Share on Social

Featuring Jeffrey Tumlin.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: On the fourth episode of our five-episode series recorded at the Ford* City of Tomorrow Symposium I’m joined by Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at NelsonNygaard in San Francisco.  We discussed the unique role NelsonNygaard plays between the public and private sectors as well as how he uses humor and compassion to bring everyone to the table to discuss what’s really important.  Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: I am here at The City of Tomorrow Symposium, and Jeffrey Tumlin is my guest, so welcome, Jeff.  Maybe start with giving a little bit of background on your work at NelsonNygaard and maybe share a little bit more about the things that you’re working on and some of your specialties, and that’ll maybe provide some good jumping-off points for where we go from there.

Tumlin: All right.  So NelsonNygaard, we’re transportation nerds, but we’re unusual among transportation consulting firms in that we really put people first.  And lately a lot of our work has been getting in the in-between space between government agencies that are slow moving and have a hard time making a decision versus private companies that are wanting to disrupt the mobility space who are aggressive and innovative and are ready to make a profit and change the world and don’t necessarily want to think through unintended negative consequence.

So we’re in the in-between space helping cities step it up and innovate more and make more rapid change and helping private companies understand that their actions may have consequences that they didn’t initially intend, which is really about understanding the history of mobility innovation around the world but particularly in the United States over the last 200 years.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  And certainly seeing some of the feathers that were ruffled with TNCs and Uber and Lyft and now seeing stuff that’s going on with scooters and so forth are examples of that kind of what can happen if you’re not paying attention to the relationship you need to have and then on the government side—right—the private side saying, “Hey, we have an answer.”

Tumlin: That’s right.

Cohen: But not understanding some of the negative externalities that come from it.

Tumlin: Yeah, which is not that different than the unintended negative consequences that the arrival of the automobile had on American cities in the 1950s or that the railroads had in the 1890s, so understanding how each technological revolution was full of all of this amazing promise.  I mean, the promise of the car was that it would eliminate pollution and congestion because it would get rid of all those messy horses that were pooping all over American city streets. Right? So the car was going to solve all those problems, and it did; it just created some new problems that autonomy surely is going to solve or hyperloop or something.

Cohen: Right.  Yeah, and it seems like there’s a growing chorus of folks now who are really kind of making that case like you are which is that, “Look, you have to put the people first.”  Right? You have to make sure that we’re not just falling in love with the technology; we’re falling in love with the people and the problems that they may have that we can solve.

Tumlin: That’s right.

Cohen: So in your work what are some of the leaders that you have engaged with that strike you as making some of the bold decisions necessary to get us towards the city of tomorrow?  And, again, the setup here is that there’s all this technology work that’s being done, but there also needs to be some leadership and some decisions being made, and you can’t have one without the other.  So who are some of these leaders that you have worked with during your time at NelsonNygaard or elsewhere that really have resonated with you?

Tumlin: So there’s so many people working in the space that I take inspiration from.  Mayor Libby Schaaf in Oakland is one in particular. I had the honor of helping Mayor Schaaf and the City of Oakland to create a new department of transportation for Oakland.  And it gave us the opportunity to ask the question, “Why do we provide transportation? What are the values that Oakland has? And how can we clearly articulate Oakland’s values and build a mobility system that supports those values?”

So Mayor Schaaf not only had this vision, but also when we said, “Okay, we’re going to put equity first, and we’re going to define what we mean by equity.  And most importantly we’re going to have metrics and orient our spending around correcting for the inequity of the past, which means shifting resources from the affluent Oakland Hills down to the neglected Oakland flats.” And just last week Mayor Schaaf and the council took a great deal of political heat with a municipal budget that doesn’t use equity as a slogan but actually uses equity as a metric to orient their spending around.  That is a really, really tough choice to make as a policymaker because privileged people know how to organize political campaigns.

Cohen: And vote.

Tumlin: And they vote.  Yeah.

Cohen: Yeah, that really is telling.  And, again, I guess I want to build on that a little bit.  Right? So the way you describe that, kind of going through that process of really thinking about the values and so forth, I mean, that seems so reasonable.  Right? So, like, what can we do to get more leaders like Mayor Schaaf?

Tumlin: So I think we need to get really comfortable having conversations about our values.  Given particularly the political divisiveness these days and how we’re forming entrenched camps, we seem to believe that we have less in common with each other than we really do; and cities are actually capable of clarifying their values.  People are perfectly ready to have conversations about values, and then government needs to do the work about articulating exactly what those values mean and translating that into performance metrics and reporting back to actually have an alignment between all of the mechanics of governance and our civic values.  Right? So if staff can do that homework, it makes it so much easier for the policymakers to be able to defend the right position.

Policymakers are stuck every day trying to make citizens happy.  Government can’t make people happy. Government does not have the resources to make people happy; plus it’s not government’s job.  What government’s job is, is to allocate limited resources, either a limited amount of budget or a limited amount of street right-of-way or a limited amount of staff time, to allocate those limited resources for the greatest public good.  But if we can’t define what we mean by the public good then government is going to fail.

Cohen: Asking those questions around like what does our community value and getting the input of the community and having the city staff kind of try to implement that, do we have the right people at our cities to ask those type of question, and are we giving them enough space to do so?

Tumlin: So my experience particularly in Oakland—so I have spent my entire career in the private sector.  I came with this the-private-sector-is-superior-in-all-ways view and that public agency workers are—I don’t know—lazy and whatever.  I was so completely wrong. The municipal staffs that I work with are incredibly talented and are devoted to the places that they work; they are in service.  What they don’t necessarily have is the full set of tools in order to be able to bring values and mechanics into alignment. So it doesn’t take a lot of extra oomph in order to make that realignment happen.  And the leadership can happen; it can happen at the city council level; it can happen at the state legislator level; it can happen at the staff level; it can happen at the executive level. It’s really about all of us trying to learn from the successes and failures of other places and stepping up our own leadership in whatever role we’re in in order to move our organizations forward.

Cohen: Yeah, and what I’m trying to titrate there is like this idea that you’re really getting at, which is this a little bit more philosophical, again, like really sitting down and being mindful about what are our values, versus what I feel like often is the challenge it seems like when you get feedback from a lot of folks in government, and it’s like, “I’m just trying to get all the stuff on this list done.”

Tumlin: Yeah, “Just clear my desk for today.  I can’t think about tomorrow.”

Cohen: Well, yeah, and like these big thoughts versus like, “Yeah, I’ve got potholes to fill and bike lanes to build,” and so forth.

Tumlin: That’s right.

Cohen: So are there any things that you can recommend as far as helping navigate that world there?

Tumlin: So copy others’ best work.  So it’s another reason why I love the National Association of City Transportation Officials.  Not only do they do really good training programs, but they also are a fantastic forum for sharing information.  When I was in Oakland I basically told staff, like, “No, we don’t need a year, or we don’t need to hire consultants to figure this out.  Just call up these six cities, get their best work, choose the best one, scratch off Seattle, put on the oak tree, and bring it to me for signature, and we’re done,” like, on to the next thing.  We don’t have the time to be able to study everything to death, even though that’s what our inclination is to do as government. So share and share and have continued incremental learning. Just because the regulations worked really well in the 1930s doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the right regulatory structure for 2018.

Cohen: Yeah, you mentioned earlier about the idea that the leadership can come from anywhere.  Right?

Tumlin: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And certainly from an executive level or a city council level that takes a certain amount of courage, a different type of courage than it would for say a staff person who really wants to see something move in a different way but maybe their organization is not quite in that same level.  So what would you recommend specifically to that staff person on tactically ways they could help advance this more people-first, community-values driven approach in an organization?

Tumlin: Yeah, so many things you could do.  So when I was a junior staff person a long time ago I actually helped to create an advocacy organization to complain about me.  So I would—

Cohen: Wait, say that again?

Tumlin: I helped to create an advocacy organization whose job it was to complain about that I wasn’t doing enough.

Cohen: Okay, go on.

Tumlin: So I had found myself at the far edge of an organization, and I knew that in order to be effective I needed to move myself into the middle, and that meant creating another entity, an advocacy organization to cover my left flank basically.

Cohen: Yeah, this is the Overton window, expanding the Overton window.

Tumlin: That’s right.  So when my bosses were saying, “Jeff, you’re doing too much.  We can’t go that fast,” I just created a group of people to say, “This Jeff Tumlin guy is lazy.  He’s not getting anything done. It’s terrible.”

Cohen: [LAUGHS]

Tumlin: Right?  Like, “Can’t you move faster?”  And, you know, so that’s a tool.  Bringing in outsiders is also a really powerful tool.  I mean, none of my best work is at home. The farther away I go from home, the more people will listen to me.

Cohen: The smarter I am.

Tumlin: That’s right.  The smarter I am, even if I am just repeating what staff people have been saying for five years.  Right? There is something as an outsider; we listen to outsiders, so strategically bringing in outsiders.  But I think a lot of it is really about your own personal organizational leadership skills that you need at any level.  And those really start with compassion. So it’s very easy as somebody who has a clear view of that things could be better, it’s very easy to get frustrated and to become bitter and to disdain the people who are holding back progress.  Nothing holds back progress more than a holier-than-thou attitude. Right?

So we make progress by understanding other people’s views and by convincing them that maybe this other way might be better, and that really starts with compassion.  And, frankly, I would say it also starts with humor. Right? There’s no faster way of opening up somebody’s mind than humor. If I can get somebody to laugh at me then I might be able to get them to laugh at themselves, and if I can get somebody to laugh at themselves I can get them to radically change their stuck point in their viewpoint.

Cohen: That is not something I’d heard before.  I mean, I believe it. I intuitively believe it, but I hadn’t heard someone share that as a tactic, so I really love that.  Do you have a story of when you’ve been able to use that particularly well?

Tumlin: Oh, I mean, I use that all the time, particularly when I’m dealing with really controversial topics.  There’s a two-hour monologue that I did on the topic of parking that you can find on YouTube in which it’s basically the Jeffrey Tumlin parking policy comedy hour, which is kind of a compilation of all of the ways in which I have tried to use humor and pop culture references in order to get people out of the place where there’s the greatest cognitive dissonance, which is how we think about parking.  Right? So in California where we have such a scarcity of housing for people we think the government should intervene in the public market in order to ensure that there are five, free housing units for every car.

Cohen: It’s interesting.  What this humor reminds me of is that I was talking to Romel Pascual from CicLAvia earlier, and what he was talking about is kind of the value of CicLAvia in a lot of ways is the creativity and the imagination it unlocks.  Right? And what I love to hear about you saying about the humor is that it really is moving; it kind of using something that’s just so basic and so true just like art and imagination to really advance these goals that are so important for our community.  And it’s not black and white; it’s not a report necessarily; it’s really around kind of the edges on how to make that report as effective as possible.

Tumlin: Well, because it’s profoundly experiential.  Right?

Cohen: Okay, that’s the connection.  Okay.

Tumlin: That’s how we learn; that’s how memories form, and it’s how we change our viewpoint, for the most part.  I mean, we’ve all read some passage in something another that just brought us an epiphany, but culture is experiential.  So we can only change the culture through shocking people out of the status quo through experience. Right? And that’s what’s so powerful about CicLAvia, is it points out to us that we have accepted a horrific and profoundly inequitable status quo.  We accept the streets as they are; we accept the streets that we’re confronted with fear of death walking every day in Los Angeles. Like, how on Earth did we come to accept that because that’s not been the history of human mobility? You know, that’s been a factor that has only been programmed in since the middle of the 20th century, and we think it is natural and the starting point for any question about change rather than an aberration in human history.

Cohen: Wow.  What’s something that either you’re looking forward to learning today or something that you’ve already learned or surprised you so far today?

Tumlin: You know, it’s funny because I am a nerd and I come to a lot of these events.  I always wonder what it is that I’m going to learn, and the learning is always completely unexpected and usually something outside of my field.  So I am a huge Hannah Beachler fanboy, and so far today the most powerful thing to me was Hannah’s keynote this morning, which I’d already known from reading interviews with her, but simply understanding that her whole thinking process starts not with the object or the art or thinking about technology.  Her whole process starts with talking to people and talking to people with different viewpoints.

And she builds her vision of a city or a culture or the technology up from the lived experience and emotions of real people, and it grows organically up from there and from human needs rather than down from a technology or a really, really cool concept.  And hearing her articulate that so succinctly made me refocus on my own work. How can I do even better not starting with drawing lines on the map but starting with questions of why we invest in mobility at all?

Cohen: And who needs to benefit from that mobility and what their feelings are and what their needs are and so forth.

Tumlin: That’s right.  And not just about moving people from A to B, but one of the things that she said was that, like, there are no cars in Wakanda because the best forms of mobility are actually about creating culture and a sense of community.  So the minibuses that are part of the Wakanda mobility system are there because not only is that how most of Africa gets around but because there’s an actual culture that’s created, and she didn’t want to get rid of that from Africa because it works really well.  So she simply upgraded the technology and kept little mobility minibuses traveling around the city to allow people to get to work and to catch up with their neighbors.

Cohen: Wow.  That’s a really neat connection to the work that you’re doing and the work that you’re facilitating your clients to be able to do with their communities.  So, Jeff, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today. This is really helpful.

Tumlin: My pleasure.  Good to see you.

Cohen: And good luck and keep up the good work.

Tumlin: All right.  Thank you.

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 or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


*On March 1, 2022, global technology company Modaxo acquired TransLoc from Ford Motor Company. TransLoc is no longer affiliated with Ford or any Ford properties.