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Episode 61 guest Keith Benjamin

Keith Benjamin is transitioning Charleston’s Traffic and Transportation department from one that focuses on maintenance to one that is mindfully using its power to expand access and increase equity, for city staff, vendors, and the community.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Benjamin: Randall “Keith” Benjamin, II

Cohen: I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the special episodes about COVID-19 the last few weeks, with the impact of the virus on public transit, micromobility, and ride hailing. I thought we could all use a little break from COVID, so this week we have the inspiring story of Keith Benjamin, the Director of Charleston, South Carolina’s Traffic and Transportation Department. In this episode Keith acknowledges how as his career has progressed, his role has shifted from knocking on doors to now owning the door. 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: My guest today is someone I’ve been wanting to have on the podcast for a little while and just got a chance to connect because we were scheduled to speak at the same conference a couple weeks ago. Keith Benjamin is the Director of the Department of Traffic and Transportation for the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Previously he served in the Office of Policy Development, Strategic Planning and Performance as well as led the Office of Public Liaison at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Prior to his federal service, Keith was community partnership manager for the Voices for Healthy Kids community consortium with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Welcome to The Movement, Keith.

Benjamin: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Cohen: Well, good. Well, let’s get started. Charleston was in the news recently because you recently received funding for a pedestrian and cycling bridge over the Ashley River. And so, you know, for those of us who aren’t as familiar with Charleston, you know, maybe give us an introduction a little bit to the geography of Charleston, a little bit about Charleston, and why that span is so important for y’all.

Benjamin: For some people, it’s been 30 years in the making to be able to make that connection from West Ashley, the most populous area of the city, to our medical district, the largest regional employer in the Lowcountry. But, I think, just stepping back a little bit, I have this honor of being able to occupy the space in Charleston as director. The mayor has also asked me to be his representative on pretty much every committee that touches transportation issues. So I sit on our aviation authority, our transit authority boards, our tri-county council of governments’ executive committee, and our committee that doles out most of our gas taxes for the county, so being able to touch most of the transportation and even development issues that are occurring in the Lowcountry and issues that affecting us as a state.

Charleston is an interesting city. We just got yet another award for being the number one tourist city in the country, and so most people have identified Charleston in that way, but we have a lot of economic growth. Our job growth rate is about four times the national average; our population growth rate is about three times the national average; our millennial population has jumped by 60% in the last 12 years. We have companies like Mercedes, Boeing, BMW, and Volvo all within the Lowcountry. We have the fastest growing port system in the country, fourth largest on the East Coast. Every X series BMW in the world comes out of our ports. We have the smallest airport to have direct flights to Heathrow, because we have over 140 companies that have headquarters in the UK or Europe that are in Charleston County. So there’s just a lot that’s happening in the Charleston area.

But the flipside of that or the other side of the coin that’s not talked about as much is Charleston was the epicenter of the transatlantic slave trade. They say that between 40% and 48% of African Americans in this country can trace their roots back to this city. The same port that I mentioned that those BMWs come out of, enslaved Africans came through on a regular basis. In fact, they say that the day after the Civil War our state lost over two-thirds of its economy just because of the end of that war. And so we’re in a place of history. We’re in a city that was first for historic perseveration. And that permeates throughout both the culture, the functionality, and otherwise of the city.

And so from a transportation perspective, the average Charlestonian spends about a third of their income on housing, add another 15% for transportation. If you’re below the poverty line, that could be upwards of 80%. A backbone to our economy beyond just various different automobile businesses is food, beverage, and hospitality; but less than 20% of those workers live downtown.

Most people think Charleston is just a peninsula, but it has five distinct areas of the city and most of which is not the peninsula. And so those folk barely are able to get there. And then from a safety perspective we are number one in the state for bike-ped death and injuries. About 43%, 45% of those are African American. Number two for speed fatalities and number five for DUIs. And so the issue of transportation is at this nexus of access and opportunity. And obviously I’m biased, but I believe that transportation can be the connecting space to ultimately eliminate that gap, which I think allows privilege to reign.

So part of the job that I’ve been tasked to do is contextualize transportation within the complexity of community, transition our department from being just a maintenance arm for the city into being a better sister to our planning department and helping identify the ways in which we can be a better implementer. And so the bridge span, yes, $18-million awarding to connect our most populous area of the city with our largest regional employer, but it was kind of also a stake in the ground to say that transportation needs to shift in a significant way to ensure that people have options and the dignity of choice.

There is a study we recently did, Plan West Ashley, which looked at the development patterns of the West Ashley region for environmental, economic, transportation, housing, etcetera. And over 84% of the folk who were surveyed said that they leave West Ashley every day in an individual car. And of those same people who were surveyed, over 60% said they would choose another mode of transportation if they knew it was connected, reliable, safe, and affordable. Right? So the mantra is out there of what to hit that allows people to see other modes of transportation as a choice. It’s just on folk like myself and colleagues that I work with daily to figure out how to meet that mark.

Cohen: Wow. Well, man, there is a lot there that you shared there. One I wanted to kind of dig in a little bit was you mentioned this transition from just a maintenance department to one that’s looking at this from a much more—strategic is maybe not the right word, but—kind of mindful and thoughtful approach. I guess, how has that transition gone? And what have you learned from that? Because I imagine there’s going to be more cities that are going to be making similar choices. And I think Denver is kind of going through that process right now as well. What kind of advice would you give to them on making that transition?

Benjamin: Well, I think it’s imperative for folk on my side to kind of color in the lines of what that looks like, because, I think, for folk who might be listening to the podcast, they’re probably ascribing certain assumptions about our functionalities as a municipality, what we’re governed by, what we oversee, and then, you know, making conclusions about what we’re supposed to be delivering. Right? So part of the reason why our function as a transportation department has been what it’s been is because of how we’re governed as a local municipality and how that relates to both our counties and our state.

South Carolina is fourth in the county in the amount of roads that are owned by the state DOT, over 40,000 miles that the state owns. And even though we’re the sixth fastest growing state in the country, we are nowhere near the biggest. And so we have that piece, where the vast majority of our roads are owned by an entity that we have to go to and ask for permission from to do the basics. You know, a stop sign that’s on a state owned road, I have to get permission from an ADT; both roads have to match in order for it to quality—right—despite what the other circumstances might be.

And then the other piece is that we’re governed through our state legislature of where our sales tax funding goes. The vast majority of our sales tax funding goes to our counties. And so our counties are holding the purse strings for the vast majority of where infrastructure funding is going. And we, amongst other municipalities in our county, solicit the county governing body for being able to get those particular pieces of funding. Right? And so that requires a lot of collaboration; that requires a lot of partnership, but it also requires a lot of tough conversations. Right? Because we as a municipality might be of the belief that there are certain goals that we want to meet and certain priorities for us that might differ from the other entities that we work with.

And so part of the municipality’s responsibility is to be the best advocate for our citizens and find any and every way to occupy those collaborative spaces, those partnership spaces to be able to get to the implementation. So transitioning into the implementation space is defined in that way for us, and I think it’s important to give that context for what that looks like and all the daily challenges that come with that but where opportunities have shown itself too.

Cohen: A couple of the folks I’ve had on this podcast have talked about how their organizations are orienting a lot of their work around equity. So Ryan Russo—

Benjamin: Good people.

Cohen: —basically your peer at the City of Oakland—yeah—Heather Worthington in Minneapolis who is the former Director of Long Range Planning. So I know you’re doing something similar there in Charleston. And I’d love to maybe get your perspective on what equity means for you and how you’re defining that as you’re looking to create the Charleston that works for everyone.

Benjamin: I think I kind of want to approach it in three ways, myself individually, and then how we think about this in systems, and kind of where we should be going. For myself, I come into the transportation space really from a nontraditional route, to simplify it, from the policy and advocacy space. And I’ve kind of been steeped in always looking at problems at the intersections. Like, how can you layer solutions? How does one decision over here affect these 10 decisions over here? And so I’m constantly thinking about transportation within context instead in its own, separate category. And, I think, that’s a big difference as well. Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Benjamin: And then to have that thought process but then instead of being one who is knocking on a door or trying to tear down a door, I own a door now. I own a few doors. And so it’s a different space to occupy when you’re the decision maker. And obviously that has some levity—right—because, I think, there’s—and I’ve felt this in my three years, where your decisions really literally can mean life or death for somebody, but also the fact that when you are occupying such spaces, your voice has no choice but to be heard because of your seat.

Cohen: Sure.

Benjamin: And so that’s been an empowering space to ask certain questions, to make certain demands, to move particular pieces forward. I remember I was in a conversation with our CEO of our bikeshare company who’s done an amazing job in our city. And I remember our first conversation, and he was saying, you know, “Keith, this is a transit system. We’re excited to bring this here. We’re all over the country, but we’re headquartered here. We want to do work in the city that we’re in.” And I had to stop him. And I said, “If you’re talking about a system, you’re talking about connections that create a whole. And right now if I don’t have a credit or a debit card I can’t access your system. Your price points are higher than the county’s average. Right? And station locations aren’t indicative of where we see high ridership in not-tourist communities or those who can afford but those who are actually depending on the modes.”

And I really do believe because of my seat, we had to have that conversation. And thankfully he was wide open to it, and it led to us getting a better bikeshare partnership grant, starting the Just Ride program, being able to support communities that were 60% or lower of the median income, and really kind of moving that work forward. And so being able to occupy that space, I think, has been important in what doors I’m opening.

From a systematic standing, I think that there is so much happening in transportation, it’s very easy to leapfrog into those new opportunities and not give any acknowledgement to what has caused some of those problems in community building and transportation, some of which, if we’re honest with ourselves, were purposefully done to exasperate inaccessibility. Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Benjamin: And so I think it’s imperative, if we’re looking at these solutions through the lens of equity, that we give more than enough acknowledgment to where those mistakes were and where narratives were created about who could and couldn’t have access. I think we have to do that hard work first and then look towards how we play strategic roles in changing those narratives. And I think that’s the piece that I think people avoid, and I think especially in the transportation space because many times it’s viewed through the lens of just engineering or planning, it’s easy to kind of matrix that, like, “That’s not my area of expertise.”

But we both know that some of the things that we’re trying to correct now, some of the things we’re trying to do better now are recalibrating areas or decisions that were really actually done to make determination factors of who had access, who didn’t, who could afford, who couldn’t, where investment was, where it wasn’t. And so I think it’s imperative for folk in my position to be playing that part. And then moving forward I think being in this space has caused me to expand how I define equity.

Cohen: Hmm.

Benjamin: You know, coming from the policy and advocacy side, you’re constantly thinking about who is at the table, whose voice is being heard, how the powers that be are reaching out to those who are marginalized to make sure that there is inclusivity that’s there. But now that I’m in this position and I see where the dollars are going, how hiring is done, how contract and procurement is going, I’ve transitioned—not staying away from those spaces. I think those are extremely important, but—to the realization that equity has to permeate our hiring practices, contract procurement as well.

We can’t be happy about establishing a major affordable housing project in a marginalized community and the entire team who is building that affordable housing is not indicative of the diversity of the community we’re investing. We can’t make claims about being able to accomplish an amazing piece of bike infrastructure, like our bridge we’re going to do, and can’t even meet our bare minimums of percentages of minority, women, veteran owned businesses being involved in the project. To me, that’s the additional space of occupation that we have to be okay with.

Can’t say that you want to come to a city official and say, “We want to be involved in your community. We want to know what projects are up and moving forward,” and you can’t even show the diversity of the community you want to serve around the table that you’re pitching. And so, I think, that’s a place that we haven’t touched as much and, I think, needs to be significantly acknowledged.

Cohen: That’s a really interesting point too, because when you talk about the role of transportation in kind of wealth destruction with redlining and with where in my hometown, Durham, North Carolina, where the Durham Freeway destroyed the Hayti neighborhood, a historically African American neighborhood in our city—the wealth destruction from that, you know, transportation played a huge role in that. And now you’re looking at this from the other side, which is, “How can transportation help with wealth building for folks to have access to jobs, have access to building a business, so forth?” I think is a really important part of that, kind of flipping the script there a little bit.

Benjamin: Yeah. I mean, when I came on board here—you know, it’s funny. Most of the things I’ve learned being in this space has not had to do with transportation. It’s had to deal with people, power, and position. And it was interesting. You know, I found out about—some folk who come from advocacy and policy world don’t know about this, but I found out about the word on-call and the fact that as a municipal governing body, that I have the right to have established on-call firms that has a particular financial cap; but anything that’s below that cap those collection of firms I can call on to do projects for me without having to do a RFP, without having to put out a RFQ proposal or even come to my council.

And what it does for a firm is it allows them, one, to be in the know. Right? You’re in the know of what’s happening and otherwise get some dollars for work but also have this relationship that then allows you to leverage other opportunities. Right? Because, “I’m working with Keith, so I can leverage this stuff at the county level over here,” or, “You know, I do this favor here; we could figure this stuff out.” Right? All things that I think are in line with what’s appropriate and known problems that are there. But I asked. I asked staff. I was like, “Well, send me the list of our on-calls. I want to see who those companies are and what they’re about.”

I went through, and there was no diversity whatsoever, diversity of skillset, diversity of people, none whatsoever. In fact, some of them didn’t even have a website, but here they are in this position of influence and opportunity. And I decided to redo that contract, completely redid it, rewrote the scope, set particular parameters and standards, changed the scoring criteria for what they needed to bring to the table. And so that opened up the door—right—for other minority, women, veteran owned companies who might have usually occupied the subcontractor space or, you know, only had a niche space, were excellent at public engagement but not these other particular pieces, giving them an opportunity to be able to be a part and in that space. And so, to me, that’s a part of equity too.

Cohen: Oh, definitely. You know, I love that very tactical example that you just gave that our audience could potentially pull out and potentially borrow in their community. Are there any other replicatable strategies or tactics that our audience can use in their communities to help bring about change, positive change around mobility in their communities? Is there anything else you’ve tried or you’re thinking about trying or that you’ve learned about that you think would be a good thing to share with the audience?

Benjamin: I guess, three clear things. One is that especially for those of us who are in alternative modes of transportation, you know, whether that’s bike-ped, whether that’s transit, whether that’s microtransit, we’re so passionate about our niche space that we don’t do the work of figuring out how to contextualize what we’re passionate about within the larger conversations of community.

Right? And, I think, for people who want to see that shift and change, you’ve got to do that due diligence. So how is the work that you’re doing going to create better healthy food access? Right? How is the work that you’re doing going to create better safety in the community? How is the work that you’re doing helping to increase workforce accessibility? Right? How is the work that you’re doing helping to make the conversation about affordable housing and workforce housing something that’s more digestible for everyday folk to be able to understand? Right? That’s the work that I think we have to do. Right? And I think that that widens the tent of influence and understanding of why this stuff matters. And I think we just get into our niche so much, and it only resonates with the choir and doesn’t resonate with the parishioners. And so, I think, we have to do that piece.

I think another part, as somebody who came from the national level, from the federal level down local, it was made quickly evident to me that the whole parachuting into a community, giving three points of accomplishment, you do those three points, and all this comes together, like, just doesn’t work. One of the things that’s been eye-opening for me, being a part of a small, mid-sized city that gets to sit at the big-boys table is that we’re held to the same expectations and deliverables and best practices as these large cities without giving credence to the inhibiting factors that are in our way from getting to those goals. Right?

An example, last year our council voted to ban scooters. And I wrote this qualifying memo with it, because I didn’t know what kind of reverberating effects it was going to have in the national sphere. But a part of the concern was the lack of appropriate infrastructure to accommodate those new modes of transportation. It wasn’t as much as, “That’s not for us,” or otherwise. And it was a reminder to me as we’ve been doing this work, that innovation for some communities—or I’ll say it this way. For somebody else, what is strategies y’all accomplished years ago, for another community might be the open door to innovative opportunities for the future for us. And so for us, you know, innovation is making sure that all 860 of our bus stops in our tri-county area have appropriate transit accommodations and passing policies like the zoning ordinance we did last year where every major development in our city has to provide transit accommodation within their traffic mitigation strategy for the traffic studies that they submit. Right?

Transportation innovation for us is figuring out how we build out our people-pedal plan that’s an entire bikeway system for our peninsula. Right? Transportation innovation is how we have more strategies about our responsiveness to maintenance of the basics like crosswalks and stop bars and sidewalk programs and things like that. Right? Like, that’s—I think, you know, we dodge that, but for cities like mine, that’s the stuff that we’re trying to work on.

Cohen: Yeah.

Benjamin: So, you know, innovative strategies that are going to help me do that, I’m all ears. But skipping right over that as if those things will fix itself is not something that I’m willing to yield on. And so I think we, as small mid-cities, need the help, the technical assistance, the support, the innovative strategies that are catered to what we deal with on a regular basis. Right? I have a growing city, and this past year we increased by our staff by 10%. That’s the first time that my department has received brand new staff, like, new positions in 16 years.

Cohen: Wow.

Benjamin: Right? So that understanding and that clarity has opened my mind to what those challenges are, what those look like. I have staff I sent to LA’s NACTO conference—what was it—two years ago. And for the staff that I sent there, that was the first time—for one staffer in about 15 years of being with the city, the other staffer this year is his 24th year—of going to a conference or a training outside of South Carolina since they’ve been working for the city.

So I understand that in a national discourse—because I’ve been a part of it—there’s push for progress in certain particular ways. And we want that too, but what I’m starting to grow as a defender of is what those hurdles are for us, especially for small mid-sized cities and wanting to be an advocate for the appropriate support, help, understanding, policy advocacy, and otherwise that get us to where we do need to be. Right? I’m not denying where we need to be, but my eyes have been opened to what those circumstances are and what’s going to be required. And, I think, I will continue to be an advocate for those things.

Cohen: That’s fantastic. Keith, where can folks learn more about some of your work? Or if they want to say hello, where would be the best way to reach out and either learn more or say hello?

Benjamin: Well, we just upgraded our website, so if you go to the City of Charleston’s website to traffic and transportation, you can see our first citywide transportation plan that we’ve ever had. That was passed in July of 2018. We just did our first comprehensive parking study, first time in two decades, really trying to merge our parking and mobility efforts. So get a chance to see the work that we’re doing there. And then follow me on Twitter at @RKBTWO, and feel free to connect. Let’s chop it up, and let me know the lessons I need to know too, because I don’t have all the answers. I’m taking it step-by-step, day-by-day, but these three years have been great to move. So definitely I’m on Twitter at @RKBTWO.

Cohen: Awesome. Keith, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. Best of luck on all the work you’re doing there in Charleston and in the Charleston area. It sounds exciting, and I appreciate your leadership.

Benjamin: No problem. No problem. Happy to be here.

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.