MIT graduate Burhan Azeem runs for Cambridge City Council

Azeem: ‘Our campaign is 100 percent volunteers, but it’s also one of the biggest campaigns out there’

Burhan Azeem ’19 graduated from MIT with a degree in materials science and engineering and is currently running for Cambridge City Council. His platform focuses mainly on housing, climate, and transportation, along with public health, technology, and social & economic justice. Elections will take place Nov. 5.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: How did you initially get involved in politics?

Burhan Azeem: 2016 was a really awakening force on campus. A lot of things sprouted from it, from MIT Vote to MIT Democrats, which I headed, and other organizations. Cambridge is divided into wards, and this ward [Ward 2] is almost entirely MIT. We reactivated the ward, sent delegates to the [Massachusetts Democrats] state convention, and were able to get three amendments passed that we thought were important to our community. 

Then, I got involved with a local group called A Better Cambridge, which advocates for increased housing. Throughout that process, I got to meet a lot of local officials who said, “Hey you’re really good at organizing people and you seem to know a lot about the issues. You should run for office.”

TT: You are one of the youngest candidates running for City Council. How do you think this will affect your campaign?

Azeem: It’s actually super important. Oftentimes in a city of a hundred thousand people, the elections are decided by a few hundred people. That’s because young people don’t vote, so it skews heavily towards the older population. 

[Cambridge] is one of the youngest cities in the U.S., but except for one person [on City Council], almost everyone else is around age 50 or older. It’s incredibly skewed towards this population, and it’s because young people don’t vote or get elected or run. There’s a huge generational shift in how you think about things because you’re younger, and it’s not about left versus right. It’s really incredibly dramatic how the city’s politics polarizes around age. 

TT: Your campaign focuses on climate change, transportation, and housing policy. Why do you think these are important to Cambridge?

Azeem: A lot of what we’re on now, including the MIT campus, is reclaimed land; it used to be underwater and then we dug it out. You can find floodplain maps of MIT — how it would be as sea levels rise because of global climate change. Most of Cambridge would be underwater at this point.

Cambridge is special in that we have so many people who are deeply rooted in the sciences. If MIT students decided to vote in Cambridge and they voted about climate change policy, that can have a huge impact. It’s incredibly important to do that even if it seems like Cambridge is only one city, because you have a few pioneering cities to write the original pieces of legislation, and then a lot of people adopt them because they’ve seen it work. If we pass a pioneering bill, it can be adopted all around the U.S. as well.

TT: You also focus on housing and transportation. How does this connect to your platform?

Azeem: A lot of people think climate change is focused around having electric cars or bike lanes. Those are all important. But, for example, in Cambridge, the emission is about 35 tons of carbon per household. If you move to the suburbs, it’s around 80 tons per family.

This means that even if we do all of the difficult things like promoting cleaner car usage and using bicycles or walking, it will have much less of an effect than just allowing a single family who lives in a suburb to live in Cambridge. Cambridge has the same population it did 100 years ago. Over that time, the U.S. population has more than tripled.

TT: How do you plan to turn this idea of having more families in Cambridge into policy? 

Azeem: Minneapolis just passed this great plan called Minneapolis 2040 about having three stories throughout most of the city and then allowing for more density in particular areas. I would love to pass that in Cambridge, but I think we're really far from it.

Right now, the biggest proposal on the plate is the affordable housing overlay, which says that if you’re building something that’s exclusively for low and middle income residents, then we will allow you to build four stories on non-main roads and seven stories on main roads.

TT: In your potential term as city councilor, do you think it will be easy or difficult to get your policies to be implemented?

Azeem: Your main thing should not be, in the two years in office, to pass huge overwhelming change. Your main goal should actually be around building power.

A lot of the ways that people get others to vote is by knocking on their door. And that biases towards older residents because in order to knock on your door you must have access, right? So no one’s going to go knocking at Maseeh. If you can spend two years just really building up the infrastructure of how you reach out to younger people, I think that’ll have huge dividends.

TT: What do you think can be changed within Cambridges transportation network?

Azeem: Let’s go step by step with transportation. Walking is reasonably nice around MIT. That’s not the case for most of the city. In a lot of places, you have really thin sidewalks that can barely fit one person. It’s really difficult to walk in groups.

So, sidewalk expansion is an incredibly important issue; another part of that is just making them more friendly and comfortable to walk on, such as by having night lights on the streets or first floor retail. For example, you feel a little bit safer on Mass. Ave. because there’s Oath, Clover, and Flour, whereas Kendall Square can be scary because there are all these office buildings.

Bike lanes are another thing. On Mass. Ave., we now have bike lanes with little quickposts. We should be putting a lot more of them; they’re really, really cheap. The reason we don’t is just because of political will. The next step up is to do something like what we have on Vassar Street near Simmons, where [the bike lane] is on the sidewalk. 

Public transportation is a bit more difficult. Bus lanes are easy. If you have a bus lane where it’s quick and easy for people to get on buses, you will get more people to where they need to be than if you had separate cars. The MBTA currently can’t add more buses because they have a limit on storage space. The city can work with the MBTA to build those facilities in Cambridge.

The red line over the summer derailed twice. The orange line was on fire recently. It’s a complete mess right now because the T is stuck with a debt from the Big Dig.

The other part of that is cities don’t have a voice on the governing board, even though we pay into it and most of the city residents use it. Instead, the state owns it. That has a perverse effect because most of the state’s residents don’t use the T, and the T does a lot of stuff that’s not helpful for people who actually use it. So, getting municipal representation to have a voice on the board is super important. 

TT: What are some initiatives in Cambridge that you would like to keep supporting?

Azeem: The biggest would be the affordable housing overlay. 

Cambridge City Hall passed a biking ordinance allowing streets under reconstruction to get bike lanes as they’re reconstructed. We’d have a timeline in place for how that would actually play out.

Municipal broadband is something really cool. Almost everyone who’s moderate or high income in Cambridge has Internet access, but if you look at our low income residents, less than half of them do. About 200 other cities in the U.S. have offered a public option with basic municipal broadband services for low income residents. That’s something the city could easily do.

TT: What about your time at and involvement with MIT has helped you build your platform and define what’s important for you?

Azeem: The biggest thing for me was that MIT gives you space. For four years, there’s nothing you strictly have to do, and so you have a lot of breathing space to figure out how you want to do things. 

Part of it was realizing how much power you have in local government. I don’t mean from a running sort of perspective, but from an individual perspective. 

The other factor was dorm life. In particular, when I first got to MIT, I thought you just assign people roles and then they do it, but it does not work out that way. Our campaign is 100 percent volunteers, but it’s also one of the biggest campaigns out there. 

On the policy side, I would just say the ability to read technical materials and understand what’s going on is probably the biggest asset I’ve gotten. A lot of people just come out saying absolutely crazy things that you know can’t possibly be true, but if you look at something on the surface that’s what it says [to you].

TT: You also mentioned on your website that you worked with sustainability at MIT. How were you involved?

Azeem: My sustainability work is a part of majoring in materials science and engineering. A lot of what we do is building around solar panel design and batteries. The second part is just being involved in the general community. I also took a couple of Course 12 classes. So, it’s from understanding on a technical level, to doing some events with UA Sustain, to being part of MITEI.

TT: Is there anything else that you think MIT students should know about? 

Azeem: This election, you don’t necessarily have to vote for me. But, this election will matter. It is something you can totally sway even if 20 percent of MIT students voted. That would be enough easily to elect maybe one and a half city councillors. Yet, people choose not to do it. That means that your views and your values will not be reflected.