Welcome to the 2nd installment of Boston Mamas Rock! – where we’re giving a voice to fabulous local mamas, whether they be entrepreneurs, avid volunteers, stay at home moms, moms who have closet talents (e.g., community theatre, juggling, what have you…), authors, media professionals, politicians, professors, etc. Read on for today’s interview with Janie Katz-Christy, the Director of Green Streets Initiative. Then go ahead and nominate yourself or a friend!
Janie Katz-Christy, Director, Green Streets Initiative
Christine: Tell us a little bit about yourself Janie. Have you always been a green advocate? Did you have an alternate path before launching Green Streets Initiative? Or is this a side venture in addition to parenting and other pursuits?
Janie: Thanks for asking, and encouraging me to think about this. I am an architect and have always been drawn both to ways of living lightly on the land and to having vibrant and livable cities and towns. As an architect, I studied, worked with, and taught about "passive solar" design. I have also worked as a gardener. I see Green Streets' effort as design, too, but on a much larger and more ephemeral level than architects typically deal with. And I think transportation is such a great area to address, because it's so easy to change and is such a win/win proposition. In terms of money, there's no cost, really, just savings.
I've been interested in bicycling since I was a teenager, after my mother (a New Jersey mama!) encouraged me to go on a six-week bike trip throughout New England when I was 13. I then did the same kind of hostelling trip in France and Switzerland at 15, and loved traveling by bike. In college in Ann Arbor, MI, it was a convenient and fun way to get around. Luckily, when I met my husband, Sam Christy, we discovered that we both loved biking as a form of everyday transportation as well as travel. When we had our second child, we had the tricycle pictured below built. I had found it frustrating that I was driving to take them to their exercise classes! The trike has been through many incarnations, from carrying a newborn in a click-in baby seat to having each of the kids on the trailer bike on back, to now being used for gardening. We've had it now for about 8 years, and it’s now our “car” since we gave up our one car last fall. And I should say that although I felt a bit deprived at first – ironically I was the holdout in our family – it’s been very liberating to be car-free.
Christine: Tell me more about the Walk/Ride Days on the last Friday of every month. What does "go, and wear, green," mean exactly? Do you have to wear the Walk/Ride shirt to participate?
Janie: The idea behind Walk/Ride Days is to have a citywide celebration that encourages people to use alternative transportation. We find that people feel more comfortable with trying new ways of transportation when it is part of a group effort and when it seems fun. Once they experience a new, more active way to get around, they often do so many times throughout the month. When we say "go green" and "wear green" it is simply means traveling without using a car (even just reducing use of cars by carpooling or walking a little!) and wearing something green. The "something green" does not have to be a Green Streets t-shirt, it can be anything! Just as long as it's green.
Green Streets started as a way to make the streets safer for cyclists, let others experience the fun of getting around by bike and other green means, build community, and reduce pollution.
Christine: I think it's marvelous that the Cambridge initiative has expanded to Somerville and Medford, and I see that you are spreading into Boston and Portland, Maine. Is there currently formal activity underway for expansion to other towns? Which ones? Are you finding that this growth is happening most prevalently in a particular way (e.g., being approached by a community member vs. directly contacting someone you know to be a coordinator)?
Janie: We are always looking for places to expand Green Streets to, but there is not a formal recruitment process currently underway. A large portion of the expansion is people in other towns contacting us and saying, "We want to get this going in our town. What can we do?" We have been lucky that Green Streets speaks for itself and is exciting and interesting to many people. We have seen that the strongest programs occur when there are community stakeholders taking an active interest in Green Streets. We are a small organization and so it helps when people in the community are willing to really take ownership of it. Some other communities that are working on getting the program up and running are Lexington and Belmont, and another city in Maine.
Christine: Publicity stunts are a popular way to get buzz going with a grassroots campaign like Green Streets. Have there been any particularly hilarious ones that Green Streets coordinators have launched? If so, can we check them out on YouTube?
Janie: I don't know that we have any "hilarious" publicity stunts. I did bike with Mayor Simmons of Cambridge on the back of my tandem bike on the coldest Walk/Ride Day in history last February. She was so proud of doing it that she took me to her next meeting and introduced me all around! Green Streets has also been involved in parades and festivals, from the Honk! Festival to some at schools. For last month's Walk/Ride Day last Friday, there was a police-escorted bike train that went from North Cambridge to central Cambridge to east Cambridge. People all over the city told us they saw it! Also Cambridge Montessori School recently held a beautiful "go green parade" complete with a conference bike (8 cyclists all pedaling while sitting in a circle, but going in one direction), lots of music, and popsicles! It was a great venue, where our children’s’ reflective vests sold like hotcakes!
People have stilted, unicycled, hula-hooped, scootered, skipped, jogged, and pogo-sticked to their destinations on Walk/Ride Days!
Christine: I love that your initiative encourages exercise. When I was a kid my elementary school was just within the bus belt so we walked the mile in each direction to and from school every day. These days I feel like more kids get driven to school -- is that true? What's your sense on the walk vs. car trend to school these days?
Janie: I agree that more kids are driven to school today than was true when most adults were growing up. I see it everyday when I bike or walk my kids to school. I think that it is due to multiple factors. Unfortunately many people feel that we are not living in a world where it is safe for children to walk to and from school on their own, and you can't argue with a parent that is simply concerned for the safety of their child. Many people also feel that driving is the fastest way to get from one place to another, even when they spend 5 minutes at a stoplight. That's one reason for the Walk/Ride Days - it provides an opportunity and a reason for people to try out walking, biking, or public transportation and will hopefully ease any concerns they previously held regarding alternative transportation.
Christine: Do you have an opinion on which towns are the most pedestrian/bike/stroller-friendly? And which towns need improvement? On the latter, how can folks in the community encourage improvement of pedestrian/bike/stroller-ability in their towns?
Janie: All communities have areas that are conducive to pedestrians and bikes and areas that are more of a challenge. The bike path through Somerville, Cambridge, and Arlington is great, but it presents its own set of challenges. When riding on it, you encounter everything from pedestrians to pets. You can't always tell where a dog is going to run or where a person is going to walk. Some bicyclists would prefer to ride on the road with cars rather than on a path where you have to navigate around the unexpected. In starting Green Streets, we hoped to build a market and a community of people who could request better service on many fronts - biking, pedestrian, and mass transit.
Christine: You're a mom of three. How do you juggle the demands of your work with parenting?
Janie: Good question. It helps to have friends and family who can help. And it's also great that my kids and husband are really into Green Streets. They all help to spread the word about it and are patient and involved when we are at weekend or evening events. The kids enjoy the evening meetings at our house when they can hang out with kids of other coordinators or volunteers. I know that the kids like being part of the Green Streets movement. But sometimes I do have to shop, cook, garden, play with my kids, pay bills, etc. It's hard to stop working on Green Streets because I find it so exciting, yet an almost infinitely huge project.
Having help from other Green Streets volunteers also gives me a break, and is a huge source of hands on and emotional help. Certainly, many hands make light(er!) work and a lot more fun. We've received small grants that have enabled Green Streets to hire a two wonderful interns over the past year who have been a joy to work with, and who have enabled me to better balance my life. Both of these young women are wise beyond their years, and bring wonderful perspectives to Green Streets.
I work on Green Streets more than full time, though my hours are very flexible - I sometimes work in the early hours of the morning or late at night, and pretty much constantly talk about it wherever I go. I do consciously have to turn myself "off" sometimes, just to be a regular person.
Christine: I can only assume your kids "get" the green revolution. Do you have any favorite simple tips to share with our readers on how to get kids involved in green practices?
Janie: It is amazing how much kids really grasp green practices, including in this case, green transportation. Can you imagine a child who would be opposed to the idea of riding their bike/scooter or rollerblading everywhere they need to go? When you describe to the kids the environmental impact of driving, they get it and want to do something about it. We have found that often, once the children try an active, green means of getting to school, they won't let their parents go any other way. Buses, biking, scootering, and walking are all fun for kids. Including other kids in your trip also helps. Also, combinations are great - taking scooters on buses can be a quick way to get where you need to go. Our kids are sometimes as fast on scooters as we are on bicycles.
In fact, all of what we are doing at Green Streets is for the kids. Having schools involved means that my children's friends and contemporaries are trying out the kinds of transportation that we use on a regular basis. It's always great that other kids love Green Streets. My children are proud to be part of it -- though sometimes they'd like me to not stop so long to talk about it with strangers constantly!
Christine: OK, so I Google'd you and see that you've done a little family opera -- playing everything from an ant to an alien! Do you have formal music training? Are there any other hidden talents we ought to know about?
Janie: No, and no! The only hidden talent I might have is that I love planning and having parties... which is one of the reasons we created this monthly celebration!
Christine: And finally, what's your favorite thing about being a Boston mama?
Janie: Boston is a wonderful city to live in. I love it every time I cross or go along the Charles River, I love that rural areas like Lincoln and Concord are so nearby - and MBTA accessible! I love the mass transit options here, and I love that it feels like a big small town.
Unlike bicycling where, as long as there is a road you can ride, pedestrian safety is reliant on sidewalks. If you know of or live in an area that does not have adequate sidewalks and ramps, you can contact your city counselor or alderman and let them know. Or you can go to the city planning/development office and offer your suggestions.
Know a fabulous local mama? Nominate yourself or someone else to be featured!