Shasta Living Streets headquarters is located at 1313 California Street, in an old police warehouse, photo courtesy of Shasta Living Streets
“I grew up in Palo Cedro,” Anne Thomas of Shasta Living Streets says, plunking a framed newspaper clipping down: “That’s in ‘76, I’m the kid on the horse, there’s an effort to build a trail along Deschutes Road, and I won the poster contest in 6th grade, ‘Trucks are rough, big and tough, children are frail, so use the trail.’”
That trail, she says, still isn’t built.
Thomas is fifty-something years old, tall, strong, and determined. She enters the room with an energy that is unmistakable and tells her origin story with emotion that is hard to miss. She is the child of a man left fatherless by traffic violence that plunged his family into poverty and the daughter of a woman who grew up with her Air Force dad in Copenhagen. Together, she says, her parents’ disparate life experiences left Thomas with two subconscious truths: that streets are dangerous, and that there can be another way.
These truths deeply inform her work now, as founder of the community organization Shasta Living Streets, dedicated to working towards more livable, walkable, bikeable, vibrant communities in the North State. Growing up, she said, she’d leave the house on her horse with instructions to be back by dark, a daily experience of freedom that filled her with confidence.
“Even without the trail,” she says, “I can remember riding my horse down Deschutes Road as a kid. I’d lay my head down on the back of my horse and just walk, not paying attention at all. The roads weren’t as dangerous as they are today.” Thomas says it’s different now. Kids are growing up feeling they can’t leave their homes on their own because it isn’t safe. “Now,” she says, “we think city people are the ones who get to leave home without a car.”
But a bikeable county isn’t a hipster idea, Thomas says, it’s part of the Shasta County way of life. She describes a picture hanging in the Shasta Living Streets building, women from the 1890’s in full skirts cycling on upright bikes like those that are back in vogue today. She mentions the owners of Redding’s first bike shop, the Wright brothers, who used to take people by bicycle from Redding to Palo Cedro regularly, no big deal. Talk to anyone who lived here before 1980, Thomas says, and they’ll tell you what the good old days were like. Days when transportation on foot and by bike was easy, before Shasta County became car-centric. Back when people weren’t locked off into communities separated by traffic too hard to navigate without a vehicle.
Asked about whether the crime rate has also changed the livability of Shasta County, her response is quick: “if no one in your living room is hitting you,” she says, referring to domestic violence, “you’re safer here than most places.”
Safe from crime she means. Because the dangers we do have, Thomas says, include California’s 6th highest pedestrian fatality rate. “Which is saying a lot when most people don’t even try (to walk or bike) because our roads are so inaccessible.”
Shasta County’s health score is also startlingly poor she says, mostly because of what are referred to as “diseases of inactivity,” like heart disease and hypertension. And since both pedestrian fatalities and diseases of inactivity are directly connected to a lack of safe walking and biking access, Thomas says, building a more walkable, bikeable county will improve both our public safety and our public health.
She’s passionate about both. She was asked long ago by a government agency if she could help make a poster to reduce pedestrian deaths on one of Redding’s major roads. “I almost lost my mind,” she says. “I told them if people were dying in cars you wouldn’t ask me what kind of posters to make.” She adds, “You don’t make posters to keep people safe, you build infrastructure.”
Thomas says walking and biking infrastructure is something people didn’t focus on in recent decades, but things are changing now. She says that’s because state climate money from Cap-and-Trade provide the motivation that’s needed to build safer, healthier, more climate-friendly communities. Her organization both partners and pushes local city and county entities towards safer and more climate-friendly development, she says. They partner with the community and they help access the state funds that can bring these changes. That dual role, together with Thomas’s entrepreneurial grit, creative thinking, and science-minded climate background, are what might make Shasta Living Streets the North State’s most powerful climate action group.
Shasta Living Streets is a non-profit that operates under the fiscal sponsorship of CalBike, a state-wide organization dedicated to safe, walkable, equitable, and environmentally sustainable communities. After growing up in Shasta County, Thomas moved first to Brazil, then to Berkeley. She spent time as a knowledge manager with a non-profit that worked in national education reform, before joining the Nature Conservancy as part of their global climate department, where she focused on climate adaptation. In that role she became familiar with California’s climate stance, which she calls “the world’s most progressive climate legislation, brought to us by a Republican governor and voted for twice by the people of the state of California.”
Those climate laws, she said, affect much of the development happening in Redding even if it’s rarely publicly acknowledged. Thomas says she started Shasta Living Streets eleven years ago after returning to Shasta County when her dad died. At the time she was still working remotely for the Nature Conservancy and started the organization as a way to get more involved with the community. Thomas’s work for Shasta Living Streets is now her full time job and her passion, probably because it combines the things she cares most deeply about: safe streets, healthy and happy communities, and environmental responsibility. And, she says, “because bike people are our people.”
She matches her home-town love for Shasta County with a deep awareness of what’s happening globally, nationally and at the state level. California’s first ten years of climate efforts proved to the world, Thomas says, that you can grow your economy while reducing emissions. But, she says, as we enter California’s second ten years of climate efforts, aptly named Next 10, the hardest work is yet to be done. The goal now, Thomas says, is to focus on transportation in order to reduce vehicle emissions. Tackle emissions, she says, and you ensure a viable California. It’s a lofty goal. “Nine years to get people to drive less has never been done before,” Thomas says. But if we fail to address emissions from transportation, she says, not much else will matter. It’s widely believed that without significant climate change efforts in the next ten years, the Earth will have reached a point-of-no-return in climate destruction.
Locally, Thomas says, significant work to reduce emissions is already happening, driven by the carrots and sticks of California’s climate legislation. Organizations like CalTrans and Shasta Regional Transportation Agency (SRTA), as well as Redding’s Electric Utility (REU) are accountable to the state, ensuring that their plans, policies and projects center on reducing emissions and supporting a sustainable California.
It’s a little different with city and county governments, she says, who don’t answer to the state in the same ways. For example, while the City of Redding has a complete streets policy, she says, the state doesn’t really give them any financial incentive to encourage them to follow it.
But funding for redevelopment can create change, she says, like the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) funding that is transforming downtown. Two of California’s largest AHSC grants have been awarded to Redding, in what she calls“a big win” that will get more people walking and biking in their daily lives, helping to build a “car-lite” community.
She cites the newly reopened and renovated area of Market Street as an example of what can happen when cities utilize state funds that are earmarked in ways intended to address climate change. The wide walkways and space for biking provide an experience that people want, she says, even if they don’t care about climate change. And that forms the foundation and inspiration for new ways of community living that, she says, are not only safer and more enjoyable, but also reduce emissions, leading to a sustainable environment.
This process of building more vibrant walkable and bikeable communities is multi-modal, Thomas says, which is why it requires a commitment to partnership. It includes appropriate infrastructure development, something Shasta Living Streets works to facilitate by providing input to planning, helping to access funding and supporting programs and policies at the state level in a way that benefits Shasta County and beyond.
It also means facilitating experiences: “we call these encouragement events,” she says. “I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but when people experience the vision it creates behavior change. There’s science behind it.” Shasta Living streets is committed to searching out such models and making them local. A good example, she says, is the California Street Labs project that Shasta Living Streets created. It’s brought people outside, in community, in the heart of downtown, catching a vision for what Redding could become and how they can be part of it.
And it includes providing amenities: giving people the skills, confidence and tools to help them walk and bike more. “My friend told me, ‘Biking feels like a secret society. I see people doing it. How are they doing it?” Thomas says, explaining that biking to work requires planning and processes that many people haven’t figured out yet.
Amenities are what Thomas had in mind when she designed The California Street Bike Depot. It’s being built in Redding as part of the Bell Plaza project, funded by the McConnell foundation and will hopefully be the first of multiple bike depot hubs through the city and county, she says. When casting the vision for the bike depot, Thomas told McConnell what she sees happening downtown. “California Street is becoming Main Street again,” she says, explaining that most of Redding’s original activity centered around the railroad depot.
In the end, it comes down to infrastructure though. Thomas sets down a map showing the county, red blurs obscuring large parts of the cities. “These are the strategic growth areas,” she says, “The state asked SRTA to define them. The idea is that these are the downtown neighborhoods of our cities and towns where the state plans to support revitalization and invest resources and funding.” She runs her finger along concept lines showing bike and bus routes between the growth areas. This is how you live a car-lite lifestyle, she says, building infrastructure that allows you to safely ride your bike to work and then, when it starts raining or you’ve had a few drinks, just bus home.
It’s a big vision and it requires an engaged community. “Unless you have a population that wants to experience this way of life, you won’t have the political will to create it,” she says. The eventual goal is to map community transit concerns by neighborhood so that when the city or county is looking to make a change, Thomas can reach out to communities to tell them it’s time to use their voice at the local government level to directly impact the streets that affect their families. She hopes one day to have thousands of residents ready to send an email in response to proposed policy changes. She invites locals to join the organization as members to help build a more safe, enjoyable and sustainable local community in Shasta County.
Thomas says in her eleven years at Shasta Living Streets she’s often been “in the closet” when it comes to her agency’s role in addressing climate change. But at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, held this year on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day she will be be making a clear statement: the programs of Shasta Living Streets, designed to work towards active and clean mobility in collaboration with local, regional and state agencies, are essential to addressing the climate crisis.
Shasta Living Streets invites the community to the Redding Tour of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, opening virtually April 23rd and available for viewing for five days with e-ticket access. Tickets are on sale now and include the raffle of a $5,000 YUBA Spicy Curry e-cargo bike with add-ons — a bike that can replace a car! Proceeds support the California Street Bike Depot.