David Zipper shares how perverse incentives and negative externalities are part of the reason US transportation policy prioritizes decisions that benefit individuals and not those that benefit communities like public transit, sidewalks, and bike lanes.
Hear more from The Movement Podcast co-host Josh Cohen in this blog The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Zipper: David Zipper
Cohen: I don’t know if Secretary of Transportation Designate Pete Buttigieg is a listener of The Movement podcast; he just may be. And if he is, he should definitely pay attention to what our guest today has to say about his first days on the job, 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: Our guest today is David Zipper; has served as the director of business development and strategy under two mayors in Washington, D.C. as well as executive director of New York City Business Solutions in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He then was managing director for smart cities and mobility at 1776, a global entrepreneurial hub with over 1,300 member-startups. And now he’s a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Welcome to The Movement, David.
Zipper: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.
Cohen: You know, you write quite a bit in lots of different publications. You also have your website, DavidZipper.com; and I’d like to maybe start with, you know, your interests and your career arc and even your writing. They’re all centered around this intersection of cities and technology. Help us understand how you got there—right—with that intersection there.
Zipper: Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny. Sometimes people seem to think I had some sort of, like, a master plan in mind when I was, you know, 22 or even when I was, like, you know, 12, but it’s not true at all. I just have always been fascinated by cities. My first sort of foray into it was in college. I went to Swarthmore outside of Philadelphia, and I was really interested in ways to support—actually in economic development, ways to support job creation in a low-income, largely Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood of North Philly called Kensington. And my friend and I while we were students at Swarthmore started a company—it was a nonprofit but acted like a company—to train unemployed and underemployed residents of that neighborhood to work as housepainters out in the suburbs, which have a lot of money in Philly.
And that sort of got me hooked on cities. And at first I was really excited about economic development. I got a planning degree; I did a lot of economic development work in cities like Newark and Redding, Pennsylvania and some other places as well. And then I ultimately ended up in, as you mentioned, with the Bloomberg administration in New York and working for Mayor Fenty and Mayor Gray in D.C. leading economic development strategy. But what’s funny—I sort of realized about that time—this was about 10 years ago—that a lot of what economic development seems to be about, which is recruiting businesses to move around, I wasn’t so sure how valuable it was. This seemed like it might be sort of, like, a waste of resources and time. And 10 years ago in D.C., for those who may have spent some time in Washington, there was this flowering of urban transportation innovation that I was involved in with Capital Bikeshare launching and ride-hail first arriving in D.C. I have some crazy stories from that when we were shocked by it. And there was a very dynamic leadership team at DDOT led by Gabe Klein with some terrific people working for him. And I started to think, you know, urban mobility is changing so fast; it seems to have a more direct impact on the economic growth of the city than some of the economic development marketing stuff I was doing.
So that sort of just, like, led me down this path. And without, you know, going too, too far into the details, you know, I ended up doing a lot of work with startups at 1776 and worked with, like, the Smart City Challenge at U.S. DOT under Obama. And I came out three or four years ago and thought, you know, “There’s so much happening around urban innovation and technology, and I feel like I’ve got a perspective from the city government side but also of the startup side.” And that’s where I ended up really sort of carving out this sort of niche for myself where I write a lot, a do some consulting, and I just try to position myself to help urban mobility innovation work a little bit better and help the technology solutions that can be helpful rise to the surface and those that are distractions, maybe take a little bit of air out of them.
Cohen: Hmm. I want to go back to something you said, and I don’t want to take us too far off course, but I want to plumb this a little bit, which was you alluded to the fact that you were wondering about the value of some of this economic development work—
Cohen: —and whether it really was moving the needle. I want to dig into that a little bit, because I think there’s a lot of—I’m not even sure quite yet in my mind where I want to go with that, but I feel like there’s a lot there that might be actually relevant to some of the larger conversations we’re having in general.
Zipper: Yeah. I mean, local economic development is this weird niche of a field that is run by—I mean, I’m going to exaggerate only slightly, but it’s been around for a long time, and it’s run by usually, like, frankly, like, older, White guys—[LAUGHS]—who are used to sort of getting together with corporate executives and offering them incentives—
Cohen: Who also are often older, White guys.
Zipper: Also White guys—and offer them some money, taxpayer money—let’s be very clear; they’re called incentives, but it’s taxpayer money—to move from that jurisdiction over to this one or to expand into this jurisdiction as opposed to that one. And, you know, on a national level it’s zero-sum because the jobs being created are going to be created anyway; the tax base is going to be created anyway; you’re just sort of giving some of that—you’re giving basically some tax revenue back to the company, which, I think, is actually, you know, can be quite unfair to small businesses or starting business that don’t rise to the attention of elected leaders in quite the same way.
I can give some examples of instances where I was just like, “Why are we doing this?” I remember—just really quick, there was a—at D.C. when I was in the mayor’s office we had this small venture capital program that was meant to support successful startups using some tax revenues to do so. Most startups don’t succeed, as didn’t with this program, but the one that did, a company called GridPoint, started to grow in D.C. And what happened was Arlington, Virginia, the neighboring jurisdiction, said, “Hello. We’ll give you some money if you move across the Potomac River into Arlington.” So the company did. And I found myself thinking, “This is just such a damning indictment of economic development as a field, because as a taxpayer or as a public official in D.C., how can I justify even supporting the creation of new companies, of startups, with taxpayer dollars if the successful ones are just going to get poached?” So this is when I started becoming quite disenchanted with how economic development at the local level often works.
Cohen: Well, I’m going to put a pin on that, because I think we could go down that rabbit hole for a while—
Cohen: —but I think that is a fascinating, fascinating look into economic development and kind of, like you said, your disillusionment with it; but I think it could actually be something that, you know, as we think about what’s necessary to make change—right—there’s still plenty of economic development that’s still being done. Despite your disillusionment with it, there’s obviously plenty of it still being done. And so, you know, I think, the same could be said around some of the themes that we’re getting at, which is around equity and the advancement of access to transportation and mobility.
Cohen: Again, you know, how do we actually make that a reality? So we can set economic development aside for now, but I think that’s a fascinating, fascinating kind of backstory here.
Zipper: Oh, well, if—yeah, I’m happy to set it aside, but if I could I would just—you know, one reason why I still sort of dabble in economic development—there’s a startup in economic development I support called Colu, and I try to still follow what’s happening—is that I actually think it’s a field that’s ripe for disruption, if you will. And actually it’s transportation that I think—it’s funny; economic development is treated as a silo and transportation as a different silo, but I actually think that fundamentally transportation is economic development.
When you make it easy for a local labor force to reach jobs throughout the region, shorten commutes, make the whole region more attractive to workers who could live anywhere, you are going to boost corporate activity. And I actually get excited about the potential to sort of, like, push out some of the Amazon-HQ2-recruitment style economic development strategy and say, “Maybe actually economic development should really be much more about, actually, transportation.”
Jensen: I want to pivot a little bit, David, and throw you a hypothetical. So, say Secretary Designate Pete Buttigieg called you up and asked for your input on the first thing he should do as secretary of transportation, what are you going to tell him?
Zipper: The first thing? Well, so I’ve written some about this; you guys might be aware. I wrote an article, several articles in CityLab and in Slate about some steps that a Buttigieg-U.S. DOT could take to manage autonomous vehicles and to support cycling, so forth, and so on. I think there are some deep, strategic things that U.S. DOT can and should do that’s going to take time, which I hope we can get into, but, 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. And 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. America has just been a laggard.
Cohen: That’s just bananas, by the way.
Zipper: It’s totally bananas; it’s insane, and we should be outraged. But I don’t think the urbanist community is aware of the gap, so—and, by the way, like, lo and behold we end up with vehicles like Cybertruck or the Escalade that are incredibly dangerous to pedestrians, and we have cars like the Dodge Charger where even if you want to get pedestrian detection sensors you can’t get it; it’s not even offered as an option.
So, to me, one of the best things that could be done by Secretary Buttigieg would be to say, “All right, we’re just going to revise and cap, finally, and update it to acknowledge that we have a pedestrian-and-cyclist safety crisis in this country,” because the fatality rates are up 40% in the last decade by and large, “and we’re going to—your only automaker is going to be able to get the top rating if you’re going to have sensors to avoid these sorts of collisions with pedestrians and cyclists at low speeds and to minimize the damage that’s done if and when you do end up hitting someone.” That’s the very first thing I would do.
Jensen: What are some of those other things that you mentioned that you think DOT could do?
Zipper: I mean, there’s so many. But, to me, the way I think of it is I would like to lift every possible mode of transportation other than driving yourself—[LAUGHS]—like, everything; transit, love it; walking, awesome; biking, terrific; scooters, yes. Like, all of it; let’s support it all. And, by the way, do that for climate reasons and do it also for safety reasons but especially, I think, for climate, although you could also argue for equity reasons. We can get into that later. But, I think, the way to do that strategically, in my view, are to basically make clear to the states, state DOTs, that when they are seeking funding from FHWA, the Federal Highway Administration, or from NHTSA or really from any part of U.S. DOT, that U.S. DOT is going to take into account the extent to which the proposal from the state reduces vehicles miles traveled and the extent to which the proposed project reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Because if those are program elements that lead to decisions of funding that are made at U.S. DOT, it’s going to naturally push state DOTs across the whole country to sort of dust off their project ideas for transit expansions or for protected bike lanes or for whatever else that in their minds can make it more likely they’ll get funded and get approval for the projects they want to see federal support for.
Jensen: That seems pretty reasonable, in a time of climate crisis.
Zipper: I hope so. [LAUGHTER]
Zipper: I don’t think it’s too crazy. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: I mean, David, I mean, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, as someone who’s got an MBA, that you might look at it this way, because I kind of—what I heard in both of those answer is talking about the negative externalities that are associated with both the size of some of those vehicles and the impact on pedestrians but then also the funding and the vehicle miles traveled, which is not really penalized right now other than a gas tax which hasn’t moved in, you know, 30 years. Right? So it’s interesting that, like, the negative externalities is really kind of what you’re getting at, which you’re 100% right. I mean, I agree with you. I think that’s an area that we’re just looking at one side of this without looking at both sides.
Zipper: Yeah. I mean, and 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.
And we don’t apply the same ways of thinking—we haven’t for decades and decades—to other modes like transit and cycling. And, I think, you know, this is a responsibility of both federal and local policymakers to sort of grad—it doesn’t have to be that gradual—to just move toward getting rid of these sort of policy failures to account for externalities, whether it’s about safety, because my decision to drive a hulking SUV makes you, urban pedestrian, less safe or if it’s around climate, because my decision to drive a Hummer that gets, you know, whatever, like 17 miles to the gallon is going to worsen the climate that all of us are dependent upon. So I am a big believer in thoughtful policy to sort of unwind some of the mess that we’ve got ourselves into.
Cohen: L’erin, it looks like you’re thinking about something.
Jensen: I’m just thinking this just reminds me of that article I just sent you, Josh. Like, this is just more refusal to tax the rich.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, yeah. So the article that L’erin is referencing—and it actually—it’s kind of consistent with kind of what we started off talking about as well, which is—let me get the title of it, but it’s called “The Austerity Politics of White Supremacy” and how kind of we’ve used this concept of quote-unquote “taxpayers” to provide a socially acceptable veneer for attacks on democracy and White-supremacist attacks on democracy. And, again, you know, this gets into some of the issues that we have with funding of public transit. Right?
You know, it’s like we—we’re in this situation where we can’t afford it—right—when in reality we can afford it; we’re just choosing not to allocate the resources to do that, either taxing or other resources to having effective, frequent, reliable, safe, public transit. Like, this is a solvable problem; right?
Zipper: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s right. And, I think, this is where there’s just this fissure in society right now that applies to so much. I live in Washington, D.C., and, you know, we’re recording this a week after the riots at the Capitol. One of the core fissures I see is between those of us who believe that there are societal responsibilities to one another to lift each other up and protect one another—to wear a freakin’ mask, for example—and those that just sort of have the default setting of, “Get the hell out of my face. I do whatever the hell I want.” And just, like, a simple, small, little example, which is far down on the list of terrible things that happened during the mob at the Capitol but it ties to transportation, a bunch of the people who came to what turned into the mob storming the Capitol, they drove their SUVs and trucks into D.C. They couldn’t figure where to park it, so they just left their trucks and SUVs on the Mall and on the tidal basin by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the grass that is, you know, sacred in this country, and they just walked from there.
And, you know, there’s something there that captures, to me, the innate selfishness of people with that kind of mentality that, I think, leads them also to buy the kinds of vehicles that they do, these oversized SUVs and trucks that are basically ways of bullying everybody else on the road. And I think that it’s high time that for those of us who do believe in a community and not just a sort of collection of individuals to acknowledge that that’s just not an okay way to build a country; it’s not even a possible way to have a viable country.
Cohen: Yeah. I want to dive into—
Zipper: You don’t want to get into the mob?
Cohen: No, I—[LAUGHTER]—I think there’s probably other venues that can—but I do think there’s a connection to that in kind of where I want to go next, which is, you know, certainly, you know, our cities have certainly been shaped by technology, you know, for a long time and the work, you know, this intersection between cities and technology. And one of the things that—you mentioned, Gabe Klein; one of the things he likes to talk about is, you know, we’ve fallen in love with that technology before in the ’50s, and look where it got us. Right? We have all these urban highways that carved up our cities, and in most cities they end up decimating African American neighborhoods. And certainly here in Durham, which is near where you grew up in Chapel Hill, the Hayti community got bulldozed by the Durham Freeway.
Cohen: So, I guess, I’m curious from your perspective what you think our cities and our technologies need to be doing to right some of these historical wrongs and ensure they don’t happen again.
Zipper: [SIGHS] I mean, it’s such a complicated, important question. And one thing I’ll credit Secretary Foxx, who was U.S. DOT secretary under Obama, with is he really was, I think, the first federal secretary to acknowledge that the focus on building these urban freeways in the ’50s and ’60s and into the ’70s was—you want to talk about, like, racist infrastructure; this is about as clear-cut an example as you’re going to find.
And it’s terrible in Durham; it’s terrible it happened in Miami; it’s terrible it happened in so many American cities. I do like the idea that is increasingly bandied about of just eliminating some of these interstates like the Cross Bronx Expressway or the BQE in New York. I think that’s challenging politically and logistically in some cities now.
So, I think, you know, what I—sort of what I try to think about a lot and advocate for is to just acknowledge that—frankly, acknowledge the role of money in how we got to where we did in the ’50s and ’60s, where you had a highway lobby and a car lobby that was, you know, really pushing hard for the subsidies that built the interstate system including in cities. I mean, you want to talk about a lack of—you know, policy creating terrible outcomes, you know, like basically if you were a mayor of a city in 1960, you could get 90% federal dollar-match for an interstate that could be built through your city to accommodate drivers, and you could get not a penny for mass transit. Like, how did we ever do that to ourselves 60 years ago? So it’s—
Jensen: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Zipper: Yeah, well, race, but it’s also just stupid. Like, there were people like Lewis Mumford at the time who were saying, like, “This is—” he wasn’t talking about racism as much as he was talking about just the geometrical impossibility of this ever working out, to have all of these cars be placed into cities instead of supporting mass transit. But now, you know, like, I’ve written some articles about infrastructure that I think just doesn’t—like, it doesn’t get the attention that it should because there’s no money behind.
Like, I don’t worry about electrification happening because there’s so much money to be made if it does. I do worry about sidewalks. You know, I do worry about protected bike lanes, because despite what certain motorist groups might want you to think, there is no big bike. [LAUGHS] There’s nobody pushing for that. And actually it’s incredibly important to provide infrastructure that cities rely upon but also those people are especially reliant upon it if they don’t have money to afford a car. So I am a big believer in something as mundane as supporting sidewalk construction, because I think that that will inherently be progressive in its impact, because the people who’d most benefit tend to be those who are lower-income and often minorities.
Jensen: So, since you’re both from North Carolina, I have to ask this question. Why are there no sidewalks in North Carolina? This was like—I’ve been here for 11 years now. This was just mind-blowing for me coming from California. Like, there are sidewalks.
Jensen: I didn’t know that was a thing until I moved here.
Zipper: Josh, you want to take that one? [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: I mean, I grew up on the side of a mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, so I didn’t see a sidewalk for a number of years. But, you know, I don’t know. I mean, I guess—
Zipper: I’m hearing excuses, Josh. I’m hearing excuses.
Cohen: [LAUGHS] I mean, I guess it’s the suburban development patterns, I mean, is the easy answer. And I’m sure it was a function of whatever way we can cut costs. And, I mean—maybe to tie this back to economic development—again, when you think about, you know, as these cities and communities are expanding and people are wanting to bring some homes there or build, something like that, you know, this is a negotiation. Right?
This is, “What can we do to get that builder to build, you know, 25 homes or 100 or 200 homes in our community? And if we say no and they go down the street to Wake County, that doesn’t help build our tax base.” Right? So I do think that there’s something to that, but David might have a more eloquent and educated answer. I’m just talking out of my rear now.
Zipper: Yeah, I wrote an article about sidewalks in CityLab—
Cohen: See, there we go—[INDISCERNIBLE]
Cohen: You were setting me up, David.
Zipper: I think it’s important. I think it’s important. No, the—in general, the cities and states with the best sidewalks are those that were developed in the 18th and 19th century when walking was a primary mode of transport. And over the last century as the automobile rose, frankly, some of those older cities sort of sadly reconfigured their streets to reduce sidewalks. But—like, you see that in, like, Detroit and Akron and cities like that. But newer cities that were built around the automobile, just the sidewalk was a low priority, and there wasn’t—and actually when you start peeling back the onion, you can realize that actually funding is a huge problem, because in cities like Los Angeles the cost of maintaining and building the sidewalk is actually borne not by the public sector but by the abutting landholder.
And so what do you think happens? You end up with much better sidewalk networks in more affluent communities than you do in lower-income, African American neighborhoods. There’s a professor in Chicago, Kate Lowe, who did an important study about that.
And this is just sort of a nationwide problem. At least New Orleans is an older city; then you end up with the Southwestern cities like a Phoenix or something, and oftentimes you don’t see sidewalks at all because it just wasn’t much of a priority and there wasn’t a mandate to include it. So we really got ourselves into a pickle, but I think that—I’d love to see a big sidewalk movement emerge, because it’s something that, I think, would just, again, lift all kinds of—it would accomplish many, many, many—it would get us closer to accomplishing many goals at once. Let’s put it that way.
Jensen: Yeah. They’d, like, make it easier for people to walk and not get hit by big Escalades.
Zipper: Or even get to a bus. Like, keep in mind if you’re taking transit you’re going to have to walk some amount of time to get to your stop and ultimately to your destination, and sidewalks can make that safer and more comfortable to do so.
Jensen: If you reflect on some of the most impactful leaders you’ve worked with or learned from, what are some of the key lessons that you think can be applied to the work we’re doing to make our communities more equitable, accessible, and verdant?
Zipper: One thing I will say is that I wish more people who focus on urban planning and urban transportation studied history and really understood how some of the decisions were made that may not even have been decisions; it may have been inertia. But, you know, like, you were asking, L’erin, about sidewalks. Like, there is actually a lot of history there of how we ended up with, like, our decrepit sidewalks compared to European cities or how it is that urban transit ended up so woefully underfunded during these pivotal decades in the middle of the 20th century and why it is that, frankly, even something like jaywalking got sort of—I was just tweeting about this earlier today. That got sort of really, like, forced into our lexicon of urban crime when, you know, the idea of walk—in 1910, no one would have understood the concept. Children played on the street all the time; and if you wanted to walk across the street to get to your store, you just did it.
And the best person—the person I’ve learned a lot on those topics just to understand the history of how we got here, which to me informs my own thoughts about how we get out of some of the difficulties that we’re in with urban transportation, is a professor at University of Virginia named Peter Norton who is really focused on explaining sort of how the automobile came to dominate American cities. And, you know, I think we all can see a lot of the problems that exist now around equity, and around the environment, and around just annoying congestion, and safety, of course; but I feel like he really has put a spotlight for me on some of the lobbying, some of the fear, some of the just naiveté of really it was often the first—well, the first 40 years of the 20th century, the middle 40 years of the 20th century where we ended up with the problems that we’re in now.
And sometimes we just completely overlook it now. Like, the idea of setting speed limits at a relatively high level in cities, like, how did we ever make those decisions? Why did we decide to get rid of trees on urban arteries, which, you know, can make those arteries, walking along them much more comfortable and make the neighborhoods less hot? Well, we got rid of those trees because engineers, in their wisdom 70 years ago, thought that trees on urban streets would make it more likely that a driver would hit them. [LAUGHS] And now we’re just stuck with a lack of green space. So I’m a big believer in studying history. And, for me, Professor Norton’s work, both books and articles, have been very influential in how I see it.
Cohen: Awesome; awesome. David, I mentioned your website earlier, DavidZipper.com. Where else can folks catch up with you?
Zipper: Twitter; I tweet some. [LAUGHS] Hopefully I’m not—I try not to be too obsessed with it, but I’m on it a decent amount, and I certainly share the articles that I write there. So I’m just at @DavidZipper, and it’s an easy way to get in touch that way too if people have ideas to share or if they think that I’m wrong. Many other people tell me when I’m wrong on things, and you can too. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: Well, there you go.
Zipper: Especially when I wrote about Tesla in December. Sorry, I just have to say, like, when I wrote an article about Tesla in December, that’s when I really learned how excited people were to tell me I was wrong about something. [LAUGHTER]
Jensen: I’m going to have to check that out.
Cohen: Yeah, that was a good one. And also David has a newsletter that he sends out I’d probably say monthly or so that recap some of his articles as well.
Cohen: So I think you can sign up for that on your website. Is that right?
Zipper: Yeah, that’s right. I even forgot to mention that, Josh. I should hire you as my publicist. You are correct.
Cohen: There we go. There we go. Well, you know, this is what a good podcast host is supposed to do, which is try to remember ways to help their guests, so. Well, David, thank you so much for giving us a little bit of this perspective on the work you’re doing at the intersection of cities and technology and your journey to get there and kind of what’s needed next in order to get towards that equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that we all want. So thank you so much for joining us.
Zipper: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks again for having me.
Jensen: Thanks, David.
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.
Hear more from The Movement Podcast co-host Josh Cohen in this blog The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit.