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Episode 48 Guest Harriet Tregoning

Harriet Tregoning leads the New Urban Mobility Alliance, a coalition of public, private, and non-profit organizations shaping how technology can help create sustainable communities. But lessons from her career have shown that before you can apply technology, you first need a shared vision.

Download our GTFS white paper to learn how can cities get accurate transit information into the hands of the public and at the same time improve the public’s mobility options.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Tregoning: Harriet Tregoning

Cohen: Across her local, state, and federal public sector career and her current work organizing a coalition of public, private, and nonprofit organizations to shape how cities embrace new mobility, Harriet Tregoning’s North Star hasn’t changed.  You’ll find out what that is coming up now on The Movement.  Let’s go.

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

Cohen: My guest today is Harriet Tregoning who is the Director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, hosted at the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.  NUMO is a new, collaborative effort that aims to guide policymakers, private sector, and other interested folks towards a shared vision of cities and urban mobility.  Prior to NUMO, Harriet has worked at both the local level—she was a planning director for Washington D.C.—as well as at the federal level with the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Welcome to The Movement, Harriet.

Tregoning: Thank you so much.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

Cohen: Let’s just start out with giving us kind of what’s connected all of this various work that you’ve done that has led you to NUMO, which is where you are now.

Tregoning: Josh, that’s a great question.  I will say that I have to go way back in history to answer it, but I began my career at the Environmental Protection Agency, and I really thought my whole—you know, from the time I was a little girl, that’s what I wanted to work on, protecting the environment.  I thought, “Oh, how great? After college I’m going to be able to do this thing.”

And I really enjoyed my time at EPA, but at some point I looked around and thought, “You know, we do a lot at our regulatory agency to try to control big sources of pollution, but I see a lot of the environment really being affected by these other things.”  You know, we’re increasingly sprawling in our development patterns, and places are getting farther and farther away. And we’re paving over farms and forests, and that makes both more runoff but also more air pollution as people have to drive more.

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: And then we’re not really doing a lot about that at EPA.  And there are also plenty of other reasons why human settlements would be better if they were more compact and more walkable.  In fact, for 6,000 years human settlements looked pretty much the same built around the walkable neighborhood. It really wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that we exploded those patterns because of the advent of the automobile and really changed something that had worked for human beings for millennia.

So I didn’t know much about that.  Right? I was civil engineer, and I did a lot of reading and a lot of talking to people and a lot of other things and remarkably got the chance while I was at EPA to reorient the work that we were doing in my group towards this issue of discouraging sprawl and encouraging what we were calling more-sustainable communities.  And we did that in partnership with mostly organizations outside the EPA like local governments and farmland preservation groups and historic preservationists and developers who wanted to do infill and that sort of thing.

So it was a really different way of working as someone who had been mostly a regulator, but it also was so rewarding and so interesting.  And we needed dozens of partners because there was no single cause of sprawl. Even though our regulations, our tax code, our economic incentives in every way had been geared toward sprawling patterns of development and toward more and more suburbanization, you know, maybe has been the story of the rest of my career, that I’ve found that, “Oh.  Because there’s so many causes, there’s so many areas where you could work on this issue and still sort of have that compact development be your North Star.” And so, yeah, that’s basically been the story.

Cohen: Wow.

Tregoning: So in every job I’ve really had that focus.  And I recognize that changing things is really hard and that sometimes things don’t change in a linear fashion; they change abruptly because there’s been some disruption.  When it comes to the work I do now at NUMO, that disruption is technology based and causing people to kind of rethink what is transportation, what’s the problem the different transportation modes are trying to solve or address, and what’s going to best for our community.  When I was at HUD I focused a lot on disaster recovery, and that’s also another huge pivot point for communities.

Cohen: Oh, my gosh.  Yeah.

Tregoning: And housing and the housing crisis is another opportunity.  And one of the things I did when I was a planning director in D.C. is I rewrote the zoning code for the first time in 50 years, including making accessory dwelling units by right legal in virtually every zoning category, so, you know, a way to invisibly add density back to communities that had been losing it because of changes in household size and demographics.

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: So in any event I found that there’s important work to do from all of these sectors and interesting ways to do it, and that’s been the story.  And certainly there’s probably not a sector undergoing more change now than transportation, and that’s what really drew me to NUMO, where I’m really thrilled to be the first director of our nascent organization there.

Cohen: And so maybe give us a little bit of a kind of a broad-strokes overview of NUMO for those of our audience who aren’t as familiar with it.

Tregoning: So NUMO stands for the New Urban Mobility Alliance.  It was created and launched just a year ago in January.  It’s based on something called the Shared Mobility Principles, 10 principles that Robin Chase and nine NGOs got together to create 18 months or more ago and immediately had support from a number of private sector actors and others.  And today there are nearly 170 organizations around the globe that have endorsed the principles. But the idea behind them is really that we’re not going to get the kind of communities we want if we don’t articulate what that is.

And these are 10 principles that help people think about, in the context of this transportation disruption that’s happening, the kinds of communities that we want to end up with.  Because I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to get the ideal outcome just from the operation of the free market without ever having to give voice to what it is that we want our communities to be.  And part of that giving voice is also understanding that there are a lot of people that either feel voiceless or who are not often asked, and transportation is incredibly regressive.

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: You know, we in the U.S., you know, we’ve made it very costly and mostly privatized it, where in a lot of other countries it’s considered more of a public good where there’s a lot of investment in public transportation.  Here we’ve made it mostly a private affair where to get to where you need to go you needed to have your own automobile. And that’s a very expensive proposition. You know, making that the barrier to entry for even beginning to climb the economic ladder, you know, I don’t think was a deliberate choice anybody made, but that is the system that’s prevalent in much of the U.S.  And we’ve certainly sprawled our development patterns and our job centers in ways that often put those jobs very distant and out of reach by public transit for the people that are most in need of employment, the underemployed and the unemployed.

Cohen: Yeah.  You’re 100% right about that.  And I remember having a conversation with the leaders of the Memphis Transit Authority down in Memphis, and I remember them being frustrated because the city was doing all kinds of economic development and so forth, and they were bringing in these jobs, but they were putting them in places that didn’t have access to transit.

Tregoning: Right.

Cohen: And the people that needed to access those jobs needed transit to get there.  And so there was this tension there between kind of some of the economic development going on in the city and then the transit authority, which is kind of the tail being wagged there.  Then they’re saying, “Well, why can’t the transit authority just provide that service?” Well, it’s because it’s not in a very good land-use area to provide great service to.

Tregoning: That is another crazy expectation that we’ve really fostered in the U.S., that people—we let people pick the cheapest location to build affordable housing, to build big job centers, and then we turn around and say, “Oh.  The taxpayers are going to have to pay for the infrastructure for those things, so get on it,” as opposed to saying, “Wait a minute. Where does it make the most sense to put these things?” You know, even if you needed a public subsidy, it might be much better to have it at the frontend, you know, when they’re doing land acquisition—right—as opposed to adding the infrastructure at the other end.

Cohen: Yeah.

Tregoning: But, you know, that isn’t often how we do that.  But that does raise another point about NUMO, you know, that it’s an alliance organization.  Going back to what I said before about how there’s no single cause for sprawl; there’s no single actor in transportation either.  It’s the public sector; it’s the private sector; it’s nongovernmental organizations; it’s employers; it’s a lot of different entities that have a big stake in this.  And so NUMO is very deliberately an alliance organization that works across those various organizations and more to try to leverage the disruption that’s happening in transportation, the technology based disruption, to channel that disruption to get better outcomes in cities, more equitable, more sustainable, more accessible, more affordable, etcetera.

Cohen: I want to build on something that you mentioned earlier, which I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but I think you said something to the effect of, “Change is hard.”  Right? And I’m curious about your experience having worked in both the public sector and now working with this alliance that of course, as you described, spans a lot of different sectors but also includes the private sector.  I’m curious what you’ve learned over those years of how bringing about change and what’s necessary in order to do so. Like, what are maybe even some very tactical things that are critical if you want to bring out change in a community?

Tregoning: So it’s definitely true that change and managing change in many ways is the job I’ve had every single time.  Right? And if you ask a lot of other people what they’re doing in the public sector, people who are attracted to public service, I think for many of them it’s probably a similar answer, that they’re trying to make changes that improve conditions for the constituency that their agency is trying to serve.  Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: So almost nobody goes into public service to maintain the status quo.

Cohen: Right.

Tregoning: So I think, you know, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to and about; what are the ingredients that create a greater likelihood that you can have change? Because at the same time, you know, in your personal life—right—as a member of a community, as a neighbor, you know, change is abhorrent.  Right? It’s scary. You know, nobody wants it for its own sake. Right? So it has to be for a reason; it has to be for a clear purpose. And there has to be some agreement, I think, about what that change should be trying to achieve.

So I think that’s actually a really important thing; what is it that you’re trying to do?  And I usually try to get people to think about that not with respect to a particular transaction whether that’s a regulation or whether that’s a real-estate project or the introduction of scooters to a city, but at a higher level what is the kind of city you want to be?  Right? What’s the kind of place you want to be? You know, one of the things I really enjoyed about my time at the local government level but also at the state level—both of those were kind of planning jobs—was to be able to start with plans then principles that there had been a lot of community agreement about.

In D.C. it was about growing an inclusive city, which was a planning effort that was started years before I took my job, but those set of values that were articulated through that original planning process, you know, were reinforced through every subsequent one.  And people agreed; “Yes, we want to have an inclusive city, and we value fairness; we value opportunity; we value safety.” You know, we have a bundle of values that we really care about. And that being able to return to those values, you know, is really essential.  And to say that people agree about these outcomes, then that really helps you to frame every other decision you’re making. Is it moving us toward those values or away from those values?

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: And when you disagree with someone you can disagree about any particular action, but if it’s in the context of those agreed upon values it’s so much easier to have that conversation and to also say, “Well, you know, you and I don’t agree on how to get there, but I’m very willing to listen to your ideas about alternative ways to get to these outcomes that we do agree upon,” I think.  So being really clear about what is success in your city and articulating that is really important if you’re in the public sector. But it’s also really important if you’re trying to work across silos, across governments, or units of government.

You know, what is success for the parties you’re trying to work with?  And that’s also true for the private sector. What is success for them?  And then, you know, like Venn diagrams, you have some overlap. Right? So you have some areas where your success and their success are attained by pursuing some of the same outcomes.  So what are those things? And that becomes a basis for some collaboration. Even if you wildly disagree on other things, that’s absolutely a place to start. And so that’s been true for us at NUMO, but it’s definitely been true in every job I’ve ever had, is to find those areas of agreement.  So you have principles; you have a vision for the future; you have probably a group of people, a coalition, because for any kind of big change, you know, it’s not just one actor. Right?

Cohen: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Tregoning: I think the other ingredient that’s really important is urgency.

Cohen: Hmm.

Tregoning: That if it was easy to do, it would have already been done.  So you have to give people a reason why they need to be doing it now.  Right?

Cohen: Hmm.  Yeah.

Tregoning: So whether that’s before inequality and disparity gets even greater, whether that’s because you’re expecting a lot of growth in your community and you want to get ahead of it, whether that’s because, “Oh, my gosh.  The scooters, the AVs, they’re coming now, so what do we do to make sure that we’re ready for it?” So that urgency helps to both focus the mind and to also give people a reason to do that meeting today or this week instead of putting it off until next year.  So I think those are some of the key elements that at least enable you to get started when you’re trying to manage a big change in a community or in a coalition, etcetera.

Cohen: Yeah.  I guess as it relates to urgency, obviously one of the key, urgent issues of our time right now is climate change and therefore climate resilience.  And obviously cities are going to be a place where a lot of that is going to play out because cities have tended to—a lot of cities are around the coasts and in areas that are going to be impacted significantly by climate change.  What are you seeing from communities that are thinking about climate resilience well? And what are you seeing that they’re doing well? And maybe in some areas that aren’t doing well, what are they missing?

Tregoning: So I think this is an area where the environmental and existential issue that is climate change has a huge overlap with what cities think makes them successful.  So in a lot of ways carbon emissions are inefficiency. Right?

Cohen: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Tregoning: And the sources in cities, the two biggest sources are transportation and buildings, things that they actually have a lot of control over.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Tregoning: So the idea that squeezing the carbon out of buildings means making them a lot cheaper to operate, making them a lot more comfortable, more day lit.  In transportation it means making trips shorter, making them by something other than a fossil fuel, internal-combustion-engine based mode. It means making your city more walkable and bikable.  All of those things make cities more livable and more affordable. So it’s to me, like, almost a no-brainer that of course cities would support this. Right? So having the goal alignment is kind of one thing, but also really understanding what it takes to get these outcomes is really another thing.

I think land use is a huge component of this.  I’ve listen to some of the other podcasts, and I know that one of the interesting conversations happening in the Twin Cities, in Minneapolis in particular has to do with single-family zoning.  I mean, if you want to—even if your goal was building energy efficiency, you know, standalone buildings compared to the kind of building I live in Washington, which is a row house, you know, the energy use inside even the same square footage is totally different when you’re insulated on three sides by other buildings or by the ground.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Tregoning: You know, is an example of how a land use change could improve the energy efficiency of the building itself, you know, the buildings that you’re going to be creating in the future, but that it also allows for greater density, which means it’s much more easy to serve those communities by transit and it’s much easy to put service there because the density will support them.  So I would just say that naturally just like anybody would, cities are doing the easiest things first, which may not be the most effective things. Right?

Cohen: Hmm.  Yeah.

Tregoning: So one of the most effective things is changing the land use pattern; because what is transportation?  It’s a way to fix a special mismatch. Right? We don’t need it except, you know, when we decide to put things far apart, people and where they live versus jobs—right—stores and schools away from residents.  So we only need transportation, especially extraordinary transportation when we’ve made these distances quite large. So cities could be doing a lot and it not cost a lot either to make those distances shorter going forward by changing their land use patterns.  But it’s politically difficult.

You know, that’s a scale of change that affects most neighborhoods.  Right? So people instead are ratcheting down on the energy use inside buildings with new building standards.  And they’re, you know, adding transportation choices, but a lot of whether those choices are used depends on that development pattern and how long the distances are between destinations.  So what I would say is—yeah? Go ahead, Josh.

Cohen: Oh, I was going to say it seems like there’s this, like, disconnect between—and maybe this is kind of the origin of the NIMBY movement—right—which is this disconnect between the micro-level change, which is the change that impacts me and my environment, and the macro-level change, which is that vision that you talked about, which is, “What do we need to do in order to become this more equitable and accessible and climate-resilient environment?”  Right?

Tregoning: Right.

Cohen: And it seems like this disconnect between those two is where the fulcrum on where all this stuff kind of goes sideways.  Right? And so I guess I’m just kind of talking through that. I guess I don’t really have an answer, but I guess I’m—as you’re framing that out I kind of see that we all believe in change until it impacts us.  And it’s like, “Oh. Well, maybe; maybe not.” You know?

Tregoning: Well, that is a wonderful thing about human beings, is their ability to hold two entirely diametrically opposed ideas in their heads at the same time.

Cohen: [LAUGHS]  Yeah.

Tregoning: And so I think that that happens a lot.  But think about how much more likely you are to get to agreement if you do have these values in common than if you don’t.  Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Tregoning: So people can disagree about any given development project, but if you keep going back to some things that people do agree upon like, you know, “We want inclusive growth,” so that means we have to add development to places that have been exclusive.  Right? So that’s something that we have to do. We agree in a concept of fairness. Right? So is it fair that only one or two or five neighborhoods in our community are taking, let’s say, 90% of the growth? Is that fair? Right? So what’s a fair share of change that our neighborhood should be expected to shoulder?  Right?

There are all kinds of ways to talk about this, but I think being able to go back to those values you agree upon and use that to frame why this change is necessary, I think, is the only way that you’re going to get community acceptance to changes in neighborhoods.  Because let’s be honest; not all the changes that have happened in communities over the last 100 years were good changes. People are right to be skeptical about a change, but it’s also not a great thing to have a kneejerk reaction to it and oppose it just because it is change.  Right? So somewhere between those views is your opportunity to persuade somebody that better outcomes are possible and here’s how.

Cohen: Yeah.  So one of the areas that certainly when we talk about change that we hear occasionally is that there’s not enough funding, that we need more funding.  And I certainly hear that. I was at an event a couple of weeks ago put on by the Southern Environmental Law Center. And, you know, there’s various elected officials there and various state level transportation folks.  And this theme kind of came out there, you know, “We need more funding.”

You know, there was other kind of things that we need more of.  We need more alignment between folks maybe to kind of put together that vision that you talked about.  But I wanted to kind of throw that to you, because I hear that a lot, “We need more funding. We need more funding.  We need more funding.” And I’m curious to get your perspective on that. Do you agree with that? Do you think that’s a red herring?  What’s going on there?

Tregoning: So I would say that more funding is great.  But I would say that there are many circumstances where more funding is bad.  You know, one of the legacies that we live with is that we had a ton of money in decades past for infrastructure, and we used it in a very kind of exclusive way.  We used it to fix one problem. You know, let’s call that problem—you know, and it was a different problem depending on what your source of funding was. We deliberately did not try to solve multiple problems with a given project, and some of our federal laws prohibit that, that you can only have a single purpose—right—for your expenditure of the funds, which on its face seems ludicrous—right?

Cohen: Right.

Tregoning: When in fact problems are complex, and why wouldn’t we solve multiple problems with funding if we could?  You know, there’s a famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill when near the end of the war he was in a meeting when he said, “Gentlemen,” and of course he said gentlemen because there were no women in the room, you know, but, “Gentlemen, we’re out of money.  Now we have to think.” Right? And that’s certainly true. Right? That’s a truism in almost any field, that there are very clever ways to solve problems and that money, lots and lots of money doesn’t demand that you be clever to solve those problems. Right?

So I think we’re at a point collectively in our country where we absolutely need to be clever and that in cases where we get a lot of money sometimes we use it badly.  The organization Smart Growth America and Transportation for America came out with a policy statement recently saying they’re not going to support any more funding in the surface transportation project because it’s used almost entirely to expand capacity for roads instead of fixing the existing roads that we have.  And that’s why so much of our road infrastructure and bridge infrastructure is in a state of poor repair. That, yes, they have in the past lobbied for more money, and inevitably it wasn’t spent to fix existing roads but rather to expand them and to facilitate more sprawl.

So they’re saying, “Let’s not do that.  Let’s not get any more money. Let’s try to do more with what we have.”  So I would say that that’s a very compelling perspective. But I’d also say that when we talk about money—you know, I’ve worked at the federal, state, and local level—the big money isn’t at the federal government, especially now with one exception, and I’ll talk about that, but the big money is at the state and local level.  And the truth of the matter is if you’re talking about climate change as a context, nothing practically that’s in any state or local six-year capital plan was designed or conceived with the changing climate in mind.

So that means lots and lots of projects are in a pipeline where they are either planning to do something that is going to impacted by rising sea levels or increased rainfall or much higher heat in a location that’s no longer appropriate for that infrastructure or in a way that won’t be resilient to the changing climate.  And they are almost certainly, not any of these projects, building in resilience, so things that they could be doing to make those projects resilient to a changing climate. So think about that, you know, that billions and billions of dollars annually being spent on projects that are not suitable.

So what if we were to mine our existing capital budgets and say, “We want every project to be resilient.  That means some of these projects we’re going to cancel, because they’re not in the right places and they’re not doing the right things.”  And what if we combine budgets? What if we looked at every project that was going to be happening in this same geography across all these different departments?  And what if we said, “Let’s try to get to an agreed upon set of outcomes for all those projects,” that you could build the same things that you wanted to build, make them more resilient, and almost certainly do it with much greater efficiency than if you did those 10 projects as standalones?

So I just think that, you know, the process of having to be smarter about how we work would also give us much, much better outcomes.  And I think that there’s a lot of money sitting in those capital budgets that are absolutely—those dollars are going to be wasted because, you know, a lot of those projects have been in the pipeline, especially the transportation projects, for 20, 30, and 40 years.  Right? And they definitely are not projects that are planning for the next 40 years—right—where transportation is going to change enormously.

So imagine building for adaptation as opposed to a singular endpoint.  That’s also something our capital projects typically don’t do but certainly is called for in the coming decades—right—beginning right now.  So anyway, that’s what I would say about whether we have the money or not. I think we almost certainly do, and a lot of that money will otherwise be wasted if we don’t consider, you know, seriously reconsider how we’re going to be spending it.

Cohen: Definitely.  Definitely. I want to wrap up here just with helping our listeners find out more about NUMO and the work you’re doing.  Where can they learn more about that?

Tregoning: There’s a couple of different places.  You can find us on social media @NUMOalliance; that’s N-U-M-O alliance.  Also online at We have something really cool that I’d love for people to see.  We’ve created a New Mobility Atlas platform that’s just launched. And it looks very extensively at the proliferation of new mobility in cities around the world, because NUMO is a global organization, starting with shared, dockless scooters, bikes, and mopeds.  And it’s something that we’re going to be building on in the coming days and weeks.

And we’re going to be adding in 2020 a policy component of it so people can look and see how different cities are regulating these devices and how many of these devices there are in each city.  So, anyway, we’re very excited about it, and I think it’s an example of the kind of thing that NUMO is trying to do, take data from a lot of different sources, data that people are not often willing to share, and using it to better understand the changing nature of transportation and the opportunities for better cities because of it.

Cohen: Awesome.  Awesome. Harriet, thank you so much for sharing some of your perspective on both your career and how that was shaped by how we’re using the land we’re living on and working on, through your work today with NUMO and how it’s shaping the cities that we’re living in today, through what we’re doing to plan and create visions for our future that are certainly going to be impacted by the climate.  So thank you so much for taking us on that tour and for joining The Movement.

Tregoning: My pleasure.  I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, Josh.

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


Download our GTFS white paper to learn how can cities get accurate transit information into the hands of the public and at the same time improve the public’s mobility options.