Amelia Conlen took over as director of People Power in Santa Cruz County after Micah Posner was elected to the Santa Cruz City Council.
A few years ago, People Power was making headlines, and Santa Cruz was taking notice.
Led by then-director Micah Posner, the bicycle advocacy group rose to prominence as a leader in making Santa Cruz County safer for its many riding residents.
Armed with their stated mission to “improve the quality of life in Santa Cruz County by promoting bicycling and other forms of sustainable transportation,” People Power had an active role in building the San Lorenzo pedestrian bridge and lengthening the Soquel Street bike lanes from Pacific Avenue to Freedom Blvd. in Aptos. It was one of several local organizations to form the Climate Action Coalition in response to the City’s Climate Action Plan of 2011.
“About 12 years ago, when they widened Mission St., they didn’t make any amenities for extra bicycles,” explains Posner. “It was outrageous, and I thought it was partly because People Power had become pretty weak at that point…The bike movement needed more oompf. That’s when I joined.”
When Posner stepped down in July 2012 to run for (and win later that November) a seat on the Santa Cruz City Council, many were unsure whether People Power could keep their momentum as the forerunners of sustainable transportation.
Not to worry, says current director Amelia Conlen. She has a vision of her own for the group.
“What we can do now is bring the perspective on what’s happening in bike planning across the state, the country and the world,” she says.
A University of Washington graduate with a degree in urban planning, specifically focusing on pedestrian and bike planning. Before taking over the director’s chair at People Power, Conlen worked on community programs for the nonprofit Ecology Action, and has studied urban planning firsthand in major cycling areas like the Netherlands and Portland, Ore.
“It gave me a chance to see what world class bike cities are up to,” she explains. “And what a difference good infrastructure makes in making cycling a safe, comfortable part of the transportation system.”
“Amelia is doing a great job,” proclaims Posner. “She’s taking [People Power] in directions which are different and positive…She’s building coalitions in ways that really weren’t possible for me anymore.”
One of the campaigns the group is currently working on is the Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail project, linking Capitola and downtown Santa Cruz. Last April, the project took another step forward with the unanimous approval of the final revisions by the City Council, in a motion made by Posner.
“The path will give people a route from Capitola to downtown Santa Cruz that’s safer than Soquel, but more direct than East Cliff, making it easier to get across town by bike,” Conlen says.
The trail, which was first proposed in 2006, has seen constant revision to meet the Coastal Commission requirements, but finally is set to begin construction in October this year.
“[Public Works received] final approvals from CalTrans and the FHWA, and will be out to bid for construction this month,” Conlen says. “The bid estimate for the main trail is about $5 million, with more needed for the Agnes St. connector trail.”
Still, Councilmember Posner expects the trail to be completed by the end of next summer.
“I’m really proud and appreciative of the city for that,” he exclaims. “I’m happy to be the person on the City Council that I was always trying to get as an advocate, to keep issues alive.”
Another major upcoming project is the Coastal Rail Trail. The 32-mile, multipurpose route will connect Davenport to Watsonville, forming a crucial part in the broader Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network. After 10 years, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission finally was able to buy the Santa Cruz Branch Line last May, moving the project one step closer to completion.
“The Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail is a major priority for People Power,” says Conlen. “It’s going to transform Santa Cruz by giving folks a safe, basically flat path that’s separated from cars and runs from one end of the county to the other.”
Posner, who still doesn’t drive to this day, is equally excited.
“I’d like for the Rail Trail to be built, in its entirety, within seven years,” he says. “Ideally, in three years from now we’ll be building the first section of Rail Trail connecting Wilder Ranch to the Wharf.”
While these timelines might seem ambitious in the age of economic lulls, Conlen says People Power will fight hard to expand Santa Cruz cycling, and keep it easy and safe.
“Santa Cruz has a lot of great biking infrastructure,” she says. “What we need to do now is look at the overall experience of biking in Santa Cruz, and fill in the gaps.”