Our Streets Gives Communities Lift

19-1 Our Streets
Our Streets Minneapolis Executive Director Ashwat Narayanan (Courtesy Mark VanCleave).

Low-income communities in Minneapolis are used to being divided by streets running through them. A street can be a barrier few want to cross. But a transportation advocacy group wants to use the streets to unite people. 

Our Streets Minneapolis is a nonprofit geared toward encouraging biking, walking and rolling in Minneapolis. What sets it apart from other community programs?  

“I think our focus on marginalized people really makes us different,” Executive Director Ashwat Narayanan said.  

Founded nine years ago as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, the focus of the nonprofit has shifted to a goal of community outreach and involvement using alternative forms of transportation. The nonprofit hopes to give historically underrepresented groups a voice in a process that often concerns them, but one they haven’t been able to control.  

Some in Minneapolis haven’t heard of Our Streets, but they probably have heard about the proposed 800-car ramp that was going to be built for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve building. Our Streets had a big part to play in the Planning Commission rejecting the ramp proposal. Narayanan was firm as he described how the ramp would hurt the city. More parking and more people driving in a particular area would interfere with Minnepolis’ plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2040. That plan requires driving in the city to be reduced by 37 percent.  

“Every time someone drives a car, it’s not just they who pay for gas,” Narayanan said.  “It’s society that kind of pays for a lot of externalities that come from driving a car.” 

Narayanan is passionate about his work. His eyes light up as he goes over certain projects and events, or when he talks about what inspired  him to join. He explained that he saw the consequences of poor transportation in his home country of India.  

“I’ve seen, you know, people trying to just get to work on very, very overcrowded trains, for example,” he said. “I’ve seen, you know, people get hit by cars and people just not being able to get where they need to go because of a lack of access to transportation.”  

This inspired him to look at opportunities beyond his study of transportation engineering and to look at the human element of transportation – how to build community.  

Our Streets Minneapolis has gained increased legitimacy with city government. Many former members of Our Streets have gone on to join government positions in Minneapolis.  

“Council President Lisa Bender, for example, was on the board of Our Streets,” Narayanan said. “And park board Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw was the president of our board, so we’ve been pretty influential in making sure that people who support our mission also have a political stage to be able to make political decisions, as well.”  

How can you get involved in your own community? Narayanan recommends gaining a deeper understanding of how transportation decision-making happens and then reaching out to your elected officials. Volunteering is also a good way to get a better understanding of the issues your community faces.  

Regardless of what we do in our own communities, Our Streets continues to grow, Narayanan said. Our Streets members will step back for a while to figure out their next big cause. But once they’re invested, they’ll go full speed.