives to cars. But it doesn’t matter as soon as someone says we’re going to remove parking spaces. They lose their collective [minds]. They don’t care about the facts. They have a feeling about it. They have a strong emotional response.
So I’ll say, it sounds like you’re saying to me that you feel really inconvenienced by this change. What I say to them is that I have feelings too. I feel children should bike to school safely. I feel moms and dads should come home from work alive if they’re choosing not to own a vehicle as a personal choice for financial reasons. I don’t have to go into the number of deaths in Alameda County by a car versus a bike or what the global temperature rise has been over the last 20 years. I just go into what I feel. And now people have to grapple with your feelings too.
If you’re mad that my commitment to the safety of other people is inconvenient for you, OK, thank you for sharing your opinion. The function of government is to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the public, not to provide for the convenience of your vehicle. It is not to provide for a place on a public roadway to store your personal belongings.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.