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Episode 95 guest Daniel Firth

Daniel Firth has spent his career helping communities around the world study and implement congestion pricing, one of the most politically challenging transportation tools available. One of the most critical lessons he’s learned can be applied beyond congestion pricing: start with why.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Firth: Daniel Firth

Cohen: It’s not often that a podcast guest quotes both a Swedish prime minister and the Spice Girls. If you’ve been waiting patiently for that, today’s your lucky day as Daniel Firth of C40 Cities joins me now on 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.

Cohen: Our guest today is Daniel Firth, program director of transportation and urban planning for C40 Cities. Prior to this role, Daniel worked at TransLink in Vancouver on their mobility pricing policy, the City of Stockholm Department of Transportation as the Chief Strategy Officer and the traffic and technology manager for congestion charging for Transport for London. Welcome to The Movement, Daniel.

Firth: Thank you, Josh. It’s great to be here.

Cohen: Well, I want to start with this congestion charging and pricing. That’s certainly been something that you’ve played key roles in in, I think, three different locations at various stages of that process in Stockholm and London and Vancouver. So I’m curious. You know, that’s something that here in the U.S. we don’t have as much experience in, so I’m curious what you’ve learned in those various stops that you think could be valuable.

Firth: You’re right. I had a kind of a key role or a big role at least in these three cities looking at their congestion pricing systems by level, so kind of been an—advised a bunch of different cities. And nobody wants to be the first at doing anything, so they often bring us in, people who have done this before, to give a bit of advice or help out or present or something. So I’ve probably been involved in discussions in maybe 20, 30 cities around the world in the last 20 years or so.

Cohen: Wow.

Firth: And I’d love to be able to say, as I would love to be able to say to all of them, “There’s a magic formula, and follow these magic steps, and pay me to do it, and we’ll fix it for you,” but it’s really way more complicated than that, obviously. And it really requires—and I think we’ll get on to this later, but it requires a lot of stars to align politically and in terms of legislation and technology and public acceptance and all kinds of things. So it’s exactly when those stars are going to align in your city is going to be a very local question. All politics is local; right? So but I think there’s a few things that cities can do to make sure that when those stars do align you’re ready to move quickly. And you will need to move quickly because those stars are not going to stay aligned for too long, and this is—it’s a bit of a process you need to go through.

So I think maybe the biggest thing is to be really clear about why you want to do a form of pricing. As you said, sometimes it’s congestion pricing; sometimes it’s road usage charging, it’s low-emission zones, vehicle access restrictions. In Swedish we say that beloved children have lots of names, and I’m not sure this is a beloved child, but it certainly has lots of names, so trying to tie it down is really difficult. So be really clear about why you want to do it. What is it you want to achieve? And some people will sort of tell you, “You need to have one objective.” I’m not sure that’s quite true. This is a bit of a Swiss Army knife; it can do a bunch of different things. So you can have different goals, but you need to be clear that they’re at some point going to be in conflict with each other. So you need to be really clear about what the tradeoffs are going to be in that.

You need to be clear this is part of a broader strategy. This thing on its own is not going to fix anything, but together with lots of other things it’s—I like to talk about it as the—that kind of it’s the glue that will hold together lots of the other things that we need to do in cities to make them work properly, so making our transit work properly, making them better for walking and cycling, increasing density, you know, all the other bread-and-butter stuff that we’re all trying to do in our cities to make transit better. Congestion pricing doesn’t replace those, but it maybe makes them work a lot better. It’s the glue that hold them together, or maybe it’s the oil that makes that engine work better or the gears on your bike rather.

But I think that there are kind of two big, kind of strategic pieces. I think the second is to say, “This question is really hard, and it’s full of lots of counterintuitives.” So I’ve been working on congestion pricing in one form or another for about 20 years, and I’m still learning stuff; there’s still stuff that I’m not quite getting my head around. And I think we need to be—um, what’s the word I’m looking for—we need to be open to the fact that lots of other people are going to need a long time to get their heads around this. So, for example, if you’re having an engagement process or a consultation, people are going to need quite a lot of information and quite a long kind of process to get to a point where they can give you the kind of input that you’re going to need in order to make this work better for everybody or work properly for everybody.

I think that’s going to be really important or difficult actually in the current climate where there is a lot of misleading information out there, and it’s very easy for all kinds of groups to get information out quickly. At the very least, that information is going to be incomplete. And I think we’re seeing some really interesting examples of that in London right now around the low-traffic neighborhoods and how kind of rumors are spreading really quickly and some—maybe not call it misinformation, is to exaggerate, but incomplete information at least; and kind of just getting everybody to the point where everybody is starting and having a discussion from the same starting point is going to be quite difficult.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that goes back to what you said before with just kind of starting from that clear understanding of what you want from this—right—

Firth: Yeah. Yeah.

Cohen: —why you’re doing this. And, I guess, from the standpoint of something like a congestion pricing project, I mean, you mentioned kind of this community engagement, if you will. You didn’t kind of explicitly call that that, but that’s kind of what was underlying in that. And, I guess, the challenge with something like this is that the stakeholders are so broad. Right? It’s not just necessarily the city residents or the people that are within that sphere—right—but it’s people that might come into that sphere. Right? So in the City of London where you’ve got kind of fairly tight, it seems like, congestion pricing area it—you know, it’s getting all these people that might be traveling in from outside of the area that are also stakeholders that I assume you’d want to get some feedback from them, you know, positive or negative, as it relates to what the outcomes of this could be or how it could impact them.

Firth: Yeah, exactly. If you’re doing this in your country’s capital city or the largest city in your regions, then changes are it’s going to have an impact on pretty much everybody who owns or drives a car at some point in their lives. Even if they don’t travel to your city everyday, they’re maybe doing it once or twice a year, and it’s going to have an impact on them. And understanding what that impact is and how you can at least take account of that in the tradeoffs that you’re making, that doesn’t necessarily mean you make lots of accommodations for that, but at least understanding and making conscious decisions about the impacts this going to have on people. So I sometimes talk about congestion pricing as, you know, “It’s just another tool in the toolbox of transportation,” and it is, but it’s a pretty big, hefty tool. It’s a very powerful tool, and you need to be making sure that you’re really understanding a lot of these impacts that you’re having for all kinds of stakeholder groups, as you say.

And, I think, this is kind of another of the really big lessons, I guess, that I would pass on, is that this requires a kind of greater cooperation between specialists and decision makers and stakeholders than we’re perhaps used to in certainly the transportation field. You know, if you’re building a metro line or changing a bus route or you’re building a highway or whatever, you will bring some evidence to decision makers, they will make a decision, and then you’ll build it. Here it’s a kind of series of iterations of bringing information. It’s telling them something about the costs and benefits. They will have lots of questions and will need to give you input into who they want to prioritize or not. You need to go back and go through a kind of a series of iterations where you are changing and refining this system so it’s delivering the benefits that people want.

So, for an example, the studies we were doing in Vancouver—and it was a pretty preliminary study—it only came to a conceptual level of what those pricing systems might be. I think, we went through three or four iterations just to get to that point.

Cohen: Wow.

Firth: I know colleagues who worked in Gothenburg took maybe 15 iterations of this going to decision makers, doing the homework with the experts, coming back go to decision makers, going out to stakeholders, kind of going through a series of refinements to get to a point where you’re really making those tradeoffs and being clear about which tradeoffs you’re making. Because it’s, you know, there are at the end of the day going to be people who gain from this and people who at least perceive that they are disbenefitting or losing from this.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah. And, I imagine, in order to be successful there, it might also be helpful from just an expectation-setting standpoint to really accept that—or maybe even to lay out at the beginning that this is going to be a long process, it’s going to be an iterative process; there are a lot of different stakeholders that, you know, are going to have very varied interests. You know, so it seems like in order to be successful, kind of having that level setting at the beginning probably would be a pretty important part of this as well. Is that fair?

Firth: Yeah, definitely. I think—I don’t think many cities have implemented this kind of within a short period of time. So London, which implemented this in 2003, the first proposals came out in the ’60s and were kind of discussed backwards and forwards and maybe not actively with the public, but, you know, there was a kind of a long gestation period to get to a point where those stars aligned and everybody had the information they needed and it was time to move. Stockholm was a slightly shorter period, but, again, it had been discussed as an idea since about the 1980s and then implemented in 2007, if I remember right, 2006, 2007. So, yeah, there’s a long process to get there.

There’s a lot of expectation setting. And I think one of the biggest expectation settings, which is maybe the hardest and maybe it’s the thing that usually creates the biggest intake of breath whenever I’m talking to people about this, is that you will almost never get majority support before you need to proceed and implement this. That’s clearly a very difficult position for a politician to be in. Politicians clearly want to have some kind of majority support before they can proceed with this. What tends to happen is when the idea first turns up you will have support for the idea of it and for the principle. “We want to reduce congestion.” You know, we can all get behind that as an idea. The more details that emerge and the more kind of “How much is this going to cost me?”—the local newspaper will take the average cost per day and multiply it by 365 and come out with a really big number. And then you’ve got a big sticker shock, and people are horrified, and the support will start to decline over time because it’s really easy for people to be very clear about the disbenefits in terms of cost, but these kind of benefits in terms of reduced congestion or reduced travel times are kind of esoteric and difficult to get your head around and difficult to—there’s maybe not a lot of acceptance that you can do anything about congestion. You know, it’s, “You’ll just move it somewhere else. What’s the point?”

So it’s kind of getting politicians to understand that there is going to be this what a colleague of mine calls “the valley of political death,” where you kind of need to get through it in order to get to the implementation. Then once implementation comes in, if you’ve done it right, if you’ve done your homework and you’re maximizing the benefits and making it easy for people to adapt and doing all the things you need to do, then generally support starts to come back. And we see this in pretty much every city that’s implemented some form of pricing. There’s an initial, “Yeah, this is nice idea,” a decline in support as you get closer to implementation. And then once it’s implemented and people see, you know, the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads, “the disbenefits aren’t as bad as I thought it was,” and actually this is doing quite a good job; it’s doing what it said it was going to, and support starts to increase again. But that’s a really tough political sell. Nobody wants to be the politician going out front saying, “I’m going to do this, and you’re going to like it.” You know, that’s not a great position to be in necessarily.

Cohen: So a couple years ago we met when you were in Vancouver and I was there traveling, and we connected. And, you know, I went back through my notes from that breakfast that we had. And, you know, this political side of this definitely emerged as kind of an area that I thought that really resonated with me from that conversation. I want to dig into that a little bit. So a couple of the nuggets that you shared with me that I made notes on that kind of stuck with me is, one, former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme —correct me if I don’t pronounce that correctly—said, “Politics is to want something.” And then you also said, “What we need is bravery.” And both of those kind of really just stuck out to me.

And so I’m curious. As you’ve kind of continued in your career, in your different projects, in your different consulting, and so forth, I’m curious if those sentiments still kind of resonate as much with you, because you said them, that I then wrote down, but then, you know, if any of that’s changed or your perspective on that has changed at all.

Firth: My perspective hasn’t changed. If anything, maybe it’s strengthened, but it has maybe become a little bit more nuanced as well. When you contacted me, I was also trying to remember what it was that we talked about. And I actually went back to this Olof Palme quote and—well, his entire speech. It’s quite a long speech. I can’t believe that people made speeches that were that detailed and long, and he quotes whole passages from Brecht to his party at the time in 1964. But he goes on to say some kind of more detail of that. So he’s saying his party, the Social Democrats, their politics, their form of politics is to—and I’ll quote—“to want to change because change is a promise of improvement, and it gives nourishment to fantasy, and the will to act stimulates dreams and visions. But, of course, the will has to have a purpose and the change a goal.”

And, I think, it comes back to what we were talking about right at the top there about, “It’s all about the why.” What is it you are trying to achieve? Yes, you’re trying to reduce congestion, sure, but why is that a good idea? What’s the benefit to people of reducing congestion? How will that make your and my life better? How will it make the life of the city better? I sometimes get in a bit of trouble in our industry because transportation is dominated by engineers, and I’m sure there’s lots of engineers in your audience, so I don’t mean to insult anybody, but I think engineers tend to work best when they have a problem statement. So it’s, “Here’s a problem; try to solve it,” and they’re—you know, that’s their job, and they’re fantastic at it.

And, I think, politics—and I don’t know where I’d put myself on this, somewhere between politics and engineers. It’s a spectrum, but I’m not at either end particularly. I think that politicians will often want to talk about what they want. And, I think, trying to reconcile these things can sometimes be quite difficult. And I think it’s a lot of the job of what—I guess, I’d call myself a transportation planner, and that’s a lot of what my job is, is trying to speak engineering to politicians and trying to speak politics to engineers. I was actually once accused by a colleague when I was at the City of Stockholm; I was told I was far too focused on solutions, “What I should do is think more about problems,” and I took that as a massive compliment at the time. I’m not sure it was meant as so. But, I think, it’s understanding what it is that you want to achieve and being able to put that into a language that will speak to people and explain why you are doing something that might sound a little bit difficult, might not be the thing that people want to do—nobody actually wants to pay more for anything. You know, that’s not a fun thing to have to do—but explaining why we think this is a good thing, why this tradeoff is okay.

I think you can take the—also the kind of the other side of that quote for me as a policy person is to try and understand what it is that the politicians I work for want and how I can help them to fit congestion pricing or whatever it is we happen to be talking on into their narrative. You know, there’s a minority, a tiny minority of politicians, I hope a tiny minority, but a minority of politicians who become politicians just because they want power. I think most politicians become politicians because they really care about something in particular. You know, they want to change the school system, or they want to make their city better for small businesses, or they want to reduce taxes, or they want to make transportation work better, or, you know, whatever it is that’s driving them. Kind of finding out what it is that’s driving them and helping them to make congestion pricing or whatever it is we happen to be talking about part of that narrative and fitting it into what they want to achieve.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah. No, I think you’re right about that. And I guess that’s kind of the origin of compromise, if you will, which is—maybe not even compromise as much as it’s just, you know, trying to identify what are the—how do you get from point A to point B and, like, what little steps can you take to kind of move closer to, you know—maybe what we’re talking about is transportation, and maybe that politician’s goal is on small business, and you say, “Oh. Well, let me frame this conversation in such a way that speaks towards your interest of small business and how this might help that, even though what we’re really talking about is transportation,” but you kind of can bring it to that perspective. So, I think, that’s a good way of thinking about that as far as how those folks in those political roles are—what they want and what the narratives that they’re trying to tell are.

Firth: Yeah. I think politicians—I mean, I think you need to be brave to be a politician in the first place. It might sound like I’m being a bit hard on politicians. I’m not intending to at all. I have enormous respect for what an incredibly difficult job particularly local politicians have. You know, I’ve spent 20 years, as I said, trying to get my head around this one very meaty, complex policy issue. Local officials are expected to get their heads around multiple meaty, interconnected, complex policy issues, draw the connections between them, you know, often without particular training or education or expertise in these very diverse areas. So I’ve got a huge amount of respect for politicians.

But, I think, our job as officers, as practitioners is to help them to be brave and give them the information they need to be brave. And I sometimes describe the job as a planner being, you know, holding people’s hands when it gets scary. And, I think, sometimes you have to hold politicians’ hands when it gets scary and kind of give them the backup they need and put them in touch with the people who can help them to make some of these really tough decisions. So, again, it comes back to the stakeholder question, “How can we put them in touch with the right stakeholders? How can we put them in touch with their peers in other cities who are doing these kind of things?” This is kind of the bread and butter of what C40, the organization I work for right now, is doing. It’s about connecting politicians with their peers and helping to give them some of the bravery to do some of the difficult things we’re going to have to do.

Cohen: Yeah. That’s such an important kind of theme there. Because, again, I think, you know, politicians are human too. Right?

Firth: Yeah.

Cohen: And it would take a very special person, let alone a very special politician to kind of go out on an island by themselves saying, “This is what I think we should do,” without really, you know, without that kind of backup, if you will, from either the general public, which, again, as you’ve illustrated before, the majority doesn’t often back this until afterwards, or your fellow peers. Then you can then say, “Hey, you know, while we haven’t done congestion pricing here, in X-Y-Z city these other ones have. And, you know, this is what we can learn from that.”

Firth: Yeah, exactly. I think some mayors and some cities really want to be the first at things, but actually the majority probably want to be at least the second or the third so you can let somebody else make the mistakes and learn the lessons and then you take those and run with them.

Cohen: That would be funny to kind of have that be your kind of what you’re known for is, like, “You know, I’m always number two.” [LAUGHTER] “I’m not trying to be the first one, and I’m not trying to be the last one. You know, I want to be at the top but just not the first one because I’m going to let that first bloke or lady make that mistake first.”

Firth: Yeah, let someone else take all the risks.

Cohen: That’s right. That’s right. I want to dig into maybe an angle here of this particular area of congestion pricing that I want to get your perspective on. Because, I think, here in the U.S. one of the things that we’ve seen over the course of the last several months as we’ve dealt with some of these social justice protests that have been really, really important and have, I think, highlighted for some folks who hadn’t really had their eyes opened at some points in the past about some of these systemic racism that is really baked into a lot of our planning and transportation systems—I think, a theme that has jumped out is that it’s almost too simplistic to say, “Let’s just ban all cars,” or, “Let’s just increase taxes on the cars,” because there’s so many people, especially people of color, who might use cars to get around for financial reasons because gentrification has pushed them to various edges of cities, safety issue, or simply convenience. And so I’m curious; as you look at these types of equity issues, how do account for those when you’re thinking about these types of policies that are just, again, they’re already complex to begin with and then you layer this foundational aspect of equity on top of that? ow do you think about that, or how do you account for that?

Firth: Yeah, so in my current role I’m talking to a lot of cities who are both thinking about pricing and also not necessarily using the language “ban cars” but looking at kind of restricting at least access to cars. And I think—a couple of things to say about that. I think, my interpretation of the ban-cars narrative is it’s obviously much more of a slogan, that it’s kind of a way into a more nuanced discussion. I’m sure a handful of people mean it literally, but I think most people mean something more nuanced and are happy to get into a—they’re using it as an opener to a deeper discussion.

I think, in theory pricing is better than a ban because it accepts, as you say, that some people have a genuine need to drive for whatever reason and that pricing makes a provision for that in a way that a ban can’t because, you know, a ban is—it’s a binary thing; it’s a yes or a no. Pricing is saying, “You know, so we’re not getting rid of all journeys. In fact, we’re getting rid of a tiny majority of”—getting rid of is the wrong word—“We’re not reducing all journeys; we are reducing a small number of trips so that you’re kind of getting down to a level where just the transportation system is working better.” Now, that’s the theory, and it assumes that everybody has the same ability to pay or adapt, which we know of course simply isn’t true.

So equity is a really big crosscutting question, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on equity. There’s people who are way more qualified than me to talk about this, and you’ve had some of them on your podcast. But I’ll make it easy for myself by kind of narrowing it down to the slightly simpler question, which is how costs and benefits for something like congestion pricing are distributed. And, I think, there’s three questions we need to ask ourselves. The first one is, “How equitable in this distribution of costs-and-benefits terms is your status quo?” And by that I mean system wide. What is your transportation system as a part of your city, what is it delivering in terms of distribution of costs and benefits to different kinds of people and different groups and different parts of the city?

The simple answer to that is probably it’s probably not very equitable because we know our cities aren’t terribly equitable and the transportation system is part of the city. But it’s a lot harder to answer in a lot more detail. So, you know, which elements of it are making it more or less equitable? How is that, that fall, the kind of benefits and burdens falling on different people? We don’t really have the tools. They’re coming, but we don’t really have them to be able to do that kind of really complex assessment in the way that we would do. So that’s kind of the first question, is, “How equitable is your status quo?”

Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure.

Firth: The second then is, “How does congestion pricing on its own, as a single thing, change that status quo? And what things within that can we do to maximize its positive contribution and minimize its negative impact?” So given the status quo as it is, how can congestion pricing change that as a single kind of entity, just the charge itself? And there’s all kinds of things we can do within that to try and boost those positive contributions and minimize the negative impacts. So, example, where are you charging, what times of day are you charging, who are charging, what vehicles, is it in all directions or just in one direction?

Cohen: Right. Right.

Firth: There are all kinds of really granular things that you can start to think of and change and switch about to try and get either the most equitable or the least inequitable, if you like, outcomes given the status quo you have. And I think that’s a useful thing to do. At the same time, we need to be a little bit cautious because I think you could take almost any single element of a transportation system and find that it is either regressive or progressive or equitable or inequitable depending on how you are implementing it. So a single bus line could be very a positive equity outcome or it could be a very negative equity outcome. It’s not the bus line itself that’s important; it’s how does that fit in with the root and the whole transportation system.

The third part is what other things are you going to do around a congestion pricing system. And you’re almost never implementing just congestion pricing on its own; you’re going to do a ton of other things around that and in particular thinking about how you are using the revenue. So are you spending money on improving transit access for particular people or particular groups? Are you spending money on improving the urban environment? Are you going to spend that money maybe on improving access to affordable housing in certain locations? There’s all kinds of things you can do with these often not inconsiderable revenues that can change that equity outcome and that distribution of costs-and-benefits outcome quite considerably.

So if we look at some of the examples that are implemented and particularly the ones I’ve worked with—and, you know, these are European examples, so the equation would look quite different in U.S. cities. So on their own these systems that I’ve worked with have either been kind of neutral or very, very slightly regressive from a kind of outcome of the charge itself. If you include what you use with the revenue, they are almost certainly quite progressive and are producing quite equitable results in these cities. And, again, we need to be a bit cautious about transferring a broad lesson from one city to another. But what it shows is that there is an ability to design these things in a way that will be producing an equitable outcome. But, again, what we’re missing is the method to be able to measure that in a really good way. So if we see that the costs and benefits and the way they’re being distributed from a charging system are maybe not quite producing the results you would like them to, how do we understand what kinds of investments or interventions in terms of new transit accessibility or other kinds of interventions might correct for that and actually lead to much better results?

I think, the other thing to mention is because there are some quite considerable revenues, there’s a kind of solution to any inequity that potentially turns up, is built in there in the form of being able to offer caps or rebates or exemptions or discounts to particular groups in order to make sure that any negative impacts that are coming out are addressed in a sensible way. So for example the exceptions or discounts that are offered to people with disabilities is maybe the most obvious one, that, you know, there are some people who literally won’t be able to take part in society any more if we make it more difficult for them to drive, and therefore you carve out the exemptions and discounts for the people in that situation. London, for example, has a rebate that they pay to people who are visiting the specialist hospitals in Central London. So if you’re paying the congestion charge in order to go to a hospital appointment, then we will reimburse you that. We will? The city will reimburse you in some way for that. And, I think, there’s some really interesting discussions going on in San Francisco, for example. I know the idea has come up in Los Angeles as well, that you might find a way of having exemptions or discounts or differential charging based on income.

There’s always a bit of a concern when you’re talking about exemptions and discounts, that, you know, the more exemptions and discounts you have, the less your benefits will be. And, I think, you know, that’s a genuine concern. At the same time, in particular people on low incomes, you know, driving is expensive. It’s maybe not as expensive as it should be to cover all its external costs, but it is expensive, and so people on low incomes are not driving around for fun; they’re doing it when they really have to. They’ve already reduced the amount of driving quite considerably, so giving them a discount or an exemption is probably not going to erode your benefits considerably. Again, it’s going to depend on your city and the system that you have and what your intention is. But, I think, there are certainly—you know, there’s a lot of complexity around that and questions as to how you administer it and how you get all of that information, but I think there are ways to handle the very real equity concerns that people have. And kind of from, again, from a very technical—I’m not an equity specialist, but I know a little bit about distribution of costs and benefits, so to correct for that piece, I think, is entirely achievable within a congestion pricing system.

Cohen: Yeah. And, I think, just even given some of the examples that you gave, it illustrates just how complex these types of programs are. Right? And which kind of you talked about at the beginning that this is not just a simple kind of thing; this is not something you’re just going to talk about for a couple of years and then just be able to get done. This is something that has to have multiple iterations over multiple times; you have to be very, very thoughtful when you start as far as what you’re trying to achieve; you’ve got to get those stakeholders on board. So, I think, this is maybe a very tactical—you know, some of the tactical examples you gave here as it relates to equity kind of just illustrate that perfectly, I think.

Firth: Yeah. I think, at the same time we’ve got to remember pricing is something that once you’ve put some kind of system for pricing in place, you can make a lot of changes to it, and you can allow it to adapt over time. So, for example, you implement a pricing system, and you see that one particular part of your city just doesn’t have the transit options in order to make it viable for people to switch to a decent alternative. Maybe you find a way to exempt people coming from that part of town or give them some kind of discount or rebate. But maybe at some point you do have the money to put better transit into that location or better alternatives of other forms, walking and cycling, whatever. And maybe at that point you think, “Maybe it’s time to reduce that discount or abolish it all together,” if it feels appropriate.

I speak to a lot of people. Particularly now, in the middle of COVID, obviously there’s not a huge amount of congestion in most of our cities. And people are saying, “Well, you know, the idea of congestion pricing is clearly dead. Why would you want to even talk about it?” And, I think, you know, there’s some truth to that, and it’s not something that any city should be pursuing aggressively right now, I don’t think. But at the same time having some kind of flexible way to control or to manage rather what is happening with traffic, I think, will be really useful in the years to come for those cities that have it, because we really don’t know what is going to happen with traffic and congestion levels in the next couple of years.

Now, there’s some evidence that if more people work from home, those of us that are lucky enough to be able to, which is a minority in most cities or at least maybe around 50%, 60%, if more of us work from home more often then maybe there is slightly less congestion. At the same time there’s some evidence from cities like London that for all the other trips that we’re making we’re using cars much more, and therefore the pattern of congestion might change quite considerably. If you have a kind of flexible charging system or a tool that you can use quite flexible to adapt quickly to what those changes are, then you’re probably in a pretty good position. You know, you compare it to you build a metro line and you’ve got a metro line where it is, and you can change the frequency slightly, but you can’t do a lot else with it. If you build a highway, you’ve got a highway, and there’s not a huge amount else you can do with it. Yes, you can maybe change it and put in a bus lane or something, but essentially you’ve got an inflexible piece of infrastructure that’s costing you lots of money and maybe isn’t what you need anymore. A pricing system doesn’t replace any of those things, but it gives you a tool that is flexible in a time of what’s likely to be quite unpredictable for the next few years.

Cohen: That’s a really interesting perspective. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. It is kind of the 21st century version of infrastructure, but it’s much more flexible in the same what that, you know, our transportation options are a lot more flexible than they ever have been and, you know, cloud computing has allowed for changes in how we access information in a way that’s a lot more flexible than ever. So in some ways that feels like that’s a reasonable kind of 21st-centery kind of innovation that I expect will be implemented more over the course of the next, you know, X number of years, however long that takes.

Firth: Yeah. And, I think, even putting COVID aside, there were already lots of kind of—disruption is a bit of an overused word, but—kind of unpredictable things happening with our transportation system around working from home but more about kind of the potential for automated vehicles, for ride hailing, for, you know, all these micromobility.

Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure, yeah.

Firth: You know, the temptation maybe from a political or a planning perspective is to try and plan exactly how these things are going to function and how we’re going to work with them and, “Let’s have lots of detail and lots of very complicated policy.” That’s one approach. The other approach is just to set some prices that are set to achieve what it is you want to achieve and then let people decide what they think is, based on the price that they’re having to pay, what they think is the most appropriate way to get around. I can see why the former is quite tempting, but I’m not sure it’s ever going to work, so it’s better for us just to kind of stand back a little bit and say, “These are the rules that we’re going to set as a city in terms of the pricing we’re putting on these different options. We’re not going to tell you which one to choose.” It’s not my job as a transportation planner to tell people how to get around, but I can send signals in terms of pricing or subsidy or priority of other kinds, you know, traffic signals or it’s in the street, which ways to get around we think are better in terms of making the whole work for everybody.

Cohen: That’s good. I want to wrap up with this, which is, you know, when you reflect back on your career and the different leaders that you’ve worked with or worked for, I’m curious if there’s anything particular they had in common that really jumped out to you as you’ve thought about who you’ve worked with over time.

Firth: So I started very intellectually with an Olof Palme quote. I’m going to finish not particularly intellectually with a Spice Girls quote and say—someone once told me you can learn all you need to know about leadership from the Spice Girls. That is, “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” And I think it comes back to the being clear about the why. I think all the leaders that I’ve worked with—and it’s something I’ve tried to take on myself, is just being really clear about what it is you want, and why you want it, and then how are we going to work together as a team to achieve that, what are the steps we need to take. But also kind of being really clear about what are the tradeoffs you are making to do that.

I think, it’s tempting to try to portray everything as a win-win. And in a city almost nothing is win-win. Some things can be close to that but generally aren’t. And just being really clear about if I’m making a tradeoff here, “This is the tradeoff I am making. I can see that that’s maybe not giving you what you wanted, but these are the reasons why I chose that, and you don’t need to agree with the decision I made, but I hope that you can see that I made it with all the information in front of me.” So, you know, it’s a bit of a clichéd answer, but, I think, it is a lot about communication and just being really clear about the decisions you’re making and the basis for why you are making decisions.

Cohen: It may be a little cliché, but nobody has framed it with the Spice Girls kind of as the lens through which to look at that.

Firth: [LAUGHS] You see, both ex Swedish prime ministers and ’90s pop stars in the same podcast. That must be a first. I’m feeling quite proud of that.

Cohen: I think it is. And you should be.

Firth: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: If folks want to learn more about the work you’re doing either with C40 Cities or just follow you on social media, where’s the best place to kind of learn more about you?

Firth: So you can find out about C40 Cities’ work at We have something on there called the Knowledge Hub, and I really encourage people to go there. There’s a lot of really great information, particularly about how C40’s member cities—and we represent about 90-odd cities around the world—how they have dealt with COVID from a transit perspective but also from a kind of reallocating road space. And there’s just some really great hands-on examples from practitioners and from mayors about how they’ve tried to proceed there.

And on Twitter—I’m not massively active on Twitter, but I—you know, there’s occasionally interesting things that come up there. Otherwise I’m just tweeting nice pictures of Stockholm at the moment in the winter sunshine. And that’s DanielFirtho is my handle, @DanielFirtho. Otherwise I am on LinkedIn and every—all the other good platforms.

Cohen: Awesome. Awesome. Well, Daniel, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate you joining us late in your day there in Stockholm and midday for me here in the U.S. Eastern Time. But thanks so much, and keep up the great work.

Firth: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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.