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Episode 66 guest Karina Ricks

Led by Karina Ricks, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is facilitating the creation of innovative mobility hubs and identifying clear principles for autonomous vehicle testing, all done in partnership with both the community and their private sector partners.

Check out this blog post to learn more about Leadership During COVID-19.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Ricks: Karina Ricks

Cohen: From its economic nadir in the early 1980s after the steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh has rallied back by leaning on its community values of resiliency and using those values to lay out clear priorities and principles that have led to Pittsburgh’s current setting for mobility innovation. Get an inside look from Pittsburgh’s Director of Mobility and Infrastructure Karina Ricks coming up now on The Movement podcast. 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: You know how they call Virginia the cradle of presidents? For The Movement podcast that cradle would be both NelsonNygaard Consulting and the D.C. Department of Transportation. We’ve had a handful of guests on that have had stops at either or both of those institutions; and today’s guest, Karina Ricks, the Director of Mobility and Infrastructure for the City of Pittsburgh fits that profile as well. She’s the former director of transportation planning for the District of Columbia as well as former principal for NelsonNygaard Consulting. Welcome to The Movement, Karina.

Ricks: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Cohen: We’re obviously talking right now in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. I know there’s a lot that we obviously don’t know about the future impacts, but I also know that as a city leader you’re having to kind of move forward even in this uncertain time. So I’m curious just if you could give us a brief update on how you and your team at Pittsburgh is responding to COVID-19, and what do you think the impact will be on how Pittsburghers move around in the future?

Ricks: Our initial response was as everyone’s was, was the maintaining the safety of our workers, of the contractors that work with us, of the public that move around. So that was the most immediate concern, was there was this tremendous unknown that could cause serious health effects. And so initially we took pretty dramatic moves to stay at home, sent everyone home. We shut down all work until we could get sort of a better assessment of what’s going on.

Obviously, like, that stay-at-home order really caused a lot of other changes in the city, and people now who are teleworking or unfortunately not working are also finding their trip habits changing very profoundly. And so we’re seeing new demands to use our streets in different ways, new demands for different ways to move around. Suddenly, you know, while transit is still a critically important part and has always been an important part of Pittsburgh and every city, suddenly people are thinking twice about getting into a crowded, shared vehicle that way. But also they’re thinking twice about getting into shared Ubers or Lyfts or other kinds of things, wanting to do more socially distanced travel on their own but not always in an automobile.

As we’re starting to see the nicer weather come up, people are demanding to be able to travel by bicycle, by walking, by skateboard, by whatever else it might be; and they want to do it not just themselves, but they want to have it be safe and comfortable for them to take their children with them or to take others on these trips. So we definitely are seeing some different things. So initially it was all about just kind of addressing the imperative of the moment, but now as those new habits kind of evolved there became a different sort of urgency, which was to respond very quickly to these other demands.

Cohen: For sure. And do you have a sense yet on what kind of impact this will have going forward?

Ricks: I think it’s too early to tell for sure, although I will say about Pittsburgh that this isn’t the first dramatic and wide scale disruption that this city has seen. So back in the early ’80s, of course, this city—this is Steel City. That was our principal employer; that was what built the economy of this city. And back in the early ’80s, of course, we had tremendous economic devastation as that industry seriously downsized or removed itself from our area, not quite as rapidly, not nearly as rapidly as the disruption that we’ve seen from this health crisis. But what we know about the resiliency of Pittsburghers is that we have demonstrated a tenacity to weather through these kinds of events, but we’ve also shown that we are stubbornly in favor of transit ridership and of walking.

We remain among the top five and top eight, depending on which metric you’re looking at, for the share of transit mode-share and bike-walk mode-share even though we are a Northern city with pretty daunting hills. And that really goes back to that sort of fundamental, core DNA of the people of our city, that they have demonstrated time and time again that these are the values that we hold on to. So I expect that that will continue to persist through even this disruption and that we may even find ourselves going back to those foundations of our city even though we may have strayed more toward more of an automobile orientation in more recent years.

Cohen: That’s a really interesting perspective. I hadn’t really thought of that maybe as directly as you described it, but the values of a community—because obviously each community has different values, and they’re expressed in different ways. And Pittsburgh is different than Las Vegas, which is different than Seattle, and so forth. But they all kind of have—you know, the folks that live there, especially the folks that are attracted to that community, they probably have some things in common. Right?

Whether they’ve stayed in that community and they grew up in that community or they came to that community later in life, you know, there’s probably something about that community. And I like how that kind of reinforces kind of this resiliency of Pittsburghers and how that’s been part of the DNA and it will continue to be part of the DNA even though the challenge is different this time.

Ricks: Absolutely.

Cohen: That’s a cool way to think about it. So you mentioned autos and kind of that transition, if you will. And Pittsburgh is no different in the sense that despite those mode-shares obviously in some parts of Pittsburgh and certainly in a lot of the suburbs an auto is perhaps the easier way to move around. And part of that transition, I know, is over the last several years I know Pittsburgh has been one of the early welcomers of autonomous vehicle testing.

So I believe we’re about a year or so into the executive order signed by Mayor Paduto of the “Pittsburgh Principles,” and I’d love to hear kind of any perspective you have on how this process has gone with those principles and what you have learned during this past year about how to safely test new technology like autonomous vehicles.

Ricks: Well, I think the two things that I would highlight there is, you know, first of all having a set of principles laid out. So we worked with a diverse range of different kind of stakeholders. We pivoted from the shared and autonomous mobility principles that NUMO and Robin Chase, the New Mobility Alliance have sort of put out there. But we really looked at those through the lens of our community and going back again to that values, you know, “What are the things that we really value here?”

And so that’s really what the “Pittsburgh Principles” are, is that they’re 10 things that we say, “These are—we can embrace this technology; we can do our part to help it advance, provided that it still aligns with these fundamental principles and values that we as a community have and want to preserve.” And so that was the first thing, was just simply going through that exercise of articulating what are those principles and what is that North Star that we want everyone that works with us and that tests in our city to also acknowledge that that is what our values are and that is, you know, what we will stay true to.

Now the second sort of key piece of that is having really open dialogues, open communication, open, I would say, partnership but maybe with a small P with our testers, that we have very candid, sometimes difficult conversations with them about how are we, again, bringing it back to those principles. “How is your testing going to kind of circle back into these kinds of things?” And at what point are the things that you are wanting to do in conflict with those principles when we need to then say, “Well, perhaps no. We’re not going to engage in that.”
So the safety aspects are one where they do communicate with us proactively.

They tell us what it is that they would like to be doing, sort of where their focus is, the way that they’re approaching it. We’ve been to the testing facilities and to the research and development facilities, for each and every one of the testers that are here. We have five of them in the city right now. We’ve been to each of their offices and where the coders are and the modelers and the AI developers. We’ve been to their test tracks. We’ve seen how they proceed with their testing, what are the redundancies that they have so that they can disengage the vehicle.

The way that we’ve crafted our policy has been in dialogue with them to really understand what will result in the safest and most conservative outcome of the things that they’re doing. So, for example, we hear a lot about disengagements and, you know, “Do you have enough data about when these vehicles, you know, when the human driver has to take over for these vehicles?” And we said, “Well, no. Actually that wasn’t one of the datasets that we asked the testers to provide for us.” And the reason that we didn’t ask that was because we had these discussion with them, and they said, “If you make us report that data, that will have the unintended consequence of making us more resistant to disengage the vehicle, even though the safest thing may be to have the human driver take over more often than not. Allow the model to run in the background to see how the vehicle would have responded and how sound the model would have been in that situation but really have the human driver—you know not put up any obstacles to the human driver taking over the vehicle.”

So that was new information to us, and we wouldn’t have known that; we wouldn’t have really had that kind of insight had we not had these really open discussions with our testers, a give and take, and working those things out together. So that’s been really—you know, partnership is a key to success in Pittsburgh. It’s something that we’ve always been known for, is being collaborative, being open minded, but also having a firmly rooted set of values that we can come back to and really, again, use as that North Star.

Cohen: That’s a great perspective. And I appreciate you sharing that. The principles that you mentioned that you obviously—you mentioned you kind of did some community engagement and kind of really kind of helped still down those values. I’m curious if there was any conflict when you were having to identify those, where that you really had to navigate between maybe parts of the community that really wanted to move forward with this and maybe other parts that obviously wanted to move forward but really wanted to make sure that, say, safety was paramount. Did you ever have to navigate any conflicts from the community side as far as, like, helping get those principles kind of distilled down to those 10, key principles?

Ricks: Yeah, absolutely. There is always discussion and dialogue that has to happen. You know, one of the things that we—so, as I said, we sort of pivoted from the New Urban Mobility principles as being that sort of starting point for us to talk about, but there were some things that our community stakeholders really wanted to be very firmly articulated in our principles. So one of the things that our principles says unequivocally is that publicly provided mass transit is the backbone of an urban transportation system and that nothing that we’re doing in terms of testing or advancement of this technology should weaken that perspective of public transit being that fundamental core of our system.

And so that was a very important statement to put out there. And that continues in some respects to be one of those points of dynamic discussion, we’ll say, with some of the testers, because, you know, they are looking at predominantly using the technology for lower occupancy, privately provided mobility services that may not really be as supportive to compact land development patterns that we want to see, that may not be as supportive to higher occupancy modes of travel, which we want to see in a city. And so, you know, that is a point that we keep pushing them on to say, “So how is this going to be in service to stronger transit service, better transit service?”

So, you know, that is one. We were very overt in our “Pittsburgh Principles” about safety because, again, the shared and autonomous mobility principles, definitely there’s a presumption of safety being the—you know, we don’t even begin a discussion without that being the assumed, underlying prerequisite. But, again, our stakeholders said, “No. We want safety and the promotion and protection of safety both inside a traveling vehicle as well as outside for the other users of the street, particularly the more vulnerable users of bicyclists and pedestrians. We want that to be one of our—not one, the leading principle that is very overtly stated.”

And so there were some changes, and there were some discussions as we went through this with our stakeholders where they said, “This needs to be—this is why they are the ‘Pittsburgh Principles’ and not just a set of principles that we lifted from someplace else.” These are our principles that we have really modeled after our own values.

Cohen: That’s good. So you’ve mentioned the NUMO Alliance a couple of times. We had Harriet Tregoning, the director of the NUMO Alliance on the podcast a couple months ago. And so last year in conjunction with the NUMO Alliance you welcomed the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective that included Zipcar, and Transit App, and Waze, Swiftmile, Spin, and also TransLoc’s parent company Ford Mobility. And I’m curious what your goals are with this collective and how it’s going so far?

Ricks: For the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, we have five goals that we really try to hew closely to for everything that we do. One, is nobody dies—right—safety, zero deaths or series injuries on our city streets. The second though is access, that everyone should have access to fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home, and they shouldn’t have the requirement of a private automobile in order to accomplish that basic, human need. That is the, you know, universal, basic mobility that everyone should be able to get to fresh fruits and vegetables and they should be able to get home before the ice-cream melts— right—20 minutes travel home.

Cohen: That’s good.

Ricks: So the third principle is that no household in the city should have to spend more than 40% of their income on basic housing and basic transportation. These are the two things that you need to have, and 40% is the maximum that should be, you know, outlined. Now, if you want to buy a Tesla or something like that, that this is up you, and you might exceed that 40%; but for basic mobility, for basic housing you should be able to get your needs met with 40% of your income or less. That is not the case. The lower you go down on the income spectrum, the higher the transportation burden tends to go.

We have various affordable housing programs. We have various subsidized housing programs. We have not as a country done that well in ensuring that equitable mobility is available at an affordable cost as well. So that cost tends to rise disproportionately the lower the income goes. So we want it to be affordable. We want it to be enjoyable, especially for the short distance trips. We know that 40% of motor vehicle trips that are made in the City of Pittsburgh are less than two miles in distance.

Cohen: Wow.

Ricks: Forty percent of them are less than two miles, and they’re driven in an automobile. Twenty-five percent of them are less than one mile. By some measures we are the fifth most congested city in the United States. There’s lots of different ways to measure that, but on some of our highway corridors because of our bridges and tunnels we are a very congested city even though we’re one of the smaller cities. But, again, we have a tremendous number of these short distance trips that are being driven and adding more vehicular traffic into already congested roadways traveling relatively short distances. And so we need to make sure that those trips are inviting and enjoyable and fun to make in a means other than an automobile so that it becomes natural and intuitive.

And then the fifth goal is just, again, going back to our values, to make sure that everything that we do really tells the story about what’s important to Pittsburgh. We talk about equity; let’s make sure we show it. We talk about beauty. We talk about neighborliness. You know, let’s make sure that in our transportation systems we show it. So those are the five sort of goals and truisms that we come back to. And so then we look at our mobility system, and again we see it’s not equitable. It is costly and expensive. There’s many different services that are being offered, but they’re all in silos. They’re all segregated away from each other.

So it’s very difficult unless you’re a transportation insider to know that you need to download these 14 different apps to really do your comparison shopping to figure out which kind of trip or which kind of service is going to be the best for you to do. Like, most people are just not going to put that kind of effort out, which means they’re not going to get the best service, and they’re probably not going to get it at the best price. So what the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective was, was saying, “Dear industry, can’t you all just work together? And can’t you integrate together with our transit system and our public bikeshare so that the consumer can have in one place a full array of different mobility services and so that they can make the best choice for them at that particular time?”

So if it’s a beautiful, 72-degree day they might want to choose to take a shared bicycle for that trip there if they’re traveling by themselves. But it’s a rainy February day, and they have two kids that they need to drop off at school first; they might need to take some other kind of service. Or, you know, they need to go to a job interview out in the suburbs, you know, or put in a loan application or whatever it is that they might need to do as an odd trip on that particular moment. Maybe they do need a car to go out and do that trip, but they don’t necessarily want that burden of hundreds of dollars of monthly car payments in order to do that.

And so we put out a call, “Dear industry, can you self organize and show us that you know how to work together? And in exchange, if you can—” again, Pittsburgh prides our self as being sort of a test bed for these kinds of new and innovative ideas, and so we said, “So in exchange, if you can self organize among a diversity of different private companies—so not companies that are all owned by the same entity but private companies who have their own independent decision-making, independent motivations, that you can show that you can work together and that you can provide something that’s available to all of our people, that’s a tool that supports our transit, that supports our public bikeshare, which we think also as a backbone public transit service, you know, then we would like to work with you on this.”

And so we were thrilled. We actually got eight great proposals from different collectives that were willing to do that. But we went with the one that was led by Spin. And we’ve been at this now just under a year, putting the pieces together for this. They’ve been phenomenal to work with. The partnership has been wonderful, really thinking about things like, you know, Waze carpool, which done ridematching through their application and putting that together with, like, and e-scooter company, you know, and you can—you know, it’s natural to think, “Of course, there’s some synergies there,” that if you’re going to take this carpool ride into your work but, you know, you want to go out to the Strip District or some place for a fun lunch, you know, now you still have availability of this other service to go and do that. It is very mutually beneficial for them to come together in that way.

Cohen: Yeah, of course.

Ricks: But it’s not something that is necessarily natural for them to do. So they’re putting together the app now. We are looking at ways that we can actually address things like fare integration. So can we instead of needing to pay for your scooter trip at this time and your transit trip, pay again to take the transit trip and pay again to take a bikeshare trip on the other side of that, is there a way now that we’ve got them all into the same platform, can we now figure out some equitable fare integration strategy so that, again, we can—it’s all about user ease and making it easy for the consumer to have choices that best match their needs, best match their financial conditions, so.

Cohen: You’re 100% right by that. And I think that the challenge of public transit or some of these other modes sometimes, especially for someone who is new to that mode, is really, really hard. And, I think, you know, sometimes we lose sight of that as folks who kind of seek out these mobility options and like to try out new stuff and geek out about transit networks and so forth. You know, we kind of take it for granted that, like, if you’re coming to this fresh and you have a bad experience and a really complicated transit system, that’s it; you’re done. You’re not coming back. Right?

And I think that’s where I think the Ubers and the Lyfts, you know, and to a lesser degree, I think, some of the scooter companies really hit upon something, is that if you can make something really simple like Uber and Lyft did or if you can make something really fun like I think the scooters and bikeshare have done, I think you start to, like, overcome—you have the potential to overcome that a little bit. But still you’ve got to make it dead simple, and I think that seems like that’s definitely a piece of what that group is definitely working towards.

Ricks: I think it’s that, and I think it’s also—you know, again, we, our goal is to help strengthen and support the transit service that we have. We’re grateful for our transit authority and for everything that it provides to our city. And, as with any transit authority, sometimes the bus is full and it might leave you at the curb.

Cohen: Sure.

Ricks: Sometimes the train breaks down and you see some delays in the system. What this integrated kind of system of systems allows then is without needing to figure out another system or without needing to go into a different app you now have resiliency; you now have redundancy. You don’t feel trapped or tricked or disrespected in some way. It’s like, “Oh, a bus left. That’s okay. There’s a bike right around the corner here. It’s nice out. I can take that.” I’m not—you know, I haven’t somehow been penalized. There is some resiliency so that, as you said, if you have a bad experience you’re not likely to continue to go back for that bad experience, but if you have an experience and there is an easy and convenient way to still get your needs done, you know, then you’re more likely to go back again. It doesn’t necessarily—you don’t, you know, put that into the bucket of, “That was a bad experience;” that just happened. “Things happen, but here’s this other resiliency now that was allowing me to continue on my trip.”

Cohen: For sure. So I want to wrap up with this, which is from the standpoint of you as a leader, obviously learning is critical. I’m curious where you turn to grow either your industry expertise or your skills as a leader or manager of the people that you lead there in Pittsburgh.

Ricks: Honestly, I—talking to people that are in the industry is important and learning from peers and looking around the country at what else is happening there. But I think it’s also really important to talk with people who are not of your industry. I’ll use this COVID situation that we’re in right now as an example. So our immediate perspective in this was, “Well, we need to maintain social distancing. It’s really important for people to be out on the sidewalks and going to local businesses and patronizing local food carryouts now because they’re not allowed to dine in at the moment. So we need to close streets or we need to convert parking spaces in order to really support that, because that’s what’s going to help the businesses the most.”

And so we started down that path of how are going to do that, but then we formed a taskforce, and we’ve really been speaking with the businesses, and they’ve said, “Well, look. You know, if I have to maintain social distance, I can only get two more tables. You know, if you convert a parking space in front of my business or nearby, I can only get two more tables anyway in that, versus if you’re able to really help me with curbside pickup or local delivery services, you know, bicycle couriers, you know, whatever it might be. For that same 20 feet of curbside space, I can service many more customers using it in that way than using it in the way that you’re proposing.” And so, you know, just really hearing from them and listening and talking it through, not just going with our perspective.

I’m a transportation professional. I’ve never owned or run a restaurant in my life. You know, really listening to those restaurateurs or the retailers, the bookshop owners, the florists, you know, of what they need to run their business in this time has been—they are the experts, and so providing that time and space and format to get that information from them and to hear from them has been really important and has really changed some of the basic assumptions that we had going into this about, you know, “We’re from the government; we’re here to help.” Well, we don’t help if we don’t listen, so.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s definitely been one of the themes that I’ve heard from other guests I’ve had on, is that humility of kind of recognizing that you don’t have all the answers as much as you’re there to learn and to see what folks this close to the problem, what ideas they have. And they’ll most often surprise you or share some things that you hadn’t even thought of. So I think that’s a great perspective to share. Where can folks learn more about some of the things that you’re doing there in Pittsburgh?

Ricks: We have a lot of it on our website, so it’s, D-O-M-I. It’s the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. We tweet out a fair amount of it, so social media is another great way.

Cohen: Awesome. Karina, thank you so much for joining me. Good luck as you dive into some of the partnership with the little P that you’re working on there with all of your various partners in autonomous vehicle testing and mobility hubs with the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, that you have a lot going on. And hopefully all of that will help as you deal with some of the challenges that COVID is dealing to Pittsburgh, but I hope that those strong values and that Pittsburgh mindset will allow you to get through it as best as you can.

Ricks: We hope so too. It’s going to be a brave new world, but it has every chance of being a better one too, so thanks for having us.

Cohen: That’s a great perspective. Thank you. Good luck.

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.