Carfree herself, Baltimore Delegate Robbyn Lewis sees transit as a public good and a lynchpin of democracy. She talks with Andrea about how there’s more to it than simply painting the bus lanes, and how improving transit is absolutely a social justice issue. How do these things get addressed in today’s city? Delegate Lewis makes a great case for really understanding the tools of community engagement and coalition building. If you are looking for smart, bold, and progressive, climate-acting local leaders, start here.
Robbyn Lewis/ Baltimore, MD
Andrea Learned (00:19):
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. Today I’m speaking with Delegate Robbyn Lewis, representing Baltimore’s District 46 in the Maryland state legislature. Hi Robbyn.
Robbyn Lewis (00:48):
Hi. How are you?
Andrea Learned (00:51):
It’s nice to meet you. I first came across Robbyn through her work, prioritizing the importance of safe and livable communities. Although 30% of Baltimore residents depend on public transit to live and work, Robbyn is the only member of the Maryland General Assembly who is car free by choice. Through that choice, she actually knows the transit system she’s legislating on, and that familiarity informs her urgency in pursuing healthier, better funded and equitable transportation infrastructure. Robbyn’s dedicated bus lane legislation of 2019 laid the groundwork for faster, more reliable service. And so I wanted to start there.
Robbyn Lewis (01:29):
Dedicated bus lanes prioritize moving lots of people over moving individuals in a single vehicle. And like, that’s democracy to me. The greatest good for the greatest number, moving the most people effectively and efficiently. Mm-hmm. [affirmative], that is way more important than moving one person in a car.
Andrea Learned (01:44):
Robbyn Lewis (01:46):
And I learned about dedicated bus lanes, uh, traveling to other places where I saw them, like in Vancouver and New York. And I learned that in Baltimore, a decision was made by the governor at the time, uh, in 2015 or so, governor Larry Hogan and his Department of Transportation decided that in the aftermath of canceling the Red Line Light Rail project, which was a 2 billion massive infrastructure investment in Baltimore City, in Baltimore region, that would have been the largest investment in public infrastructure in Maryland in, you know, like a hundred years. Wow. He canceled that and not only denied Baltimore City this enormously important economic catalytic infrastructure project, but reinforced the history of underinvestment, destruction of public transportation.
Andrea Learned (02:43):
So what does dedicated mean in terms of bus lanes?
Robbyn Lewis (02:45):
Yeah, so you don’t just paint the lanes, you have to enforce them. And what enforcement means defining encroachment or impediment of the lanes as an offense, as you know, something that can be sanctioned, right?
Andrea Learned (02:59):
Robbyn Lewis (03:00):
So, interfering with the bus lane, blocking the movement of a bus in a bus lane, parking your vehicle at a bus stop on a bus lane. Those are offenses and those will qualify for enforcement or citation or some kind of penalty. And so I introduced legislation after the Hogan administration, you know, installed about five miles of dedicated bus lanes in Baltimore City. It took me literally two pieces of legislation and four years to finally pass legislation that enabled bus lane enforcement. Uh, in a way we’re doing it here in Maryland, specifically in Baltimore, which is the only jurisdiction with bus lanes. Right now, the way we’re enforcing or protecting our bus lanes is through automatic camera enforcement. This takes police out of the equation of enforcing and protecting the lanes, citing people who block the lanes and puts it in the domain of digital technology. We are using stationary automatic enforcement cameras, which exist everywhere. Everyone’s familiar with them. You’ve had your red light camera, you have your, your speed camera. Those are stationary cameras that take pictures and calculate whether you’re speeding, whether you’ve run a red light. Right? And in this case, whether you are in a bus lane and the bus can’t move because of you,
Andrea Learned (04:24):
And it’s just a matter of course. So it’s not like the police have to come and Right. And pull you over. And it’s this whole, it’s just like what we’re used to. We’re used to getting something in the mail that says, Uhhuh, you owe money. Yeah, and gotcha, right. And then that, then they’re like, oh, right. Like you, it’s so, I mean, I’m, I know that there’s a privacy kind of thing about all these public cameras, but also when it comes to this sort of thing, I’m like, yeah, okay, do it. But I wanna turn to the question of safe and easy bus access. Everyone is trying to figure this out because it’s connected to everything. You successfully helped pass a bill that requires the state to begin measuring and reporting on non-fatal crash injuries by race.
Robbyn Lewis (05:02):
Right? So all of this stuff is connected. Improvement in transit is a social justice issue, right? Mm-hmm, um, protecting black and brown people moving through space, uh, you know, in public space is a social justice issue. So, you know, black person walking to a bus stop crossing an intersection to get to a bus stop and getting into
Andrea Learned (05:25):
Looking and looking and looking for a bus stop. Yeah.
Robbyn Lewis (05:27):
Robbyn Lewis (05:30):
You know, it’s all connected. And fixing public transit is one of the most powerful ways that we can create a justice society, repair the harm of, you know, white supremacy and racism, uh, of the past, really just fix the transit system. And a lot of the other stuff will come to place. The other ingredient in my thinking and in my work is that I am a public health professional. So I’m always thinking about population level health. How do we make the sort of shifts in land use, built environment, health delivery right? That will deliver the greatest benefit for the population. And pedestrian safety is another one of those mechanisms for protecting and improving public health. I experienced issues around pedestrian safety cuz I’m a pedestrian. We’re all pedestrians at some point during our days. Yeah. But if you are car free, like I am,
Andrea Learned (06:26):
Robbyn Lewis (06:27):
You’re more often a pedestrian and more often subject to the inequities and the dangers of moving around, but mm-hmm. But as a, as a legislator, a policymaker and a public health professional, those things for me are inextricably entwined. Mm-hmm. So what do you do about it? Well, in addition to having been a transit advocate, before I became a legislator, I was also really interested in the built environment and Yes. And streets, public spaces and accessibility and safety of moving around in public spaces. So something outside of the realm of legislating. Like there’s something that can’t be fixed by a bill. Yes. And those are things that require collective action. And I, I looked at this, uh, in my own community when I learned that there were many residents of the community where I live, who are also now my constituents, [laugh] Uh Huh, who were concerned about the experience of moving around two major arterials in our neighborhood. Two big busy streets, high volume and high speed traffic that were dangerous to move around to cross the streets to live near. Yeah. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that these high speed arterial streets that are causing so much harm and unhappiness that they are the, the physical vestige of the residential racial red lines, the red
Andrea Learned (07:58):
Robbyn Lewis (07:59):
In our city. Yep.
Andrea Learned (08:01):
Surprise, Surprise. We have the same in Seattle. Same in Seattle.
Robbyn Lewis (08:03):
It’s everywhere. Yeah. I mean, it was a tool. Let’s put a highway down here and cut these people off. Yeah. That’ll stop ’em from coming to our park. And, and sure enough, it did. And it’s, and it still does. And it also kills people cause we get hit by cars and who’s getting hit, you know? So I started hearing complaints not only from the college educated, you know, worldly white neighbors who ride bikes, but also from uh, African-American legacy residents, older residents who’ve lived in these communities for a long time and had the same complaint. How often does that happen? Oh
Andrea Learned (08:41):
Wait, we’re gonna emphasize this moment because I, how often, and this is the stuff that’s really fun to talk to you about. It’s like, tell me how those came together because let’s analyze it and figure out how to create more of it.
Robbyn Lewis (08:52):
So what I did was I hired a couple of young, um, neighbors to help me conduct a community survey. We knocked over 400 doors. [Wow.] Talked to, I don’t know, like 200 or so people and asked them one question. And that question was this, if you could change one thing about your block, your street where you live Huh? What would it be? You would think in Baltimore that one thing would be crime.
Andrea Learned (09:23):
Robbyn Lewis (09:24):
It was not. For something like 80% of the respondents, people we spoke to said, get these cars off my street, slow down these cars.
Andrea Learned (09:35):
Oh my goodness.
Robbyn Lewis (09:36):
I couldn’t believe it. Now you
Andrea Learned (09:38):
Robbyn Lewis (09:38):
And this is, you know, this is not a randomized, uh, survey.
Andrea Learned (09:42):
Oh yeah. Right, right.
Robbyn Lewis (09:44):
Quality control. This Is just whoever opened the door, we, we knocked doors for, I don’t know, like six weeks and everybody that we managed to talk to. So this is a selective group of people who happened to be there and talk. Who wanted to talk to us. But I think that that is still information and it is useful. And it was great cuz it reinforced what I felt mm-hmm, and what the data suggests from other places. But no one had ever asked people in Baltimore city this question.
Andrea Learned (10:11):
Oh my gosh. The thing that you’re reminding me of is this is just all, you know that FTW for the win. Yeah. Every, you know, everything that I kind of, you know, my bikes for climate, my plant-based for climate, everything that I do, I’m just like, listen. Right. If we get more people safely riding bikes, you who want to continue to drive your car on the street will have less traffic to fight with. Right. Like there’s no, there’s no, it’s F t w or there’s no downside. And you have to figure out how to tell that story. And it sounds like you went and you got that and now you have, even if it’s unscientific data, right. You’ve got this. Yeah. The majority of these people we randomly walked up to said this. So I think there’s something there
Robbyn Lewis (10:48):
Exactly. And there absolutely is. And we have to keep building on that. So I took that as sort of a mandate to build a framework for the community to act for the young white hipsters and, you know, miss Mary’s and everybody in between. And I created a network, a coalition that’s called the Livable Streets Coalition.
Andrea Learned (11:10):
Robbyn Lewis (11:11):
Established the coalition in the fall of 2019 and organized a series of meetings that brought folks across this historic racial divide. Mm-hmm. ,… this physical barrier of these high-speed roads created a coalition that includes not only neighbors, but the school community and elementary schools are part of the coalition. Mm-hmm, it includes nonprofits like the A A R P.
Andrea Learned (11:39):
Robbyn Lewis (11:40):
They, uh, saw that Livable Street. I mean they have a national Aging in place program that includes a, I think they call it Livable Streets initiative because a street that’s safe, healthy, and accessible for a senior citizen is also safe, healthy and accessible for you. Me, little kids, everybody. So they were like, we’ve got a stake in what you’re doing. They joined the coalition, a couple of local nonprofits, um, joined, uh, the, and and we also have sitting at the table with the coalition of Baltimore City, department of Transportation, department of Planning. And what we really wanted to do was create a space where residents could take action to transform the streets to make them livable.
Andrea Learned (12:22):
Oh, great. So they could take it on themselves.
Robbyn Lewis (12:25):
Yeah. So, uh, and then covid hit, we started having virtual meetings, but we took advantage of that to do some training of coalition members. And there are more than 200 people who are members of a coalition. We did a couple of Zoom training series on design thinking. Yes. We trained about 25 members on how to use design thinking to develop projects. Cuz that’s what we want. We’re gonna do an intervention to slow down the traffic or make the street more accessible or whatever. And then we also, I was so lucky that A A R P [assigned] a transportation planner to the coalition and that planner helped us design a project.
Andrea Learned (13:01):
Robbyn Lewis (13:02):
So we have a project on paper and we also have, um, a fiscal agent and we’re going to, in the coming year, bring that project, that traffic calming project mm-hmm. …to life. And what the folks community, the members of the coalition, want to do is a traffic calming project in front of one of our elementary schools. So responding to a community complaint, brew into a coalition, which is now going to result in some transformations on our streets that will include black, white, young, old, rich, poor across a historic racial divide.
Andrea Learned (13:39):
I mean, that’s incredible. This is a no-brainer. Every other city in the US, slow the traffic down. Good. Slow the car.
Robbyn Lewis (13:49):
I mean, the people will tell you, I bet you if someone had money for a survey, a could really randomize it. And yes. Election bias out of the picture, I think people would tell us really interesting things. And I think there is so much common ground. Yeah. There’s a lot of work to do. And I don’t want to mislead you that this was easy and that I just got people together and here we go. Like
Andrea Learned (14:11):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robbyn Lewis (14:12):
This is really, it’s, it’s me doing it mm-hmm, it’s me driving, like I’m the instrument of the people’s will and all that. It’s great, but I still only have 24 hours a day.
Andrea Learned (14:24):
Robbyn Lewis (14:26):
And, as a delegate, and also I have a day job in Maryland.
Andrea Learned (14:30):
Oh, do tell
Robbyn Lewis (14:32):
Andrea Learned (14:34):
Oh my gosh.
Robbyn Lewis (14:35):
I was a full-time legislator for my first five years and I’m in my sixth year and I was able to get a job in sort of in my field of public health. Okay. I work as the, the, um, sort of internship coordinator for master students at, at the School of Public Health at Hopkins. So I help master students in public health find internships, which is part of their academic requirement. They’ve gotta do an internship while they’re in the program. Wonderful. It’s very much a nine to five in an academic setting. But it does allow me, you know, an, an income so that I can live as a, as as a legislator. In Maryland, we are citizen legislators. Mm- hmm;, we are part-time mm-hmm, and paid accordingly. But it really is not a part-time job in the 21st century. It’s Right. Really quite consuming and, and, but paid at like a part-time rate. Mm-hmm. So it’s quite challenging to survive like that given your all given your heart not really being able to cover your living expenses, frankly. Mm-hmm. I, I’ve used all my savings, so, but that means I’ve got responsibilities nine to five at Hopkins and balancing that with my delegate work and all that.
Andrea Learned (15:53):
Robbyn, you’re embodying the name of the podcast. Your living change through riding your bike, taking a bus, and in both your legislative job and work helping place students with internships, you’re scaling climate influence.
Robbyn Lewis (16:05):
Write that down. [laugh]
Andrea Learned (16:07):
That’s my word. That’s my word friend. I mean, I’m just like, we have climate influence, each of us and especially people in leadership, lawmakers, corporate leaders, et cetera. We have climate leadership kind of climate influence that we can find, identify and scale. And so I will say kudos to you because the social media, taking time to do that right. Is scaling climate influence and being visible riding your bike. So big kudos for that. Your photos on Twitter are of you with your bike. Right. And the things you’re doing on TikTok sometimes have a bike. It’s just like, this is a social norm for a leader riding around town in maybe a city where it’s kind of unusual, maybe specifically for a person of color. Tell me about riding your bike around town and what that does both for your constituents and your peers.
Robbyn Lewis (16:51):
Yeah. So for my constituents, I have one story from my peers. I have another I’ll share.
Andrea Learned (16:56):
Robbyn Lewis (16:56):
Great. I, I was riding my bike one day, …
Robbyn Lewis (17:01):
And uh, came to an intersection. The light changed. I had to wait for the light to change. So I’m there instead of straddling my bike waiting at the intersection. And when the light was in my favor, as I’m going across on my bike on the crosswalk, a vehicle comes perpendicular to me. And I noticed the corner mine, the vehicle’s not slowing down. It was an suv of course,
Andrea Learned (17:28):
Robbyn Lewis (17:29):
But luckily the last minute I saw the driver look up and kind of, you know, sudden break.
Andrea Learned (17:35):
Robbyn Lewis (17:36):
And so I was like, okay, I guess I can keep moving. But then for whatever reason they’d lightened their pressure on the brake and the car just started rolling a little bit towards me. I think they were maybe looking at their phone or they were fiddling with the radio, but they weren’t paying attention. So I’m like, Hey. I was like, are you fucking crazy? Cause they, and I wasn’t gonna stop. I’m like, I have the right of way. Yes. You were irresponsible, moron. Yes.
Andrea Learned (18:03):
Robbyn Lewis (18:04):
And then I saw the other end of the crosswalk, a couple, a man and a woman also on their bikes. And I thought, oh my God, those are probably constituents. And they just heard me screaming and cursing. Yeah. And losing control in public Right. And my heart sank. And I thought, oh God, maybe they won’t know. They won’t know it’s me. I know they’re my constituents, but hopefully they won’t know it’s me. Right. As I got closer to them, they said, right on Delegate Lewis, you tell ’em.
Andrea Learned (18:38):
Woo. Oh my gosh. High five.
Robbyn Lewis (18:41):
So not only did they know it was me, they thought it was great that I was cursing at a SUV driver and they saw someone standing up for them.
Andrea Learned (18:53):
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Robbyn Lewis (19:41):
On the side of my colleagues, I get a lot of teasing
Andrea Learned (19:46):
Robbyn Lewis (19:47):
From some folks. And, uh, I had a colleague just this morning, you know, who’s an older person used to driving and, you know, takes delight and teasing me Every time he sees me, he says, Hey, how you doing with those bike lanes? What about those bus lanes? You gonna raise the fine, you gonna raise the fine? And I was like, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna put you on the handlebar of my bike and ride you down the street. Hello.
Andrea Learned (20:17):
Robbyn Lewis (20:17):
Yeah. Uh, but at the same time, when it comes to my colleagues, I’m in very good company now. Great. Five or 10 years ago in this legislature, there was no sense of shared priority about investing in transit, which was how Governor Hogan really was able to get away with canceling the red line. Now there are about 70 members of the House and Senate of Maryland who have signed on as members of what we call a transit caucus who are committed to investing in building and defending transit as a priority in, in state policy. So I’m in very good company.
Andrea Learned (20:56):
Can I ask you, do you have a sense of how many in that number also ride their bikes as transportation? Any amount of time?
Robbyn Lewis (21:04):
Yeah. No, I’m the only member who’s car free. Okay. But I do have colleagues who use transit to get to work and who ride bikes. But the beauty is that even for members of the Transit caucus who might never set foot on a Baltimore City bus, they’re committed to making sure that people who use the Baltimore City bus have the best service.
Andrea Learned (21:24):
Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, I could talk with you forever, and because it’s so interesting and you’re doing amazing work and your examples are wonderful and should be heard by many, many more. So I’ll keep amplifying everything I see of yours. But thinking of other people in your situation, in local or regional kind of lawmaking capacities, what have you learned about maybe, and I’ll give you a couple topics. One is sort of social engagement or engagement with your constituents on how to leverage that, how to build that. What have you learned about bringing along resistant peers? Give me a couple of ideas like that, that you would, from your position, say, well, I found that this works, or it’s really worth trying.
Robbyn Lewis (22:03):
Well, I think the best thing to do is in every part of life, lead from strength. So focus on the people who support the, the issues you’re working for. You’re fighting for, don’t worry about NIMBYs.
Andrea Learned (22:17):
Robbyn Lewis (22:18):
I just, we don’t have time. The planet is melting. Yep. Focus on people who want what you want and bring more of those people together and you’ll discover what I’ve discovered over the last decade. Plus more people wanted the red line than didn’t want it. More people want walkable streets than don’t want walkable streets. The hard part of this work is just identifying those people and bringing them together. I help them feel seen, heard and powerful. So that would be one bit of advice. The other thing I’d say is deliver as quickly as you can. Right. Whether it’s painting a crosswalk or, or something that people can feel and it’s visible. Do that as quickly as you can. And I think that’s just a principle of tactical urbanism. And I I would also say don’t choose to go car free and then suffer. Yes. The slings and arrows. You know, you don’t, everybody can’t be car free. It doesn’t need to be. And everybody doesn’t need to ride a bike, you know, but we all walk. Yeah. And so put your energy in activities and actions that, that you hit that are in your heart. And then I’ll give you more energy.
Andrea Learned (23:30):
I love that. Now, I don’t wanna let you leave without asking you about the zero waste task force.
Robbyn Lewis (23:35):
So the people of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay have been fighting to, to shut down a waste to energy incinerator in their neighborhood. Okay. And it was built long before we came along, but it has negative health and social impacts. They wanna shut down. They asked me as a legislator for help. There are all sorts of issues such as we make more waste than we can landfill. What do we do? Incineration is an option that has been chosen, but the people want it gone. So I’m like, what can I do? There’s not a Bill. People need me to do something. What can we do? Build bringing people together. Build a coalition. So I decided, and cause I know that I have a lot of colleagues in the legislature who are very environment minded, who were individually, independently introducing bills on recycling and bills on, you know, landfills and all this other, I was like, why don’t we come together?
Maybe there’s a, a platform we can build on that would address the, this particular community’s desire to get rid of incineration. Mm-hmm. and our larger vision for a healthy Maryland, which is a zero waste economy. So we try to introduce a package of bills that Yes. Will bring us closer. Yeah. And a couple of the bills did pass last year. Great. We’ll engage the community to, to write letters and testify in support of these bills. And we’ll just keep building political power around this vision. And if we can stick with it over time, the puzzle pieces will come together. And, and maybe some of us will grow into positions of leadership in different ways. And we will have set the foundation.
Andrea Learned (25:13):
Thank you delegate Robbyn Lewis for, for sharing this your, your leadership and your inspiration and your motivation and your experience and your background. And they are wonderful stories. And thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Robbyn Lewis (25:28):
It’s been wonderful for me too. I love meeting people who are interested in this stuff. It’s really a joy to talk with you because you’re interested in these issues. And, and it’s also really reassuring that as I’m toiling and, and scrapping around and, uh, trying to do even just small incremental things that it, someone noticed mm-hmm. …and thinks that it’s worthy. And so for that, I’m grateful to you and I thank you for your interest and I, and I’m, and I feel also in joining you on the podcast, that I’m part of a, a community
Andrea Learned (26:10):
You are. And again, thank you
Robbyn Lewis (26:13):
Andrea Learned (26:17):
Lead from strength and focus on activities and actions that are in your heart and that’ll give you more energy. That is such great advice for all of us, so many of us have the potential to lead in our industry’s… corporate, film, politics. And as a climate influencer, I’m always pushing for action and results. So I appreciate Robbyn encouraging us to deliver on our initiatives as quickly as possible. Getting visible results helps drive momentum and change snowballs. So as Robbyn says, let’s find the people who want what we want. Not worry about those NIMBYs and get to work.
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 R j 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. Until next time, pedal safely.