How do you build constituent trust and authentic, resilient community engagement? According to John Bauters, the Mayor of Emeryville, CA, it all started with a bike on his first day of kindergarten. Now, with the lived experience of riding one for transportation around the city he leads, he finds it easier to build trust and get sh*t done. He also discusses the informal coalition of Twitter-using (for now) U.S. mayors who ride bikes or take transit daily and who are building social capital for future policies along the way. In part two of their conversation, Andrea jumps in with big kudos for John’s approach, and provides context for why this sort of leadership matters. And, why many, many more mayors should take heed.
John Bauters / Emeryville, CA (Part 2)
John Bauters (00:00):
If you’re pursuing or interested or in public office, you should always be modeling what you stand for. Like that should be your lived experience. And I always find it funny that so many people who get to make decisions about financing transit agencies never ride the transit. Like, uh, like it drives me crazy. Uh, you know, why are you voting on where are the bus route goes? Like, you don’t even ride the thing.
Andrea Learned (00:27):
I’m Andrea Learned and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. I had such a great conversation with John. We’re airing it in two parts. If you haven’t listened to part one, you might want to check that out first. In this conversation, we get into biking, public safety and infrastructure. John is constantly living his change by biking around Emeryville and tweeting about it, showing that it is possible to ride your bike from here to there in town. Reflecting that reality for his constituents and his Twitter followers, I wanted to hear how he first got into biking.
John Bauters (01:15):
I was put on a bicycle when I was two or three years old. Uh, uh, that was, you know, I’m . I I I’m a child of the seventies. And, uh, I grew up in a Midwest community where, where I, I was born in a rural community in Indiana and grew up mostly in Michigan. Finished high school in Ohio. But where I was growing up, the only way to go from A to B was with my bicycle. My parents had one vehicle. Uh, my dad took it to the job. My mom quit teaching and she stayed at home when my siblings and I were born. And I went everywhere with my bike. I went to school on my first day with my bike. I brought my bike down the hallway in the school on the first day of kindergarten . And I locked it to my desk.
And the teacher, the teacher was like this, the bike doesn’t come into the classroom. And there was no bike rack outside my room. And this school, the, the school put a bike rack outside the kindergarten. Oh. Uh, so I biked to kindergarten. I biked my entire grade school, uh, experience. It didn’t matter. And if it was too much snow, I would walk. So I never took a car to school in my life. Like it, you know, I took a bus at the end of high school, um, when we moved. And, you know, I, I, that was just my experience and it was, it was my transportation and I was free to go wherever I wanted with my bike. I biked all over my neighborhood. I went to see my friends and as long as I was home for dinner, I was fine. And I, uh, you know, I don’t wanna sound like I’m nostalgic for those days cuz I really recognize a lot of children today don’t have that type of community safety.
It’s really horrible. All the things that have happened in the last 40 plus years that have taken away that sense of safety that parents have, not just for street violence and bad drivers, but, you know, we could talk about gun violence and other problems that affect and just the way parents have to think about the world today, I recognize is probably very different than how my parents thought about it. And I feel blessed that I had that freedom. And to your question about it is transportation. I appreciate you raising it that way because so many people say a bicycle is a recreational tool and it’s not a recreational tool. Please, it can be, it can be used as recreation. Yeah. No differently than a car can be. Right. People go for a Sunday joy ride and that is to me, recreation. But I use a bicycle to go to all my meetings.
I use a bicycle to run my errands. I use it to go see constituents who are calling me when there’s a homeless man being removed from a park district. Right. Or city property. You know, like I, I use it to do pretty much everything. It’s ubiquitous for my experience in town. And I get stopped at least once or twice a day by somebody in town who recognizes me on my bike Yes. Or sees me walking my dog. Yes. And that’s honestly, people would never be able to do that or, or know who I was if I was in a car all the time. Mm-hmm. . And I think that part of my, my voice on this, it, I laugh when you’re like, I’m so good at social media. My only social media is Twitter. I’ve never had Facebook, I don’t have Instagram. Like people think I’m a genius at this. And I’m honestly just like, I just say what I think and that’s it. John,
Andrea Learned (04:10):
Can I just, can I just stop you right there? Because here’s the, I mean, I a little bit of love for Twitter, which, you know, maybe just falling into the sea as we know. Yeah. And, and I too am on like Twitter is my, like I just, I’ve been on it since 2008 and it really is amazing. And to your point, kind of going back to what you were talking about with the cities at Cop 27 Show and Tell, and a lot of people use Twitter for show and tell and, and, and I’m a communications person, right. So I call it broadcast messaging. We’re doing this , we’re having an event. Look at our mayor, we took a picture of him on a bike one day. Right. But the, oh God. Right. But the mayor isn’t actually the leader, him or herself are not actually sharing and engaging.
Right. And so if you look at, if you look at over the course of season one of f Living Change, I’m talking to quite a few political leaders who say exactly what you say, which is, you know, I started riding my bike for transportation for my own personal values, right? Mm-hmm. . And then I was just sharing it on Twitter cuz whatever. And then it just turns out that they’re more trusted, their constituents can wave ’em down in the street. All of that stuff is unbelievable. And I’m like, I feel like I’ve been doing research because I’m proving the point just by talking to like six or seven of you on this podcast trying to get more leaders like you to do this. I mean, to, to, to think of bikes as transportation. I don’t know why that’s so hard for people
John Bauters (05:30):
When we’re children. It’s like, it is our transportation before we can drive. But there’s this like, cultural issue in the United States where when you turn 16, you get a driver’s license and you graduate to a car. . Right? And, and it’s like, it, it’s, it’s almost like heralded as this amazing thing. And so kids look up to it, they’re excited for it. And, and I’m like, but for what? Like, so that they can be like handcuffed to financial responsibilities and all, all these other safety issues and, and just long-term commitments. And you know, the Forbes magazine study that showed up about $700,000 of money in your life to own a mid-size car for all the related costs associated with it. You just think like how much sooner you could retire or things you could, how the house you could buy or the places you could go on vacation. Like just, I, I’m like, why would I, right. Why would I do that? Mm-hmm. , why would I, and and I don’t think we ever, ever actually just objectively give people information to make choices. We, we, we compel them both culturally, but then also with the infrastructure we built. Right. Exactly. Like we build infras, we build the infrastructure that says you’re gonna use the car.
Andrea Learned (06:37):
Yeah. You’re gonna, you use a car or you’re gonna die. Yeah. .
John Bauters (06:40):
Yeah. Yeah. You’re gonna, you’re gonna participate in this economic system. I mean, we are, we are conscripting people to an economic model that furthers this country’s notion of how the economy has to work, how are goods and services have to be delivered, how people have to work. Right. And it, it’s all premised on a very old logic from the 1950s of like, you live in the suburbs and you get in your car and you do this and, and, and like, it’s not sustainable. And it was quaint and, and cute and what people decided in the 1950s and there’s, uh, still a generation of people who are really mentally be held into, well that’s how we always do it because we’ve culturally trained people to do that. And people think I’m bizarre because I bicycle to the grocery store where
Andrea Learned (07:24):
I bike. Hello.
John Bauters (07:24):
Yep. But I walk my dog to the vet three miles. They’re like, you walk your dog. I’m like, she’s, her legs are fine. She’s okay. Right. Like, they just find it bizarre. And I, and I I I find it weird that like you would wanna expend all the money you expend monthly on a car. Mm-hmm. , like I, you know, people, how do you get to take all the great trips you do because I’m not spending the money on a car
Andrea Learned (07:46):
. Well, it, it’s so funny because it’s making me think because I feel the same way and I feel like people think, and I actually, to be clear, I have a car, but I’m privileged. Right. And I choose to have this car, but I drive it so little. It’s kind of a joke. But I wanna go back to the fact that you and I are both from Michigan, right? I have Michi. Oh yeah. I have Michigan roots and I feel like I’m super practical. And so I’m like, I’m like, this is, you know, and, and we road bikes around our neighborhood when we were kids and it was so fun. Yeah. And whenever, when you’re at college you don’t like, you don’t need a, and it’s so great. And then I lived in cities with transportation, like with subways and, you know, and I’m just Right.
It’s been wonderful because it just so happened that my path was like that. But I, I think just to kind of go back to constituents looking at this, a lot of people are like, oh my God, I can’t believe you ride your bike. We’re all gonna die. And it’s just like, you know, you can vote differently. Right. You know, so people aren’t to the point of like, this is a lived experience. How does it translate into policy? Well, if you’ve got a mayor who’s seen riding his bike, then mm-hmm. , hello. You’re gonna trust that policies that you’re forwarding. You know, that guy rides his bike a lot and, and the streets aren’t as safe as I want it to be. So if I vote for the things that that guy’s talking about, maybe it’ll happen. And I’d really like that joy. So kudos to you and just thank you connecting those dots. And again, living the change, being seen, living the change. And that’s why you’re on Twitter. That’s why you need to be on Twitter because we need to see you living the change. And that makes a huge difference there.
John Bauters (09:18):
You should always, you should al you should always be, if you’re pursuing or interested or in public office, you should always be modeling what you stand for. Yep. Like, that should be your lived experience. And I always find it funny that so many people who get to make decisions about financing transit agencies never ride the transit. Oh. Oh. Like it drives me crazy.
Andrea Learned (09:38):
John Bauters (09:39):
Yeah. Like, why are you voting on where the bus route goes? Like you don’t even ride the thing. Like, you know, it, it, it’s a very similar thing. And I, I get folks who say, well, you know, we do projects that have, we’ve put in with our annual repaving plan. We put, we remove parking in front of, uh, schools on all of our schools and we put diverters in and great put double double directional bike tracks in front of the schools and the pickup lane is moved away and all that stuff. Mm-hmm. . And I had some people who emailed me and I had a guy email me and he is like, you know, there’s this new curb island as he called it, like cement island out in the corner and it makes it very hard to turn the corner at this street. And I said, oh, well thank you so much for noticing our safe routes to school’s improvements, .
I said, it’s designed, it’s called a protected intersection. It’s designed to make sure that you have to slow down to make the turn so that you’re not turning that angled corner quickly in front of the school where children are walking home. Mm-hmm. . And, and I’m like, I I’m glad to know, um, you care about the safety of these children as much as I do. Mm-hmm. , because that’s why we put it there. And you know, I’m not waiting for a child to get mowed down on one of my streets to say, we need to do something about this. So when people go, why are you doing this? I go, I’m doing this so that we never have to cry over losing a child in this community. Why would I wait for a child to get hit by a car at an intersection that I can preventively design this intersection today in a project with money I have now to make it so much safer? Like why would I wait?
Andrea Learned (11:05):
And again, the response you get to that is complete and utter silence. Right. I mean, people,
John Bauters (11:09):
I don’t, there’s never people never a response back. There’s no reply. People have
Andrea Learned (11:12):
Never heard that answer before in their lives.
John Bauters (11:15):
Andrea Learned (11:18):
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I did see on social media that within the last year, I believe you were in Boston for a transportation conference and you got to spend time with Mayor Wu mm-hmm. , right? Who is another one of these people who I would’ve loved to have get on the podcast, but who is walk peddling her talk, right? Mm-hmm. and taking transit and being seen that. So I’m looking right at leaders like you and Michelle Wu and kind of, there’s a collection of you. Are you all ever in touch and being like, how can you do something where you’re teaching or reflecting or being able to nudge your peers with this? That’s partially what I’m trying to do, right. Is reflect you guys and go, look, these guys know what they’re doing. Are you guys somehow able to like speak to your community of mayors and say hello?
John Bauters (12:53):
So I have two parts to my response. The first is Michelle Wu is fantastic. And, uh, I often get people often joke they’re like, who’s the better mayor in the United States, Mayor Bauters or Wu? And I always say Mayor Wu. And and here’s the thing. Like there needs to be more voices that reflect hers in leadership. There need to be, and I say her for a reason. Mm-hmm. , there need to be more like you look at who’s getting shit done,
Andrea Learned (13:20):
G S D
John Bauters (13:21):
You know, in my, I had a breakfast with her, uh, while I was in Boston and we had a candid conversation about a number of items. But what I’ll share from that conversation is, um, that I shared with her that I exist to support people like her and that I recognize the importance of having a voice like mine in a position supporting standing up at stepping back. Mm-hmm. . And so I always try to walk that balance between being the person who’s the most out there. Cuz I have a lot of people begging me for more, to do more content, to speak to more mayors. I’m sure why I get, I get asked very frequently, I’m sure to speak at things and to be places. And it should not be about a personality. Um, we have been as a country through the cult of personality for a number of years now, and that is an unhealthy thing.
It should be about the communal sharing. People say, move to my city and run from here. And I’m like, you, if you feel that I would be a great mayor in your city, you probably should run for mayor in your city. Mm-hmm. and like helping other people achieve what they want by being part of the solution as opposed to looking to a handful of us to solve all the problems. We need more people on the team. So I’m trying to both support. But then I think the other part of it is, you know, this, how do you convene all the other mayors and council members? I just wanna reassure anyone listening to this podcast who says, it feels like there’s just a few of you. There are many people, there are many people. We may not be from the biggest cities and towns. We may not, we may be council members, we may be new, we may be senior, we may be whatever.
I have in the last two years been inundated with inquiries, requests to meet support, dialogue, review things from people all over the United States and Canada who are elected officials saying, I want to do what you’re doing. I want to, I want to know how you did that. I have this idea. How would, how could you help me think about it? And I am flattered that people are turning to me. I don’t think I’m doing something that’s genius. I think maybe what I’m doing effectively to your earlier comment is I’m communicating it in a way that people can relate to mm-hmm. . And I think that that has been the biggest piece of feedback I’ve received from other electeds is that they feel my communication style is one that breaks through to people in the public, in the advocacy community and to other electeds. I have obtained outcomes at regional board meetings on things where people thought this isn’t gonna happen.
Mm-hmm. and my voice has definitely added credibility or moved people to Yes. And I, I think that in terms of a more formal space for mayors to have these discussions, I will tell you that the US Mayor’s Conference has a winter and a summer meeting. Um, I do intend to ask the US Mayor’s conference to allow me to convene a, a workshop about discussing active transportation safety mm-hmm. at the summer meeting in Columbus, Ohio. I am hoping to, similar to cop, there’s just no front door to this issue right now. There isn’t a, a table set for people to have it. You have to almost, you almost kind of have to just do it yourself. Um, yes. And if I don’t get, if I don’t get offered that space mm-hmm. , I will convene a, a, a bicycle workshop of some kind for those who are interested mm-hmm.
to come and sit and talk about how do we talk about this in our cities mm-hmm. and how do we help people see that this isn’t recreation, this is an investment in safety. Mm-hmm. . Because the number one thing people say to me in my city, especially some of the disgruntled folks that who lose all the parking spaces and get mad at me about it mm-hmm. is they say, I don’t ever remember you campaigning on bikes. And I said, because I never did. And they said, well, why did you suddenly become the bike mirror? I said, I was always the bike mirror. I said, what you didn’t realize was that I campaigned on safety. And when I look at safety from a pragmatic perspective, there are few things that could deliver better safety outcomes faster than me making infrastructure changes to our streets. And I said, so my commitment to safety is something I’m delivering on. And it just so happens that the biggest set of opportunities in front of me is to make streets safer.
Andrea Learned (17:19):
Incredible. And I, one of the things that you said about how these things aren’t necessarily given a formal workshop or something at any large event, and that how you just kind of realize that you might have to do a side event. I see the same thing in, I also operate in global food systems transformation and that sort of thing. And I see the same thing in climate leadership conferences where everyone’s going and they’re all wigged out about what panel they’re gonna go to. Mm-hmm. . And I’m, if I’m working with a client or anybody, I’m always like, listen, it’s there. People are there. The is to have a great, you know, happy hour or dinner in a side room with 20 people mm-hmm. where you really, again, g s d , right? Mm-hmm. . And so I totally agree with that and I’m cheering you on and hoping that either the US Mayor’s conference gets a clue or you have a very successful side meeting.
And I really would love to hear about it and help you amplify that. That’s one. The other thing I want to say is because of your Twitter, even though you know, it’s just like it’s who you are, it is incredible. And I think that that actually is part of it, right? So if you’re tying to other mayors about this, the way that you build kind of trust with constituencies is by building social capital, this community engagement that you do naturally. That they need to know that their voice needs to be more authentic and more directly back and forth engaging with their constituents. This is my theory. Mm-hmm. , because press releases and like the communications team and all that, it’s again, just broadcast messages. So part of your secret is that you are good on social media. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Twitter, right?
Because Twitter is who knows where it’s going, but everyone should pick one platform and get really good at being engaging the way you are and your authentic self. So huge kudos to you. And because this is a podcast called Living Change, I’m just, uh, you are an incredible model of it. I love that you’re stepping back and realizing that there are wonderful ways that you can help others kind of get, you know, get in that space. But the other thing I wanted to say is I am seeing that the smaller town, right? That the more of the local leaders at a smaller town level, so Michelle Wu gets lots of coverage and Hatu gets lots of coverage. Um, Valerie Plante in Montreal gets a lot of coverage, right? Mm-hmm. . But what, what I’m seeing just in my work is all these, you know, mayors and city council people in smaller, um, local regions or, you know, outside of large metropolitan areas doing amazing work. So huge kudos to you. And I just really wanna thank you for taking time to be on this podcast and to talk with me. I think what you’re doing is incredible and I’m gonna amplify the heck out of it from now on, and I hope that we continue to stay in touch, but I think that a lot of people are gonna really learn from what you had to say. So thank you so much for your time, John.
John Bauters (19:54):
Oh, Andrea, I’m very blessed that you invited me to join you and I thank you for the opportunity. And any chance I have to just, uh, share the good word that there are, there are people who are an elected office. It’s easy to look at government and, and say that it’s all bad or corrupt or the news is just like, it feels like a three ring circus when you watch DC on a given day. But, uh, you know, the majority of the things that impact our daily lives that make our lives better happen at the local level. Yep. And that’s why I’ve always been focused on local service and why that’s where I will remain in. Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing greater in my, my own than again, you learn about humanity with human contact. And you can’t do that when you’re making speeches from, you know, a pedestal. You’re a pedestal in DC or
Andrea Learned (20:40):
A dias in, in Sharm el Sheikh
John Bauters (20:42):
when you’re, when you’re, when you’re on the bike lane in Emeryville and you’re stopped as I was yesterday by Brian Simmons in his, he is one leg and he’s in a, um, assistance, assistance bicycle, and he’s going out to Treasure Island and he flags me down. He’s like, I know who you are. I follow you on Twitter. It’s a common thing I get. And we just have a whole conversation about accessibility and talking about bike access in Emeryville. And he goes on his way and I take my dog for the walk. And it’s just, I love having that type of human contact. And it, so when people ask me, you know, what is your people like to ascribe or attribute an agenda to me, right? Like, you have an agenda. I was like, it’s the people’s agenda . And I know that because I talk to people all day.
Andrea Learned (21:19):
Yeah. Oh, thank you so much, John. It was so fun. Yeah.
John Bauters (21:23):
Andrea Learned (21:26):
I’m so inspired by John. The US Conference of Mayors better be taking Note. Active Transportation is a powerful investment in safety, infrastructure and public health. And as John so eloquently expressed, it deserves to be top of the agenda. Often big policy shifts take time, but mayors have the unique ability to mobilize resources creatively and quickly. So, what are you waiting for? Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn. Living Change is produced by Larj Media. That’s l a RJ Media. Thank you to everyone sending positive feedback and giving us ratings and reviews. They’ve been amazing. You have no idea how much that helps. Get this podcast on the radar of leaders who want to practice living change. So your ratings and reviews actually have their own climate influence. Until next time, pedal safely.