Leah Shahum Talks Vision Zero

Melissa Balmer, Director of Women on Bikes California/ PedalLove.org, talks with Leah Shahum, who after 12 years is stepping down as Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Photo by Lisa Beth Anderson

Photo by Lisa Beth Anderson

Melissa Balmer, Director of Women on Bikes California/ PedalLove.org, talks with Leah Shahum, who after 12 years is stepping down as Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Melissa Balmer: After 12 very successful years as the Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition you are stepping down to go on an exciting new adventure on a German Marshall Fund Fellowship to research the effects of Vision Zero. Please share with us what the Vision Zero concept is and why you wanted to participate in this fellowship.

Leah Shahum: Vision Zero is a simple yet profound concept that we can prevent traffic fatalities and serious injuries if we change our mindset to no longer accept these tragedies as inevitable. If our communities truly prioritize safety – that means elevating safety in every decision made by City officials regarding how we design our streets, how police enforce, and how policies and funding decisions are made – we could eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Communities in Europe have made that choice and are seeing tremendous success. For example, Sweden, the birthplace of Vision Zero, has seen a 30 percent decrease in traffic fatalities since 1997, when it committed to Vision Zero.

I’m proud that our advocacy at the SF Bicycle Coalition, along with partners including Walk SF and neighborhood groups, moved Vision Zero onto the forefront of San Francisco’s political forefront in the past year, with commitments from the Mayor, Police Chief, and other city leaders. But now we need to figure out how to actually implement this bold, yet achievable, vision of eliminating traffic deaths on SF’s streets by 2024. And I believe San Francisco, along with New York City, can succeed and serve as models for other US cities.

This Fellowship will give me the chance to visit cities that are successfully implementing Vision Zero for safer streets and increased biking and walking – including Stockholm, Rotterdam, and Berlin – and find out how these communities have made the tough choices and moved their communities from ones that considered traffic violence inevitable to stoppable. I believe Vision Zero is the next major strategy for American cities to move the needle toward safe, healthy, accessible transportation systems that will keep our communities thriving.

MB: You began your professional career as a journalist. Any thoughts on taking that back up as part of your new research?

LS: I’ve always enjoyed the communications parts of my job at the SF Bicycle Coalition so much. Communications is really at the core of what we, as advocates for healthier communities, do every day.

I think Vision Zero will be a particularly effective communications strategy to bring more people into the fold of calming our streets and prioritizing healthy transportation options. In the past, there’s been too much of an “us versus them” theme amplified among transportation advocacy, but the reality is that all road users will benefit when our streets are safer and more people feel comfortable biking and walking. Vision Zero really is the “big tent” that can bring all road users together for a common goal.

MB: Are there any women in bike or other forms of advocacy who’ve inspired your work and your leadership style?

LS: I’ve been fortunate to work with so many tremendous women leaders in the bike advocacy movement here in the SF Bay Area – from trendsetting leaders like Deb Hubsmith in Marin to Corinne Winters in Silicon Valley to Renee Rivera in the East Bay. Women have been leading the work for better biking and setting the agenda in the Bay Area for more than a decade – pretty impressive!

MB: You’re leaving behind a wonderful legacy of success at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition including growing the membership to over 10,000 and becoming the most successful city-based bicycle advocacy organizations in the nation. That’s quite a legacy already – but you’re not done yet! Jump forward 20 years, what difference do you want your own bike advocacy work to have made?

LS: I want to move past the incremental approach cities are making now. Today, we’re excited about a separated bikeway on a few blocks here, a few blocks there. If we’re really successful, we’ll look back in 20 years and barely recognize the kinds of streets that exist today because we will have changed the culture in our communities to demand and expect great public spaces where people, not cars, are prioritized. Just as we’re amazed to look back to days – not so long ago – when smoking was allowed in planes or when drunk driving was barely ostracized, and we will be amazed that we were handing over so much precious public space to private cars at the expense of healthier, happier people. I know, that’s no small vision, but I honestly believe we can get there.

MB: During your tenure, bike advocacy has made important strides to be more diverse, inclusive, and female-friendly, but there’s still work to be done. What advice do you have for both women and people from underserved communities who want to play active leadership roles in the bike movement? And, on the other side, what words of advice do you have for bike advocacy leadership across North America about the wisdom of being more inclusive?

LS: The future of successful advocacy for bike-friendly cities is tied to better reflecting and connecting with the diverse communities we’re working in. People need to see themselves in the work we’re doing. And they need to see how they’ll benefit from more people biking, even if they never get a on a bike personally. So, we need to better integrate messages and priorities that resonate more with women and people from underserved communities, such as making our streets family-friendly for the Moms who carry the lion’s share of child-carting responsibilities or people for whom transportation costs are a major financial burden. I commend the work the Alliance for Biking & Walking and local groups across the nation are starting to do to confront head-on the equity gaps in our work.

MB: What is your favorite place to ride in San Francisco?

LS: Anyplace that I can truly relax and truly enjoy biking without the worries of threatening car traffic. This includes our growing Sunday Streets (Open Streets) routes through diverse neighborhoods, and pathways such as the Panhandle Path, and car-free days in Golden Gate Park, which the SF Bicycle Coalition helped expand.

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