Downtown On the Go was founded in 2011 with a vision of improving daily life in downtown Tacoma. The transportation advocacy nonprofit educates area residents and workers on alternatives to single-car driving while advocating for policies that promote a vibrant, connected atmosphere. In January, Tracy Oster was appointed executive director of the organization. She came to the job with an extensive track record in nonprofit leadership, but she’s new to the world of transit.
Oster’s appointment was not the first time she had been catapulted into a leadership role. She began her nonprofit career 15 years ago, when she became the executive director and sole employee at Communities in Schools of Federal Way. There, Oster’s initial willingness to dive into a leadership position and adapt to a learn-as-you-go mentality translated into an ability to attain organizational growth.
During her time with Communities in Schools, Oster grew the organization to 20 staffers and expanded its reach. In its first year, it served 10 students; by the end of Oster’s tenure, the program served 15,000. She credits her success to a deeply supportive board and a strong network of community relationships.
With Downtown On the Go, Oster is most excited about the multifaceted nature of the work.
“It’s part advocacy, part health and well-being, and it’s got this environmental component and its tourism component,” Oster said. “(Transit) really affects everything — how our communities are connected, our education system, the environment. There are so many pieces to it.”
We spoke to Oster about her transition to the world of transit, the downtown development projects she is excited to mobilize, and Downtown On the Go’s role in advocating for more equitable access to transit.
What led you to your current role?
(In college) I studied marketing and PR, and that was the line of work that I got into. When I was out of college, I worked for a variety of companies in the corporate sector, doing marketing work, public relations, even some sales. But none of it was very fulfilling. I didn’t even really realize that until I started working at a nonprofit, and I realized that you can have a job that provides you with both income and fulfillment at the end of the day. You can go home and say, “Hey, what we’re doing makes a difference.” I was at a point where I was looking for a position and, in 2006, the board of directors took a chance on me as executive director at Communities in Schools.
I like to joke that I was executive director by default, because that was the only position they had. I hadn’t done the work before, but I knew at the time that this was going to be important work, and I was very excited about it. So I really loved my time there. We had great support in the community and on our board. After 14 years at that job, though, I just decided that I had kind of done what I could do there. And I was ready for a new challenge and a new opportunity to grow as a leader.
I grew up in Puyallup. Again, I’ve been here (in the South Sound) a long time, most of my life. And so I’ve seen Tacoma, I’ve seen the changes that have been going on for a long time, and I love Tacoma; have always loved being down there. And so when this opportunity came up, I knew that it would be a good fit.
What overlap do you see between your experience at Communities in Schools and the transit-focused work of Downtown On the Go?
During my interview process, I acknowledged that I don’t have the transportation background, but I do have long-term success and experience as a nonprofit executive director. So, I really emphasized to them that my thinking is: I can come in and help lead this organization and learn about the transportation piece. … The overlap is mainly in how we do business. And I know that (the previous executive director) Kristina Walker has done a great job of getting things started. I just want to build on what she’s done. So much of the work that Downtown On the Go does is aligned with my own personal values. And again, that was something that made me excited about being part of the organization.
What is transportation demand management, and how does it inform Downtown On the Go’s work?
(Transportation demand management) is about helping to shape the behavior of people. It’s the flip side of infrastructure, and it focuses on understanding how people make their transportation decisions, and (on helping) people using infrastructure that’s already in place for transit, ridesharing, biking, walking, et cetera. This is why a lot of our advocacy work focuses on that — helping to make sure we have the infrastructure in place for those options, and then also working to inform and educate people on how they can use those systems.
How do you connect with downtown residents and workers to further your organization’s mission?
Before COVID, we would have a lot of events around the community to bring awareness. We had some great walking events, some biking events, incorporated our elected officials into being part of those to bring more of a spotlight to it. And then also, myself and (my) staff sit on a lot of technical advisory committees and coalitions in the community to make sure we’re connected that way, as well. It’s been super hard with COVID of course, like everybody else. All of our events have gone virtual, which is really tricky for an organization (whose) events are about being together. But the staff has done a good job of still connecting with people and keeping people up to date on the work that we’re doing.
Who are your main partners around the region in this work? How are you working together in order to promote sustainable transit solutions for residents downtown and around Pierce County?
Downtown On the Go was started out of partnership with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, the City of Tacoma, and Pierce Transit. Those three organizations saw the need for this advocacy organization and started Downtown On the Go. We work very closely with those three entities. We also, of course, work with Sound Transit. We share information back and forth with what’s going on with them and how we can support (their work). And then we sit on some of the committees at Pierce Transit and Sound Transit in order to understand what they’re doing and then are able to bring that information back to the board and the community. We can sign on to efforts that align with the work that we’re doing, or we can educate people about things that we think wouldn’t be most helpful or equitable to the community.
What major development projects downtown are you most looking forward to completing?
The ones that we’ve been excited about and really been watching are both the Schuster Parkway Promenade, as well as the Hilltop Link Extension. It’s very exciting to connect the neighborhoods all across the community. We’ll work with Sound Transit to make sure that folks know how to use the Link and how to use their ORCA cards when fares begin being collected. And so that will be our part once that gets opened up.
Promoting equitable access to transit and transportation is such a huge part of your work. What are the main hurdles here in Tacoma?
Well, I don’t think it’s just in Tacoma. All across the country we know systemic racism has created a situation where people of color are more likely to live in areas that are less connected via transit, bike lanes, or sidewalks. And yet those communities are often more likely to depend on public transit. We will be making sure that we are aligned with other organizations that are doing this work. We’re currently developing our equity action plan. We just want to make sure that all communities have access to reliable, affordable, and consistent transportation.