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Featuring Shin-pei Tsay.

From growing up in an immigrant family in car-centric upstate NY to a fortuitous ice cream cone on a Boston sidewalk, Shin-pei Tsay has felt the impact of public spaces on belonging and committed her career to building spaces to “make you feel like you belong.”

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Growing up in an immigrant family in Upstate New York, Shin-pei Tsay felt subtle clues as to where she and her family were welcome and where they were not.  She has since oriented her career around transforming the built environment so that it can reflect the values of the people actually using it. While this isn’t a conversation solely about transportation and mobility, you’ll learn from her experience how connected mobility is to public space.  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: Shin-pei Tsay and I met a few years ago at an Eno Center For Transportation event in Washington, D.C.  At that time she was just leaving transit advocacy group TransitCenter to be the executive director of the Gehl Institute which focused on how to better integrate public life into the public space in our cities.  The Gehl Institute recently reorganized to administer the Public Life Data Protocol, the open-data standard intended to improve the ability of everyone to share and compare information about public life activity in public space, while it’s staff including Shin-pei moves on to other pursuits.  Shin-pei’s LinkedIn summary says this, “I have a particular interest in how policy and design intersect to democratize the public realm and right systemic wrongs.” There is a lot there to unpack, so we’re going to get to it. So, welcome to the movement, Shin-pei.

Tsay: Thanks so much for having me.  Great to be here.

Cohen: Well, good.  I’m really looking forward to this conversation today because I think we’ll have a really interesting perspective that we haven’t had on The Movement quite yet, which is kind of this public-space perspective and not just mobility per se, though obviously they are related, and you have a background in transportation as well.  So maybe start with our first question here, really kind of taking us through why you’re spending your life’s work on this public realm and kind of how you’ve actually done that.

Tsay: I think that I was also surprised in some ways when I first made that link from the public realm and public space to transportation.  I grew up really interested in ideas around—this sounds funny, but I was really interested in ideas around democracy. And the reason for that is because I grew up as an immigrant family in the suburbs of Syracuse, and I had very little contact with other people other than at school or the other place that we loved was the library.

Even when we went to the grocery store we felt kind of isolated from the community at large.  And I was really interested at the time, maybe because we moved here from somewhere really far away, in why things were constructed the way they were, like, why sometimes we felt like we belonged and other times we didn’t, why did in some cases we felt like we had a say in something and other times we just felt like we didn’t.

Cohen: These were like subtle cues?

Tsay: Yeah, just subtle signs that you had from your neighbors.  Our neighborhood wasn’t particularly friendly. My school was amazingly welcoming and embraced all sorts of different people, but our neighborhood wasn’t.  And it depended on where we went around the city. So I initially actually wanted to study international relations and thought I might be a lawyer, but after I graduated from college I moved from a very kind of small town, university setting to a bigger city.  And I don’t think people consider Boston to be a big city, but it is; it is one of the larger cities in the United States.

And that’s kind of where I had an epiphany about the ability of public spaces to make people feel like they belong even if they don’t know anyone.  So here I was. I just moved to the city; I just graduated from school. I had my first job; I found an apartment, and moved everything in. The day I moved in I walked down the street to get an ice-cream cone from the store down the street, and I sat down to have my ice cream, and someone came over and said, “Can I just sit here with you?”  You know, he had just gotten an ice cream. And we didn’t really talk, but it’s a kind of place where you had a place to sit, and you could actually walk down the street and get something to eat.

And I had grown up having to drive everywhere and never encountering anyone who was—you know, I never really had any conversations where people were just spontaneous or a total stranger.  I lived there for about four years. That experience really helped me understand just the possibilities of public realm. And that propelled me forward, I think. I never though about working in public spaces.  I didn’t know that there was urban planning or design as an option as a profession. But that kind of initial experience of being in the city and being able to explore a city and able to explore and have this kind of freedom.  I didn’t own a car; I went everywhere by transit, and that really kind of defined this direction for me.

Cohen: Wow.  I guess what I find so interesting about that is that these are not very overt things.  Right? You know, whether it’s you had to drive everywhere where you grew up versus in Boston where obviously you’re taking transit, you know, these are not things that are so overt as much as there were some cues that you kind of felt.  And that story of ice cream, I think, is a great example of that where nothing explicitly happened as much as you were close enough to a store to go get ice cream; there was a place for you to sit down; that helped facilitate an interaction with another person.  And those are just all little aggregations of that public space kind of coming together to serve public life. And I think that’s just so interesting that they weren’t necessarily overt as much as just little tiny things.

Tsay: Yeah, absolutely.

Cohen: I don’t even know the best word to describe it.  There’s probably an academic word to describe that.

Tsay: Well, no, actually this is something I think about a lot, because having now worked in urban design for a little while and being exposed to architecture and some of that thinking there, when you think about the best cities that you like to visit, sometimes it’s those little design details that are applied universally that really make a difference and not the iconic kind of design statements.  You know, like you might visit the beautiful museum done by a star architect, but really the overall experience of a city is really experienced through the everyday design details that are applied universally. And so it is something that I think about a lot because of those small cues.

Cohen: Well, and obviously you live in New York, and that’s been a place that has been putting a lot of effort into really that transformation of that built environment.  And I don’t live in New York, but even I’ve seen and even felt some of those impacts, whether it’s things like the High Line or the Broadway, some of the changes to Broadway that have really taken these parts of the city that were not used by very many people or they were used by very many people in a way that did not facilitate public life, say, with Broadway being open to cars in parts, and have changed that so that they are more open to public life.  And I gather maybe through some of your volunteer work maybe you’ve been a part of that, or through some of your work with the Gehl Institute you’ve been a part of that either as a citizen or more in a more formal way.

Tsay: What was really interesting about many of those changes is that they were done under a very forward-thinking DOT under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  And they really made all those changes possible. So at the time that many of those changes were getting started I was actually part of a transportation advocacy organization as the deputy director.  And we were intimately involved with helping to facilitate these changes.

I mean, it’s hard to imagine now, but these were really controversial ideas that required not only the data and evidence that Mayor Bloomberg really liked to lean on but also an immense community support and addressing of opposition.  And you needed some organizing in order for that to make a difference. And so we were on the side of the organizing. But I think even going back to the time before Mayor Bloomberg was in office, having an advocacy organization that is on top of the issue and basically socializing these ideas made a huge difference too.

So the idea of pedestrianizing Broadway didn’t just emerge from Mayor Bloomberg’s time.  That was part of conversation among advocates and community groups for a very long time before the right mayor was in place and the champion commissioner was in place.  And I think that’s also really important to recognize, that there were people working on the advocacy side on what, I think, at the time others or the public might consider so-called crazy ideas; but they mainstreamed them, built public support around them, and when the political leadership was in place they were able to actually make it happen.

Cohen: So kind of the advocacy kind of as the front of the plow there to lay the foundation and then to kind of create the right environment, and then once the right leader got in there to kind of say, “Okay, great.  Move.” It could actually go forward. Right? Is that fair?

Tsay: Yeah.  I think that if you read Commissioner Sadik-Khan’s book, Streetfight, I think that there is a mention of the role of advocates in making a lot of the change possible.  I mean, clearly those changes were absolutely not possible without the DOT on board, and all the credit to her for making that happen, but you do need people outside of government to also grease the wheel.

Cohen: Sure.  And that’s one thing that I’m trying to catalyze here with The Movement, is really how do we make all these things work together to effectively create this world we want to live in.  And if you’re a public official, how do you have the confidence or the courage to make some of these decisions? And one of the hypotheses that we’re kind of testing as part of this process is the role of advocacy and really knowing that you’ve got a base of folks behind you, that even if the whole public is not necessarily on your side yet, that you’ve got a group of folks behind you that are willing to make sure that you’re not out there on an island as an elected official.

Tsay: Absolutely.  One of the big projects I did at TransitCenter was this report called A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation, a hefty title.

Cohen: Yeah.

Tsay: It was funded by Benjamin de la Peña, another forward-thinking leader, who is now at Seattle DOT.  But he used to be at the Knight Foundation, so he funded this project. And it was essentially trying to take a more analytical look, so not a quick look, but an analytical look at the last 10 years.  This came out in 2015, I believe, and so it was looking at like from 2005 until about 2015, how did cities across the United States really make that change possible. Because at that time it was like a time of immense innovation but not just ideas, actual implementation, which I think was kind of the hardest thing to sort out among cities around that time, 2008 to 2010.

It was like, “How do we make these things happen?”  Bikeshare had been launched in Paris. There was the Washington DOT under Gabe Klein was doing a whole bunch of stuff.  Janette Sadik-Khan was leading all sorts of different—you know, she was really pushing ahead. And then Gabe went to Chicago.  I mean, there was just a lot of innovation happening across the country, and so there was a desire to better understand how that all came together.  Like, how did we actually move from crazy ideas from the wacky, bike advocates, so to say, and some conceptualization of those ideas, to actual implementation and change on the street that actually moves the curb and were things that DOTs had been telling advocates across the country that were just impossible and too expensive and that we weren’t Europe and, “Blah, blah, blah”?

And one of the big findings was that ideas were often cultivated outside of government.  It could take many years for those ideas to be cultivated, mainstreamed, having political support.  Like, this was actually the story of Portland. This was the change that happened in Portland in the ’70s.  So many of the ideas came from the citizens, all the organizing that was in Portland, and then there was a visionary mayor that really wanted to get things done, and he empowered the DOT and the city agencies to make it happen.

And if you take a look across the country at the cities that really were able to implement, that was a very familiar kind of cycle of change that took place.  And in some cases some cities don’t have a very strong history of organizing because maybe they’re newer cities. You know, like New York is a city of organizing.  A lot of social movements came out of New York City, but there are cities in the South and cities in the West that didn’t have the same kind of ethos. And so then you saw kind of interesting variations in how change happens in those kinds of places.  Like, we looked at Charlotte and Denver.

And I think that you need all three.  You need the advocates; you need the mayor to adopt the agenda; and you also need the commissioner and the agency to implement.  But when there is one that’s weak it actually makes it hard; it doesn’t happen nearly as quickly. But when you have all three it’s really quite incredible.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s a really good template or a formula that we need to look at as we’re going forward and trying to effect some of this change.  One of the things in your biography that you talk about is righting systemic wrongs. And, man, that’s a heck of a statement. I want to kind of dig into that a little bit and better understand how that’s played out in your career, because obviously I think that’s a very salient topic right now.  So tell me a little bit more about that.

Tsay: Well, initially it was—as linked back to that experience I talked about earlier of, like, “Wow, I was so isolated, but now I live in a place where I don’t need to be isolated.”  You know, that’s a feeling that I think a lot of people might experience throughout their life, especially if you don’t have all of the privileges that others have or access to all the opportunities that other people have.  So that was kind of the first inclination or awareness I had.

And then as I was working in public space I realized more and more how much transportation was a determining factor; transportation decisions, its policies, the way it’s funded was a determining factor in how a city’s public realm was defined.  And at this time—oh, it was more than 10 years ago. It was a long time ago—maybe 15 years ago, I was writing a lot for a blog. And the great people at Transportation Alternatives happened to be reading it and recruited me to join them at a transportation advocacy organization.

You know, I was squarely in public spaces and urban design.  I think I was working at an architecture firm at the time. I never thought of myself as a transportation person.  I realized I was writing a lot about transportation, about street design, and how street design was not supporting people in the way people like to use space.  And so I came out of these—you know, we were talking earlier about the cues that you get as a human being, being out in public and how you know whether or not you’re welcome or not.

And I was writing a lot about that experience throughout the city and thinking about other people’s experiences, the spikes on benches, the way that it was really hard sometimes to cross a street because of the way it was designed, you know, in these kind of small ways just how much harder it makes everyday life.  It can make everyday life harder. And so it was Noah Budnick actually, who was the deputy director at TA at the time, and Karla Quintero. They kind of saw this possibility of merging transportation and public realm.

And that’s like the first wrong, that in some ways transportation is a system, and it’s entire construct propelled the system to prioritize a certain use, which is really private car use.  And that was very determining in the way that our cities were shaped in the post-war period until now. And now, of course, there are many more disruptions, but that really was a defining era.  And I think that was probably something I thought of as reclaiming the street for people as a certain kind of justice, and as my work went along, to then think about, you know, learning a lot about other people’s experiences on the street in a much deeper way.

So I worked a lot with an urban farm in Central Brooklyn.  In Bed-Stuy there are people that grew their own food and had a food pantry and fed about 1,000 of their neighbors a day.  And they told me that they would never be caught dead running down the street for a jog or on a bicycle. They just didn’t feel safe.  And this was before Black Lives Matter, before any of this really important organizing that’s happening. They said, “Hey, think about it.  What do you think a police officer thinks of when they see a black man running down the street?” And that really helped me think just much more deeply about the kinds of experiences other people have in the public realm.

And fast-forward to now; at Gehl Institute we were working a lot on creating metrics.  It was part of Jan Gehl’s work. His research was about how do you better measure people behavior in public space almost as a counterpoint to the preponderance of vehicle measurements and all the other kinds of measurements we have.  And in looking at that, looking at that set of data, realizing that in some cases there’s judgment embedded in the categories of people behavior. So it’s, for example, not uncommon to have something called nuisance behavior.

Cohen: Yes, yes, yes.

Tsay: And if you think about that—you know, I was trying to understand this from the perspective of a city agency; why did you have this?  You know, they’re dealing with maybe a lot of what they call vagrancy or homelessness and wanted to stop people form sleeping in public spaces.  But at the same time you think about that metric of someone lying down in public space or someone taking a nap in public space, and then you think, “If that person was wearing a suit and they don’t have shopping bags, they would be totally allowed to do that, even if it’s illegal.”

Or culturally; in Europe walking around with a glass of wine, going from bar to bar down a street in Lisbon, Portugal is totally normal and accepted.  And so you just start to kind of understand there are just ways that we imbed judgment in systems, and it’s manifest in the way that we design space, create policies for space, fund space, manage space, that I believe that that’s sort of the work in front of us that we need to better understand what that is, identify where that judgment comes from, and make sure that we’re not creating more or new policies or new systems in the future reflecting that injustice.

Cohen: Hmm.  What that makes me think of is—and I think this is an example of that—is loitering.  Right?

Tsay: Exactly.

Cohen: This concept of what is loitering.  Right? And so I was in Downtown Raleigh a couple of months ago, and it was a beautiful day.  Just absolutely it was one of those days you just cherish. And I had some time between meetings, and I went and sat on the grounds of the state capitol, and there was a bench there, and it was in the shade.  And I just sat down on the bench at the state capitol, and I had probably 20 minutes before I needed to go to my next meeting, and I just sat there. And I realized the privilege that I had to just do that without kind of being looked at askance on that as a business person in the role I’m in and the color of my skin too.  And it just kind of occurred to me that that was kind of an example of that, that disconnect that you just illustrated there. And then it made me reflect, “Well, what’s the point of a bench if not to sit down?” Right?

Tsay: Exactly.  Right.

Cohen: Like, “You’re allowed to sit down for five minutes but not 10 minutes,” you know?  Where’s the line there?

Tsay: Yeah.

Cohen: So it is really silly if you really get down to it, and you illustrated some of those other nuisances earlier, the kind of raised armrests on the public benches to ensure people don’t sleep on them and stuff like that, which make it really difficult to even sit in them.  And I think there has been an area recently where people are just not even putting benches anymore. They’re just kind of putting these areas to lean.

Tsay: Exactly, leaning bars.  Yeah.

Cohen: It’s like, “Oh, Golly.  People need to sit down occasionally.”  You know?

Tsay: Yeah.  No, and maybe some places are meant for more leaning because it’s more of a transfer place.  But, yeah, I think that understanding that there are these kind of baked-in judgments in what we want, in the kind of behavior that we want in the space, is everywhere.  And I think there is another example that I remember so well, which is actually not quite as obvious, which was working with a bunch of seniors who had basically aged in place in this big housing development in Chelsea, New York.

The housing development was on big blocks, and I worked with them to convince DOT to get a midblock crossing, which was absolutely not within their playbook, so it was an exception.  They wanted to do a study; there were all these kind of reasons, but we mounted a campaign and made the recommendation and won the change, and it saved the seniors 20 minutes on their walk to the store.  That’s a huge amount of time when you think about if you were someone who might have some difficulty walking or need a walking aid of some kind. And for many seniors they felt like they actually went out more often now that they could cross the street more easily and didn’t have to walk all the way down to the end of a block to feel safe getting across the street.

So that’s really invisible.  Right? Like, you don’t know that that’s the experience.  It was kind of the opportunity of getting to know people and understand what their everyday experience was like doing their everyday kind of activities like going to the store and wanting to go to the senior center, maybe catching a bus to go see a friend, that that kind of need emerges.  And I think that’s something that it would be great for all transportation people to be more attuned to. And I think that’s happening across the country in not just that way, which is experiential, but in deeper ways about identity and more systemic wrongs, and that’s really why I believe in the ability of public space to right those wrongs.

Cohen: Sure.  So let’s maybe transition to what’s missing right now in our cities to help build some more of that systemic change, and what can our listeners do to help make that change happen?

Tsay: Oh, it’s a big question.  I mean, let’s talk first about what is going well in some ways.  I think that there’s really greater visibility. There’s more organizing around transportation issues maybe because there are so many more new transportation systems that are challenging the way things have been done.  Right? So there are new services and new technologies that are challenging the way things have been done and really challenging perception of how things should be.

In response to that, there are also new organizations and maybe more organizing around in response and around these new ideas, and that’s great.  I think that’s all good. There is also, I think, greater awareness and organizing among people who care about these issues, especially on the social justice side of things.  So The Untokening is this great conference thinking about transportation through the lens of identities, especially identities that are not considered the norm or the norm by society and really trying to elevate the role of those identities in participating in shaping spaces.

So I think that is super important, but at the same time it’s really challenging.  I think this work in equity—so just switching and really answering your question more directly, this work in equity is very new right now.  And as much as it might be paid lip service by many organizations, you know, I think that it’s fair to say that equity is on the public agenda; and a lot of organizations strive to meet equity goals or are at least trying to articulate what those are.  I would say that we’re still in a stage of awareness building and helping people understand what that really means.

And just I think people who are working in equity, it’s a lot about having people just recognize the need for it, and it’s not about actually building equity outcomes up; it’s more about explaining what it means.  So that’s a very, very early stage of a social change of still trying to define it and helping people understand what it is. So I think that’s one area where there’s a lot of need. If I could tie together this idea that there’s a lot of disruption going on right now in transportation.  One of the observations I made at the Shared-Use Mobility Center’s conference, which brought together—I think they said like 600 or 700 people from across the country, a lot of private sector plus public sector folks with advocates.

One thing I was realizing is that the advocacy community also has changed significantly.  There used to be more national coordination among local advocate groups. We’ll say not a well-known organization—you have to be in advocacy to know—but the Alliance for Biking and Walking is an example where the advocates would organize and keep each other informed about efforts in their own city and then share ideas and be attuned to policy change.  There’s a kind of meta-level organizing that was, I think, really important to the movement, and I don’t know where that work is right now. A lot of the advocates that were leaders in that movement are now working for the private sector.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s true.

Tsay: And I think it will be interesting to see what happens.  I think that there’s a lot of change that they can make but also really different ultimate goals and incentives.  So I think that there’s a lot of work there to sort out, as a whole collective of people, building a movement towards more sustainable and just transportation.

Cohen: Yeah.  I mean, I think just raising the conversation and having it and hopefully this episode is just one step in that direction, and obviously the work I’m doing at a larger level can contribute to that as well.  But I think having that conversation is obviously a good first step, and then seeing what we can learn from those meta, advocacy, national-level groups as they’re still around, I think, is a good next step as well.

Tsay: Yeah, exactly.

Cohen: So I mentioned earlier the transition of the Gehl Institute and its mission, so what’s next for you at this point?  You left your role as the executive director of the Gehl Institute, so what’s next for you?

Tsay: Well, some of the work I’m doing right now is a continuation of the work we set up at Gehl Institute.  So a few colleagues and I have set up a firm called Make Public. And the work there is to contribute to this understanding of what equity means.  What we will specialize in is social impact assessments of the public realm for equity outcomes. And the idea there is building on the need for new metrics, a new set of measurements so that we can get the kinds of spaces we want, so that spaces can be managed in a more inclusive way.  The second is just that there is a lot of talk around evaluation and measurement, period, because of the data conversation out there. And I think it’s one of those things where it’s really important to be strategic and not let the desire to measure define what you actually need to know in order to make a change.

We also see this as a social venture.  We see that there needs to be a lot more capacity building in doing this work and the idea that it’s a huge request.  Right? That across the board everyone wants evaluation, they want to know the outcomes, they want measurements against the outcomes, but it’s not something that there is a lot of training for.  So we set up this firm with an eye towards creating tools and resources that we’ll be sharing along the way as we work with different organizations.

And then finally the strategic part of this work, I think is really important, to tie it to kind of broader impact such as policy change or change in practice.  But policy change really can help drive change in practice, and if there’s funding, that can drive change in practice; so I think it’s important that we think about creating new ways of looking, substantiating the ways of looking through measurement, but then really leading to some kind of systemic change like policy change.

So right now one of the projects we’re working on is with the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice here in New York and the Center for Court Innovation.  And what we’re doing is helping them. Part of the big strategy on crime prevention is through the public space, is through public realm projects. And, not surprisingly, they need to track how well they’re doing against their larger goals, especially if they’re making a claim that public space can play a role in preventing crime.

And so we’re helping them make sense of many of their outcomes but more in a framework for participatory research.  So we’re not actually doing the data collection; we’re helping them put together their outcomes in a way that fit the kinds of public space projects that they’re working on, but then we’re basically creating tools for their staff to go work with residents.  And they work primarily with public housing residents on collecting the data.

Cohen: Wow.

Tsay: So we’re basically giving up a lot.  What I would say is, you know, this is not about intellectual property.  It is not about becoming experts or being professionals on our end; this is about really build the capacity in the community to go and do this kind of work, because I have, frankly, never met such sophisticated organizers and community engagement people.  They are an incredible group of people, and this is sort of like one of the things that they can have in their toolkit to really better the lives of the people they work with and to improve their communities. And we don’t want to be seen as the only people that can do it; we want this to be picked up as practice.

Cohen: Wow.

Tsay: Yeah, so that’s the work that we’re doing now.  We’re going to work with them. We’re going to work with the Bronx Documentary Center who is an amazing organization that is a very innovative documentary practice that works a lot with youth in South Bronx.  And, yeah, we’ll just keep going from there.

Cohen: Wow.  I think what’s so interesting to me, just hearing you describe that, is that you have this role that data is playing in our lives now, which is more than ever, and so you’ve got a lot of folks and the government is starting to take that into account.  It’s like, “Hey, we’ve got to look at the data before we make a decision,” and so forth, which is great, but the flipside is if folks don’t really understand that or can’t collect that data or can’t analyze that data in a sufficient way, especially in something like the public realm which historically has not had the same level of rigor associated to it as much as it was to kind of revisit the start of this, which is kind of more just these feelings of, “This feels like I’m connected to the community,” or, “This feels like I’m not supposed to be here.”

So that seems really, really neat that you can not only help to kind of codify that to some degree but also help share some of those tools so that others can benefit and more communities can have that more welcoming experience.

Tsay: Thanks.  Yeah, you capture the essence of that project very neatly.  That’s great.

Cohen: Well, good.  Well, how can our listeners find you if they want to interact with you more?

Tsay: Well, I’m on Twitter and all those kinds of things, but we will be putting up a website for this.  It will be, and I’m at

Cohen: Awesome.  Well, Shin-pei, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today.  This has been a fascinating dive into the public realm and its connection to mobility, which obviously is important, and also your role in that and what you’re doing to go forward.  So I wish you the best of luck and appreciate you joining me today.

Tsay: Thank you so much for having me.  It was great 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.