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Episode 85 guest Dr. Tom Sanchez

Dr. Tom Sanchez has spent over two decades studying how to create more liveable cities. In that time, he’s learned that the traditional ways we’ve approached problem-solving hasn’t worked, and it’s time for experts of all areas to combine their knowledge to create the equitable cities that work for everyone.


Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Sanchez: Dr. Tom Sanchez

Jensen: Having spent more than 20 years as a professor of urban affairs and planning and authoring several books on equity in transportation in planning, Dr. Tom Sanchez believes that the silos in which we make decisions are affecting the quality of service and goods we’re able to deliver to people, and to change this we’ll need to alter the way we think about our systems. I’m L’erin Jensen, and this is The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right; but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts, Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Jensen: Our gest today is Dr. Tom Sanchez, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech University and the author of several books including The Right to Transportation, Moving to Equity, and Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity. Welcome to the podcast, Dr. Sanchez.

Sanchez: Thank you, L’erin. Great to be here. Looking forward to our conversation.

Jensen: Let’s just start by getting to know you a little bit. If you could just tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into and what sparked your interest in urban but specifically transportation planning and research.

Sanchez: Well, my original academic interests were around the environment, and fortunately I ran into a professor that taught urban planning. And I was really drawn to the use of planning and decision-making kind of in the realm of protecting or better managing the environment. And so through his influence I decided to go back to school to graduate school in urban planning. And while I was there I started working with a nonprofit housing corporation, and that kind of enhanced my experiences around planning, around housing, around development.

And I finished there, and I started working with a for-profit developer, which was really kind of an interesting transition; but what that did for me was comparing kind of the non-profit approach with the for-profit approach on residential development and then comparing that to what I had learned in school. And didn’t seem to match up very well. It was like, you know, “Why are we building where we are? What are the impacts [ph][2:34]? You know, why is this happening the way that it’s happening?” And so I went back to school for my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and it was there that I got [INAUDIBLE] interested in mobility. So I was interested in land use and land development and kind of, you know, the special dimension of that as well as the social impacts, but then the mobility part really became interesting to me.

And so then I was looking at the social equity part of transportation and movement patterns. And, at the time, like, in the early ’90s there really wasn’t much discussion about transport equity. It really kind of fell for the most part under—a little bit under social equity. Some of the literature was on equity around urban services, not transport in particular, even though Dr. Bob Bullard had already been doing some work around equity in his work about the location of industrial plants down in the South and the discriminatory impacts of those. And so pretty much over, you know, the last 25 or more years that my interest in looking at the question of fairness related to mobility and cities has—you know, I’ve been just trying to learn more about that and been conducting research on that.

And, you know, I’ll say I’ve probably generated more questions than answers for myself on how we do this or what this means, even the basic question of, you know, if we’re talking about cities, what does a fair city look like. We have an equity plan. How do we know if we’re actually accomplishing that?

Jensen: You’ve done a lot of this research on equity in transportation and, I think, particularly racial equity. So in what ways does transportation but particularly public transit create those inequitable communities? Is it simply bad design we’re talking about, or is it bad public policy?
Sanchez: Well, you know, two books in particular with Marc Brenman who is really an incredible expert on equity issues around transport. He worked in civil rights, the federal government, and also state-government level. But we wrote A Right to Transportation together as well as Planning as if People Matter. And equity is a bit of a moving target. You know, cities grow and change over time, and equitable distribution of benefits or costs, for that matter, shift over time as well. So, you know,  [INAUDIBLE] about this especially over the last couple of years is in terms of transport, is it appropriate for us to say, you know, “We have an equitable transport system,” when the underlying structure of the city or the community itself is inequitable or unfair? And so for trying to build equitable transportation on top of a segregated city that’s, you know, the legacy of other actions that have been taken, what can we expect as far as positive outcomes from that?

So we’re trying to stitch together this community and create stronger connections of opportunity throughout a city or throughout a region; however, you know, is that really kind of a—is that just treating the symptom rather than the real problem? And I know this goes outside of transport, but, like, you know, I was listening to one of the podcasts with Rob Puentes where he was talking about kind of transportation for transportation’s sake and transportation planners and experts talking to other transportation planners and experts about transportation things. And, you know, so that raises in my mind, “Are we separating out these systems too much that we’re not making the connections or we’re not looking at transport as the service that it is that allows us to do other things like get to school, get to work, get to healthcare locations, you know, use the whole urban space?” because a lot more of the trips that we take on a daily basis are not just for work. And that seems to be how we focus a lot of our accessibility and mobility planning.

So anyhow, just that idea of, you know, how we look at systems, the housing system, the transport system, the environmental system, other public services; is there another way for us to pull those together so that we’re really looking at the totality, so that we’re really looking at the system as an organisms that needs all these parts working together? In the human body we just don’t focus on the vascular system and say, “Okay. Well, you know, we’ll just take care of that, and the organs will do their own thing.” You know? We think about the heart and the brain, you know, and the lungs and the muscular system need that blood and need that circulation and need that mobility, if you will. But I know in part we break it down into systems in order to kind of simplify and specialize how we look at the functions of a city. But then on the flipside of it, I think, we’re missing out in terms of the solutions that we’re proposing.

You know, the home-to-school connection; you know, we’ve got our history. In terms of federal policy, it’s been about getting people from home to work and in some cases kind of a reverse commute pattern, which, you know, again, is a symptom of underlying segregation and discrimination. So anyhow, you know, it’s this system of systems, but is that the best approach? Is that our best—you know, is that the right way for us to be looking at it?

Jensen: This is something that has come up on The Movement a lot recently, and it’s something—I know that you’ve written about housing policy as well. I attended MOVE America 2020 virtually yesterday, one of the sessions; and one of the panelists in the session I was watching spoke about the link of transportation to economic development, that it’s ignored often. So I guess my question for you is how do we then break down those silos of those systems to work better together, to have a more equitable transportation system but also, you know, get rid of the segregation? Like, how do we go about fixing all of that? Because that’s—it’s a loaded question, and it’s a lot to do, but how do we get there?

Sanchez: Yeah. But, no, that is the question; you know, how do we put the intelligence that’s out there related to housing, related to economic development in investments that we’re making in, you know, public health and education? I would say, you know, those are the foundation elements of vibrant communities. But I’m thinking more and more, even though my interest kind of came out of movement and mobility and what that means for opportunity, and I’m really wondering if underneath that, let’s say, we provide adequate housing for everyone. Let’s say, we provide great education for all of our residents. What if everybody has healthcare, so we’re—you know, and so we’re meeting really those fundamental needs. Are we going to have people that are still going to be in kind of dire need of these other services, you know, kind of that make or break their existence on whether they can get to their job or not?

And we’ve seen examples of that where people have lost their—either it’s been through transit cuts or due to some other circumstances, they’ve lost their access to a car in their household, and they’ve lost their job. Then what happens, not only to their economic wellbeing but if they had healthcare benefits tied to that, you know, if their supporting their kids and getting their schools? Then that unravels. So, you know, that’s the question, is, you know, we’ve got these connections between transport and all of the other things that we do in our daily lives; how do we consider those really as a whole?

We like to specialize, especially academics. You know, that’s what we try to do, is we really try to be an expert on the narrowest possible thing. And hopefully those, you know, all of those small pieces come together to answer important question. But I think it may be a time to reframe that and say, “Maybe the most, you know, better way we can bring this intelligence together is really in a very different structure.”

Jensen: So whose job do we think that is to answer that question or to solve that problem? Is it on the academics; is it on our politicians; is it on the community members? Who does this responsibility fall on?

Sanchez: This is kind of a simple way to put it, but, I think, it’s everybody’s. So then what does that mean? From an intelligence standpoint, how do we draw together that best information? Hopefully on the academic side we’re generating new knowledge. On the community side, we’ve got residents of our communities that know what they need and have good ideas. And then on the policy side, you know, we have people that have to make decisions about these things and trade-offs and have to prioritize these things. How do we pull together that knowledge in the best possible way to the benefit of the city, to the benefit of the community?

And a lot of—I’ve been listening to a few things over the last few days about the importance of transport to the economy. It’s like, “Well, who is the economy?” What are we talking about? Are we talking about overall economic output? Who exactly does that benefit? Because if I’m working at a community or a neighborhood scale, I want to know how a household is helped. I want to know how somebody who needs a job is helped. And just by saying kind of this umbrella term of “the economy” or “economic development,” I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that because evidence shows that a good deal of economic growth moves to the top and not to the bottom. This whole trickledown—I’m sorry—that’s been disproven.

Jensen: Absolutely. I think that’s a great point, and I think that’s why people like you and others in mobility leadership do the work that they do to try to figure out how do we make it more equitable, how do we remove some of those layers and distribute things more evenly. Like you said, it’s not just about getting people to work; people have homes, and they need to get to school and access healthcare. I think, a lot of that get’s ignored in the meantime. But so we’ve got a lot of questions. You said, you know, in your 25 years of researching urban affairs and planning you’ve come up with more questions than you have answers. You currently teach a class called The Future of Smart Cities. What does the future of smart cities look like?

Sanchez: The class is Future of Cities. Our hope is that those cities are smart, but that’s kind of the question that we pose to students. And, I think, really our objective for the class came out of—typically in urban planning classes, when we’re talking about the future, we’re talking about maybe five or 10 years, you know, or whatever our planning framework happens to be. And usually for budgeting purposes and decision-making, that’s about—you know, that’s as far as we can go. But do we spend enough time thinking about, “Hey, where are we really going? What’s the long-term vision?”

If we are taking into account trends in social issues or dynamics, if we’re looking at trends in technology, if we’re looking at trends in information systems, you know, whatever it might be, where do we think these are really kind of going? And one piece of that, I think, that will be added now is this whole idea of how are we going to handle epidemics. You know, among public health professionals that’s been on their radar, but, I think, among planners, you know, we’ve had—there have been some researchers around planning that have focused on public health and those things, but now it’s we realize, “Look what that did to whole cities, to whole regions, to the whole country for that matter.” And we’ve got some things to rethink.

So really the class itself is to urge students to say, “Here are some of the predictions that have been made from the past. Some have been way off. Some have actually been pretty good. But how do we start thinking a little more creatively and innovatively about what the future might look like?” especially as we think about goals and objectives and kind of what quality of life can mean. You know, unfortunately we’re not able to answer the question about what the future of cities is, but really, I think, a big part of the exercise is, you know, we really need to be thinking more long-term rather than just being reactive, which sometimes is a lot of what we do in the name of planning.

But I think that we’re at an interesting point in our history around cities. And there has been a lot of talk about smart cities and better harnessing intelligence in cities. And I think that that’s something that we really need to focus our attention on; how can we bring together these disciplines? We see this happening to a degree. The computer scientists, the engineers, the urban planners, the architects, how do we bring them together in a real collaborative fashion and try to break down the turf, kind of the intellectual turf that’s been built between those disciplines and say, “What are we really trying to accomplish here? What is a quality environment? What does that mean? What does an equitable city look like?”

You know, put our best thinking into that in a real collaborative way, even reaching out obviously beyond the academics and say, “What do we want this to look like? Not only at places we live, but the planet that we live on, what do we want that to look like in the future and for our kids’ future?” because those decisions, as we’ve seen with climate change, those decisions that had been made decades past are now our problem, and we’re doing the same thing right now for future decades and future generations. So that’s the question. How do we bring better thinking together on these topics? Because I don’t think we’re there right now, and we’ve seen other areas in science. Particularly we’ve made, like, you know, incredible, incredible innovation. Why can’t we do the same thing for cities and for social equity within those places?

Jensen: I think, the answer there is that that’s the difference between the natural sciences and social sciences. Right? You’re dealing with things that are observable. And the social sciences are observable too, but human behavior isn’t static in the same way the natural sciences are. You know, you do something over and over again and 99% of the time you get the same results. You know, you have anomalies, and that’s how evolution works and, you know, mutations and whatnot; but with the social sciences that’s not what you’re doing. You’re studying human behavior, and people have their own self-interests, and that doesn’t always align with the social interest. But hopefully one day we will get there.

Sanchez: But doesn’t that sound like just the most incredible, fascinating question? How do we understand people and cities as organisms? I mean, if there’s a challenge out there, I mean, you know, that really—you know, that seems pretty incredible to me. But I think the issue that we’re faced there is cities aren’t a priority. And why is that? You know, why do we let our infrastructure crumble, and why don’t we maintain these places?
One of the other podcasts with Beth Osborne, she was talking about, “You know, we like to build the new project. There’s not as much enthusiasm about maintaining what we have.” I’d like to see cities and the places we live be the priority. I’d like to see that rise to the level of kind of intellectual pursuit that we’ve seen in other areas of technology. So we’ll see what happens.

Jensen: Where can people find more about your work?

Sanchez: My Twitter is @TomWSanchez. And, you know, a lot of things that I focus on there are around planning and also around planning research and knowledge. And then also on my website, where I kind of blog and keep examples of my work there.

Jensen: Well, thank you so much for being my first guest. [LAUGHS] Appreciate it. You take care.

Sanchez: All right. Thank you.

Jensen: Bye-bye.

Sanchez: Bye.

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.