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Caltrans Hires State Bicycle Advocate to Lead Sustainability Program

Jeanie Ward-Waller test rides an electric bike at the California Bike Summit in 2017. Photo by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Jeanie Ward Waller, a top advocate for better bicycling in California, has been snatched up by Caltrans to lead its Sustainability Program. She will be working under Caltrans Sustainability Chief Ellen Greenberg, and helping form a new team within Caltrans.

It's a coup for Caltrans. Ward Waller has been a tireless coalition builder during her time as policy director of the California Bicycle Coalition, and before that as senior policy manager for the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership. She coordinated efforts among a wide range of groups working on transportation justice, active transportation funding, public health, and climate policies, among others. She helped push—successfully—for more funding for the Active Transportation Program, and helped shape it to fund the best, most transformative bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Ward Waller could be counted on to show up at almost any statewide public meeting where transportation was being discussed, and she would be there to advocate for the best, wisest policy and use of funding. During her time at CalBike, the coalition reworked its mission statement from one singularly focused on bicycling—“it was super bikey,” said Ward Waller—to one that recognizes that advocating for better conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians cannot be separated from broader concerns like environmental and social justice. “Now,” said Ward Waller, “We see that bikes are just one tool in the toolbox for changing communities for the better.”

Streetsblog California awarded her a “Streetsie” in 2015 for Tireless Statewide Advocacy, and at the time, we wrote that Ward Waller “embodies the kind of knowledgeable advocacy that we need, and benefit from, in Sacramento.” It's as true today as it was then.

Now she will be taking her perspective, and her voice, inside the behemoth that is Caltrans, and she will be working from the inside to create the changes she's been fighting for from the outside.

Ward Waller is excited about the possibilities of the job, which is an entirely new position within a newly forming team within the department. Her work plan will be to help guide Caltrans on meeting the sustainability goals in its strategic plan, which include benchmarks like increasing the use of transit, walking, and bicycling among state residents.

“Caltrans has been doing a good job in their day-to-day work,” she said. “For example, in making their buildings more energy efficient, and replacing their fleets with clean vehicles. But the actual work to change the state's transportation system is much harder.”

She plans to bring a collaborative style to Caltrans. “That's part of sustainability,” she said. “It needs to be defined by the community. You can't just come in with a project and impose it on people. You have to know how a project meets the needs of the people affected by it. This is nowhere more true than in bicycle and walking projects.”

“You can't just put in a sidewalk without thinking about shade, benches, lights, crosswalks, bike parking—all those things that make that sidewalk useful,” she added. “And you have to make sure the community wants it, and will use it.”

“That has been the constant challenge for Caltrans. We just have to be more open,” she said.

Ward Waller is no stranger to many people who work at Caltrans, so they know what they are getting. In addition to her relentless advocacy to make the Active Transportation Program stronger, she served on several Caltrans advisory committees, including one that helped shape the strategic management goals she will be helping to implement. She has received positive responses from people at Caltrans and other state agencies who have worked with her and who are happy to see her take on this job.

“That gives me a lot of hope,” she said. But the hope is tempered with a bit of trepidation. Despite progress in the past few years, Caltrans is not exactly famous for being open to change.

“CalBike was very small and nimble, and it was relatively easy to make an impact there,” said Ward Waller about her current job. “But Caltrans is going to be very different. I will have to adapt to a very slow, very massive system. I'll have to push hard, and may succeed in getting only incremental changes.”

“But I have spent the last five years focused on finding those levers, on understanding how Caltrans changes. I may have doubts; I may have second thoughts. But I'm willing to invite the challenge,” she said.

“I do love advocacy, and I have loved working for CalBike,” she said.

She leaves that organization in good shape. Its growing policy team will continue and expand the coalition's work on equity and sustainable communities. The coalition will hold its biannual Bike Summit in Sacramento soon. And you can count on the CalBike team having a voice in shaping state policies on transportation funding.

Streetsblog wishes Jeanie the best in her new job, and looks forward to the changes she can bring there.

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