Planning for bikes in Oakland, California

July 26, 2017

Sarah Braker, senior communications manager

Carlos Hernandez is the active transportation planner in Oakland, California. Hernandez was planning to follow his family tradition and pursue a career in ironwork. "During high school, a couple of great mentors insisted that I go to college," he explains, "architecture seemed like the natural progression of ironwork and construction." Hernandez says he became fascinated with the way people use public space so he switched his studies to Urban Planning. He fell in love with biking thanks to a seven-mile commute to Cal State Northridge and even set up a community repair space in his garage. "While attending UCLA’s master’s planning program I focused more of my research on active transportation and after graduating moved to Oakland to develop the city’s bike share program," he says. "I’d argue that my hobbies, passion and work experience coalesced into a full-on career in active transportation." This interview is the second in a two-part series to get a window into the world of city bike planners. Click here to read the first interview, with Tessa Greegor of Fort Collins, Colorado.

How long have you been doing this job?

I’ve been working in bike planning as a professional for three years, prior to that I was developing youth-led bike programs and repair spaces in L.A. for about four years. As a hobby it’s been about 10 years total that I’ve been getting people on bikes in one way or another.

If you had to describe your job in two sentences, what would they be?

I make sure people have access to bicycling throughout Oakland in a safe, convenient and fun way. At the moment I do that through implementing bike share, working on the bike master plan update, leading outreach strategies for various transportation programs and supporting local bike/ped organizations.

Is there anything glamorous about your work?

Yes! It’s definitely glamorous if you are an active transportation nerd, but even to most people there are elements of fun, like anytime I’m outside of the office either doing field work or speaking with communities about the projects. Not only are you more connected with the details of a project, but you can interact with businesses and residents and envision what that project's impact will be. Bringing all that back to your desk and making it happen is also rewarding. 

Who do you report to?

I am accountable to the residents of Oakland. Other than that, my supervisor at OakDOT leads the Parking and Mobility Management group and is great to work with.

How do you measure success?

Numbers are usually a good way to measure success—decrease in traffic collisions, increase in the number of people commuting to work, etc. With my focus on equity, I also pay attention to the number of jobs created and qualitative measures like perceptions of bicycling and bike programs. How a community integrates with our bike programs is essential because it can build long-lasting support and accountability.

What’s the decision-making process like for your city? How does something go from an idea or suggestion to an on-the-ground solution? What is your role in that process?

It’s complex but a lot of our projects come together at the intersection of adopted policy and secured funding. Bike share, for example, is part of a larger regional program and has been identified in several community plans as a complement to transit and last mile solution. My job is to make the program a reality by applying for funding, negotiating contracts with the vendor, passing policies and resolutions through council, leading the planning and engagement effort, and facilitating the permitting process. Our local bike/ped coalitions have been tremendously helpful in advocating for safer changes to our streets and have worked closely on bike share and other bike projects in Oakland.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome professionally?

One of the biggest challenges for me has been navigating professional environments that lack active transportation planners of color. I don't think the profession is representative of the communities we work in which can lead to disconnect, especially when talking about bicycling. This challenge attracted me to work in bike planning, and bike share in particular. In addition to managing projects I make sure that the voices and needs of everyday bicyclists are recognized through the work I’m involved in. To me, bike equity both in my professional career and in the projects I deliver means there’s constant work to do so I’m not sure that I’ve overcome this challenge but it’s what motivates me to bike to work every day.

What’s been your greatest professional success so far?

Receiving the 2016 Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals Young Professional of the Year award for my work in making bike share more accessible to all Oaklanders.

Where would you like biking in your city to be in five years?

I’d like to see more people biking for short trips, more people commuting by bike, more people riding for fun, and a sense of ownership of bicycling and bike programs in Oakland—especially for bike share. Of course, a lot of these aspirations will be contingent on our dedicated OakDOT team doing great work.

Why is a position like yours important and necessary?

It’s important to have representation at the city for promoting bike infrastructure. As a growing profession, it’s still a bit esoteric and it helps to have passionate experts in the city to move projects forward. A lot of projects would not come to fruition without dedicated staff. We work hard to promote active transportation and create safe and accessible streets.

Do you learn from and work with bike coordinators from other cities?

Definitely. I think it's a great time to be doing this kind of work since the bike/ped planning profession has grown and there’s a lot of support from experts in other cities. The Bay Area itself has an amazing pool of experts and visionaries and a lot of them live in the East Bay.

Do you ever drive a car?

Yes, and I’m a big fan of pickup trucks. I’ve been bike commuting for 10 years but I’ve also organized neighborhood bike programs and bike kitchens in L.A. so having a pickup has been helpful. There’s kind of a stigma in transportation planning about owning a vehicle but I see them as tools more than anything else. These days I do construction projects in my spare time and occasionally leave the city on weekends. Other than my truck, I am an avid promoter of the many car share options that Oakland is launching.

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