Listen to more episodes of The Movement Podcast here!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Stuart: Shabazz Stuart
Cohen: If you want to understand the problem that our guest today, Shabazz Stuart, is solving with his startup Oonee, do this first. Think of bikes not as a novelty or an amenity but as a utility, as a critical component of an effective transportation network that people use to get to jobs, to school, or to run errands. And when you do that you’ll find that something as simple as a protected place to park your bike is an integral part of equitable transportation. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Our guest today is Shabazz Stuart, the founder and CEO of Oonee, a New York City based manufacturer of a customizable pod featuring bike parking on the inside and public space amenities on the exterior.
Jensen: Prior to founding Oonee, Shabazz was the deputy director of operations for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and a Coro Fellow in public affairs. Welcome to The Movement, Shabazz.
Stuart: Thanks for having me. I’m very excited to talk to you guys.
Cohen: I’ve heard about your work, I think, once or twice. You know, I keep a running list of kind of interesting things I read about over time, and then I saw an article a few months ago which was, I thought, actually titled really, really well, which is it said—it was in the New York Times. It said, “New York City’s Bike Parking Problem: 1.6 Million Riders and Just 56,000 Spots.”
Cohen: And so I feel like that title does a pretty good job of kind of setting the stage for the problem that Oonee is solving, but I’d love for you maybe to give us a little bit more context on this problem that you’re solving with Oonee and why it’s so important to you.
Stuart: That was a great article, and Winnie Hu did a wonderful job really covering something that is—and I said it in the article—is the greatest, most ignored transportation problem that exists today. Right? No problem is so impactful but so under the radar, so often ignored, so not even tracked, as secure bike parking and bike theft. Right? And those two, of course, are interdependent. So my story starts when I had three bikes stolen in five years. I was a political science major in college. I was working for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership where I was managing public space. And I was kind of, like, “Why aren’t people taking this more seriously?” If we are going to have a bike-driven ecosystem, if bikes are going to ever be in New York—but, you know, New York is emblematic in many ways of the urban trends across our nation—25% mode share, 30% mode share, then we need to create a cogent ecosystem of infrastructure.
So let me phrase it this way; to be competitive biking needs to be as convenient or more convenient as using a car. And so when we think about using a car no one says, “Oh, wow. It was really safe in my car today.” Right? We say, “Traffic was bad.” Right? “I couldn’t find a gas station,” you know, “I couldn’t find parking.” Right? And so cities have been focused for so long on solving the safety part of the equation. This assumption that exists today is, “If we just make it safe, then people will bike.” And, no, safety is necessary but not sufficient. We need to be convenient, fast, and reliable. And so Oonee is about solving those other things, can we build human-centered infrastructure that exists in the public right-of-way that allows cycling to be convenient, fast, and reliable. Now, if you go outside, as I did in 2015, and you discover that your bicycle is on longer there, that’s not convenient, fast, or reliable. Right?
So in New York, as in other cities, 50% of all active riders experience bike theft. In that article we found out that one out of every four New York households, period, experiences bike theft. Right? And what’s been particularly discouraging is about eight percent of people who experience bike theft actually never return to biking. So you can think about this prodigious period of growth we’ve been seeing since the year 2000. In New York, we’re up about 300%, and we’re up about 100% since the pandemic, the number of bikes on the street. But we’re taking like five steps forward and, like, two steps backward every year because people are going out there; they’re, “Oh, I love biking. This is great. It’s a great way to get around. It’s competitive. It’s fast. Oh, my wheel got stolen,” or, “My bike got stolen.” Right? And that’s just a discouraging, disheartening feeling, and people are dropping out. They’re going back to other modes. Right?
And so Oonee is about working with cities. We’re actually not just a manufacturer; we are a concession. We design, we build, we customize, we design, and we operate, and we finance. The idea is that in order to eliminate the reasons that cities traditionally say no to this kind of infrastructure, we need to think big. Right? We need to do it all, and we need to do it all on scale. So once you start saying, “You know, our goal shouldn’t be to have four of these in New York; it should be to have 4,000. What do we have to do to create an environment where 4,000 can thrive?” well, we need to tackle all of these problems together. Right? Who is paying for it? Who is operating it? How is it being used? Right? Who is maintaining it? All of these different things.
So Oonee is a bit of a moonshot. It’s gambling on a new form of public space infrastructure. You know, in that article—I’ll close by saying, in that article I think we recognized for the first time—I think Winnie did a really amazing job of framing the conversation. New York has 56,000 bike parking spaces, only 20 of which are secure. Right? Only the Oonee in Downtown Brooklyn is secure. London has 157,000 bike parking spaces with almost 1,000 secure, and London is a little smaller than New York City. So we have a long way to go here in New York. New York is behind but not too far behind other major American metropolises. Right? If you travel to Boston or LA or San Francisco, there is bike parking, but it’s usually confined to what we would call park-and-ride facilities at transit hubs. Right?
The idea that bike parking hubs should be as commonplace as bus shelters seems to be beyond our grasp in America. Right? New York has 4,000 bus shelters. We have 400 newsstands. And so why can’t bike parking be as plentiful as those other assets that we’ve recognized are basically ancillary to public transit and to a modern streetscape. Right? We know that, “Hey, ride the bus?” people need bus shelters because they don’t want to get wet when it rains; they want a clean place to sit, etcetera. If you’re going to ride a bike, you need a place to put your bike at the beginning of your trip or at the end of your trip. And so Oonee is about thinking cogently about that entire landscape, recognizing how far we have left to go, and working with cities in a proactive manner to create public solutions that actually work for all stakeholders involved. It’s a lot. I mean—[LAUGHS]
Cohen: Well, no. It is a lot, and I guess—there’s a couple thoughts, but one was the transit shelter is a great example. The bus shelter is a great example because it certainly is one that, while in our community and in many communities—maybe New York City, maybe is better than most because it’s got such a big bus culture, but in many communities transit shelters aren’t even, you know, as plentiful as they should be. But I guess that’s a good example in the sense that, you know, you’ve got a lot of them, you know, transit shelters in New York City, and they’re pretty well accepted. Why do you think that the bike shelter is not given that same kind of acceptance level yet?
Stuart: That’s a wonderful question. Transit shelter—so in cities today there is an accepted range of what we would call streetscape furniture. Right? And I’ll take it to the next step. There’s an accepted range of what we would call streetscape furniture classes that are financed by advertising in key markets. Right?
Stuart: Here in New York, the City of New York doesn’t actually pay for its bus shelters or newsstands; we actually grant a contractor the right to build those newsstands and bus shelters in exchange for putting billboards on them and paying the city a revenue share. And that’s how we finance our Wi-Fi kiosks called LinkNYC; it’s how we finance our bikeshare system in Citi Bike; it’s how we finance our bus shelters and newsstands. And increasingly it’s how we also finance our trashcans and our Bigbelly waste receptacles.
You see the top 10 markets, you know, from New York to San Francisco, to Boston, to Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami are all able to finance infrastructure this way because they’re out-of-home advertising friendly. Paris finances their bikeshare program that way. They give JCDecaux advertising rights elsewhere in the city in exchange for running the city’s bikeshare network. So that’s a protected class of streetscape infrastructure. Right? Because it’s not just, “Hey, can I build it?” It’s, “Why would I build it? Is it financially interesting?”
Now, the question is, why haven’t bikes traditionally been in that category? It’s a little bit of a three-part answer at least. The first reason is that cities just haven’t historically thought of bikes as a serious mode of transportation. I think, even today when you get a lot of DOT policymakers behind closed doors—and I don’t just mean in New York; I mean in cities across America—I think bikes are still thought of as a novelty or as an amenity.
Cohen: Hmm. Yeah.
Stuart: What we want to get to is where bikes are thought of as a utility. Right? Now, when you look at bike lane networks in New York or in San Francisco, “Oh, they cut out there. They cut out there. You know, they’re not protected.” Now, no one drives and says, “Oh, just now a dirt road between here and there.” Now, of course not. Right? It’s because people are still conceiving, whether they want to admit it or not, as bikes as a nice-to-have not a must-have. Right? In order to design an effective transportation network, bikes must be a must-have.
Now, we just started 20 years ago, you know, here in New York with the Bloomberg administration, Janette Sadik Khan thinking about bikes as a must-have. We built 700-plus miles of bike lanes over a period of five years or so. Right? So we’re just getting started. When you think about why we haven’t incorporated secure bike parking facilities into that protected class of infrastructure, those are 20-year contracts. You know? New York awarded a streetscape contract in 2000. Right? It started being planned in 1998, so it’s a generational issue. And unfortunately people just haven’t connected the dots—right—like, “Oh, hey. You know, we need to have secure bike parking as plentiful as bus shelters.” Right? Policymakers are still catching up. And, frankly, even in Europe they’re not there yet.
So when we started the journey in 2017 in Oonee, we were just trying to convince people that this was an issue that should be taken seriously. And when we went to advocates, you know, advocates would tell us, “Do you really think that bike parking is something that we should be focused—we should be spending time on? Like, why not spend time on this or spend time on, like, bikeshare, or spend time on, you know, making bike lanes safer?” So that was an uphill battle. When we went to the DOT and the City of New York it was an uphill battle saying, “Hey, let’s think about bike parking as we think about bus shelters or transit shelters or newsstands.” That was an uphill battle too.
So now that we are at the, you know, we’re at the end of two decades of real strong, prodigious growth among bikes as a modes, we’re starting to see the attitude change where folks are saying, “Hey—” you know, New York has 700, 1,000 bikeshare stations. We’ve got 1,700 Wi-Fi kiosks. We’ve got, you know, 3,000, 4,000 bus shelters. We’ve got 400 newsstands. Why can’t we have—we have 4 millions free on-street parking spaces, why can’t—
Cohen: Now you’re getting there. Now we’re getting there.
Stuart: Why can’t we have 200, 300, 400 municipal bike parking stations? That should be something that we include in that package. It was just an argument that, I think, people haven’t thought of, yet alone thought of seriously. And now, you know, the New York Times, that was the third article from the New York Times on bike parking in under a year. So now that people are taking it seriously, I think, cities are increasingly ready to have a conversation. I can share with you—I can’t tell you which city, but—we did see our first secure bike parking RFP, a large city, for the first time said, “Let’s plan for 30 station,” which for that particular city is almost ubiquitous coverage. You know, and that was the first time we’ve ever seen that in the history of America. We are seeing a second city move in that direction. So cities have decided they want this infrastructure; now it’s time to think about how we pay for it. And traditionally, you know, and our message to DOTs is, “You pay for other infrastructure with advertising and sponsorship. Let’s take biking seriously, and let’s pay for it that way as well.”
Lastly, I’ll point out that one of the reasons that bike infrastructure and bike parking infrastructure hasn’t metastasized in the way that is sufficient to support this growing mode is that we’re porting over a really outdated and inadequate business model, which is that the user is going to pay for the bike parking. Right? “We’re going to run our bike parking like we run our car parking.” Right? The problem is that we see again and again and again that cyclists for whatever reason are not willing to pay $30, $40, $50 buck a month for bike parking. Right? So traditionally the sector has said, “Well, it’s just not—nah, it’s not really worth it. It’s not a good business.” Right? But we don’t look at other transportation infrastructures that way. No one pays to use bus shelters. Right? We subsidize mass transit. We subsidize highways. We subsidize all forms of transit.
Cohen: Subsidize all that free parking in Manhattan. Right?
Stuart: Exactly. So what we should be doing is saying, “Where is the value of having high quality, high functioning, high design bike parking infrastructure? What do we have to do to capture that value, and what’s an innovative business and financial model that can get us there?” So when you look at the Oonees that we have in New York, some folks will say, “Oh, those look really good. Those must be expensive.” Well, they have to be expensive if you’re going to convince communities that they should be in literally the middle of the street or in a public plaza. Right? And if you’re going to spend $50,000, $100,000 on a marquee facility, you better have an innovative financial model that can port over to support that facility, and it can’t be nickeling-and-diming cyclists. Right? You’re never going to get to that CapEx by nickeling-and-diming cyclists. Right?
Even the bike lockers we see at stations today in San Francisco and in Boston, those are really expensive. Those are, like, $2,000 per space. Right? And there can only be—that can only be purchased under the auspices of a massive infrastructure upgrade like building a parking garage; they have a budget for green infrastructure. That is not a scalable way to build bike infrastructure. We’re not going to have parking garages and bike parking pods on the side; we need to think about how we can build 3,000 on the streets today.
Jensen: Shabazz, so, you know, you got into this a little bit, attitudes changing in regards to the way we think about moving about cities, but I want to dig into that a little bit more. We’re recording this in April 2021, and the COVID vaccine distribution has been accelerating since President Biden has taken office. And he said he wants all adults to have the vaccine or have access to the vaccine, rather, by May 1st. You also have springtime in some of our northern cities coming, so I’m cautiously optimistic we’re coming out of the COVID-19 fog. What do you think will be some of the lasting impacts of COVID on how we move around our cities though?
Stuart: [SIGHS] That is an interesting question. Um, you know, I don’t think people fully appreciate the long-term impact of COVID-19 on urban life in general. And I think the takes that I’ve seen so far are—some of them are one-dimensional. I don’t think downtown cores are done. I don’t think that mass transit is done. I think, if I were to guess, I think we’re heading to a future that is increasingly going to be more fluid and mixed-use. And what I mean by that is I think work from home is not going to go away. I think, work from office is not going to go away. But I do—I think the future is going to be in-between—right—where—I say this as an employer—where employers are going to be a lot more comfortable with their employees working remotely.
Now, I don’t think that means that employees are going to stay at home and work; I think it means that employees are going to get to travel more. I think that employees are going to have soft vacation time where they travel to other cities and instead of, like, you know, being tuned out, they’re going to go and travel. And, you know, it makes them happier, and, I think, happier employees makes for happier employers. And so we’re going to see a much more dynamic, I think, a little bit harder to model relationship between employer, commuter, and workplace. I think it means that—here in New York, I think some other districts as well, Downtown D.C., Downtown San Francisco, I think, places of employment are going to have to start porting over some of the things that make people like working from home. Right?
I think we’re going to start seeing downtowns start to look more like college campuses where people are going to have a more mixed-use environment, and that means that we’re going to start seeing, you know, residences, we’re going to start seeing cafés, we’re going to start seeing, you know, livable streets, you know, bike parking facilities, etcetera, because what we’re getting to is people can no longer, you know, be held captive by a class-A, boring, black, office building. They want to be in a humanizing space, and they prefer to be in their home neighborhood. Right? It doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay that way; it means that our downtowns are going to start becoming, I think, a little more like the neighborhoods that we live in. Right? So here in New York, I think, Midtown is going to start to look a little more like Williamsburg. And that trend, by the way, was already started before COVID. We were already starting to see companies like VICE, which moved to Williamsburg, and Apple, which, you know, started to say, “Okay, how do we create a better work-life environment for our employees?” COVID just, I think, dismantled the remaining vestiges of the traditional cubicle or commuter-to-downtown, then-goes-home-at-night kind of relationship.
Now, what does that mean for how we get around? Which is your real question. I think, it means that here in New York, for example, where our transit systems have largely been designed to carry people into a CBD and then away from that CBD at night are going to have to evolve. And we’re going to see a lot more cross-town, lateral transportation that happens at different times in the day. I think, it means that people are going to take shorter trips. We were already seeing in New York most of our trips are under five miles.
In fact, most of our trips are under three miles. So that means we’re going to see a lot more walking and see a lot more cycling. We’re going to see a lot more emphasis on how people are going to get 10 blocks, not 10 miles. I think, in other major cities that have less dynamic CBDs, we’re going to start to see development occur in recognition of that fact. So, you know, you think about a Dallas—right—are people going to take a train in to the city and they’re going to go in their office building and come back home?
You know, no; I think what’s going to happen is either people are going to live in downtown and work in downtown, or people are going to live in their neighborhood and work in their neighborhood two days a week and then go into the city two days a week. And that means livelier neighborhoods where folks are actually living at home and working at home and then commuting around their neighborhood on a bike or on a scooter—right—and still taking the train. It means livelier downtowns; people are going to be living in downtown, or they’re going to expect the same amenities when they go downtown as they have in their home neighborhoods. And it means that malls and downtown destinations have to be a bit more competitive in luring workers back.
We’ve already received several phone calls from office building owners, from developers, and from mall owners saying, “We’re interested in bike parking because we need to have a way to be competitive, to lure people back to class-A office”—right—“to lure people back to a downtown mall. You know, before we just were in Manhattan, and that would work out fine for us, but now we need—that’s not enough.” Right? I think that is going to profoundly affect people’s relationship with the city but also with downtowns specifically. So, you know, summarize that in three ways; we’re going to see more human-centered downtowns; we’re going to see livelier residential districts, more mixed-use districts; and we’re going to see more transportation utilities that focus on shorter trips, because people are going to be going shorter distances as cities become emphatic of working from home and also living closer to where you work.
Stuart: It was a very long answer to your question. It was a very—
Cohen: No, but I—I mean, I think that’s consistent with the thesis from, you know, all the folks that are looking into the micromobility kind of world with scooters and kind of light, electric vehicles of any sort, whether that’s—or human-powered vehicles like bikes too. But, I think, that thesis is consistent with that. And that makes a lot of sense. What do you think, L’erin?
Jensen: It’s so consistent, that I believe it was just today Jerome Horne—today, for us as we’re recording, last week for those of you hearing it— Jerome Horne tweeted that we need to start treating downtowns like neighborhoods instead of just downtowns, or something to that effect, but—[LAUGHS] So I was just thinking, “Wow, everyone in the mobility world is really aligned.”
Cohen: Well, I want to dig into that thought, because I think that’s—that’s something that I want to get your thoughts on Shabazz, because I feel like you’ve actually made me think about this in a slightly different way too. Because, you know, certainly I—actually last week I took the week off and did some small family trips for my kids’ spring break. And in-between those two trips we were at home for a day or so, and I took my kids on a bike ride. And we went to Downtown Durham.
So I live near a greenway, so I took the greenway to downtown, and then downtown we got some food. Wanted to go get ice cream afterwards because it was warm, and the ice cream place was closed, bummer, but we found another ice cream place and went there. But I took them on Durham’s first protected bike lane, like, street-built protected bike lane. And it was interesting because, you know, getting to that protected bike lane, you know, was a little bit dicey for my six-year-old who was riding on a tagalong and my 10-year-old who was riding on his BMX bike and my daughter who was riding on her normal bike, her a 12-year-old. So, you know, we’re getting there. And it was just interesting watching my reactions to kind of, like, navigating traffic and kind of these safety issues and watching theirs.
Cohen: And it was just kind of—it kind of jumped out. So, anyway, that’s a long way of getting to this question, which is, you know, to me, that’s where kind of the safety issue really comes into play. Right? Like, the safety one is the one that, I imagine, if you’re a politician or even, you know, someone like L’erin whose an advocate, you know, with our local bike advocacy organization, you know, the safety one is super easy to get behind—right—from, like, a political standpoint. Now, it’s not always easy to get the funding and get it all done, but, like, I can imagine that the secure bike parking, like, from a political standpoint—I mean, do you run into, like, issues with, like—
Stuart: No. I can tell you what our issues are. You know, there’s a great cartoon that exists somewhere on the internet of a person driving a car next to a train, and it says, “Damn, I hate when the road ends and I have to share tracks with the train,” as a way of, like, illustrating how absurd it is that, you know, protected bike lanes end randomly and, you know, you’ll drive with the cars. Right?
Stuart: It’s, like, as absurd for a driver to drive with on the train tracks. But that’s what we’re telling cyclists to do, like, “Go bike with the cars.” Right? Ain’t no one going to do that. So actually one of the things that, I think, we’ve been proudest of with Oonee is our track record of community engagement. And so when I say we’re full-service, when we work with cities we are full-service. Like, we actually go and go to community meetings. We do all of the community organizing behind supporting the infrastructure. If you go on YouTube and look at our Atlantic Terminal launch, I mean, we had the borough president, we had the city council speaker, we had the city council majority leader cutting the ribbon for the new Oonee in Downtown Brooklyn. And I got an email from an advocate, you know, a few days later, and they were like, “A couple of years ago no—you couldn’t even get people to talk about bike parking. Now, they’re all, like, showing up in the rain in December, and there were 100 people screaming and cheering. You know, and something has changed here.”
So I believe that when you’re able to build high-quality, effective infrastructure that looks good, that functions well, that’s actually efficate, that works—I mean, by the way, I think we often don’t recognize how important that is. And I say this to my friends in the micro mobility space who run scooter companies, “Your programs have to be efficate. Like, you can’t just drop scooters on the ground and then say, ‘Okay, it’s great,’ but it has to show results. You have to have data. You have to have testimonials. People have to like it.” Right? Our infrastructure has an efficate track record. It works for communities. People want to see more of them. And when you’re able to do that the politicians and the community leaders start coming to you.
Now, the challenge that we have is that, you know, we’re a small, Black and Brown, Brooklyn startup. We have, like, a staff of two-and-a-half people. And we’ve raised under a million dollars. I mean, if I had a fraction of the resources that Lime and Bird—I mean, mmm, mmm, mmm. Right? Now, when you go to a city and you say, “Hey, how are you? I want you to overhaul your rules and regs regarding the advertising on local streets. And can we do it in six months?” Like, it’s—the answer that we often get is—we had one major city—I won’t name names—that we kicked the tires with for four months come back to us and say, “I’m sorry. We don’t have the bandwidth for that right now. This is a major undertaking.” We’ve had other cities come back and say, “No. I’m sorry. We’re in the change of administrations.” “Oh, I’m sorry. Like, you know, we don’t have—we just can’t get there on the advertising rules and regs.”
Well, you know, we had a city that—you know, I’ll say, LA. LA, we had a wonderful, productive conversation with the City of LA, the challenge is that they’re reissuing their entire street furniture RFP right now. They’re going through that generational process. So it is that this kind of program isn’t really possible outside of that process which is taking place right now, so we have to wait a few years—right—and we have to be part of that. And so it’s a lot to ask a city to do without the firepower of a Google or an Amazon or even a Bird or a Lime. We’re a small, Brooklyn startup. And so how we get to a successful deployment, you know, usually requires a champion. In every project that we’re part of, there needs to be someone who unequivocally says, “I’m going to own this. I’m going to wake up every day and say, ‘What are we going to do on this project? And this is going to be—I’m going to spend, you know, 500 hours this year on this.’” If you don’t have that on the government side, then, you know, you’re in for a rocky road. And I’ve been part of projects with Oonee that have fallen apart because our champion left. We had a champion, you know, for a big project in New York. We were at the blueprints phase, and that person, you know, went to work for the private sector, and the entire project fell apart when they left. So turnover can hurt you. You know, not having a champion is usually a fatal flaw.
The challenge is actually—you know, these are major infrastructure projects. You’re talking about, you know, building a million-dollars worth of infrastructure and overhauling rules and regs to get there. So it’s usually not getting people to say yes; it’s getting people to say, “Yes, I will work on this nonstop, and I will risk political capital and my staff’s time or my job. If this is embarrassing, I’m going to get fired.” Right? That’s usually what the ask is. And then pair that with who we are; we realistically are a small company with a limited track record. We’re not—if this were Google, people would say, “Oh, we know this is going to be a great project because it’s a Google or it’s an Amazon.” That’s not the same thing when you’re dealing with a small startup in Brooklyn.
And lastly the reality is, you know, looking at the legacies of how startups in the mobility space have worked with cities for many years, there’s a lot of skepticism from DOTs on startups. I mean, we’ve spent a lot of time overcoming that skepticism. Part of the reason why we’re so vocal and so public on Twitter and other channels is so that people know who we are and they know they can trust us. But DOTs rightfully have gotten burned—not rightfully—rightfully are skeptical because they’ve gotten burned so many times by public-private partnerships. They’re not—the appetite isn’t there. And, you know, startups, even if you agree that a startup—even if you like a startup, even if you think that the startup has the right idea, are you going to be around in three years? “I’m going to do all this work, and you’re a startup, and what if you go belly-up and the whole thing—I wasted my time?” Right? So there are a lot of challenges. I don’t think political buy-in is one of them. Politicians, from our experience, usually love to cut ribbons.
Stuart: You know, getting there, getting to that point requires a lot of people to work very hard. And this is—you really need to have a justification for why that—why this project is where people should prioritize their time. So it comes down to priorities.
Cohen: Yeah. That’s true in everything, I think, we’re seeing, is that you’ve got to have somebody step up and be willing to not necessarily their job on the line but kind of. That, you know, I always think about this from this my standpoint when I started at TransLoc. We had one customer, and, you know, as I was doing the same thing you’re doing, which is, like, trying to identify the champion that’s going to say, like, “Who is going to stand?” And I always pictured it, like, “Who is going to be—” There’s going to be people sitting around a table. Right? And they’re going to be talking about this. And someone is going to have to say, “We should do this. And I’m going to step forward and be that person that’s going to make sure it happens,” and—
Stuart: I’ll give you an example of how projects fall apart. Right? And you know this because the Durham light rail project was a—what—a 10-year-long project, 15-year-long projects and fell apart at the last minute because someone was like, “Uh, I don’t know.” You know, we were working with a major public agency. And there was a major property that the public agency owned. Right? I’m not going to go into names, but the public agency had a subtenant, which was a major operator of real estate, and the public agency said, “You know, we can’t give you permission, but our tenant—we can recommend our tenant go forward.” And the tenant was very interested.
The problem was COVID-19 put everything on ice for a while. Then we started, you know, chatting again. The public—that tenant had their own advertising portfolio inside the property. And they were like, “You know, we don’t know if we want you to have your own advertising that you guys have another firm doing.” And we’re like, “Don’t worry; we’ll let you do the advertising. You can do it. We’re not an advertising company. But if you do the advertising, we need you to pay for the infrastructure, because, you know, our financing is going to come from our out-of-home partner.” “I don’t know. We don’t know if we have the money yet. We are in COVID-19.” So we said, “Okay. You know, look; we can get maybe a loan to pay for it, but, you know, you need to commit to these revenue minimums and to start running the advertising ASAP.” And they were like, “Well, if it’s built, we don’t know if we want another screen just yet. We don’t know, so we don’t know.” Right? [LAUGHS] And then, of course, the public agency is like, “Oop, well, you know, I guess we have to wait. We don’t know.” Right?
So there is a dynamic where everyone on paper likes the idea, but when you start talking about the financing arrangement, where it’s going to go, how it’s going to be operated, then without that champion, you know, on the tenant level the whole thing gets lost in the X’s and O’s. And that project never materialized. So that’s a perfect example of it’s not just a yes; you need to get to someone who is going to—there are so many barriers that you have to scale to get to a finished project. And someone needs to be really excited about it on the public side and on the community side to help you scale those barriers.
Cohen: I’m with you. L’erin?
Jensen: All I can think is the answer just seems so simple. Like, we just need, like, an insane media campaign—right—because, like, if you know the issues and what they are, then, like, it only makes sense, that, like, “Of course we should have more greenways. Of course cities should be more walkable and more bikeable for people. Of course we need less cars on the road.” But, like—
Stuart: You know, I think that—look; I will say that I think, look, this is a New York problem. It’s also, I think, an urban problem. I don’t know to what extent Durham—you know, I don’t know Durham as well, but I think even Durham may fall in this category. I think, you know, and I sit on—I’m on the TransAlt advisory council here in New York, and I’m on the StreetsPAC board in New York, so I do consider myself an advocate. I think, as a community of advocates we need to do a better job at recognizing the intersectionality of biking. Right? The truth is—and I’m going to speak purely politically for a second. The truth is that cycling as policy is not enough firepower to affect politics in the city. Right? And, I think, advocates have kind of reached their terminal velocity with just talking about better bike policy. But what we’re not realizing is that cycling is an intersectional issue that touches on economic mobility; it touches on diversity; it touches on impact, all these things that we’re not realizing. And you can see it in, like, the advocacy circles. Advocates are typically White and male, and they’re not particularly well positioned to understand those arguments.
And so here in New York, Citi Bike, which is a phenomenal program, Citi Bike has 50,000 trips per day on average, which, again, a phenomenal number. But New York has 80,000 delivery workers that, you know, if you order food in New York comes by bike. And those delivery workers make multiple trips a day. So it’s very likely that we actually have between 500,000 and a million delivery-worker trips on bike in bike lanes. Now, the City of New York puts out an annual report. It didn’t come out last year, I think, for obvious reasons, but an annual report called Cycling in the City where the city outlines its bike infrastructure agenda. Not only were delivery workers not featured in that report and never have been, but the City of New York estimated that there are about 500,000 bike trips per day. The delivery workers alone exceed 500,000 bike trips per day, so it was a gross undercount.
The advocacy community has really struggled here to adopt the cause of the delivery workers who are underpaid. They bear the brunt of our negligence to bike infrastructure. They are harassed by police officers here. You know, it was illegal to use a throttle e-bike for many years in New York. That’s why they’re not featured in the city’s—so they would have their bikes confiscated; they would get their bikes stolen because there’s no bike parking infrastructure. And then they get murdered.
We had a delivery cyclist murdered last week for his bike. Someone tried to steal his bike, and they shot him in the chest. It seems like that would be—and those, by the way, those are mostly working-class folk who are Black and Brown, often immigrants. It seems like that would, you know, would be a natural constituency to put front and center in articulating to the public why is this infrastructure necessary. And instead we’ve allowed ourselves as a community to brand cycling as a bourgeois, White, upper-middle class amenity. And it could be not further from the truth. And now it’s used as a bludgeon against, you know, better bike infrastructure. “Oh, you know, it’s only for the tech bros in San Francisco. Oh, you know, like, why should we—we don’t need them in Black and Brown communities.” So part of it is tone deafness on the part of elected officials, but part of it we need to recalibrate our approach as a community of advocates and figure out, “Hey, you know, this is a big-tent issues.” Transportation is about so much more than just building bike lanes and, you know, bike parking. It’s about how we get around and who has access in our communities. And we need to frame it that way in order to build a bigger tent and a bigger coalition to move this forward.
Jensen: And I guess, Shabazz, that’s really what I was trying to get at, is that when, like I—I’ve kind of fallen into this world, and it was something that I never thought about before coming to work at TransLoc, but as I’ve worked here, I’m like, “Wow. This stuff is so simple.” Like, it seems so obvious, if only you know about it, if only it’s something that, like, you’re made to think about. But we’re not.
Stuart: Yeah. And, like, you know, I just don’t think that bike advocates nationwide intersect much with, you know, community advocates and people of color. I think, the two exist—or at least bike advocates exist in a silo. And that’s because, I think, a lot of bike advocates come from the world of recreational riding and come from a world of being on a bike is part of my identity. And here in New York when I’m on the forums, I see, you know, not too infrequently a sentiment that is, “Oh, these delivery workers are ruining it for everyone else. They’re going to ruin it. People on e-bikes, they aren’t real—they’re cheating. They’re not really on bikes.” Right? And I’m like, “Guys, like, really no one—we don’t use that logic with cars or with public transit.” You don’t have to love trains to be someone who rides a train or a bus. Right? It’s not a crime for someone to use a form of transport because it’s compelling and efficient and convenient. We should want people to use a form of transit because it’s all those things. Right? You don’t need to love your car to say, “I want to drive my car.” Right? So we need to recalibrate a little bit.
I think, the advent of bikeshare and scootershare has helped us get there, where we’re seeing a bigger tent of people become advocates for the space. I will say that I think the sin of advocates—and I mean us all as advocates—and as people who care deeply about cities is exporting a lot of this work to actors in the private sector—I’m choosing my words very carefully because I love my friends in the private sector. I am in the private sector—who have little expertise in transportation and in building systems that work for cities.
There are scootershare operations in play where 17% of the usership is Black and Brown, and these companies operate in cities where 60% of the population is Black and Brown. We’ll say, “Oh, how come it’s not working?” Well, I mean, it’s a system that is designed to—no one is paying five dollars to go two miles on a regular basis; I’m sorry. And I don’t know a better way to say it. Right? We’re not thinking holistically and comprehensively about these transportation systems. And, you know, we’re, as advocates, we don’t recognize that 95% of the trips in New York City, for example, happen on private bikes and scooters. Right? That needs to be part of the equation too. It’s not going to be Mobility-as-a-Service, you know, for the future. Right? And where we do have Mobility-as-a-Service, you know, MaaS for short, you know, how do we create systems that actually work for communities? Right?
So, for example, we should be having scooters and bikeshare on a sponsorship program with bike parking systems—right—with transit. Right? And that’s something that the private sector can be better at; it’s something that the public sector can be better at in designing these systems. The entire landscape right now is not optimized to build a future that is conducive to micromobility. We are [INDISCERNIBLE] and dunking our way down the field, but if we were to recalibrate and retool a little bit, I think, we would recognize this is a problem, a challenge that’s imminently solvable. Right? We’re not curing cancer here. We’re just doing what they do in Europe and they do in Asia, and people have already figured it out. It’s time for us to figure it out too.
Cohen: Well, that’s a good way to wrap it up. Where can folks learn more about Oonee and you, if they’re interested in following along on your story?
Stuart: So you can go to OoneePod.com, O-O-N-E-E-P-O-D dot com. We have an Instagram and a Twitter, O-O-N-E-E-P-O-D on Instagram or on Twitter. And we have a really interesting series of vignettes called Oonee Perspectives—you can just search that on Google, Oonee Perspectives—that features people of color talking about why this infrastructure is meaningful to them. We have, I think, seven or eight of them online. And we have a few other interesting multimedia productions as well. We do a lot more in the spring, and we have a few exciting announcements on tap that we will start to speak more vocally about as the months or as the warmer months accelerate.
Cohen: Awesome. Well, Shabazz, thank you so much for joining us and introducing us to some of the work you’re doing there with Oonee and also chatting a little bit about some of the challenges that we need to overcome still.
Stuart: Thank you so much for having me. And I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Jensen: Thanks, Shabazz.
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.
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