Veronica Vanterpool’s experience as an advocate and board member at New York City’s MTA was grounded in equity and sustainability. Now as Chief Innovation Officer of the Delaware Transit Corporation, she’s challenging assumptions on what innovation actually is.
Public transit benefits more than just the economy and environment. There are health benefits as well. Read our blog today to learn more!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Vanterpool: Veronica Vanterpool
Cohen: Coming from New York City where most people don’t drive to Delaware where most people commute alone has required Veronica Vanterpool to explore both technological and cultural innovation in support of Delaware Department of Transportation secretary’s goal of achieving mobility as a right. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: So I’m so excited about my guest today, Veronica Vanterpool. Veronica has been in the trenches as an advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign where she rose to be executive director. She served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointee to the Metropolitan Transit Authority board in New York City; and now she recently joined the Delaware Transit Corporation and the Delaware Department of Transportation as the chief innovation officer. Welcome to The Movement, Veronica.
Vanterpool: Thank you very much, Josh.
Cohen: So you’ve had a fascinating career. I mean, you started as an advocate. You then kind of got into the governance side of things. Obviously you’re always dealing with governments when you’re an advocate, but then you kind of officially as a board member at the MTA. And now you’re an administrator at the Delaware Transit Corporation. So I’m really curious; what’s been the through line through all of your career choices that kind of has taken you from all these different kind of areas?
Vanterpool: Opportunities, certainly. But there has been some core elements to my work. I started with an environmental perspective and background in this work of transportation. In fact, I went to school for environmental science and policy, and my earlier jobs were all focused on the environmental sector. And my transition into transportation was also to follow an environmental goal.
And the organization that I had transitioned into in the advocacy realm was really focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and doing so by providing alternatives to people using their personal vehicle to get around, recognizing that not everyone can leave his or her car at home especially if they do not have other ways of getting around to work, to school, to services, etcetera. And I was really drawn and fascinated by that as a core element of this transportation organization. Of course, now I understand how environmental, social, economic goals are so inextricably linked.
Vanterpool: And that, to me, is such a strong nexus; and many of us in this work fundamentally understand that, but not everyone did. So environmental concerns and issues have always been an underpinning for me, but then adding equity and what fosters and supports and nurtures an equitable community and society. And, for me, access to affordable, modern, convenient, reliable transit is important to equity.
Cohen: Sure. And so tell me a little bit about your new role here in Delaware. What are you really working on there, and how are you focusing your energies in your new role?
Vanterpool: The Secretary of Transportation in Delaware, she says mobility is a right. And I love that that is the framing for many of the transportation decisions and investments that the state has been making particularly over the past few years. That is very much aligned and attuned with how I have approached my work in transportation advocacy broadly throughout the New York metropolitan region for so many years. What I am working on to help advance mobility as a right is thinking through ways of supporting mode shift and reducing barriers to transit access.
So for what that looks like in my new role as chief innovation officer is we are working on launching two autonomous transit shuttles. And we are just studying them. We’re piloting them, as many cities across the U.S. and many countries around the world are currently doing. We’re studying them to see how this technology works within our transportation network, how this might support and serve different individuals throughout our transit network who may not be adequately served right now in terms of access to a bus stop or frequency, for example.
So we see these autonomous shuttles as one tool for exploration to see how we might continue to provide service to those who are living with disabilities, those who are in areas of our communities that are not well served by our transit network, our bus network to be very specific. How might we deploy new and untraditional modes of transportation, make sure that we’re getting these people served with service delivery in a way that they’re not seeing now and in ways that are more practical than deploying a 40-foot bus in a community where six people may need service? But those six people need service, and we need to provide that service.
Vanterpool: So that’s one. Another area is we have a pretty large deployment of electric buses for a very small transit agency. Coming from New York’s MTA, New York is just beginning to pilot and explore electric vehicles on the road. And here in Delaware as a much smaller agency we already have 14 electric vehicles in our fleet and are running around different counties throughout the State of Delaware. And we’re very excited about not only the look but the advantages that that brings from a sustainability perspective, of course reduce fossil fuel emissions, cleaner vehicles, and then just thinking of supporting a more green technology grid in the State of Delaware.
And then lastly in terms of reducing barriers to transit access is thinking through microtransit and how might we better encourage mode shift and encourage people to leave their vehicles at home and instead use another mode to get to a hub, a bus hub, or a rail hub. And while Delaware Transit Corporation does not provide its own rail service, we actually contract with Pennsylvania’s SEPTA service. We do have several rail hubs throughout the State of Delaware that are intermodal hubs and are well used by not only residents of Delaware but employees and visitors to the State of Delaware.
Cohen: I guess Joe Biden is a famous Delaware train rider, so I know that’s—
Cohen: That’s definitely one that I’ve definitely heard of that has used the train there in Delaware, so.
Vanterpool: Indeed. And that’s in our largest city, in the City of Wilmington.
Cohen: Sure. So, you know, the way you framed innovation there is definitely something that I would say is kind of the more traditional way of thinking about innovation, you know, some of the autonomous vehicles, electrification, some of the newer kind of ways to move people around with microtransit. Are you tackling any innovation as it relates to kind of more how the DART and Delaware is kind of engaging with the public or trying to serve the community or maybe even like change culturally from kind of your overall how people view you in the state?
You know, so a little bit more, you know, less technological and more cultural, I guess. Is it—maybe that’s a tough—maybe I haven’t framed that particularly well, but I’m kind of trying to get at if there’s other elements of innovation that they’re you’re tackling that are maybe not as technological but also important.
Vanterpool: You framed it perfectly, and I’m glad that you asked that question because it’s critically important to how I’m communicating innovation. In fact, one of the key messages I’m delivering internally to the Delaware Transit Corporation, my colleagues throughout the state, is technology and innovation are not synonymous. Technology is a tool of innovation. And my role as a chief innovation officer is to think how we can change existing practices, how we can do things differently, how we can optimize our existing practices and protocols.
One way of doing that is certainly through communication and thinking how it is that we communicate with the public and what are the tools that we use to do that. So I recently attended what we call a community conversation, which is one mode of communicating with the public about proposed service changes. It’s different than a hearing. It’s more, “These are the proposed.” There’s a lot of message boards, and there’s staff on hand to engage with the public about particular bus route changes.
Vanterpool: And we have very useful videos on our website about how to use some our newer applications, for example, our new mobile app and how to pay with our new mobile pass. So while those are wonderful videos and tools that we have, they’re just housed on our on website. So now we’re discussing playing these videos at the start of every community conversation because having this very short, two-minute tutorial on how this app is used and how you can download it might encourage those who might be intimidated upon hearing of it through word of mouth from a staff member or from another bus rider.
But if we’re showing it in front of an audience that we have for these events, we are helping to support and encourage more people using those applications and those services. Thinking about how we communicate information on our website is particularly important. Having spent 15 years in the advocacy community, I sincerely appreciate how it is and the ways that we communicate information. So what are the narratives that we use, what are they key messages we highlight, what are the forums that we use to elevate those messages? And I certainly want to share those experiences that I’ve had over 15 years, here with my colleagues here.
So that’s one way of thinking about how we’re communicating differently. And internally in terms of some of our processes, just thinking through how is it that we are communicating opportunities, job opportunities, RFP and procurement opportunities.
Cohen: Hmm. Sure.
Vanterpool: So thinking differently about all of our processes and ensure that—I sort of say that I’m innovating my role here at the organization and serving as a bit of a project manager, if you will. And I am approaching this by diving into every element and facet of our work here, from being in the bus maintenance shops and yards, to hanging out in our bus command center, to talking with our software team. And I am just meeting and talking with everyone to really get a basic understanding and foundation for all the elements that comprise our service delivery as a transit organization and then wanting to build upon that and seeing where there’s areas of opportunity.
Cohen: Yeah. I like that a lot, and I’m thinking about that. When you talk about communication, that’s certainly been a theme that I’ve been thinking about a lot and been rolling around in my dead a little bit, because I do think that’s one that especially when we think about how easy it is to use transit and how intimidating it can be for someone who maybe hasn’t used it or maybe used it on a regular basis but needs to try a different route or a different area.
Things like the wayfinding, things like how we read the route schedules and so forth, I think it really—I feel like there’s so much room for improvement in the transit space, because I think for a long time we’ve just accepted that it’s a complex environment so therefore what we present to the public is going to be complex. And I guess I don’t want to accept that as the way it has to be, because I think if we can make it simpler and easier to use, I think, it will be better for everyone.
Vanterpool: I wholeheartedly agree. And I think one of the fascinating challenges I encounter in this new state of Delaware, having come from working, again, in the New York metro and very specifically in New York State, is the different transit ridership usage and stats here. So in Delaware 89% of Delaware workers commute to work by car. And that is a very, very high statistic, a high percentage and really the inverse of what we see in the New York City area certainly and of course the New York metro when you think about New Jersey as well.
Vanterpool: And five percent of workers in Delaware commute on foot, via bike, or using our bus network. And that is a very low percentage. You know, when you’re talking about New York City and you’re talking about households in New York City, 77% of them not even owning a vehicle and being so reliant on the public transit network throughout the region. It is indeed a fascinating challenge for me to convey the importance of public transit and the benefits of public transit and how public transit is so essential to a strong economy and a resilient environment and livable communities and interwoven societies. The messaging here is very different because people are very confined in their single-occupancy mode of travel.
Cohen: Sure. Well, you mentioned New York City there. I want to dive into that a little bit. And so prior to coming to Delaware you were on the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. And, you know, I’m not there. I’ve visited New York City. I’ve never lived there, but I can tell from afar that the politics in New York City and the politics in New York State in the particular way that the MTA is built with the governor and the mayor having various appointees, it’s definitely challenging. And I’m curious what the hardest decision that you had to wrestle with when you were on the MTA board and how you went about that process.
Vanterpool: One of the biggest challenges of being a board member for New York’s MTA is maintaining your fiduciary responsibility while being an independent and autonomous vote and voice. As a recommendation of Mayor de Blasio, I was one of the voting members. And not everyone on the board had a full vote. They were all different structures. There were some board members that did not have a vote; there were some board members that had one quarter of a vote, and so it was an interesting dynamic.
But what’s most important is that all board members are recommended by an elected official, appointed by an elected official, and that is the governor of New York State—at the time of my tenure it was Governor Cuomo, who is currently still the governor—and then confirmed by the New York State Senate. But we are expected as fiduciaries of this public authority to maintain independence and autonomy from our recommending official.
My recommending official, as you said, Josh, is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But my allegiance is not to the mayor of New York City, though I am a representative of—I was recommended as a representative of New York City’s 8.6 million residents. My responsibility is to the MTA as a fiscal member of the board.
Vanterpool: And I took that responsibility very seriously. There were times where I certainly agreed and advanced the goals of New York City mayor for New York City’s residents, and I would use my board membership to advance those goals. There were times that I disagreed with those goals, and I was very vocal to disagree and very clear about that. And one clear example of that was early on in my board tenure in 2016 I was very supportive of congestion pricing. I had always been supportive of congestion pricing in New York City. And at that time Mayor de Blasio was not in support, and I was very clear that I would be.
So it was very important for me to be very truthful, very independent, very fair, and very balanced, to both point out all the wonderful and positive things that the MTA, that our elected officials were doing to support transit ridership and increase ridership and support the goals of the MTA. I was also very clear and balanced when pointing out things that can and should have been done better, and that was my advocacy side. And I think stepping away from my board tenure after three and a half years, one of the greatest compliments I’ve always received was being that independent, autonomous voice that was not afraid to say it like it was.
That was never an easy dynamic to straddle. There’s always a very high-politicized environment, as you pointed out. The New York press on the transit beat is incredibly sharp and savvy, and they pay close attention to every detail, so every word that comes out of a board member’s mouth is very carefully scrutinized. We have a great press corps on this. So there’s a lot of pressure, and there’s a lot of visibility in this role. And board members have to use it well.
And while I was in the minority in terms of the votes on the board—the mayor of New York City has four votes of 17 votes on the board, 17 voting member on the board, I should say, and the governor of New York State has seven, for example—I was very clear to always use that forum to raise issues of equity, of fiscal responsibility and accountability to transparency and communication and public engagement. And I wasn’t going to be beholden by politics necessarily. That was one of the biggest challenges of being on the board.
Cohen: Oh, I can only imagine and especially with all of the great opportunity and challenges that New York City faces as it relates to pubic transit. Certainly a lot of people depend on it every day, and at the same time, you know, there’s a lot of deferred maintenance, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make it as—continue to be impactful for all those people that depend on it and ideally even make it better.
Cohen: So I appreciate your service to that. I want to wrap up with this, which is the whole theme that I tackle on this podcast is kind of what’s necessary to build the equitable, accessible, and green mobility future that we all want to live in. And I’m curious what your advice would be to other either current leaders like yourself or future leaders that, you know, may be the board member for the MTA in a few years, but what kind of advice you would give them on how best to help our communities move forward as quickly as possible towards that equitable and accessible and green future that we want.
Vanterpool: I think a real commitment to some very clear goals and being authentic to that commitment and those goals. So, as I said at the top of our discussion, equity and environmental sustainability have been an undercurrent for me personally. And that has been a very consistent goal in all of my advocacy, has been the root of how I’ve explained this work. And I think it’s important for people and leaders to be very clear about what the goal is.
In Delaware, as I mentioned, the Secretary of Transportation has said mobility is a right. And it is our goal here to make sure that we are providing mobility to everyone throughout the state in every mode for everyone, all users, all modes. That is a very clear, concise goal.
Vanterpool: And it helps to achieve buy-in because buy-in is the next necessary thing. In a state where 89% of people use their personal vehicle to get to work, we need to make a very clear case statement for why transit is important to those 89% of people who are driving to work.
Vanterpool: We need to get them bought into why a strong, solid public transit network is important to them as well. And that buy-in is important for investment on the capital to the operating side. Regardless of where your sources of funding are coming from, that’s important. It’s important to supporting legislation or policy initiatives that advance the goals of your transit network or your transit agency or any other transportation sustainable goal, for example. So making sure that we have this clear, concise message and these clear goals will help with that buy-in.
And I think that is what good leaders are doing. Good leaders are very clearly communicating why this is important and are very clearly articulating in the face of opposition why there are benefits for all but acknowledging that there are some real challenges too.
Vanterpool: So I see that as being key nuggets of success. And I’ve learned a lot from my advocacy colleagues in the New York metro, whom I think are amongst the sharpest and most strategic and knowledgeable individuals I’ve worked with, but also with colleagues across this country that are working in all sorts of great cities like Durham and Denver and L.A. and Chicago and Boston. And we all have similar ingredients for success.
Cohen: For sure. And I love that idea of just having that authentic commitment to those goals. We hear people talk about goals all the time, but what I love about this is that this is kind of rooted in kind of who you are and what you believe and what the secretary in Delaware believes about mobility is a right. I think people can feel that; and when they feel that, I think, that helps with that buy-in certainly. So I appreciate you framing it that way because I think that’s a really impressive and key way to do that.
Vanterpool: Thank you, Josh.
Cohen: Thank you so much for joining me on The Movement podcast.
Vanterpool: And I want to thank you, Josh, too for highlighting so many of the issues on your podcast. You have such a wonderful roster of thought leaders and influencers in this space and on great topics, so I want to thank you for including me in that roster.
Cohen: Oh, you fit right in.
Vanterpool: Thank you.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
Public transit benefits more than just the economy and environment. There are health benefits as well. Read our blog today to learn more!