Climate Crossroads: Alex Contreras, Founder, Happy Cities Coalition

Climate Crossroads aims to highlight the intersection of climate change with other social issues in Los Angeles like homelessness, anti-displacement, labor rights, high rents, community development, and more. Through sharing these stories we hope to further Climate Resolve’s goal of centering people affected by climate change and promote positive work being done to inspire hope and encourage action from readers.

The interview below has been edited for clarity.

Chase Engelhardt: Thanks, Alex, for being here. Appreciate you giving us your time. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your work with happy cities?

Alex Contreras: Yeah! I grew up here in the City of Downey and I learned almost a year ago about a planned freeway expansion in my neighborhood. And I had run for city council here in Downey and even though I didn’t win I had gotten together with a lot of the volunteers of my campaign and said, “Hey, even though the campaign is over and I didn’t win, this freeway fight is gonna be here in our very own backyard. And it’s probably gonna last for who knows how many years. I want to do something about this and I would like you guys to join me.” So that was the creation of the Happy City Coalition! Where we have started off focusing on the freeway expansion, that’s the 605 hotspot improvement program, and have sort of expanded into regional advocacy within the gateway cities to advocate at the gateway cog for transit-oriented infrastructure, denser housing, affordable housing. And that’s the work that we’re aiming to do within the gateway cities.

Chase Engelhardt: That’s awesome! I didn’t know about what else beyond the freeway extension you were doing. That’s cool to hear! The other question I had was we know cars make up the largest source of our greenhouse gas emissions in the state of California but they also pollute the air and require a lot of infrastructure like freeways so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about how freeways or other kinds of car-centric infrastructure and planning affect the communities that you work with?

Alex Contreras: Yes, I can definitely speak on that. So car center infrastructure definitely dominates the gateway cities… dominates most of this country. And that does a couple of things. One, when you study the history of where a lot of highways and freeways were placed, those freeways and highways were placed deliberately through Black and Latino and other Brown communities throughout the country. Which has a ripple effect. It displaces thousands of families primarily Black and my other minority community members. It displaces their businesses and then the families that are left behind, we could take, for example, the construction of the 605 and the 5 here in LA county, the families that are then left behind in these predominantly Latino or Black communities then bear the brunt of the environmental effects of these freeway expansions. Because now you have 10 lanes of cars driving past your house, your community, every single day, 24/7. The freeway is never quiet. It’s like a river but not a nice-sounding river that continuously pollutes the air that you breathe and also the water that you drink. So that leads to a variety of health effects. For example, my grandmother had dementia as she got older, and there are studies done [showing] that high quantities of air pollution can cause dementia, Alzheimer’s. A whole slew of mental health issues, especially in older adults. There are real-life examples of that in my own family. 

And then another thing is that having auto-centric infrastructure limits economic mobility for so many people. When your only option to get to the grocery store or to get to work or just to even get to the park is a car and we only build infrastructure that allows you to get there in a car, that forces you into buying a car that can cost you thousands of thousands of dollars of upkeep every year. I know when I was a college student I couldn’t afford a car so I would take the bus from Downey all the way to Cal State Long Beach in a couple of different ways. There was one bus stop that my mom would have to drive me to because there was no bus by my house that would take me to that bus stop. So my mom would have to drop me off at the bus stop. So that way I could catch the bus to Cal State Long Beach. And that continued until I basically was forced into buying a car because it just wasn’t very practical for my family. My mom was also working at the time and my dad was a school bus driver so he was not really around in the day when I had to be dropped off or picked up. But it wasn’t really practical and so that forced me at the age of 19 to basically start saving up money to buy a car. Not saving up money to pay off the student loans that I had occurred a little bit or to tackle other things. And I feel that I’m privileged in the sense that I got a college education and I was able to find a decent job that paid me $15 an hour at the time and was really flexible with my work schedule. I basically worked full-time during school. I’m privileged in that way but there are so many other folks who do not have that privilege of being able to have family help me save up for the car. Or a family that can do things like driving them to bus stops so that way they could get that to work. And also my boss was super awesome in the sense that when I was taking the bus they weren’t like “Oh, you have to be here straight on time.” And I know that’s not the case for so many other people. So when we have the car-dominated infrastructure you force so many people into uncertainty about their futures, whether or not they can get to places. Because buses are forced to wait behind cars. We don’t have protected bike lanes. You cannot bike to work. You can’t bike to school. You cannot take the bus reliably. And that is the fault of city and regional planners, as well as very much the fault of Metro Los Angeles because they’re not making it a priority for their riders who are predominantly lower-income families and minority families here in LA county. 

In short, car dominant infrastructure had incredibly racist effects on the black and brown communities here in the country, especially in LA county. It leaves these families to then bear the environmental brunt of what we have created. 

Then three, it limits economic mobility because it forces you into an expensive option that you have to upkeep every single day and every single year. And that seriously takes a large amount not even pocket change, that takes literal salaries out, chunks of salaries of people. And so those are the three overwhelmingly, in my opinion really good reasons, why we should move away from car-centered infrastructure and towards other modes of transportation. 

Chase Engelhardt: I’m definitely sold. No, it’s a super-comprehensive answer! I really appreciate it! I think the economic impacts in particular are things that people don’t necessarily think about if that’s not a situation that they’re in personally. I believe I heard that it’s around $8,000 dollars a year to just own and maintain a car. Which is a lot of money when you think about lower-income communities in LA and the amount of money your average family would be making. I really appreciate that, thank you! So on that note, as you’ve been doing your organizing maybe both within your campaign for city council and also within the Happy Cities, what have you found speaks most to people that you’re working with? Or what issues do you hear people bring up the most as you talk to the community?

Alex Contreras: A lot of people that we’ve been talking to I think realize that they don’t know that they have a personal say in what gets planned. A lot of people think that “Oh this just happens and the community at large doesn’t really get to have a say.” They say “Oh yeah, that’d be nice but it’s not up to us.”  And it’s like, actually it is! We have a lot of power and I think that comes from just a lack of outreach by state agencies and regional agencies, by planning departments here within the cities. People don’t know that they can have a voice or opinion. So I think that’s one of the big things that I’ve been talking with people about, like “hey, your voice matters! You do have an opinion that should be heard!” Especially when we’re up against transportation agencies within our own cities. Like Edwin Norris here in Downey, he doesn’t believe that we should take space away from cars to give it to buses or bikes. He says “No one bikes here anyway.” I’m like “No one bikes here because you can die biking here! There’s a reason why!” So one of the big things I’ve been talking to folks about is it’s important for you to get your voice out there when there are people in charge who do not care about your situation and who are firmly intent on making your situation worse.

Chase Engelhardt: Definitely! Cool! Well to wrap things up on hopefully more of a positive note, what gives you hope for your work in the future and maybe even for the climate?

Alex Contreras: A lot of people really want to get out of their cars. I have conversations all the time with people who say, “yeah, that would be awesome! That’d be great! How do we do this?” And so the idea that we have to be dependent on cars I feel like lately there’s been this huge shift in thinking and it’s giving me a lot of hope that people are getting on board with the freeway fight. And just also things that we could do locally here at home. That’s been giving me a lot of hope because sometimes I definitely wake up when I hear what some transportation folks are saying in various cities. And it just makes me feel very uncertain but then you meet a bunch of folks who say “I would love to bike more! I’d love to ditch my car! I’d love to work closer to home! How do we do this? And it’s super inspiring just to meet everyday folks who wouldn’t really consider themselves urbanists or they’re not the ban car type folks you might hear on Twitter and they’re just everyday folks who say “yeah I would really just love to ditch my car. That would be nice.” That’s super inspiring just to know that there are so many more people out there than you would think.

Chase Engelhardt: I love that! I feel like knocking on doors there’s so much of a pendulum where you have a bad conversation and you have somebody really great so thank you for sharing!

Jordan Zarate

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