Editor's note: This article is part of a series of interviews with Detroit's newly elected council members about transportation policy.
DETROIT—Raquel Castaneda-Lopez isn't one of those leaders who felt the call to public service at a very young age. In fact, she had been in the process of starting a gelato business before she entered the race that would lead to her election as Detroit's first Latina council member.
That said, Castaneda-Lopez is no stranger to local politics. She's served as a campaign manager for State Representative Rashida Tlaib, as a community organizer with the Harriet Tubman Center and as a fellow with the Center for Progressive Leadership and New Detroit. The new council member tells Mode Shift her run for office happened after she was essentially drafted into the race by supporters.
"I had volunteered on the campaign to get council by districts passed and never really thought about running until years afterwards when multiple community members, friends, leaders encouraged me to run," she says. "I thought it was my social responsibility, and I was really honored to be encouraged to ask to step up and represent the district in this way."
This past November, Detroit voters chose her to represent Council District 6. The district falls roughly between the Ford and Jeffries freeways to the north, the Detroit River to the south, John R. to the east and the city's boundary with Dearborn and other communities to the west.
It incorporates parts of Downtown, Southwest Detroit, Midtown, Woodbridge and Corktown, resulting in a region that is both ethnically and economically diverse.
Although District 6 includes more affluent areas like Midtown, it's also home to many poorer neighborhoods like Delray. Taken as a whole, the per capita income of the region is a meager $13,114 and 38 percent of households still fall below the poverty line, according to Data Driven Detroit.
As of 2010, the district's population was approximately 39 percent Hispanic, 39 percent non-Hispanic African-American, 18 percent non-Hispanic white and 4 percent people from other backgrounds. Many residents are also immigrants, a fact that's difficult to miss in Southwest Detroit--where it's not uncommon to hear Spanish spoken as the language of choice in many homes and businesses.
Castaneda-Lopez, born and raised in Southwest Detroit, is herself a native of the new district she represents. She grew up as the third eldest in a big family of eight kids, raised by a mother who worked as a postal worker and a Mexican immigrant father who labored as a plasterer before later launching his own business.
As for her education, she has a bachelor's degree in Social Work from the University of Montana and a master's in the same field from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In addition to her political work and community organizing, she's also been employed as a program manager for the Center for Chicano Boricua Studies at Wayne State University.
Although Castaneda-Lopez is very knowledgeable on issues like youth empowerment and education, she admits she's still getting up to speed on transportation policy.
"I haven't done much work around transportation issues in the past," she says, "but I think in general, when people have reliable, clean, safe methods of getting back and forth between work, doctors, and school, et cetera, that it alleviates a certain level of stress and overall helps to improve our quality of life."
Although no longer an active bicyclist, she tells Mode Shift she did quite a bit of cycling during her undergraduate years in Missoula, Montana and supports efforts to make Detroit more-bicycle friendly.
"I've been, honestly speaking, afraid to bike in Detroit, because we're not the most biker-friendly city," she says. "Several of my siblings do bike and so I am definitly biker-friendly as much as possible, but I haven't gotten over my fear of getting hit by a car."
Mode Shift joined Castaneda-Lopez at her new office in city hall recently to discuss her views and insights on transportation policy in Detroit.
Mode Shift: How do you think bicycle safety in the city of Detroit could be improved?
Castaneda-Lopez: Talking to other people I know that bike, I think the bike lanes are great and there are quite a few new ones in Southwest Detroit. But thinking it through a little bit more with the implementation of new bike lanes, what I've heard from different cyclists is that it makes more sense, because Detroit isn't the most biker-concious biker friendly city, is maybe to have bike lanes in between the sidewalks and the cars versus on the outer lanes. And I think also just access to biker maintenance workshops, that would encourage more people to maybe get out and get on a bicycle. But I think that a lot of it is safety that deters people—their own personal safety and being afraid.
Mode Shift: What do you think needs to be done to improve the quality of bus service and safety for riders and drivers on DDOT and the safety of cyclists who share the roads with DDOT?
Castaneda-Lopez: I'm not that familiar with the current structure in DDOT honestly speaking. However, I think in general, a lot of departments are just over-strapped. So they maybe have not enough drivers, and the drivers are working long hours. And that tends to impact schedules and buses arriving on time and people waiting outside for really long hours. And the buses are old— and so not that clean—and people who have obviously no other means of transportation tend to ride the buses. Not to say everyone, but a majority of the people. And so I think it's our most needy populations that are riding buses.
That said, I think there does need to be a restructuring of how schedules are created. Maybe in the hiring process of drivers in their training is some kind of education about sharing the roads with bikers. In terms of safety on the buses, I'm not 100 percent sure. But I feel like when drivers convey guidelines the right way, it's creating a certain level of respect and trust on the bus and using the infrastructure and the text in the bus itself to communicate that.
Mode Shift: What are your thoughts on what needs to be done to improve regional transit?
Castaneda-Lopez: So I know the M-1 Rail slightly falls in my district but is more in district 5, but I think so many of Detroiters actually leave the city to work and just in terms of supporting better transit between the surrounding suburbs and the city of Detroit, it makes sense. And also for people coming in the city to work, it will just make it a lot easier. And we are the Motor City, but I think the reality of the situation is a lot of people don't have personal vehicles and rely heavily on public transportation. To improve that, I think overall would have a positive impact on our economy.
What are your thoughts or concerns about the M-1 Rail project?
Castaneda-Lopez: Again, I don't have as much background information as I'd like, but I'm meeting with different leaders around that as well as our legislative department to see where we are and to what extent we can impact it, because a lot of major steps have already happened.
Mode Shift: How do you feel about the debate over the I-94/I-75 freeway widening?
Castaneda-Lopez: Again, I haven't heard much debate about the widening of I-94 at least in terms of my district. It could be impacting other communities more so than the community that I'm representing. So I can't speak much to that issue. Not to say it isn't something I'm willing to look into, but I can't speak much to that issue right now.
Mode Shift: What are your thoughts on prioritizing an update of Detroit’s non-motorized plan?
Castaneda-Lopez: Again, I would have to do more background research to see where it's at, but if there's things that are outdated that need to be updated, I'd be more than willing to support that. A lot of communities that fall within district 6 are very much walking communities and biking communities because people don't have cars, so they rely more heavily on those ways to get around. So making them more walker-friendly or biker-friendly communities would definitely be something I'm interested in supporting.
Are you a resident of Detroit council district 6? Share your thoughts on transportation policy with Council Member Castaneda-Lopez at CouncilMemberRaquel@detroitmi.gov.