Q&A with Pedestrian Advocate, Elizabeth Stampe

Reader Contribution by Staff

In 1996, a handful of bicycle and pedestrian advocates gathered for a retreat in the middle of nowhere. Way off the beaten path, at the Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming, those leaders came up with a novel concept: creating an organization that doesn’t lobby Congress or fight specific bike-ped battles, but strengthens and networks grassroots advocates across the continent.

Thus, the Alliance for Biking & Walking was born. And we’ve grown up fast.

That first year, the Alliance had just 12 member organizations. Now, we’re more than 165 strong with organizations in 49 states, the District of Columbia and four Canadian provinces. Because of the growth of the movement, many grassroots groups have secured the resources to move from all-volunteer outfits to professionally run nonprofits. Between 1997 and 2009, the number of full-time staff at Alliance member organizations jumped from 20 to nearly 250.

In just the past couple of weeks, we’ve welcomed several new faces to the already impressive list of creative and visionary leaders in communities across North America. Meet Elizabeth Stampe, the first executive director of Walk San Francisco.

Where are you from and how did you end up in San Francisco?

I’m originally from Hawai’i, but I moved to San Francisco after college in Santa Cruz. I’ve lived here, on and off, for almost 15 years.

Previous to WalkSF you worked for the Greenbelt Alliance. What inspired your interest in environmental conservation and how does walkability tie into that ethic?

I’ve worked on environmental conservation for my entire career. I actually have a master’s degree in plant ecology. Before getting that degree, I did environmental and political advocacy, and afterwards, I just had to plunge back into advocacy because I was impatient to make change. At Greenbelt Alliance, which advocates for smart growth, I found that cities and environmentalism can go together. City living offers a very green way to live, consuming less and sharing more. And walking, of course, is the most sustainable form of transportation!

An article in the Bay Guardian cited your having traveled the world; where did you go and did that give you any inspiration for ways to improve walkability in SF?

I didn’t go to the usual places! (Copenhagen, Amsterdam…) I was in India, Southeast Asia, and South America. And I noticed that, even though the streets in many big cities in Asia and South America might seem a lot more frenetic, people are paying much closer attention there. As a driver, you’re dealing with ditches, rickshaws, scooters, bikes, dogs, maybe cows, and, of course, lots of pedestrians. It can seem scary for a visitor, but you realize it works — it works because people are paying attention, and often driving more slowly than they are here. There aren’t many places we visited where drivers can assume that they can just floor it and go for miles like on our freeways, and unfortunately, like on many of our local roads. Another thing I noticed was the feeling of life. In places like Bangkok and La Paz, there’s so much living going on in the streets — buying and selling and eating and talking. I think the street food movement here in San Francisco is bringing some of that life to our streets, and at every Park(ing) Day and Sunday Streets we also get a sense of what could be.

What’s your biggest priority or campaign right now at Walk SF? What goals do you have for the remainder of 2010 and 2011?

Right now, I’m still in the listening and planning stages of Walk SF’s work for the coming year, but we’re looking at a combination of tackling citywide policies (reducing speeds, creating school zones, and lowering the cost of street improvements) and working with neighborhood groups on improvements in specific spots around the city. For example, on Walk to School Day (October 6), we got together with parents and kids in the Sunnyside neighborhood, where a big arterial road slices through a residential area, and drew attention to the need for change. We released a report on current conditions, with recommendations including a reduced speed limit, so that more kids can walk to school safely. This is a big issue as obesity is on the rise — and kids want to do it! Walking is fun, and they know it! They had a great time out there on the 6th. We want them to be able to do that every day.

One of the things a lot of pedestrian organizations struggle with is, while everyone walks, very few people consider themselves pedestrians or walkability advocates. How do you change that mindset and boost your membership?

We remind folks that everyone walks, whether you’re walking to the parking garage, going for a run with your dog, or getting a pint of milk at the corner store. There is a movement nationally now around reclaiming streets as shared public space, and that is exciting, especially with the various experiments with parklets and what here is called Sunday Streets, where streets are opened up for pedestrians and bikes every month. Those have been a huge success, and are changing people’s perceptions of what streets are for and who pedestrians are. We have a huge and impressive bike coalition here that’s helped to transform our streets; but not everyone who wants better streets rides a bike. Walk SF offers even more people a place and a space to speak up.

With the lifting of the Bicycle Plan injunction, your colleagues over at the SFBC have been touting their goal of making SF the most bike-friendly city in the nation. Do you see SF becoming the most pedestrian-friendly city in the nation, as well? If so, how do you get there?

That’s our goal, to make SF the most walkable city in the US! Some magazines and polls have already given SF that title, but there are a lot of exciting things going on in New York and Portland and Seattle that are definitely beyond what we’ve got here. And unfortunately, San Francisco has very high rates of pedestrian collisions and injuries, which the city has got to address. San Francisco has good land use and lots of destinations within walking distance of many people, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do on basic safety and on improving the experience of walking.

Where’s your favorite place to walk in San Fran?

I love connecting urban neighborhoods and parks, so I like to walk from my neighborhood, the Mission, to Bernal Hill. I go along Valencia with its cute shops and newly redone street with wide sidewalks and street trees and bike parking, through the vibrant Latino heart of the neighborhood where I can practice my South American Spanish, to the peak of Bernal, from which I can see the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the East Bay hills, hawks flying overhead — and a lot of other happy walkers.

Being that you’re an Alliance leader now, you’re part of a little tradition. At our Leadership Retreat every two years, we have a Talent Show. So what’s one of your hidden talents?

Ha! Hmmmm… Well, I taught yoga in Buenos Aires and am looking to start that up again in SF. Don’t know if that’s a show-worthy thing, but perhaps it would do people good to stretch and breathe in between being overwhelmed by everyone’s talents! Actually, another talent is conning my friends and family into taking much longer walks with me than they ever planned… of course, they might debate whether that’s a talent!

Keep track of Elizabeth’s efforts and progress in the Bay City on the Walk SF website.