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Featuring former software engineer David Alpert.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: David Alpert has been producing amazing content and making good things happen in Washington, D.C. since he founded the blog and advocacy group Greater Greater Washington in 2008.  In this episode you’ll learn some tactical tools to catalyze community perspective into a clear point of view to bring about change, especially in the face of government inertia. Let’s get started.

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 David Alpert who is the founding executive director of Greater Greater Washington.  And I’ve heard about Greater Greater Washington for a number of years, and I’m excited to finally meet you and get to hear a little bit more about the founding of Greater Greater Washington—and maybe you’ll abbreviate it—and why you created it.  So let’s start there. Welcome.

Alpert: Terrific.  Thank you so much for having me.  And, yes, we generally say GGWash for short.

Cohen: All right.  Great. Well, why don’t you give me the background on GGWash and why you created it and what it’s evolved into?

Alpert: Certainly.  Greater Greater Washington or GGWash started—it’s now 11 years, so—in 2008 back when everyone was starting a blog and blogs were this thing, and there were group blogs, and there were neighborhood blogs, and there were all of these individual blogs.  And I had been living in D.C. for just a short time and wanted to really understand—I was really interested in wanting to learn about what are the forces that shape this region. Why are there more Metro stations in this area and not that one? Why does this area have more trees and that area doesn’t?  “Why is housing expensive over here, there are no jobs over there?” or something like that. So what makes this whole city and region tick; why is it the way it is; where are the pieces, and what is the government doing or not doing to shape that direction?

D.C. had been on a trajectory for several decades of shrinking.  It was known for a high murder rate. There was a lot of white flight from the urban areas.  It was having disinvestment. The district government was in a financial crisis. That had turned around.  That had turned around because of the hard work of a lot of people; it had turned around because of national trends, so now people wanted to be in D.C. and in the Washington region in walkable, urban places in the Washington region.  In Maryland and Virginia these walkable neighborhoods were seeing more and more interest, but what is that going to mean, and how do we make them really inclusive of everyone and make sure that they can continue to be welcoming and be welcoming of all kinds of people, of all races, incomes, ages?  How do we build the kind of place that we want?

So I said, well, I’ll do what was the thing at that time; I started a blog, and I started writing about what I was observing, and then I invited other people to do the same.  There were people that were writing about Metro, about parking policy. You know, Donald Shoup’s parking ideas were really relatively new then, and there was someone who lived in Arlington, Virginia who just wanted to write about how to bring those ideas to Arlington and to the whole region.  And other people wanted to write about should Metro build a new line, and where should it go, and how can it improve service. And there were people that wanted to write about development and housing and architecture, how do we make really great new buildings and neighborhoods and make them work well with the community and interact well with the street.

And it just kind of grew from there.  People liked reading about it; they liked what I had to say; they liked what other people had to say.  And I think there was a need for this; it built also a community and a movement. More and more people were learning about these things and saying, “That’s really interesting.  I want to learn more about it.” We have people in Washington who work in international public health or national security things or something having to do with banking or, you know, whatever.  But they said, “I want to understand what’s going on in my neighborhood too and other neighborhoods.” So we became a place for people to get that kind of grounding in the urban-planning and transportation and housing issues, which they didn’t have.

And now I’ll encounter people who even are changing fields into some of these things because whatever they were doing was very interesting too but then they kind of wanted change, and they said, “I’m just really passionate now about these planning concepts, having read about them for years on Greater Greater Washington.”  And so that’s what we try to do. We try to connect people with advocacy opportunities; “Go to a local zoning hearing,” you know, “Participate in this government-public meeting about something. Write your council member or your county supervisor,” whatever, getting them to be more engaged and more involved and talking to their neighbors, understanding these issues more, and being more active participants in the civic life.

Cohen: Wow.  So were you an expert in any of these topics yourself, or were you just kind of someone who just liked to pay attention to all of these things?

Alpert: Yeah, I sort of came to this by the same kind of path that these other people did, in a sense, that my background is in software engineering and software product management.  I worked for a startup called Tellme; then I worked for Google, and it made me want to think about cities with a little bit of an engineering idea. “Well, what makes them go?  Why do they operate the way they do?” but also thinking about the human impact, about the equity, about how to make them great for everyone.

So I just had started reading and learning about these things.  I read the books that people read: Jane Jacobs; and Chris Leinberger’s The Option of Urbanism, which had come out around that time; a lot of other books to teach myself about cities, about transportation, about development, and planning.  And I just found it so interesting too, and that has continued for at least 11 years now.

Cohen: That’s neat.  What that recalls to me is I read a Harvard Business Review article that Jim Hackett wrote when he was the CEO of Steelcase.  And now, of course, he’s CEO of Ford Motor Company*. And in that he quotes former Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico, and he said, “Leadership is having a point of view.”  And I really liked how that crystalized that. Right? And it sounds like what you did and what you helped some other folks do is really kind of crystalize their points of view around some of these really important topics that are important in this area, the transportation, the housing, the planning, and so forth.

Alpert: That’s right.  When we talk about these issues on the blog, when we write articles about them, we do really try to meld journalistic fact presentation and having a point of view.  You have to do both. If something is just advocacy it just says, “So-and-so’s bill is terrible. Oppose it. Here is five reasons why it’s the worst ever.” You know, that doesn’t kind of meet people where they are; it doesn’t bring them.  I mean, maybe if you’ve already had that relationship. I mean, if it’s someone saying—you know, if you’re an organization that works on immigration issues and you know that your audience is really against building the border wall so you say, “The border wall is terrible,” like, of course, that’s where they are.

But when it’s something like this where you’re reaching an audience of people that don’t know as much about what is a fairly technical issue, you want to start by giving people knowledge and then doing some persuasion.  We call it inform then persuade. “Here is this project that’s happening in this part of the region. You probably don’t know about it. Let me tell you about it. Here are some basic planning principles that we should bring to bear on that.  That then would lead us to the conclusion that this is good about this and this maybe should be changed,” or something like that.

Cohen: Hmm.  That’s interesting.  And so as GGWash has evolved over the last couple of years, tell me about the relationship between D.C. Sustainable Transportation.

Alpert: Sure.  D.C. Sustainable Transportation or DCST is an organization that Greater Greater Washington manages now.  It originally started about 15 years ago as a way for the business improvement districts in D.C. to have an ongoing role related to advising around the Circulator bus.  The Circulator is a bus that is just in the downtown area of D.C., and now it’s expanded a little bit. It was originally an idea from people who worked for the downtown business improvement district.  And so several of the BIDs came up with this idea, and they said, “We want to be a part of it going forward,” so they created an organization.

Meanwhile over the last number of years I had been informally convening thought leaders from business and advocacy groups and government to talk about how can we move some of these issues forward.  For example, bus priority corridors. Soon after I started working on these issues and doing the blog, Jonathon Kass, who now lives in San Francisco—he was a staffer for the councilmember who had oversight of transportation—said to me, “David, the best thing we can do to move more people cost-effectively, efficiently is to dedicate some lanes on our roads and other infrastructure in order to make the buses not get stuck in traffic.  Then more people will ride them. We spend all this money on the buses; we’re paying drivers to move them back and forth; the buses cost a lot of money themselves; there’s gas. We’re spending this money, and yet the bus is just in traffic, and it’s getting worse, so we could just take our existing money, get more out of it, be able to do more service or save money. All we’ve got to do is move all of the cars over to the side a little bit and have a lane for the buses.”

That is not so easy, as everyone has discovered, but it still is one of the top things that cities should be doing.  And it’s a little bit of a no-brainer, but it’s not actually that easy politically. So I would go talk to WMATA, the transit agency, and I said, “I’m hearing about this bus priority idea.  Why aren’t you doing it?” And they said, “We would love to do that, but DDOT, which owns the roads and the signals and the bus stops, doesn’t want to do what we need to do.” So I’d go to the people at DDOT, and I said, “This bus priority thing.  It seems like such a great idea. WMATA says they want to do it. What’s going on?” They said, “We would totally love to do it except WMATA will not let us do it the right way that we think it needs to be done.”

Cohen: [LAUGHS]  Yeah.

Alpert: And I said, “Okay, look.  We have two groups of people in two agencies who are very well meaning, very intelligent; they want to make it happen.  Let’s just get everyone in a room and say, ‘What can we do to move this forward?’” So I started convening these conversations.  I said, “Let’s just pick a corridor that we can do a great example, a first one.” And that was probably eight or nine years ago, and the one that we originally picked actually DDOT is now thinking about doing again, but it’s been a tangled and long road.  But what happened, to get back to DCST, is we’d had business leaders, we’d had advocacy leaders, we had government people sitting around, the directors of DDOT, the department of transportation, started attending these monthly meetings.

They were finding it useful to have these different folks together, and so we said, “Let’s combine an organization that is just focused on a circulator with this more informal thing, put the two together,” and we did.  And we created DCST, so it is a coalition of people from all of these different entities who try to collaborate and find where there are areas of shared agreement. And DCST has identified three things that it wants to focus on.  One, bus priority, what I just talked about, let’s get it done. Everyone agrees they want it to get done. What does it take? What are the obstacles? Let’s just get it done. That’s one.

Two, curbside management; with the rise of ride hailing, more Amazon deliveries, dockless bikes and scooters which need places to be parked, there are so many more things that people want to do with the side of the road than the traditional thing that cities do, which is people put their private, parked cars there.  And even if we take roads that are 100% private parking and make them 90% private parking or even 98% across the city and devote a little bit of space to these other uses, it can meet residents’ needs. They need somewhere for their delivery trucks to go. Especially if we have autonomous delivery car things, where are they going to pull over?  You know, that sort of thing. We can create spaces for all of the people that are taking the Ubers and Lyfts and Vias to pull over. We can have in-street parking for the bikes, the dockless bikes, the e-bikes, the scooters. These are meeting residents’ needs, the things that residents actually want to do. Maybe have some parklets for people to go have somewhere to sit when the sidewalk is narrow, that kind of thing.  So we’re trying to work on that. Let’s identify things that we can do with the curb space and pilot them and do them. D.C. is doing six pickup and drop-off zones right now, and they’ve committed to doing more in the coming year.

And then the third thing is autonomous vehicles, probably happening at some point.  Ford is currently testing and mapping doing them in D.C. and in Miami, is my understanding.  And other people are trying to do pilots. The Southwest Business Improvement District is trying to work with people to do a pilot of an autonomous shuttle in this area in Southwest that has this sort of real ’60s architecture on this road that doesn’t connect to much of anything.  It’s elevated, L’Enfant Plaza, so can it do a shuttle to help get people around—the Spy Museum is there, the wharf, The Smithsonian—connect people there, have been talking about that.

Anyway, this technology is probably coming; some people think sooner, some people think later, probably eventually.  How do we get ready for that? How do we put into place the kind of public policies and systems that encourage companies to come in and do things that are good for the city and not to come in and do things that are bad for the city?  And we are currently doing a study about looking at different scenarios for what the impact of autonomous vehicles might be.

Cohen: Interesting.  So you touched on scooters and the transition to those bus corridors, priority lanes, so let’s talk a little bit about change management.  In a lot of cities, the scooters have descended. And they are a very obvious signal of the change. Uber and Lyft obviously have been a big change to our community as well.  They’re a little bit more hidden compared to the scooters.

Alpert: Right.

Cohen: So what are some of the lessons that you have learned over your time at GGWash about change management and how to effect that change as you are trying to do that now on several different fronts with DCST?

Alpert: I would say that there are a few.  First of all, change is never easy.  A lot of people, psychologically, they like things the way they are; and change is a little bit scary.  I think that there are a few things that you have to do to make changes happen well. One is it is important to talk to a lot of people, listen to people, have community engagement; that does matter.  If people feel consulted on policies, then they do tend to be more accepting. Now, that said, with a whole neighborhood or a whole city there are always going to be people that say, “Well, you didn’t ask me,” or, “You didn’t do what I said,” so you can do the community engagement, but it’s not going to magically make a change work perfectly.

Someone is going to be unhappy with a change, and you have to sort of say, “Look.  I acknowledge that, but here is the priorities that we’re going to set, and here is how we’re going to move forward,” so it’s sort of doing a little bit of both.  And sometimes agencies have a hard target and they go too far down the, “We’re just going to do it. We’re going to have a meeting. We’re just going to go through my five slides, and then I guess I’ll just sit here and listen to people complain, and I’m not listening at all.”  That’s not good. The other alternative sometimes is, “Oh, well, if I just sit at the meeting and people say they don’t like it, then X.”

There was a project, the streetscape redesign near me near where I live, soon after I started the blog.  And they had one community meeting. There were going to be benches in this open area of sidewalk that’s not programmed; it’s kind of barren right now; it’s in front of a McDonald’s.  They were going to put some street furniture, make it easy, and people said, “Oh, no. This is going to be a problem.” So just in that meeting the designer said, “Okay, we’re going to take that out.”  Wait a minute. That was eight people in that particular meeting, so you can go too far. But you’ve got to do both. You’ve got to listen; you’ve got to collect input; you’ve got to recognize that that input is not all the same.

There are people who are at the meeting; there are people who are not at the meeting.  There are people who are online, and there are people who are offline. There are people who are older and younger.  Right? There are people who have kids, and so they’re too busy to go to this meeting, but then you can reach them some other way.  So you’ve got to think about that. And then another part of it is informing and organizing the people who are supportive of the direction you want to go.  With the things we’re doing with bus, bus riders have a lot that they need to be; their voices need to be heard.

Cohen: Sure.

Alpert: Bus riders are a very diverse group; they’re a very representative group of people; they are a very important group.  They’re not really a group. They are this very diffuse set of residents who have a really strong need, but they tend not to be as vocal as a lot of other transportation users who maybe complain more.  You know, if someone can’t find parking, maybe they complain to their council member. If someone’s bus is a little bit late, what do I do? Who do I even complain to? It’s not even easy to know who, because is it the agency’s fault, is it the mayor’s fault for not designing the road differently?  Who do I complain to?

So bus riders are one example of people that don’t speak up as much as they sort of need to or are less represented in terms of the amount of overall feedback that goes to the government.  So you need to get people who are affected by or benefit from certain changes. I think that with things like the dockless bikes and scooters—now it’s mostly scooters and the e-bikes; I like the e-bikes too—they came, and a bunch of people said, “These things are brightly colored.  Some of them are orange, and some of them yellow, and some of them are green. And I’m not used to having them on my sidewalk.”

And I don’t really have a huge amount of sympathy for the, like, “Oh, there’s brightly colored things.”  People also had some legitimate complaints or concerns. They said, “Well, these things are sometimes blocking someone in a wheelchair or someone with a stroller, and people need to get by on the sidewalk.”  Well, that’s a serious problem. Let’s deal with that problem.

Cohen: Sure.  Yeah.

Alpert: So people had some legitimate complains, and they had some less, perhaps, so legitimate complaints; but the people whose travel was made significantly better by availability of scooters were not seen as much of a constituency, and they were not as heard.  And so it’s important when you’re kind of—you know, sometimes there’s a tendency, I think, for decision-makers in government sometimes to feel like, “Well, the public opinion is just out there, and I just need to put my thermometer in it and see what the temperature is of the public.”  Right?

Cohen: Hmm.

Alpert: But the temperature is different in all these different spots in the lake.  Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Alpert: It’s hot over here; it’s cold over here; and it’s variable.  Some people aren’t that well informed. If you inform them better about something, maybe they’ll feel differently about that issue.  You can’t simply say, “Well, here is my plan. And I want to put a bus lane here. Thumbs up, thumbs down.” It’s like, “Wait a minute.  Most people haven’t thought about that for more than five seconds.” So I don’t know; do they know how to evaluate that? We should give people credit.  Maybe they can, but let’s come up with a way to inform people so that they can then think all the pros and cons through, think about the tradeoffs, and then they can make an informed, useful set of input to that question.

Cohen: Yeah, so it seems to me that part of the challenge is determining the right level of engagement.  Right?

Alpert: Right,

Cohen: To use your analogy, it’s like if I test that in 10 spaces, is that enough?

Alpert: Right.

Cohen: And part of it maybe is just being mindful of the fact that you’re trying to think about the right level of engagement.  Again, sometimes that’s done; sometimes that’s not. But I guess how do you know what the right level of engagement is if you’re an elected official?  Because you’re trying to balance getting that feedback with also trying to move things forward too.

Alpert: Right.  And I think that ultimately elected officials need to hear people but then make up their minds to move things forward, not just say, “Okay, I’m going to take everyone’s temperature.”  Right? Ultimately what we want elected officials to do is think about things and figure out ways to move ahead that maybe—you know, I don’t know. In high school we made profiles in courage.  Like, what does courage mean? It meant that someone would do something that was maybe not popular at that time with their constituents. Right? And now in hindsight we say, “Oh, look. They’re the person who stood up for desegregation.  That was really courageous; that was important.”

Well, yeah, that’s great.  That’s sort of a whole greater level of weight than a transportation decision, but still, you know, that wasn’t what was popular.  Right? So taking it to a much sort of little bit lower-stakes thing but still very important about a transportation issue, “Okay, well, are you going to just be static and unable to move in the face of the fact that no choice is going to be 100% popular or move ahead?”  The job of advocates—and we play the role of advocates often—is to organize the people who want to see change, knowing that there is a kind of built in inertia or people will respond somewhat reflexively negatively to different degrees to any change.

So how do you overcome that?  You have to get the people for whom the change is exciting, maybe the people who benefit from the change to speak up and recognize that and be informed and participate.  And for more officials that are just more reacting to public sentiment, then you just kind of need to amp up the energy of that side. For others, it’s an education matter.  It’s, “Let’s help you understand why this is the right thing to do,” despite whatever the seeming wind may say.

Cohen: Yeah.  Kevin Desmond, the CEO of TransLink in Vancouver, used to be the head of King County Metro in Seattle.  When I was meeting with him last year one of the things he said which really resonated with me was, “Things go sideways when someone doesn’t make a decision.”

Alpert: Hmm.

Cohen: And I really liked how that framed that out around either—it’s almost like a Yoda quote—either yes or no, but don’t be in the middle.

Alpert: Right.

Cohen: Or maybe it was Karate Kid.  Squish like a grape in the middle, right?

Alpert: Right.

Cohen: But I think that’s important when it comes to those elected officials.  At some point you have to make that call based on the available information you have and then be willing to live with that decision.  I think that’s the key.

Alpert: Right.  And there are so many incentives in government, unfortunately, that more reward people for not making decisions or not changing things.  You know? Sometimes if a problem gets bad enough people will be thrown out of office for not making something change, but with a lot of our problems if they don’t fix it they’re not blamed.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Alpert: You know, traffic is getting worse; the busses are getting slower.  That’s making the budget go up. The buses are pinched in terms of funding.  Maybe you add a little more funding; maybe you cut the bus a little bit. Well, you haven’t fixed that problem, but people aren’t saying unless you really organize them to say, “Oh, it’s councilmember so-and-so’s fault that they didn’t do more about the buses.”  The traffic kind of increasing is a background thing; it’s not their doing.

Housing affordability is a great example.  We have to build more housing in order to accommodate people, and if we don’t, prices are going to keep going up and more people are going to be pushed out; but if someone approves building something, then people who don’t like that thing that was built might blame the person that supported building it.  If you don’t build something, then, “Well, it’s not that person’s fault that the overall net trend in the market is that things are getting more and more unaffordable and people are getting pushed out.” So you have to overcome that.

And I’m not trying to be pessimistic.  I’m very optimistic that we can do a lot, but there is an inertia.  And for people in administrative agencies, you know, if they want to build that bus lane they have to buy the red paint.  Someone said it takes six months to get the red paint purchased. You have to—

Cohen: That’s impossible.

Alpert: Yeah, just because there’s procurement laws.  And that’s one little piece. So, you know, they’re not spending 100% of that time over six months, but they have to have planned six months ahead, and they’re going to have to put in a bunch of time dealing with the contracting rules to make sure they got the paint procured, “Is the budget read?  Are the contracts there?” So not doing something is sometimes a little easier than doing it.

And there are a lot of people in the government, but people don’t go into the government mostly saying, “Oh, you know what I want to do?  I want to sit around and not do things.” They want to do things. And elected officials too. Most of the people run for office because they want to make something happen.  Right? But then they get there, and there’s just a little bit of a squeezing force that says, “Well, it causes some waves”—I’m mixing my metaphors, I guess, but, “It causes some waves if I go each way.”  So how bold and courageous is that person?

And one of the things that we can do is build up and support the people who want to make those changes.  There is an organizing way of doing that, and there is a kind of internal conversational way of doing it.  And sometimes it’s both, and it’s different for different people. For the organizing it’s get a lot of people to cheer when an elected official does something great.  Mayor Bowser announced at the beginning of her second term, getting back to housing, that she wants to build 36,000 more housing units; and more than that, she wants to put them in every single neighborhood around the city.

Well, that’s a great goal.  I’m really excited about that because too much D.C. has put all of the affordable housing in one area.  Some areas have had no more housing at all. So she says, “Every neighborhood is going to be a part of it.” Well, we did an article that said, “Thank the mayor for that.”  She said in another speech, “Maybe we should have not so many cars on 16th Street,” which is a major thoroughfare that goes through the neighborhoods that she used to represent when she was a ward councilmember, “And maybe we should have open streets.”  She didn’t call it that, but they are where you close a large stretch of street on a weekend for people to walk, bike, there are health booths, there’s activities for kids. “Why don’t we do that?”  Well, a couple of people booed it in the particular speech.

Cohen: Wow.

Alpert: Well, we said, “You know what?  Please, everyone, send an email with some applause, because that should have been an applause line.  If it was our community in the audience and even a lot of the people who were in the audience, that should be an applause line.”  But a couple people it was a boo line because they’re just so used to, “I just want to drive as fast as possible through these neighborhoods.”  So that’s one part, you know, organizing.

Some of it is criticizing the wrong thing, but some of it is cheering when people do the right thing so that they feel that if the next time they do the right thing they know that people are going to have their back, people are going to be excited about it.  That’s important. Too much people just get criticized. And then with agency officials, a similar kind of thing. And then just bringing them together with likeminded people, bringing the business leader, bringing the advocacy leader, bringing the civic leader in a room with that person saying, “We really would like to see this change, and we’re supportive of you.  If you do the work, if you stick your neck out, we’re on your side here.” And that means a lot because people, you know, everyone, they want to be doing something that people appreciate. Of course. And they want to know that they’re not going to get their head chopped off the moment that that gets in the press and then everyone is criticizing. And that’s a real fear for a lot of people, so let’s so, “No, no.  You’ve got a bunch of people in your corner on that.”

And then sometimes those people in the corner say, “You know what?  I need you to do that a little faster,” or, “You know what? Actually I’m not so happy now,” then we can repoint a little bit or we can try and push.  So there’s a push-pull. Right? It’s not just praising the people; it’s also, “Well, if you do it in a good way, we’ll be supportive. If you don’t do it, maybe we’ll be gently pushing on your back and saying, ‘Come on.  Can we please do this? We’ve got to get that going faster.’” And we can send emails to the elected officials saying, “Ask why this is not happening?” and pushing. That can be pretty powerful.

Cohen: Yeah.  So you give the example of Mayor Bowser there with the housing, which I really like that example.  I really like the point of view, really, that she shared there. Besides Mayor Bowser, who else here locally or maybe even outside of this area are really making those hard decisions, especially recognizing that they may not always be popular?

Alpert: So I think that with D.C., DDOT Director Jeff Marootian is.  He said they were going to be trying to move forward on bus priority, and they’re trying to move forward on Vision Zero, making the streets safer.  And there’s a lot of other people at DDOT who are really trying to make things happen. And some people less so, but a lot of people are.

Cohen: And they just made an incredible commitment to hire Linda Bailey.

Alpert: Linda Bailey, yes, right.  Exactly. So they’re doing a lot.  The new planning director in D.C., Andrew Trueblood, is a real believer in more inclusive planning, and I’m sure he and the mayor were talking about these planning goals.  And I’m really excited about that.

Regionally there are a bunch of people, and I probably can’t name them all.  Christian Dorsey in Arlington County, he is the Chair of the Arlington County Board right now.  He has been really strong also on the housing side of saying, “You know, we should—” He had a great speech last year about how some of these exclusive, mostly white, upper-income neighborhoods have just made themselves off-limits to a lot of other people, and that’s not really the way that we should be designing ourselves as a city and region.

Cohen: Good for him.

Alpert: There are plenty of people to talk about, Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson.  There’s a number of new people on the Montgomery County Council that I haven’t gotten to know as well yet, but I’m really excited about some of the things that they’re trying to do on both the planning and transportation.  Like Evan Glass and Tom Hucker, who are first-term and second-term members from the Silver Spring area, have been pushing for safer streets in the Silver Spring area.

Silver Spring, Maryland has very wide state highways.  They’re like six lanes. The Maryland State DOT is designed—I mean, a lot of places in Maryland are this way, but Silver Springs is one that has a real problem with this.  They are very wide; traffic moves very fast; people are really driving through it a lot. It’s a very diverse neighborhood; there are people that are walking, some of them are people that can’t afford cars, some are people that are walking by choice, and it’s got walkable centers, so there’s places you can walk to.  I could go on and on, but you get an idea about all these people.

Cohen: Oh, yeah.  Well, I can see why you’re optimistic, because it sounds like you’ve got a good bench of folks who are leading throughout this region and kind of helping to push some of these themes forward.  And obviously as you’ve learned in your time here, I mean, it requires not only leaders and the specific leadership skills that they may exhibit, but also the right conditions for success. Right?

Alpert: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I mean, you’ve got to have both in order to be successful.

Alpert: Right.

Cohen: Let’s maybe kind of wrap up here with this question.  What are some tangible takeaways our audience could take from this conversation or recommendations, if you will, from your standpoint on how to better make some of these hard choices and encourage others to make some of those hard choices?  You gave one of those, which was really support the folks when they’re making those hard calls. Right?

Alpert: Yeah.

Cohen: So I really like that one.  It’s a real tangible way to do that, which is make sure you’re supporting those folks who are doing that.

Alpert: Yeah, I mean, otherwise I think there’s the classic activism activities.  People need to be getting involved. They should be loud; they should be writing in; they should be being vocal, being polite but being vocal, or maybe sometimes—you know, we have people around cyclist safety and pedestrian safety here who have organized when last year there were several—six, I think—times that someone was killed bicycling by a driver.  And they organized these protests.

All the people would ride to that area and stand there and drop their bikes, and it was a very visible thing, and then they motivated people to go and testify at the council and say, “This is not acceptable that people are dying.  We need to do something about it.” And some elected officials were very supportive, and they got cheers; and some were cranky about it, and they got criticism. And, you know, I name people that are being very good, but there needs to be criticism for the people that are being bad on the issues as well.  And I think it’s always good to be polite and constructive about it but also saying, “This is really unacceptable.” And that’s something that elected officials are responsive to as well.

So people should write in to their mayors or their county executives or whatever they are and their councilmembers and say, “This matters to me, and keep going.”  You know, people get to know neighborhood activists that are persistent, especially if they’re not too—I mean, the protests are a good thing to do. Like, that was a good effect because people knew the protests were sort of respectful but also there making a statement, a real statement, and that was powerful.  And people respected that, and people feared that and they heard that, and I think that was good to do.

And then one of the people who organized the protest teamed up with a councilmember to organize a ride-the-bus-to-work day.  So then they pivoted from a little-bit-in-your-face protest to, “I’m going to work with someone on a constructive step that we can take on a related issue.”  But people have been complaining on Twitter. You know, Twitter is great—I mean, sometimes it gets noticed by some elected officials—but writing letters, calling, showing up at hearings, the more people take time to do something, the fact is the more it’s heard.

And while it’s unfair a little bit that I have two small kids now and so for people with kids it’s hard to go to the community meeting, but the community meeting is still the basic unit of civic participation in most parts of this country; and if people show up to the community meetings, then they are taken much more seriously, their voice is much stronger.

Cohen: This has been really interesting to get your perspective as someone who has been an advocate and a journalist for the last 11 years with Greater Greater Washington.  How can people find out more about either you or Greater Greater Washington if they would like to learn more?

Alpert: Sure.  They can just go to  We have four articles plus a set of breakfast links every day about these issues, so there’s lots to read.  I hope people will join as members of our GGWash neighborhood, which is the way that people can support the blog and all the other activities on an ongoing basis.  There are different levels people can join at, and they get benefits.

Cohen: Awesome.  Thank you so much, David.  I really appreciate you joining me today, and this has been a really interesting conversation about the origins and continued success of Greater Greater Washington.  Thank you.

Alpert: Thank you so much.

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*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.