Bike East Bay advocacy director Dave Campbell is leaving Oakland after building a legacy of improved roadways and a bike-educated populace. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Dave Campbell, the advocacy director of Bike East Bay for the last ten years, announced recently he plans to move with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina, to take a job as the city’s bicycle planner. His announcement surprised many of his friends and colleagues, who expressed happiness for Campbell. His new position will put him in charge of all things bicycle in a city over twice the size of Oakland. Campbell’s friends said they’ll dearly miss him. The move also provided an opportunity for the East Bay’s bicycling and transportation policy community to take stock of Campbell’s many achievements over the past 24 years as a tireless advocate for safer streets.

At a recent going-away party Campbell said he’ll miss working in Oakland. 

“I felt like it was time to step down and let others lead. Being in a leadership position for a long time, it’s time for new ideas, new energy,” he told The Oaklandside. Campbell also said he felt a little frustrated at the lack of street safety progress in various Bay Area cities. 

Educated as an attorney, Campbell got into bike advocacy in the late 1990s after volunteering for the Bike-Friendly Berkeley Coalition, which advocated for better facilities for cyclists and connected families through bike events. He then served on Bike East Bay’s board of directors and later led its education and advocacy groups. Known for showing up at every Oakland City Council meeting where bike and pedestrian safety was discussed, his knowledge, persistence, and positive attitude were well-known in policy circles. 

“He was the main person in the East Bay when it came to pedestrian and bike advocacy,” said Warren Logan, the former transportation policy advisor to Mayor Libby Schaaf. 

Campbell helped Bike East Bay shift its focus from bike access to street safety. Around 2000, the 50-year-old organization known for advocating for bike access rights in public transit systems like BART and AC Transit, started to increasingly work on education, persuading the general public that bike lanes can increase everyone’s safety. 

District 3 City Councilmember Carroll Fife worked with Campbell when she served on Oakland’s Measure KK funding oversight committee, which oversaw the expenditure of money used to fix streets and build bicycle infrastructure. 

“Dave was my first introduction to the desperate need that people have for safer streets,” she said. “And he was passionate, intelligent, and informed. When I have questions about what policy needs to be written, he always makes himself available. I’m going to miss him.” 

Teaching regular people about the benefits of biking while also keeping hard-core bicyclists involved in Bike East Bay has been one of his most valuable contributions, said Robert Prinz, the group’s education program manager. Historically, lots of bike advocacy was the work of dedicated sports cyclists, Prinz said. Their goals didn’t address the concerns of regular people. In order to grow, Campbell organized around the needs of daily bike commuters.

“Because of his work, we are now thinking beyond the bicycle to work with organizations with shared goals such as labor organizers and street safety people,” said Prinz.

In a blog post about Campbell’s exit, Bike East Bay noted he was instrumental in campaigns that led to important transportation safety changes for thousands of residents. Campbell helped bring bike lane access to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. He helped campaign for billions in infrastructure funds approved by voters, including Measures B/BB, RR, and KK. And he helped convince residents to pressure cities to build or improve protected bikeways such as the Ohlone Greenway through Berkeley, Albany, and El Cerrito.  

Working for equitable street investments

Keisha Henderson and Dave Campbell speaking at the 2022 Cal Bike Summit. Credit: Keisha Henderson and Cal Bike Summit.

Keisha Henderson, the founder of The Rebirth Anthem, a neighborhood beautifying project, told The Oaklandside that Campbell was an important figure in her East Oakland neighborhood between Seminary Avenue and Havenscourt Boulevard. Campbell always spoke to residents with respect and used his privilege as a white man to help convince the city to invest in streets used by underrepresented Black and brown residents. 

“I appreciated that he actually came to see the community in person,” said Henderson. “And conversations with him changed the way I see public safety, keeping bikes in mind.” 

Campbell helped Henderson shut down streets for bike education events for kids and encouraged her to participate as a speaker in panels at bike advocacy gatherings like the 2022 Cal Bike Summit

Even more important was the way that Campbell explained the differences in infrastructure between cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, talking about social inequality, race, and power. Affluent people in Berkeley had nicer streets, with more speed bumps and working traffic lights, he pointed out, because they had more economic, social, and political power. But Campbell encouraged people in East Oakland like Henderson to learn how to pressure the city through protests, by attending council meetings, and by contacting government officials.

Campbell learned about these inequities from another East Oakland resident, Reggie “RB” Burnett, the founder of the Scraper Bike Team, a social empowerment group for kids that like to ride bikes. As he told the group of more than 100 people at his goodbye party, he was biking  with Burnett in 2014 when Burnett told him that if he wasn’t riding with Campbell, the police would have stopped him several times. From then on, Campbell became even more invested in police reform, serving on several city commissions such as Oakland’s Reimagining Public Task Force. Bike East Bay also decided to sever connections it had with the OPD.

Bryan Culbertson, one of the founders of the Traffic Violence Rapid Traffic Response Team, which is building a protest movement to reduce fatal collisions, was at Campbell’s going away party and heard the story about the ride with RB.  It was inspiring, he said, because he also cares about improving street conditions for the poorest communities in the city, knowing it will help everyone else. 

In 2021, Campbell taught Culbertson another key lesson about advocating on behalf of underrepresented communities. Facing a possible removal of protected lanes on Telegraph Avenue, Bike East Bay called for volunteers to help them convince the city council to keep them—Culbertson answered the call. Culbertson said he thought he’d be convincing business owners to support the bike lanes by using his knowledge about their superiority over other street design options. Instead, Campbell told him and other volunteers to simply ask people on Telegraph Avenue what they wanted the street to look like. 

“When you report what you heard to the council, Dave said, you can tell your story about why [a protected lane is good], but it’s better if you tell other people’s stories. That way you can be an advocate for them,” Culbertson recalled Campbell telling him. Culbertson told the council about restaurant workers who used the bike lanes to get to work and who wanted them kept in place.

“When I started focusing on traffic violence and pedestrian safety, I knew I was here to collect other people’s stories and boost them. I probably would not have come to that realization on my own,” Culbertson said. 

Burnett also needed a push from Campbell to get involved in bike advocacy. When they met in 2011 at one of Bike East bay’s pedal fest events, he was interested in creating a bike lane on Havenscourt Boulevard for Black and brown kids to have a place to ride in. But then-councilmember Desley Brooks, said Burnett, did not want a bike lane because she thought it could lead to gentrification. 

“But like with Mister Miyagi in the Karate Kid, Dave became my sensei about traffic advocacy,” he said. 

Burnett ended up canvassing people in the neighborhood and the city eventually added a bike lane there, the first in East Oakland. He would work with Campbell on adding the BRT lane to International Boulevard and developing plans for the East Bay greenway, which is still in development. Burnett also served on the city’s Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission for eight years, until 2020. 

“It felt good to become an advocate because it meant I got a chance to talk to and about my community, making sure neighborhoods had high visibility crosswalks so kids could get to walk to school safely.”

Staying on top of legislation and making policy happen through relationships

Connecting people who are separated in different silos but who have similar traffic safety concerns has been one of Campbell’s main goals. The structures of city government, he said, often prevent people from talking to each other. Engineers at OakDOT for example, are not empowered to speak to a city councilmember to help them prioritize funding for a bike lane or other project or to help make a design decision. But an advocate can talk to anyone, helping to lift up all street safety improvements at once. 

Council Fife said Campbell always connected her to the right people to get things done. 

“Recently, when we were changing the language to restructure the Measure U infrastructure bond law, he was texting me during the council meeting connecting me to people,” Fife said. “He was saying that we need to include specific language around pedestrian safety.”

Warren Logan, the former mayoral aide, had a similar role inside the city government that Campbell had on the outside. Logan was in charge of connecting people from across the city and between city departments. He says Campbell’s skill set included a deep understanding of technical street safety issues. 

“For people that do this work, some go to city planning school and some are urban designers. Then you have advocates who are as phenomenal and skilled as the rest of us and are good at tapping into community stakeholders,” Logan said. “[Campbell] can talk to OakDOT staff about turning radii and medians and then talk casually with everyday folks about why it’s important to use alternative modes of travel.” 

Savlan Hauser, an architect and the director of the Jack London Improvement District, worked with Campbell on managing the city’s dockless scooter program as well as using flex streets to help Jack London businesses build parklets. 

“Streets have a social role, an economic role, a cultural identity role, and Dave contributes his perspective and support for all of these areas,” she said. “He helps us all see solutions rather than roadblocks, and motivates each of us to participate in our respective roles to shape streets that are more sustainable, friendly, and fun for everyone.”

Making advocacy fun

Maybe the most important quality Campbell brought to his advocacy is the ability to communicate wonky ideas in a calm and kind demeanor, said his colleagues and friends. 

For Councilmember Fife, that personality type is especially appreciated in the midst of a rise of new, largely white residents coming into the city, many of whom have hard-charging and impatient personalities that can rub the more-settled Black and brown population the wrong way. 

“His temperament is to support and help, and that is not always the case with people that are white. It’s a challenge in communities that have been disenfranchised. But Dave listens and seeks to communicate and learn,” she said. “Other people have been extremely aggressive.”

Prinz said that he appreciated that Campbell never felt satisfied with his level of knowledge. 

“I have taken that as a lesson: he never got settled or comfortable doing his work,” he said.

Campbell makes impromptu smoothies for kids at an East Oakland bike-centric pop-up. Credit: Keisha Henderson

Campbell’s colleagues said the most unusual and surprising part of his advocacy is that it was purposely fun. He sometimes organized events that were more about getting to know each other than learning about transportation policy. He’s thrown free BBQs (Campbell was a long-time pitmaster), and made smoothies for kids with a blender strapped to the back of his bike while leading group rides around cities. 

Prinz said that earlier this year, Bike East Bay advertised bike rides to explore San Leandro, ending with the option of taking part in a town hall about possible crosstown traffic projects. 

You advertise it as a fun ride, compelling people to go bike around, bring snacks, have a good time. And then you bring people into a technical process most wouldn’t think to participate in,” Prinz said.

“It’s giving people a healthy experience,” Henderson said of these events. 

Sometimes, the Bike East Bay events did take on a more policy-facing patina, especially the roadway pop-ups Campbell pioneered. These were physical constructions, sometimes made out of wood or cardboard that would demonstrate possible street designs. They tried this first on Telegraph Avenue around 2014 when volunteers constructed a simulation of a protected bike lane for one day. Sometimes these pop-ups were so successful residents believed they were real. 

Bike East Bay set up a pop-up this year in San Leandro to give residents a taste of what protected bike lanes will be like. Credit: Bike East Bay.

Logan said that connecting to people face-to-face around difficult topics is absolutely necessary if anyone wants to be successful in changing city policies. By cultivating relationships, Campbell was able to get people to open up about the fears they faced on their streets and the dreams they had to improve them. It also made difficult but necessary conversations around controversial topics more likely, such as whether there should be more or less police on the streets to patrol traffic.

“At the end of the day, those events were about more than making the streets safer. That’s important because work can be so apolitical,” Logan said. 

Asked what he thinks Bike East Bay’s work should focus on now, Campbell said bike advocates need to keep building relationships with small businesses to help them learn about how improved streets, including bike lanes, can boost their bottom lines.

“There’s no business district calling up City Hall saying, ‘Hey, where’s our safety project? Where are we on the list? How soon will we get a better street?’ We’re not there yet,” Campbell said.

Culbertson said he is grateful that Robert Prinz, who worked every day with Campbell for years, is taking over Campbell’s position. 

“We don’t have to start from scratch knowing about things like slit turns,” said Culbertson. “Dave may be going away but the foundation that he laid will be helpful.”

Scraper Bike Team’s Burnett said he’s happy his friend got his dream job and that he knows Campbell will still only be a phone call away if anyone in Oakland needs help. 

“We’ve relied on Dave so much. But it is now calling on us to fill his absence. It is not impossible and he has led by example. His work is in our hands,” Logan said.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.