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ModeShift Episode 2: The politics of reshaping transit.

Transit from Capitol Hill to city hall: learn how the next generation of political leaders is investing in the future of mobility.

Via Transportation •
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Breaking our car dependence and reinvigorating our public transit system is not straightforward. It is a complicated and politically controversial process. But a new generation of political leaders is working to reform how we invest in mobility options at the federal, state, and local levels. In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany explore the longstanding obstacles to improving the quality of our transit systems — and how bold leaders are pushing the envelope to improve mobility for Americans. Guests:

Listen to ModeShift on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.


Producer: What is your favorite meal of the day?

Mayor Michelle Wu: Whatever meal I end up having.

Tiffany Chu: You're thankful for the food in your stomach.

Mayor Michelle Wu: It is. Anyway, we're always eating on the go.

Tiffany Chu: Our first stop of the episode is Boston's Government Center, to introduce you to a person I've become very close with over the last year. So we are in Boston City Hall where I serve as the chief of staff to the mayor.

Mayor Michelle Wu: Hi, I'm Michelle Wu, and I'm a mom. I'm a regular MBTA rider, and at the moment happened to be mayor of the city of Boston.

Tiffany Chu: I've been a transportation mobility entrepreneur, a CEO, an environment commissioner, and I could not pass up the opportunity to help Mayor Wu execute her plan to make Boston a Green New Deal city. And a major piece of her climate and equity goals is focused on transit where we both share a unique passion.

Mayor Michelle Wu: And so our Green New Deal, I think, the goal is to have an all of city approach. Every single department and cabinet involved in this work, with clear coordination from the top to keep an eye on how design and transit and transportation and climate all fit together.

Tiffany Chu: So on many days, the mayor actually wears a necklace with one of the old tokens for Boston Subway called the T. It reminds her of the freedom that public transit gave her when she first moved to the city and the central role it played as she moved into government.

Mayor Michelle Wu: Coming to the Boston area for college and being able to get a little token, put it in a slot, and then go anywhere was like the world opened up. Since then, I have moved a couple different times within Boston too, so I've seen what it's like to live relatively close to downtown and have multiple options. Bus, orange line, walking. And then now a little bit further from downtown living in Roslindale, one of our neighborhoods that is not walkable to City Hall and probably, I think, usually when the orange line is running smoothly, something like a 45 ish minute commute in along the way. I also had two babies while serving in office, and for a while they were at City Hall Childcare, our onsite childcare. So there were many years where I was commuting in with a big double stroller with two little ones inside on the T as well.

Andrei Greenawalt: I love that she carries a subway token on her necklace.

Tiffany Chu: I know, right? She actually loves the T so much that when she designed her own podium for City Hall a few months ago with a local designer in the Carpenters Union, she insisted on a tiny T token be embedded in the tabletop of the piece. And it's a reminder to speakers that government services should connect neighborhoods to opportunity and to each other.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I've never ridden the T in Boston, but growing up I remember those subway tokens on the New York City subway, and it's so cool that that's the thing that she has put in the podium to remind folks about how government needs to connect to community. I got to think she's in strong competition here for the city leader who is most in love with transit in America, right?

Tiffany Chu: Yeah. And she's actually gotten teased about riding the T to work by other elected officials, since she has a parking space after all. But I think her personal experience on transit is what makes her such a strong and effective champion of better mobility. And of course, being on the subway or the bus is about more than getting from point A to point B efficiently. It's about connecting transit with a much bigger set of economic and social goals.

Mayor Michelle Wu: It's also, for me, a really important civic space, where you see everyone from every background in our community. And as we're trying to think about our climate goals, our equity goals, our economic mobility goals, public transportation is at the heart of everything that we're trying to set up.

Tiffany Chu: I'm Tiffany Chu.

Andrei Greenawalt: I'm Andrei Greenawalt, and this is Mode Shift.

Tiffany Chu: A show about the past, present, and future of how we move.

Andrei Greenawalt: In our first episode, we identify the origins of our car dependency and the ways that it can negatively impact everything from economic mobility, to the vibrancy of our communities, to the quality of our transit systems. In this episode, we're going to start to take a look at the role that government plays, both the different ways that its structures can sometimes make change hard, but also why we might be in a moment today where the opportunity to improve mobility is greater than it ever has been.

Tiffany Chu: Breaking free of our dependence on cars and reinvigorating our public transit system is not straightforward. It is a complicated and often politically controversial process, and both Andrei and I have lived that reality.

Andrei Greenawalt: We sure have. I am the head of public policy at Via, working in Washington, DC and elsewhere across the country to promote better transportation policy. Before that, I worked in the Obama White House for five and a half years in a bunch of different roles, including in the chief of staff's office.

Tiffany Chu: And as you heard at the top of the show, I am currently the chief of staff to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Before that, I co-founded Remix, a software company that helps transportation planners analyze and design their systems more dynamically. And I spent two years as a commissioner at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. So we are both a little battle hardened.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I think it's fair to say we are realists about how quickly we can overhaul the transportation system, but I know we are also both optimistic that it can be done, especially if we have local and national leaders who really understand the system, and who are willing to take some risks. And Tiffany, I think that brings us back to your boss, Mayor Wu, who if I have this right, on her first day in office, filed for funds to make a few Boston bus lines free.

Reporter: Starting today, Boston is expanding its free bus fair program along some of the busiest route in the city. Mayor Michelle Wu says the pilot program will have a huge impact on the community.

Mayor Michelle Wu: Our goal is to make sure that Boston can be a proving ground, joining with communities across the state that are really transforming what's possible for our residents by taking down barriers to access, making bus service more reliable, more affordable, and more accessible to all.

Tiffany Chu: Mayor Wu was sworn into office in the fall of 2021. She is the first ever elected woman and person of color to lead Boston. And one of the reasons I wanted to work for her, among many is her deep passion for connecting equity, economic mobility, and climate. She was on Boston City Council for eight years, where she introduced a city level Green New Deal.

Andrei Greenawalt: And I have to think her love of public transit was a big selling point for you too, right?

Tiffany Chu: Oh, 100%. I remember seeing photos of her riding the T with her two boys to city hall regularly as city counselor. It grabbed my attention, almost made me tear up, and I wanted to move across the country back to the East Coast to work for her to work for a mayor who clearly shared the same values that I did. And as we were making this show, I sat down with the mayor one afternoon to talk about the roots of her passion for transit. It started when she moved to Boston for college. You heard her describe that freedom she felt earlier, but it wasn't until after her first son Blaze was born when she moved into a neighborhood five miles outside of downtown Boston, when getting around became more difficult.

Mayor Michelle Wu: We moved from the south end to Roslindale, and what had been just a chance decision that I'd make — if the bus is going by, I'll hop on the bus to City Hall for 15 minutes. If it's not, I look down the street and it's not there, I'll walk to the orange line and get on and it's really convenient. Or if I feel up for the walk, I'll just walk into City Hall — That kind of, okay, transportation's not really occupying a lot of my brain space, because I'll just figure it out from a number of great options in the morning, moving farther away, it became a big elephant in the room anytime you're trying to get anywhere with the kids, without the kids, just to downtown, and the options also made it so stark.

Tiffany Chu: In Roslindale, she lives a mile from the train. It could take 30 minutes just to get to the Forest Hills station. And there was no dedicated bus lane at the time. Suddenly her choices weren't as appealing, and it made the car much more attractive.

Mayor Michelle Wu: But that choice of do I go and wait for who knows how long to go one mile to get on the orange line, it's crowded, it's hot, it's completely unpredictable, or do I go to the commuter rail stop, which is usually on time, air conditioned, however three times as expensive, and I would often be the only person of color on the entire train car. And so you see that separation of different modes, different options, all made worse. And so often I would just try to catch a ride with my husband if he was driving somewhere. And what I loved doing, getting on the public transportation, was kind of taken off the table because of the way infrastructure choices had been made at that point.

Tiffany Chu: Of course, those choices are way, way harder if you don't have access to a car. It's one of the reasons Mayor Wu campaigned on fare-free transit. And in March, we secured funds to make three bus routes free for two years. But it wasn't just about making those routes free, it was about the years and years of people saying that would never be possible, that it was a crazy idea. Doing this only a few months into office was way for Michelle to show the world what's possible.

Reporter: The mayor says work continues at the State House as well as the halls of Congress to find permanent funding for these services, but hopes that this is the first step to an entirely free MBTA which would be music to Peggy James's ears.

Peggy James: I've been taking the 28 for years.

Reporter: Who relies on public transportation to get the grocery store, physical therapy, and hospital appointments.

Tiffany Chu: So on your very first full day office, before I got here, you had filed an appropriation order with the city council for $8 million in federal funds to get rid of fairs, on three different bus routes for a two year period. Why was that the first thing that you chose to do? And what, if anything, has surprised you about the program so far?

Mayor Michelle Wu: I think probably the biggest controversy that I waded into first as a city counselor of several years ago was coming out and calling for fare-free public transportation at a time when at least no one in Boston was talking about it. And very few people anywhere were talking about it. It was roundly ridiculed. People called me crazy, said it could never happen. But really the history of our city and the legacy of Boston, if you look around, we are very close to Boston Commons, the first public park in the country. We are just a couple green line stops away from the Boston Public Library, first public library in the country. First subway tunnel, first public school. All instances in our collective history when we decided that investing in our shared futures would help everyone, and taking down barriers to these public goods would pay dividends for all of us down the line. And transportation is the same thing. If you want your city to be a place where companies want to come invest and grow, a place where families, and therefore your workforce, wants to live in a moment where everybody has the choice because of more remote working options, you have to have a functioning, reliable, convenient public transit system. And so for me, the idea of how do we encourage even more people to ride, truly treat this as a public good, and remove financial barriers has been a big push. What we started with, because we don't have the full funding to wipe fares on the entire system, is a pilot in Boston of three routes. We chose three routes that not only serve communities of color and lower income areas of the city, key economic corridors, but also each of them lines up with important infrastructure improvements that are being made, dedicated bus lane already in existence on one of them, two routes that are slated for a center running bus lane with some federal funding as well to show that these changes in improving service, making it more accessible and reliable have to go hand in hand with making it more affordable too.

Tiffany Chu: One of the first reports that I read from your office was the Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery report that you brought as a counselor. That's always been a central priority for you, the foundation of your mayoral campaign and now the biggest part of our administration team today. What was the moment that you realized there was an intersection between transportation, reform, and climate?

Mayor Michelle Wu: I remember standing on the basketball court at the Josiah Quincy Upper School, one of our high schools in Chinatown when we were making an announcement that a statewide study of air quality had revealed that Chinatown and communities where people of color live and spend time were the most polluted, Chinatown being the most polluted census tract anywhere in the state. As we're there in the space that we encourage our young people to go run around, breathe in the air as they're doing exercise, we are filling their lungs with particulates and pollution from highways ringing that neighborhood on all sides. So the transportation decisions that have been made, which neighborhoods get cut out and bypassed, which areas have direct rail service versus only bus or only highways, those are entirely connected to air quality, health, and well-being, and how we should think about the planet and the communities we want to pass on to our kids.

Andrei Greenawalt: So Tiffany, you've been working with the mayor on these issues for the better part of the year. What do you think are some of the most important factors at the local level for creating change? Then, I don't know, what are some of the obstacles to that?

Tiffany Chu: The mayor obviously campaigned on a transformative agenda, and she has these three guiding principles that she shares over and over with our team. The first one is to do the big things by getting the small things right. The second is to get city hall out of city hall into our neighborhoods. The third one is embracing the possibility and hopefully, some combination of those three allow us to really accelerate change.

Andrei Greenawalt: What do you mean by doing the big things by getting the small things right?

Tiffany Chu: Well, it's all about building trust along the way. Oftentimes when you want to do something big, bold, audacious, it takes a lot of people sticking out their neck and not knowing what's going to happen. It's much easier for people to do that for you if you've done many things, maybe little things successful for them earlier on. So by building this drumbeat of smaller wins leading up to bigger wins, we allow big things to happen by getting the small things right along the way.

Andrei Greenawalt: Got it. All right. So you walk through a few of the ways to move things forward. What are some of the things that make that hard? What are the roadblocks?

Tiffany Chu: One thing I've noticed, and maybe this is Boston uniquely, is that the city rarely acts alone. All the things that we could have done as a city by ourselves, we probably either someone has suggested, we've already tried, etc. etc., but oftentimes, we need to have the collaboration with the state or with the region or with neighboring municipalities to push things along, or it's the city executive branch plus the council, the legislative branch plus elected officials from Congress, our federal delegation. All of these things knit together to make a very complex fabric. I think that's oftentimes a roadblock because even if I say yes or the mayor says yes, we got to get 100 other people on board. Then secondly, what I've noticed more internally on a staff level is that the mentality around we've always done it that way is quite pervasive. This exists in every city hall across the country. It's just that folks feel, who've been around for a long time, that they've done things a certain way because that's the way that they've always done it and to make that really fundamental change or shift on a systemic level is much more challenging than just flipping a switch and saying things have changed.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, it's interesting. I think some of those themes are ones that have come up in conversations that we've had with folks for this podcast.

Yonah Freemark: Okay. Does this sound good?

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Yonah Freemark. He's a researcher at the Urban Institute.

Yonah Freemark: We want to understand what levers are possible to make people's lives improve in terms of reducing the expense of housing and encouraging better connections between mobility services and land uses that we build.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, this intersection of land use and zoning and transportation, it's a theme that you're going to hear come up a lot in this show. One of the big challenges at the local level is that those are managed separately. Yonah talked about this using Los Angeles as an example.

Yonah Freemark: In Los Angeles today, there are more than $100 billion of locally generated sales tax revenue coming in that's paying for transportation projects. A lot of that money is going to improve public transportation systems, like they're building new subway lines, they're building light rail lines, they're building bus rapid transit lines. All that is wonderful, but if you go out and walk around so many parts of LA, you'll find enormous arterial streets with terrible pedestrian crossings. You'll find a complete lack of quality bike infrastructure where people feel safe biking around. You'll find cars dominating virtually every space you look at in the environment. When you have conditions like that, no matter how many investments you make in the public transportation, you're going to be having a society that is structured around needing to drive because no one wants to not drive in an environment that feels terrible if you're not in a car.

Tiffany Chu: Most major cities are generally trying to figure out how to emphasize modes of transportation other than cars, ours included, and some are trying to completely change their streets. But as we just chatted about, it's more complicated than just declaring a goal. So where does Yonah identify problems at the local level?

Andrei Greenawalt: Well, he definitely thinks we need more people like Mayor Wu to step up and put transit at the center of their policy platforms, but he also thinks we need to make local transportation decision-making more political in some ways, not less. I imagine that sounds counterintuitive, it certainly did to me, so I asked him to explain.

Yonah Freemark: Most of the decisions about transportation in the United States are made either by state departments of transportation, which by the way, state governors almost never talk about during their campaigns, and independent transit authorities that operate perhaps at a municipal level, but often at a regional level. Those independent authorities are often separated from the politics of the local government. When you have situations like that, it means that at the local level, there's often a lack of awareness and a lack of discussion of key transportation questions and that means people are not being involved in making democratic choices about what they want to see for the future of their communities. But my contention is that at the local level, we need political officials to be talking about transportation and land use as key aspects of quality of life and also key things that local governments can actually engage in if they want to.

Andrei Greenawalt: How do we move the needle there? Is it by making public transit so great that people are happy to stop driving? Is it by more effectively pricing the cost of driving in terms of the damage that it's causing nationwide? Yeah, just curious for your take on that.

Yonah Freemark: There's no politically easy answer to this question. Any effort to massively shift the way Americans are getting around requires leadership, requires political entrepreneurship, and requires making people upset. It's just the reality of transportation choices, because ultimately, when you are trying to encourage people to take other modes of transportation, you have to change the way our cities are laid out and change the design of the streets on every block. I don't think that the fundamental change that's going to happen in American society will happen because of individual consumers making different choices about what's happening. I think they will make different choices, but their ability to do so is heavily constrained by the local environment. From that perspective, there are a number of key changes that need to be made that are politically difficult. One of those is that the cost of driving is too cheap in the United States. Even with high gas prices, we are not accounting for the very damaging environmental costs of driving cars in our society, not only in terms of carbon emissions, but also in terms of particulate emissions, which means the stuff you breathe in, stuff that is the major cause of lung cancer in many parts of our nation. We need to find ways to make driving cars more expensive or we're not going to encourage people to get out of cars. I think that means higher registration fees, like registration fees that are based on car weight and that are based on car emissions. And I think just as importantly, we need to change the design of our streets. We need to make streets so they're not dominated by cars, but rather are places where transit vehicles can move really quickly down the street without being encumbered by traffic and where bikers and pedestrians are safe and feel comfortable using the street.

Andrei Greenawalt: This comment from Yonah stood out to me. He said, "Any effort to massively shift the way Americans get around requires political entrepreneurship." Tiffany, what does that mean to you? Just curious what you thought about what Yonah had to say generally.

Tiffany Chu: Yeah. There was one thing he said at the beginning around transportation needing to be more political. That struck me since right now, we're at a very political time in Massachusetts where the T is governed by the governor and the fact that there's a lot of unpredictability around whether or not the T is going to get funded properly. This comes up again with every single new governor. I think it hasn't been properly funded, which is why we're in such a dire situation as we are now and I think it's because no one elected official has really wanted to position themselves to really own a transit agency and own its outcomes.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah. I'm curious whether you agree with his point that political leadership, entrepreneurship is critical to make change happen.

Tiffany Chu: Well, as a former entrepreneur, I think it means a combination of doing something that no one else would do and also doing something that other people probably think is a little crazy. For elected officials to stick their neck out so far to support public transit and to really do things that are against the grain of what mainstream America's used to, we need so many more voices like that who support non-car ways of getting around.

Andrei Greenawalt: I think we can all agree that local ambitious political leadership is critical. And we're going to shift gears a little bit now to talk about the federal government and whether its policies are helping those ambitious local leaders drive change or just pushing us down the same track that we've been on for the last many decades.

Beth Osborne: So I guess the question has to become, when will we look under the hood? How long do we need to see the same techniques used and failing before we say, "Maybe this doesn't work so well and we need to try something different"?

Tiffany Chu: Ooh, I recognize that voice.

Andrei Greenawalt: Right? That's Beth Osborne, she's the director of Transportation for America, and she explained the economic and social cost of car dependency in our first episode. Beth has been working on transportation policy for literally decades in Washington, DC, and we spent a bunch of time talking about the impact of the infrastructure bill that passed last fall.

Reporter: Spirits were high at the White House today as Democratic and Republican lawmakers joined President Biden to mark a historic legislative achievement, signing the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law.

Tiffany Chu: Right. This was one of Biden's signature legislative accomplishments last year, and it was framed as a way to fix our decaying transportation system.

Reporter: The $1.2 trillion legislation has some $550 billion in new spending that will go toward public infrastructure projects across the country over the next five years, including money for roads, bridges, and mass transit.

Andrei Greenawalt: It certainly was a massive win for infrastructure across the board, and that includes funding things that you would think of like bridges and ports and tunnels and rail tracks, airports. But the bill also sets out the rules for federal funding for all forms of ground transportation over the next several years, and it devotes more than $100 billion to public transit. These are historic and really important investments, but because the rules around how the money gets distributed didn't change, some folks like Beth believe it was a missed opportunity to more fundamentally shift the paradigm in transportation. So I wanted to talk a little bit about this very large infrastructure bill that was signed into law last year. How would you characterize the bill's treatment of highway and road expansion, as well as it's funding treatment of public transit?

Beth Osborne: Status quo. I need to fix that. No, let's say, 1982 status quo. That's it. But a lot more money for it.

Andrei Greenawalt: So back in 1982, there was a push in Congress to raise the gas tax to fund new highway construction, but a bunch of lawmakers from cities wanted money for transit, and so they struck a deal. And the deal was that the cast tax would increase by 5 cents per gallon and 1 cent of that 5 cents would go towards mass transit. 40 years later, we still have that funding split between highways and transit.

Beth Osborne: And we've referred to that ever since as an 80/20 split. 80% of the money from the Highway Trust Fund or the Transportation Trust Fund, though we do call it the Highway Trust Fund that tells you plenty, goes to highways and 20% goes to transit. And that was a big move forward to make sure that transit was guaranteed 20% of the funding. And that was the last time we did anything very forward-leaning on transit again. And so what we did in the IIJA, the infrastructure bill, was we put a whole lot more money into the hands of the same programs that created all the problems that bring us to today, but we're promising different results now.

Andrei Greenawalt: Isn't that also the case though, that there is significant new funding for public transit in the bill? I get that you are saying that their 80/20 split is maintained, but yeah, I'm just curious of that or you take anything positive from the bill? Whether it's that or the other areas that you're interested in?

Beth Osborne: Very excited about the rail program, which in one fell swoop is the size of the transit program. And on the highway side, there's a lot of pointing to discretionary grant programs that the US Department of Transportation will have control over, but they are very small amount of the program, about 5.5%. And there's a lot of excitement about programs like the Carbon Reduction Program, which can be used for transit and other, and all kinds of different things that shorten trips, reduce the need basically to drive yourself around and omit. But that is 2% of the dollars. And one thing I did that was really fun last year was hire a cartoonist. I kind of wish my whole life I've had a cartoonist to do political cartoons about my feelings. That's how my mind works, like a political cartoon. And we had a cartoon produced that shows an excavator digging out a hole, and then a hard-working construction worker refilling it with a spoon. And I fear that's what we do here, and we say, "Aren't you excited about your bucket, that you can spoon dirt back into this massive hole that we're continuing to dig out while you're refilling it? Doesn't that make you happy?" And the answer is no, because it's not turning the ship, it's not changing our direction. And my point and my organization's point of existence is to change the outcomes, and you can't do it this way.

Tiffany Chu: Ouch. That is not a very generous interpretation of the bill. Andrei, you've spent a lot of your career working on policy in Washington. Does that image of the construction worker filling up the hole with a spoon, does that feel right to you?

Andrei Greenawalt: Look, I think Beth makes a lot of really important points, and there are other ways, for sure, that the bill is imperfect, but I think there are a lot of very positive things in the infrastructure bill that are worth pointing out. And so that this would not be the image that I would use. First, there are a lot of really important basic investments that we need in terms of repairing and fixing up infrastructure across a bunch of areas in America. And the bill, although they may be relatively small overall, as Beth points out, it does create a bunch of really interesting, exciting new competitive grant programs that the US Department of Transportation will have a lot of control over the types of priorities they want to fund through that. So I think that's great. Perhaps most important, there's just a political reality. You need 60 votes in the US Senate to pass most legislation, including this infrastructure bill. And so of course there's going to be compromises and there's going to be things that are not perfect, and it depends a little bit also on what are you comparing it to? Are you looking at what the optimal ideal bill is or are you comparing it to what we had before? And I think if you look at what we had before, this bill is a very significant improvement. We mentioned the more than $100 billion for transit funding. I mean, that is a huge deal and I don't think we can ask people to drive less unless we actually have real other options in place for them. And so I think this bill is going to help create those options hopefully in a number of places in America.

Tiffany Chu: And here in Boston, Massachusetts, we are obviously benefiting from that bill as well coming down our way. And one of the things that we're oftentimes struggling with is being able to figure out what money can be used for physical capital expenses, which a lot of it is, versus operating expenses, which are recurring and happen year after year. That's something we struggle with finding that a lot of the funds are earmarked for capital types of expenses, and then they disappear after the thing is built. But then when you need to operate/maintain, where does that money come from?

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, that's such an interesting and good point, I think, Tiffany, because in how the transit money works, definitely there were not major changes. The key Republicans and Democrats on the Senate committee that controls transit legislation did not come to agreement on any major policy changes. So there's a bunch more money for transit in this bill, but in my mind, antiquated rules around restricting how cities like Boston can spend the federal money, none of that was changed. And what we should care about is how well are our transit systems getting people to jobs and to education and to healthcare and to businesses, and other opportunities. And let's judge based on that and award funding based on that, not provide funding that just looks at population and things like how many miles a bus is traveling, and then restrict your ability to be creative and flexible with how you use that funding. Hopefully, we can be a little smarter about this in the next bill. So after we got that very critical take from Beth, I thought it would be good to talk to someone who voted for the infrastructure bill, and we talked to someone who happens to know a lot about transportation at the local level as well, Congressman Jake Auchincloss.

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: I oftentimes joke with my colleagues that when it comes to municipal policy, I hate defund the police and I love defund the parking.

Andrei Greenawalt: Congressman Auchincloss represents a district in Southern Massachusetts that borders Boston. He serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and he used to also chair his city council's transportation committee. He is one of a small but growing group of national politicians who are thinking long term about ending our dependence on single-occupancy cars.

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: I am a strong supporter of this concept that we have subsidized and aggrandized single-occupancy vehicles in post-war planning and development. And it's become such that we are fish swimming in water and we actually can't even see what we can't see about what that's done to our downtowns, really our community life more broadly. My core vision for urban planning and development in my lifetime is I'd like to see more major American metropolises and indeed smaller towns establish car-free zones.

Andrei Greenawalt: Congressman Auchincloss is a Marine, he commanded operations in Afghanistan and Panama. And when he was in Panama, he became fascinated by the unique parking policies that limited cars in Panama City's Casco Viejo neighborhood. So he wrote an article about it for the Harvard Kennedy School.

Tiffany Chu: Wait, he was leading in operation in Panama and writing policy papers on parking? That is an impressive combination of skills.

Andrei Greenawalt: I know, it's ridiculous. And when he came back home, he was elected to the city council in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was there that he came face to face with the reality of America's parking policies.

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: I used to joke with my wife when I came home in the evenings, I would say, "Michelle, I have found the issue that will unite Trump and Clinton voters, and that is that people love free parking." We would be hosting these conversations in the city council and be talking about taking away parking to put in bike lanes, about charging more for parking in certain areas of high demand, and the room would be packed, and it would be intense. I have become quite convinced that what you need to transition towards a car-free downtown and towards human-centric mobility is brave mayors, because using a bottoms-up community engagement process will deepen the status quo, because the selection bias and who shows up to those meetings are those who want generally and not always, but generally who are seeking to prevent disruptions to their way of life. Understandably, nobody wants to kind of deal with those disruptions, especially when the positive benefits might be diffuse in long term. And so you need brave mayors who are willing to top down impose some changes. And to do that, you've got to provide air cover to those mayors. You need state level policy that has both carrots and sticks to give brave mayors the top cover that they need to take away parking, put in bike lanes, to implement micro mobility solutions that complement transit, to put in bus lanes that disrupt lanes of travel for single-occupancy vehicles. There's this whole chicken and egg debate about, well, do you first rely on changes in behavior and then build infrastructure to accommodate those changes in behavior? Or do you build the infrastructure and hope that the change of behavior comes? I am firmly in the latter camp. You don't build a bridge based on how many people are swimming across the river. You build the infrastructure that people need, protected bike lanes, high quality, fair free, both public and on-demand transit, and people will adjust their behaviors for better, cheaper, faster services.

Andrei Greenawalt: I'm curious, you mentioned earlier that you served at the local level on a transportation committee, and you of course now serve on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Curious what you've brought from that local experience to your work at the federal level.

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: I'm a strong believer in devolving as much transportation policy as possible to the states and cities. I think, for example, that we should stop using the federal gas tax to fund our highway system. We should devolve highway maintenance and operations to the states, allow the states to raise money for it as they see fit, whether congestion pricing or higher gas taxes on their own. And instead use the federal gas tax, which should remain to subsidize walkability, bikeability projects, which have positive externalities at the local and state level. I'm also very engaged with local and state officials in the district I represent when it comes to congressionally directed spending, so projects that improve commuter, rail, improved downtowns, improved walkability or mobility in general. I really have a lot of deference to what state and local officials are aiming to do.

Andrei Greenawalt: I think you touched on something that is a criticism that some in the transit advocacy community have made of the federal infrastructure bill that was passed last fall and signed into law by President Biden, which is that it didn't change this paradigm of highway to transit and other mobility funding. There have been other criticisms of the bill as well, not going for enough on greenhouse gas emissions, et cetera. I'm curious for your take on the bill, you of course voted for it and have been a supporter of it. Yeah. What's your take on the bill and sort of its prospects for advancing these and other issues that are important to the public interest?

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: It did not change the paradigm. I'd be the first to admit that. I am also a strong proponent of it. You don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good in Washington D.C. You take the victories you can get and then you fight another day. And I'm certainly here to fight another day on devolving transportation policy and being much more human-centric in how we make decisions. But this bill was an important achievement. It was a generational investment in our core infrastructure, not just highways and bridges, although we are going to reduce the backlog for major repairs for highways and bridges by almost 20%. But also for reconnecting communities, knitting communities together that have been slashed by highway construction as Boston was before the Big Dig. We're going to take a big bite out of the national transit maintenance backlog, which will be critical for maintaining quality of service. Fixing bridges, nobody wants to be driving over a bridge that has a D grade by the Society of the Civil Engineers. And for my own Northeast corridor, put them on track to hit their goal of saving nearly 30 minutes in travel between New York City and D.C. and Boston and New York. These are important achievements, and I haven't even gotten to electrical grid, water, airports, seaports. This bill was an important achievement and it does support the existing paradigm, but it also brings our national infrastructure a long ways towards readiness.

Andrei Greenawalt: What makes you optimistic about the future of mobility and transportation in the US?

Congressman Jake Auchincloss: We are seeing bottom-up organic impatience with car-centric status quo. And while that can take a while to percolate in the political realm, especially in an area where path dependency is as strong as in transportation planning, it is going to have an effect. We are not going to be making the same decisions when my kids are my age as we are now. We're just not. People are recognizing, and indeed, one of the things I see as a sharp difference between my age cohort and the interns on my staff is that when I was turning 16, you couldn't wait to get your license. That was like the whole meaning of turning 16. Kids these days just don't view it that way. Now, there's a whole lot of reasons for that. Some of that may actually not even be about mobility, but clearly there's an expectation amongst the rising generation that they want to have multiple modalities from which to choose, and they recognize the benefits of walkability. And that's not an abstract statement, that's quantifiable. Walkability score is associated with higher real estate values. Those signals to me suggest that we are not going to go backwards. Now, the degree and the pace at which we go forwards, I think it remains to be determined and certainly I'm working to pick up the pace, but I don't think we're going backwards.

Tiffany Chu: That brings us to a more optimistic place.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah. I think Congressman Auchincloss is right about the bottom-up generational changes and that they're forcing us to think differently about how we've been promoting cars for so long at the expense of other mobility options.

Tiffany Chu: And there's definitely a very important thread that ties together what Yonah, Beth, and the Congressman said, none of this works unless you have local leaders who are willing to stick out their necks and try something different. And that brings me back to my conversation with my boss, Mayor Wu. It may be true that we need to wildly shift our federal dollars from highway construction to transit and mobility expansion, but the proven ground for a new transportation system and the political will to support it will come from the towns and the cities at the front lines.

Mayor Michelle Wu: At the city level, uniquely, we have the opportunity to lift the hood and see sometimes very complicated situations, but ones that are resolvable, ones that are at the scale and tangibility where we can actually then change them. And that sense of we can actually get on the other side of these big, big challenges is something that keeps me going every day. And bit by bit, bus by bus, pothole by pothole, I think we'll get there and as we keep building even more becomes possible.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yes. I also agree we can get on the other side of these big challenges. And, Tiffany, my wife's birthday is coming up. Do you think I should look into a New York City token necklace for her?

Tiffany Chu: Yeah. Well, the mayor has a huge collection of T tokens, so I can call her up and ask if she has any to donate.

Andrei Greenawalt: Okay, that would be great. Let me know what you find out. I think that's a good place to close the episode. Coming up in our next episodes, we're going to dig into emerging technology trends, equity, the car-free city and rural transit. Our next episode, we're going to hear from a Republican mayor of a small city in Georgia who campaigned for office and won on bringing transit to his community. So I think we can add that to the list of reasons to be optimistic that a Democratic mayor of a big city like Boston, as well as a Republican mayor of a 50,000 person city in Georgia can both push the envelope on improving mobility for residents and succeed politically doing so.

Mayor Scott Bogren: It doesn't matter if you got great healthcare, it doesn't matter that there's 20 supermarkets in the town. If you can't get to them, you can't get to them. You got nothing.

Andrei Greenawalt: Lots of good stories and conversations to come. ModeShift is produced by Via in partnership with Post Script Media. Via's technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems from planning better networks and streets to operating efficient, equitable public transit. Learn more at This show is hosted by me, Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu: And me, Tiffany Chu. If you like what you hear, please rate and review us in the app of your choice and send a link to the transit nerd in your life. This show is produced by Stephen Lacey, Anne Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez, and Dalvin Aboagye of Post Script Media. It's also produced by Frances Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed our theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilfranc makes the show.

Andrei Greenawalt: Thank you so much for listening. We hope you'll stick around as we explore these topics more deeply in coming episodes.