Episode 97: Hey, Anyone Want to Start an Advocacy Org with Az Chougle

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

Az Chougle, executive director of Transit Alliance Miami, has learned that advocacy is a “grand experiment in psychology” where clear goals, crisp communication, and a foundation of equity are necessary to advance your agenda.

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT TO COME

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Chougle: Azhar Chougle

Cohen: We have an eclectic conversation today that ranges from bus frequencies, to Ira Glass, equitable distribution of transit, to Bob Ross. The one tying all of these things together is Az Chougle, the executive director of Transit Alliance Miami coming up next on The Movement podcast.

Jensen: 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: Az Chougle is the executive director of Transit Alliance Miami. Transit Alliance Miami is a nonprofit organization advocating for walkable streets, bikeable neighborhoods, and better public transit. That sounds good. Right, L’erin?

Jensen: Sounds good.

Chougle: Thanks for having me, Josh and L’erin.

Jensen: Az, we just want to start off with, you know, if you could tell us a little bit about Transit Alliance Miami, the origin of it and the problems that you guys are trying to solve.

Chougle: Sure. So for those who might not be as familiar with Miami—maybe you haven’t visited—it is not the sort of mobility utopia that you envision. Yes, we have the sunshine and the beaches and all that sort of stuff, but when it actually comes to getting around it’s actually a rather difficult city. It’s one short train line, a bus system that’s kind of archaic, and walkability and bikeability that is famous for actually injuring its own citizens more so than getting people around.

So Transit Alliance has a very funny origin story, which I won’t get into too much detail, but as a nonprofit organization we are the largest advocacy organization of our kind in South Florida advocating for walkable streets, bikeable neighborhoods, and better public transit. And we were started a few years ago in response to a round of transit cuts that was being proposed at the time. And it’s a funny story that involves me late night meeting in the park and mobilizing hundreds of citizens for a budget process they don’t usually participate in, but here we are today. And, yeah, glad to be here. Thanks again for having me.

Jensen: You helped save like $15 million in budget cuts, didn’t you?

Chougle: Yeah. And since then actually sort of set the precedent that transit is something that you don’t mess with from a budgetary standpoint, which has been really important because ordinarily, given the way that we fund transportation in Miami, which like many cities is not the greatest way to fund things, transit can easily be on the chopping block. But in the past few years it has been sort of, “Whoa, let’s not touch transit, because we don’t want to repeat what happened back in 2017.”

Jensen: Can you go into that a little bit more and tell us how you were able to make it this, like, no-touch part of the budget?

Chougle: Yeah. I think that a lot of people naturally very much care about transit. And it’s very cross sector, but politicians don’t usually see it. So of course you have riders who obviously care a lot about transit, but you also have business leaders; you have social justice groups; you have environmentalists, and you have all of these different groups who really recognize that transit is such a key piece to just a generally healthy societal agenda.

And, I think, in 2017 when we mobilized so many people for the budget process across these very diverse groups, people—there was sort of just a moment that clicked in our politicians’ minds and in the general awareness that, “Hey, transit is not this thing that’s just affecting transit riders.” Of course, that’s the direct effect, is to transit riders, but it has all these greater consequences for our economy and for equity and all of these other things that people generally care about. So that was the moment that clicked that, I think, has become more permanent.

Cohen: I actually just wrote a blog post—I guess, it went up a couple weeks ago—titled, “Your Mayor Should Be Riding The Bus,” and it really tried to get at that issue. Which, you know, obviously the riders understand the impact of these cuts, but oftentimes the local officials, if they’re not either taking the bus themselves or having really good, honest conversations with organizations like yours, are not really going to understand the impacts of some of these decisions they may make.

Chougle: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that time and time again it’s really proven how important advocacy is in any city for these sort of decisions to be made the best possible way, especially in transit and mobility where you need to mobilize people, especially riders, who may be not as involved in the political process as they would be. Because if it’s anything like the transit riders in Miami it’s people who are working jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that are occurring in shifts and can’t just show up at two o’clock for a transportation and finance committee meeting in the middle of the work day. So it just shows how important advocacy is to sort of drive these conversations.

Cohen: For sure. I want to touch on this a little bit, because, I think, when I first learned about your organization it was after Rail~Volution, and I think I attended one of your sessions there that you presented at. And I thought, “Oh, this is interesting. Let me check out Transit Alliance Miami here,” and so I dug in a little bit. And when I went to your website, you know, I noticed it looked different than most advocacy groups. And so the URL, for those following along at home, is TransitAlliance.Miami. And it kind of showed a little bit of what I’d call design sense.

You know, it doesn’t look like kind of the bare bones, nonprofit web design that you might find in some situations with a limited budget perhaps. And I know you spent some time with design in your career, and so I guess I’m—I want to dig into that a little bit. Do you believe the role of design, you know, that there’s something there as it relates to transportation and mobility and kind of how that impacts transportation and mobility?

Chougle: So, of course, given my career came from a design-and-programming world, I’m very biased to say that it’s absolutely paramount. But you’ve hit on something that I think people caught onto in our very early days. When we had our first event, actually, one of our today long-time advocates came up to me and said, “Are you guys like a shell organization for some front? And what are you funded by? Because this doesn’t look like any other advocacy organization I’ve seen.” And it’s something that when I joined Transit Alliance three years ago the first thing that I looked to do is, “This needs a brand. This needs a voice. This needs a vision to sort of be articulated very cleanly and visually and properly.”

Because, I think, at the end of the day, advocacy is a grand experiment in psychology where the better you’re able to communicate and the more cleanly and the more succinctly and the more ably you’re able to communicate and convince people, the more you’re likely for them to take your agenda seriously but, more importantly, for them to understand very clearly and succinctly.

For example, one of the first campaigns that we launched was called Where’s My Bus?, which was a deep-dive analysis into the bus system. And, you know, most people would just—the ordinary person would be like, “Oh, God. Why would I want to ever read about a bus system?” But we set together some very specific rules on how we wanted to communicate this. It was not going to be a long report with lots of text on a white page. The rules we set are, “Everything needs a graphic, but also every explanation needs to be five lines or less.” So, for example, the sort of phrases we would come up with is—like, dedicated bus lanes; like, how do you explain that to an ordinary person? It’s just sort of like the ability for, like, a fish to swim against the current, is sort of what a dedicated bus lane does for people. And it’s just—we use a lot of metaphors. And the way that we communicate these things just tends to be as down-to-earth as possible. So it’s not just design; to me, it’s fundamental about how advocates communicate. And, I think, it’s paramount to the way that we succeed.

Cohen: I like that example you just gave because, to me, that explains the philosophy even more clearly than just the design. Right? You know, and obviously you’re in Miami, and Miami, I think, has more design kind of ethos, if you will, than, you know, Durham perhaps. But I like that example because to me, you know, I think that’s a fundamental problem that I think we have in transportation and I think we have in other issues with our city—planning is another one—where it is not delivered to the user in a way that is accessible unless you are an expert. Right?

And so I’m a transit expert for all intents and purposes, and whenever I go to a new city and I try to use transit, you know, it takes me a little while to, like, you know, figure out, “All right. Where does this bus actually stop, and how does it actually—you know, what time does it actually come, and what do I actually—do I have to have exact change, or is that just, like, you know, encouraged?” like, all of those things that are, like, putting up barriers to me actually using that transit. Same thing with the planning process. Like, you know, trying to read over a planning document for our local city is just, like—it’s like reading Greek, and I’m pretty plugged into this kind of stuff. So I pity anyone who doesn’t have the time to really, really dig into this stuff. So, I think, that’s a really, really important approach that you’re taking there that I think other advocacy groups could probably learn from.

Chougle: Yeah, and hopefully agencies too. For example—and it sometimes comes down to very basic things, the sort of experiences you’re relaying. Like, in Miami-Dade County, you look at our transit map and the routes are color-coded. What are they color-coded by? I challenge anyone to look at our map and sort of try to figure out within 30 seconds. Because I actually think it should be within a few seconds, but I’ll give you 30 to figure out what are our routes color-coded by. And you spend a while looking at it, and you’ll sort of realize, “Ah, there seems to be—oh, so some routes are color-coded east-west, and some routes are color-coded north-south,” but our map like many maps for many agencies across the country doesn’t tell you anything about the frequency of the bus service.

So, for example, when we were redesigning our bus network—and this has now become a basic fact, but it’s a basic fact that a lot of agencies haven’t caught up to, that you should label your routes by frequency. So, yeah. Absolutely. This is just basic stuff that not only comes down to advocacy but also comes down to the usability of transit over all.

Jensen: So, Az, I want to touch on something that we here at TransLoc and The Movement podcast and certainly Transit Alliance Miami all care deeply about, which is equity. What does equity look like in the work that you do?

Chougle: So the place where Josh, sort of, and I intersected in Rail~Volution, I was giving a presentation about innovation and the word innovation and how it’s become—just morphed into this meaningless thing that is just sort of thrown around as, like, a “Ha-ha! It’s innovative.” And I also think about the word resilience where resilience has morphed into a word where very few people actually know what it actually means and just gets thrown around. I’m very concerned that when we talk about equity—and I’m going to do my best to make sure that we talk about it in the most definable way as possible.

For example, I think there’s two levels that we deal with in Miami. There’s, of course, the very fundamental level of how we distribute transit service and within our bus network redesign, for example, prioritizing households with no vehicle, minority residents, seniors, and making sure that service is distributed equitably. And as the first organization to lead a bus network redesign in partnership with the city, that’s something that we put forward front and center. But, I think, there’s a bigger equity issue in Miami that isn’t often talked about, which is how transit riders and households with no vehicle are treated within the entire system of governance and policy.

For example, the coronavirus crisis has been probably the most pressing and best illustration of how bad this is. When the pandemic started and we started rolling out testing, for a good few weeks the only way you could get a test in Miami-Dade County, including in communities where you have double-digit percentage of households that have no vehicles, was to drive through, which means that you couldn’t get tested just by walking up. You had to have a vehicle, which is just such a fundamental failure of government policy that, to me, that’s an even bigger equity issue that needs to be resolved within so many layers of government, that when you have a crisis, the last people who are generally served and the last people who are generally sort of given access to the most important services are transit riders and households without vehicles, especially when we know and we’ve learned throughout this crisis how many essential workers depend on transit and as transit riders are, frankly, more vulnerable to being exposed to the virus but had the least access to testing. So that’s just an example of how we think about equity on these sort of two levels rather than just one.

Jensen: You can’t see it, but Josh and I can see each other, and so as you’re talking I did the little mind-blown hand gesture. [LAUGHS] That’s not a way that I had thought about the testing at all, so that’s all just really fascinating. Something else that stood out to me as I was kind of looking into your background, you did an interview with, I think, The New Tropic last year, and one of the questions they asked you was, “Can you really live in Miami without a car?” And your response to that was, “The truth is that you can, but there are very few places that you can do so happily, and very few people can afford to live there.”

So, I think, that just kind of further drives home that point. But I think that when we think about mobility equity or transportation equity a lot of times we—and people, like, complaining about buses or saying, “Well, we have a transit system, so what’s the problem?” like, yes, you may have to spend a little bit more time doing it, but, to your point, why should people have to? It’s 2020 in the U.S.A.; there’s no reason for us not to think about quality-of-life statistics or factors when thinking about planning these things.

Chougle: Yeah, absolutely. And Miami has made a lot of similar mistakes that a lot of other cities have made where you have—Miami is a place where, again, if someone hasn’t visited, we have a dense urban core and we have a few what I would say walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods where you’d be like, “Oh, okay. Fine. This is kind of like New York; this is Washington.” There’s a few of those spots, but then most of it is kind of suburban; and then parts of our county are also rural. But the key thing that, I think, our transit department has failed at and a lot of other transit departments is even within the urban core which tends to be low-income and people of color—and I’ll go into those stats a little bit more, because in Miami it’s actually really pressing the issues. Even in those places we’ve built a system where you can only live car-free happily—and I’ll use the key word “happily” and get into that, what that means—in a few neighborhoods that are extremely expensive, whereas you have neighborhoods that are just a little bit removed from those neighborhoods but tend to be more minority or more low-income and those neighborhoods don’t have basic, frequent bus service.

For example, there’s not a single minority-dominant community that has a frequent bus line in Miami-Dade County. Our frequent bus lines are concentrated in places like Downtown and Miami Beach, which are well off and more concentrated on our tourism and hospitality. But when it comes to the working class, like, there’s no real, huge, working-class neighborhood that has a frequent bus route. So in Miami around 85% of transit riders are minority, so that’s African American and Latino. And around 49% of transit riders have a household income of $22,000 or less. But, at the same time, we only have five frequent bus routes in the entire county. And you can imagine, based on what I’ve told you, where those are located. Not in the right places. So in terms of what we’ve started to do as an advocacy organization, the bus network redesign, like, fixes these very, very fundamental issues that shouldn’t have existed over the past few decades to begin with.

Cohen: Wow. I think, you’re hitting on such an important issue. Because I do think that when you’re asking these questions it kind of—it begs the question, “What are the goals of our transit system?” Where it’s serving in that way, it kind of seems to indicate it’s kind of, I guess—I don’t know who the target market would be based on that dynamic. Theoretically it’s, like, the tourist industry or people that work in that industry, but then it’s not available late at night or it’s got really low frequency. So I don’t know. It just seems like it’s just—it’s kind of, like, middling it. Right? It’s like it’s not really good for anybody other than kind of serving this dense kind of traditional downtown environment.

Jensen: It sounds like, to me, transit in Miami for not Miamians, for people who don’t live in Miami.

Chougle: Yeah. But this is also what happens when transit agencies are always being reactive rather than proactive, when transit agencies are basically trying to build a system that lets politics drive things and lets the people who are loudest drive things rather than looking at things comprehensively through processes like a bus network redesign, which is just such a fundamental process that a lot of cities are going through right now. I think it’s just something that transit agencies need to put more effort towards being proactive about analyzing.

For example, Josh, you asked a fundamental question, “What are we trying to do with transit?” And when we started off our bus network redesign we asked those fundamental questions. And the great thing about something like equity and something about this question is actually that sort of stuff is measurable. Like, we can measure within any transit system how much access people have to opportunities. And if that’s our fundamental goal, which in our case in our redesign that is, like, increase the level of opportunities that are available to everyone in an equitable way on transit. That’s measurable. And in our network we make sure that we do that. So, like you said, like, set a fundamental goal—and for us this is that goal—and reframe your network in that way.

Cohen: Well, so that’s a good first step—right—is setting that. Then the next step, obviously, is holding yourself accountable to that goal. Right?

Chougle: Right.

Cohen: You know, and, again, I don’t know your area, so I’m not saying they’re not holding themselves accountable to that. I just—to me, it is a fundamental kind of next step, which is, like, “Great. We have some sort of alignment around our goals. Now we got to hold ourselves accountable to that and say, ‘Oh, yeah. When we have that new company that wants those tax incentives and wants to bring some jobs, are they going to go on the outskirts or are they going to go on that bus line?’” Right?

Chougle: Yeah.

Cohen: And, you know, that’s when the money meets the road there. What’s the analogy? I’m not even saying that right. The—

Chougle: Rubber meets the road maybe.

Cohen: Rubber meets the road; that’s it. The money meets the road? [LAUGHTER] Well, the money too, I guess.

Chougle: Yeah. But, more fundamentally, when you start to frame things that way, you start to see how the transit department is making tradeoffs without that context. For example, the transit department in our community—and, again, this might be happening in other places too—is examining a series of express routes that generally serves, like, briefcase commuters who probably won’t come back for a while and generally historically in Miami, like, are a much smaller slice of the transit-riding population, as opposed to restoring Metrorail service which is the spine of our community, like, our one rail line which should be more rail lines. And when you start to think of, “How do we frame this tradeoff in terms of maximizing access to opportunity?” and if you do that analysis, you’re like, “Well, actually, by increasing the frequency and the span of service of Metrorail—or the hours of Metrorail you’re actually delivering a lot more access to opportunity to a lot more people in a much more equitable way compared to a few express commuter bus routes that are trying to get people out of cars.”

Not that we don’t want to get people out of cars, but the first—if you serve your existing transit-riding population and your transit-dependent population with the best level of service possible, you will naturally attract more people to the system as opposed to try to piecemeal some sort of fantasy land where you’re picking and choosing people out of cars on certain corridors.

Cohen: Yeah. I think we’re dealing with that same question here locally based on a tax referendum we passed back in 2016—no, actually earlier than that, I think—originally supposed to go for light rail and also some commuter rail between here and Raleigh. And, I think, we’re evaluating that commuter plan now. And, I think, it just begs the question, you know, “Who’s it going to serve?” Right? And certainly there are some low-income folks who take a current, direct express bus between Durham and Raleigh and vice versa, but it’s not nearly the levels at which they would need that commuter rail to be successful.

So, I think, that’s a really fundamental question, which is, again, who are we serving and what are our goals and what are we trying to achieve with that? I want to kind of maybe wrap up a little bit with this, which is, who are some of the leaders that have influenced you in your career, and really what made them special?

Chougle: Yeah. So I should probably mention first, like, even some of the things that I’ve said in this interview, I’ve stolen a lot of them. I mean, most—

Cohen: That’s okay.

Chougle: No, but that’s why I think your question is pertinent, because even most notably the firm that we worked with here on the redesign, Jarrett Walker and Associates, I’ve stolen a lot from Jarrett Walker in terms of just, I think, a leader in this space who just shares that fundamental value of explaining things in a clear, understandable way with these sort of tradeoffs sort of front and center. But, I think, in advocacy and, I think, me personally, I’ve been lucky to have a series of mentors that actually don’t have much to do with, let’s say, any specific advocacy or transportation thing. And I say this only because I think it’s important for people to know, like, I didn’t plan to become the executive director of a nonprofit in Miami advocating for better public transit, which is now the largest nonprofit of its kind in the Southeast. That wasn’t in the plan. But it was through a series of mentors and funders and people that something like Transit Alliance exists.

And that’s true for every community. So Transit Alliance is sort of a figment of luck where there’s a lot of people who have come together to believe in me, my team, our board, and our work to say, “Hey, this is worth doing.” And opportunities like that—like, Transit Alliance could have very easily not existed had it not been for those confluence of people. Like, for example, an amazing force for good is TransitCenter in New York, one of our first funders.

Cohen: Sure.

Chougle: And it’s organizations like them who are willing to sort of take the risk and say, like, “Hey, this is something worth doing.” So, again, it’s not a personal mentor to me, even though many people in those organizations have been personal mentors to me as well. But, I think, it’s very important for people to have that consciousness that it takes a whole ecosystem to build the sort of successful advocacy that we’ve had here in Miami, and everyone plays a role in that.

Cohen: I’ll take everything you said and thank you for that perspective. I want to dig in a little deeper though. I guess, I’m thinking from the perspective of what L’erin asked about earlier. You know, your fundamentally trying to get the organization or the city—you’re trying to effect change in your community. Right? And there are tangible things that were necessary to get there. When you look at those tangible things that you’ve had to learn not necessarily about the transit knowledge and so forth but around, like, fundamental aspects of leadership, who or what have been some of the influences there? And, again, it could have been a book you read or whatever. I guess, I’m really trying to get at, like, beyond even just some of the transit stuff but just leadership in general, what has been some of the things that have kind of influenced you there?

Chougle: Yeah. So a lot of it comes from the people who are a part of Transit Alliance, the early days of Transit Alliance and now. So, for example, the founder of our organization, Marta Viciedo, who is now the chair of our board, our very early advocate. So Transit Alliance’s origin story traces back to a meeting where we had some of our elected officials who had taken a trip to Denmark and come back sorely not changed, and a lot of people started shouting at them, and I stood up and said, “Hey, anyone want to form an advocacy organization?”

So a lot of people in that initial group sort of led me there. I know that I’m maybe—the weird thing about Transit Alliance is we’ve had so many larger influences, for example, what Paul Steely White did with Transportation Alternatives. I used to live in New York, and I was a member of Transportation Alternatives. And that was an extremely formative organization for me. And when we started Transit Alliance we actually modeled a lot of things we do based on Transportation Alternatives. But from that moment on we’ve actually invented pretty much every—every campaign we just start from scratch, and we often don’t have a reference, and we just sort of invent things as we go along.

So the weird things about me and about Transit Alliance in general is, yes, there are a lot of influences, and I’ve rattled off some of them, but, I think, as advocates we’ve just pushed ourselves to always just think, like, “Oh, is this kind of possible? Let’s do that.” For example, it would have been unprecedented for someone to say, like, “Oh, you’re a nonprofit organization. You want to redesign the bus system. That sounds crazy.” But the circle that we’ve sort of developed is, like, again, with funders and with our board and everything is like, “No, actually that would be a really good idea. We should do it.” And I really think—to me, I ascribe it less to my influences as opposed to the sort of environment we’ve managed to—so I know I’m frustratingly not answering your question, but I’ll give you a little tidbit. Like, the people that I generally look up to actually aren’t in transportation; it’s actually effective communicators. So, for example, someone I really look up to is Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

Cohen: Sure.

Chougle: And I won’t go into severe detail on why, but he’s just the sort of person, like, that I think is a really effective communicator. Another person is Tyler Brûlé who runs Monocle. And the sort of people who have influenced me most have generally been these sort of personalities who have been really effective communicators and have brought large audiences with them to believe in something, and that’s what I hope in some small part we try to do at Transit Alliance.

Cohen: That’s an admirable goal, and I appreciate you sharing a little bit of the story with us today on where Transit Alliance came from and some of the tools and tricks and maybe even—who’s the famous painter of happy accidents? Bob somebody?

Jensen: Oh, Bob Ross?

Cohen: Bob Ross, yeah, yeah, yeah. Happy accidents.

Jensen: Is that the name of the show?

Cohen: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking about when Az is talking about that. You know, it’s like happy accidents, like we just had all these happy accidents. You know, so.

Jensen: I would have called them—

Chougle: I’m glad that you managed to get that, L’erin. Because I could do it with the first one with the rubber-meets-the-road thing, but this one I was—[LAUGHTER] This one I was a little lost, so I’m glad you got it. [LAUGHTER]

Cohen: This is like the story of my day, of me thinking of, like, half of something and then me depending on other people to bail me out. Well, thank you so much, Az Chougle for introducing us to Transit Alliance Miami and the great work you’re doing. Keep it up. Where can folks learn more about either you or the work?

Chougle: So for Transit Alliance you can follow us at @TransitMIA on whatever social media you fancy. We have a very nice YouTube channel, in case you want to learn funny things about Miami and interesting things. And our website is www.TransitAlliance.Miami where you can also sign up for our newsletter if you want to. And me, I am famously not on any social media because I live a happy life in the outside world, but please follow Transit Alliance instead. And, Josh and L’erin, thank you so much for having me. This has been great.

Jensen: Thank you for joining us.

Cohen: Az, thank you so much.

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.

[END RECORDING]