Disability advocate, transportation planner and engineer, and transit nerd Chris Pangilinan shares an inside look at the work he’s done to improve access for those with mobility impairments and what is still left to do.
Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has implemented a robust transportation plan which includes a same-day mobility solution for older adults and persons with mobility impairments. Read our blog today to learn more!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Pangilinan: Chris Pangilinan
Cohen: This is such a powerful episode today. If you have a mobility impairment, 77% of the New York City subway is effectively off limits to you. Chris Pangilinan and I chat about the history of that inequity and what needs to change in order to address it. 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: My guest today is Chris Pangilinan who has just the coolest resume; it’s so broad. He’s been an advocate at TransitCenter, like our guest last week, Tabitha Decker. He’s worked as a planner and engineer at New York City Transit and San Francisco MTA. He even worked in the federal government in the federal Department of Transportation. So he’s got a wide range of experience, and now he’s earning his private sector stripes at Uber. So welcome to The Movement, Chris.
Pangilinan: Thank you, Josh. Appreciate it.
Cohen: Let’s start by giving our audience a little insight into the work you’re doing at Uber. What are you responsible for as head of global policy for public transportation?
Pangilinan: Sure. Thanks. Good question. Yeah, so I started at Uber a little over a year ago. And it is a fascinating role of trying to figure out how best a company like Uber, you know, one of the most well-known TNCs, can work with the public transportation field in-sector, if you will; how can TNCs make public transportation a more viable option and just kind of increase its appeal? And so my role is both internal where I work with our product and engineering team to just hear out what they’re working on and help advise the best ways from at least my experience, give input on how public transportation sees us as a company and sees ways that we could potentially fit into their equation of service, and also externally speaking on the topic of public transportation and TNC integration, mobility as a service, and sort of advancing the thoughts on the future of this really nascent industry right now, if you will, of transit and TNCs.
I think we’re always learning—right—in our jobs. And so one thing I really learned is how I see TNCs personally fitting into potentially car-free lifestyles and that is there a way that we can potentially create this alternative that is more appealing than the private car, a combination of a bunch of different modes: bikes, walking, transit, TNCs—you know, we call it like Zipcar—that make is such that we don’t have to buy cars in the future. I think this is all a very fascinating space here that we’re all trying to run into and explore.
Cohen: I mean, you know, I think what’s so interesting about this is that TNCs are still obviously fairly young in the grand scheme of things, at least compared to public transportation. And, you know, trying to find this, like, right balance between TNCs and public transit—because they each have strengths; they each have weaknesses—and trying to understand kind of where they kind of can work together or compliment each other well in order to achieve the community outcomes that communities want—right—which, you know, might be less congestion, less pollution, healthier communities, so forth, and so a greater mobility access, so forth.
So I think that’s a really kind of interesting nexus point that you’re at there. You mention this kind of car-free or car-light kind of world, a reality. And I can see where TNCs can play a part in that. Do you have a sense—I don’t know if this is part of your work or not, but do you have a sense on what percent of Uber users are car-free or car-light? Is that any research that y’all have done?
Pangilinan: You know, I don’t think we’ve necessarily done it, but I’ve seen other surveys that have been done in smaller populations like in the New Jersey/New York area for example or in other parts of the country. I believe it’s, like, in the—it’s more than 50%; 60%, 70% of people who have taken—in specific cities. It might be like, for example, Cincinnati, New Jersey, are car-free or with single car where they used to have two cars before. There’s also an interesting statistic, and I didn’t look it up before, but we wrote it up about Seattle where something like 80% to 90% of people use Uber once or less per week, indicating—of Uber riders—indicating that people are taking a variety of different modes in the city. And it could be their own car, but it could also be, you know, buses, bikes, and walking.
And so it’s like this basket of goods, you know, that allows you to take perhaps transit 10 days a week when we were commuting, and walking or biking to the store, and then when you have to go out at night or go someplace else really quickly then that TNC is there for you or the Zipcar is there for you for your weekend trip. And I think that’s the idea of a potential system that could be underpinning that car-free, car-light lifestyle.
Cohen: One other thing I’m kind of curious about from your experience working at Uber is that obviously you had experience working at public transit agencies for a number of years. That’s kind of your background there academically. So I imagine you’re fairly familiar with public transit. Right? I mean, you know, you’re kind of, like, an expert not only because of your training but also because of your work. Coming into Uber, you obviously probably didn’t know Uber as well, I imagine, as you knew public transit. So I’m kind of curious kind of what that experience has been like, what you’ve learned.
Pangilinan: As you noted, a lot of my career has been in the public sector and nonprofit sector, and so it’s a double learning here. It’s, one, working at learning about Uber itself but also learning just how a private company, you know, that was about to go public when I joined, all these other pressures on it, how that operates. Right? And I think, to me, that’s been like half the fun of my job for me personally, is just learning this other side. And I think when I was working at transit and at SFMTA and New York City Transit, you know, a lot of the things that we were doing there were very localized—right—like having to work on a specific street or a specific intersection, a specific bus line. And that’s what those cities’ agencies have to do, and they do it really well. And, to me, that was very rewarding in that I could go into that subway station or go onto that street and see my traffic light timing, see how that bus route was operating.
Then coming to Uber it’s this global company with millions of rides everyday around the world, and there was different situations in France versus the United States versus Brazil. And, to me, that was—you know, I had just traveled internationally maybe a handful of times before coming into this company. I was like, “Wow. This is so fascinating to see how—” Yes, it’s the same service everywhere kind of like if you go into McDonalds it’s the same menu with the same kind of experience. Right? It’s the same app experience everywhere you go, but there was just different issues around the way governments perceive, the way that we could fit with transportation or not in different countries with the way that they see new mobility potentially helping the way that their city operates transit, which was different than my American context.
So a lot of it was really learning the international public transportation context around this. Within the company itself and just in the private sector, I didn’t have a good understanding, I should say, of what it takes to get a company up and running like Uber and to build all the components on the app. You know, as an outsider I always thought, “Why do they even have more than a few hundred employees? Can’t they just maintain the app?” And then you realize, “Oh, there’s a lot that goes into this in terms of, like, processing payments and adding safety features to the app to make sure that drivers and riders are who they say they are when they get into the car, and that we can minimize safety risks.” And, of course, with the pandemic now is, “How do you get riders and drivers the right messaging and then getting protective equipment out to drivers, masks, and so on?” It’s hard to know what goes on inside an industry or a company until we’re inside it. And all of a sudden you start seeing all the little pieces at work, and it’s just, I think, really cool to see that in person now.
Cohen: Sure. No, I think that makes a lot of sense. One of the projects you worked on at TransitCenter was, I’m sure, maybe borne out of your experience working at New York City Transit and then of course being a resident of New York City, which is—it was a project called Access Denied. And it’s a report available; I’ll link to it when we put this up. And when I first saw it, it was just so impactful because I think it really opened my eyes on something that I honestly just hadn’t thought much about. And the context of the report is that the New York City MTA operates the least accessible major subway system in the country for people who require stair-free access. And so I think this report really opened my eyes on beyond the obvious, which is that it was not that accessible, was that stair-free access is important for a wide range of folks.
It’s, you know, obviously folks who are in a wheelchair but also folks that have strollers, folks that need a cane or other sort of tools to help them move around. And it just kind of, like, struck me; and it’s like, “Whoa. Like, this is not just something where it’s kind of a nice-to-have. This is a fundamental need-to-have.” So one of the things in the report is it talked about at the time of the report it was only 23% of the city’s subway systems had elevators. And I guess my question for you is, you know, beyond the legality of that, which it seems like that’s, like, a fundamental issue, it seems like this is maybe a realization that we’re not budgeting the real cost of doing business for public transit to function appropriately—right—if we have 23% of the city’s subway stations that aren’t even accessible if you can’t go down stairs. So I guess my question for you as a policy guy, as someone who worked on this report, how do we resolve this? I mean, this is to me like—this is a fundamental question I think we really got to work on.
Pangilinan: Oh, absolutely it is. And, you know, definitely a big thanks to TransitCenter and the board and David Bragdon, who is the director over there, for wanting to let me pursue this project when I was there and encourage it—and it became a really amazing report—and the folks that worked on this report. You know, I think what’s great about it is that it did highlight it, as you say. And I think with the situation that New York really demonstrates is, you know, the thought of people with disabilities being in society and being on trains was never a thing when especially in the ’20s and ’30s when the New York City Transit was being built. Right?
You had people who had disabilities in institutions and not working and never going to school until really the ’60s and ’70s when there was a lot of protests and civil rights movement around this—right—in Berkeley and Oakland and Denver and the rest of the country culminating in the ADA. But now that the ADA itself is now 30 years ago this year, 1990, what progress have we made? Right? And in some cities it’s great. BART here in San Francisco is fully accessible, great elevator reliability. However, in New York we’ve only gone 23% of the way in 30 years. I think Mel Plaut, who helped write this report, and I used to joke that it’s going to be until 2100-something until _________________________________________________________ [00:12:00] at this rate. Right? And I think what we have to do as a society and transportation is when we’re designing these systems is not just design it for the middle 60% to 70% of people. Like, you have to think about the use cases of everyone that we want all in society. And when we don’t bring those people into the conversation they’re not in leadership positions, not on the board, not in any of the community meetings, then they just get left out and all of a sudden you have a system designed for not everybody.
And I think you most visibly see this with the way we design kitchen cabinets, for example. They’re at a certain height, which is this percentage of height. And if you’re a little bit shorter or taller you’re bending over or can’t reach something. Right? And what we say as designers is, “Well, too bad. You figure it out yourself.” And that’s just the way we’ve accepted it in design. And when it comes to the subway, that’s how it’s translated into the stairs; like, “If you need stair-free access, well, you’re just not part of our equation in this design process.”
I think the critical way to look at this is the Second Avenue Subway. If you look at—I believe it is 86th Street, and I’m sure people who listen to the podcast can correct us later. There are multiple elevators that go down from the street level to the platform level—sorry to the mezzanine level. Because there’s no escalators, the only way to get down is that elevator bank. But then once you’re on the mezzanine there’s only one elevator shaft to the platform because there’s stairs for everybody else. And so we’re providing multiple elevators when everyone has to do it, but we’re only providing one elevator when it’s people with disabilities or strollers. And one elevator means when that elevator is down you can’t use that station anymore. And so there’s redundancy when it’s built for the mass, and it’s non-redundancy when it’s built for the so-called edge cases. And I think that mentality needs to shift.
Cohen: So, I mean, I agree. I guess, from the standpoint of your role, you know, your former role as an advocate and obviously still an advocate in your personal time, what are some very tangible and tactical ways we can move forward on that front? Right? Because I think if you just—even the way you just explained that to me, that’s not right; that’s not fair, right? And so whether we need additional funding to make that happen, whether we need to be more creative about how we’re trying to solve these problems, whatever the situation is, something has to change. What’s the thing that we can, like, really do now to help make that kind of thing change?
Pangilinan: Yeah, it’s a great point. I think—because we don’t want this to be some intractable problem that we’re never going to solve. Right? There has to be steps along the way to get there. And I think we have to first acknowledge too that retrofitting an old system is very expensive—right—like millions if not _____________________________________________ [15:00] millions. And, yeah, there probably are ways to reduce those costs, but it’s still going to be expensive. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to do it tomorrow either. So, yes, it’s taken us 30 years to get to 23%. It will probably take us some more time to get to close to 100%. And we might not get to 100%. There might be stations that are just impossible.
But what can we do now? I think what we can do now—I think what the former New York City Transit President Andy Byford did was great in setting out a plan for 50 new stations by 2025. Hopefully that capital plan can be preserved and still executed even despite the economic downturn going on. I think that the—I read that the new New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg has expressed interest in this as well when she was on the board, which is great; and to find ways that we can get people who are thinking about this situation in the decision-making process, in the agency.
You have a couple of folks in there now who were hired by Mr. Byford to help advise on accessibility. That’s a great start. Having that executive advisory level person there being there at the core is great. I think what doesn’t work is, like, having kind of a low-level offshoot office on accessibility because then it’s just like they’re having to fight for a voice at the table. But rather making it a core part of the culture of the agency and something that we think of, like, you know, when we build doorways or train platforms, you know, we want to make them level and we want to make the gap small and we want to make sure that most people can fit in the doorway without ducking down—right—and don’t have to step too high. Basic things like that, just keep those kind of design principles going in the discussion and think, “How do people get down to the station?” and just infusing that in the design of future systems, I think, is going to be a really critical part of the whole system, and not thinking of accessibility as just a bolt-on, you know, later on when the design is done.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, and I wonder. You know, you brought up the example of when the system was designed, especially folks with disabilities were not really seen in the same way they’re seen now.
Pangilinan: Very much so, yeah.
Cohen: And, to me, that really brings up too the solution that you pointed to, which is you’ve got to make sure that folks are in the room. You’ve got to make sure that folks that are not just able-bodied, that have the same type of job, that commute at only the same times that are, you know, peak hours—
Cohen: You have to make sure that the people who are representative of the community that is using that system are in that room so that they can kind of help to make sure that when folks are making decisions they’re making decisions that are going to impact people appropriately and not exclude people either purposefully, which I think has happened in the past, or just un-purposefully, which is probably more likely now where they’re just making decisions that are negatively impacting some groups without just being cognizant of that just for lack of education.
Pangilinan: Absolutely. And I think you make an interesting point, which is, like, most people who work at a transit agency—and this is not a fault or a bad thing, it’s just a fact—work usually 9:00 to 5:00 in the administrative office or roughly 9:00 to 5:00. And so we all have—and I’ve been guilty of this too as a former transit staffer, of thinking about the commute a lot, you know, and the 9:00 to 5:00, “That’s what I do. That’s what most other people must do.” I mean, you have ridership data; you have all of the stuff to prove that you have to have service, of course, 24/7, but there is sort of a bias to think about the commute—right—and making sure our peak hours met, making sure peak-hour bus service is met.
And then what happens is you kind of relax a little bit on the weekends, and you relax a little bit on the off-peak services. Right? Or you get more bus bunching, perhaps; you get fewer runs delivered. And all of a sudden your service quality for that person who has to get to work at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday—they’re missing a bus on an every-half-hour headway route. Right? First of all, they already have every half hour instead of every 10 minutes; and then that one bus is gone because they’ve called in sick and you have no backup. Why is that person’s commute to the hospital or to the bar or the grocery store for work less important than the person who goes downtown at 9:00 a.m. on Monday? Part of it is that person is not represented in the way we plan our services all the time. You’re absolutely right.
Cohen: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about community engagement and the importance of community engagement and the importance of advocacy in that. So I’d maybe like to use that as maybe a jumping-off point to kind of ask you, from your experience working in the public sector and on the advocacy side, what are some things that you’re now bringing into the private sector side now? Like, what are either some things you’ve learned or some perspectives that you’re taking that you had from your time working at these transit agencies, working at the fed, working at TransitCenter that you’re now bringing to Uber?
Pangilinan: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of it is also, for example, on the idea of community engagement and the idea of making sure we are when working with our service, you know, working on our changes in our platform or working on the way that we approach working with public transportation agencies is with a lot of the stuff we just talked about in mind as much as we can. You know, as an example, I think we are constantly working to make our app as accessible to people who are low-vision or deaf or just making the app more intuitive to use so everybody can use it.
And I think it helps that we are working a lot more with transit agencies as well, because that culture gets infused with—well, you know, that, “Oh, when we are providing public—you know, first-last mile trips or other trips that we are doing, you know, making sure that the public transportation service ethos, you know, that transit is always open for all—right—anybody can get on a bus is infused in as much as we can with us,” you know, to our best ability. And I think that’s fun, you know, being able to do that at a company that isn’t necessarily in the same public light, if you will, like a public transportation agency would be. And working with the same advocates actually that I used to work with when I was at TransitCenter or in transit agencies here and carrying those relationships over at Uber, whether it be an accessibility or in just good urban development or public transportation advocacy.
And for me, you know, having worked in the public sector and at TransitCenter and now here and maintaining those exact same relationships across all three of those sectors, it’s been fascinating to see, “Okay, when I was at TransitCenter I was like, ‘Yes, of course it should be this way, and here is the way that we can do it.’” And I think working with the FTA on like the Mobility on Demand Sandbox Program, saying like, “Here are the metrics you should measure. Here are the values to adhere to when looking at these partnerships,” and now I’m on the flipside. Right? Now, I’m, like, leading my own guidance, if you will, that I was working on.
Pangilinan: Like, “Okay. Now, how do we actually implement this now?” now that I’m here at the—do it or help my colleagues do it at least. And I think that’s been eye-opening to me. It helped me figure out, “Okay. If we’re going to be providing first-last mile service that expands people’s travel shed or whatever, what’s the best way to do this for everybody? How can we get wheelchair accessible vehicles in place where it’s necessary? How do we expand paratransit services with waves [ph][22:48] service like in Boston?”
And then all of the sudden the questions are, “Do we have enough waves [ph] in the country to do this? Like, do the vehicle manufacturers make enough waves [ph]? What are the right public policies at the state level to make sure that waves [ph] are financially sustainable across the country?” All these questions start opening up, I think; and I want to find ways that we can solve these problems that both the private sector can do and the public sector can help out where necessary.
Cohen: I love that. I love that experience of reading your own guidance now that you’re in this other side.
Cohen: You know, I think a lot about this too, you know, when you talk about the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles. You know, I think about this a lot with the Affordable Care Act. And, you know, I’m sure for President Obama when he was trying to make that happen, you know, after that’s done, after that gets put into law he can look back and feel very comfortable that, like, more people now have access to healthcare than before. You know, as someone in public policy and so forth, you have to, like, celebrate that.
The flipside is there’s still tens of millions of people that don’t have access to affordable healthcare, and that must also challenge him. Right? You know, and same thing with opening up accessible subway stations. Right? It’s like, “Well, you know, 23% is not enough. If we can get it to—you know, add an additional 50 stations in the next five years, that’s good, but we also don’t want to accept that either.” Right? And so we’re always trying to ratchet it up to say, like, “All right. We want to get there, but we also want to not—you know, we want to take that because that’s good; 50 more is better than where we are today.” But we also don’t want to accept that either because there’s more people that need access to mobility. So I think about that a lot, just, like, how to balance this desire for improvement but also not accepting this next level. You know?
Pangilinan: No, you’re absolutely right. It’s like, how—just as an advocate I think this is—it’s hard also because just because you’re an advocate in the disability community or any community that you’re an advocate in, whatever it might be, doesn’t mean you know the experience of everyone in your community. And so I try to push what I believe is right. I also am aware that I can also come from a place of privilege as a person with disability in that I have the ability to use my crutches when I’m in a wheelchair to walk up stairs in a subway where others may not.
And so am I more complacent? Am I not fighting hard enough for those who can’t? I don’t know sometimes. And, like, where is the line to push where am I demanding too much of the public sector and the folks that I’m trying to advocate for? You know? Or am I not asking for enough? And I think that’s something that is hard to admit when you’re trying to throw a hard line down and be like, “No, you shall do this. You shall get 100% by 2035,” or whatever it might be.
And I think we—at least speaking for myself; I can’t speak for other advocates; I definitely struggle with how do I play—and I’m sure the ACA was the same way. How do you get real, meaningful reform when you have a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House, versus pushing too far and not getting anything? You know?
Cohen: Yeah, totally.
Pangilinan: Or turning off the people you’re trying to convince to do something that you—and I still need New York City Transit and Governor Cuomo and all them to say yes—right—to build a more accessible subway. And I think you also don’t want to be too soft though, because it’s like, “Oh, okay. We can _____________________________________________ [26:48] this and focus on other priorities.” No, no, no; this is still a priority. It’s an open question. I don’t know if there’s an answer. It’s a great question though.
Cohen: No, I don’t have it either. I’m just—you know, sometimes it helps just to talk through it a little bit.
Pangilinan: It does; it does.
Cohen: But let’s maybe wrap up with this, which is, you know, you’ve had a varied career. And as you reflect on it I’m curious what you feel like has been the most helpful for you to get you to where you are and achieve what you have. You know, what has really driven your success, if you can even identify what one or two things that really have had the most impact?
Pangilinan: I’d preface it by saying also I didn’t map it out this way. It’s hard to understand sometimes, like, where you’ll end—like, I don’t think anybody knows. You know, when I was at the San Francisco MTA I had an amazing opportunity with my professor Robert Bertini from Portland State who brought me on to U.S. DOT. That’s how I got to the federal government for a year.
Pangilinan: And that was eye opening. You know, I have been—I’d gone to school in Boston, but I’d never really lived professionally on the East Coast before, let alone D.C. And just the people I met there, and it was just fantastic. And then I moved to New York, and I was like—that was a personal decision, by the way. I had wanted to live in New York. I watched Ghostbusters; I watched all the New York movies as a kid. I wanted to live in that city—you know—and of course the subway too, as a transit nerd. And so moving to New York was a personal decision, not a safe career decision, but it ended up being a great career move too because I got to work in New York City Transit; I got to work in transit and meet amazing people.
And I think what the theme that I discovered here is that it’s about being open to meeting people, being open to new experiences, and just being genuinely interested in what other people are doing. I never saw myself as just the one person at the company or the city; I was always, like, “Ooh, what are they doing? What are they doing? Maybe I can sit down with them for half an hour and they can tell me what they do in bus maintenance. I’m really curious,” or, “What is this data stuff? Oh, this is fascinating. Oh, these are—what is open data?” I remember asking that question back in ’09 and ’10 and then just diving into it, you know, even though I’m really a traffic engineer at the time.
And so if I could offer words, if I will, of, like, reflection and advice, it would be just to do all those things of openness but also be very curious about other things and just constantly be exploring. And be involved in things outside of work that are interesting to you. If they happen to line up with work, which I am lucky they do, then that’s great. Like, I love TRB, and I know you do too. These kinds of events, like, just going to conferences and having dinners, like, you know, you organized that dinner last year, having dinners and meeting people and talking. And if you can, organize your own things in your own city. Like, organize your own YPT chapter, Young Professional in Transportation chapter. Get involved with it because at the end of the day our transportation community is a tiny, tiny, tiny family, and everyone knows each other, and we cross paths. And just being open to those experiences, I think, is great.
Cohen: Well said; well said. I think curiosity is also one of my big recommendations as well. It’s certainly served me well in my career as well, so.
Cohen: Well, Chris. Thank you so much. This has been great to get some insight into your career and the work you’re doing now and the work you’ve done in the past and to also tangle through some of these ways we can kind of ratchet forward there a little bit with making progress on some things and also not accepting the progress that we’ve made.
Pangilinan: That’s right. That’s right. Thank you so much, Josh, for having me. This is great. And keep up the good fight, guys. It’s awesome.
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.
Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has implemented a robust transportation plan which includes a same-day mobility solution for older adults and persons with mobility impairments. Read our blog today to learn more!