Episode 49: Connecting Dots Takes Work with Andreas Addison

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

Andreas Addison’s early-career experience deploying technology as a civic innovator provided key lessons and philosophies influencing his current effort as a Richmond City Council member to make Richmond’s streets safe for all.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Addison: Andreas Addison

Cohen: What would happen if your city council representative chose walking, biking, and transit in order to better gain empathy with the challenges facing our most vulnerable road-users?  If you live in Richmond, Virginia that decision by Andreas Addison inspired a package of city initiatives designed to make safer streets for all. You’ll find out how he’s doing it 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 Andreas Addison, councilmember in Richmond, Virginia.  What I think is neat about Councilmember Addison’s bio is that he has experience working in city government as an employee, not just a councilmember; and secondly that that work in local government was focused on technology and how it can improve citizens’ lives.  So that’s not really a resume that you see every day in a city councilperson, so I’m excited to have Andreas on The Movement.  Welcome.  

Addison: Glad to be here.  

Cohen: So let’s get started with what you’ve been in the news for a little bit recently, which is that in November you introduced a package of resolutions and ordinances in Richmond that you called Streets for All.  So maybe introduce our audience to what’s in that package and what led to the introduction of it.  

Addison: Yeah, so I put together over the past probably two years a list of all the improvements we can make as a city to make our streets safe for all.  And by safe for all I mean for pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses, mass transit, trying to incorporate as many things as possible that helps us either design better, safer streets and also enforce and protect the laws that are there to make us safe.  And also, I think, too is with more around the 28 items that were kind of outlined in my package, my omnibus bill of sorts, was really focused on trying to create the organizational change to support this outcome of Vision Zero, Complete Streets, and other aspects of really making our streets safer for everybody.  

Included in this, our full-time Vision Zero coordinator position, we’re trying to work on some reassessments of our sustainability for our transit use goals, I think, especially using the connectivity of multimodal, whether it be bike trails, bike paths, bus stops, our new bus rapid transit line, etcetera, and working better in collaboration with our transit company.  But also I think ultimately at the end of the day reclaiming our streets as a place for more pedestrian safety. I think reclaiming some of that visibility and improvements for yielding-first is a key priority of mine, and that changes behavior. I can do as much as I can, as I have it in my papers, around supporting policy and some positions that make our streets safer, but what it really comes down to is changing driver behavior and changing the cyclist behavior, etcetera.  

Cohen: Sure.  Yeah. I want to dig into that a little bit.  So you touched on this a little bit. I mean, I think there’s a lot of tactical changes that you suggested in these bills.  It’s omnibus, and as you said it’s, I think, 30-some odd changes. So I think the tactical changes are important, but I think you touched on what I think is maybe the more challenging piece, which are the systemic and psychological changes as to how people think about transportation in the Richmond area.  

So I’m curious how you’re really tackling those types of issues, because I would argue that it’s one thing to pass a bill—right—it’s one thing to kind of put the force of the city behind us.  It’s another thing to really, like, kind of win the hearts and minds, if you will. So how are you going about that? That to me sounds like it’s the really tricky part.   

Addison: Yeah, that’s one of the biggest challenges, I think, in any good legislation, is that I can make the right changes or introduce the new laws to effectively change a thing as the outcome.  However, it takes staff and the public to embrace and support that on the bigger picture, so I can only go so far. And so one of the things I really worked on especially over the past two years—so in November 2017 I joined Mayor Levar Stoney in signing a Vision Zero pledge and used that as a catalyst to kind of create a larger conversation around how to make our streets safer.  

And in that, one of the biggest outcomes we had was a key partnership with VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University, which is in the heart of Richmond, Virginia.  And it’s the largest state university we have, and so with that we have a huge population of residents that are moving to the city for the first time or are learning how to navigate a city for the first time.  And so through that, as we’re looking to have key partnerships in utilization of public transit, of bikes and other infrastructure in that capacity, you know, one of the things that came as a big piece was, “Well, how do we educate and inform your students?”  And I feel like that became kind of a big opportunity of, “Well, how do you engage an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old student and their faculty and staff of all the professionals, professors—we have a big medical campus, so all of their staff as well—around what it means to be safe, how to identify unsafe situations, and how to be making sure that you are yielding to everybody or are aware of other people’s impact on what you might be doing in traveling so you’re there safely?

And so what came out of that was a big Vision Zero kind of website and engagement platform that we worked on with their marketing school, the Brandcenter, on creating.  And out of it, I think, is going to become a really great resource that’s going to be for the entire city that can be shared for engaging people to understand what it means to be a good pedestrian, what it means to be a good cyclist.  And at the end of the day if you’re a pedestrian you also drive a car sometimes, so if you’re one or the other you should be able to be both at all times to know what a car could be and could not be doing. And as a pedestrian that’s going to be important to be safe.  

And so for me that’s one of the things I’ve noticed in other cities, is—you know, in Charlottesville, Virginia that’s about 60 miles away from Richmond, the home of UVA, and in that you walk around the streets and the drivers of cars look for you.  They actually look to see you’re eyes. If you’re a pedestrian crossing the street or just walking down the sidewalk and you’re coming to an intersection they’re looking for you first before they make a decision. And that’s an important behavior change, and I think that’s something that I want to see embraced here in Richmond.  

And I think over the course of this policy introduction, you know, that’s been a key part, is that this is good for getting some staff; this is good for getting some people in key positions to drive this change, but when it comes down to engaging the population that we serve, that becomes the biggest hurdle and opportunity we have to, I think, change behavior.  So that comes down to the tactical piece. It’s how do we actually get in the hands and in front of the people the information to remind them what it means to be a safe pedestrian, to be a safe driver of a car, and to make our streets safe for all.  

Cohen: Sure.  Yeah. No, I think that’s critical.  And I like the idea of working with the universities, especially because you have, like you said, so many people there that this might be their first introduction to transit as well.  Right?  

Addison: Yeah.

Cohen: It’s certainly my experience when I went to college that many of my fellow students, that this is their first experience ever with taking any type of shared transit.  And that’s a really kind of—college is all about broadening your perspective, and that was a great way to do that. And certainly in Richmond with investments that you’re making in public transit, not just using the VCU transit but also using some of the local Richmond transit, I think, is a great way to kind of get those students more integrated into the community.  Right?

Addison: Absolutely.  

Cohen: So you touched on Vision Zero a little bit, and I thought that was interesting.  So you talk about in 2017 you took this pledge with the mayor. And that’s something that I’ve thought a lot about because, you know, supporting Vision Zero versus actually committing to Vision Zero.  And so you mentioned as part of your omnibus bill here is having a Vision Zero coordinator. Right? And so that’s kind of, like, taking the support for Vision Zero and making it more real—right—saying, like, “We’re putting real dollars behind this,” and making that real.  

So I’m curious.  Like, over the course of the last couple of years has there been—you know, obviously you signed this pledge, but is that enough until you’re kind of getting to this point now where’re saying, “All right.  We’re actually committing to this” and not only committing to the resources but also some of the tactical aspects that you outlined before around behavioral change and helping drivers understand what’s necessary and the responsibility you have when you’re piloting a vehicle that could kill somebody?  

Addison: Yeah.  So the dawn and embracing of the vehicle has created, I think, a really interesting change in terms of the landscape of a city.  I think you’ve seen a lot of, you know, when we have a traffic issue we add more lanes to our highways and our streets rather than thinking about can we get less cars on the street.  You know, we’ve seen the visuals that show the difference between how many people can go through a street on a bike versus a car versus on a bus. And when you look at that change of the paradigm I think you’re looking at the re-urbanization of our country as a challenge to how do you really become a Vision Zero city.  

We have, you know, in Richmond a lot of infrastructure built in the ’50s, ’60s, and the ’70s that was really focused and geared towards mass volume of cars entering and leaving our city.  And in that becomes these six-, eight-lane behemoths of bridges and roads that you as a pedestrian are really hard to cross. And to stop traffic long enough for a pedestrian to walk across that becomes annoying for a lot of people, especially when they’re trying to turn right on a red.

Cohen: Sure.  

Addison: Which is something that I think is a key part of Vision Zero, is, you know, we’ve done a lot of engagement around people today in our city around what it means to be safe as a pedestrian.  And a lot of them will admit, “I cross the street in the middle of the block because when I cross the intersection people don’t look for me when they turn right.”  

Cohen: Sure.

Addison: And that’s an interesting behavior impact.  And I think when you look at Vision Zero as a goal for minimizing and getting to eliminating any traffic fatality due to a crash, that’s one of the things I find is important, is that Vision Zero as a goal should be everyone’s expectation every day.

Cohen: Sure.  

Addison: You know, things happen and incidents happen, and sometimes they’re from the physical space of that.  My challenges with having a Vision Zero coordinator was having someone who could interface with the police department for enforcement, for public works for putting up maybe some new no parking signs for better visibility or putting in a high visibility crosswalk where you’re finding issues for that, or working with the utilities department to put up better street lights so that the visibility in the dusk and evening hours is better so that people can be seen while walking on their sidewalk and in the crosswalk where, you know, you might not have that visibility and it creates a higher opportunity for an incident to happen.  

But right now that’s kind of my job.  And that’s the thing I realized, is that I receive complaints about these across my district in the City of Richmond, and in that I can only go so far.  I have to be the conduit for all those opportunities and questions for all those parties involved, and I know that I’m not the only district that’s dealing with this issue.  And so for me it was trying to take the 1st-District—which I represent—issue and challenge and solution for the entire city.  And that’s one of the things I’m trying to embrace with this position, is to be that conduit for coordinating change systemically, uniformly around our entire city so that it’s not just my intersection that gets the no-parking signs to support visibility and the high visibility crosswalk with some better streetlights.  

That should be the expectation across our city for how we address the safety concerns we have.  And so that was the expectation; how do we push this citywide so it’s not just where people are paying attention to this but more of we’re making sure everybody can embrace and be safe crossing and walking and biking on our streets?

Cohen: And I think that’s critically important for equity issues as well.  

Addison: Absolutely.  

Cohen: So one thing that I haven’t heard you share directly but I’m kind of curious, the origin story behind this.  I mean, this is not just your run-of-the-mill council resolution and stuff. I mean, this is a lot of work; you put a lot of time and effort into this.  What led to this? What was the origin story?

Addison: So I would say that it’s influence by a couple pieces.  You know, we’ve had an unfortunate series of traffic fatalities either by bicycles or pedestrians on our streets over the past many years.  And it’s increased significantly and to the point where we’re probably one of the highest in the country with crashes and fatalities in the country for that.  

And so that headline struck me as a problem, and so as I started kind of embracing the multimodal aspects of navigating our city and with the introduction of the new bus rapid transit line which created a whole new network of our bus stops and bus routes citywide, I think that created this opportunity of creating more conflict.  And I think as things change, you know, bus stops were moved, traffic patterns were changed, you started to see a little bit of our new bike lanes and infrastructure coming in as well, and these created these kind of conflict zones where people just didn’t know what to do. 

Cohen: Hmm.

Addison: And part of my district has this Floyd Avenue bike boulevard per se where this stretch of road, we lowered the speed limit to 20; we put in a bunch of little traffic circle roundabouts at intersections, and really focused on trying to calm the street down to be focused more towards bicycles rather than cars.  But then what I realized is that it wasn’t done properly, and I think that the public wasn’t fully engaged around it, because people speed on it in their cars. They treat the—it used to be four-way stop signs at all those intersections; now there’s just a little impediment in the middle of the road. Like, the traffic circle didn’t really cause anything to change; it became more of a slalom.

Cohen: Right.

Addison: And so what you’d find was that the behaviors of what we were expecting to create weren’t being embraced by anybody.  And that pushed the bicycles back on worse streets where the volume of cars is way higher and the safety impact on them is more significantly at risk.  And so for me what I realized was that, “Hey, there’s a bigger challenge and opportunity going on.”  

And so last year in 2018 I did the ditch-your-ride-with-Lyft challenge where Lyft gave me a little bit of a kind of a gift account for using their car services; I had a bus pass for the month, and I walked a lot.  And so for the month of November in 2018 I did that. However, using Lyft for me became an easy thing to do because it was there. It’s still a car; I wasn’t doing more changing of my behavior; I was just not using my car.  It’s still someone else’s.  

Cohen: Yeah.

Addison: And so as I kind of was working on this Vision Zero and this, you know, Safe Streets for All package, what I kind of realized is that I needed to up the game a little bit and really experience this hands-on.  And through the course of that year, you know, I really worked on learning more when I worked with VCU and the students of that school and university and some of the staff with our police department. In that budget of that last year’s budget I worked with police getting a Vision Zero officer.  So they now have a new Vision Zero kind of taskforce within the police department, which is the first time they’ve had that.  

And one of the things that was the first thing they found that was fascinating is as they hired this person to do this job they realized that they only had like two trained radar enforcement officers for speed enforcement.  And, of course, as you know, speed enforcement is a key indicator for causing accidents. Especially fatalities, as you know, exponentially gets higher in the higher rate of speed. And so he immediately focused on, “Let’s get more people trained for radar, and then let’s get them deployed around the city.  Let’s be consistent with our enforcement of our speed laws.” And it’s amazing how these little shifts and these awareness points became catalysts for more.  

And so that wasn’t something I legislated; that was just something that came out of a conversation that created the change that I think we’re getting towards.  And so as things started building I started realizing that we need to have a more collaborative approach. You know, Vision Zero isn’t achieved by public works with signs and paint or traffic lights; it’s not achieved by police with enforcement.  You know, I can put up all the signs and paint, but if you don’t know what those mean and don’t comply with them they’re useless. And so I wanted to kind of elevate that conversation of let’s set the expectation that we are safe at all times, and let’s create that conversation on a more broader context.  And that’s really the genesis to where this all came from.  

And I took some cues from other cities around the country.  I know Seattle has some good policies. There’s a big package in D.C. passed by a councilmen, I think, earlier in 2019.  And so I kind of took a lot of these best practices and put them to work with our staff and agencies in our city government as well as in the community, and that really is what kind of catalyzed this thing moving forward, was that these 20 items—I think at one point I had like 40.

Cohen: Wow.

Addison: So they were whittled down and made to be more functional in terms of impact that would be appropriate.  And I think that’s where we kind of got to this point. Now, as you noticed, Vision Zero isn’t in the name of the Safe Streets for All.  It’s in it with some of the items.    

Cohen: Sure.

Addison: And that was kind of one of the pushbacks it had, was that I had some people say, “Well, it’s not quite Vision Zero,” and I was relating to that of, “Well, you’re true.  It’s not. It all is,” but there’s more to how we design our streets. You know, we have a high-injury traffic network of streets that have the highest concerns for safety with pedestrians and bicycles, and in that what we found is that we need to create a common aspect of how you interact with those streets and that network that is going to be, I think, the norm that we want to create citywide, but it needs to start somewhere that’s concrete where it’s going to create an awareness that can be learned and replicated time and time again.  And that’s how you change behavior.  

And so it became more of a Complete Streets package with some engagement and some enforcement and some staff and Vision Zero priorities, but at the end of the day Vision Zero is the priority goal, and we’re trying to achieve that through a more comprehensive package.  That’s really how it came about, is I also in November 2019 gave up my car for the month. I actually used it only three times. I only used Lyft to get to the airport because the bus doesn’t go to the airport. And I think throughout the course of that month I observed almost getting hit several times by a car not paying attention.  

Cohen: Wow.  

Addison: I missed bus stops, missed buses that passed by because in our bus rapid transit they’re in the—the stops are in the middle of the block.  And our lights aren’t timed to let me get to it.

Cohen: Oh, wow.

Addison: And even though I hit the pedestrian-initiated crosswalk signal it took two minutes to change, and in that two minutes the bus pulled up and pulled away.

Cohen: Wow.

Addison: And that’s unfortunate for me, but also that’s the case for anybody else too.  And so in those observations it really painted the picture of how much more is needed.  And this is the start of the conversation that hopefully is going to grow and build momentum as we look at more comprehensive aspects of how we really create interconnectivity between all the modes of transportation around our entire city.  

And you mentioned earlier a keyword that’s been a focus of this, which is equity.  The first mile/last mile is a key factor for anybody looking to get safely to and from work, school, or any other social outing they might want to do.  Richmond is blessed with a lot of cultural events from arts to music to food, and in that I feel like this opportunity to become safer with our streets is paramount for people to use mass transit, public transit, or just get around safely together.  And that change is what I’m looking to gear to.  

Cohen: Sure.  I love the empathy that’s built with your constituents and the city members at large by you taking the bus and walking and riding bikes and whatever for a month and not really using your car.  I mean, that’s—you really can’t replace that. And I’m sure that makes you a better councilperson by having that empathy with the rest of the city, with some folks who choose to walk or choose to take the bus and some folks who don’t have that choice and are doing that because of other reasons.

Addison: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So let’s maybe segue towards your career here a little bit.  So I know your background there; you actually worked at the city for a while in innovation and technology.  And I guess you helped implement SeeClickFix in Richmond—is that correct—and a bunch of other projects and how to bring technology to bear for the public without letting technology take over.  And so I remember Gabe Klein, who is a former advisor at TransLoc. I understand you have a relationship with him as well. You’ve known him for a while from work now with Cityfi.  

Addison: I do.  

Cohen: But as the former Washington D.C. director of transportation he argued that in the ’60s cities fell in love with the technology at the time, which was the car, and that led to some negative externalities.  Right? And Richmond is a great example of that. My town of Durham, North Carolina is very similar, where you have highways that bisect the cities and bisect those communities and really create some car-dependency in the suburbs.  And so I’m curious how from your experience as kind of a technologist and also as a councilperson how you balance innovation with the needs of the community and ensuring that we don’t fall in love with technology for technology’s sake.  

Addison: So, yeah.  I worked in city government in Richmond for about eight years and through the duration of that career kind of created this role as civic innovator.  And it was a title that I kind of formulated with some peers of mine in Boston and Philadelphia and other cities around the country around, you know, “What is this job of innovating government really mean?”  And so I kind of hashtagged my brand of civic innovator as, you know, I’m just trying to bring best practices and new ways of thinking into how government operate.  

And I believe that innovation truly is at the intersection of where data, technology, and people intersect.  And I think that’s where you start seeing empowering change. And so for me everything around with this new technology age to me is focused on achieving that collision point, where I have the right information, I’m leveraging either access or utilization of that data with the people that matter to it or either engage with it directly or are impacted by what it says.  And so for me that’s one of the key parts and facets of what I’ve done.  

And that started back to one of the points you made about my implementation with SeeClickFix, which was—you know, SeeClickFix was a great way to get people to communicate issues and needs of services from their neighborhood and streets to city government so they could respond, but with that created this whole black hole of work orders.  And, you know, SeeClickFix only has a couple response points of which the city can respond. And the challenge is that the government services and operations of each type of service request didn’t quite match. And so my job was, “How do I take the request from a citizen and the work order from a staff and make them connect so that we can communicate better back and forth?”  Well, that’s not technology; that’s just communication.

Cohen: Right.

Addison: That’s just sharing good information together.  Technology wasn’t the answer. And one of the things I think came out of that too is that was in early, like, 2011, 2012 when that came out, and then as things progressed we started getting into the quote-unquote “there’s-an-app-for-that mentality” where I need an app to do everything, you know, “I need an app for this and that.”  And one of the best, I think, learning lessons I had was you can do the app you’re talking about using Excel. You don’t need an app for it.  

Cohen: Yeah.

Addison: And I think that was important because you don’t need technology all the time.  

Cohen: Yeah.

Addison: We can do things just with the right information and data.  And so I really worked on trying to elevate conversations around equity by focusing on building empathy with the people that are impacted first and then creating technology that’s useful or creating opportunities to access new data or create new information that supports the goals we’re trying to achieve.  And I focus a lot on improving access to healthcare, economic development, and, as you can probably tell, now my foray politically is working on doing this for safe traversing of a city by pedestrian, bike, scooter, multimodal transportation options, the whole. And connecting all those dots together is important.  

And so, for me, taking that experience working in government, working with Code for America, IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, a civic tech company like SeeClickFix and using that experience today has really, I think, simplified and streamlined what I’m trying to achieve, which is just, “Hey, if we just connected the dots and used the data for our buses, their stops, their frequency, connected that with scooters and maybe some bikeshare, as well as looking at some of the utility aspects of our bike lanes and some traffic counting things, we can start really seeing a big piece of who is going where, when, and how and what that says to us as our city moves from sunrise to sunset and then even in the evenings.”  And right now I don’t think we have a good understanding or sense of that.  

Cohen: Sure.  

Addison: And it’s not meant to say that there’s new information or data needed, but having the power of that information in the hands of decision makers such as myself and the mayor and the administration can allow for us to perceive and pursue funding opportunities or staffing opportunities or invest in resources that make it better.  And I think that’s the biggest challenge facing cities today, is connecting all those dots takes a lot of work. And connecting those dots in a way that’s meaningful and empowering is a challenge, I think, facing most 21st-century cities.  

And it’s kind of like a smart city 2.0.  It’s kind of evolving us to the place where, you know, to really drive this change, technology is a key part of it, but it’s not the answer.  The answer is the people and how they use that information and the technology that gives them the vehicle to either create it or use it better.  

Cohen: Excellent.  Excellent. Well, it’s an exciting time to be in Richmond.  I’m excited to hear what the results of your proposals are. You’ve introduced part of it already.  Is that correct?  

Addison: Yeah.  I passed several of the ordinances and resolutions.  Currently I have a couple that are pending further feedback.  One is from the state, and we’re having a response from the state of Virginia and our department of transportation, but then the other piece is going to come from working with our other Safe and Healthy Streets Commission to review some of our recommendations and make better improvements.  

Cohen: Excellent.  So thank you so much, Andreas, for joining me on The Movement, and I appreciate your leadership, and keep up the good work.

Addison: Hey, thank you.  I appreciate that.  Thank you so much.  

Cohen: All right. 

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 TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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