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bus carrying a bicycle at a traffic stop in downtown San Francisco
A Muni bus carries a bicycle through downtown San Francisco. Since last year, the state’s transportation emissions have increased two percent.

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How climate leader Chanell Fletcher gets around the Bay Area

Making transportation choices that are good for California’s climate goals

Californians can’t seem to cut down on driving—and it’s pushing up everything from commute times to traffic deaths to carbon emissions. As the state reckons with a way to get people out of their cars, Chanell Fletcher is working hard to give Californians more transportation choices.

As the executive director of the advocacy group ClimatePlan, based in Oakland, California, Fletcher has been part of a team that’s been urging the state to invest in more multimodal options. Most recently, ClimatePlan drove the release of a California Air Resources Board report that showed how the state is falling short on its climate goals because driving is increasing.

ClimatePlan recently joined 50 other California organizations to author a set of transportation recommendations for the state’s incoming governor, Gavin Newsom, focusing on achieving those climate goals while building more equitable and resilient communities. Follow Fletcher’s work at @ClimatePlan.

Here’s how Fletcher keeps climate change top of mind as she gets around Northern California. Her week includes a daunting challenge to bring a statewide network of partners together for a retreat—not an easy task when the goal of the organization is to reduce how much Californians drive.

Monday, November 5

I’m the director of ClimatePlan, a statewide network committed to working together to create healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all Californians—which means we do a lot of work on how communities are planned, built, and funded. Our network is diverse and broad, with issue areas from environment to equity to public health represented, and we have partner organizations up and down the state.

But our strategic plan—a document that guided much of our work for the past three years—ends this year. As I read through it, I’m struck by how much we’ve done, how much we’ve achieved in the past three years since we’ve developed this plan. I’m also excited about the prospect of pulling together our network to develop our strategic direction for the next four years. And I can’t believe how lucky I am that I get to work with such amazing partners who continue to expand my horizons.

To create ClimatePlan’s vision for the next four years, we need our partner organizations’ help. But it can’t be surveys and conference calls—I need all of our partners to come together and share their thoughts on what comes next for ClimatePlan. So, we’re heading to a strategic direction retreat for our partners in South Lake Tahoe tomorrow.

Why South Lake Tahoe? I needed a natural and beautiful space to help us all step back and think big about where we wanted to go and what we wanted achieve in the next four years. With the mountains, lake, and fresh air—Tahoe seemed like the perfect place to achieve that goal.

However, South Lake Tahoe isn’t the easiest place to get to by transit, walking, or bicycling. And we have partner organizations coming from Sacramento, the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Southern California.

Climate Plan’s executive director Chanell Fletcher is working to make California’s transportation goals align with its climate goals.
Photo by Chanell Fletcher.

What’s a network, committed to reducing how much we drive, to do? Be creative! Today I’m reviewing the carpool lists for the partners coming from Sacramento, the Bay Area, and the Central Valley, and the shuttle list for the folks from Southern California. My team and I intentionally partnered together different groups and gave them a task: ride together, take pictures, and share your stories once you get to the retreat.

The lists look great. I am so excited for this retreat to get started—and for people to have an opportunity to travel together, reduce how much they drive solo, and create memories.

Tuesday, November 6

I have to admit, I’m pretty lucky when it comes to my daily commute. Here’s a secret: I don’t really end up walking that much. I live one minute away (or .02 miles) from the bus that takes me to work every day in downtown Oakland. And my bus comes at 15-minute headways. I won’t lie: At times, I almost feel guilty for how easy it is to get to work by transit.

Today is Election Day and I’m thinking to myself: Do I have time to run down the street, vote, and head into the office for my 9:30 a.m. meeting? On a normal day, I would have—but today isn’t a normal day. It’s the day before I head to Tahoe for our big retreat. And I’ve been working on retreat materials since the early morning. I check the clock: It’s 9:00 a.m., the bus comes at 9:05, and it takes me 20 minutes to get to work. Okay, voting will have to wait until after work.

I leave the house at 9:03 a.m. (because my app says my bus will be a little late) and arrive right when it’s pulling up. I love when that happens. There’s always so many interesting people on the bus.

I end up striking up a conversation with an older woman who has two big boxes of old china from her great-aunt that she’s transporting to her son, who recently got married, in Rockridge. This china has been in their family for years, and her great-aunt wanted to send as a gift. I’m curious, I ask her: Why take the bus to transport such a fragile item? Especially when there’s all these other ride-share options available? She looks at me askance and replies, “I’ve always taken the bus to get around. I know these routes in and out and it’s only a few blocks from my house.”

I arrive at work, still thinking about that. I didn’t grow up taking the bus at all. In fact, in South Sacramento, the last thing you wanted to do was to be on the bus. It took forever to get anywhere! And in terms of status symbols, the bus was definitely not a sign of social mobility. All I wanted was my license and a car, it signified freedom. I could go anywhere. Who didn’t want that?

I missed the An Inconvenient Truth wave in 2006, but a presentation by Urban Habitat in 2009 exposed me to the built-in inequities around how communities and transportation systems are planned, built, and funded. Before that presentation, I never thought about why most people of color resided in North and South Sacramento (which are still suffering from the historic impacts of red-lining; if you’re interested, check out these maps), or that there was a word for where I grew up: sprawl development, low-density housing units on the outskirts of the city center.

As I go through my meetings—and today, my calendar is filled with meetings and conference calls—I keep thinking: Access is key. The woman I met on the bus takes transit for the same reasons I do: It’s easy and accessible for us. What does it look like to create that same ease for communities like the ones that I grew up in? That’s the part of ClimatePlan’s work that really speaks to me: How do we address the historic inequities that create barriers for people to have options to get around?

I catch the bus home—can we say super easy since I only have to walk one block? No great conversations this evening, but I’m feeling more and more excited for our retreat. The great superpower of the network is bringing people together to create system change, to start tackling big questions and even bigger structural systems.

One thing I still need to do: Vote! I get off the bus and walk 10 minutes to my voting place. Midterm elections are so important. I’m motivated to finally vote on some of the big propositions we’ve been tracking like Proposition 6 and the housing propositions. And see what happens across the nation.

Wednesday, November 7

I’m practicing what I preach today—I’m ready to carpool with my colleague, Ella Wise, and our facilitator for the retreat, Sara Daleiden. I don’t really know what to expect since this will be the first time that Ella, Sara, and I have ever taken a long road trip together. But I’m glad that we don’t have to do a four-hour drive to Tahoe separately—that’s 184 miles one way.

But, I still need to get the rental car! Luckily, I’m not that far away from the Oakland airport and I’m able to ride with my partner in crime, who also helps me do a quick run at Office Depot for supplies. Great conversation, and someone one to help pick up supplies? Win-win! It reminds me of the days before Lyft and Uber where I’d rely on buses and trains—and if some place was really inaccessible, I’d get a ride from a friend. Depending on what you’re doing, Lyft and Uber can work for you. But today I’m glad to have some good company while I do these last two errands.

We arrive at the car rental place—oh, no. The first car rental place only has minivans available. Yikes. The second car rental place wants to charge almost $500 for a compact car since I’m only driving it one way. No thanks! Finally, the third car rental place has some selection and the price is right. I end up with a Mazda CX-5, seems to be my best option on mileage and will help me store all the things I need for the retreat.

If you’re curious about why I didn’t rent an electric car, the short answer is none of the car rental places had one available. While we need to keep doing the necessary work to change over the fleet so electric vehicles are the default, we also need to realize that electric vehicles are only part of the solution. Easy steps like Ella, Sara, and I carpooling removed two cars off the road—cars that would have driven 183 miles one way. This type of behavior, reducing how much we drive, is a necessary part of the equation to reduce emissions from the transportation sector.

Since I have the rental car, I pick up Sara first at her hotel (she flew up the night before from Los Angeles) and get to hear about another cool project that she’s involved in called “Future IDs at Alcatraz,” an art exhibition that reframes the narrative around re-entry and our prison system. Then we head over to our office to pick up Ella, who arrives by bus right at the moment I drive up. This is perfect—especially since there’s no parking at our office in downtown Oakland.

ClimatePlan’s Chanell Fletcher (left) driving the carpool up to the statewide network’s retreat in Tahoe with Sara Daleiden (back right) and Ella Wise (front right).
Photo by Ella Wise

And we’re off! We get on I-80 going east and head towards South Lake Tahoe. The conversation in the car is so incredibly rich. Sara has a knack for asking probing questions that prompt me (and I think Ella, too) to think deeper about our network: How do we implement our Guiding Principles and Equity Power Trust Guidelines? With such a diverse network, how do we deal with the inherent challenges that stem from bringing people together across issue areas and geographies?

This is amazing prep for our retreat tomorrow. More importantly, I find myself really appreciating the time I have with these two women—time that would have been lost if we hadn’t invested in carpooling together. I’m realizing, part of the joy of transit or carpooling is having the choice to invest in human connection: talking or building a relationship with others while traveling to a shared destination. In some ways, this makes the climate benefits icing on the cake to me.

By the time we get into the beautiful forests that lead up to South Lake Tahoe, we all take a pause to reflect on how beautiful this space is. As a Sacramento native, I’ve been to Tahoe a lot, but it still has the ability to take my breath away. Everyone should have the ability to be in this space, to witness how compelling Tahoe can be in the fall. And I think to myself: How do we create travel options, choices so that anyone can access this beautiful piece of nature?

By the time we arrive to our destination, I am stimulated by the conversation and grateful for the nature that surrounds us. I can’t wait for everyone else to arrive tomorrow and share their travel stories.

Thursday, November 8

Today is the big day—it’s the first day of our retreat! My team and I worked hard last night and this morning to prepare the space in South Lake Tahoe. We’re standing in the sun, surrounded by trees, fresh air, and ready to welcome our partner organizations. We’ve set up a station for people to chart their travel stories. Our prompt was: “What was it like to get here?”

Fletcher’s fellow Bay Area resident Joe Espino documents his multimodal journey to the retreat. Photos by Joe Espino

Here are a few of the stories shared:

Sacramento: “Super fun trip up from Sactown with Jackie! Debated the 20 year feud between 50 Cent and Ja Rule (here’s more context if you’re interested and/or want to catch up) and took in the gorgeous autumn leaves along the American River.”

Los Angeles: “Got to the airport (LAX) with time to spare ☺ Flew in a small plane, ½ empty, with 4 colleagues = cool! Landed in Reno, now among good friends in beautiful Lake Tahoe.”

Bay Area: “Easy & fast, little traffic. Walk to BART to carpool. Great conversations and beautiful scenery.”

Central Valley: “Celebrated my son’s 2nd birthday with pancakes and turning his chair around. Got coffee with Esther and chatted all the way together.”

After the last person shared their travel story, I found myself saying out loud, “I cannot believe how lucky I am to be here with all of you, doing this important work.”

And it’s true, I am really grateful for ClimatePlan as a space and network. It’s so important that we start thinking about how our communities are built and connected—and where the gaps are. And oftentimes, that work needs to start with us and then go bigger. I’m so glad we kicked off the strategic direction retreat with our own personal actions.

Friday, November 9

It’s 7:30 a.m. I think about yesterday. It was such a great day. It was so good to see everyone from our network in person. With statewide networks, it’s easy to spend so much of your time on the phone. I love that at ClimatePlan, we have an annual retreat every year. Why? Because we know that real magic can happen when we get people in a room. Real change can happen when everyone is in a room. And real connections are built when people are in a room.

Today is a big day: We’re rolling up our sleeves to think about the direction for ClimatePlan. Where do we want to go? What do we want to do? What challenges do we want to address? Our strategic plan has guided us since 2014, and helped us achieve a number of wins at the state and regional level. Through laws like SB 150, we increased accountability for our state’s climate targets, and through reports like Leading the Way: Policies and Practices for Sustainable Communities, we shared best practices from regions across the state to plan for healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities.

But the challenges still remain. Despite our state’s climate goals —and the recent news that emissions from the transportation sector are rising—we highlight some looming problems:

  • California is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis: Homes are become more and more expensive in the urban core, increasing displacement, while the more affordable homes are located further away from jobs and transit. In areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, as our partners at Urban Habitat note, this is leading to a re-segregation where communities of color are being forced to the urban fringe.
  • Sprawl development is increasing, not decreasing: Housing is still being located far from jobs, transit, and city centers, forcing residents to rely on cars to get around. Even worse: This type of development encroaches on natural and working lands.
  • Transportation spending is still not aligned with our climate goals. Our most recent research shows that most of our state transportation funding goes towards roads and highway—projects that increase driving and climate pollution.

Housing, land use, and transportation are interconnected problems. If we want to achieve our climate goals, and build healthy, equitable communities, we’ve got to tackle these together, as a network of organizations.

Walks along Lake Tahoe creates good context for planning climate action.
Photo by Esther Rivera

I take a deep breath, heavy thoughts for a Friday morning. I decide to take a quick walk around the property, the Coachman, to take in some of the clean Tahoe air and clear my head a bit. It’s crisp but refreshing. And the walk helps me gather my thoughts for the day.

I arrive at our meeting place by 8:30 a.m. and we start at 9 a.m. so there’s some time to chat. A few folks walk to Lake Tahoe—it’s only a five-minute walk away—and other folks took scooters to a natural park further away. And yes, there are scooters in Lake Tahoe!

What a great way to start the morning. That’s one thing that I love about spaces like Lake Tahoe— there’s so many different ways to experience and enjoy iconic landscapes.

We start at 9 a.m. with large group discussions, then small group discussions, all around the intersecting challenges of housing, land use, transportation, and climate. It’s hard work, in part because we’re talking about changing systems that have been in place for over 50 years.

We’re all wiped out around lunch. Sara and I confer. People need a break, but we also need to narrow down our strategic priorities. What to do? Let’s people form breakout groups after and walk! To the lake, to the natural park area, wherever they want to go. Sounds like a great way to get people moving, outside of our meeting room, and get the blood flowing after lunch.

People return back around 1:45 p.m. and they seem much more energetic and inspired. Sara and I made the right choice, getting outside was definitely the right move. People share how nice it was to walk to the lake, especially our folks from Southern California who don’t head to Lake Tahoe regularly. The ideas also seem sharper, I really do think fresh air and walking help so much!

We dive back into the work. We’re speeding right along now, I’m feel pretty confident we’re going to get clear on our strategic direction for the next four years. Which is pretty crazy given the challenges I was thinking about early this morning. We wrap up around 4 p.m.—or was it 5 p.m.?

Wow, I’m pretty exhausted—but excited, we did it! We got our strategic direction down. It needs refinement, but the framework is there. We take our group picture, and then people start to head back via carpool. I end up carpooling with Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm. I’ve known Stuart for almost ten years—has it really been that long?—but it’s great to share a car ride back down with him. He’s got over 20 years of knowledge on this movement so I do what any young executive director would do: I get his thoughts on everything from the retreat to fundraising. The time flies by and next thing I know, I’m dropping the car off in Sacramento.

My partner in crime picks me up and I head back to my folks’ house in South Sacramento. I am exhausted. All I can think about is sleep.

Saturday, November 10

I wake up to a smoky, hazy Sacramento. What’s going on? I turn on the news and hear about the Camp Fire. Wow. While we were in Lake Tahoe, it was like being in a cocoon. We intentionally had people turn off laptops and phones— and I was so focused on the retreat, that I didn’t check any news sites.

At this point, the fire had been going for two days—it had grown to 100,000 acres and was about 20 percent contained. I am horrified. When I step outside, it’s like an apocalyptic movie. I can’t breathe due to the smoke and my eyes are watering. The sun is a tiny orange circle, and the sky is brown. And this is in Sacramento. Family members send pictures of Paradise—it was in flames. Homes, schools, hospitals destroyed.

I just wrapped up a retreat where we discussed this very topic: What does it mean for California to grow better and address the impacts of climate change? As I watch the news on the Camp Fire, I’m realizing we need to start talking about the fact that these wildfires happen, in part, because of two reasons:

  • Hotter, drier weather conditions due to climate change
  • Urban sprawl and encroachment into undeveloped land

A great article from the Sacramento Bee covers it really well. Now that I’ve gotten some rest, the retreat is on my mind. So often, it’s easy to focus on the policy and separate it from our lives. But Camp Fire is yet another example of how policy shapes our lives, our communities. This is what we want to tackle at ClimatePlan, we can’t make policy decisions in a vacuum. We must understand that how we build—and where we build—will have impacts for years to come.

I’m reminded of my conversation on Tuesday—Access is key. What does access look like for the people of Paradise? Or people in the Central Valley, where there aren’t great multimodal transportation options, and most of the growth tends to be low-density sprawl development that relies on cars to get around?

A light-rail train passes in front of the state Capitol in Sacramento, California which is shrouded in smoke from the Camp Fire.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Deep breath. ClimatePlan’s superpower is that I don’t need to figure it all out because we have partners on the ground like Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton Environmental Justice Program who are helping to transform policies—and communities—in the Central Valley. These policies help ClimatePlan as a network better advocate at the state level. That’s the power of a network: We are leveraging our work to improve California.

One more thing I realize: I need to figure out how to communicate this superpower in our strategic direction.

For now though, I’m going to hit pause on reflection and appreciate where I’m at: home with my family. Feeling gratitude for the retreat, and feeling much empathy for those lost everything from the Camp Fire.

Sunday, November 11

Today I end up driving the 87 miles from Sacramento back to the Bay Area with my family. The I-80 corridor isn’t as congested as I expected, but the entire ride, all we can smell is smoke. And all we talk about is the smoke, the impact Paradise has had. Some family members have lost everything: heirlooms, their houses, clothing. I can’t fathom it.

Back at home isn’t much better. The smoke is everywhere. In my apartment, outside, in stores, there really is no reprieve. I see people walking around in masks, and I feel like I’m in some dystopian future. I suppose this could be our future.

We need to do better. ClimatePlan can help. This week, I’ve carpooled or taken transit for all of my rides. And our retreat, in some ways, was a microcosm, of travel patterns from across California. We coordinated carpools in places where we had the critical mass and organized flights and a shuttle to reduce driving as much as possible. But there were still cases where people needed to drive alone.

I have two big takeaways from the week.

One: It’s so easy to talk about policy work and separate it from our lives. I really loved hearing about people’s travel stories because it makes this work real. We heard stories from shared ride successes, but some folks couldn’t carpool due to childcare needs, or because they couldn’t figure out a schedule that would work for them.

That all feels very similar to the challenges with public transit. How do you create a transportation system that can provide people with a variety of options so they don’t have to opt into driving alone?

Two: Of course people love traveling together! Whether it was by carpool or plane, we heard time and time again how much people loved the time and space to share ideas and stories with one another.

It comes back to human connection. Shared spaces like carpools and public transit give people the opportunity to build relationships. That doesn’t happen when you’re driving solo.

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