L’erin and Josh discuss the week’s biggest news, including the Senate confirmation of Mayor Pete Buttigieg as the new Secretary of the US Department, parking minimums in Berkeley, and how we could drastically increase the usefulness of public transportation with a relatively small sum.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Zipper: David Zipper
Parker: Sunday Parker
Decker: Tabitha Decker
Jensen: This week Josh and I break down the week’s news, including our new secretary of transportation and his priorities, electric vehicles, equitable access to mobility for people with disabilities, and the relatively small amount of money it would take to dramatically increase job access for millions of people, coming up now on The Movement podcast. 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: All right. Welcome, Secretary Mayor Pete. I’ve been watching Twitter. It seems like that’s the nomenclature I think people are going with. I don’t know if that’ll stick or not. Maybe that’s just the excitement, but this is Josh Cohen.
Jensen: And this is L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: So we waited until the last minute to record this episode in case the Senate finally got around to confirming Secretary Mayor Pete. And they did today just a few minutes before we’re recording this on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 2nd, so we officially have a secretary of transportation. So I’m pretty excited about this. I think this is going to be fun. And maybe before we jump into that, maybe just for—just give you a heads up, this week we’re going to do things a little bit differently. L’erin and I are going to be going through some news stories, some recent things that caught our attention, and maybe sharing a couple other resources or things that we’re thinking about. So hopefully this will be a little bit of a different and fun show, and we’ll go from there.
So, yeah. So going back to Secretary Mayor Pete; I guess, you know, one of the things—and I’m curious to get your perspective on, like, all of this as well, L’erin, but, like, I think what I’m excited about is he’s the first out, LGBTQ person to be in the cabinet. And from my standpoint thinking about the role that transit can play—and I think someone on Twitter called it, you know, “transit is a justice issue.” And so when I think about that and I think about having a gay man leading the transportation department, I think, that’s a really—just a great way to reinforce that. So I’m really excited about that from that standpoint.
Jensen: Yeah, that’s super exciting, and that’s big that we have an LGBTQ community member in the cabinet. But, I think, more than that, for me, I start to think—I got to thinking, “Okay. Well, but why Buttigieg? Is he qualified for this position?” because diversity is great, but when we think about that, are we just filling—are we just, like, filling diversity quotas? Because we want to empower people, and we want people who can do the job.
I started to Google him, look at his background, and I was pleasantly surprised. He’s got a pretty good record on transportation, at least in his presidential campaign. He proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan with a national Vision Zero strategy, so that’s big. You know, that’s something we talk about here on The Movement all the time. I’m sure most of our listeners know what Vision Zero is, you know, making sure that there are no bike or pedestrian fatalities caused by cars. He also proposed doubling transit-oriented federal grants, investing in bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure, and focusing highway funds on maintaining existing highways rather than expanding. So, all in all, I think Mayor Pete—Secretary Mayor Pete may be a good pick, a good fit for the role.
Jensen: So we get a double whammy out of him; we get some good diversity up in the cabinet, a win for not just the LGBT community but for all of us, and then, you know, we get someone who actually cares about transportation and mass transit. And I’d also like to point out that Buttigieg suggested raising the gas tax during his Senate confirmation hearing, which hasn’t been raised in—what, is it like almost 40 years?
Jensen: And that statement had to be walked back by a spokesman, but we’ll talk a little bit more about that later, because that has huge implications though about where he sees transportation going and what the rest of the country thinks.
Cohen: Yeah. No, and I think it’ll be interesting to see the differences between what Mayor Pete ran his presidential campaign on and Secretary Pete who has to implement the Biden administration plans. You know, there’s going to be some stuff that they got to navigate there. Last week on The Movement podcast “Episode 103” with David Zipper, we talked a little bit about David’s recommendations for Secretary Pete.
And so—by the way, David, if you’re listening, you know, we got a number of notes from folks who really enjoyed the episode last week, so good job. Good job by you, David. So let’s just share a clip from that episode last week from David Zipper talking about what he would tell Secretary Buttigieg if Secretary Pete called him.
Zipper: “I think there are some deep, strategic things that U.S. DOT can and should do that’s going to take time. I think, for doing something quickly and making a statement I would say one of the first things that Secretary Buttigieg could do—and he could actually do this with just, like, a notice in the Federal Register—is to address how we rate car safety.
“It’s a program called the New Car Assessment Program, and it has those crash test dummies that we’re familiar with. The ratings of American automobiles are entirely based on the safety of a vehicle occupant during a collision. So, in other words, a pedestrian or a cyclist who comes into contact with that car has no bearing on the rating whatsoever. That’s not the case in Europe or China or Japan or Australia. It’s insane, and we should be outraged.”
Jensen: Yeah, so what are your thoughts on this, Josh?
Cohen: Well, I think, the things we covered with David last week is that, you know, the externalities of car safety, what it’s actually like for all the rest of the people involved, not just the people inside the vehicle, which is how our current system is set up. I thought that was an interesting point by David to bring that up just to say that it is something that he could just make a change on; like, without any other impact he could just make a change on that. And I thought that was a really neat kind of thought to go ahead and just make that change as opposed to some of these other things that we’ll talk about in a little bit that require a lot more consensus.
Jensen: And hopefully, like you said, he won’t be constrained by Biden’s plan. So hopefully that’s one of the things that he can go ahead and just do.
Cohen: Well, I think, you know, continuing on that theme, I think one of the things that—you sent me an article actually earlier this week on NBC News had covered a recent proposal by the Biden administration on electrifying the federal fleet. And, I think, going back to your gas tax comment earlier, you know, I think what’s hard about that is that—you know, the article talks about is that’s going to put further strains on the Highway Trust Fund, which is how we’re maintaining the roads and bridges. And since that hasn’t been increased in a long time, that is a major, major issue that we’re going to need to address. So let’s get another clip here from David Zipper from last week.
Zipper: “This gets into what I see as just sort of, like, the original sin of the American transportation system, especially in cities, is that we have just completely screwed up how we price modes of transportation. Like, people who drive are just not even aware of all of the subsidies, both explicit and implicit, they receive for their mode choice.”
Jensen: Yeah, so, again, the highway gas tax hasn’t been—the gas tax hasn’t been increased in, like—since the 1980s. So—what—we’re approaching 40 years or so. But the bulk of our funding, still goes—transportation funding at least, still goes to highway maintenance and expansions. So we’re not even taking care of the things that we say we value. We don’t want to pay for anything, let alone new stuff.
But, I think, more than that, it’s great that we’re switching to electric vehicles; it’s better for the environment. But we’re still talking about what are typically single-occupancy vehicles, and we really need to switch over, as David said, to different modes of transportation. That’s way better for the environment than even electric vehicles. We want to get more people off the road, because even with electric vehicles we’re still using the highways, there’s wear and tear; all of that still needs to be maintaining, and we don’t want to pay for it.
Cohen: Yeah. Yeah, going back to what David calls the original sin of the American transportation system, of how we price these modes of transportation, and right now they’re not funded equally, and they’re funded inequitably. So lots to go through on that. I expect we’ll see some news out of this administration. Maybe not in the short term but certainly over the course of this administration as it relates to how we’re funding public transportation with the gas tax and how we evolve from that. That’s my, you know, not-to-risky thing to argue for. But I expect we’ll see that.
All right. Let’s move on to something else that got my attention recently as well. So a couple of years ago I became a member of this group called the Elevator Action Group based in New York City doing a bunch of advocacy around what is necessary to have more equitable access to elevators for the New York City subway. And, you know, they put out a documentary, and this is—so the documentary is called All Riders, The Fight For Accessibility, produced by Victor Dias Rodrigues and Branton Choi. And it was filmed before COVID, and it really was a tribute to Malaysia Goodson who died when carrying her child’s stroller on the stairs in a station without safe elevator access. And it’s just tragic. I mean, it’s just so, so sad.
And, I mean, it’s obviously preventable. And it just really highlighted, the whole documentary—and it’s about 15 minutes or so—highlights this tragic inequity of safe and reliable elevator access for all transit riders. And so I want to play with you a real quick clip from “Episode 101,” which is with Sunday Parker, transit activist for persons with disabilities talking about how accessibility impacts us all, similar to what the argument raised in the documentary.
Parker: “And there are there are so many connections to accessibility beyond just considerations of people with disabilities. I mean, I think, you know, we’ve all experienced at one time the benefits of accessibility, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. You know, if someone is lugging a heavy suitcase, they suddenly learn that, you know, ‘Oh, there’s an elevator.’ And, you know, they hopefully find that that elevator is clean and it’s operable; but if they don’t then they do experience the challenges, not to the extend of people with disabilities who can’t haul a heavy suitcase up the stairs if they have to, but it does give you some level of understanding that, you know, accessibility is important.”
Cohen: So, L’erin, I don’t know if you had a chance to see that documentary or not, but it really resonated with me.
Jensen: Yeah, it was powerful, and it really just kind of opened your eyes to things that you don’t always think about. To Sunday’s point, accessibility is something that goes beyond just people with disabilities. And, you know, there were a couple lines that really struck out to me in the documentary; nine thousand elevator outages over the course of a year. One of the gentlemen in the documentary talks about that’s 25 a day. And so for people like you and I who are able-bodied people, it’s not always a problem to get around unless we need to lug, like, heavy luggage up the stairs or we have a stroller or something.
So that just—that’s a huge, huge, huge number. I can’t imagine, each time I’m trying to, like, go somewhere and the elevator is not working; then how do you get down? And, you know, the film just kind of illustrates that even more. Another line that really stuck out to me was James Weisman says in it, “They won’t rent to me because I’m disabled. They won’t hire me because I’m disabled. I didn’t get into the school because I’m disabled.” Then it cuts to Bush signing the ADA, and so we have this legislation that’s supposed to help people, but finally we get to a clip in the South Bronx where we learn that the MTA, which we think of as, like, “Oh, the MTA. New York City has, like, the greatest public transportation system in the country.” But the MTA and probably other transit agencies, they use a bunch of legal jargon to skirt complying with the rules of the ADA.
So people are left out of, like, not only housing, work, and school, but now they can’t get around either; they have difficulties, you know, riding buses and trains; they can’t take elevators to get up to their apartments; they can’t take elevators to get down to the subway or to get up from the subway. It was just really, really, really powerful. And, I think, the final point—another line someone said is, you know, “Make a station shiny and glossy and new and not make that station accessible for all riders,” and I feel like that’s just kind of the way that we do a lot of things in government; you kind of just put a Band-Aid over it but don’t actually fix the problem.
Cohen: Yeah. You know, and, you know, I’m not an expert on the MTA, and I don’t know what all the ins and outs of all the different challenges there associated with these issues, because I’m not there. I imagine there’s some fault there with the MTA with that, what you alluded to there. But I also think there are just some fundamental faults associated with how we’re largely prioritizing and funding these things, even things like the ADA, which is a mandate. So, I think, there’s fundamentally—and, again, I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do on this program, is to highlight some of those issues of inequity and then try to see what we need to do to make equitable access to transportation for everyone. So check that out. We’ll link to that when we release that. It was a really powerful documentary.
All right. Next thing that jumped out to us this week, TransitCenter, our friends from TransitCenter released a video about how increasing transit service is a way to account for climate and racial justice issue. So the thing that jumped out to me, and we’ll—I want to play a clip here in just a minute, but the thing that jumped out to me was to double every single 100,000-person population transit service, which would basically have the same rate of transit per capita as Chicago, would only require $17 billion. And I feel like I must be misunderstanding that, because the stimulus package that the Biden administration is talking about is 1.9 trillion, which obviously includes some money for public transit as well, but I just can’t believe that we could at that price fundamentally double the access of transportation for so many people.
More frequent transportation, more places that—more different routes that have better service; like, what are we waiting for? So that just is, like, mind-boggling to me. So I want to play a clip, and then I want to get L’erin’s thoughts on this too. But back in “Episode 067” we actually had the TransitCenter’s Tabitha Decker on to chat about the work they’re doing to advance bus service nationwide.
Decker: “Part of this is that we don’t connect bus service with the idea of a sort of very strong change to better service. We tend to have more of an emphasis on just sort of keeping it running as opposed to making it excellent. And I think that’s—you know, as we start to get more and more examples in this country of cities that are actually providing really excellent bus service, you know, bus service that you don’t have to think twice about depending on, we can start to change the perception of what’s possible there.”
Jensen: Man, Josh. So, like you, that number, 17 billion, really stood out to me as well. That’s insane to think about, because that’s such a small number when we’re talking about government budgets—right—especially national budgets, a relatively small number at least. So just to put it into context—now, these numbers are a bit old; they’re from 2014, but we spent a total of $416 billion on highway and water infrastructure in 2014; $320 billion of that did come from state and local governments, but the federal government contributed $96 billion, of which $69 billion was for capital projects and 27 billion for operations and maintenance. Another $65 billion was spent on mass transit in total, so $65 billion.
For only $17 billion more we could grant quality mass transit to people in cities with over 100,000 people. That was just mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing. But the other thing that really stood out to me was the number of jobs people would be able to access with this relatively small dollar amount. In Atlanta, at least, people would go from being able to access roughly 6,600 jobs within 30 minutes to 58,000 jobs in 30 minutes. It’s like, “Why not just do it?”
Cohen: Yeah, especially when, you know, job access is such a huge part of transportation; it’s such a huge issue. So, yeah, I’m with you there. It’s a great video. Again, we’ll link it for you. Check it out. It’s pretty short but really powerful to illustrate just how further investment in the operations of transit could have a huge, huge impact. All right. Moving on to some other stories that caught our attention.
Berkeley last week, their city council just said that most new housing projects in Berkeley will no longer have to build off-street parking. Wow. That’s actually a really big deal, and I—because, you know, again, I’m not an expert in housing, but I get the sense from everybody I’ve ever talked to in housing that these city requirements to build parking are what add a lot of cost to these projects, and if we could reduce that burden we can build more. And, you know, again, I’m sure there’s other reasons or things that are going to get in the way of people building more, but, man, to me this is a really, really exciting thing that is hopefully going to be a template going forward that other groups can build from. What did you pull from that?
Jensen: Yeah, this is huge as well. It’s a big deal. And this is really an equity issue. Right? Because we know from—we’ve discussed this before on The Movement podcast in a few episodes. We’re subsidizing private parking when we have, you know, street parking for free or whatever. But also we’ve talked about the exorbitant cost of a single parking space.
Jensen: It’s like $30,000 for a single parking space. So if developers are—
Cohen: And then double that in a structure, like if you’re doing, like, a parking garage. Yeah.
Jensen: Right, right. So those costs are passed on to renters. And so many people who don’t have personal transportation, who don’t own cars, they’re still paying for that parking for the people around them even though they’re not using it. It especially affects people with disabilities. So that’s huge. And going back to a different equity part, there is—I read an article, and in it, it said, “UC Berkeley researchers Wenyu Jia and Martin Wachs found that in San Francisco, twenty percent more households could qualify for loans on condominiums” that don’t include parking. So it makes housing more accessible and more affordable for people as well.
The only thing that I worry is that we’re forcing people out of cars without adequately compensating with mass, easily accessible, public transportation. So that’s all great; we’re getting rid of the parking; people don’t have to pay more, but does any of this matter if there’s no transportation, if there’s no transit around? Like, we’ve got to do something on a national scale to make transit better.
Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a fair question. I wouldn’t say “forcing people out of cars,” obviously because we’re just talking about one small town at this point. Right? And there’s still plenty of other opportunities in that town. This is just talking about new housing going forward. So, I think, this is limited in scope, but it is a good first step because, you know, if someone really wants to have a car in Berkeley, they certainly can. And I think Berkeley is probably as good a place as any to do this because I do think there’s a fair bit of transportation there compared to maybe some other places that might not have as good of transportation and not having that car would dramatically limit that access. So I think it’s a good first step to do that, and I’d like to see more communities take that step as well.
Cohen: Next story; I was at the Micromobility World conference, and our sister company Spin, Segway, and Tortoise announced a three-wheeled, remote control scooter. And, you know, I’m not a big scooter person. Maybe I’d become one if it had three wheels, but this was, I think, pretty exciting because, I think, one of the things that people really complain about when it comes to scooters is when they get knocked over and when they’re getting in the way of an access ramp to get to the street. And obviously if you’re a person with a mobility device, that makes a huge, huge difference and impacts whether you can go across that street or not.
So, I think, the fact that they’re three-wheeled means they’re less likely to fall over. And because they’re remote controlled they can be driven away from that area if they do happen to get left in the crosswalk area or the access ramp area; they can be driven away. What they did, they’ve got these cameras on the front of it. And they have these remote operators that can basically look out from where the scooter is and drive it somewhere. So it could be, like, you’ve got some person that’s, like, hundreds of miles away driving this scooter around. I thought that was kind of fascinating. And, I mean, again, it seems a little crazy, but I think there’s something to it.
Jensen: So they’re basically on-the-ground drones. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yeah. I mean, that’s—yeah, I guess I hadn’t thought about that, but, yeah, I guess that is a good point.
Jensen: Yeah. So I love that idea, so reading this I was like, “This is super cool.” I do like scooters. I think they’re super fun. I wouldn’t mind riding one to work every day or to wherever I want to go. They’re super, super fun. The only concern I’ve had with scooter up until this point is they do go pretty fast. You should kind of wear a helmet, to be honest. Like, 20 miles per hour, that’s pretty fast to go, especially, like, if there’s no protected bike lanes or if scooters can’t be in bike lanes or on the sidewalk. They definitely can’t be on the sidewalk. But then I got to thinking, like, “Well, they’re remote controlled. Like, aren’t they going to run into people?” [LAUGHS] I wasn’t quite sure. I’m glad you explained that, how they would get to people without running into things or falling over or whatnot. But also—
Cohen: Yeah, that’s where the three wheels and the cameras are so good. And they go slow, so, like, when they’re on the sidewalk and they’re going from one place to another, they’re going to go pretty slow.
Cohen: They’re rolling out a pilot. I think, it’s in Boise.
Cohen: So maybe we can go to Boise when we can travel again and check it out.
Jensen: If you’re listening, Ford, Josh and I would like to come to Boise—or go to Boise and go ahead and give these scooters a try. And we’d like complimentary ones too. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yeah. All right. Let’s maybe transition to some books we’re reading. I just started—this just came out. I think I just—I must have bought it a couple of months ago, and it just got downloaded on my Kindle, but Think Again. So this is by Adam Grant, the Wharton professor. And I’m just probably, you know, a couple chapters in, but the high-level blurb here is about how we tend to get focused in on solutions and then not reevaluate them on a regular basis with the existence of new data or information. And I guess I—you know, and maybe the canonical example of this is we’ve heard the story about the boiling a frog; you know, if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and then slowly turn up the heat it will kind of just cook and never notice.
We hear that, and we accept it, but it’s not actually true. And so I think it’s good to, like, think about that from the standpoint and the way he frames it as a scientist—right—which is like, “Let’s have this hypothesis; let’s test it.” And, I think, this is going to be particularly relevant, this kind of thinking and thinking again, is particularly relevant as we’re thinking about community projects. And we think we know what a best practice is, but that best practice may be in a vacuum, so that’s why it’s so, so important—and, again, this is a theme that comes up over and over again—so important to engage the community and really validate or invalidate some of the hypotheses you have about what that community wants. So, anyway, this book I just started reading. Check it out, if you are so inclined. L’erin, you reading anything interesting.
Jensen: Yeah, but I do want to say that I had never heard the story of the boiling frog before, and I—
Cohen: You’ve never heard that?
Jensen: I have not.
Jensen: But I liked it. And I did automatically accept that it’s true. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: It was wrong.
Jensen: So we learn something new today. I learned a new story, and then I learned that, I guess, the story is not true. [LAUGHS] But, so, you know, I’ve started a lot of books over the past couple of months and not finished any. So instead I’ll just mention the last thing I did finish reading, which was the Rape of Nanking or Nanking Massacre Wikipedia page. And I won’t go into too many details because it’s just incredibly gory. It’s part of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It’s good, but it’s gory, but I think that there’s also a lesson in there of the importance of good leadership and leadership being accountable. You know, the massacre could have—there’s potential that it could have just, like, not happened if the people up top weren’t giving out those orders and then not being held accountable for it afterwards. But that was the last thing I read.
Cohen: Wow, that sounds intense. But it sounds like you found a good lesson out of all of that. Okay, I want to share an opportunity that just came through my inbox recently that looked really neat. I want to, you know, again, build on some themes that we’ve had on the podcast in the past. And this was America Walks, the nonprofit, has a Walking College. And so I thought this was really, really cool. It’s a fellowship where you can, quote, “hone your skills and knowledge around creating vibrant, safe, connected, and accessible places for all people in your community to walk and move as they desire,” end quote.
And I thought that just sounded really cool. Like, they basically kind of help you put together a project to get more people to walk. They have a little video on there; you can learn about it. Some guy put together a plan with the AARP to kind of have a doctor come walk with people once a month and an accountant once a month, you know, just different projects. One woman was working on a way to reduce the speed by introducing a neck-down there to reduce the size of the walkway. But lots of interesting ideas. Anyway, a cool potential fellowship, so check that out on the America Walks website at AmericaWalks.org.
All right. Well, that’s all I had. Coming up next week we’ll have Sharon Feigon who is the founder and former CEO and executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center and as of last month just transitioned to a new role, which is founder in residence. Sharon is one of the leaders in the mobility space and has been from the beginning, so she’ll have some amazing perspectives to share both on the Shared-Use Mobility Center and what the future is of that, as well as what’s going on in the industry that we need to be paying attention to. So we’ll look forward to that, and until then we’ll see you next week.
Jensen: Bye, everyone.
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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