A new meaning for ‘ride sharing’: St. Paul teens teach community about sustainable transportation

Even though Munira Hersi lives only a few blocks away from the Metro Transit bus and light rail stops in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, her mother wouldn’t let her take the city bus.

“My mom was concerned about my safety,” said Hersi, 15.

But sometimes that was Hersi’s only option if her mother couldn’t pick her up right away.

Thanks to the St. Paul Smart Trips program, Hersi learned how to take the city bus.

St. Paul Smart Trips, which recently merged with Transit for Livable Communities, is a nonprofit that educates the public about safer and easier transportation options in St. Paul and addresses local transportation issues. Young people in Smart Trips’ youth program, such as Hersi, also have served as transportation advocates in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

“If you don’t have a way of getting around safely, you might never want to go anywhere,” said Mark Olivares, youth coordinator at St. Paul Smart Trips. “You might just want to just stay in your neighborhood, stay at home and not explore.”

From left to right, Youth Coordinator Mark Olivares and youth interns Cecillian Vang, Keleenah Yang and Munira Hersi are part of St. Paul Smart Trips, a nonprofit that teaches people how to use sustainable transportation and serves as a transportation advocate. (Photo by Dang Her/ThreeSixty Journalism)

Education is a key part of Smart Trips. Student interns are encouraged to go out into their communities and educate people about sustainable transportation options, such as biking, walking, busing and riding the light rail.

The program targets people who don’t want to drive or don’t have access to a vehicle and may think a car is the only way of getting around, according to Olivares.

Hersi became involved in the youth program, called the Frogtown Neighborhoods Program. She interns now at Smart Trips and said she learned the routes in her neighborhood from the program.

Once she understood how to use the bus, Hersi became confident and more active in her community, she said. When Hersi’s mother saw her daughter taking the bus safely, she felt better sending her daughter on the bus, according to Hersi.

Now her mom understands “there are cameras in the bus,” Hersi said. Some days, her mom tells her, “I am not driving you today, take the bus,” according to Hersi.

Another student intern, Keleenah Yang, 17, said she had never ridden a bike or used the bus before she learned about Smart Trips.

“A lot of people don’t go out into the community, especially in Frogtown, from my experience,” said Yang, who lives in Frogtown. “I didn’t really know anybody in my community, but once I started going out there, I saw that I should go out more.”

Since Smart Trips taught Yang how to use the bus, she has learned “riding the bus is fun, and you kind of become independent,” she said.

Smart Trips partnered with the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center, which Yang was a part of, for youth to work in the Frogtown community. Youth in the Frogtown program, which ended in 2015, engaged the community, conducted a survey, installed bike racks, painted a community mural and held a community block party, according to Smart Trips’ website.

Despite the program’s ending, the work continued. In 2016, Smart Trips youth surveyed the Frogtown neighborhood about ways to improve Metro Transit experiences, gathered information in an effort to improve Frogtown’s future plans, and more.

Yang, who joined the Frogtown program to be more active in her community, became a sort-of ambassador for public transportation, and she introduced her friend, Cecillian Vang, 16, to Smart Trips.

Vang is now an intern with Smart Trips, and she is pushing for more transportation options in her neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side.

“I live in the East Side, and bikes are expensive,” Vang said. “And it’s hard if you don’t have a bike. Where I live all we have is city buses, and I feel like not a lot of people go out and bike either. It’s because they can’t afford it and there’s a lack of bike shops in the East Side.”

While Smart Trips’ youth program has been focused on the Frogtown area, Olivares hopes the program can expand its reach to other underserved areas, such as the East Side.

In the meantime, the student interns say they’re already noticing a difference in the community. They have more freedom using public transportation and feel safer, which is something they’ve taught others.

“It’s good for communities to get together because it will change their understanding of who lives in the community,” Vang said. “It’s just a good way to get everyone out, to get to know everyone more, to make them feel more safe in the community, because no one wants to live in a community where they feel unsafe.”