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ModeShift Episode 6: A car-light vision for the U.S.

The average LA commuter spends five days a year stuck in traffic; pedestrian deaths are the highest they’ve been in 40 years in the U.S.; and the transportation sector is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in America. They’re all products of a system that has prioritized automobiles over people for decades. 

But ‘car free’ or ‘car light’ approaches to urban planning are taking hold in cities and neighborhoods around the world. From Amsterdam to Barcelona to Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, officials are getting serious about redesigning their communities for car-free living. 

The concept sounds a bit radical. But it doesn’t mean getting rid of cars altogether. It’s about reimagining communities to shift the balance in favor of new transit options. 

In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany explore what transportation in the U.S. would look like if most of us didn’t have to reach for our car keys every day.

Guests:

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

Transcript.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Tiffany, have you ever been to Amsterdam?

Tiffany Chu:
Yes, it is incredible. It is such a beautiful city. Loved it. I remember exiting from the train station and there were just waves and waves of cyclists, pedestrians, folks getting on and off light rail and almost not a single car in sight.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I love it too. I’ve been a few times, the first time when I was about 12, my last time was a couple years ago. And every time I go it just blows my mind. It is so beautiful, as you just said. It is, I think, one of the most romantic cities in the world and I just love it. The canals, the bicycles, everything there is awesome. I think when I talk about how much I like it, I’ve never been that good at conveying exactly what makes it so magical. But we then talked to Cornelia Dinca. She’s the founder of Sustainable Amsterdam.

Cornelia Dinca:
Sometimes I say it’s kind of like this feeling of almost floating through the city. It’s hard to describe, but it’s this kind of magical feeling where it’s the opposite of being in your car stressed out because you’re trying to get to work, but there’s a traffic jam. So it’s like if you turn that around 180 degrees, it’s like your every commute or every trip in the city is like a moment of inspiration.

Tiffany Chu:
Man, what a great description. I want to float through Boston.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I know, right? I wish I could have floated through DC on that sweaty public transit trip I took in our first episode. I was in LA for work a couple weeks ago, and everywhere I went there, I kept thinking about Cornelia feeling really inspired by her commutes instead of totally stressed out by them.

And Yonah Freemark, if you remember, he was on our show a few episodes back. He’s the researcher at the Urban Institute and he described, if you recall, LA completely differently than the way Cornelia talks about Amsterdam.

Yonah Freemark:
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. And 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:
Wow. Yes, I remember that tape. And I cannot think of a clearer contrast than Amsterdam and Los Angeles. LA is definitely not floaty.

Andrei Greenawalt:
No, it is not floaty at all. It was a city made by cars, and if you talk to anyone there, they will tell you how frustrating it is to get across that city. The average LA commuter spends five days a year stuck in traffic, and pedestrian deaths have risen steadily in the city, and nationally for that matter, for the past 40 years. So how did we end up with these totally different outcomes?

Tiffany Chu:
It all comes back to one simple thing, the car, or rather how we build our communities and our cities around the car.

Cornelia Dinca:
We’ve just gone so far in this direction of car dependence. The only way to get back to a more balanced equilibrium is to be a little bit extreme about reclaiming these cities.

Andrei Greenawalt:
In our final episode of this season, the car-free city, the concept sounds a little radical, but it doesn’t mean getting rid of cars altogether. Rather, it’s about reimagining our communities to prioritize people over vehicles. What if most of us didn’t have to reach for our car keys before walking out the front door every morning?

Tiffany Chu:
What if we could float more and stress less?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yes.

Tiffany Chu:
I’m Tiffany Chu.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And I’m Andrei Greenawalt, and this is ModeShift.

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

Andrei Greenawalt:
So Tiffany, in this episode, we’re going to dig into how cities are designing for people-centric mobility instead of car-centric mobility. But before we do that, I think we should probably give our definition of what a car-free city or a car-free community even is.

Tiffany Chu:
Definitely. When people hear car free, they probably think about banning cars altogether.

Reporter:
Several cities around the world, including London, Paris, and Montreal, are looking at ways to dramatically reduce the number of vehicles in its streets.

Andrei Greenawalt:
From Barcelona to Oslo, to Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, officials are getting serious about redesigning their communities for car-free living.

Reporter:
Many cities in Europe are flirting with banning private cars from the roads and many more have at least partial bans in place.

Tiffany Chu:
Now, bans or partial bans are one tool that cities are exploring, but we have a much broader and inclusive definition. What we’re really talking about is creating enough alternatives to allow anyone to get around without a car. So it’s actually about giving people more choices, not less, for a better quality of life.

Reporter:
There is the obvious reason to combat climate change, but car-free cities are also leading to a better quality of life. Without cars, there’s less smell, less noise, more space to walk, to dine outdoors, to play.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I think this is a really crucial point, because there are huge benefits to fewer cars. It means fewer injuries and deaths from accidents. It means lower healthcare costs, lower air pollution and climate pollution, more space that can be used for green parks or other uses, and better real estate values. But this all only works if it’s paired with better transit and mobility alternatives. So let’s dig deeper into our definition. Can you say more about the importance of choice, Tiffany?

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah. It’s about being able to walk out your front door, and have a multitude of different choices to get to where you need to go. And if one isn’t available, you can choose another. In most places in the US, folks only have one real choice: their car. What if you had an abundance of mobility choices, an abundance of optionality?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, that would be amazing. I think if we’re talking about where do we start on getting a car-free city going, it starts with this abundance of mobility choices. And if you have that in place, then over time, fewer and fewer people will drive and you can start to impose policies that also disincentivize driving and push more and more people to these alternatives. And over time, can we get to a point where in certain cities we have a much smaller percentage of travel by car, something like 10% of travel by car, not zero car trips, but a very small percentage of what’s happening.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah. And however we define it, this concept feels so ridiculously impossible to most people outside of America’s biggest cities. So many of our communities were purpose-built for the car with so much of our valuable land used for parking lots, highways, and arterial roads. So many people in the US have lived their entire lives around the car. Can you blame people for thinking there’s no way to undo this?

Andrei Greenawalt:
No, it does feel super daunting. When we think about where do we start on even tackling this problem, we probably need to take a look at some transportation history. People often point to cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen as these meccas of car-free living as if they have always been that way. But Cornelia Dinca, the founder of Sustainable Amsterdam, who we heard at the top of the show, she explained how that’s not really true. Amsterdam, for example, actually invested heavily in car-centric design after World War II, just like most cities in the United States.

Cornelia Dinca:
So Amsterdam has this reputation of being a bike city. So what’s very surprising for many people, and also for me, was to find out that in fact, this wasn’t always the case. This idea that Amsterdam was not always Amsterdam, that if you look at these photos from Amsterdam in the 1970s and 1980s, it was much more like your average North American city. Sidewalks were covered in cars, parked cars, double parked cars, all the beautiful public squares that people really enjoy today were basically used as parking lots. A lot of the city was being actually torn down and demolished to make room for these modernist highways and modernist buildings.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Traffic experts from the US went to Europe in the ’60s and ’70s to try to sell this idea of the car-centric city. Their pitch was basically, “Look, if you want to be a modern city, you have to stop being nostalgic about the past and you got to start embracing the car.” And Amsterdam did that, at least for a bit.

Cornelia Dinca:
I like to say that Amsterdam was the combination of lucky and wise that it didn’t go down that path too far. It made some mistakes. And we have some of these modernist highways, actually one to show kind of through the city center, which was then also reclaimed.

Tiffany Chu:
I had heard about this part of Amsterdam’s history and I’ve seen the photos, but if Amsterdam was already on this road to redesigning their city for their car, what changed?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Public pressure. In 1971, there were more than 3000 car-related deaths in the Netherlands, and 500 of them were children. And so there was this campaign called “Stop de kindermoord” or stop the children’s murders. And a lot of people in the city started protesting against this car-centric vision for the city, including a bunch of kids.

News clip:
[Chanting in Dutch].

Andrei Greenawalt:
If you look on YouTube, you can find these great clips from 1972 in Amsterdam where children were actually blocking off city streets to cars, to advocate for more play-safe streets. Here they’re chanting, “Get these cars out of the way. We want to play.” And you see in the footage that Amsterdam looked a lot less appealing in the 1970s than it does today.

Tiffany Chu:
Okay, just Googled it. Oh, crazy. This clip I just clicked on is all in Dutch, but there’s this kid maybe nine or 10 with a classic Beetles haircut, and he’s walking down the middle of some noisy street in Amsterdam, and then there are these kids in the streets with signs. It’s kind of incredible. As a public servant, I’ve been thinking a lot about protests and how cities should react or not react to various protests that happen, but it feels like they worked here.

News clip:
[Chanting in Dutch].

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, they were definitely a big piece of the puzzle. There was this other movement called the Cyclists’ Union, which built on the momentum and pushed for more support for bikes. And then in 1973 we had the Arab oil crisis, and that forced local leaders to seek alternatives to gas-fueled cars, which further turned the tide toward redesigning the city. And these same kind of protests were actually happening in the US as well. They just never made it into the history books

Peter Norton:
In almost every city, certainly every city where I’ve checked, and also a lot of small towns and suburbs, people, especially mothers of children, blocked streets demanding that the authorities step in and slow the vehicles down so that their children could go outside safely, so that their children could go to their friends’ houses safely, and so that they themselves could walk around the street safely too.

Andrei Greenawalt:
This is Peter Norton. He’s the University of Virginia professor we met back in episode one. And Peter says that from the late 1940s to the 1970s, a lot of women in the US weren’t loving the shift to car-centric living.

Peter Norton:
From their point of view, this idea of a city where you can drive anywhere at any time was not a utopia. It was a dystopia almost.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And so they started protesting. And not just well-to-do white women, Peter explained that middle and working class women of all ethnicities took to the streets.

Peter Norton:
These protests took the form of blocking the local streets to get attention. The reporters would come and ask, “What’s going on?” And they’d tell the reporters, “We want a stop sign. We want a traffic light. We want the cars slowed down. We want some speed enforcement.” And very often they would get results. This is another illustration of how we have selectively omitted part of our history. And it’s a very crucial one because it compels us to question the story that says, everybody welcomed this transformation.

Tiffany Chu:
This is fascinating. I remember in the first episode, Peter talked about how it was the automakers and the other industry players who aggressively lobbied for car-centric policies. And then you also have these pockets of resistance in the US to car dependency. But why were there such different outcomes in the Netherlands versus the US?

Andrei Greenawalt:
I think it comes down to a combination of culture and geography. America built the first mass-produced car. It’s also a very big country, so it spent decades building new cities around the car after World War II. Amsterdam, which is in a country that is quite flat geographically, already had a rich bicycle culture, and that made it a viable alternative when the moment arose.

Cornelia Dinca:
It was absolutely not a walk in the park. It was not kumbaya, this transition in Amsterdam by any means. It took more than a decade of campaigning and lobbying and this kind of guerilla activism and all kinds of initiatives. Again, Amsterdam had kind of adopted or was on that path to some extent, but a lot of people could still remember a time when they would have biked to school as children themselves or played in the streets with their friends. So there was this collective memory that we can go back to a different time that is actually a more inspiring way to live.

Tiffany Chu:
So, that idea of having a collective memory of a more inspiring way to live really hits me. I had a great childhood. I was really lucky, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who was born in Flushing, Queens. But then I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the ’80s and ’90s, the definition of my parents’ American dream. And to get anywhere, I had a hitch a ride with my friends or my parents. And so I became a part of a suburban generation that never knew any other way moving around.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And that brings us to another important historical point. Your experience is America’s experience, the suburbs pretty much squashed any dreams of car-free living From about the 1950s on.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Post-war suburbs become an absolute federally-sponsored mass development project really designed to kickstart the economy after World War II.

Andrei Greenawalt:
This is Ellen Dunham-Jones. Ellen teaches architecture and urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. And one of her claims to fame, she is known as the “dead malls expert”.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Yeah. When the media need a professor to verify our malls dying and what’s happening to them, I often get the call.

Andrei Greenawalt:
She actually manages a database of dead malls. But her expertise, it’s not malls per se, it’s what those dead malls tell us about the suburbs, their history, their impact, and how we might change them for the better going forward.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
In the very early 2000s is about when we hit the tipping point of more than 50% of the US population live in the suburbs.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And is it still the case today that more than 50% of Americans live in the suburbs?

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Absolutely, yes.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the growth of suburban malls, how that connects to the growth of our car dependency in the US, and are those two connected and what the consequences of that have been?

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Both the development of malls and the development of this car-dependent model of suburbia, both of them come out of that same drive by the federal government to sort of use suburbanization as a way to kickstart the economy.

Reporter:
With a population being spread out thinner than in the city proper, there was a crying need for a new concept in retailing, some place where Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia could park their car easily and then take care of all their family’s needs. This idea of one-stop shopping was translated into the shopping center.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
The government built highways, soon followed by shopping centers. Even the museums, the magazines, the TV shows, they all promoted suburbia as the ideal of modern living. And I think we ended up then using the tool of zoning to segregate out, okay, houses on big lots are over here, houses on tiny lots, you’re over here and, oh, apartments, you’re way over there, and the government center’s over here, retail over there, business center over there. The only way to get around to all these different uses was by high speed roads.

Andrei Greenawalt:
But this plan to use suburbia to grow the economy, it ended up creating a whole new problem.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Most people in suburbia, most people everywhere, they have a car, even though it’s parked 93% of the time, they feel they have to have this expensive object for when they have to get around and that they can’t rely on transit, it’s too far away. They don’t have enough alternatives.

Tiffany Chu:
So this is really the crux of the issue, isn’t it? The majority of us, whether we live in the suburbs of Bridgewater, New Jersey or Central LA, just don’t have enough options that aren’t a car when we need to get from point A to B. And this goes back to episode one when Peter Norton said, “This is the result of very clear decisions that made the system this way.”

Andrei Greenawalt:
So for us to even imagine a car-free city or car-light cities in the US, we have to create options that are more appealing and more accessible for people than firing up the car. And in the US, that does feel like a hard lift.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah. Even in San Francisco, when I was on the Congestion Pricing Advisory Committee, a city as progressive as San Francisco, people were so fearful of something that was about taking their beloved automobile away, because it was a symbol of freedom. And I’m curious, did you ask Ellen about this? Given our deep connection to the suburban lifestyle, how realistic does she think the car-free city concept is for the US?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Well, she’s making it work for herself. She gave up her car seven years ago and she’s been getting around the Atlanta area by walking, biking, and via public transit ever since. And I asked her what she thought it would take to change our collective thinking.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
Most of the places that are car-free or have gone car-free are places we love to go as tourists. Whether it’s congestion pricing in London, 15 minute cities in Paris, super blocks in Barcelona, not providing parking in new neighborhoods in Freiberg, Germany, I mean these are just the European examples. In the US, there are at least a dozen car-free island resort areas such as Fire Island. And if we could just get more people to say, “Gee, why is this so pleasant? Couldn’t we do this at home?” I would say right now it depends on what are those backups that you have? How close are you to transit? How many options do you have?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Here we are back at this concept of options and how do we provide those options for people? Well, one way is, as we’ve talked about in this series, is that there are new technology tools that have come online over the last few years that are creating more mobility options both in cities and suburban areas and rural areas alike.

Tiffany Chu:
Right. So there was Caroline Rodriguez from episode three, and she helped start up a new transit agency in rural Utah using an on-demand system, making it possible for people living in a county of almost 2000 square miles to get anywhere they want to go without a car.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And then there’s the mayor from Valdosta, Georgia who was in that same episode, he launched an on-demand transit service for his city that ended up getting something like 40,000 more rides in the first year of service than they were anticipating.

Tiffany Chu:
And there’s also all these startups who are using computer vision and license plate readers and mobile phone apps to basically do versions of congestion pricing, not only in London, Singapore, Stockholm, but other cities are exploring these new technology tools as well. And because of these new tools, we’re now able to connect people to diverse mobility options while making transit planning more efficient.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. And I think we have to be willing to use every single tool that we have in the toolbox to move things in a better direction. And Ellen reflected that a bit in her comments.

Ellen Dunham-Jones:
I think there’s a number of reasons why car-free, even in suburbia, it’s the heavy lift, we know, but trying to do car-free in suburbia, I think now is exactly the right time to try to deal with that. I know a lot of folks that would actually welcome having microtransit options that much more convenient and easy for them to access and have them feel safe with that. So everything from looking at the demographics, understanding the changes in technology, the new forms of mobility, and really thinking fresh about what is it, that promise of suburbia is sort of city out your front door, countryside out your back door, are there ways that if we really significantly reduce the car, we can reimagine new ways of delivering versions of that promise?

Tiffany Chu:
Okay. So we’re taking this optimistic, inclusive approach to the car-free concept, but this whole idea of car free or car-light communities can really scare people off too.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, right. I mean, if you just hear the phrase, the first thing that might pop to your mind is that there’s going to be some policy that’s going to take my car away or make it impossibly expensive to drive around. And that’s the only option I have today to really get around my community. So I totally agree. I think Cornelia Dinca, when we were talking to her, she definitely honed in on this question of communications and messaging.

Cornelia Dinca:
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the whole car-free city concept per se, because it’s a little bit absolutist. It’s a little bit too extreme if you say no cars at all. It’s a little bit too extreme and it’s also saying too much what you don’t want compared to spinning it around and talking more about what you want in cities. So you can talk about a kid-friendly city. So can children walk or bike to school on their own or play in their streets without parents having to worry about them crossing the street, for example, right? So I think it’s good to talk about all these other things you get in the city when cities are not so car dominated and car dependent. The reason we have to use this kind of terminology is just to even make people aware and to be able to put on the agenda kind of these alternative imageries of what cities can be like if not every trip was dependent on the automobile.

Tiffany Chu:
So whether we call them car-free or car-light communities, why aren’t we seeing a more rapid push behind the concept? What’s holding us back?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of factors. I mean, as we’ve dissected, our political system is deeply tied to cars, that reflects our culture. We love cars, we associate them with personal freedom. We don’t like the idea of giving them up. I don’t think it’s widely understood the impact that our car dependency is having. And so Cornelia, she’s not even American and she gets it.

Cornelia Dinca:
So people act like the car is their firstborn child and if you tell them they can no longer park in front of their house, they get very angry and mad and emotional and so on. I mean, you basically said it, right? It’s this idea of it’s our culture, the North American culture. The American culture is so closely linked to the automobile, there’s nothing we can do about it. And I always like to push back on that idea because I think culture changes all the time. And I think again, this is what we’ve seen in Amsterdam in the 1970s and in the 1980s is that culture can change. It could change from this much more bike-friendly culture to a car-dominated culture, and then it could also change back again.

Tiffany Chu:
I’m hearing some optimism there. Even though change is very tough, it’s possible.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Absolutely. We just have to keep talking about the viable alternatives and then step by step show how they can work. Otherwise, people, they won’t think there’s any other way.

Cornelia Dinca:
Quite often we tend to think, okay, streets are made out of stone and out of asphalt and we can’t change them. And in fact we can. But if you don’t have any good or recent examples, or if there isn’t a discussion or a dialogue or a collective process to actually re-envision the streets, then it’s very easy to think, well, there’s no way to change. So having this massive system change is what is very paralyzing for people very often.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Our entire lifetimes in the US, we’ve lived in a country that’s dominated by the car. So, Tiffany, do you think this concept of a car-free community or communities across the country, is that even possible here?

Tiffany Chu:
Well, not only is it possible, it’s already happening in places like Fire Island in New York. There’s a cool startup in Tempe, Arizona right outside of Phoenix called Culdesac, where a good friend of mine, Ryan Johnson, is trying to start a new car-free community. And we can always look to places like Europe, like Venice, city centers in Barcelona, Ghent. This is so possible, it’s just a matter of political will.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. And I think it’s also interesting that New York City is likely to very soon have congestion pricing. They passed a law to do that. They’re just kind of going through the approval process with the federal government. That’ll be the first city in the US to start to charge drivers for driving into congested areas of Manhattan. Even though it was super politically difficult to get that accomplished, the reason that’s even only possible in New York is because there were great mobility options in place. I think if we can start to build those mobility options elsewhere, it opens up the opportunity to generate funding to do even more.

There are a bunch of people in the US who are living in communities that are effectively car free or car light, and that is really important. Even though we’re talking about a much broader vision and this being in many more communities across the US, people are living this experience today of getting around their community without a car. And so I think, again, it just comes back to choice and other options to get around. As Peter Norton says, framing this all around choice, it’s a critical piece of the American identity.

Peter Norton:
Right now, Americans don’t have choices, most of us. And when I say choices, I don’t just mean the theoretical possibility of getting a bus or the theoretical possibility of riding a bike, but the attractive equivalence of that choice. In other words, is riding a bike as inviting and as safe to you as riding in your car? And this is a country that has often stood for valuing individual liberty, individual choice. And if we really value choice, then maybe that fact can help us to ensure that people who choose not to drive have that choice, not just as a theoretical possibility, but as an attractive opportunity.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Jerome Horne talks about this too. He’s the transit expert we’ve heard from a couple times this season, and Jerome thinks there are a lot of shared values that can make the car-free concept more attractive.

Jerome Horne:
We sort of have to meet people where they’re at and appeal to core values with folks about don’t you want cleaner air? Don’t you want a safer community? And I think once you begin to have conversations with people about what their values are, we find out that a lot of us are very similar in what we want. We want to make the world a better place. We want to reduce crime and violence and particularly death from being struck by automobiles for a lot of pedestrians. But how we get there, it’s messy. It’s a little complicated. It’s ambiguous. But I think beginning to build that bridge with, hey, if we allow more people to get around their community, walking, biking, and taking transit, for those who still want to or will continue to drive, their experience will be better.

Tiffany Chu:
I got to say after this series, I feel like we can get to a place in this country where cars will one day feel optional, not mandatory.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I do too. And I think it’s important to remember that this won’t all come at once. There’s a lot of steps along the way that can have a massive positive impact on people’s economic mobility, their health, and their quality of life. And I asked Shyam Kannan, the planning expert at HDR who we’ve heard from in this series about what it’ll take to move the ball forward. And his answer, it felt like an appropriate place to close.

Shyam Kannan:
To those that ask that question, I challenge them to pivot their thinking slightly because in this country at least, and in most of our cities, one third of the population is too young to drive. One third of the population is too old to drive, and half of the working population might not be able to afford a personal vehicle. The challenge for us is to realize that for vast swaths of today’s population, the city’s already a car-free city, but not by choice. And we have an obligation to make their lives as seamless as possible today with investments we can make today to not only make their lives better, but also to improve society for all of us. So my challenge to the policy makers is to focus their intent on those populations today that don’t have the luxury of dreaming of a “car-free city.” We’ll get there, we’ll get to a place where we don’t need to make these immense personal investments in infrastructure to get around. But we have a lot of stuff we can do this afternoon that doesn’t require us to wait 40 years.

Tiffany Chu:
Amen.

To not waiting.

Andrei Greenawalt:
To not waiting.

That concludes our sixth and final episode of this season. Thank you so much for sticking with us. And if you like what you’ve heard this season, please share a link on social media with the transit nerd in your life. 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 ridewithvia.com. This show is hosted by me, Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And me, Tiffany Chu. The show is produced by Steven Lacey, Ann Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez and Dalvin Aboagye of Post Script Media. It’s also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed our theme song and mixed the show.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Thanks, Tiffany, for being my co-host for this awesome Season 1 of ModeShift. And to all our listeners, thanks so much for sticking with us.

Are we done?

Tiffany Chu:
I think we’re done.

We’ve been sold on the idea that a car is the ultimate freedom. But that’s only true for people who can afford it. A system that relies on owning a personal car is not a system that provides freedom to everyone – it’s a system that disproportionately penalizes people of color, people with limited income, or people with disabilities.

So how do we build an affordable, reliable transit system that works for everyone?

In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany dig into the many ways we can incorporate equity into our transportation planning. They’ll cover a wide range of angles: land use, housing, transit choice, and anti-displacement. 

Guests:

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

Transcript.

Andrei Greenawalt:
There’s a whole generation of urban planners who got their start in the late eighties and nineties playing Sim City. It’s a game that allows you to build a community from the ground up. And Chad Ballentine, he is a proud member of that generation.

Chad Ballentine:
I’ve built, I don’t know how many cities back in the old days when it was a really, really basic game. I spent hours doing that. And so I’ve always been very interested in land use and roads and all that other stuff.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Today, Chad lives in Austin, Texas. It’s a city that’s doubling its population every two decades. And sometimes that constant change can feel like a game of Sim City unfolding in real time.

Chad Ballentine:
It’s mind boggling to really think through. As I look out to my window in our downtown offices, I see barely any buildings that were here when I first moved here. And it’s a new city, it’s a new landscape at all times, and it’s constantly growing and evolving.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Chad heads up demand response and innovative mobility at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, also known as Cap Metro. And he is constantly thinking about all the ways that Austin can better use technology to power shared rides and improve bike services for the city’s 2 million residents. He moved to Austin 16 years ago, and the near doubling of population since then has brought some stark socioeconomic changes.

Chad Ballentine:
My $92,000 house several years ago, is no longer here. That’s just not a thing in Austin anymore.

Tiffany Chu:
Hold up. Did I hear that right? A $92,000 house?

Andrei Greenawalt:
I know. It made me do a double take too. And for context, today in Austin, the median home prices $624,000. And that is a trend we are seeing all across cities in America. Both housing prices and rents are soaring, and as a result, lots of people are getting pushed further and further from good transit options.

Chad Ballentine:
There’s a lot of difficulties, because when transit is really robust and a great high quality, highly frequent service, you generally are located near more expensive housing. And so the better access you have to transit, usually the more expensive the housing is. And you can always find affordable, more affordable housing the further you go out of the city, the further away you are from grocery stores, the further you are away from doctors and offices and everything else. And so it’s spatial relationship that is really hard to quantify a lot, and it’s really a problem that’s hard to fix.

Tiffany Chu:
It’s like a really bad game of Sim City.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Exactly. And Austin had a clear choice. It needed to expand the transit system drastically to keep up with population growth, while also closing the economic divide, not worsening it.

Chad Ballentine:
And so finally in 2019, we were like, “Let’s do something big. Let’s stop doing these little things. Stop asking for some small, this rail line or this one bus line, let’s go for an entire network, a whole program that’s going to really work for everybody.”

Tiffany Chu:
I’m Tiffany Chu.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And I’m Andrei Greenawalt. This is ModeShift.

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

Andrei Greenawalt:
Tiffany, I’m curious, did you play Sim City growing up?

Tiffany Chu:
Yes, of course. Like any budding architect, it was a prerequisite for you to do that as a kid. Did you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
I didn’t. I’m almost embarrassed to say that. And when Chad brought it up, I was trying to follow along, but I hadn’t actually ever played Sim City. I was only into sports games. I don’t know, do you have a sense of why it’s so popular with folks in this space and kind of why it came up in the interview with Chad?

Tiffany Chu:
Well, yeah. Any urban planner basically does this for a job, where you have to figure out where the roads go and then you had to figure out what areas you want to zone for what functions. And you build power stations and a town hall and you got to connect them all, and all your citizens and residents have to be happy. And it’s obviously not realistic in many ways, but there is actually a highly relevant piece of that game, which is it really taught about the importance of land use and housing.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Oh, land use and housing. I feel like these two issues keep coming up again and again in these conversations that we’re having about transportation and how all three of them are linked. And it was definitely a key theme in our conversation with transit expert Jerome Horne.

Jerome Horne:
Every great transportation plan is also a land use plan, or every great land use plan is a transportation plan. And we need to marry those two together, because they’re so important. If we want people to ride the bus or use the train, they need to be able to get to it easily.

Andrei Greenawalt:
You’ve heard Jerome in prior episodes, and the point he’s making here, it may sound simple and obvious, but I think it’s actually one that’s too often overlooked. If you want people to ride transit, they need to be able to get to it. And I think that means at least two things. First, for the last hundred years or so, your access to transit has depended on whether you’re lucky enough to live near a subway or bus stop with reliable service. And the second thing it means is that when we build transit lines without much thought about how they impact housing or land use, over time that directly affects who can access the new transit option.

Jerome Horne:
One of the things that sort of always happens, if you build a new transit line, people want to live near it. And that term gentrification, neighborhood redevelopment, that could happen. And so we need to look at ways of how do we mitigate displacing existing residents, because yes, housing and the housing crisis is very real and we need to be able to marry those two things together with access to good transit and good housing without disrupting residents living in their neighborhoods. And we’ve seen a lot of disadvantage in particularly black and brown neighborhoods.

Andrei Greenawalt:
In prior episodes, we’ve talked about the total dominance of the car in the United States and the negative impacts that’s had. For example, that transportation’s the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, or that it is the second highest expense for American families. In that dynamic, it disproportionately impacts those who are low income, and people of color, those with disabilities.

Tiffany Chu:
And there’s of course a long history in this nation of transportation decisions made that harmed low income and black and brown communities in our cities, perhaps the most obvious of which are the literal tearing apart and dividing of certain neighborhoods to build highways.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Exactly. But I think there’s maybe been less widespread focus on how we’ve actually designed and planned our transit systems and the ways that has led to inequities as well. And that’s what Jerome is talking about here, and the focus of our episode today.

Jerome Horne:
For example, we can look at the light rail systems in Denver and Dallas. They were built more recently in the last three decades or so over time. And a lot of, if you look at the systems and how they’re laid out, they are designed to be really commuter rail from the suburbs into center city, but they don’t serve a lot of the inner city neighborhoods or crosstown neighborhoods that really need access to transit.

And you sort of see this mismatch between the rail and how it was planned, and the existing bus system that feeds into or doesn’t feed into the rail. And often communities of color, black and brown, low income neighborhoods might just have a bus, or if they have access to rail, it’s not the same access that white or wealthier communities have or people from the suburbs may have, to have that nice rail infrastructure and investment. And as we’re moving forward with these large capital investments, whether it’s bus rapid transit, light rail, or extensions of metro lines, you need to really think about who we’re making that investment for and why.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Tiffany, in an earlier episode we heard from your boss, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, talk about her plan to mix equity and economic mobility and transit. When you guys are sitting down and talking through these issues, how are you thinking about connecting transit access, housing affordability, and land use policy? I imagine that’s got to be not that easy to do.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah, it’s really hard. And one way that the mayor tackles it is she’s constantly asking with her line of questioning, who is this policy benefiting? Which communities in Boston need the most help, and should they be at the table? And how can we better center our residents and their experience?

I think one thing we found functionally is that just by putting people who have historically been in silos in the same room for a regular recurring meeting, for example, our housing chief, our transportation chief, and our planning chief, and I think that was not something that was done before, that in itself, just breaking down those barriers have been really helpful and I could see that also happening in Austin. I bet there’s probably a lot of really meaty discussions at Cap Metro and the City of Austin need to be having and their regional agency on a regular basis. And I wonder how they’re doing that over there too.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I think when we were starting to put this series together, we were not planning on featuring Austin, but it just kept coming up in interview after interview when we asked people what are the most interesting places in America that are doing cool things to advance mobility and transit? And we learned that these themes were front and center in the lead up to November, 2020. That is when voters had a chance to approve more than $7 billion in transit expansion.

Reporter (Yvonne):
Two transit ballot measures are moving forward in Austin after being approved by voters. The money from these two ballot measures will go to things like bike lanes, sidewalks, light rail, and more rapid bus surface.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Proposition A funded Project Connect, an ambitious network that includes 19 miles of light rail lines, a subway, expanded bus service and on demand transit. And Proposition B set aside $460 million in bonds for new bike lanes, sidewalks and urban trails.

Reporter (Bryce): 
Now, both of these measures are ones that city leaders have pushed and supported all along, knowing that Austin is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Last night, the CEO for Capital Metro told me he knows there’s a lot of work that lies ahead, but he’s ready to get started and committed to delivering Project Connect on time and on budget. So a lot of changes on track after these votes. Yvonne?

Reporter (Yvonne):
You’re right. Nice pun by the way, Bryce.

Tiffany Chu:
So this is a big deal.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, it’s a really big deal.

Tiffany Chu:
I know that Austin voters rejected a transit expansion twice in the last decade and a half, and I even remember going on a work trip several years ago and seeing a bunch of anti light rail signs. What made this time different?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I think we learned a few things talking to people. One is that Austin is much younger than it was in the past, and these younger voters, they care a lot about climate change, which is the selling point of the package. Also the 2020 election, it brought historic turnout, and so sending these younger diverse voters who supported the measures to the ballot box. Two, Austin funded a really broad set of initiatives, which appealed to a wide set of voters. And three, they took community feedback on draft proposals and they made changes as a result. And that’s how some of the forward thinking equity considerations made their way into the plan.

Here’s Cap Metro’s Chad Ballentine again.

Chad Ballentine:
We did a lot of outreach. We really tried to make sure that we brought people into the room, disadvantaged communities that aren’t typically in the room where decisions are being made, and brought them in, had them really give their input and their feedback. And we listened and changed the plan. We were very open about changing and adjusting things if what they were coming to us were valid concerns, things like that. There’s a huge equity component that grew out of that.

Andrei Greenawalt:
When you say equity was incorporated, can you just talk more about what does that mean exactly?

Chad Ballentine:
We devoted $300 million of looking at equity initiatives. And it wasn’t specifically defined as, “Oh, this will be a million for here, two million for this, and that kind of thing.” We set it aside and said, “We know we’re going to need money to address the equity concerns that we’re going to be creating by putting in infrastructure and rail stations and those kinds of things.” I don’t think it’s a secret or I think it’s really well known that when you put in that kind of transit infrastructure, people want to live near there. And when people want to live near somewhere, housing prices do increase. And so the $300 million set aside was put there along with an advisory group who is made up of people who are in economically disadvantaged areas, I think it’s like 90% minority membership in the group, so that folks who are experiencing a lot of the pressures of gentrification are going to be at the table telling us how to spend the money or even directing how that money’s going to be spent.

And it can be spent in many ways. So loans for affordable housing or for other types of alternative housing types of projects. I mean, it’s really up to that group, which I thought was really good too, because you don’t want a bunch of people in a transit authority saying, “This is what we think is going to fight gentrification or keep equitable housing or increase opportunities for smaller businesses, local businesses, that kind of thing.” So we want to make sure that we don’t just not displace people, but we actually make their lives better. Not just mitigate the damages that we’re doing, but actually make things better for folks.

Tiffany Chu:
So there are a couple things that Chad mentioned which stood out to me. One of them is representation, making sure it’s not just transit authorities, who don’t always look like the majority of riders, decide what equity means. There’s a really big movement right now trying to get the boards of various transit agencies across the country to have riders on the board or make sure that their board members do ride transit regularly, because that was not always the case. And the second thing that stood out to me is this expression of anti-displacement, actively making investments that bring equity into all decisions and trying to understand that not every community needs the same solution.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. If you go to the Austin City government website, they actually call that $300 million investment anti-displacement. That’s exactly how it was framed in the ballot initiative. And that carve out, it’ll be used to support affordable housing along key new transit routes, and they’re going to try to use it to make sure that all populations have access to multiple modes of transportation.

Shyam Kannan:
They were very forward thinking in saying, “Well, let’s build a multimodal level of service approach. Let’s take a look at all these corridors, and we’re going to ask about affordable housing, we’re going to ask about equity, we’re going to ask about health, we’re going to ask about freight, we’re going to ask about pedestrian movements, we’re going to ask about safety, we’re going to ask about transit capacity. And toss all these different factors into the hopper and find out where along these corridors the right tool will be applied for the right job, so that we can achieve the goal of moving more people with less cost and less time.”

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Shyam Kannan. We heard from him in our prior episode on TransitTech, and he’s the transit lead for the engineering services company, HDR. They worked closely with Austin on crafting the Project Connect plan, and that anti-displacement theme was central to making the plan work.

Shyam Kannan:
So the city when we were working with them and as they’re moving forward, came right out of the gate and said, “No, we want to make sure that whatever investments we make, we’ve guarded against both physical, social and cultural displacement, because we’re making these investments for families that live here today. They need to see a line of sight to their children and their children’s children benefiting from these investments, because by golly, they’re the ones paying for them.”

Andrei Greenawalt:
What do you think other cities can learn from Austin’s approach? If you were sort of summarizing at a high level, here are the two or three things you need to do if you also care about moving people and achieving more equitable outcomes?

Shyam Kannan:
I think one is, Austin was not afraid to get wonky. Right? Maybe it shouldn’t be keep Austin weird, it’s keep Austin wonky. Leadership there knew that solving these transportation problems is complicated, and it was refreshing to see public leadership engage with what in many cases might be seen as too academic or too complicated for policy.

They really engaged with this prioritization model, right? Because they wanted to know, well, if we’re spending public dollars, we’re the ones setting priorities. Tell us how we can set these priorities. The second thing is putting equity first, right? That too often equity is an afterthought. It’s a “do not harm” standard. And in the worst case it’s a “check the box” exercise. But they were courageous enough to come out of the box and say, “Nope. We want to think about affordable housing and equity as we’re contemplating the investments, because we want to guard against the ill effects, the sins of our fathers.” Put equity first and find ways for everyone to win.

Andrei Greenawalt:
At this point, I think it’s helpful to ask what does inequity look like? And for some it can look pretty bleak, like a desert. Tiffany, we touched on this idea of transit deserts in our episode on rural transit. What are they?

Tiffany Chu:
I would say a transit desert is places where if you don’t own a car, you can’t do a lot of things that other people who have cars can. You can’t go to your job, you can’t pick up your kids from school, go to the grocery store, get to the doctor’s appointment, and if you go a little bit deeper, even if you can say ride the bus to wherever you’re trying to go, if the bus doesn’t come or if you miss your bus by a minute, if you’re in a transit desert, you might just not have any other options. There might not be other bus routes that are slightly redundant near you, or a train or light rail or bike share.

Basically, if you don’t own a car, you feel second class. And there’s a quote from one of the inspirational mayors in the world, a former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa. He said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich use public transportation.” And I think this is particularly salient in our discussion here around transit deserts, because these deserts exist all over the country. One analysis from the University of Texas, the Urban Information Lab, they took a look at 52 cities in the US and found 4.5 million people living in areas with no adequate alternative to cars. 4.5 million in transit deserts just in those cities.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Wow. And I think some of those areas, they’re located really close to transit paradises or I mean, I guess as close as we get to a transit paradise in the United States.

Iraya Corley:
I live in a part of Jersey City that’s pretty transportation… it’s a transportation desert. Although it’s at a very kind of central part of Jersey City, the bus lines are not close to my particular block.

Andrei Greenawalt:
This is Iraya Corley. She lives just across the water from New York City, where I grew up and also the transit paradise I was referencing a second ago. She grew up in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, and she’s been riding the bus alone since she was 10 years old.

Iraya Corley:
I loved that with public transportation, I didn’t have to rely on anyone. I was really able to just get around when I wanted to. I didn’t have to figure out parking or figure any of those other details out.

Andrei Greenawalt:
But now, living in Jersey City, which is New Jersey’s second biggest city, she doesn’t have that same access to freedom of movement that she discovered as a kid.

Iraya Corley:
We had one bus that actually ran down my street. The bus was not a New Jersey Transit bus, it’s run by a private company. That bus only runs every 30 minutes. I don’t think it runs on Sundays. So people who live in a transportation desert, it makes it hard for them to get to work. It makes them hard for them to get to school, it makes it hard for you to go see your loved ones. And let’s say you’re an elderly person or an actual handicapped person who has a hard time with mobility, living in a transportation desert really hinders you.

Tiffany Chu:
This hits on a very important theme that we keep revisiting in this series. We’ve been sold this idea that a car is the ultimate freedom, but that’s only true for people who can afford it. And it often comes at such a high cost, it prevents families from pursuing other dreams. A system that relies on owning a personal car is not a system that provides freedom to everyone. And it’s a system that disproportionately penalizes people of color, people with limited income, or people with disabilities.

Andrei Greenawalt:
It’s a critical point. Your ability to access jobs, education, healthcare, it shouldn’t depend on whether you are lucky or rich enough to live next to a transit stop with great reliable service. And Iraya’s story, it doesn’t end badly. She, a couple years ago, was able to start taking advantage of a new transit service in her community that was launched by the mayor of Jersey City, that provided on demand shared rides for an affordable fare. And I think we need to invest in all forms of transit, but one benefit of these newer on-demand systems is that every corner can be a bus stop.

Your take, Tiffany, it’s really similar to how a planning expert named Charles Brown framed it in my discussion with him.

Charles Brown:
Yeah, there are pros and cons to any approach or any system. In the auto-centric environment that we’ve created, it disenfranchises those of whom don’t have access to a vehicle. It’s not that the car is evil. What is unfortunate is the fact that we have not designed our built environment where you don’t need a car to get around.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Charles is the CEO of Equitable Cities. That’s an organization that works with cities on transportation plans with a specific focus on fairness and inclusiveness. And for him, freedom is a guiding principle for justice. We talked about what that means for transit planning.

Charles Brown:
We all should pay the cost, whatever that number is, to ensure that every person in America has access to a mobility option that gets them to a place of employment, a place of health and social services, schools, et cetera. Why? Because that person can feel dignified and hopefully their neighbors and others will give them the respect they deserve by filling the dignity too that they deserve. So I would love to see that.

When it comes to the ways in which transit isn’t equitable, it has a lot to do with some of the performance measures around transit. We often go for higher ridership. Higher ridership usually means focusing in places where there there are higher populations, because that means you target the areas where there’s a potential for higher riderships. However, and I’m sure you are aware, what we’re noticing is that many of the black, brown and low income people in our society can no longer afford to live in downtown or in places where you have this so-called high population. That means that they are far out into beyond the urban core, and transit just simply isn’t as accessible for them.

What we need to do instead is design our systems for those people, not the people who are most proximate to their jobs already. The reason I say that is because you take a place like Chicago, Washington, DC, and many other places where during COVID-19 services were cut. Yes, you saw an overall reduction in transit ridership for all populations, but among those that were black, brown and low income, you didn’t see as great of a reduction. What that shows you is that those are the people that need transit the most. And when it comes to determining where we’re going to spend our resources, I think they’re best spent in the places that need the most. Transits should be no exception.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And what’s your sense of what that looks like outside of city center cores? Because it’s not going to do very many people good if we set up a bus stop, where the bus comes once every hour and most people have to walk half a mile or a mile to get to it. So there are a couple things that we’re sort of not doing, that if a lot of cities and suburban areas were doing, would help on this front.

Charles Brown:
Yeah, that’s a great question. So it goes back when you asked the question about what makes it more equitable? Comfort, frequency of service is part of that answer as well. So when you’re looking at the places that are on the sort of outskirts of the urban core, the frequency and the timing of the bus matters just as much. So instead of having 60 minute headways or even longer, ideally what you would do is provide headways every 15 to 30 minutes.

Now that’s very expensive, but those are the places that need it most. And so I am about putting people over profit, because I think we can always figure out the profit or the money to pay for these services. Another thing is about comfort and security. Many of these systems don’t have bus stop amenities that allow for people of color, women and low income populations and persons with disabilities to wait at these bus stops. You have to think about inclement weather, depending on the part of the country. So a lot of dignity needs to be put into transit, put into biking and walking so it becomes an option that everyone would truly enjoy.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I feel like the word equity and equitable, it’s thrown around by a lot of people, and I’m not sure everybody means exactly the same thing when they use the term. So I’m just curious, when we say equity, equitable mobility, how do you define that as someone who is working in this space day in and day out?

Charles Brown:
In the most basic sense, equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. But you don’t just stop there, because that doesn’t get you to the innovative and progressive solutions that you need to address the historical injustices in our society. Equity requires an understanding of the underlying or root causes of inequalities and oppression within our society.

And so racial equity by definition then forces a transformation of the behaviors, the institutions and those systems that disproportionately harm people of color. And it does this by increasing their access to power, redistributing and providing additional resources, and most importantly, eliminating barriers to opportunities in order for those people to survive. Then it takes you to ability or disability equity, which is about recognizing the needs for persons with disabilities. It takes you to gender equity, which takes a look at how women and those identifying as women or sexual minorities in this country are treated. It takes you to income equity so that you could better realize the needs and opportunities as it relates to low income populations. And it takes you then to a host of other forms of equity, such as process equity or outcome equity. But ultimately what we want to achieve isn’t just equity, we’re looking for justice.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Tiffany, I feel like this is the point in the episode where we have to check in on how we’re feeling, how optimistic or pessimistic we feel the future of mobility is. And no question, there is a huge amount of work to be done to provide affordable mobility to everyone in this nation, and that includes overcoming obstacles that have been put in place over many, many decades, if not centuries. I’m wondering, the types of things we’re seeing in Austin, do you think that’s representative of a bigger and positive shift in transit planning?

Tiffany Chu:
Yes. And the reason why I say yes is because I think from a city and transit agency perspective, we’re realizing across the country that what we don’t invest in before or now, we’re just going to have to invest in later if we’re trying to be supportive of growth and all the folks who are moving to cities as a national and international trend.

I think from an equity perspective, I am noticing more and more when I see what other cities and agencies are doing that the language of equity is now becoming much more embedded in the planning process. And it’s definitely a newer thing that I’ve found, where many agencies are leading with equity, and making sure that their planners who go and present at public and community meetings are from those communities, speak their language, their families have been there for forever and ever. And I think there’s just a pretty big shift in the discipline of planning, especially in the context of transportation, and all of the ways that we need to rebuild up or just be more fluent in what the community wants from an equity perspective.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I think what Austin is actually doing is really, really exciting. But of course to get to that point takes really effective conversations and decision making, and that is something that Shyam Kannan said that we should not underestimate, sort of that shift in how decision makers are now taking equity seriously.

Shyam Kannan:
A topic that for generations was so rife with conflict, that was almost a conversation stopper, is now a conversation that political leaders, business leaders, policy advocates, the nonprofit community can have in a public meeting, in a boardroom, in an investment committee, and it’s taken seriously. I think those three forces give me great optimism for the next generation of transportation, because we’re finally able to wrestle with the right questions in a meaningful way. We have a demographic that’s going to be making the decisions for the next generation that’s not afraid to make decisions that their parents didn’t make that. Those are good things.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And that marks the end of another episode of ModeShift

Tiffany Chu:
Coming up in our final episode of the season, what does building a car free city look like? We’ll pull together many of the themes from our last five episodes and ask what it takes to create communities where car dependency is a thing of the past.

Andrei Greenawalt:
ModeShift is produced by Via, in partnership with our friends at 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. You can learn more at ridewithvia.com. This show, it’s 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 Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and my co-host, Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed our theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilranc mix the show.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Thank you so much for sticking with us over these last five episodes. We will catch you next week for the sixth and final episode of this season of ModeShift.

 

Rapid deployment of new technologies have given consumers more mobility options – but have also caused conflicts with regulators and local planners. 

But that paradigm is shifting. Conflict is turning into collaboration. TransitTech companies are now working more closely with cities and transit agencies in order to make better use of new mobility models.

Collaboration is at the core of TransitTech. The TransitTech sector alone could represent $450 billion in investment opportunities to improve or overhaul public transportation systems. Under this emerging framework, what are the technology areas that offer the most promise?

In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany unpack how TransitTech is reshaping the way transportation agencies plan and adapt – and what it means for riders and the future of mobility in America.

Guests:

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

Transcript.

Angela Wynes:
Some of the riders, they know me, they know my job, and I think their perspective is that I’m the lady in charge and that if they have a problem, they need to talk to me.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Tiffany, I recently had the chance to speak with someone who I believe you know, Angela Wynes, the transit manager in High Point, North Carolina, which is a city just outside of Greensboro.

Tiffany Chu:
Yes, love Angela. She is a small, sassy, spirited woman who’s been leading transit in High Point for, gosh, maybe 25 plus years. I met her a number of years ago. She’s one of my favorite transit leaders.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. It was so clear talking to her that she is someone who’s riding the dramatic technology shifts that are shaping mobility today and that she’s also someone who so clearly lives and breathes public transit.

Angela Wynes:
My day can start any time, as early as 5:00 in the morning if we’re having a situation where we’re short-staffed, and oftentimes it doesn’t end until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night. I’m doing a little bit of everything in between. I am overseeing operations and making sure that supervisors and drivers and everyone are where they’re supposed to be, that we have enough staff coverage.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Angela and her team, they also design the actual bus system, like where the bus stops go and the street by street routes that each of the buses takes, how frequently the buses come, that sort of thing.

Tiffany Chu:
So yeah, this is the back end of public transit that most people never see. For every bus or train you hop on, a team of people like Angela decides where the route should go, which communities it should service, and how often. And those decisions have direct consequences for the quality of life of riders.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, it’s a big reason why it’s such a high stakes job, and for Angela that impact on the people in her community, that’s what keeps her going.

You were describing what sounded like a stressful, somewhat hectic job with very early mornings, unexpected things happening each day, crises that need to be solved, but you’ve also been working in this world now for a couple of decades. What has kept you in it?

Angela Wynes:
I love transit. I love the people. I love helping. We’re not going to always be able to have enough cars and build enough roadways, and not everyone’s going to be able to afford a car, so transit is going to be an integral part of our society.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Angela’s been working in transportation for decades, and back in the 1990s, when she was a transit planner in Lynchburg, Virginia, her job looked really different.

Angela Wynes:
It looked like maps laid out on tables with markers and pens and notes and stars and stickers. That was my first task when I was in Lynchburg, was to help with a route redesign. So it was learning the existing system and then figuring out how to make the changes to improve productivity, to provide more service. So literally it was all paper based, very little technology.

Andrei Greenawalt:
It was a very analog process for most of her career. But in the last few years, something shifted.

Tiffany Chu:
Yes. And now that same planning process, which would have taken days or weeks, can be mapped out on a screen almost like a video game. She can just drag and drop a route to see what kind of impact it might have on riders.

Angela Wynes:
I can make sure I’m having positive impact, but also not creating any negative impacts. I can look at walking distances from bus stops. Are bus stops spaced too close together? Are they too far apart? Before, if we made a change, you’d be making the change, cross your fingers and hope that it didn’t create a nightmare, and then you’d have to start over again.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And these new digital tools that Angela is using, they were put to the test in a big way when the pandemic completely upended transit systems all over the world.

Angela Wynes:
COVID just rocked our world.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Just a few years ago, a massive disruption like a global pandemic would’ve left transit agencies struggling to adapt, and for many it did. But there’s a whole new wave of technologies, making it possible for cities like High Point to adjust quickly to changing ridership levels, changing commute times, changing modes of transportation, and yes, even pandemics. It’s really a whole new category of technology.

Tiffany Chu:
TransitTech.

Andrei Greenawalt:
TransitTech. In this episode, we’re talking about what TransitTech is, how it works, and how it’s making public transit more resilient, accessible, and useful.

Tiffany Chu:
I’m Tiffany Chu.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I’m Andrei Greenawalt, and this is ModeShift.

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

Andrei Greenawalt:
Maybe you’ve heard some of the catchy phrases for industries being shaped by digital technology and data science like FinTech or EdTech or HealthTech.

Tiffany Chu:
Or GovTech, FoodTech, ClimateTech.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Right. TransitTech is a newer category. Tiffany, how would you define it?

Tiffany Chu:
So as a former TransitTech entrepreneur, I would say that TransitTech is basically taking an older industry that’s been around for forever and introducing newer, innovative tech-enabled solutions to address challenges that the industry has faced for a long time. It’s honestly been exploding. Even though public transit might be less top of mind industry in this country, it’s quite large in that the folks who use transit, the riders, the operators, the local governments and the industry at large is becoming so expansive that it’s close to, I think around $450 billion.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, it’s really incredible when you think about how little changed in transit fundamentally for more than a hundred years, and suddenly technology is changing it in a rapid way. It’s this huge market. I think there was a Boston Consulting Group study that said that it was going to grow to more than $1 trillion in the next couple of years here as a market. And for those of us in the private sector, obviously the size of this market and its potential is hugely exciting, but I know both you and I got involved in this space also because of the impact that improving public transit can have on people’s lives in communities across America.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah, it’s about deploying tech for the greater good.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So let’s get more specific. What use cases come to mind?

Tiffany Chu:
Okay. So I would say there’s a lot that come to mind, and I’ll just name three.

The first one that’s honestly changed my life as a transit rider is the fact that you can now get real time updates on when your bus or train is coming on your phone. So I can look on my phone before I run out to the orange line station.

Another one is multimodal trip planning, where you can plan multiple modes using Google Maps or Transit app or your app of choice to let you not only decide when you want to take transit, but what that trip might look like, if you want to combine transit plus biking plus walking, and any other number of modes.

Another one, which Andrei you and I are intimately familiar with, is the experience of summoning a shared shuttle to take you from the train station to the office, maybe a first or last mile trip.

And then one that I’m excited to see more and more, which is just digital payment methods for public transportation. So, you probably no longer need paper tickets all the time.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And should we add software that helps planners like Angela Wynes plan better routes?

Tiffany Chu:
Exactly.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Well, to help frame this category out a bit further, I chatted with a couple of experts who are following its rise. One is Aaron Bielenberg. He’s a partner at McKinsey who focuses on infrastructure technology, and he describes TransitTech like this:

Aaron Bielenberg:
TransitTech, I think we would just see it as really about the full set of technologies that apply to public transportation, rail and bus systems, and then the road systems.

Andrei Greenawalt:
We’re deep in the smartphone era now, so we’re all accustomed to getting easy, nearly instant access to almost everything, whether that’s ordering stuff for the house or tracking our sleep and exercise, identifying plants, the name of some actor, or just playing your favorite song instantaneously. And these expectations, they have finally come for transit.

Shyam Kannan:
Transportation has changed more in the last 100 months than it has in the last 100 years.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Shyam Kannan. He’s the former VP of Planning at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. It’s a bit of a mouthful. We in DC just call that WMATA, and today he works for a global design firm called HDR, where he leads their transit planning in the mid-Atlantic region. He also describes the tech related shifts happening in this sector.

Aaron Bielenberg:
On the software side, transportation for decades and decades was something that you had to go to or get to. If you were riding a transit vehicle, you had to go to the transit vehicle. You had to manage the information flow to find the transit vehicle to understand its schedule, to have it take you to where you needed to go. If you were using a personal vehicle, you were fortunate enough to either have one or a lease one, but those were sort of your options, right? Getting to the hardware or buying the hardware and then navigating the system was a function of how smart are — can you figure out schedules? Can you figure your life around the mobility? Transit agencies are able to push out realtime trip planning information to customers so they no longer need to pre-schedule their days. They can have that information pushed to their mobile devices or pushed to some other in-place resource, like a transit screen.

On the hardware side, in the last a hundred months, we’ve added so many more tools to that toolkit. So we witnessed the rise of personal mobility options, the scooters, the bike shares, the dockless scooters, the dockless bike shares, which are now giving us tools to fill those short distance gaps. So the transportation landscape, which again for the last hundred years was a fairly static regime of fixed guideway fixed elements for mobility that was “public “transit. The hardware and software has now brought all that transit and almost all that transportation and almost unleashed it made it ever present. So you can take any kind of trip at any kind of day from anywhere to anywhere. That’s a big deal.

Andrei Greenawalt:
All right, Tiffany. I think we’ve established what TransitTech is, but in order to define its edges a bit further, it might be good for us to talk about what it’s not. And I think to do that we need to revisit some recent history.

Tiffany Chu:
I’m here for it.

Reporter:
Just days after the ride sharing service, Lyft launched in Austin, a similar service called Uber is now open for business here.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So at the turn of the decade, we saw the rise of a bunch of car sharing services. Of course there was Zipcar which had started even before that where you used to work. And then we had Uber and Lyft come to cities with a model that was a big challenge to taxi cabs, and those services were hugely popular. I was definitely an early adopter when they came to DC and I think there were really significant benefits, especially for folks who didn’t have great transportation options before that. But they also started to raise some pretty serious concerns.

Tiffany Chu:
The business model was simple, get as many cars connected to the service and on the road as possible so that wait times for riders could be as short as possible, but this also put many more cars on the road adding to congestion. And Uber was known as being particularly combative with local officials.

Reporter:
While the company has already fought regulators from California to Massachusetts, it is the newest service, also reserved on a smartphone, that’s facing the most scrutiny.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And then a few years later came electric scooters. And it was a somewhat analogous dynamic. You had some very significant benefits, but it also let to concerns and tension with local regulators.

Reporter:
Electric scooters have descended upon cities across the country with some calling it “Scootergeddon.” They’ve rolled into places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington. But critics complain they’re cluttering sidewalks in other spaces. In San Francisco, the city has impounded more than 500 scooters, plus many are riding on sidewalks and without helmets, violating California law.

Tiffany Chu:
So these two models brought a lot of new mobility choices to consumers, likely reducing car ownership. A good thing, actually a great thing, but they also led to bitter disputes with local governments over competition, traffic, impact on public transit. Some cities reached a breaking point and even banned these services for short periods of time.

Reporter: 
Today, the billion pounds company matching passengers with private drivers found its days numbered when Transport for London revoked its license to operate in the city.

Reporter 2:
Uber, along with other ride sharing companies like Grab was ordered to halt operations in an effort to combat congestion there and order it to side pending an appeal.

Reporter 3:
Starting today, the scooters are banned in San Francisco until the city can hand out permits to the companies for a one year pilot program. The goal now getting more riders to follow the rules, the learning curve in the road.

Shyam Kannan:
I think we’ve seen that these ride hailing services are extremely convenient. However, especially in our cities, we don’t necessarily have the roadway capacity that we would need to take what may have been several hundred trips on a high capacity transit vehicle and put them into ride hailing vehicles. Coming from a city like Washington, DC which has historic character, has historic street widths, it’s not a lot of arithmetic to realize that there’s a geometry problem at some point. That you can’t take a thousand customers off of a subway train and put them all on a ride hailing vehicle for a two mile trip. We’re going to get there at some point in time when the sheen falls off the shiny objects. And we’ll probably have to confront this again once we get through the next three years of coming out of COVID and those travel lanes are really choked up again. But that gives us time now to be thoughtful about what that might look like.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I think the point here is not at all to criticize these personal mobility options. They all have a really important role to play in getting us around, and together they definitely can make it easier for families to live without a car or perhaps that second car that they were thinking about, but they all need to work together within the system. And I think these new forms of mobility have pushed cities to see how they can be using tech to improve service for their residents.

Tiffany Chu:
Right. Shyam talked about using this opportunity to be more thoughtful about the transition, and this is what defines TransitTech. Companies in this space are using the same technological forces from mapping to data aggregation, payment options, but explicitly deploying them for the greater good of the transit system.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s exactly what Angela Wynes from the top of the show is doing in High Point, North Carolina. She’s utilizing data to deliver better services to riders.

Angela Wynes:
I can also see a lot of the demographics in the background that I can’t see if I’m looking at a paper map. I can see where the stores are, I can see where the churches are, I can see where work environment is. I can look and see what percentage is lower income or limited English speaking. And you can generally make the adjustments on the fly when you find those issues. And so it does make for planning a better service and it makes it easier to do.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And if it wasn’t clear before, we should give some disclosures. The tool that Angela is using is from Remix, the company that Tiffany co-founded and led, which Via then acquired.

Tiffany Chu:
Right. So before my job as chief of staff to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, I was CEO of Remix, and we worked really closely with people like Angela to make it easy for them to adapt to changing ridership and also meet equity and environmental goals.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And as Angela hinted at the beginning, she witnessed some very extreme changes when COVID hit.

Reporter:
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been knocked down before. The Great Depression, 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, but its current leader says nothing matches the current pandemic by orders of magnitude.

Andrei Greenawalt:
When COVID shut down everything in 2020, it didn’t just hit the biggest cities. High Point’s ridership plummeted, too.

Tiffany Chu:
After the initial shock of lockdowns, people still needed to get places, especially essential workers, but demand shifted overall. So Angela was forced to design new routes, new frequencies, new assignment for her drivers and keep service running.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And now we have the tools to pull a ton of data together on how the system is performing and then visualize and execute changes really quickly.

Angela Wynes:
When COVID first hit and having to reduce service literally overnight, there was no way I could have done that manually and still kept the drivers going. We literally had one service end on Saturday, and by Monday we had whole new service going.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Why is it important to have good data and have it in a usable format? What do you with that?

Angela Wynes:
That data helps us make decisions, but it also informs the decision makers above us. The people who provide the funding, they want to know what ridership is like, they want to know how productive are we, are we doing two trips an hour or are we doing 25 trips an hour. That data also helps us determine, is there a route that we need to either eliminate, restructure? Or is it a route that is doing so well we need to consider, do we need to add another bus? It drives all of those decisions that most people don’t see in the background.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Do you think that technology and planning software, has it changed the job of the transportation planner over the last many years, or is the job just basically the same but it’s just made easier with these tools?

Angela Wynes:
The job is the same. Very much, it’s become easier to do all those things. You can make changes on the fly and you can see instantly what kind of impact that has. Whereas before, if we made a change, you’d be making the change, cross your fingers and hope that it didn’t create a nightmare, and then you’d have to start over again.

Andrei Greenawalt:
As Angela explained, pulling together data is the key to making this all work.

Tiffany, in your experience, what kind of data makes this dynamic planning possible and how was it managed historically before all this tech?

Tiffany Chu:
So talking to Remix users about how they used to do planning, it was everything from paper maps, colored pencils, sketch and trace paper, all of those things that are really important to just visualizing things, you can now do digitally on a computer. And what’s even more important is that you can have data that helps become an input to deciding what it is that you plan.

So for example, I think before, you had to be pretty much an expert on your whole network, and just know what were the most popular routes. And now, if you look at the data around ridership, so for example, boardings and alightings where people get on and off the bus, those stops, that data’s really important. Data around transit speeds, where is the bus getting stuck in traffic and where might it need some extra transit priority, infrastructure, or signal timing to get it across the intersection faster and keep it on time and reliable. All of these things that help optimize your traditional run of the mill bus route can be now done with much more precision and much more nuance due to technology and data.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And when I spoke with Aaron Bielenberg of McKinsey, he also zoomed in on this critical data and analytics piece as well.

Aaron Bielenberg:
We’re very much in the beginning of this. And infrastructure operators, whether they’re private or public, are really starting to see themselves as having to have a core data and analytics capability at the center of their organization. And having to have a more iterative, both capital planning, but also operational planning.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Big data has transformed the way that companies are designing products and services and then serving consumer demand. And it is now starting to also impact public transit.

Aaron Bielenberg:
And I think that the push here is really the declining traffic and usage for many of our public transport systems has created a lot of stress on their economics. But it also has forced, in many cases, a rethinking of really the quality and nature of the service they provide, and has focused their need to provide services that are more tailored to their user base. So we are seeing it. It’s still very early stage. It’s honestly not really specific to just transportation operators. It’s part of the way that we operate, but it’s more and more relevant for the delivery infrastructure services.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So we’re at a pivotal moment in transit. We have the tech tools to do a lot of good, but we’ve also seen new innovations strain their relationship with cities and lead to some controversies.

Tiffany, what do you think the path forward looks like for expanding options for riders and communities, while also making this all work for the broader public benefit?

Tiffany Chu:
So now that I have my public sector hat on, I think that there’s a lot of things I’ve learned just in the last couple months about what makes a really good public-private partnership and what makes a good private partner for local government.

And the first thing is about deeply understanding every city and every local government agency’s needs. And yes, every city thinks of themselves as a special snowflake. And I think in many ways that’s true. At the same time, I think there’s an element of technology, especially software-as-a-service, that kind of wants to make the assumption that you can use the same product at scale to serve everybody. And that’s what makes for a huge market. I actually think that in GovTech, the ability to kind of configure and change and tweak the product to fit the most important needs and pain points of a city or a community is kind of what makes or breaks the deal. In that, you want a vendor, you want a private company that basically you feel has been in your shoes before, or has done something similar before for a similarly sized city or community, to build that trust around even something as simple as data sharing. Being able to have good data at your fingertips as a city to make good decisions at the government level, I think that’s really clutch.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s such a good point, Tiffany. I think sometimes we think, “Oh, the technology can just be applied the same way everywhere,” but transportation and the needs of a community, it’s extremely local. And so, I think you absolutely need the private sector to recognize that and spend time listening and trying to solve the community’s problems, rather than suggesting to a city exactly how their problems should be solved.

And to dig deeper into this question of public private partnership and how to make that effective, I talked with Gabe Klein, who’s led both companies and government agencies. He’s the co-founder of Cityfi, which is a design firm focused on sustainable cities, mobility, and civic innovation.

Gabe Klein:
And we founded it on the belief that you can do good and be good. And what I mean by that is that you can have a great company, you can have great business practices, but you can also match that to great policy making. And if you do it right and you layer on the right technologies when needed, you can deliver top quality services and results and positive outcomes for society. So we basically don’t believe that to make money, you need to do bad things to the planet or to people. And we think those things should be aligned in a triple bottom line strategy. And so, we only work with companies that we think are at least working towards doing good things and want to partner with government, not work against government. And we work with a lot of government agencies as well; state, local, federal.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Gabe was a VP at Zipcar in the early 2000s. He founded Virgin’s mobility service, Virgin-Go. And he also started his own organic electric powered food truck chain called On the Fly. Later, he became the commissioner of the Departments of Transportation in both Chicago and Washington D.C., not at the same time. And then, just this past September, he was chosen to lead the Biden administration’s program to expand electric vehicle charging networks across the nation. Having worked at the front edge of both technology and government, Gabe has a ton of insight into how private sector innovators and public agencies can work together.

Gabe Klein:
And so, when I went into government I was like, “Oh my God, I could maybe make this less of an opaque black box and make it something that’s friendly, not just to citizens, but also to companies that want to do good things.” Because the things I wanted to do were good for society, whether it was Zipcar, Virgin-Go, On the Fly. And I felt like there was this assumption on government side, that no matter if you were a giant company or a little entrepreneur, that you were basically trying to exploit the government. And I really wanted to dispel that within the agency, try to set a national example, that you could partner with the private sector and do good things, and we should not just assume that they’re there to exploit us. So I had this sort of realization that we needed to try to create understanding between two sides.

Andrei Greenawalt:
What would be your advice to, I mean, there’s the tech companies that are doing their own thing and their interaction with government is regulatory. Then as you talked about, tech companies that are taking more of a partnership model. But you talked earlier about being inside government, and of misperceptions about the private sector, or at least those companies that want to do good. What about the reverse of that? What do tech companies not understand about government and how to interact with them?

Gabe Klein:
You ever seen two bucks sort of locked with their horns? There’s this assumption, I think, that government wants to make their lives a living hell, right? And look, to be fair, in my experience, and I wrote about in my book, I mean, I experienced that too, and it creates resentment. But I think the automatic assumption that all government’s the same, all local government’s the same, or all state government’s the same, and that they all want to make it incredibly hard for you to operate, is misplaced.

I think fundamentally, the partnership approach for the most part, 75% is the way to go. Because I look at what some companies that have gone this other way have actually spent, and the problem is that their business models may not work because of the amount of resources they have to put into lobbying, regulatory, legal. I mean, you’re talking about in some cases, millions of dollars a month. That’s one thing.

I think companies also should be thinking about, not just how to work with government, but also are they just pursuing scale or are they they pursuing quality of service and profitability? Because scale doesn’t always equal profitability. I think there’s just growth for the sake of growth, and there’s growth into particular areas or geographies that make financial sense where you either have a friendly government that wants to work with you or you’ve got some other sort of financial reason that makes sense.

Andrei Greenawalt:
What’s your kind of optimistic take on the future of mobility in our cities and the role that you think technology can play in that?

Gabe Klein:
So I’m actually very optimistic. I think sometimes you got to hit rock bottom before you can rebuild something the way it should be. I think the pandemic was devastating in a lot of ways there. I lost two friends that died, people I’d worked with, but I think it forced a reassessment of what’s important in transit and transportation. And so, whether it’s the money that’s flowed in to shared mobility, whether it’s the innovation and services and technology, whether it’s the federal wind at our back now to electrify everything. So I feel very positive. If you asked me two years ago, I may have given you a different answer.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So Tiffany, we’re coming out of this really hard period, I think for everyone, the pandemic, and you and I have been on both sides of this public sector, private sector divide. Do you think that moving forward, that transit technology has a role to play in helping bring our communities back? And what’s your sense of whether the public sector and private sector should be partnering more or less to make that happen?

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah, so having sat on the city side in both San Francisco and now Boston, I’ve started to formulate the opinion that there are things that cities are never going to do just based on the way that we’re staffed, we’re structured, the type of people we employ. And creating super disruptive, risky technology is never going to be the thing that a city is going to be amazing at. It’s just not. And I think there are certain things that we absolutely need to leave it to the private sector to innovate on and partner with companies to take a much bigger leap than the city would on its own. And I absolutely think that there are disruptive technology forces that are going to be super helpful to cities in the way that they think about their relevance in the future, what their residents’ expectations are and how to meet and exceed them. So that’s where I am now.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, that all makes sense to me. And I think it’s not always easy for people who work at cities or transit agencies to identify which company or which technology is going to help them achieve their goals best. And so I do think that sort of interaction between the private sector and public sector in a sort of candid, honest way is so important. And if we do it right, I think it can just have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. And I think we’re seeing that already. We’re seeing transit agencies and cities use a variety of technologies and it really is changing people’s lives on the ground, helping them reach that job that maybe they couldn’t reach before, or attend the school that would’ve been really hard for them to attend before, or just saving a bunch of money in their pocketbook so that they can do something else really important for their family.

I mean, I think the other reality is, regardless of what cities and transit agencies think in terms of partnering with technological companies, there are real changes happening and they are affecting things on the ground. And so, I think that’s what people like Angela Wynes are seeing every day in her job as she adapts to changing conditions that are happening on the ground.

If you were to be talking to an agency that sort of hasn’t done this yet, hasn’t started to adopt technology in a variety of forms, what would you express to them if they were like, “Angela, tell us why we should be adopting technology and looking at this in its various forms,” what would be your answer to them?

Angela Wynes:
I would say that like anywhere else, if you don’t start to adopt the technologies and provide your passengers, the public, the things that they want, you’ll start to lose your ridership. Or if you don’t lose it, you are not going to grow it because you aren’t going to be meeting people’s needs. We’ve gotten to a day and time where our kids, basically, by the time one, they’re already using some type of smart device; a tablet, a phone, even touchscreen computers. And so this generation now, they want instant, quick, fast, and those are things that we’re going to have to keep up with if we want future generations to be the ones who are using our service.

Tiffany Chu:
And that’s exactly why we’re making this podcast: to help people stay on top of changes happening in transportation.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s right. And coming up in our next episode, Equity and Accessibility. How to harness these changes so the system works for everyone. Mode Shift is produced by Via in partnership with Postscript Media. Via’s technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems from planning better networks and streets to operating efficient public transit. Learn more at ridewithvia.com. This show is hosted by me, Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And me. Tiffany Chu. If you’d 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 episode was produced by Steven Lacey, Anne Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez, Davin Aboagye, and Daniel Waldorf of Postscript Media. It’s also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed our theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilranc mixed the show.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll stick around as we explore these topics more deeply in coming episodes.

Rural transit needs help. According to analysis from the National Transit Database, 87 percent of the least-productive bus networks are located in rural counties with populations lower than 50,000 residents. 

These “transit deserts” in rural areas have major social, economic, and health consequences. How can technology and better planning solve the problem?

In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany explore the rural transit divide. Across the country, small towns and cities are coming up with new solutions to old mobility problems – making rural transit smarter, more accessible, and more affordable.

Guests: 

  • Valdosta, Georgia Mayor Scott Matheson
  • Scott Bogren, executive director at Community Transportation for America
  • Caroline Rodriguez, executive director of High Valley Transit

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

Transcript.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Hey there ModeShift listeners, before we get started today, we wanted to tell you about another podcast that we think you might enjoy: Talking Headways from Streetsblog USA.

Tiffany Chu:
With over 400 episodes, Talking Headways dives into every urban topic, from transportation to sustainable urban design, zoning, bus rapid transit, disability rights, dead malls, transportation access, archeology, and more.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Listen to leaders in their respective fields to find out what makes them tick while reducing the silos that pop up in planning discourse. You can find Talking Headways at usa.streetsblog.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Caroline Rodriguez:
I love telling people, “Go to Ecker Hill Middle School after school, when the bell rings to see what the kids are doing.” I have a middle schooler, so I have been there when she gets out of school. Do you know that half of those kids walk out of school and open their High Valley Transit app? Three of them piling into a micro vehicle. Going here, there, and everywhere. They can get where they’re going, and they can participate in their community.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Caroline Rodriguez. She’s the executive director of High Valley Transit. And Ecker Middle School is in Park City, a well-known resort town in Utah. The app that she’s talking about that these kids are using, it’s to order a shared van to take them to anywhere they need to go after school. And the best part, it’s completely free. And the phenomenon that Caroline’s talking about at Ecker Middle School, it’s a totally new one because High Valley Transit, the entire transit agency, it didn’t even exist until last year.

Caroline Rodriguez:
July 1, 2021 is our birthday.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I don’t think many people think about new transit agencies being created. So why was there a need for a new transit agency?

Caroline Rodriguez:
So one of the things that people do not realize about Park City, when they hear, “I’m going to Park City.” Park City is a teeny tiny town in Summit County.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Summit is one of the fastest growing counties in America. It’s a rural community nestled in an area of the Rocky Mountains called the Wasatch Back. Around 40,000 people live there, spread out over 2,000 square miles, and only 8,500 of them are in Park City.

Caroline Rodriguez:
Our workers travel from quite a distance. Usually, up a mountain pass in the winter to get to their jobs. There are two ways into town and two ways out, and we’re constricted by mountain range. So you can imagine, you can’t just put more people in cars and widen the roads and put them in because we’re very constrained. We have to find a better way to do it, and also a sustainable way that will help us to maintain our beautiful outdoor area. So we took about a year to discuss what that would look like and then it was almost like a switch was flipped. And Summit County elected officials said, “Let’s do this. Let’s stand up this regional transit agency and be the reliable source for community transit in the Wasatch Back.” It was six months of planning before we flipped the switch on standing up transit service, which looking back sounds insane.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Can you live in Summit County today and really access your job, your education, everything else in your life without a car, or will you be able to in the future?

Caroline Rodriguez:
Yes, you can live car-free in Summit County.

Tiffany Chu:
Wow. Car-free in a county that’s almost 2,000 square miles? That’s pretty incredible.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I know. And Summit County is not the only rural area that’s creating new transit in this way. Across the country, small towns and cities are coming up with new solutions to old mobility problems. Making world transit smarter, more accessible, and more affordable.

I’m Andre Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And I’m Tiffany Chu. This is ModeShift.

Andrei Greenawalt:
A podcast about the past, present, and future of how we move.

A lot of us in America grow up with the idea that public transit only exists in our biggest cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco. I know I did.

Tiffany Chu:
And I have to admit, before I started my career in transportation, this was my perception too. But around the country there are actually a lot of rural networks. Mostly, infrequent bus service near highways or Dial-a-Ride advanced service that needs to be booked far in advance.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I was surprised to learn about how many rural geographies are covered with transit. Most counties in the US have some transit service, and of course that doesn’t mean people in every town or city have easy access to those services, but they do exist.

Scott Bogren:
But the numbers, the volume of service, it’s nowhere near what an urban area generates. I mean, New York City has millions of trips a day. There are no rural operators that are anywhere close to that.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Scott Bogren. He’s the executive director at the Community Transportation Association of America which represents rural transit agencies across the nation. And he knows a lot about what it takes to set up transit systems in rural America. This is something he first discovered as a newspaper journalist over 30 years ago.

Scott Bogren:
My first real connection was they sent me to the central part of Pennsylvania for a week, and I met with rural transit systems. In the late ’80s, rural transit was just getting its feet underneath it. It had initially been funded in the late ’70s with a series of demonstration projects, ironically out of the Federal Highway Administration. I wanted to write about things that mattered. Previously, I was covering city council meetings and things that I could barely stay awake for, much less than have to go back and write about.

My first trip was in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. I was on a rural transit bus, and they had those old radios, two-way radios was the way they dispatched. The driver got lost. I was sitting in the back. We were in the middle of this open area. He called and told the dispatcher where he was, and the dispatcher said to him, “Go down this road about two miles, and I want you to turn left at the barking dog.” We drove down the road, and a dog came running along a fence line, barked at us. We turned left, and there was a passenger there waiting to pick up. I remember immediately thinking, “Oh, this is cool. These are the kinds of stories that I want to tell.” I went from writing to policy to… I ran membership. It was never my goal or my objective was to work in public transportation, but suddenly I found myself doing that, and I really liked it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Who needs GPS when you have barking dogs.

Scott Bogren:
Well, yeah. I don’t think that’s the way we do it anymore. But at the time, what it showed was the ingenuity and their ability to do a lot with a little which continues today. That was just the way they did it back then.

Tiffany Chu:
What a great story. I love that Scott became so interested in rural transit that he’s changed his career. It actually rings true to my story where, before we started Remix, I was a designer working at a nonprofit called Code for America. My colleagues and I built this grassroots digital prototype to help residents of San Francisco suggest better transit routes to the local transit agency, and someone tweeted it online. Before we knew it, overnight we had gotten about 200 emails from planners all over the world, who saw this tweet that went viral, and wrote to us saying, “Hey, saw what you built. Loved it. I want to use it for my real-life transportation project, and can you add 20 to 30 extra features?” And that was the moment, our barking dog moment. When we realized that there were something so interesting that we had stumbled upon because we had thrown together this fun tool and it took off. A few weeks later, I had a company. Seven years later, we sold it. It’s been a journey, a wild ride, and it’s completely changed the trajectory of my career.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I think that’s so interesting. I think that in talking to Scott, one thing that has kept him in this space for so long, is that he sees the impact of rural transit that it has on people and communities. The systems that he has been looking at and working with for decades now. They may not serve a huge number of people at once, but the value of each of those rides is really high, and it didn’t take long for Scott to see that

Scott Bogren:
I would ride in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it was routine for a passenger to get on the vehicle and say, “I didn’t leave my house for three years until this service arrived.” That was a real eye opener for me having lived largely in urban parts of the country. It was like, “Wow, that kind of isolation.”

Big trip generators in terms of our rural folks are going to be healthcare, Walmart, grocery trips. Many times, I’ve learned this lesson, they are taking older ladies to get their hair done. I was giving Senate testimony one time and one of the senators or one of their staff looked down on that, and I said, “You get on a vehicle, and you’ll see how important those trips are to people’s health and wellbeing.” And so, it’s always been more of a quasi-human social service which is where its roots were than being a public utility like an urban metro system would be.

Tiffany Chu:
Do not underestimate the importance of getting someone to an appointment no matter if it’s for hair or the doctor. We know people living in rural areas tend to be older. According to the census, just under a fifth of the rural population is older than 65. That’s significantly higher than urban areas, and social isolation in rural areas is a major risk factor. I’ve actually come across a couple studies showing that social isolation increases risk of heart disease, stroke, and death by 30%.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And this is a widespread problem. According to Smart Growth America, more than a million households in rural counties don’t have access to a vehicle. It’s harder for these people to get to jobs, to see friends, to make it to medical appointments, or the grocery store. For that reason, this model that we talked about earlier in rural Utah, where you summon a shared transit vehicle in real time on an app, it’s about way more than just convenience, and it’s spreading in rural counties all across America.

Can you just tell me a little bit about Valdosta?

Mayor Scott Matheson:
Yeah. Fantastic town right on the Florida border. Long known as the last gas stop before Florida because Florida taxes the gas a lot more than the state of Georgia does. Fill up before you hit Florida and save a few bucks.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Scott Matheson. He’s the mayor of Valdosta, Georgia, a city of 56,000 people. It was named one of America’s Friendliest Cities by Rand McNally. So I’m sure it would be an extremely pleasant place to fill up on gas. On the way to Florida. Mayor Matheson, he was elected in 2020 and before that he’d been in radio for 35 years. He’s purchased four local radio stations, and to this day he still hosts a local conservative radio talk show.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
You can see my smile. It’s a great way to make a living. It truly is.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And a central pillar of his election platform was not something that usually tops the list of conservative radio personalities: public transit. Valdosta has a university, a medical center, a major air force base, and 40,000 people per day come up to the city from Northern Florida. But the city had no transit system, none whatsoever. He remembers a particular moment from the campaign when this came up and how he seized on the opportunity.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
So I wanted something that was affordable, portable. I started looking at Uber and Lyft and seeing if we could subsidize that. I started looking at it, microtransit as a model and then on-demand transit seemed to rise to the top as I studied them. And a gentleman before me that was running against me, who I considered pretty prominent as far an opponent. They said, “What are you going to do about the transit solution?” He stood up and says, “We don’t have a transportation problem in the city of Valdosta.” He goes, “Last study I got headed says there’s 2.5 vehicles per household.” And goes so, “I don’t see a problem there.” And I’m sitting in my chair squirming down going, “Oh, what a gift.” So obviously, I jumped up, said, “I’ll solve it tomorrow and solve it with a modern-day solution known as on-demand transit.” That was my red-letter day during the campaign.

Andrei Greenawalt:
On the day you were sworn in, what did that look like? How did people get around? What were their options? In Valdosta.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
They waited for a cousin to get a car and to load up and pick up multiple friends or otherwise to tow them around town. It’s been sad for a long time. And again, we knew the need was there. Anybody with two eyes could see the need was there and then the national discussion starts in on things like food deserts and things where people that with no mobility. Doesn’t matter if you got great healthcare, it doesn’t matter. 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:
In April 2021, the city launched Valdosta On-Demand, and now residents can order rides through an app or a phone call in real time. The cars are black and gold, the same colors as the high school football team. And pretty quickly the program was in high demand.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
Though, when it launched, we held our breath. The studies that we had from a pilot program in the past might haven anticipated about 1,800 rides max per month. And obviously, we average in that first year. Well over 300 rides a day with what, 65,000 rides in our first calendar year.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And then the service started getting national attention.

Senator Jon Ossoff:
In the last several years, communities across Georgia have embraced microtransit. Valdosta’s new microtransit program is expected to average 170 riders. And this January completed close to 300 rides per day. The majority of these riders have a household income of $25,000 per year or less.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s US Senator Jon Ossoff who represents Georgia. He was speaking at a committee hearing, and here he is asking Scott Bogren, the rural transit expert you heard from earlier about how this service is impacting people.

Senator Jon Ossoff:
With the increased funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Mr. Bogren, how do you see microtransit transforming transit service for small cities like Valdosta, Georgia and rural communities over the next five years?

Scott Bogren:
Well, what it will do is it will provide an entirely new way to serve areas. Typically, a city the size of Valdosta would’ve had fixed route service, maybe operating buses at an hour headway. What the on demand model’s proving in Valdosta is it can increase service, serve more people, and do it at a lower cost. And we view that as a very important model that we want to see all other communities investing in and trying. It’s a place where we can partner with a private sector, and also where we can onboard the technology that really makes the service more relevant to a passenger than what we have often done in communities that size which is the bare minimum when it comes to a fixed route service.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And the senator has actually traveled to Valdosta to hop in the band with the mayor.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
So he became a big fan early on, and we started relaying to his office that we had a need to expand. We started relaying the stats and the bounce rate. He came up with congressional spending of almost a million dollars if we expanded our model. Again, we couldn’t just claim that money and say thanks. We’ll use it to operate if we expanded our model, so we started looking at the best way to do that. And I think we’re doing a good job, as I said, and now we’re projecting. We’re doing 446 last week was our peak numbers. So we project 500 easily, a very short order. So it’s good to have a senator on your side.

Tiffany Chu:
It actually makes me smile to hear a conservative Republican talk about public transit like this and finding a way to work with the democratic senator to create a workable solution. We know transit should be a nonpartisan issue, but like so many things today too often it falls along partisan lines.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I totally agree. I mean, first I should say I’m not completely objective here. I work for Via, the company that helps set up these ride services with Valdosta as well as High Valley Transit. But I think it’s important to talk about why this transcends political boundaries. Sometimes, people think leaders look to tech because it’s innovative or cool or something. Maybe that sometimes happens, but in Valdosta the traditional alternative just wasn’t going to work.

Why not just launch a more traditional bus system where they’re running on a fixed route with a fixed schedule?

Mayor Scott Matheson:
For the obvious reasons I’ve already stated, but subtle reasons that I haven’t. Our roads couldn’t accept that. Small city is two-lane roads a lot of times, its main arteries that handle 35, 40,000 cars a day. We would have to develop a working model and then start expanding roadways. And there’s no town in America that has that kind of money as well. We just actually couldn’t handle the circulation of a large bus system. It just didn’t work.

Tiffany Chu:
So what’s interesting here is that while the technology layer and business model are new, the concept of requesting transit on demand, also known as demand response, has been a core part of rural transit for decades.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s so true. Rural areas have been using an analog version of these systems for a long time.

Here’s Scott Bogren again.

Scott Bogren:
I’ve been working with agencies for 30 years who are on demand. Dial-a-Ride, you call up, you schedule and book a trip and then the trip arrives when you scheduled it and off you go. That was the general model for rural transit.

Well, nowadays, it’s technology. The ability to see a trip, know it’s coming, book, pay for, plan for, all on a phone. That is just as desirable now in rural America as it is in the urban space. And so, the challenge for them isn’t getting on demand working. These systems have been doing that for 30 years. It’s breaking out of two-day advanced notice windows. I was working with one of our members, and in doing some on demand mobility, they went from a three-day advanced notice window for older adults in their community to 15 minutes. That’s a life changer. And I just would ask anybody, you try to live your life with every trip you make having to be planned out 72 hours in advance and then move that to 15 minutes and understand it’s a sea change.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I think we can all agree that the smartphone and software has changed almost everything about our lives, including even how we request vehicles.

Caroline Rodriguez from High Valley Transit gave an example using me as the character.

Caroline Rodriguez:
It used to be that Lois in the office was scheduling Andrei’s ride with a pencil, and we relied on the driver to decide the best route and how to get Andrei here and there and could you put him on the vehicle with someone else? What I suspected, but honestly was not completely prepared for is the level of efficiency that introducing technology into demand response brings. What technology could bring to our community transit operation to make big buses, small vans, mountainous routes, all work together to provide this super efficient, super high level of transit service? Even to folks who quite literally live on the top of a mountain pass and do not see the sun for five months out of the year.

Tiffany Chu:
As I’m listening to these stories, they feel more relevant than ever right now. We’ve all been coping with inflation at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and this is acute in rural areas because of car dependency. People living in rural areas have seen living costs rise and spending power drop at far higher rates than people in urban areas.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, when I asked Caroline about the impact of expanding transit options in the community, she pointed to exactly that.

Caroline Rodriguez:
So in general, people spend 15, 20, up to 30% of their income on transportation costs, whether that’s maintaining a vehicle, putting gas in their car, or paying for a public transit pass. Well, as we know, there are many, many people within every community where they are just living on that edge where any unexpected expense can really throw their household into chaos. We here at High Valley Transit are a completely fare-free community transit system. So the fact that we have this really robust transit system, fare-free available — We were there right at the point when all of these families were trying to decide, “Do we spend extra income putting that gas in our car? That’s probably not as efficient as it could be, probably costs a lot to fill up, or High Valley Transit is right outside our door. It gets us where we’re going, it’s going to be safe.” Then that frees up some of that income to pay for milk, which has also gone up 30%. And those impacts are real and those are things that people don’t realize until they’re right in the middle of it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
There are serious economic and social challenges in rural America, and affordable mobility is a key piece of the puzzle to overcoming them. Being able to get around affordably affects the entire community. And so, we wanted to quickly look at two examples of how.

The first is riders with mobility limitations because of a disability or a chronic pain.

Patricia Robinson:
When I first moved to North Carolina, I was using the bus, and I didn’t like, it was very hard with me with a stroller or anything like that.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s Patricia Ann Robinson. She lives in Wilson, North Carolina, which is another southern town of about 50,000 people. And a couple of years ago, Wilson also rolled out an on demand transit service. Patricia has two young kids, she also has debilitating pain in her back.

Patricia Robinson:
I got good days, and I got bad days.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And on the bad days it’s very hard for her to move.

Patricia Robinson:
I can’t walk probably at all. I have to have the walker to try to help me on my kids. Then some days I just, them legs ain’t going to move. And Via has been good because my daughters can get in the share ride and do what needs to be done for me. I can do doctor visits more. You’re able to get picked up, and you don’t have to go so far like well with a bus ride you got to walk so far, but with shared service is a lot easier for mothers like me with children to get around versus catching a cab because you’re going to spend a lot of more money to get around when you’re trying to get somewhere and get to work and you can’t, you don’t have the funds.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Patricia relies on the service to get to physical therapy, to get her kids to activities, to get to the store, and not having to wait for a long time to get a bus or call a day or two in advance to get a ride. It’s transformed her life.

Patricia Robinson:
I remember when I first found out my back issues, I couldn’t walk as much I used to. Trying to walk across the street with them and my kids be holding my hand, “Come on Ma, the car’s going to hit you.” But I can’t walk for so fast. I mean, I don’t know what to do. But when shared service… Somebody introduced me to it, and I did know nothing about it, and I’m glad I did. When I can’t walk from here to the end of the corner, it picks me up from my home. Now, I like that. I’ve been able to walk a lot more since I’m not putting so much strain on my back.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The second piece relates to food deserts. The USDA estimates that 19 million people live in areas with limited access to quality fresh food at a supermarket. Tiffany, do you want to guess what the top reason for that is?

Tiffany Chu:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say transportation options.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Bingo.

Tiffany Chu:
We’re actually dealing with food deserts here in a major city like Boston. Whereas smaller rural communities with much less density have so much larger distances between homes and retail and grocery stores that folks need to traverse, and it makes it that much harder.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, and I think even the folks that can’t access those places, just the amount of time it takes to get to them, I think is a huge challenge. And just for folks who can’t access grocery stores, that particular thing it’s a real problem in Georgia. There was a study that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did, found that nearly two million people in the state live in food deserts. And similar issues persist for medical care and social services. I think transit can play a major role in overcoming that problem and it’s something that Mayor Matheson also talked about.

Can you just talk a little bit more about food deserts? Because I think I’m picking up that that was one aspect of this, it was very important to you, and we talk about the impact that this has had on that.

Mayor Scott Matheson:
Yeah, and that’s just one catch phrase, and that again has a definition. I believe in a larger urban center that’s four miles from the supermarket and no access as well. To us, that’s probably a shorter distance. But it’s still somebody who can’t get there to get the food is to have to beg a ride, to beg a 10 and 12, $15 cab ride just to go get groceries, and when they could have put that toward groceries. So we were solving that, but that goes for healthcare deserts, and a thousand other deserts as well. If somebody who doesn’t have reliable transportation loses a job because they can’t get to that job during that period of time. People might rally around them for a couple of days, but they can’t come pick them up for weeks and weeks until they can afford to repair that vehicle.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So Tiffany, we have two competing trends here. On the one hand, we’ve got inflation, income inequality, isolation and aging population, straining underfunded public transit in rural areas. But on the other hand, we’ve got an infrastructure bill that devotes a lot more money to rural transit. We’ve got new technology and business models for connecting people to rides in real time which is even making it possible to live car-free in small cities and more remote areas. What in your mind needs to happen to push these trends and make rural public transit as easy as hopping in a car parked in the driveway?

Tiffany Chu:
Well, I think one of the most important things is a sense of reliability. The reason why a car parked in a driveway is so enticing to people is because they know it’s going to be there. You open your door and it’s there. Whereas, transit is not always like that, but if transit can always be there because either you live in a place that has enough density to support a bus route that comes every 10 minutes. You can just walk outside, and on average you’ll wait five minutes for the bus. But in less dense areas where the density cannot support a bus coming every 10 minutes, if you can summon a vehicle with a click of a button and then you can share that vehicle with others so you’re not over utilizing resources, that is a sense of reliability and trust that people need to have before they’re willing to throw their car away.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I think that reliability piece is so key to getting people to use transit. And I think to get there, in rural America, we’re definitely going to need more investments, more funding. I do think as you have these success stories growing across the country about the benefits of transit in rural areas, I do think that has the potential to change the political dynamic a bit to draw in more and more folks into the idea that we should be investing in transit across the country because it is not something that is specific only to the big cities anymore. And so, I think along with investment, we need leadership from local officials who are willing to innovate and convince their communities that this is worth trying. And I do feel like this is something that can be solved. I think it is being solved and everyone I talk to expressed that same sense of optimism.

Scott Bogren:
The main thing that gives me hope is the industry’s history. It’s always been creative and innovative. It’s always made a lot out of a little. I definitely feel like that history will serve us well and is going to allow at a different scale those metrics of independence of contributing to fighting climate change and air quality and all. We’re going to see all that stuff move into rural America. And smaller communities can do this stuff. They’re much more nimble.

Caroline Rodriguez:
Community transit can be that link to living a full successful community driven lifestyle, even in a rural area. The way technology is supporting community transit now is the way of the future, and it is the way that community transit can fulfill the promise that we’ve made for the last 30 years.

Andrei Greenawalt:
ModeShift is produced by Via and partnership with Post Script Media. Via’s technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems. From planning better networks in streets to operating efficient public transit. Learn more at ridewithvia.com. This show is hosted by me, Andre Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And me, Tiffany Chu. If you like what you hear and think others would benefit from this show, please rate and review us in the app of your choice and send a link to the transit nerd in your life. The show is produced by Stephen Lacey, Alexandria Herr, Anne Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez, and Dalvin Aboagye of Post Script Media. It’s also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed the theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilranc mix the show.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Thanks for listening. Stay with us as we continue to explore these topics more deeply. We’ve got plenty more on the way.

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.

Transcript.

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 ridewithvia.com. 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.

America’s transit system is struggling. How do we fix it?

A D minus. That’s what the American Society of Civil Engineers gives US transit infrastructure for a grade. There’s a $176 billion repair backlog across the country; nearly half of the population doesn’t have access to any transit; and only 5% of US workers use a train or bus to get to work.

Ridership on transit was already declining even before Covid hit. Today, it’s still not anywhere close to where it was before the pandemic. Meanwhile, Americans spend more and more on transportation.

In our first episode of ModeShift, co-hosts Andrei Greenawalt and Tiffany Chu talk with experts about the state of transit, exploring the history of transit’s decline, and the economic and environmental impact of car dependency.

Guests:

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

Transcript.

Andrei Greenawalt:
So are we recording now or not?

Tiffany Chu:
Erm…

Andrei Greenawalt:
Not yet. Or-

Tiffany Chu:
We are recording, yep.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Okay. On a sweltering Friday afternoon in the middle of July, I took a trip on public transit from one side of Washington DC to the other with a producer in to. All right, I’m off to the Other Half brewery across town to meet a couple of my colleagues, Aparna and Tess, and have about probably a 10 to 15 minute walk to the Metro station. I live right in between two metro stations, we’re going to walk to the one that’s south of me, which is the Tenley Town Metro Station, because we’re headed south and then east to get to the Other Half brewery.
Now, riding City Transit isn’t new for me. I grew up in New York City and Transit was my ticket to teenage freedom and independence, and I’ve used transit in DC a bunch over the years, including sometimes on very hot summer days while wearing a dark suit and sweating, trying to get to my job in the Obama White House. This, on the other hand, was a comparatively low stakes trip from northwest DC to a brewery in northeast DC, located in a neighborhood called Ivy City. Which you cannot really get to by Subway or Metro, but we’re going to take that and then connect to a bus. So hopefully we’ll have a good trip. It is extremely hot in DC today, I just looked at the forecast. We’re in the low nineties on a very sunny day. The real feel is a round number of a hundred. So hopefully I will not melt in this journey across town.

Tiffany Chu:
A brewery, okay. So when you say low stakes trip, you are not kidding.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, right. I guess it depends a little bit on how much you value a cold IPA when it feels like it’s a hundred degrees out. But the trip really wasn’t about beer, it was about testing the transit system. So this brewery in Ivy City, it’s about seven miles across town from my house. And if I drove in a car, it would take me about 30 minutes, but I wanted to see what it would be like to make the trip by Metro and bus.

Tiffany Chu:
So DC, it’s one of the biggest cities in the US and taking the Metro and the bus sounds like it should be simple, but I’m guessing it wasn’t?

Andrei Greenawalt:
It was not.

Tiffany Chu:
Okay, go ahead.

Andrei Greenawalt:
All right, we’ve been waiting more than half an hour now for this bus, don’t see it coming down the road though. Trying to figure out whether to stick it out here or start an extremely long walk in the heat or find some other option for getting there.

I’m Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu:
And I’m Tiffany Chu, this is Mode Shift.

Andrei Greenawalt:
A podcast about the past, present, and future of how we get around.
We’ll get to the rest of my journey in a bit and what it tells us about why transit systems across America need so much help. But first, a bit about the two of us and what we’re going to cover over the next six episodes. Tiffany, we’re recording this fairly late at night, well after normal working hours. I take it your role as the Chief of Staff for the Mayor of Boston doesn’t allow for multi hour afternoon recording sessions?

Tiffany Chu:
That’s right. If you were to find me during the day, I’m typically running up and down the stairs at City Hall or chasing the Mayor down, trying to manage the 19,000 person organization that is the City of Boston. And simultaneously driving the Mayor’s agenda. Which some of you might know from her historic campaign, was built on climate, built on transportation, and built on equity. In a previous life, I was a designer and an urban planner and founded a transportation technology company in San Francisco called Remix, which was later acquired by Via. And how we met, I grew up into a Taiwanese immigrant family in a small New Jersey suburb, Bridgewater, where you honestly just can’t get around unless you have the resources to own a car. And that influenced my experience in the world deeply and led me through my career to where I am here today.

Andrei Greenawalt:
My experience was so different. I grew up in New York City as a kid and we took public transit everywhere. And as I got older, I followed the path of everyone else in my family. I went to law school, but I was always interested in policy and politics. And so after I clerked for a couple of federal judges, I jumped onto President Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007 instead of going to the big law firm. And after he won, I worked in the White House for five and a half years in a bunch of different roles, including in the Chief of Staff’s office. Then spent a year in Tokyo at a think tank and teaching a college class on the American presidency before coming back to the US and joining Via as its Head of Public Policy about six years ago. I’ve got a wife and two little kiddos, a five year old and a three year old who are thankfully sound asleep upstairs right now. And I am praying to the podcast Gods that it stays that way while we record.

Tiffany Chu:
Well, we’re very thankful for your well-behaved kids.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, they are definitely well behaved when they are sleeping. So over the last couple of months I’ve been talking to wide range of transportation experts and in the coming episodes in this series, we’re going to walk through a bunch of the different forces that are holding our transit system and mobility back in America, as well as those forces that could help unleash it’s promise. Tiffany’s going to be here to help me analyze all of these forces. And so to kick things off, wanted to play you a quote and get your reaction, Tiffany.

Daniel Ramot:
We could dramatically reduce the number of cars driving around New York City if instead of driving by yourself or taking an Uber or taking a taxi, which by the way I think of as, and I like to say this so please hate me, is basically the same as walking into a kindergarten and lighting up a cigarette and smoking. This is what you’re doing when you choose to drive by yourself. You’re inflicting secondhand smoke on all these poor people. I think if you instead of that shared your ride or took a bus or took a subway, we could reduce congestion and emissions dramatically across the city. Now we can’t ask you to do that today because for a lot of trips there’s no great solution. But what if there was a great solution? I think that’s a vision for the city of the future.

Andrei Greenawalt:
That’s my boss, the CEO of VIA speaking at a Bloomberg Summit in 2020. Single occupancy vehicles during rush hour, like smoking in a kindergarten. What is that evoke for you, Tiffany?

Tiffany Chu:
It evokes for me this philosophy that doing something like driving in your own car, in your own vehicle by yourself, is basically a disservice to everyone around you in a way that you don’t really realize until later because there’s so many unintended consequences. Whether it’s climate, whether it’s taking up space that could be better put to use like housing, et cetera. And it is just a very powerful metaphor.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I feel like it’s tough though, right? Because for a lot of people driving is really the only good way to get around. So it’s hard to blame a lot of people for driving instead of taking transit, when transit’s not available or wildly inconvenient.

Tiffany Chu:
And this is definitely my advocate voice coming out and definitely something that I think about and grapple with, especially as a city where there’s many places in Boston that are transit deserts and don’t have good public transit. So how do we expect those people to get around, get to their jobs, see their families? So it’s a very real struggle and real tension that folks across the entire country face and deal with. But I think we have some solutions to fix it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
I wanted to start by playing this clip because it gets to the heart of this series. There’s so many factors that are converging now to make us rethink mobility and transportation. We’ve got aging infrastructure, outdated planning, challenges with access to jobs and opportunities. Technology is changing things, too many people can’t reach their jobs. And then on top of all of that, we got the climate crisis and an overheating planet.

Tiffany Chu:
Yeah, it does really feel like people are waking up to the harms of the current system and realizing that there are much better ways to plan and build transportation and increase freedom of movement and decrease the cost to society.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And that’s what we’re going to unpack over these next six episodes. We’re going to hear from experts, practitioners, elected officials and riders about how we can change the paradigm for transit.

Beth Osborne:
We have created a society where your access to fresh foods, your access to educational opportunity, your access to jobs, is all contingent on whether or not you can purchase the golden ticket into the economy, which is the ownership of a car.

Jerome Horne:
It really comes down to elected officials that understand the intersectionality between good transportation and health and access to opportunity and the economy as a whole.

Cornelia Dinca:
We’ve just gone so far in this direction of car dependence, the only way to get back to a more balanced equilibrium is to be a little bit extreme about reclaiming these cities.

Caroline Rodriguez:
The way technology is supporting community transit now is the way of the future, and it is the way that community transit can fulfill the promise that we’ve made for the last 30 years, even in a rural area.

Aaron Bielenberg:
So I’m very optimistic that we can provide a multimodal set of solutions for really any particular environment.

Charles Brown:
A truly equitable transportation system or environment for me is one that sees people first. I have a word, freedom.

Tiffany Chu:
How did we get to a point where our transit system is under so much pressure at a time when investment is needed the most.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Now we’re both based in the US. Tiffany is in Boston. I’m in Washington DC, so while we’ll be borrowing from other countries and regions, we’re going to largely be focusing on the US and America is struggling. The American Society of Civil Engineers, they put out these grades on infrastructure pretty regularly. And the last report card it gave the US Transit system a D minus. A D minus. Tiffany, if you saw a D minus on your report card, how would you react?

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God. Well, one, I would cry. Two, I would shove it into the bottom of my backpack, and then three, I would probably get grounded by my parents for a month.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Okay. Good to know. No, D minuses for Tiffany Chu.

Tiffany Chu:
But I mean, you can see how we got to a D minus. So ridership on transit was declining even before COVID hit, and today it’s still not anywhere close to where it was before the pandemic. Delays are increasing and systems are struggling. And so here are some stats. There’s a $176 billion repair backlog across the country. Nearly half of the population doesn’t have any access to transit, and only 5% of US workers use a train or bus to get to work.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Wow, God, only 5%. Those are not good stats. We also know transit is so important to so many people’s lives. So to kind of get at some of this, we’ve been asking a lot of other people to characterize the state of the system, and one of those people is Jerome Horne.

Jerome Horne:
It’s like, we know what we need to do, but we don’t have the financial means or political will to get it done.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Jerome is a very proud transit nerd. He’s a director of transit leadership at a major transit foundation and get this, he owns a collection of hundreds of transit signs and model trains and buses that he dubs the International Micro Museum of Transit. I want to check that out one day. And growing up, when many 10 year olds were writing letters to their favorite athletes or actors, Jerome was writing them to the head of a transit agency.

Jerome Horne:
I grew up in Baltimore, and Baltimore does have a subway, even though people who live there, the joke is nobody knows that Baltimore has a subway. It’s one line, very short, but it has what’s called a rail fan window. So at the front of the train, you can go sit in the first seat and you can see out the front. And as a kid, I always wanted that seat, and I was so excited when the train would transition from being elevated to underground in a tunnel, that was always a rush for me. And so much so that when I was 10 years old, I sent my first email and it was to the CEO of the transit system in Baltimore asking him, “Hey, how can I get your job when I grow up?”

Andrei Greenawalt:
Jerome is probably the biggest transit evangelist you can get, and whenever he jumps on a new rail system, he still gets that same feeling he got as a 10 year old watching the train go underground. But the chronic problems facing the system can make that magic feel a little less special.

Jerome Horne:
We’re seeing a lot of our older systems in this country falling apart. Trains are derailing, things are catching fire. Literally parts of tunnels are collapsing in certain places, and that’s just because transit has not been prioritized, or been giving the funding that it really needs to, one, bring it up to what we call a state of good repair to make sure it can just operate, let alone think about expanding and adding new lines.

I also think that one of the things we’ve gotten wrong in this country is we also look at transit. “Oh, we built a new light rail line,” but no one’s riding it. And a lot of it is planning and thinking about transit projects in isolation, rather than part of a network or system. I think those are sort of a number of things where it’s maintenance, political will and land use are probably some of the biggest things that we haven’t been doing well.

Andrei Greenawalt:
It wasn’t always like this. In the early 20th century, America had a very robust network of cable cars and early subway systems. But in those decades between 1920 and 1950, we saw the financial collapse of those systems, thanks to the Great Depression and the rise of cars is competition. And over time, transit became seen as more of a welfare system rather than a utility for the benefit of everyone.

Jerome Horne:
It wasn’t always that way, and a lot of the great transit that exists in this country was built by private companies a long, long time ago. At a certain point, transit agencies became government entities, or authorities, or districts, and a lot of that sort of happened at the time, during and after white flight. After World War II, a lot of people were returning from war, and the GI Bill helped a lot of people move into new homes out in the first generation suburbs, particularly a lot of white people, and they were able to build that generational wealth as families, and those opportunities weren’t quite afforded to low income families and black and brown people in particular.

And once people moved out into the suburbs, you saw this erosion of existing transit in inner cities. And also thinking about, once again, planning of some of those more modern systems like BART in California or MARTA in Atlanta, the metro rail in DC. The thinking really changed to, okay, we’re going to build these systems that are hybrid subway, sort of in the inner city, but also hybrid commuter rail much further out into the suburbs. And during that time, we saw a lot of disconnection from the bus, and the bus was sort of othered, because once people stopped riding bus, the bus infrastructure and the amount of service that was being run sort of began to deteriorate over time.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The bus.

Tiffany Chu:
Workhorse of our transit system and the piece that’s most often neglected.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The bus is where I ran into problems on my trip to Ivy City. It’s what made the length of it totally unreasonable. My journey in the metro was pretty straightforward, fast, smooth, aside from some broken escalators.

So we’re approaching Tenleytown Metro here, and there is a lot of construction over the first set of escalators. And looking at a sign here, it says that there’s an escalator that’s going to be out of service for approximately 22 months.

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God, 22 months.

Andrei Greenawalt:
22 months. Isn’t that crazy? Anyway, we walked past that broken escalator and we went to go wait on the platform.

So we just came down to the platform and looks like according to the digital board here, we have about an eight minute wait, not too bad to take the metro in the direction that we need to go in.

Recorded Metro announcment:
Door opening, step back to allow customers to exit.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The time from leaving my house to getting off the train, eight stops away was about 35 minutes. We then left Union Station and we walked another 10 minutes or so to get to the bus stop.

See, it’s not exactly a bus stop, but it’s a place, it has a sign on the sidewalk. And is this… Yes, the D4…

There wasn’t much. There were no benches or anywhere to sit. There was just a curb and a tree box behind us and it was so hot.

And then we’ll see how much longer we have to wait for this bus here, but I think as we consult our apps, which I’m not sure are a 100% reliable here, it seems like we might have a bit of a wait on our hands. And this kind of last leg of our journey, I fear, is going to prove the most problematic.

After about 15 minutes, I looked at my phone just to see what else was available.

If you look at the other options that is Google suggesting, they’re suggesting that you could also take some scooters or a Lyft, but obviously a Lyft is going to cost us some extra money, and it looks like even the scooters are going to be quite a bit more expensive than taking the bus ride.

Tiffany Chu:
Okay, so wait, at this point, how far from the brewery are you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
A couple miles.

Tiffany Chu:
And did you consider the free option, walking?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I could have walked, but I got to remember, it felt like a hundred degrees outside and I wanted to use the option that was most useful to the most people. Of course, there’s also lots of rider who can’t walk that distance in the heat, because of their age, or maybe they have kids with them, or they have a disability. And so we stood there taking in the exhaust from passing cars and trucks.

You definitely have the experience even in DC, which has compared to many other American cities, very good public transit, just how dominated our system is by automobiles. As we stand here, we haven’t seen a single bus go by in either direction. All we’ve seen are lots of cars, some motorcycles, some delivery trucks, and we’ve seen a couple of bikes, some bikes and a few scooters, but very much the dominant thing we are seeing our cars, most of them being driven by people by themselves.

I kept looking down at my phone to see what time it was, and the producer and I had been there for well over 35 minutes breathing in the hot sticky air as cars whizz past us. And I got admit, I almost abandoned the operation, but right when it seemed like just totally unbearable, the wait thankfully ended.

Just stepped out on the street and I see a bus couple blocks away, so fingers crossed. This is our bus, D4. It’s got Ivy City flashing in the front. All right.

And finally we were on that bus cooling down.

I’m just looking at what Google estimates the drive would’ve been. It would’ve taken us eight minutes to get there, if we were driving or in a car. So we have the eight minute option, and then what I experienced, which was waiting for more than 35 minutes. We are in the middle of what’s probably going to be a 15 or 20 minute ride here on the bus, so just huge, huge time difference. I’m also extremely hungry right now, so it’s…

This is the brewery… seeing a sign. Walking up some steps. This looks familiar. Definitely approached this a different way I came last time. I think I drove and piled a lot of beers into my trunk last time I came here.

Tiffany Chu:
So you made it and the batteries hadn’t totally run out in the recorder. So how long did it actually take you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Actually first, the batteries did run out multiple times, but fortunately our producer was well prepared with some backups. But to answer your question, it took more than an hour and a half to go those seven miles.

Tiffany Chu:
An hour and a half for seven miles?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah. That’s not a short trip.

Tiffany Chu:
Oh my God. Well, this also begs the question, how did your ride compare to the colleagues that you were meeting?

Andrei Greenawalt:
It did not compare well in terms of time. I think it took me more than three times longer to get there than my colleagues who took cars to get to the brewery.

I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m so late.

Tess Gebretensai:
How are you?

Andrei Greenawalt:
Good to see you guys. How are you?

Tess Gebretensai:
It’s good to see you.

Andrei Greenawalt:
How did you guys get here?

Tess Gebretensai:
I drove from Alexandria.

Andrei Greenawalt:
You drove? Okay. And how long did that take?

Tess Gebretensai:
A little over 30 minutes. Yeah. I looked at the Metro times, I looked at the ride share prices from my area and I said better hit the car. Yeah.

Aparna Paladugu:
I took a Lyft because it would’ve been a 50 minute bus ride on two or three buses, depending on the route. It’s just so hot today. I was like, I’m going to melt. I’m only a couple miles away, I’m in Navy Yard. So this was probably a 12 minute Lyft ride. So felt like the balance of that much time and being hot on the bus was probably not worth it.

Tiffany Chu:
So they decided to light up a cigarette in a kindergarten class.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Right, Exactly. I was hot and very late, but at least I had my moral code intact. But I don’t know, I do have to say, can you really blame them or anyone else who drives when transit isn’t super convenient to where you need to go? If I have to do that trip again, I’ll probably take a car. The stakes of my trip were low, but the consequences of unreliable transit are really high for lots of people across America who need to get to school or work or medical appointments. So I don’t know, why do we have this system that makes that so much more attractive to take a car, even when only going a handful of miles in a big city like Washington, DC? So to get some additional context on this, I turned to a guy named Peter Norton.

Peter Norton:
I’m a historian and I think it’s pretty obvious, if you think about it, that everything we deal with in our lives out in the public world is the product of a long and convoluted and sometimes troubling history. I don’t think we can either perceive what we’re looking at accurately or make it better until we recognize the history that formed it.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Peter’s an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he teaches the history of technology among other things. He’s written multiple books on America’s car dependency, including the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

Peter Norton:
One way that can really help to reveal this perspective is to look at a satellite view like on Google of an American city or a suburb or even a small town. As you zoom in, you start to notice that buildings are there and streets are there, but it’s just lots and lots of pavement, big roads, lots of parking. From that point of view, we have towns that actually look more like car storage zones than communities.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Can you talk a little bit about the decline of public transit? So as cars boom, at some point we see a decline in kind of streetcar and bus lines. Obviously there was the Great Depression, other factors potentially at play. I’m curious, with cars booming, was the decline of transit something that happened organically or very much not organically?

Peter Norton:
Such an important question. You could plot those curves against each other, and yes, you would see that as car ownership rises, transit ridership flattens, and then slowly declines. Now, from that coincidence of curves, you’ll often see people say that this shows that people preferred the car to transit. I think that’s a misleading oversimplification because even when large majorities of people were still either riding the street car or riding the bus, or very often both, you see transit ridership already suffering because the service that the street railways and the bus lines could offer was affected by the number of cars, even when it was a small minority driving.

This comes from a number of things. One is from the automobiles themselves, which could drive on the tracks, they could block the path of the electric street car. The cost of operating a street railway rose steep deeply in the twenties after World War I, because of inflation, the coal to generate the electricity to operate the street railways rose steep deeply in price. Labor costs rose, when the labor costs weren’t met, there were strikes. When there were strikes, people had to find other ways to get to work. A lot of street railways had to make ends meet by skimping on maintenance, cutting corners in other ways. These things all were impediments to public transit and helped to start it on a gradual downturn. Of course, the Great Depression contributed that to that as well. And then after World War II, it accelerated.

Andrei Greenawalt:
The economic shifts that hurt public transit and helped cars were also fueled by a public relations stroke of brilliance. America was one of the first countries with a large auto industry, and that industry was incredibly good at influencing the narrative at the right time.

Peter Norton:
And that large automobile industry figured out early that it needs to tell stories about the car that are attractive to enlist popular support behind them.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Can you talk a little bit about the role that the automobile industry or other industry players played in that decline in public transit over time, after World War II perhaps?

Peter Norton:
Yes. Well, even before World War II, the automobile interest groups were very interested in finding a way to encourage people to drive more. That led to things like efforts to cast out on the legitimacy of walking in city streets and sometimes even outlawing it as jaywalking, that also included trying to raise the speed limit, trying to shift the blame in the event that a motorist collided with a pedestrian, trying to shift the blame toward the pedestrian.
Now after World War ii, yes, this trend certainly accelerated and this had to do with a complex combination of factors, which I’m going to try to simplify as an effort to redefine the accessibility of a destination as its accessibility by car. It was supposed to be a city’s obligation and a state obligation to ensure that you as a driver could get where you want to go via car. That includes having a parking place available for you when you arrived at your destination. This was to be a public responsibility, born at public expense.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And as Peter explained, after World War II, this led to a whole host of policy and planning decisions that led to the construction of roads throughout our cities, as well as huge amounts of parking, as cities competed to be attractive to car travel. At the expensive transit and other ways to get around, the car began to own the road.

Peter Norton:
These public policy measures alone, apart from transit, helped to explain transit’s decline because they show a massive commitment to supporting driving that took resources that could have been committed, at least in part, to making transit work well too.

Tiffany Chu:
Wow. I think many people assume that once the car became a mass produced and affordable option, it then became the only way that people wanted to travel. But so much effort and government investment went into making it attractive and convenient to drive a car.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Absolutely. Meanwhile, there are these huge costs to the environment, public health, and economic mobility. If you thought power plants were the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions in America, you’d be wrong. It’s actually transportation. Transportation is the number one contributor to the climate crisis in America today. So many families across the country are forced into spending huge chunks of their hard earned money on transportation. According to AAA, the cost of car ownership has jumped to an average of almost $10,000 a year, $10,000. 25 years ago when Beth Osborne first started her career, she quickly realized those costs.

Beth Osborne:
I realized that from a very young age it had been truly impacting the extent to which I had access to opportunity. When I was in college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I needed to find a job and most of the jobs that were available required you to drive to get to them. But I couldn’t afford a car because I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t get a job because I couldn’t afford a car. What a terrible economic system that requires that.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Beth is the Director of Transportation for America, a major transportation policy organization based in DC. She previously served in senior policy roles at the US Department of Transportation. Beth has been advocating for solutions to our transportation crisis for more than two decades. And so I asked her to describe the economic cost of our dependency on cars.

Beth Osborne:
Well, just in terms of numbers, it’s the second largest household expenditure. And it’s an expenditure that is deeply tied to housing cost because as people go further and further from the things they need to get a cheaper home, a home that is cheaper because it is far from the things you need. Your transportation costs go up and often they go up beyond the savings that you are getting from that house being further from the things you need. Also, transportation costs are sunk costs. You don’t earn money on buying a car, you lose money the second you sign the papers on owning that car. And a lot of the costs are dynamic and unpredictable. You don’t know when your car’s going to stop working or break down. You don’t know when gas prices are going to go up out of nowhere and stay up. You don’t know when they’re going to be low.

So we’re forcing people to put a ton of money into this area that takes money from them and doesn’t return it in order to be able to buy something that should build wealth. And often blocks them from being able to make that purchase and build wealth. We have created a society where your access to fresh foods, your access to educational opportunity, your access to jobs is all contingent on whether or not you can purchase the golden ticket into the economy, which is the ownership of a car.

Andrei Greenawalt:
And people needing that golden ticket as you put it. Has that, over the last couple of decades, do you think things have changed for the better, for the worse? Are we sort of exactly where we were 20 years ago on this question of car dependency in this country?

Beth Osborne:
It’s an interesting time. I mean, overall, most of our transportation trends are going in the wrong direction. We’re spending more money, we’re spending more time. People have to travel. Every human in the US has to travel about five miles more per day than they did when I got to Washington DC in order to accomplish the exact same things that they were accomplishing then. It’s just lower productivity, it’s more wasted time. What’s ironic, of course, is the benefits we use to justify this arrangement was a time savings benefit. The notion that if we built more space for cars, you’d save all this time. But in building all this space for cars, we shoved everything you needed so far away that you have to travel so much further, you’ve lost a ton of time.
And it’s just because we are progressing after the wrong things. So, so much of whether or not transportation functions or not and whether or not it functions efficiently is based on where we place things. And unfortunately, we have spent the last 30 to 40 years aggressively placing everything you need as far away from you as possible. It makes it hard to share rides, it makes it hard to travel outside of a car and every trip inside of a car is going to be inefficient because everybody’s crisscrossing paths and getting in each other’s way. And that’s why what we experience with transportation is inconvenient, frustrating, and expensive.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Inconvenient, frustrating, and expensive. But Tiffany, as you know, this show is also going to be about finding solutions, not just identifying the problem. So I’m curious, what do you think is going right for transit right now?

Tiffany Chu:
Well, I do think that transit, especially in dense metropolitan areas, is still more efficient and quicker to get from point A to point B. Probably in the top, maybe five cities in the US. It is still more competitive than the car in downtown cores. Other positives, I think there’s a really strong EV boom right now. People are really understanding the importance of electric vehicles. We just passed a historic climate bill at the federal level, unprecedented and also very 11th hour and surprising. And I think we’ve got some momentum, there’s something there.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I mean just to add to that, I think, yeah, you mentioned that climate law. We also have the infrastructure bill that passed last year that is pumping a bunch more money into public transit across America. I’m not sure that’s the impact of that has started to be seen yet, but I think it absolutely will. I feel like there’s a lot of great stuff happening at the local level and the work you’re doing and your mayor in Boston is exemplary of this. But I feel like there’s a lot of mayors now across the country and not just in big cities and smaller cities and even in kind of rural towns where we’re doing really creative interesting stuff on the mobility front. So you think we can break this paradigm?

Tiffany Chu:
I think there’s lots of highs and lots of lows in this transportation world. And the reason why you and I are both here is because we see the highs and we want to push forward. We think there’s hope and optimism and what we’ve heard today about all of our conversations around the importance of equity, the history of how we got to this point in America, our new climate policies, talking about technology. I think there’s so many reasons why this new decade coming up will be different than the past one.

Andrei Greenawalt:
Yeah, I agree with you. I think despite the history and the very real challenges we have, I remain quite optimistic about the future. Both with all the investment that’s coming from government as well as I think innovation that the private sector is bringing to the table. I think we’ve got a path forward and I’ll just add that in this country that we live in that is quite polarized at the moment. I do think so many of the issues around access to jobs and improving and expanding transit are actually quite bipartisan and that also gives me hope.

Tiffany Chu:
So coming up this season, we are going even deeper on how to fix transit. From infusing equity and planning to integrating new technology to serving rural communities, to imagining the car free city. So stay with us.

Andrei Greenawalt:
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 public transit. Learn more at ridewithvia.com. 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. The show is produced by Steven Lacey, Ann Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez and Dalvin Aboagye of Postscript Media. It’s also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Markwan compose our theme song. Sean Markwan and Greg Bill Frank mix the show.

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

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