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Jessica is an Associate Principal at Utile, a Boston-based architecture and planning firm, where she has helped lead citywide plans for Boston, Cambridge, and Beverly, MA. Prior to that she worked in transportation policy at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and for the City of Boston Bicycle Program, where she helped bring the Hubway bike share system to the Boston region. Jessica serves on the MassDOT Allston I-90 Interchange Realignment Task Force, and with her partner, Galen Mook, co-founded the CommonWheels Bike Collective in 2011. Jessica lives in Lower Allston and rides a bike year-round, almost always in heels.
This week’s Change Maker interview took place in front of a live audience in November 2019 at Open Doors: Allston, presented by BNY Mellon.
Kait Ziskin Levesque: I know you co-founded CommonWheels. Tell us, how long has it been since then?
Jessica Robertson: CommonWheels, for those of you who haven’t encountered us before, is a bike collective based here in Allston. We do DIY bike repair pop-ups at Barry’s Corner, a block away, and also other places around the neighborhood. We do a lot of educational programs both at community spaces and public schools, teaching kids how to ride bikes. We started in 2011, so we’re coming up on nine years. My partner Galen and I co-founded the organization.
KL: Tell me a little about your background before you started CommonWheels, and how that came about.
JR: CommonWheels has always been an extracurricular activity for both of us, but we are both involved in related things in our day jobs. Around the time that we founded CommonWheels, I was working for the City of Boston in the bike program. My partner Galen has done a million different jobs in the bike industry over the years, and is currently an executive director of MassBike. Currently, I’m an urban planner, but CommonWheels has been our way of staying connected to grassroots efforts — not policy debates and all that, but people on the ground riding bikes.
KL: You mentioned that you teach kids to ride bikes. How does that fit into the overall goal of CommonWheels?
JR: So there’s the fancy mission statement and the less fancy mission statement. *laughs* The fancy mission statement is something along the lines “providing the tools and resources for people to empower themselves to use a bicycle to be more healthy, happy, and connected to their community.” The less fancy mission is just getting more butts on bikes. We don’t have a T-shirt with the fancy one, but we do have a T-shirt with the other one.
The educational programs have always been a really important part of us. CommonWheels started out as a space for people to learn how to fix their own bikes. Basically, we were 20-somethings living in Allston, as many of us have been at one point in our lives, and we would ride bikes everywhere. We kind of knew how to fix our own bikes, so we said, “Let’s get together with some of our friends and pool our tools and figure out how to do more to stay rolling.”
One of the things that wonderful about biking is the feeling of independence and self-sufficiency. You can go anywhere, and you’re not dependent on the T. You don’t need to stop for gas or look for parking. You can do anything. But sometimes you get a flat, or something else happens, and knowing how to keep your bike maintained was also part of that same idea. That grew into this learning around mechanics but also sharing our personal strategies for biking safely around the city and using the bike as a way to get around but also explore and see the many cool things that exist in the Boston area.
KL: Do you think that starting CommonWheels had anything to do with the infrastructure, geography, and surroundings in Allston?
JR: Totally. My partner Galen moved to Boston to go to BU, and became a bike activist when he started biking and they were putting in the first Commonwealth Ave bike lanes. He was like, “This is great, but also, this is crazy, because there’s all these kids like me from around the country who are now just thrown into Boston traffic.” So that’s definitely part of it.
Around the time that we founded CommonWheels was when I moved to Allston. I was living in one of those big old apartment buildings on Comm Ave, 200 feet from the green line station, working at City Hall, which is on City Hall Plaza across from a green line station, and it took me twice as long to take the green line as it did to bike. If I had still been living in Cambridge and taken the red line, I would’ve been less of a hard-core biker. In Allston, yes, we have good transit service, but it’s slow, and I was always running late.
KL: I’d love to talk about the social community that’s been built around CommonWheels. I don’t know if that was intentional or something that happened organically, so can you speak a little about the effects that you’ve seen?
JR: There were both intentional and unintentional elements to it. On the one hand, we’ve always had great partners like our friend who is now very involved in Zone 3. At the time, they were working for the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation. Our other good friend, who now works for the Kendall Square Association, was running Allston Village Main Streets. So we were working with those two organizations on things like starting an Allston farmer’s market and other ways to build community and use public space in Allston.
So some of that was intentional, but some of it was very unintentional. We would have volunteers who would help out at our open shop events, and they would make connections with other people in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of that type of stuff that happens unintentionally. Over time, as we were growing different programs, one of the ones that is very close to our hearts is our social ride series where we organize a bike ride to go to Walden Pond or other places. The cool thing is we’ve done that almost every year for the last six or seven years, and we often get a huge range of people coming to that in terms of biking abilities and types of bikes, so it’s not all roadies. We get the whole range which is awesome. You’re definitely bumping into and spending time with people who you otherwise might not cross paths with.
I think our most intentional decision we ever made in terms of the community-focused aspect of things was that when we founded CommonWheels, our original location was based out of a space on Rugg Road. Before it was Penniman on the Park condos, it was a bunch of artists’ spaces and general spots. So we had a sublease of a sublease of a sublease, a little space in a back parking lot where we would do our open shops and hang out, and we got kicked out because they were tearing down the building to build the condos. We decided to do our events just out on the street and not look for a new space. That was because when we had a space, first of all, it was tucked back in a corner and a little hard to find, but it was a lot of people that we already knew that were coming to hang out. Once we were out on the street, we were getting everybody who was passing by. So it was a big range of people who spoke different languages and people who are commuters or were working the night shift, or people with kids. It’s a whole different scene than if you’re at a space where people need to know you exist to find you.
KL: What are some of the skills people learn through your Open Shops and Earn-a-Bike program that go beyond biking to someone’s professional or personal development?
JR: This is one of the things that makes me super happy about CommonWheels, and it was not necessarily our intention at the beginning. When we started out, everything was volunteer, and the board is still all volunteer, but we’ve been able to hire staff to run some of our core programs through funding for different grants and other things. Over the years, we’ve hired about a dozen people to run the Open Shops and other programs. Several of them have gone on to actual careers in the bike industry; they’ve been hired by bike shops to be mechanics, which is really cool. One of them went to work for the City of Boston in the bike program, and one of them went to a full-time salaried job with Boston Cyclists Union.
One of our board members for several years was the cycling coordinator for the city of Jacksonville, Florida. She had a background in transportation planning before, but CommonWheels was definitely something on her resume and was a big thing that helped her show more specific experience. That was a major career move for her.
We’ve also had love connections from CommonWheels. Our good friends who used to live in the neighborhood met at a CommonWheels ride, and we’ve also had love connections amongst our staff once or twice.
KL: You talked about being a transportation planner as well. Can you talk about changes that you’d like to see made to Boston or Allston specifically to better accommodate multi-modal or sustainable forms of transportation?
JR: Allston had some of the earliest bike lanes in the city. There was a lull for a few years, but we’re finally getting some exciting stuff. The new Comm Ave cycle tracks are almost done, at long last.
KL: What’s a cycle track?
JR: A cycle track is a bike lane that’s physically separated from cars. The ones that are almost done on Comm Ave, there’s an actual curb between the parked cars and where the bikes go. Then there’s another curb and then the sidewalk. They’re putting actual bike signals, too, so it’s a totally different experience and very exciting.
The bus/bike lanes through Allston Village are really exciting, too. Right now, there’s one inbound as a bus lane, and they’re about to do an outbound lane as well. That’s super important because Allston-Brighton has one of the lowest car ownership rates in the city, and yet, if you look at our street space, it’s almost all devoted to cars. Lots of people are on bikes, but lots of people are on the bus too, and the problem is that the busses get stuck in traffic, so having bus lanes is really important to help busses keep moving.
I know this is an unpopular one, but it also was very exciting for me when the parking meters went in on Harvard Ave., because if you don’t have parking meters, you don’t get parking turnover, which means a lot more double parking, which means there’s always cars in the bike lane. If you actually have parking meters and you’re charging an appropriate price, then for example, if you’re working at one of the restaurants on Harvard Ave., you’re a lot less likely to park on Harvard Ave. if you have to feed the meter and move your car than if it’s just free parking. A lot of times, you see that employees and business owners are the ones using all the parking spaces until you start charging a more appropriate price. Then, they’ll clear out, and then the people who are just running in to get their takeout actually have a spot, so they’re not double parked in the bike lane.
KL: Are there any other streets you can think of that would benefit from—?
JR: All of them? *laughs*
KL: Alright, top priorities, then!
JR: There’s actually work here on Western Ave. There’s an ongoing planning study that the Boston Planning & Development Agency is running, so bike lanes and bus lanes are a big part of that. There was a meeting last week, but there’s more coming up, so if anyone’s interested, you can go on BostonPlans.org and search for Allston to sign up for updates. The section of Harvard at Western Ave. from Barry’s Corner to the river is getting rebuilt as Harvard finishes their engineering building. They’re repaving the street and putting it back with cycle tracks, so that will be nice.
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