Although her official title is Executive Director at Walk Bike Nashville, Nora Kern wears many different hats (as people at non-profits usually do). On some days she can be everything from an advocate, to a bookkeeper, to a boss, to a fundraiser. The organization, with Nora at the helm, is working to make Nashville more walkable, bikeable and livable. In her tenure at Walk Bike Nashville, Nora hopes to connect urban areas with bike lanes accessible to bikers of all levels, see the transit referendum passed and continue to grow the organization. Working and biking seem to consume most of her time, but Nora can also be found playing ultimate frisbee, cooking with friends, reading or doing yoga. As a Nashville native, she has a passion for her community. Keep reading to learn why we are so excited to introduce Nora Kern as today’s FACE of Nashville!
Tell us about your background.
I grew up here in Nashville and was always interested in politics and how the city works, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what cause I really wanted to focus on. After graduating from Hume-Fogg, I went off to college at Williams College and ended up working in DC for a start-up right after graduation. After a year working in business, I really missed being connected to what was going on in the community around me and was feeling a little lost. So I quit my job and headed off to Alaska to work on a commercial salmon boat and spend some time thinking about what I wanted to do next. Ultimately, I decided what I really valued was community and civic engagement, so much to my own surprise I decided to return to Nashville and get into urban planning.
When I got back I was fortunate enough to get involved with Walk Bike Nashville right as they were hiring their first staff. It’s kind of funny — most people know me as a hardcore bike advocate, but I didn’t really starting riding my bike and walking everywhere until after I moved back to town. Luckily, as soon as I started riding more I fell in love with Nashville in a totally new way. Riding my bike helped me see parts of the city I had never been to before when I was driving or being driven around growing up. I’ve now been at Walk Bike Nashville the past four years, and been its Executive Director the past two. It’s been the best experience of my life!
Can you tell us about the different programs within Walk Bike Nashville?
We divide our work into educational programming, encouragement activities and advocacy. Our educational programming focuses on making sure people have the skills and confidence to safely walk and bike on our streets and greenways. This includes everything from Adult Learn to Ride, to City Cycling, to Road Safety Rodeos at schools.
Our encouragement activities are probably our most visible programs. We organize Bike Month (May) and Walk Month (October); host the Tour de Nash, which is Nashville’s largest urban bike ride; and hold Open Streets Nashville, which recently made 2.5 miles of 12th Avenue South car-free for a day so people could walk, bike and enjoy their neighborhood.
Finally, our advocacy efforts are focused on ensuring our city provides the infrastructure to make it easy and enjoyable to walk and ride a bike: this includes sidewalks, bikeways, crosswalks, greenways and traffic calming in neighborhoods. Just this year we worked to update the sidewalk requirements so that more developers are building sidewalks, helped redo the city’s bicycle and pedestrian masterplan, and pushed to increase bikeways funding from $1 million per year to $5 million. We’re also now part of Transit for Nashville, which is pushing for dedicated funding for transit and transit access — probably the most important issue facing our city today.
During this time of growth, what are some key challenges we face in making Nashville a more livable city?
I think transportation is really the big issue for Nashville right now. We simply can’t fit everyone into our city anymore if everyone is driving a personal vehicle. Traffic is terrible and only going to get worse. And more and more, people want to live in a place where you don’t have to own a car to live. So it’s never been more important to get serious about providing options: safe and pleasant sidewalks for walking, comfortable bike lanes and a transit system that is convenient and more competitive with driving times.
What are the biggest changes you have seen to Nashville’s walk/bike community since you joined the organization in 2013?
Probably the biggest change is how much it has grown, and how much walking and biking in general has grown in Nashville. Our former board president used to joke that he was always really happy to see someone biking that he didn’t know, because the number of people riding in the city was so small. Most bike riders were on our board. These days I sit and watch people riding by on Woodland Street all day every day. You see all sorts of people riding: families, people in suits, students, visitors and locals alike.
In parallel, we’ve had so many new people who have come out and gotten involved, which is so inspiring to me. There’s this huge sense of urgency and excitement about changing our city streets, and a lot of people are realizing that walking and biking are key to making those changes. Nothing gets me more excited than meeting a bunch of new people who are as passionate about green transportation options as I am.
Are there a few neighborhoods that we can look to as examples for livable, walkable communities? Which areas need the most improvement?
The area around Vanderbilt is really leading the way. It’s fortunate that it has always had more sidewalks and more density than many areas, but there are a lot of new changes too. The Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association fought to be the first to become a Walking District, with speed limits lowered throughout to 20 or 25 mph, which hopefully will really set a precedent for the rest of the city. And we have the new protected bike lanes on Music Row and Magnolia, which use some innovative designs and create a safe and comfortable connection to downtown.
Probably the area that needs the most improvement is Southeast Nashville. There are so few sidewalks there, even along the really major streets like Nolensville and Murfreesboro roads. And you have a really large population that doesn’t own a car. The result is terrifying and quite sobering. The Nolensville-Welshwood intersection, for example, is the most deadly intersection in the city for people walking, with seven people killed in seven years. So there’s a lot of work to do, and we need to be doing it as quickly as possible.
Where can we find you walking and biking around town?
I love biking almost anywhere, but mostly I’m somewhere in the city. I’m not a big one for long, rural rides. I love all of our great urban neighborhoods. A perfect Saturday for me is meeting up with friends in East Nashville or at Centennial, riding to some great coffee shop or restaurant, and then relaxing on the greenways or along the river downtown.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, and from whom?
Probably the best piece of advice someone gave me was to apply for the Executive Director position here at Walk Bike. I wasn’t sure if I was old enough, or qualified enough, or brave enough, but I had a friend tell me to just go for it. It’s so easy to think someone else will do that: apply for that job, show up at that community meeting, volunteer for that leadership role. But I’ve really learned that in a city the size of Nashville, the people who make a difference and who are most involved are the ones who put their hand up and say, why not me?
What are three things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?
My bicycle, good food and fresh air.
Thank you to Nora Kern for answering all of our questions. A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos of Nora!
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