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Episode 132 Guest Steven Higashide

If we want better mobility in our communities, TransitCenter’s Steven Higashide, author of Better Buses, Better Cities, believes better transit policy starts with a broad multi-racial coalition and ends with buses providing more access to opportunity for all.

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Higashide: Steven Higashide

F: Female Speaker

Cohen: I love getting into the psychological aspects of change, and I do just that with my guest today, TransitCenter’s Steven Higashide, author of Better Buses, Better Cities.  We discuss the psychological side of bus funding, from understanding the problem, to what’s necessary to fix it, coming up next 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’s your host, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Our guest today, Steven Higashide, is an urban planner, writer, and director of research at TransitCenter.  You may recall we had Steven’s colleague Tabitha Decker on the podcast on Episode 067.  I guess, it was probably May of 2020.  In 2019, Steven wrote Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit.  That sounds right up our alley.  So welcome to The Movement, Steven.

Higashide: Hey.  Happy to be here.

Cohen: Let’s start here with this.  What inspired you to write Better Buses, Better Cities?

Higashide: Well, so I’ve been working in transportation for—wow—15 years now.  And, you know, really what inspired me to write the book was what I was seeing every day in my work at TransitCenter, a lot of really heroic folks inside transit agencies trying to change transit for the better, and a lot of advocates and, you know, regular citizens working to improve it from the outside.

And like any other area of public policy, transit policy is really this active and continually contested process.  Right?  It’s not something that, you know, you pass a law, a planner just implements that law.  It’s this really living thing that, in a lot of ways, is this continual conversation, or even a fight, really.  And what I wanted to do with the book was to help people understand and dissect both the fundamentals of transit itself, how you—you know, what great buses look like, but also that policy process, what you should do, what you should be looking for if you’re someone who wants to make it better yourself.

You know, every year it seemed to me that there’d be some article in Slate or CNN or somewhere else about how, you know, the transportation solution we really need is the bus; the bus is the secret hiding in plain sight.  And, you know, I just looked around, and I saw, well, it’s not really a secret; it’s something that’s very overlooked and underappreciated, but there are hundreds of people working to make buses better.  And I thought that the stories we need are all around me, and they needed to be shared.  And so that’s really what I was trying to do with the book.

Cohen: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because, you know, I struggle with that as well sometimes, which is, are we dealing with a crisis of not enough understanding of the solutions that have worked in the past?  Or are we dealing with a different challenge, which is we all know the answers, we just have to have the kind of intestinal fortitude and the support and the community support in order to actually implement them. Right?  It’s kind of an interesting, yeah, thing to navigate.  Right?

Higashide: Yeah.  It’s sort of like—I think that’s kind of common in maybe your knowledge journey, where you might start when you’re learning about a topic like buses and say to yourself, “Oh, you know, no one is talking about this.  You know, we just need to get people to understand how important buses can be.”  And then the more you learn about it, the more you realize, “Oh, it’s actually the people in power who are not talking about this, and maybe it’s not really an education problem so much as it is an organizing problem and a problem of building power.”

You know, and, of course, to some degree, it’s really both of those things.  Right?  It’s like the more people you can get excited about buses, the more of those folks you can bring into the movement.  But it really does have a lot to do with power.

Cohen: Yeah, no, for sure.  I mean, any time you have money—right—power is going to kind of be the subtext there.  You wrote this in 2019, and so obviously that was before the pandemic, and ridership obviously cratered with the pandemic, and then you had some people who were just nervous about kind of being with other people.  And obviously, federal funding kind of arrived, and that’s kind of saved a lot of these agencies from epic disaster.  I mean, it was looking really grim there for a little while.  I’m curious how you believe the pandemic has changed the fundamentals of what you discuss in the book, if at all.

Higashide: Mm-hmm.  Yeah, I mean, in terms of the fundamentals of what makes transit useful to people, I really don’t think that the pandemic has changed that.  In the book, I talk about how the recipe for good transit really comes down to having service that’s fast, that’s frequent, that’s reliable, that you feel safe riding, that you can walk to in a way that’s convenient and safe, and that’s affordable.  You know, all those factors are as important, if not, you know, more important, than they used to be.  The pandemic created some challenges for agencies in providing that service, however.

Cohen: Right.

Higashide: You know, there were widespread, and continue to be, you know, operator shortages, first because of, you know, unfortunately, people getting, you know, sick and taken out of service.  And now, because it’s a really hard job to be a bus operator, and I think a lot of agencies are having some challenges staffing back up and trying to provide full service.  You know, during the pandemic, there were and there are, you know, these social distancing requirements that make it harder for buses to—you know, buses are passing up riders and creating a less reliable experience.  So there are all these real challenges.

I think one of the most rewarding things that I have worked on while at TransitCenter is producing some of the analysis that federal lawmakers helped use to justify providing billions of dollars in assistance to transit agencies.  I think, thankfully, you know, folks in Congress recognized that transit is essential, and that, you know, even with ridership falling, that’s not really the only measure of success.  Right?  What matters is that transit is getting people to the grocery store.  It’s getting them to their healthcare jobs.  It’s keeping all our other essential systems running.

And I just really don’t want folks to forget how much heroism there is in providing that kind of public service.  You know, already there’s so much temptation to lapse into “Oh, you know, cities are reopening, you know, as the pandemic recedes.”  And it’s not receding.

Cohen: No, no, no.

Higashide: And, you know, transit providers are really still on the front lines.  So, all those fundamentals matter.  They’re quite challenging to provide right now, and I think that that should be a reminder to decision makers everywhere about just what a fundamental service transit itself is.

Cohen: You touch on a good thing.  And, you know, one of the things I think about a lot is that, you know, we have this concept of ridership, which is obviously such an easy metric to keep track of—right—and to kind of measure, quote-unquote, “success.”  Right?  But as you kind of alluded to, ridership is not the key value there.  I mean, it’s the easy one to measure, but it’s not the best one to measure.  Right?  And, you know, there’s been some groups, maybe even TransitCenter, that’s talked about kind of access to jobs within a certain amount of time, what—how many jobs you could access within half an hour or so forth, via transit and so forth.  I’m curious what you would believe would be a better metric to measure than ridership.

Higashide: Yeah.  Well, you mentioned access to opportunity.  I’m a huge believer and TransitCenter is a huge believer that that is a really important metric.  And that’s because it gets at the question of what can you actually reach on transit.  How much opportunity does transit actually connect you to?  Whether that is a potential job or school or healthcare or food, these access to opportunity measures allow us to get at the question of, “How effectively can you live your whole life using transit?”

Cohen: Right.

Higashide: And TransitCenter actually—this was a project that I was involved in, and my colleague, Mary Buchanan, led—we recently came out with our Transit Equity Dashboard, which looks at what folks can reach on transit in seven U.S. regions.  And what we found almost everywhere really are these quite large racial disparities.  So, for example, in the New York City metropolitan area, the average White resident can access roughly, I believe, 950,000 jobs in 45 minutes.  That’s almost twice as much as what the average Black resident can reach.  And so—and of course, this is a consequence not just of the transportation system, but land use.  Right?

Cohen: Right, right, right.

Higashide: It’s a consequence of folks getting displaced farther and farther from quality transit, and the transit system not being able to, you know, make up for that.  Or in some cases, you know, decision makers choosing not to invest in the kinds of projects that would create that access.  And so there are these huge inequities that were baked into the system, you know, before the pandemic.  They stayed that way or got even worse during the pandemic.  And, I think, asking ourselves how are we going to do better, how are we going to close this gap year after year, that’d be a really great goal to commit to.

Cohen: Yeah.  You know, I totally agree, and I’m glad you brought up land use, too, because beyond some of the structural inequities that, you know, you touched on a little bit with redlining and displacement due to rising costs and gentrification and so forth, you know, you have this fundamental suburban land use pattern that has kind of emerged, especially in the American South, that, again, it’s really hard to provide good transit in that environment.  Right?  Like, there’s only so much you can really get to in half an hour, based on some of those land use things.

So, even that point there, I mean, I agree it’s a good goal, but, like, the transit system can’t even overcome that land use.  Right?  I mean, unless we’re going to be starting bringing bulldozers out there, I mean, we’re not going to be able to really address some of those foundational land use—I guess, unless you totally rethink infrastructure, you totally blow the cap out on, like, how much service you could provide so that you could really get, like, even out in the suburbs, some sort of, like, easy access to, you know, job centers, healthcare, so forth.  Right?

Higashide: Yeah.  Although I will say, you know, we could do a lot better than we’re doing.  And we can look to, you know, some other countries to get some ideas of what’s possible in the suburbs.  You know, Jonathan English often talks about how in the Toronto suburbs you have—you know, at least before the pandemic—in the Toronto suburbs there’d be bus service running every 10, 15 minutes, in suburbs that really don’t look so different from, you know, Long Island or some of the other New York suburbs, places that a lot of planners write off as—

Cohen: Right.

Higashide: —not transit supportive.  And the truth is, you have a strong metropolitan area, you can justify frequent, convenient transit.  You know, Christof Spieler, who I interviewed for the book, from Houston, talks about the fact that a lot of busiest bus routes in Houston are on these arterial roads that are sort of covered with strip malls.  That doesn’t read to a lot of folks as a transit-friendly area, and it has a lot of challenges.  I mean, the walking environment is pretty tough.  But there are a lot of destinations, a lot of folks who are getting to those jobs, and you can get some great ridership out of it.

So, on the one hand, it’s definitely true.  There’s only so much that you can do in the suburbs.  But we can do a lot better than we are now.  And if we simply had more funding to run more service, I think, in every U.S. region there is some low-hanging fruit that we could serve with better buses.

Cohen: So I agree with you.  I’m curious if you have any thought on this.  I’ve often thought about this as supply begets demand.  Right?  If you can put the supply out there, you know, obviously, it won’t happen overnight, but at some point people say, “Okay, well, this is an option I can use, then.”  Right?  “Maybe I hadn’t considered it before.”  Do you have a sense on how long that would take?  Right?  Like, obviously, every region might be different, you know, based on some of the cultural aspects of each region, especially the relationships with cars and so forth.  But I imagine if you, like, said, “All right, we’re going to make this investment as a community into this higher-level bus service,” how long would it take for some of those perspectives or attitudes or habits to change?  Do you have any sense on that?

Higashide: Yeah.  I mean, I don’t have a scientific answer, but anecdotally, I mean, I really think we’re talking about a timeline of a year or less.

Cohen: Yeah.

Higashide: And I say that because when you look at the aftermath of some of the successful bus network redesigns like Cap Remap in Austin, Texas, or some of the reorganization of the bus service in the Seattle area—which, you know, every time they extend the light rail system, they reorganize the bus system around it—or when you look at bus network redesigns in Columbus or Houston, the ridership responded pretty quickly to those increases in service.

And, you know, granted, I think when you think about, you know, how long does it take to get someone to transit, you’re really talking about several different kinds of people.  You know, there are some folks who are riding transit already, then the service becomes more convenient and they start to take it more.  That might be a really fast process—

Cohen: Sure.  Yeah.

Higashide: —compared to someone who maybe is making the decision to take transit for the first time, which can be quite a lengthy process in someone figuring out, you know, whether it’ll work for their new habit.  Maybe they get a new job and it just happens to be that transit works for that.  But I would say, you know, we’re not talking about years and years here.  And that really is one of the reasons why it’s so important to invest in buses, because you can start to get these quick wins, these quick responses from transit riders, and that leads to this cycle of increased trust in the agency, increased ability, increased, you know, willingness from voters and citizens to trust that agency with more and more ambitious investments.

Cohen: Yeah.  So you touched on that in the book, this concept of tactical transit, and certainly, deploying these transit changes in weeks and maybe months, not years.  Right?  And I think we’ve all seen these projects that just last forever and years and years and years, and it feels like it’s going so slow.  You know, from the standpoint of a government or quasi-governmental agency, like a public transit agency, making these types of shifts, is there some cultural changes that need to happen for public transit agencies, especially in sometimes cities, to make kind of more of what I call agile or tactical moves instead, that say, “Hey, we’re going to try something.  It’s not a guarantee.  It might actually be flaming failure, and that’s okay because we’ll learn something”?  Tell me a little bit about kind of what your thoughts are on that.

Higashide: Yeah.  I mean, I think in some cases it could be cultural changes; in other cases maybe it’s better described as a structural change.  But, you know, when I wrote the book, I had seen so many pretty simple bus lane projects that were being planned through a process that was very much like a highway mega project or something, where, you know, there might be a corridor plan and a round of public outreach, and then like a 30% design, and then more outreach, then 90% design and more outreach.  And then finally, the project is in the ground maybe five or sometimes, you know, seven or eight years later.  And that process really would burn people out.

Cohen: Sure.

Higashide: It would burn out the staff.  It would burn out transit advocates.  You know, because what would happen with a process that takes that long is that it’s so easy for opponents to stack the process.  Anyone who’s for the project really doesn’t want to have to sign up for this, like, seven-year process of providing supportive public input again and again.  It’s hard to get even riders in the neighborhood to get excited about something that might go into the ground after they’ve already moved out of the neighborhood seven years from now.  And, I think, that speaks to the way in which how we set up our public processes has to be cognizant of how the power works also.  Because when transit agencies have used this tactical approach instead, what’s great about that is you can put sort of the prototype bus lane on the ground.  That immediately gets hundreds or thousands of riders excited about it, you know, folks who then are motivated to advocate to make that project permanent.

And if you are an agency working with, you know, neighborhood groups or advocates, it’s a totally different proposition to say, “You know, we’re going to put this project in the ground, then we’re going to need to hear support for it over the next three weeks.”  That’s really different from saying, “Hey, we need you to go to these, like, three years of public meetings so that we don’t get, you know, drowned out by the NIMBYs.”

And I guess I would say, in general, that, you know, we have to find as many ways as possible to build transit more quickly, both in terms of these bus lane projects, projects we can do in this really tactical fashion, but also even the mega projects.  You know, there’s been a lot of discussion in the U.S. about how large transit projects too often are coming in, you know, behind schedule and over budget.  We’ve got to work on that problem too.  And, I think, a lot of it comes down to building more public sector capacity.

You know, on the big projects the issue might be that, you know, our public agencies just don’t have the staff, don’t have the capacity to manage those effectively.  We ask people to do too much.  And, you know, no offense to any consultants out there listening to this right now, but we also need a lot less reliance on consultants, you know.

Cohen: [LAUGHS]

Higashide: In a lot of agencies, you know, consultants are hired to do things like bus lane projects that really should be routine.  You know, you hire consultants because you want to do something that’s out of the ordinary.

Cohen: Right.

Higashide: But something like a bus lane project should be very ordinary.  It should be something that the agency is doing all the time, you know, if we’re going to, you know, get our street network to where it has to be to get the transit that we need.

Cohen: You know, I love that perspective, almost the psychological perspective of this.  Right?  Which is, you know, like, the kind of weightiness of saying, “Oh, it’s going to be six or seven years before the project gets in the ground,” versus the psychological benefit that happens when you say, “Oh, yes, like, we’re going to get this—we’re going to test this for the next month, and we need your support hard over the next month.”  Supporter is like, “That’s what we need.”  That is a totally different kind of psychological response.  Right?  I really like thinking about it from that perspective because I think it’s so different.

Higashide: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t write about this in the book, but it’s something that I think about a lot, kind of the problem of how toxic it can feel sometimes to be in the public conversation around a new project or a new initiative, to, you know—to have to go to a public meeting and hear people in the audience, like, threaten the public planners and say that they’re, you know—maybe they’re like shills for developers, or, you know, if you’re someone who’s advocating for a bus lane project, you know, maybe folks in the audience will start yelling at you to prove that you’re a longtime resident.  Like, it really can be a tough and disheartening experience for everyone involved.  And, I think, rethinking that public process in a way that allows planners to hear from the most marginalized folks, while also finding a way to not have so many veto points in the project that can be controlled by more privileged folks, that’s a really hard problem that I feel like a lot of people are working on now.  I definitely don’t know what the answer is, but it’s we have to like—we have to get the answers to that challenge.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure.  Especially because it’s such an important piece of any of these projects, is kind of this whole process of community engagement and getting feedback from those groups that are going to be impacted by any sorts of changes like that.

I want to maybe wrap up with this.  You alluded to kind of some of the equity issues earlier, and, you know, I was at a book club event the other night that Charles Brown of Equitable Cities organized.  It’s his Arrested Mobility Book Club, which if anybody has not, take a look at that, check that out.  We had a great first book.  And so the author of the book we discussed—and the book was Justice for Ella—Pam Johnson shared, from her experience working in Mississippi politics, that it was always about race, even if it wasn’t.  Right?  So I think one of the—one of her colleagues that she was working with there kind of pulled her aside and kind of gave her that kind of insight.

And certainly, I know you’ve said before that transit, especially buses, are marginalized because the people who ride transit are mostly marginalized people themselves, like poor and people of color.  So I’m curious what kind of thoughts you have about how we untangle this kind of scourge of racism from this concept of funding and how much we are putting towards buses in our communities.

Higashide: Mm-hmm.  Well, I think that the truth is that, in some ways, we can’t untangle it.  We have to recognize that it is there and build the power to overcome it, knowing that that is always going to be there.  And that means that better bus service and better transit, it’s never going to be an easy fight.  Right?  And I think that it requires us to do—you know, we have to embrace, like, multiracial organizing.

I think, in some ways, the example that I cite in the book of increased bus service in Indianapolis gets at some of that.  This was—you know, this was a fight where voters in Indianapolis ultimately agreed to raise their own income tax to greatly increase bus service, increase the number of frequent routes.  That was accomplished through this really broad coalition that included progressive churches organizing in Black neighborhoods.  It included the Chamber of Commerce and real estate and young professionals, so, really, a group of folks that spanned the city.

And, I think, what’s also really important about that example is, you know, for many years prior to that, business leaders had been agitating for, you know, light rail, connecting downtown and the airport.  And that was not a vision that could get, you know, current transit riders on board.  You know, what won, what was successful was a reimagined system that was better for the folks who used transit and which would benefit Black neighborhoods, which would benefit the underinvested neighborhoods.

And I think that you see that again and again when you look at some of the transit referenda that have failed around the countries—around the country.  You know, I’ve seen examples in Detroit and Nashville where the strategies seem to be, “Well, if we can get business and real estate folks together, they are the folks who hold power in the city, so, you know, voters will agree.”  And it just doesn’t work like that.  We have to actually center the folks who rely on transit, as part of a broad and powerful coalition.

And I guess the last thing I’d say about that is, you know, when you look at the way we have tackled other, you know, civil rights issues, when you look at the way that we’ve tackled other inequities in the U.S., that there is a role that the federal government can play as well.  And that’s why I think it’s so important that we have, for example, a large new federal investment in transit operations.

Yonah Freemark and others at the Urban Institute have noted that, you know, today, the federal government provides some funds for operating transit, mostly in rural areas, and that funding actually disproportionately goes to low-income communities, and that’s not the case with state funding or local funding.  It’s generally the case that, you know, state and local funding, it goes to the places that already have the most wealth; it goes to, you know, the Seattles and the San Franciscos of the world, and it’s important that those places raise their own money for transit.  But if we want to lift everyone up, you know, there’s probably a federal role also.

Cohen: Steven, this has been really, really great to get your perspective and sharing a little bit more about some of these examples that you covered and also didn’t cover in your book.  Where can folks find your book or learn more about it and some of your other work?

Higashide: Sure.  I think, the best place to learn more about the book is on Island Press’s website.  You can just do a search for Better Buses, Better Cities.  You can always find me on Twitter at @SHigashide.  I also have a personal website,  And, of course, you know, always check out TransitCenter’s website as well for the latest research that we’re doing.

Cohen: Awesome, awesome, awesome.  Well, Steven, thank you so much for joining us.  This has been a great introduction into some of your work and what is necessary to bring better buses to our cities and make a better community for everyone.  So thank you so much.

Higashide: Thank you.

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