Alex Fisch knows how to engage with constituents, collaborate with peers and tell the positive stories that get the LA area affordable housing and urbanism advocates rolling. His work as a former Mayor of, and City Councilperson in, Culver City has been an ideal platform for being seen Living Change. Andrea talks with Alex about eBiking and bus lanes, parking mandates, and how understanding the whole system of transportation, social justice and affordable housing – citing the Livable Communities Initiative in LA – is key. May it ultimately rest in peace, Andrea and Alex also talk about the power of Twitter, and how the time has come for bolder, more risk-taking politicians.
@AlexFischCC – Twitter
LivableCommunitiesInitiative.com comes up a lot (they are @LCI_LA )
Alex Fisch (00:47):
There is a real change happening. Politicians at every level of government, people are stepping up big time and actually taking some real political risks and they’re succeeding because it’s time.
Andrea Learned (01:04):
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 whole range of sectors. The more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms. Hey
Alex Fisch (01:22):
Alex, nice to see you.
Andrea Learned (01:23):
Nice to see you too. today I’m super excited because I’m talking with Culver City Councilman Alex Fisch, who I’ve gotten to know via Twitter and he’s so good at it. We discuss his efforts to increase transportation options and housing opportunities in his community. Needless to say, we also talk about his love for his e cargo bike. Now
Alex Fisch (01:40):
I probably drive less than 3000 miles a year, and it’s not because I’m consciously trying to avoid driving, it’s because I just don’t enjoy it. It’s faster generally to get around on e-bike in West LA and it’s a lot more fun.
Andrea Learned (01:51):
, I’ve been especially excited to talk to Alex about Los Angeles’s Livable Communities initiative because it’s been so fun. I’ve been advising on that project and I got to know him a little bit through that and I really couldn’t wait to talk to him about it. Here
Alex Fisch (02:06):
So many of the crises we face are completely self-inflicted. Um, climate and housing, affordability, transportation, all these things are, we’re at the endpoint of 60 plus years of choices. And I, when I ran, I was pretty clear about that. But once I was in office and you’re past the communicating values to people and, and broad goals and really into the what exactly are we gonna do, I kind of felt like it was important to be very loud about these solutions because while they’re kind of obvious, you know, more houses and funding affordable housing are how you get cheaper general houses and more affordable housing, um, you know, I just really wanted to amplify the controversial but obvious things that needed to be done in the hopes that other people would say maybe that shouldn’t be so controversial. And so, you know, it’s not just via Twitter, it’s absolutely on the dais. It’s, it’s anytime I get a chance to talk to someone like you where I, you know, try to be unequivocal and hopefully that created a little bit of resonance cuz Los Angeles is absolutely, there is a region hitting the limits on things. You know, with visible street homelessness with terrible air today, there’s no reason for there to be bad air quality. But the Purple Air website shows that, um, particularly it matters over a hundred today, so,
Andrea Learned (03:16):
Oh, yuck. Yeah.
Alex Fisch (03:17):
So I think, you know, that’s part of it, but it’s not all just me. Part of it also is the regional housing needs assessment process that the state of California has. And the process has never really meant anything before. There’s no teeth. Essentially the numbers were derived by going to cities and say, how much space do you have for housing? And, you know, city like mine would say no space, totally full , you know. And so we created sprawl, we created traffic, we created terrible air quality, we created all these GHG emissions as a collection of cities. This time the state said, here’s your number regions, figure it out. And a lot of housing was gonna end up along the coast where the climate is more moderate, where all the jobs are. Um, and Los Angeles is facing some huge number and elected officials are starting to see the impact of these changes in state law and recognizing that a lot of housing needs to get built and lci that that livable communities initiative has the benefit of not irritating the folks who live in detached traditional single family homes. So I think it’s very politically appealing when you combine all that.
Andrea Learned (04:20):
I love that Alex used the phrase, get loud. We almost call this podcast Get Louder cuz I’m always running around yelling people for the love of humanity yell about this. So I love that Alex used that phrase. A bit more background on the Livable Communities Initiative or LCI, it’s a grassroots coalition that was launched by mainly entertainment industry people that live in the Los Angeles area to address the housing crisis with lots of attention on safer streets and parking mandates. I wondered how Alex’s constituents were responding to LCI people
Alex Fisch (04:50):
Are mostly the same as Oh,
Andrea Learned (04:52):
Alex Fisch (04:52):
Yeah, people have, I I kind of thought, you know, is anybody gonna come with me if I am aggressive on all these important things? Because I spent the first couple years being loud, you know, saying, Hey, California Air Resources Board says we need to reduce the number of miles that each person drives by 20%, which is not that much, but it’s a significant change and it just never sunk in. And I would point out, and that means densifying our city. That means making space for buses and bikes. And it didn’t matter if I said it. So we started doing it and then people paid attention and, and once an actual policy is in front of people, what I’ve seen is that a tremendous number of people are primed for change because they see that things aren’t working. They, and they can feel the climate not being the same as when they were a kid. And so more people than I, than I would’ve thought a year ago have come along for the ride and, and get it and are becoming really knowledgeable.
Andrea Learned (05:46):
That’s great to hear. Now I’m interested in connecting the dots for climate and often people think affordable housing is its own little thing in the corner here and transportation is its own little thing. Thing in the corner over there. Every one of us should get louder about affordable housing because it is climate action. We need to understand these issues are linked. Again, affordable housing is climate action.
Alex Fisch (06:11):
All of this stuff is one thing in my head. Public safety is climate action. Because if you’re gonna have a public’s realm that is inviting for everybody so that they do decide it’s safe to walk, to take the bus, to take the metro to ride their bike, they have everybody has to feel safe. Black, white women on transit, everybody has to fe have, everyone has to be safe. And so to me it’s really clear that housing is climate action. It’s really clear that creating walkable bikeable networks, like actually not just in lip service mm-hmm. , that is climate action. And, and it all has to work together because everyone knows that public transportation doesn’t work if you don’t have enough people in proximity to use it. It doesn’t work if the public bus is stuck behind a few dozen private automobiles on the public street. There’s these things when you campaign, you get to connect these things and people are receptive cuz the people who are showing up are at least interested. So even if they hate the message, at least they hear it.
Andrea Learned (07:06):
If we look at some of what say Livable Communities initiative or anybody that’s sort of forwarding beautiful streets, they’re doing a lot of sharing. This is a yucky before picture of some huge avenue. Right. And then this is a gorgeous Paris Street or Amsterdam Street or whatever. So what have you found politically starts to make this idea palatable for people that are resistant?
Alex Fisch (07:27):
I think that’s exactly it. Um, you know, there the, the Livable Communities Initiative has a lot of people who are professional storytellers as you point out. And they know what captures people’s imaginations. And so that eye candy goes a long way. , you know, there’s a tradition in, in sort of urbanist, uh, advocacy of showing the Amsterdam or Paris because they work so well. You know, we all know that I think lately there’s been more self-consciousness about showing more of the world because a lot of cities, north American cities are uniquely dysfunctional.
Andrea Learned (07:56):
Alex Fisch (07:58):
So, and so it shows me other parts of the world has been a trend. But what I think that the folks at Livable Community Initiative does really well in that I wish I, what I think what I try to to do myself is to appeal to people’s American sensibilities and show buildings, you know, a street that makes sense, that’s familiar to people. It’s a twist. It doesn’t exist at this moment, but it’s easy to imagine a Culver city that looks with some art deco four story buildings lining at Treeline Street. That’s very easy to imagine for someone who lives in Culver City. That’s what I think is most effective is, is kind of reflecting back a better community that people already know.
Andrea Learned (08:33):
The other thing that I’m always trying to get loud about is why do you think you wanna go to Europe to travel, right? and then, and then you come home wherever you live, you know, Culver City or Seattle or wherever you come home and you’re like, well I guess I gotta get in my SUV and drive my kid to school two miles away and whatever.
Alex Fisch (08:50):
It’s easy to get excited about LCI because it makes such a explicit connection between the transportation, environmental justice and housing. Because as it’s become clear that people who are opposed to housing are not gonna win this fight, it’s just not legislatively possible. The temptation has been to say stick it all on the corridors. You know, stick it away from me. But of course there’s an injustice. If your affordable housing program is inclusionary zoning and the only new, big projects are gonna be those things on traffic, sewer corridors, four lanes of exhaust and tire dust and break dust, you’re basically saying that every single person who lives in a subsidized home in your community has to live in the least environmentally safe place. Mm-hmm. , I what I love about what they, the, the streets that they’re showing is that they’re much more just streets and they’re also streets that support the public transportation and active transportation that we know we have to build over the next 10 or so years.
Andrea Learned (09:42):
What Alex is saying is incredible. One thing that I’ve taken from this process is just to remind people that when you’re talking about affordable housing, you’re talking about near job. When I was first getting more familiar with the situation in Los Angeles and Culver City, which is a studio town, a light bulb went off and I was like, oh my gosh. There are these people that work at the studios, they have to drive in an hour plus from where they can afford to buy a house or rent an apartment. And then they get there and then they have late days and then they have to drive an hour plus home. These types of jobs are done by all sorts of people, lower income jobs, everyone. And everyone’s just like, well I work downtown and I live an hour way as if it’s this common thing. And it is, the thing to note here is we are literally referring to people living near where they work. Like in the olden days, near job is a concept we can’t even imagine now.
Alex Fisch (10:35):
It’s so essential. It’s such a great shorthand and, and I guess part of it is because it was part of my logic when we bought this house. I chose Culver City even though it wasn’t as trendy, I guess, and or nearly as expensive as it is now because it’s centrally located. And I knew, you know, if I’m gonna live a whole life in this basin, there’s probably over a million jobs within a 30 minute commute for me.
Andrea Learned (10:56):
That’s really interesting that point also that you were thinking that far in advance. The, the title of this podcast is Living Change a Quest for Climate Leadership. And I think that you started to live change at various points of your life. You’re making these decisions, you know, and that that was a real distinct decision I think, and whether or not you knew it was gonna be climate influence. Right. Which it ends up really being. I think that’s kudos to you and that’s super fun. Um, the thing that kills me is that 2028 Olympics will be here before we know it. So I asked Alex about the importance of that dot connecting between his Culver City work and this approach that we’ve been talking about. This combination of affordable housing, transportation and social justice.
Alex Fisch (11:35):
You know, we were thinking about knowing that sort of buses are the only hope. We’re not gonna spend a trillion dollars and build a bunch of subways in Los Angeles anytime soon. And the, and cars, whether they drive themselves or or not, , there’s a basic geometry problem if there’s just not enough space if everybody drives. And so we opened up a project called Move Culver City, city that is, you know, it’s a bus only lane. Sometimes it shares the space with a bike lane because there’s not enough space to have both. Other times there’s a totally separated bike lane. We’ve used the separation of the cars from the sidewalks to expand outdoor dining. So it’s a much better out, um, dining experience in our downtown area with a lot more space for restaurants to turn tables. Uh, we knew that someday somebody had to do this and we piloted it during Covid 19.
During that time there had already been advocacy work about bus and only lanes. But as Metro and the LA 2028 Olympic planning started to think about, well what are we gonna do to move millions of people during the, the Olympic Games? The answer was zero car infrastructure and it’s a series of bus, you know, rapid transit lanes and, and other sort of active transportation connections. So really we lucked into creating the first building block of what will hopefully be a transformative regional transportation system. And which Metro has said is intended to be a legacy after the Olympics.
Andrea Learned (12:53):
What a great legacy. So I have to ask, because one of your favorite modes of transportation is riding your e-bike, which I know from Twitter. Did you ride it today?
Alex Fisch (13:03):
? Yes. I dropped off the kids, um, took my daughter on the bike and my son pedaled
Andrea Learned (13:08):
Bigger kids, these aren’t little kids.
Alex Fisch (13:10):
My daughter’s 13, my son’s 10. Oh
Andrea Learned (13:12):
Alex Fisch (13:12):
Can take, you know, they’re too big to go together, which is why my son rode. And it’s funny, this this I’d been, that was one of my few regular car trips was the drop off cuz they’re at um, a school that’s actually across town. It’s not the neighborhood school cause it’s a language immersion school. And we just didn’t ride. And then, uh, just two weeks ago I went out to start my car and my battery was dead . And it was one of those moments, yeah, it was one of those moments of like, okay, I can call an Uber and they’re gonna be late or we can get on the bikes and sit,
Andrea Learned (13:40):
Ah, I always think that’s interesting to hear other people’s biking is the better choice moment. So what is the reason you ride your bike?
Alex Fisch (13:47):
I think it was mostly because I worked so much, that was my one chance to get exercise, but also I started to think about a different lifestyle. I think it was all sort of happening at some level because once I started working downtown Los Angeles doing work that is directly advancing climate action in a cleaner environment, then it just kind of all happened, you know, the damn broke. Because at that point I had more time to see what was going on here in Culver City, a place that I really love. And I started going to city council meetings and I was astonished that the things I had been reading about, I just assumed that it was really difficult that people were afraid of the politics. And so bike lanes weren’t happening, affordable housing wasn’t getting funded. And then I started going to meetings and nope, there was just no leadership on these issues. There were, or not enough. I don’t want to trash anybody, but at that time the idea of affordable housing was taboo. Like it was bad, you know, complete 180 today. But, um, so I was as I was quite shocked and I started to get involved with our local politics and helped a couple people with their elections and saw how easy it is to make an impact at the local level.
Andrea Learned (14:47):
Now I wanna go back to bike riding for a second. Constituents and peers. See Alex pedaling his talk every day by writing an e-bike himself. He’s modeling what is possible for a Culver city that wants to move towards being a more livable community.
Alex Fisch (15:02):
I always point out that I am a driver too, and, and everyone is a pedestrian. Um, but there’s really no question that people, whether they are themselves, people who like to ride a bicycle for their daily needs or not, there’s a lot more oomph when they see me out and about. I definitely know what I’m talking about when I express frustration and anger at a close pass, you know, Yes. Or the, the frustration and anger over my children not having a safe route to school. So I think it helps, it, it adds legitimacy and authenticity, which I think is really important in politics. It also, there’s a joke that you’ve probably seen that everybody who rides an e cargo bike becomes an unpaid participant in a multi-level marketing scheme to sell ecar bikes. Oh, . Because it’s so obviously awesome, you know, it’s like it’s, I can carry a week’s worth of groceries on there for four people. I can carry a kid, I can carry an adult all without breaking a sweat and I can do it in a suit with a big smile on my face. And, and I do. Five years ago again, there were zero e cargo bikes at drop off and pick up at the school. And now they’re adding more bike racks because there are too many children’s bikes for the existing bike rack. It’s
Andrea Learned (16:10):
Really relatable and authentic and I think that, that you are really building trust, resilient trust there with your constituents.
Alex Fisch (16:16):
Yeah. If there’s a, if there’s a type of change that the population wants to see, having an elected official who’s living that change is so critical.
Andrea Learned (16:25):
Yes, yes. Exclamation mark. Being an official who is living that change is so critical. That’s why we called the podcast Living Change. There’s a connection between living that change, amplifying it on social media and ultimately the climate influence You can have, take Twitter for example, which we’ve discussed a little bit. I wanted to know how Alex first got on and why
Alex Fisch (16:50):
As I was getting ready to run for office, I thought I better use every bit of social media that I can. And Twitter just very naturally was a good place to tweet about urbanism and start to connect with other people who were thinking about it critically thinking about it, traditionally thinking about it in new ways. And it’s, it’s the education. There’s tremendous amount of education where if you curate carefully, you can receive on Twitter and start to really participate in the discussion. And what I realize when you get to a certain account size and it, the algorithm starts to screen out people who are just creating problems on the platform and it starts to really promote people who are offering something really excellent content. And so once you sort of hit that point, you realize that you’ve got this direct connection to policy makers, journalists and people who influence public opinion and actually make decisions.
And so I have watched these things that have turned into legislation or changes of the public’s mood. I’ve watched them happen in real time as you kind of see an idea, get promulgated, criticized, adapted, until you really start to have this collective input on important societal issues. People have argued about it for two years and by the time that process is done, you have legislation in Sacramento or you have a group of people in the city who come to you and say, Hey, we think we need more housing. Have you considered that? It’s like great
Andrea Learned (18:17):
Idea. Well, I mean, haven’t we just seen that? Because I participated a little bit in amplifying, uh, tweets around AB 2097. So tell me a little more about that and if you thought that that kind of conversation on Twitter may have nudged what was happening with that and, and why the governor did sign
Alex Fisch (18:36):
It. So AB 2097 eliminated the ability for cities to require to mandate parking within a half-mile transit. And as people started to talk about what are the problems in cities and there’s these little communities that form and oh my gosh, have you ever considered how much the cost this adds and how much it ruins the, the architecture of a building. You know, all of a sudden you’ve got this popular movement to illuminate parking minimums, which was unimaginable even five years ago. Unimaginable.
Andrea Learned (19:03):
It’s so powerful.
Alex Fisch (19:04):
It really is. And it doesn’t take a ton of time. It’s not like, I think, I think some social media people really wanna monitor like the gossip or what people are saying about people and Twitter just for whatever reason. And, and LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn is a place where I’m a lot quieter, but I still learn a ton because people put in their long form efforts
Andrea Learned (19:21):
Because I was observing that. I saw that several LA Metropolitan City council members, you know, some of in Santa Monica and wherever, several other places where you guys were all supporting one another on Twitter. And even as several of you are up for election or reelection, I’m watching you support each other, right. And use those channels. Oh my goodness, that never could happen. That never, the fluidity of that and the wonderful kind of warm vibe that that gives off is incredible.
Alex Fisch (19:48):
So your point about supporting people regionally and, and knowing what’s going on regionally, it’s allowing a little bit of a political movement to happen, which is, you know, one based on actual genuine municipal climate action and, and a mindset that’s about abundance and making sure that we are taking actions so that there’s enough for everybody. So yeah, I don’t think that that would be happening, you know, how would I get together with people in West Hollywood and Santa Monica and talk about what they’re doing in any other way. Instead I can just kind of keep a, keep an eye on them and say, that’s a great idea. I’m gonna tweak that and use it here.
Andrea Learned (20:23):
Throughout Alex’s career, it seems like he’s always had that mindset of abundance and has understood the importance of community with his peers. All of that combines to build political capital that he then leverages to make positive change. I asked him how he evaluates his impact.
Alex Fisch (20:40):
Oh, that’s a great question. Um, and I sure hope it’s right because it’s, it’s sort of would be consistent with my political philosophy, which is that you have to know where North is. You know, you have to go have a good compass. I have a set of goals and, and for publicly, um, I’ve done a tremendous amount on my public goals, you know, which is to expand the capacity of Culver City’s government to put the government in a position to do more for people, to make public space more democratic, more accessible, and to really, really start to take action on climate. Cuz we know the things that cities are supposed to do and not enough people are doing ’em. So I think that I have had a pretty good impact in Culver City and and beyond, I hope. And some of the stuff is not gonna be, it’s not gonna be possible to roll back because people aren’t gonna want to go back. So I I I, it’s been a busy four years and I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done.
Andrea Learned (21:30):
I love that the idea that you people aren’t gonna wanna roll back because it’s already evident that they kinda like what’s happening there. Oh, I
Alex Fisch (21:38):
Love that. Not everything is like that, right? Like if this stuff was easy, if the climate things that needed to happen were popular and easy at the front end, they would’ve been done. Cuz who doesn’t like to do something popular? . So,
Andrea Learned (21:49):
But it’s so interesting. You just put these things into place or you may, you know, you change a couple blocks with bike lanes or whatever, and then you have to be kind of bold to do that. And I, I think as we know, people in the community are gonna be like, oh, that is kind of like, it’s just, you have to trust that that’s gonna happen.
Alex Fisch (22:08):
It’s not immediately obvious to a lot of people why having a bus lane that doesn’t have a very frequent bus in it is a good thing five years from now when there’s a bus every, you don’t have to look at a schedule, you just know you’re gonna get picked up
Andrea Learned (22:19):
By the bus. Hallelujah. Yeah,
Alex Fisch (22:20):
Yeah. And taken all the way across town in 30 minutes instead of an hour and a half and not have to pay for parking. That’s gonna be, I don’t need to sell that. That’s gonna sell itself, you know, and it’s gonna, it’s gonna come.
Andrea Learned (22:31):
Well it’s interesting that you say that because I, because I ride my bike so much, I, and I, I have a car, same, like I, that’s another, everyone thinks that if you ride your bike and you’re kind of militant about it on Twitter, you don’t have a car. I think a lot of us have a car, I just drive it very little. But when Seattle started to have the rapid transit, the b r t roots, I was suddenly like, oh, okay now, right? So I would like bike to where that was going. And it’s to your point, it’s exactly because it’s running every 10 minutes. If it’s a schedule that I have to follow and it’s every 20 minutes and this and that and the other thing, I’m not as inclined, but you better believe, I’m super psyched that they figured out at least however many north south roots they’ve got that do that. It changed me into being more of a bus rider, whereas I don’t, you know, I may have ridden a bike or whatever. So figuring out how to hold them from when it’s pokey and doesn’t come very often to like, trust me, , you’re gonna really like this when they’re every 10 minutes. So that’s great.
Alex Fisch (23:30):
Yeah, and there’s a, there is a real change happening. Politicians at every level of government, people are stepping up big time and actually taking some real political risks and they’re succeeding because it’s time, it’s time. You know, we’re very fortunate that Congress and the president managed to get something done at the federal level on the climate. We, we all are very, very fortunate. It’s a wonderful inflection point. A lot of investments to leverage those investments, um, are gonna need people to champion them. It’s one thing to get the legislation done, uh, you know, we didn’t really touch on this, but Twitter is also good for the implementation. You, you need people who are gonna show up to those regional meetings to obscure government bodies that are gonna decide how transportation do dollars are doled out and there is no more time for highway expansions. And so we, we need people who care to do the thankless work of hounding their legislators and saying, I want the bus lane, I want the bike infrastructure, I want the water, the storm water capture and retention. Like all these things that we know need to be done. It’s just a wonderful time for people who wanna make a difference but don’t necessarily wanna be in an elected office.
Andrea Learned (24:38):
So why is it worth it to step into bold, progressive change the way you have? It’s
Alex Fisch (24:43):
Very rewarding, I think not just in the personal lived benefits, but the climate needs us it’s civilization. The planet doesn’t care. The climate doesn’t care like civilization. My children, my children, they need me to do something. And the beginning I would say, oh, I’m doing this for my kids. And when the personal costs and the family costs of, of politics really register, I’m not doing it for them anymore, but I am doing it so that I can face them. Knowing that you’re acting on something that is valuable. There’s gonna be heroes and villains to the climate story and to the housing affordability story and homelessness. And I know which side I want to be on. And there are definitely psychic rewards from feeling like you’re doing good work.
Andrea Learned (25:30):
Thank you to Alex Fisch for the inspiring conversation. I love what he said about the importance of taking a stand, even when it seems unpopular to have the vision, the foresight, and the patience to say, we need more bike lanes here, we need more frequent bus routes, or we need to prioritize bus routes. The car will not be dominant forever. Trust the process. Trust that people will appreciate this and think of it as a system that is being built. It’s a system that takes time and investment to build. And we need brave politicians to put their stake in the ground to defend livable communities. And the idea of investing the time, resources, and energy to make it happen. 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 me at www.learniton.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn Living Change is produced by large media. That’s L A RJ Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joelle, Jeff, Nick, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.