Share on Social

Episode 75 guest Suzanne Carlson

If we want to overcome systemic racism as well as COVID-19 financial impacts, Tennessee Department of Transportation Multimodal Services Director Suzanne Carlson believes we’ll need not individual leaders, but a network of great leaders communicating and supporting each other.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Carlson: Suzanne Carlson

Cohen: My guest today, Suzanne Carlson, spent four years of her career in Memphis, Tennessee where the city experienced considerable demographic change after the 1960s, resulting in a Frankenstein transit system that kept getting added onto as the city expanded. You’ll hear how they prioritized their community needs in a system redesign, coming up next on The Movement podcast. 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, Suzanne Carlson, is the Multimodal Transportation Resources Division Director for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. I’ve known Suzanne for a number of years, starting back when she was the transportation and sustainability program manager for Innovate Memphis. Prior to her work in Memphis, Suzanne worked at the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Public Schools. Welcome to The Movement, Suzanne.

Carlson: Thank you. Great to be here.

Cohen: Well, good. Well, maybe just give us an introduction to what your role is with the department of transportation and what you’re hoping to do there.

Carlson: So now I’m at—I moved to Nashville from Memphis, and I work for the State of Tennessee. So as multimodal division director we manage the transit program, so mostly federal transit grants that are coming into the state and going out to our agencies, and then supporting the agencies and keeping them in compliance and basically managing the grant funds, state and federal grant funds that come to them. And then we also do the multimodal planning that work to increase bike and pedestrian facilities across the state.

And I couldn’t tell you how many lane miles we have, but that’s a fairly large job. And some parts of Tennessee—where I live in Nashville we actually don’t have sidewalks. So there are some places where you would think intuitively you might have sidewalks, and they weren’t always built with the infrastructure the first time around. So it’s a pretty large task to think about the investment in pedestrian infrastructure.

Cohen: Yeah. I mean, obviously, doing that on a statewide level when you talk about, say, sidewalks, how much of that is at the local level versus the work you need to do at the state level? I guess, my hypothesis would be a lot of that would be at the local level; so what’s your role at the state level as it relates to ped stuff?

Carlson: Right. So the sidewalks themselves would be. Those typically are the local responsibility. So TDOT would be more the corridors and the state highway network. So in that case it’s more about thinking about side paths or bike lane, bike facilities; and then in some of the urban parts of the state the less friendly, shall we say, roadways are along the state routes. I think that is where we see a lot of our ped crashes in particular, along the state routes. So there it’s a matter of looking at the design, and as we have opportunities to improve designs, making them safer.

We do get some highway safety program funding, so we’re looking to make pedestrian improvements along state highways. And I wish we could move some of those more quickly. It’s hard to see some of the pedestrian crash rates and know that we have to get through a bit of a long process at the state with federal dollars to make some of those improvements.

Cohen: Do you have a sense yet on what kind of impact COVID is going to have on your state budget?

Carlson: We have looked at it. We’re, as you would imagine, heavily reliant on gas tax for TDOT. And we’re a pay-as-you-go state as well, so for better or worse, probably for better in that we don’t really bond for our road building. We do it through gas tax collections. So in 2017, I believe it was, the state passed the IMPROVE Act to increase the gas tax to start addressing a backlog of highway projects that people wanted built. So we’ve had a pretty steady revenue stream, but we’ve also had a long list of projects to get through. So I’m thinking that what will happen is we’ll be able to cut back either the schedule or the amount of projects that we’ve got on the list so that through addressing some of the construction budget we’ll be able to meet the decline in revenues.

That said, we also have a hiring freeze. So we have a hiring freeze across the state. From a mobility standpoint it will be interesting to see—so sales tax, which transit is very reliant on across the country, I think are really going to be suffering; and transit agencies are going to have decreasing revenues. So if you’re relying on a gas tax, are we going to have more people driving because people are not wanting to be in enclosed spaces with other people? Where I want us to go? I mean, for revenue sake, it’s great. I think from climate change impacts and mobility choices and things like that, that’s not great. But, I think, it remains to be seen where gas taxes are—which direction they’ll go.

Cohen: Yeah. I know, in North Carolina we’ve got a commission that the department of transportation has put together called the North Carolina FIRST Commission, which is trying to explore how to navigate what the future is going to look like especially with more electric vehicles and so forth, because we’re dependent on the gas tax as well. And I don’t think we’ve actually increased it recently unlike Tennessee, so I think we’re really in a bind there as it relates to revenues that we have to apply to all the transportation projects of the state. And I know we’ve also gotten hit hard by hurricanes and the impact that’s had on some of our state roads has definitely been an issue that, I think, a lot of state department of transportations are having to navigate as well.

Carlson: Yeah. I think the hiring freeze may impact our ability to decrease cost in some places, because I’m looking to expand my staff around new types of mobility. And if I’m not able to build up new expertise around that, that’s going to be really hard to think about how we do spend taxpayer dollars under a quickly changing environment that we’re living through.

Cohen: Oh, my gosh; yeah. I think that’s always a challenge in the public sector, especially if you’re dealing with depressed salaries and so forth, is how do you attract some folks. Obviously you’re always going to have the folks that are kind of believing in the bigger picture and the role that a great state and local government can play in making the lives better for everyone in the community, but if you can’t hire those people, if you can’t even make those jobs competitive, that’s definitely going to make it hard. And, again, I know the State of North Carolina is dealing with some similar stuff there as well, so.

Well, I want to maybe turn to something else which I—you know, I think I’d be remised to say that with all this going on, on top of COVID, obviously, I know that systemic racism that has shaped our cities and communities and how they’ve been built over the years—I know North Carolina has been shaped by that. Certainly in Durham we had the Durham Freeway, which destroyed an African American community called Hayti when it was put in in the ’60s. And so I’m curious at a state level how you are acknowledging and even addressing some of these issues and the systemic racism that has undoubtedly impacted Tennessee as well and then of course what that means for mobility for as many people as possible in our communities.

Carlson: Yeah, it’s a huge and important question that so many of us are grappling with right now, and I’m glad to see that we’ve been sort of invited into this conversation through some really tragic events. George Floyd’s murder and the protest that have ensued after that, I think, have really opened up the opportunity to start having some conversations. Having worked in Memphis for about four and a half years, I think I had some background already talking about race and equity and the long-term impacts, because Memphis is a majority African-American city, and it’s one of the poorest, highest-poverty-rate cities in the U.S. So those issues are real; they’re happening every day, so you can’t really work in Memphis without working on equity issues and when you’re working, as I was, around transit and transportation choices.

We did do a big transit project to reinvent what transit looked like. So, as listeners probably know, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis in 1968. And the land-use patterns were dramatically impacted because white people left the center of the city, and the economic resources kind of followed and left the center of the city too. And there’s a lot that’s happened over time, but really it led to being a very sprawled, spread-out city, which makes it more expensive to provide services, particularly transit that gets out to every corner of that city. So we took a look at the transit map and some of the historic choices that had been made. And it sort of ends up being like the tax code; you make a new choice every year, and by the time you get 20, 30 years down the line you’ve got such a complicated system.

So we really wanted to simplify the transit map and make it relevant to where people live and work today. So we did a long project around that with really good outreach to African American communities, bus riders, and low-income people we had overrepresented on our surveys. So I think that was really important to talk about that and to try to elevate transit in terms of the funding choices that the community was making. I’ve been at TDOT about a year now, so we haven’t been having those same kind of conversations. But once the protests started happening a few weeks ago I have had some conversations with my staff and invited them to talk about what’s happening, how we feel about it, what our role is, how race and systemic bias impacts our work. So we started those conversations, and I’m glad to say that TDOT leadership has been having a lunch series as well.

We’ve had two out of four conversations, and the fourth one is supposed to end up in an action plan for management. So I’ll be really interested to see what kind of choices we can make and what kind of support we as leaders within the agency can get to start looking at data and making changes and what that’ll look like in the organization. I don’t know yet, but I’m definitely excited to be a part of that conversation.

Cohen: You know, I think this is kind of like peeling back the onion a little bit, that once you start digging into this stuff, I mean, there’s just so much there. And these choices that have been made, some unfortunately were very direct and overt and some were maybe a little bit less overt but still impactful in how they limited mobility. And so I appreciate y’all taking those steps to kind of help address this issue. And obviously this is going to be something that is going to be bigger than any one organization; it’s going to require a lot of work from a lot of different organization, but I appreciate the work that y’all are taking to move in that direction.

You know, you mentioned Memphis and your experience there. It is such a huge city. And, you know, I remember just from our time working with Memphis just how hard it was to serve that city because of how big it was geographically and then kind of what the different pockets of employment centers and so forth were. I don’t know what time period this was, but I remember kind of these conversations about serving the area near the airport and how to serve that area and so forth. I guess I’m curious; as part of that process that you mentioned in 2017 that you worked on there, was part of that conversation really asking the question, “Who is this service for? What are we trying to provide?” Right?

Because I feel like this is kind of a tension that different transit systems and different communities kind of wrestle with, which is, “Are we providing this service for the people that need it most? Are we providing it as a tool for tourists to move around our center city? Are we providing it for suburban, mostly affluent commuters to come into the city?” Like, was that part of that conversation when you were going through that process there in Memphis to really try to tease out, like, what do we really want this organization to provide, or what service are we really trying to do, or what is our outcome that we’re really prioritizing over other outcomes? Was that part of that process?

Carlson: Well, it’s interesting that you ask that, because the answer is no; we overtly did not talk about who transit was for because high-quality transit should serve everybody. And, I think, we had seen it for so long as being the choice for the least among us and being something you only use if you have to and being a service for people without means. And, I think, once you start to think about your public service in that light, you don’t treat it with respect and you don’t invest in it the way you should potentially. And, again, I don’t think people do that on purpose, but when you think about it as “those other people” and, “I don’t really recognize them, and I don’t really know them,” it’s hard to make, I think, investment decisions that really elevate the role of transit.

So we really just talked about where transit is useful, where do people live and where do people work. It’s hard to do that without the land-use conversation. We actually did it as part of the comprehensive plan, which hadn’t been done for 30 years, so thinking about where we want growth to go in the future, thinking about where we want to put the transit routes as well. But the idea being that if you increase the frequency, put more transit where more people and more jobs can be served by it, you can make that transit much higher quality. So when I was talking about the IRS tax code, the transit map looking like this complicated map, a lot of historic decisions had been made because you wanted to make sure to hit that one business that was over here or this one apartment complex that was here. But the way the land use has evolved, those might just be the only location that’s really meaningful in that part of the route, and that might have made two left turns to get over to that area.

So kind of straightening out some of those routes, making it faster for everyone, and then the person who might be going to the hypothetical apartment complex is walking that extra block rather than the bus taking them there. So those were some of the things we were looking at. In our outreach we made sure to be talking to riders particularly and to be making sure we had good representation across communities and making sure that we did that in person and in transit centers and not just online. But I think what we actually did was get away from the conversation of who it was for, because that assumption already existed, and so we wanted to change it and say, “It could be for anyone. It could be for people of means. We could have a great transit system that’s useful throughout more sections of our society.”

Cohen: I guess, by taking that approach of really saying, “Where are the people currently and where are the jobs?” I think by the very nature you’re certainly benefitting those that are in denser environments or need to go to areas that are job centers. Right? So that’s probably going to, by its nature, the denser parts of Memphis. Because, again, I take your point; I think your point is right. I guess, I’m trying to square that with the fact that you’ve got—you know, you could say, “All right. We’ve got some service out here that’s going to service this wealthier area versus this service that’s going to serve this poor area.” They both can be good transit, but, I mean, is there a desire to say, like, “What do we want the outcomes to be?”

Carlson: Yeah. In practice, it did not happen that way. There were no routes that chose a wealthier community over a less wealthy community. If anything, I think we had gotten in the habit of thinking of people who—so transit in Memphis started working for fewer and fewer people. It’s just it’s infrequent; the routes have a lot of deviations; and it doesn’t come very often. For an example, I would have to walk over a half-mile on one end or the other or both and get a bus that maybe comes every 45 minutes. So, I think, what we had lost sight of is how many people are no longer riders. So we certainly want to protect the routes that are there for people who use it and value transit today; and then how can we put transit back so that we start getting people back?

And in our analysis those are the same kind of people; those are still African Americans; those are still low-wage people. It’s just starting to serve more people because it’s becoming more useful. So we did the analysis of how many residents and how many jobs would have access, and then, of course, we broke that down by different types of populations as well. So, I guess, one important thing to ad to your point is we didn’t want to take anything away. So once we did that, the way we did our system—and I should mentioned that we worked with Jarrett Walker + Associates. I think, they’re really good at thinking this through. And their terminology is ridership versus coverage. So do you want to put your routes where it serves the most people, or do you want to put your routes where you’re going out to some of those maybe further away places that are more expensive routes to provide and providing coverage that gets that—you know, let’s just keep saying that one apartment community. Right? Making sure you still have coverage that gets to those folks.

So what we decided once we went through that exercise was we did want a higher-ridership system; we wanted more investment in more frequent transit, but we didn’t want to leave anyone behind. So we needed $30 million more money because we wanted to leave the framework and the mass that was already there. We didn’t want to tell people, “Hey. We’re spending more money, but you just lost service in your community.” So we wanted to say, “You still have service in your community, and now we’re going to make it better.” And really that’s where Memphis is at with transit, is they need to lay resources on top of what they have today.

Cohen: Well, yeah. And what I love about the approach that you talked about with the ridership vs. coverage is that, you know, there’s not really a right answer other than what the community determines is the right answer.

Carlson: Right.

Cohen: You know, so that’s where it really comes in mind back to this engagement and how you’re engaging with that community, because, you know, in some communities it might be ridership is what the community decides they want to prioritize, and in other communities it might be coverage. So I like that kind of using that lens as a way to look at this.

I want to kind of wrap up here. I guess we probably have time for one more question here, which is I’m curious from the perspective of leaders that have inspired you. And that could be inside of mobility; that could be outside of mobility. But I’m curious; like, who has really resonated with you from a leadership standpoint? And then I’m also curious why.

Carlson: [LAUGHS] So, for me—and this might just be how I think—I’m not sure that the moment we’re in right now is as much about individual leadership. I certainly follow thought leaders and people who are powerful speakers and people who can meaningfully explain a problem or a solution, but I think the reason we have a moment to make progress around social justice is that we’ve got leaders in every city in the country; we’ve got people on the streets in every community who are willing to take that on and invest their time and their energy. So it seems to me that waiting for or looking for those couple of leaders, in that case at least, is not what we need. I think, we need to diffuse that leadership and make sure that it continues happening; even if one person isn’t able to stay in the game, the next person is there to take over.

On mobility, I would say it’s similar in a way because, of course, we’re all working in each state and each city across the country. But I think sharing practices is one thing. And this is what you and I worked on together really in Memphis, is, “What are the best practices?” How do you roll something out? In a community, we don’t all need to keep making it up; we should take what already works. So for best practices, I’m originally from Seattle, so I always look to Seattle. I think they do really fantastic things, and they’ve been very thoughtful. Washington State DOT, now that I’m at a DOT level, I think they’ve been ahead of the game about looking at mobility differently. And, of course, Massachusetts DOT as well is starting to redefine that.

So a lot of our DOTs think of ourselves as highway systems, but this is not the only way or always the best way depending where you are for people to get around. So if we can really start thinking about ourselves as, “What does mobility mean in our communities in the state?” I think that’s where we make some change. So I would say for me it’s a little bit more around sort of that peer sharing and learning the best practices and sort of applying that. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m always listening to the radio and speeches and conferences and things and hearing what people are thinking about, but I think it’s more of the aggregate of the work that we all do.

Cohen: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. And I like the peer-sharing part of that. Well, Suzanne, thank you so much for giving us a little introduction into some of the work you’re doing there not only at the Tennessee Department of Transportation but also some of the work you’ve done in Memphis along the way as well to help bring more mobility to more folks in our community. So thank you so much for joining me.

Carlson: Absolutely. Thank you.

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 Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.