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Meet our episode 46 guest Yonah Freemark

From his academic research at MIT to his blog The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark has tackled a key question: what can communities and elected officials do to ensure that their local transit projects are successful and meet their community goals?

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Freemark: Yonah Freemark

Cohen: If you aren’t already a devoted follower of Yonah Freemark’s blog, The Transport Politic, after this episode you will be.  He does such a great job of distilling difficult concepts down to their essence, which I believe as an industry we need more of.  Let’s go.

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

Cohen: My guest today, Yonah Freemark, is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and planning.  He previously worked at the Chicago Metropolitan Council in various roles, but he’s perhaps most famous for his work on his blog, The Transport Politic.  And it’s also nice that he’s from Durham, North Carolina where TransLoc is based.  In fact, a couple of years ago Yonah came in to chat to some of our team about transportation policy.  So welcome back, I guess, and welcome to The Movement, Yonah.

Freemark: Thank you for having me.

Cohen: Let’s start by diving into The Transport Politic.  This is your online blog and website.  And what I’d really love for you to kind of frame out for our audience is kind of how that got started and the real problem that you are trying to solve by creating that blog and resource.

Freemark: Sure.  So back about 11 years ago now, you know, in 2008 I had a lot of time on my hands because I was just finishing college.  And I had a fellowship to do research, but to be honest I was most interested in doing writing. And what I noticed was that there wasn’t very much writing and analytical work being done on the web about transportation.  There were some great websites out there like Streetsblog and The Infrastructurist—actually that no longer exists—that were doing some work on transportation related issues, but I felt that more could be done.

And so I decided it would be a good idea to start my own website.  And so I’ve been writing on transportation issues, mostly public-transportation issues since then.  Unfortunately I’ve had to slow down a little bit because of other obligations, but I’ve been able to still maintain a few articles a year and maintain some new interactive databases along the way.

Cohen: Yeah.  And, in fact, that’s one of the neat tools that you have on there, which I believe it’s called transit explorer—

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: —that goes through all the different infrastructure-related projects, bus, you know, like BRT I guess and rail and so forth and highlights them.  It allows you to search for them, see details about them, which is a really neat tool that I don’t think anyone else has really put the time and effort into creating and collating all of that data and then putting it into a map form.

Freemark: Yeah, it’s actually been fun to put that together.  You know, I used to use Google Maps to record just data about where transportation routes were being planned and under construction, but then I worked with my friend Steven Vance, who also worked for Streetsblog, on developing a more interactive version.  And what’s cool is that people actually send me updates about once a week asking me to change elements of the map to update recently changed routes or completed lines and things of that sort.  So I try to keep it as updated as possible.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  And, in fact, the Durham-Orange Light Rail is now, you know, going to be changing on the map to a canceled route unfortunately.

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: The light rail that was supposed to go in our hometown here got killed earlier this year, unfortunately.

Freemark: That’s right.  I suppose I haven’t actually changed it yet because it probably will produce too much hurt feelings on my part, but you’re right; I need to change that to a canceled route.  That’s right.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, I think we feel it especially down here, but—

Freemark: Yeah, I actually—when I was in high school I was very excited about the previously proposed route, the sort of diesel, multiple-unit line that would have gone from Durham to Raleigh.

Cohen: Yeah.

Freemark: And me and a friend put up a big sign above the railroad bridge on Ninth Street in Durham where there was supposed to be a station saying that there was going to be new light rail station there.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Wow.

Freemark: And that was back in—I don’t know—2003 or 2004, and unfortunately that did not come to be either.

Cohen: Yeah.  I mean, I think as part of the Wake Transit Plan there is some plans to do a commuter rail between Raleigh and Durham.

Freemark: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And, you know, again, I think that’s going to require North Carolina Railroad permission, and they were not super eager about the light rail using their right-of-way last time.  So we’ll see, but right now I think we’re still in a holding pattern unfortunately. And, you know, we need the high-capacity transportation here. I mean, I think definitely between some of these job centers, you know, I take—whenever I go to Raleigh and I take the DRX bus because I just can’t stand driving to Raleigh.  It’s just it’s gotten that bad.

Freemark: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And being able to be on the bus is quite nice, and if we had some dedicated right-of-way, whether that’s for bus or whether that’s for rail, that would be quite nice to get between Durham and Raleigh.

Freemark: Oh, absolutely.

Cohen: So I want to talk to you about something that kind of comes out a little bit in your work with The Transport Politic and a little bit in your Twitter feed as well, which is why it seems like the U.S. is so bad at some of the fundamentals of public policy or transit policy specifically.  Do you have a sense on just why that is? Is there one particular thing that is really getting in the way of the U.S. really advancing our transit policy in a much more effective way?

Freemark: I think if I were to point to one issue—well, to be honest, I think many issues is what causes the U.S. to be less effective than other countries when it comes to transit, but I think that the biggest and most important issue is our sort of obsession with low-density land use that makes investment in transit ineffective and difficult to persuade people that it’s useful.  You know, in most other countries there’s far less of a reliance on single-family homes, suburban and exurban development to power growth and development. And the result is that more development in other countries is in denser neighborhoods where using the bus is already more feasible, where being able to walk to nearby retailers or cafes is more feasible, and where people are not as used to getting in their car for every possible need.

But unfortunately in the U.S. we have been, you know, since the 1950s quite convinced that the best way to develop throughout the country is in areas that are oriented dramatically towards the automobile, whether that is those single-family-home neighborhoods or strip malls or suburban shopping malls.  And so I think that’s really the issue where we need to do the most work, and I think transit will be more effective if we work on the land use.

Cohen: I think that’s a great point.  And I guess my rejoinder to that would be that obviously that happened; we can’t change that; that was over the course of the last 50 years of public policy; we’ve incentivized that.  You know, obviously we can’t change that land use now. Right? It’s done. Right? So—

Freemark: Well, we can change the land use.  I reject that premise. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: All right.  Fair. Fair.  All right; we can change the land use.  The built environment that is there now is there.  Right?

Freemark: Yes.

Cohen: And so the only way to change that is—I mean, we can change that land use, yes, right, but that is obviously going to be another 50 to 60 years of kind of work that’s going to be necessary to kind of build our way denser and upper out of some of those changes that we’ve made over the previous 50 to 60 years.  Right?

Freemark: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: You know, like, our office, our TransLoc office, the only redeeming quality about it is it’s directly across from the Regional Transit Center for GoTriangle.  Other than that, it’s in a suburban office park that is devoid of any personality.

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: It’s got a ton of parking that is never ever, ever used; and they keep clear-cutting trees to build more buildings when they could build more buildings right in the same parking lots that never get used.  Right? But nobody is doing that.

Freemark: That’s right.

Cohen: Right?  So I guess I’m trying to figure out, like, is there anything we can do in the intervening 50 to 60 years to kind of help us sooner?

Freemark: I think that, to be honest, we’re underestimating the sheer quantity of people who are moving around in terms of both their residence locations and their job locations every year.  I mean, regions like the Triangle in North Carolina are attracting more than 100 people a day in terms of new population. Those people are being housed in new developments.

Cohen: Right.

Freemark: The question is, have we developed a planning system by which those new developments are being centrally located around areas that will be effective for transit and for mixed-use environments in the future?  And I think to some degree actually the Triangle has improved on that front unquestionably. I mean, if you look at the way the Triangle looked like 20 years ago, there was virtually no multifamily construction occurring in the center of places like Durham, Chapel Hill, or Raleigh.  And over the past 20 years it’s dramatically changed.

I mean, if you go to the center of any of these cities you see rather large, new, multifamily complexes, which are absorbing a lot of that new growth.  And, frankly, that’s a trend that we’re seeing in places all over the country, so that is a good sign. But the question is, are we doing enough of that?  Have we identified enough locations where that’s feasible? And are we working with existing landowners to change the way their development looks? And so I think your example of your office is a great one because these are areas that could readily change into much more dense, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods if there was a will to do so on the part of the planners and the developers who control the neighborhoods.  So, you know, I guess I’m not convinced it’d take 60 years to make these types of changes.

If look at places like Seattle where there’s been dramatic increases in transit ridership and dramatic construction associated with it, you know, I think you can see these changes in 10 years.  It just requires a sort of willingness on the part of the public sector to say, “We need to stop allowing the use of currently undeveloped land for new construction; we need to encourage much more construction in infill areas,” and we need developers to be able to say, you know, “We have these surface parking lots in our communities.  We’re going to change the way they look into places where people can walk around.” But that requires a force of will, which, you know, is probably the obstacle that we don’t have right now.

Cohen: Yeah.  I think that’s true.  And I guess what was going through my mind when I was sharing that earlier was—and I wrote a blog post about this a couple months ago—was I took my son down to a soccer tournament in Charlotte a couple—I guess it was last year some time.  And it was striking because I hadn’t driven through South Charlotte in quite a while, and obviously Charlotte’s had a huge population growth over the course of the last 20 years. You know, it struck me as I’m driving to these suburban soccer fields in South Charlotte and I’m driving past all of these huge neighborhoods that are a cul-de-sac and only one entry and one exit.  And I’m thinking, “Man, this area—like, nobody is ever going to take transit in this area.” Right?

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: And so I guess I was thinking about more with some will we could densify this suburban office park where we’re located, but those single-family homes that were built in South Charlotte, those are there for a while.  Right? And those folks are never going to have good transit options. And that may just be the net of the choice that those folks made. And, in fact, maybe they would have never ever ridden transit anyway, so maybe they’re a lost cause.  I don’t know. I guess I’m thinking about all of that single-family land use that was kind of built up over the last 20 to 30 years in a lot of these communities, and you’re not going to densify that necessarily. That’s kind of stuck there.  Right?

Freemark: I think so.  Yeah. I mean, you can affect those areas on the margin, but I think you have to work with what’s feasible and what’s realistically densifiable.

Cohen: Yeah.

Freemark: And some of that means essentially saying, “We’re not going to serve certain neighborhoods with effective transit because those neighborhoods have never been designed for effective transit.”  I think that’s okay. I’m not necessarily opposed to that way of choosing where to focus our energies. And, frankly, we have so few resources for public transportation for the most part that perhaps that kind of focus on certain neighborhoods is actually not a bad thing.

Cohen: Sure.

Freemark: It can be potentially problematic in terms of making certain people feel like they’re being excluded from the system.  And it may make it less feasible to get the political support that you need, but at least from a sort of efficiency perspective it seems like the right idea.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that makes a lot of sense.  And you’re right; if you look at where a lot of this density has happened—and, again we’re just talking right now about our area here in North Carolina that we’re both pretty familiar with, but a lot of that density has happened in those downtown areas, which is where it should happen because there’s a lot of transit access as it were, you know, relatively here in those areas compared to elsewhere in our region.  So I think you’re right about that.

And in some ways you’re kind of saying, “There’s going to winners and there’s going to be losers here as it relates to transit, and we’re never going to be able to make South Charlotte a great transit area, so we’re just going to kind of chalk that up to that was a mistake”—mistake might not be the right word, but—“That’s not going to be the best way to use our resources,” and really just say, “We’re going to invest in those areas like Uptown Charlotte and other job centers to really focus on those areas.”

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: And that’s fair.  I think maybe that’s just hard for me to let go, to say, like, “We’re going to just kind of give that up,” and just say, “You know what?  Can’t really do anything on that, and we’re just going to have to move on.” It just seems so harsh, but I think you may be right that that’s kind of what we need to accept as the reality of those decisions.

Freemark: Well, it seems harsh, but also—I mean, I think that there are opportunities.  You know, I don’t think we should abandon all neighborhoods to poor service and automobile dependency.  I think that, for example, a lot of these neighborhoods that are single-family home and that seem unlikely to be changed anytime soon do have strip malls that are located relatively close to them, you know, strip malls that right now have enormous, surface parking lots along major arterials.  These are areas that are ripe for very significant change into mixed-use, higher density neighborhoods that could be within relatively close walking distance of a lot of people in single-family homes. So I guess I would say that that is our opportunity to try to effect change for those types of people.

Cohen: So kind of building on that a little bit; when you’re doing your research and your writing and you’re looking on the public sector side—you already mentioned Seattle and some of the changes they’ve made—who else out there or what other communities do you see that are thinking about this in the right way?  And maybe to put a finer point on that, what can other communities learn from them or replicate from their situations?

Freemark: The U.S. does not have a very large number of great examples of communities that have invested in improved transit and associated land use, I think, to a large degree because, you know, again, we do have this very automobile-focused society and state governments that have been quite hostile to investing in their urban areas.  I do think that the Washington area, which I think has been the focus of a lot of discussions among planners and transportation experts for many years, remains a model that other cities should look to when they think about how to orchestrate transit improvements around land use and vice versa.

I think when you look at the way the Metrorail system was built beginning in the 1970s and up to today and the associated changes in land use that occurred in suburban areas in places like Arlington and Montgomery County, you see a model for how we can use transit as this incredible tool to transform the way our cities look and work.  And if you look at the use of public transportation in the Washington area it is much higher than you would expect given what’s occurred in other cities in the country, if you look at places like Baltimore or Philadelphia or Atlanta or Miami, places where transit has unfortunately declined over these decades in terms of its use.

The Washington region has really maintained transit as an essential tool for development and for getting around the community.  And I think that’s to a large degree because of the choice to focus development around those transit stations. And so I think that example, you know, despite the fact that Washington has some issues with the reliability of its Metrorail system, it remains quite an impressive place with regards to this coordination of land use and transportation.  And I think other places could certainly look to see what it’s doing on that front.

You know, even in Montgomery County, which is quite developed, there continues to be very significant investment in transit-oriented development.  You can see that in places like Rockville, which is relatively new and pretty far out from the center of Washington. And you can see it in places like Bethesda and Silver Spring that have been developed since the 1970s but remain active sites of new construction.  So, you know, I think that that’s a place that is feasible for most Americans to understand and to see and a place that remains a model for everyone.

Cohen: I mean, that’s especially interesting because of the nature of how Metro is funded and the different state and federal impact of kind of the service area.  Is that something that, like, the MPO had to get involved with in order to kind of facilitate that development mindset? Or is that something that happened in the local areas and was kind of a disconnected approach but it just worked, you know, and so then you have these, like—you know, you look in all of those Orange Line and Blue Line to a lesser extent, I guess, coming out of D.C. on the Virginia side and the Red Line on the Maryland side just, like—every one of those stops outside of the district is just, you know, skyscraper after skyscraper.  It’s really, really impressive. So do you have a sense on how that actually kind of came about from a policy standpoint?

Freemark: Yeah.  Well, I think unfortunately in the U.S. our metropolitan planning organizations have quite limited power and have had limited effect on the way we think about planning in the country as a whole.  It is true that in the Washington region, you know, there was an idea of developing around the transit lines and using that as the structure for higher density development. But the reality is that the places where you’ve seen the very significant, new construction—these are places like Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery County in Maryland—have been places where the local jurisdictions—and by that I mean the counties and in Alexandria, the city—have made transit-oriented development the focus of how they see their future.

Cohen: Got it.

Freemark: And so they’ve done that in a way that has not been replicated throughout the Washington region.

Cohen: Got it.  Okay.

Freemark: I mean, one thing that’s worth pointing out is that because of systemic racism and inequality, Prince George’s County, which is also in the suburbs of Maryland and also has a number of transit lines, has not been able to develop around its transit stations nearly to the degree that adjacent Montgomery County has.  And that’s obviously an economic development issue, but it’s also a planning choice issue.

There’s been much less of a focus on creating neighborhood centers around the transit stations, and that’s been to the detriment of the Prince George’s County Metrorail stations.  So I think, you know, it’s really taken local leadership in these counties and in the city of Alexandria to make these Metrorail systems and the stations themselves actually effective.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s really interesting how, you know—I’ve been thinking a lot about how elected officials in some ways have limited power—right—depending on whether it’s partisan or not, depending on the impacts of the state legislatures in their area and what kind of powers they’re trying to take and so forth.  You know, sometimes I feel like elected officials especially on the local level have somewhat limited power. But I think you’re providing a good counter narrative there to some of those places where with some clear vision you can actually bring about some really impactful change for a lot of people because that development that you’re describing in those areas not only has positive tax-base implications for that community but also positive congestion impacts because you’re much more dense and walkable and so forth.

Freemark: Yeah.

Cohen: So I think there’s a lot of kind of positive externalities that come out of that that is really nice to see.

Freemark: Yeah.  I mean, I think one thing that I would like to emphasize is that a lot of my academic work examines the role of local governments in promoting policy change and in promoting ideas about what they want to see for the future.  And there is a conception out there that local governments are to a large degree very limited in the power that they have over their future because of fiscal concerns or because of their current demographics or population; and that seems to suggest local governments are sort of stuck waiting for economic development to come and stuck waiting for the state government to help them out.

But I think when you look at places that have been quite successful from the perspective of transit, frankly, the local governments have taken a commanding role; elected leaders have said, “This matters to us,” and they have essentially fought for changes in things like zoning and street use that have made that transformation possible.  So I think we should not underestimate just how effective and meaningful local governments can be on these issues.

Cohen: Fantastic.  I think that’s a good, positive way to end this.  Where can our audience find out more about your work and Twitter and so forth?  What’s the best ways to check out your work?

Freemark: Sure.  So I post frequently on Twitter.  My handle is @YFreemark, but I also occasionally write, continue to write on my website The Transport Politic, hopefully will write more in the coming months.  You know, when there’s a major issue I’m very concerned about and that comes to mind directly, I will make sure to write something on my website.  I think most recently in September I wrote a long article about the problems that have occurred in the Chicago region because of differences in control over different transit agencies and the problems that occur because transit agencies act like they’re in competition with one another.  So, you know, that’s something that is, I think, a major problem in major metropolitan areas with many different transit agencies. And that’s the kind of writing that I hope to continue doing.

Cohen: Well, Yonah, I appreciate you coming on The Movement and sharing a little bit more about some of your research and some of these examples of your work on The Transport Politic, and I enjoyed this conversation.  Thank you.

Freemark: No, thank you.

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