Sustainability Spotlight: Sustainable Transportation Leader Lisa Lin

Lisa Lin

Lisa Lin leads Rice’s transportation demand management program. We met with her to learn about the program and its goals, to discuss her experiences in Houston as a cyclist, to gain some tips for a zero-waste lifestyle, and much more. Be sure to check out her recommendations for vegan-friendly restaurants and dishes, as well as cellists everyone should listen to.

How did you first become interested in environmental issues? Was there a specific event, moment, or person that influenced your interest?

Lisa Lin: Growing up in College Station, my family and I would often drive to Houston to go to Chinatown or visit family and friends. I would stare out the window at the seemingly unchanging landscape of forests, ranches, and then the suburban development along US-290. In high school, I started taking private lessons from a cello professor at the University of Houston, and my mom would drive me every other weekend to the music school. I, again, would stare out the window at the landscape, but this time, I started noticing the changes. As they were widening US-290 in Cypress, trees I had grown up observing on those drives were starting to disappear; until one weekend, only one was left in the median strip, crooked, leafless, and leaning over the highway. I saw it for a few more weekends, and then it was gone. I remember rooting for that tree, hoping they would let it remain, but deep down, I knew its removal was inevitable. That was a defining moment for me as I finally connected the impacts of human development on our natural environment. As for a person who influenced me, I admit I watched Captain Planet a lot as a kid, so that definitely made an impact!

This interest clearly carried into your career. Were you able to get a “green job” as soon as your graduated from college, or was the process more complicated than that?

LL: It was a bit more complicated. In 2006, I graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in environmental design and a minor in music. I moved to Houston to work for a small commercial architecture firm, and I became the first LEED AP there and started their in-house green building education program. With few green building projects coming down the pipeline for our company, I started looking at volunteer opportunities with the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for professional development as well as to build my network. Serving and chairing the Emerging Professionals committee of the USGBC was my main outlet for sustainability during those days. From a speaker series to volunteer events to networking mixers to film screenings, it was almost a full-time job managing and organizing those activities. Other notable events I organized included a climate rally outside City Hall and bringing No Impact Man, Colin Beavan, here for Green Week Houston. The community organizing and climate activism experience led to a career opportunity in January 2011 with an international NGO called ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. There, I was able to work with local government sustainability offices in the South Central region on greenhouse gas inventories and climate action planning while also supporting the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Houston. One of the projects I was assigned to was helping implement the Houston Green Office Challenge program, and by December 2011, the Mayor’s Sustainability Director hired me as the Sustainability Manager for the City. I left that role in January 2017 to start Rice’s Transportation Demand Management program. Getting that “green” job was a meandering path, but thankfully, volunteering in the community, which helped me build my professional network, led me to some amazing opportunities.

The number of tasks and issues that one could undertake working in a sustainability office for the City of Houston seems nearly infinite. What did you work on? What were the top priorities?

LL: Some of the projects I worked on included launching Houston B-cycle, managing the Houston Green Office Challenge, installing electric vehicle charging stations, helping pass the anti-idling policy, certifying the city through the STAR Communities Rating System, participating in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, reporting annually to the Carbon Disclosure Project, conducting municipal and community-wide greenhouse gas emissions inventories, benchmarking energy performance of all city buildings, launching behavior change campaigns, organizing an e-waste recycling campaign, attaining Responsible Sports certification for the NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship in Houston, sharing best practices with sustainability offices nationally and internationally, coordinating our internship program — the list goes on.The top priorities included the Houston Green Office Challenge, annual reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project, and benchmarking our municipal building energy performance.

What was the hardest part about working in a sustainability office in local government?

LL: The most challenging part was not having enough resources for our office. Being the fourth largest city in the U.S. with only two people in the sustainability office meant that we had to juggle many different projects and find key partners with whom to divvy up the work. Thankfully, we had some great advisors, consultants, and interns who helped along the way. We also made sure to build strong relationships with other municipal departments who could help us follow-through with projects and programs after we left. Also, the way mayoral terms were structured then, mayors were running for re-election every other year, which meant that we had to be sensitive to what kind of projects we pursued, like long-term wins vs. short-term wins.

What initiative are you most proud of from your work at the City?

LL: The initiative I’m most proud of launching is our bike share program. I got to work with some great people from Bike Houston, Bike Barn, and the Houston Downtown Management District to make that project successful. Considering it started as an EPA-funded pilot program with three stations and 18 bikes to today’s 46 stations and 350 bikes, it’s one of those catalyst projects that created a better quality of life for Houstonians. Our Safe Passing Ordinance, protected bike lane on Lamar, and the updated Houston Bike Plan all followed after the bike share program kicked off, and cycling in Houston started getting more traction. As a cyclist, it was exciting to see the momentum building for a more bike-friendly Houston.

You started working at Rice in January in a newly-created position coordinating the university’s transportation demand management program. What does that entail, and what are your goals?

LL: Rice’s Transportation Demand Management program focuses on promoting sustainable transportation and smart commuting options to and from and around the University. My goal is to not only reduce parking demand but also understand our transportation mode split, improve transit accessibility, promote bicycling use, increase pedestrian access to the campus, encourage carshare and rideshare opportunities, launch a carpool/vanpool pilot program, educate about safety and awareness while utilizing active modes of transportation, and optimize existing transportation demand management strategies. The intent is to start seeing what combination of incentives and policies will help students, faculty, and staff rethink driving alone to Rice. Ideally, they should be able to use a network of active transportation modes offered on and around campus that are seamlessly integrated and will not hinder their mobility needs. Looking outside the university, this role will have to look at coordinating with other TDM professionals around the region in order to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and help Houstonians think outside the car.

What initiatives and issues are you working on at the moment?

LL: After Harvey, nearly 500 individuals in the Rice community experienced some level of flood damage to their vehicles. I worked on finding carpool matches for those who needed a ride to campus, and we had a great response from volunteers who wanted to help. We even had some carpool volunteers who drove out of their way to pick up an employee or student.

In conjunction with promoting the Houston B-cycle stations on campus, I’m also exploring a smart bike/dockless bike sharing system for RGA residents, and in October, I’m sending out an employee commuter survey to understand and analyze employee commuting behavior.

I’m also promoting METRO’s services, especially their bus system, to students. METRO is designing some helpful guides for students that I’ll be distributing later this year, and I plan on focusing on a “fun destinations by bus” campaign, too. The Kinder Institute had a great write-up about a study revealing how a person’s experience with public transit in their 20s and 30s influences their commute patterns in the future. If I do my job right, we’ll have lots of transit-savvy students coming out of Rice!

As someone who is an avid cyclist, how has viewing the road from two wheels instead of four changed your view of the city?

LL: I started biking to work about five years ago when I was in the Mayor’s Office. I would use Houston B-cycle — those were the early days, and I was trying to promote it — or my own bike to commute to City Hall. When I started biking to meet with friends or to run errands, the fourth largest city in the U.S. became a little smaller. I learned the safe neighborhood routes to get to places and figured out how far I could ride before I was too drenched in sweat to meet with friends. I became a defensive rider during peak traffic and biked cautiously amongst finicky Houston drivers. At the same time, I saw the potential of Houston becoming a great biking city had we only built more key connections to tie our bike network together.

After Hurricane Harvey, I actually felt safer biking around because I didn’t know what the road conditions were like by car, and I didn’t want to use the precious fuel I had gotten before the storm. It was easier to explore the aftermath on two wheels, and I saw many of my friends’ posts on social media doing the same thing. Checking on the bayou trails, checking on conditions along the highway, checking on friends — all by bike. There are so many advantages of getting around the city this way. It’s fun. It’s exercise. We shouldn’t forget that it’s also a reliable and resilient form of transportation.

Are you ready to give up your car?

LL: I would love to give up my car! First of all, I’m not a good car owner. I don’t take care of it, and because I bike during the week, I often forget where I park it at my apartment. I use it to go to board meetings in the north part of Houston and when I play at gigs and teach cello lessons back in College Station. Being a musician on the side, it’s almost impossible to not use a car, especially when I have gigs in the middle of nowhere. A few years ago, I was in Vienna, and I saw a musician biking to an orchestra performance in concert attire with her cello on her back. One day, I’ll get there.

You work actively to reduce your environmental impact in many other ways. Do you have any zero-waste tips for our readers?

LL: My motto is think like a Boy Scout and always be prepared. My goal is to eliminate one-time use items, so I carry around a set of utensils, some kind of container for leftovers, a tote bag, and of course, a water bottle. I used to get confused looks at restaurants when I would pull out my own glass container for my leftovers, but some actually thanked me for doing that. Mason jars also make good to-go containers for leftover soup. I give back straws to servers, and if I’m at a restaurant that uses disposable chopsticks, I ask for a metal fork and spoon — not because I don’t know how to use chopsticks. At coffee shops, I opt for a mug instead of a disposable cup, or I’ll bring back the disposable cup for future visits. A great exercise for someone to go zero-waste would be to write down all the throw-away items you would use in a day and see if you can eliminate it or find a reusable option. Remember, recycling is the last “R”. Focus on reducing and reusing first!

Houston, of course, is well respected amongst foodies. As a practicing vegan, do you have specific restaurant suggestions?

LL: Yes! Here are my top picks:

All-veg restaurants/food vendors: Ripe Cuisine, Quan Yin, Green Seed Vegan, Guudbelly, and Pine Forest Garden.

Veg-friendly restaurants: Local Foods, Simply Pho, Huynh Restaurant, Nam Noodles & More, Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill, and Fusion Taco.

My top vegan dishes: Spicy Creamy Vegan Ramen at JINYA Ramen Bar, Adrienne’s Vegan Pizza at Boheme, Cauliflower Hot Wings at Green Vegetarian Cuisine, and Vegan Taco Salad at Local Foods.

I’ve had amazing vegan mac & cheese and chicken & waffles in other cities. I’m waiting for someone to open a really good vegan southern comfort food place here!

Finally, you’ve referenced music several times. Tell us about your love of music — as a performer, as a teacher, as a listener. Do you find that it influences other aspects of your life? And what cellist should we all be listening to?

LL: If I hadn’t studied architecture, I probably would’ve majored in music. I’ve been teaching cello lessons and playing gigs since high school and haven’t stopped. My goal with my students is not necessarily to make them world-class musicians but to teach them to love and appreciate performance, even if it’s just for themselves. It should be embraced as a lifelong activity. For me, it’s more important to help them find the joy in playing and to give them foundational skills so that they can continue progressing even without instruction. Also, the people I perform with are my closest friends. We love to sight read string quartet or trio music sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, and the countless road trips to random gigs and the crazy weddings we’ve played at have created years of fond memories. Memories we’ll be sharing over and over again into old age. I also have gotten to play at friends’ weddings in fun places like at a ski resort overlooking the Mississippi River in Illinois, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and in a 17th century church in Naples, Italy. Even though I’m devoted to sustainability, being a musician on the side is a nice complement because it is a completely different environment. Cellists to listen to: Yo-Yo Ma, of course, Jacqueline du Pré, and for something a little different, Maya Beiser.