Advocacy Director and Co-Founder, Seamless Bay Area
Executive Director, Friends of Caltrain
By Robin Doran | Published: October 2023
Community engagement drives transformation. When businesses, nonprofits, and citizens hold authorities accountable, progress is possible. And sometimes, when the community is very fortunate, people like Adina Levin view civic engagement as fun.
Adina is Advocacy Director and Co-Founder of Seamless Bay Area (SBA), a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to transform the region’s fragmented and often-inconvenient public transit into an equitable and united system. Adina earlier co-founded Friends of Caltrain, organized to support the rail system through the San Francisco Peninsula.
Getting around the Bay Area can be challenging. The public transit options are snarled in red tape. With 27 transit agencies spread across nine counties, there's a mix of fare systems, discounts, signage, and maps to contend with. Adina’s preparation to confront such a challenge began early.
Born in New Haven Connecticut while her father was a grad student in biochemistry at Yale, Adina grew up with two brothers in the Wynnewood neighborhood of Philadelphia, on the historic Main Line.
Her father started a printing business and her mother was first a religious schoolteacher before going into real estate.
As is the case with many community activists, Adina’s parents also were involved in their community. Her mother ran the PTA and served on the school board, a role that historically was not open to women.
“I was very much influenced by my family,” says Adina. “Even though I’m involved with things like public transportation, housing, local environmental justice, and regional policy, I was shaped by my parents’ model of building relationships with a diversity of people in the broader community.”
A graduate of Yale University, Adina was interested in the social history of technology and infrastructure. Rather than creating a custom major, she opted to study English literature.
Her first job out of university was doing technology market research.
“It was very clear that the internet was starting to be a thing that was going to transform how things were done while transforming the world. I wanted to be working in software, not just as an industry analyst, so I got a job in product strategy at a content management company during the dotcom boom.”
That decision took Adina from Boston to Austin and she loved the shift, from the music and the culture to the people who were civically engaged.
She joined a local chapter of the ACLU called Cyber Liberties where she volunteered to take on telecom providers who wanted to make public WIFI illegal. Her team of about a half dozen volunteers ended up defeating the telecom lobbyists’ cadre of hundreds.
“Alongside this ragtag band of volunteers and some great mentoring, I got an appetite for policy coalition building of grassroots and grass tops alliances and an understanding of how laws get made,” says Adina.
In 2005 Adina co-founded SocialText, a company producing enterprise social software, which secured VC funding in Palo Alto. The work took her to the Bay Area.
Not surprisingly, Adina intertwines her love of civic engagement with her recreational time. She founded Menlo Together in Menlo Park to support housing affordability and environmental justice. The group recently held a book club reading of Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond. Last month she attended a Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition ride with the Housing Leadership Council for an affordable housing tour.
Adina got into public transportation by way of environmental action. Shortly after she moved to Menlo Park, she was invited to volunteer with a new climate action committee. Fortuitously, she was placed with the transportation team and started to think about why public transportation in the Bay Area was underperforming. She soon co-organized a public transit camp unconference that brought together elected officials, transit agency staff, advocates, and tech workers.
“Adina Levin has been a model as a rare blend of savvy public transit expert, community advocate, and astute policy leader, who can navigate politics gracefully,” says Diane Bailey, a fellow advocate who has worked with Adina on various mobility projects over the years. “She has exceptional abilities to forge common ground among unlikely coalition partners and grow them to promote important transportation projects that initially seem unattainable.”
Friends of Caltrain evolved from a small volunteer group into a fully-fledged 501(c)3 after the sale of SocialText. “If you let people know what is going on and define what they can do, people will take action,” says Adina. “We got funding from grant sources, cities, individuals and turned into a nonprofit focused on stable funding and successful modernization of Caltrain in the context of a regionally integrated public transportation system, accessible to all.”
While working with other organizations in coalition toward a better Bay Area transit system, Adina met Ian Griffiths. Together, they founded Seamless Bay Area in 2018. Their vision? A rider-driven grassroots project pushing a seamless, easy-to-access, and equitable transit system.
To build a movement, they created a set of Seamless Transit Principles that attracted well over 100 public, private, and nonprofit organizations, and thousands of people to sign up in support of a seamless, rider-friendly, accessible transit system.
“Adina is a key leader in bringing together an innovative series of educational events bringing together groups and constituencies supporting sustainable transportation, housing affordability, and environmental sustainability, to highlight the linkages among the issues and build networks and relationships with the knowledge and ability to take action on these interrelated and seemly intractable issues,” underscores Diane Bailey.
To help people envision solutions, SBA developed an Integrated Transit Fare Vision Map to show what a more equitable, affordable, rider-focused transit fare system could look like. With integrated fares, local riders would get access anywhere in the region with simple-to-understand, affordable fares that didn’t vary depending on the number of transfers between modes or operators.
In addition to the archaic and cumbersome array of agencies and systems, costly fares for multi-district trips are a barrier for many Bay Area residents who are low income and for people of color.
Joint Venture formed a strategic partnership with SBA in 2022 and initially advocated for the passage of SB 917 (which would have required the 27 independent transit agencies operating in the nine-county Bay Area to work together to develop and adopt integrated fares and a Coordinated Network Plan by the end of 2023) as a bill co-sponsor. While SB 917 was quashed at the Assembly Appropriations suspense file hearing last year, it created a foundation for future progress.
SBA also supports governance reform of Bay Area transit institutions and advocates for placement of a transit network manager, the one commonality that distinguishes well-coordinated systems around the world, according to Adina. “The network manager entity is accountable for making sure that the systems work together ⎯ a function that we have lacked in the Bay Area. These things cannot be optional, cannot be voluntary, and we need the funding to run a coordinated system,” she says.
There has been tangible progress. Last year transit agencies implemented a two-year pilot program called Clipper BayPass that provides 50,000 Bay Area residents access via their college, university, or public housing community to all bus, rail, and ferry services in all nine counties.
As of April, over one million trips were taken in the first six months of the BayPass rollout and there has been a 35% increase in transit use among users. The next hurdle is to get BayPass expanded.
SBA has been involved in an initiative to garner emergency funding from the state for beleaguered local transit agencies. “Our theory of change is underscored by the fact that achieving government reform is paired with funding; it’s both a carrot and a stick,” says Adina.
Adina notes that even when funding for transit capital is made available, transit operations is historically underfunded even though that support is exactly what is most needed at the state and regional levels.
“We need to make sure we have the money to run services,” she says.
Adina and her team are laying the groundwork for a regional funding measure to pair with governance reforms. She says they need a steady drumbeat of progress which includes integrated fares, coordinated schedules, and continued support. “Those things and successes like the BayPass give the public confidence that things can improve and that in turn will build support for the funding,” she says.
We believe her.