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Episode 70 guest Joe Iacobucci

To move forward critical mobility goals, Sam Schwartz Engineering’s Joe Iacobucci has found that the best leaders not only have plenty of ideas, but also an understanding of their region’s unique needs and strengths.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Iacobucci: Joe Iacobucci

Cohen: From a personal perspective, Joe Iacobucci of Sam Schwartz Engineering has been fortunate enough to work with some great clients, peers, and managers. You’ll hear what the best communities and leaders are doing to make congestion pricing, autonomous vehicle policies, and new mobility playbooks a reality coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Joe Iacobucci, a principal and new mobility practice leader for Sam Schwartz Engineering. Prior to his work at Sam Schwartz, he was a project manager and Manager of Strategic Planning and Policy at the Chicago Transit Authority. Welcome to The Movement, Joe.

Iacobucci: Hey. Thanks, Josh. Great to be here.

Cohen: Give us an introduction to Sam Schwartz and the work that you’re doing there.

Iacobucci: Yeah. Thanks, Josh. I mean, Sam Schwartz, it’s a really special place in a lot of ways. We’re about 160 people nationally, so we’re not big, and we’re not small. You know, there’s very few firms that size, and it’s kind of a special place. But we’re headquartered in New York City, and that’s where we were founded about 25 years ago. And then we also have offices in Chicago, Jersey City, D.C., Tampa, Oakland, and Los Angeles where I’m located here.

Beyond sort of, like, that size, which is kind of nice because you know everybody but it’s large enough to really do some really interesting things and take leadership, is sort of the intersection of innovative thinking and the implementation lens. And so we’re roughly half planners, half engineers. And that mix, you know, usually you trade off one or the other, you know, that either you want something implemented and you bring a certain skillset in or you want somebody to kind of think outside the box. And I feel like our firm—what we do the best is create innovative but implementable solutions for cities from a simple complete street or to a redevelopment project all the way to sort of, like, citywide strategic planning and master planning.

And I particularly—I mean, that’s what attracted me to Sam Schwartz, because I enjoy both those lens, sort of getting into the details on certain things but then also understanding how that scales up to the programmatic level. So we’ve been able to work on multiple congestion pricing projects all across the country. We’re a big leadership role on autonomous vehicles, sustainability. Been able to work on locally here the Hollywood Walk of Fame and looking at land site access for the most complex airports like LAX and LaGuardia. And, you know, frankly, it’s just a really special place where you get access to all these interesting projects.

And basically what Sam has built over the last 25 years is some of the most innovative thinkers and the kind of people that want to work on complex transportation problems and do well and excel at that and actually, I think, on the other hand would be bored working on more simple or straightforward issues. Right? And so that’s usually where cities will call us in. They’ll think of us for complex issues or complex projects. That’s where we show well; that’s where we do great work; and it’s an honor to be a part of that.

I was at the Chicago Transit Authority for the start of my career, so I’ve been lucky enough that basically I’ve—you know, I started my first 11 years at the Chicago Transit Authority, and then I came onto Sam Schwartz about six years ago. And it wasn’t even really a move when I came here to Sam Schwartz that I was even really looking to do. A good friend of mine, Mark de la Vergne who is now at the City of Detroit, was a principal in Chicago. And Mark has been a good friend of mine forever. And, you know, just learning about the firm through that—I met Sam a couple times, and at that point I was very happy with my job at the Chicago Transit Authority and was working on some really innovative things when I was the Manager of Strategic Planning there and probably had what I would say is the best job in the building as far as, like, exposure to different projects.

And I was sort of struck by a couple of things. Sam is a great leader. He’s incredible. Not only does he have a vision, but he’s a very big process guy. And so I was—you know, the more I got to know him and the more I got to know more people at the company, I just felt like this was something special. And, you know, I think you have to ask yourself these questions when you’re considering a career move from a job that you already like. You know, and at that time I just felt like, “Well, this is a very special place, and I could see enjoying myself and being able to enrich myself here for years to come.”

So the other thing that attracted me to the firm as well and, I think, one thing that makes us a special place is that we have a lot of people with government experience. And so understanding the constraints and the opportunities and just getting a sense of, like, what can be done from a government perspective, you know, when you’re advising clients, I think, also makes us a very good team to work with. And that’s pretty special too.

Cohen: So that’s interesting. I mean, I want to kind of tie together a couple of things there. So, one, you mentioned congestion pricing. I know that’s been some projects that you’ve worked on quite a bit and you’ve really enjoyed. Part of what I feel like is the big challenge right now is that we don’t properly price all the negative externalities of the choices that we make on how to move around. And that, to me, is a policy role. Right?

So I’m curious. When you’re looking at your clients and maybe even those that aren’t your clients—I guess, I’m kind of thinking about what you feel like the best cities and leaders are doing that you wish more communities would do. The reason I kind was thinking about this was congestion pricing is one that certainly in some areas—and I know you’re probably much more detailed than I am, but in some areas it seems like it would make a lot of sense. And yet New York is kind of working through it, but I don’t know exactly whether that’ll actually end up being worth much. So I’m really curious. Like, what really needs to happen in order to move some of these things forward? And particularly what do you see from some cities and leaders that you’re looking at that are like, “Yeah, these folks are doing it right”?

Iacobucci: Yeah, sure. Well, maybe I’ll adjust congestion pricing first, because I think from my perspective with my roots in transit it’s completely crazy that we have a user fee for transit and not a user fee for driving. Right? You know, we have a user fee for the sustainable mode that can actually make cities a place where we can move millions of people in and out of. Right? And, you know, so we price that and have a user fee that impacts consumer behavior, but we don’t do that for driving in a lot of cases. There’s obviously some exceptions with toll roads and things like that. But that being said, from like a city perspective, you know, I think that is coming to bear where, you know, with discussion of equity and equity in transportation that, you know, if user fees are used for sustainable modes then they should be, they ought to be used for other modes as well just as a basic premise.

I think the second thing too on congestion pricing, you know, there’s another thing too where just congestion has gotten so bad in so many areas that there is just—it has become a political issue. That’s what happened in New York finally. And Sam has been working on congestion pricing in New York for decades now in various iterations, but that’s probably another podcast. I won’t go too deep into that. But anyways, you know, I think one of the things about congestion pricing and, I think, one of the things that I want to tie in about, you know, what cities are doing things right, you know, congestion pricing is under study or under development in New York city—that’s the obvious one—but also San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles. Other jurisdictions are about to look at in a holistic way. And so this is a big, wide movement right now.

And I think that goes to say, you know, what strikes me is, like, I’d be happy to talk about some cities, but I think that it’s not necessarily the cities that are leading, because I think we have good leaders throughout the country right now, which is a great place to be. If you would just look at the NACTO story, I mean, one of the game changers for me is when I worked with NACTO between 2010 and 2012. I was at the Chicago Transit Authority at the time. And I remember going to NACTO Designing Cities in New York City and just being blown away that, like, this is by far where we need to go, and everything that was covered there in the organization, the topic areas, were things where cities needed to go that just weren’t simply being addressed previous to that. Right? And so it kind of moved the conversation forward.

And now, you know, about 10 years later I think that the word is out, and the kind of things that we used to debate about are sort of common. And we also—I think what NACTO has done as well is created, you know, this great leadership cohort throughout cities. So I always approach it from the perspective of if you’re a DOT commissioner or transit president or transit leader, I think that it’s not the lack of ideas necessarily but usually it’s based on the context of the region and what the region needs at that point. And so, you know, for instance if congestion isn’t high in a region, you’re probably not going to be able to talk about congestion pricing effectively—right—because of the problem statements there. That doesn’t mean that the leader in that city doesn’t think that congestion pricing is the right tool necessarily; but, I mean, that being said, I guess I’ll answer the question and just say I’ve worked in Chicago most of my life up to this time, and so I think what Chicago has done has been nothing short of remarkable.

And what I loved about working in Chicago too is that there was just like the radical idea that we could always improve on what we had done. And so, you know, a couple of things that I did in me tenure at the CTA is I helped develop the Chicago TOD ordinance. And that TOD ordinance, you know, we never had any idea that it would be so successful, that the private market would actually respond so well to the point where actually we had displacement and gentrification issues. Right?

Cohen: Wow.

Iacobucci: And what I love about Chicago is that, you know, city leaders and advocacy organizations and government agencies took a step back and said, “Okay, we need to adjust this, because there are some unintended consequences that nobody in the initial creation of that ever thought of.” Another good example is just improvements. I mean, The 606 is one of the great projects in the early 2010s and was a landmark, but there’s also been gentrification impacts there. And so when I was working with CDOT on the Logan Square projects we also worked with a community organization to do a racial equity impact analysis as part of that. And not to say that you can control everything, because there’s macroeconomic issues regarding displacement and gentrification so, but being able to take an intentional approach to that, I think, and doing what you can, understanding that we have to respond and update processes, that’s always a sort of frontline in Chicago, and I’ve always appreciated that there.

And so, you know, and the leadership there too, you know, I think we’ve just been lucky that the last couple mayors have chosen great leaders. And so, you know, I was able—fortunate enough to work with Gabe Klein when he was there and Scott Kubly, his deputy. And then Rebekah Scheinfeld who was my old boss at the CTA moved over to CDOT as well. And then Gia Biagi who is there now is terrific and has brought in some really great people. And then also at the staff level I’ve been able to work with people like Nate Roseberry or Kevin O’Malley or Jeff Shriver, Luann Hamilton. I mean, the list goes on, and, you know, just a terrific cohort of people looking to do the right things.
I mean, if you see what Chicago has done in the 2010s and it was just a dramatic change in mobility, kind of seeing through that so. And that’s based off my experience; not to say that other cities haven’t done that, because they have, but, you know, my experience there has been great, and I’ll always remember that fondly. Now, to Los Angeles. I mean, one of the reasons why I relocated out here is because of the leadership and kind of the thoughtfulness of where transportation needs to go.

Cohen: Yeah.

Iacobucci: LADOT has taken tremendous leadership. Seleta Reynolds has really taken what is an abstract vision and really quantified that and has set actionable goals for that. And we were lucky enough to assist her staff, Jarvis Murray, Brian Bass, and Irene Sae Koo, on the LADOT taxi and FH fee study, which is the first time that a DOT is really looking holistically at the regulatory framework that they could control and augmenting that or updating that for things like autonomous vehicles, to be able to identify how we can better manage impacts of TNCs, scooters, delivery vehicles, etcetera and at the same time also identifying a way that we could provide the taxi industry a road to be resilient in the future.

Because, you know, taxis have a very important function in Los Angeles here, where not only are they for major mobility but they also provide a lot of these paratransit rides and help with the access rides. So there’s an importance for that industry there. And so as part of that project, you know, there were both tactical and very visionary things that were done to update the regulatory structure to basically ensure that anything that operates on LADOT’s roadways, that we’re getting data on those and that we could potentially harness those to have better societal or overall macroimpacts on mobility.

A couple other examples—I’ll just say them really quick. The first project I worked on when I was at Sam Schwartz was in Grand Rapids. And we worked for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. for a project. It was originally a downtown plan, but it was named GR Forward. And what was amazing about that was we had a great leadership team. Kris Larson was leading the organization at the time, but we also worked with Andy Guy, Tim Kelly, and Bill Kirk, and others in addition to the transit agency there and in addition to the politicians. I mean, the mayor was involved in that project. And what was interesting about Grand Rapids is, you know, Grand Rapids is large enough where there’s really interesting and mobility issues, but I think it’s small enough where it’s nimble, where you can make real change very quickly. And so in many ways I was probably spoiled because the kind of things that we recommended and that were actually implemented—I mean, I think they implemented about 90% of the things that were recommended in the plan, which you just don’t see a lot of times when you’re doing planning studies.

And so—and just a couple instances. I mean, they did have a parking department, which was transformed into what’s called now Mobile GR, which is a mobility department. And so, you know, just the transition for the connotation of the naming of departments, you know, is really interesting. We simplified their downtown shuttle system. We created programs to identify complete streets throughout their downtown area. But the big thing about it is we work a lot with great partners. And Interface Studio was the lead on that, and Interface is a small planning firm based out of Philadelphia that we would work with a lot, does great things.

What people wanted in Grand Rapids, you know, wasn’t necessarily to have a mobility department; that’s not what people said. People wanted a grocery store downtown. They wanted a movie theater downtown. Right? And in order to do that we had to redevelop or come up with a plan to redevelop a lot of surface parking that was legacy of the 1960s and 1970s where they basically malled the district. And so with this planning process, I mean, there’s been a lot of infill development luckily there. And they’ve gotten a lot of those amenities, and it’s created more cumulative causation for economic development in Downtown Grand Rapids. And it’s a terrific place; it was a great place to work.

But we’ve been lucky because we’ve been able to work with leaders across the country. And, you know, some of the work we did in Detroit or in Miami or in Seattle has been great. You know, in Seattle we were able to work with Scott Kubly and now Sam Zimbabwe a lot on some major, major projects including the New Mobility Playbook, which is one of our, I think, our most treasured projects. You know, it just kind of, like, moved the conversation forward with that project and had a lot of good project managers up there that helped push that through, so.

But anyways, I’ll go back to it and just kind of wrap this up and say that, you know, I think there is great leadership in most places today. You know, I think if you went back 10 years ago, you might go to some cities and you’d say, like, “Okay, who is leading the DOT? Do they care anything about mobility? Do they care anything about equity? Do they care anything about multimodal or complete streets?” And I think the case is that everybody is fluent in that and everybody wants to push it forward. You know, it’s just a matter of resources or timing or political sensitivity that’s probably allowing some cities to excel faster than others.

Cohen: Yeah, I wonder about that. Yeah, so that’s a good point. Right? So kind of what you’re arguing there is that the kind of overall kind of floor, if you will, has risen. Right? And kind of everyone is at a higher level now than even 10, 15, 20 years ago, which is great. So then you kind of look at situations where you are making tangible steps forward now. And, again, I’m just trying to tease out, like, what’s different there. Partly what I wonder, is it coalescing around a vision?

Like, is this that it—you know, certainly if you’re going to do something like congestion pricing, you need to have a coalescing around a clear vision for what the purpose is, what you want the outcome of that to be, where you want the funds to go. It seems like this coalescing around this vision seems like that’s kind of subtext underneath any of these projects moving forward, which you touched on a little bit there when you talked about Grand Rapids; you had the mayor, and you had the different kind of stakeholders all involved there. I mean, am I getting closer there? Is there something else there?

Iacobucci: Yeah. No, I also think too that for every action or every evolution in mobility it becomes a new baseline as well. You know, so I think it’s also—you know, it’s been really interesting, because I think when I got out of grad school in the mid-aughts, you know, transportation was not sexy at all. You know, it wasn’t innovative. And a lot of people were going towards, like, housing or economic development. And, you know, I think now that’s changed because now that everything is sort of integrated.

There is a theory that I read once that I always like to use, which is the shifting baseline syndrome, which is, you know, if you’re a new planner coming into a city today or a new engineer coming into a city today, you sort of have a flat context. So for instance in Santa Monica if you took a walk down Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica you would think that the Expo Line has been here as long as the pier has—right—which isn’t the case. Right? But, you know, that’s your new baseline for anybody entering the industry new, so you’re building from that.

I’ve also used that theory to explain why younger people aren’t getting their licenses or that driving is not as desired as for older generations, because, for me who was born in ’77, I do remember a time when driving was cheap and pretty easy and frictionless to do. Right? I think if you were born anytime after that, like, you are always going to remember driving as, like, a time was always congested or always expensive and just a lot more friction there. So I think that mindset, you know, that the younger generation today is thinking, “Well, there’s got to be another option. There’s got to be a better way to do things.” You know, and so I think there’s that aspect too.

So anyways; I think that explains a little bit of it, but those are just my philosophical musings. But I think culturally we’ve moved, because, you know, we basically have come to a point where driving for the masses as a solution probably was out of date 20 years ago, and, you know, it just takes us a couple decades to kind of see that over and over to identify, “Well, there’s got to be a better way to do things with that in mind.”

Cohen: It always surprises me whenever I travel. You know, that’s one of the benefits of travel—right—is you get this different perspective. And so certainly I think in these major, urban environments driving is much more challenging and is congested and is expensive. I remember when I was in Los Angeles last year I had to take a trip way east, so wherever, like Pomona.

Iacobucci: Oh, yeah. Sure.

Cohen: Pomona, like, it looked way out there. I mean, I could have taken transit. I looked into transit. It was like three hours. So I rented a car, and I remember; I came back and I dropped the car off at Union Station. And I remember I filled up the tank at the gas station near Union Station. I think it was, like, $5.50 a gallon back then. It’s probably cheaper now, unfortunately. But I just remember it’s like, “Wow. Like, this is really an expensive process to go about here.” But I bring that up to say that, you know, a couple years ago I was up in Michigan, Traverse City area. You kind of need a car around Traverse City—you know—I mean, certainly in a lot of the suburbs and so forth.

And it’s just—you know, it’s like I always kind of struggle with that because, like, I do think that that makes this argument that I think a lot of people have, which is that, you know, cars are bad and so forth, which, you know, I think cars have their challenges and so forth. The bigger issue to me is that we haven’t accepted the full costs of the ownership, whether it’s the climate impact, congestion impact, safety impact, so forth. And if we did that, then I think it would be a different dynamic.

Iacobucci: Yeah. I think that’s—and I faced a lot of this early on in my career when I was planning for BRT as well. We were planning our first couple BRT routes in Chicago. You know, we were getting criticism for not going far enough, but the implementation that we did actually satisfied a better ride for most of the riders at most times with the least amount of impacts. Right? And so I think everything is driven by context. You know, I think part of where we’re at with this society right now in the Information Age is that people still try to use, like, sort of, like, analog statements on issues that are very nuanced by context. Right? And so as you mentioned like in Traverse City, like, everybody owning a car is not ridiculous. Right? But for another context it is ridiculous. Right? And it’s just the way that we can’t get around society.

So I think, you know, that’s a lot of our jobs too, is just try to make sense of that for cities and to be able to identify why and what we can change and within that context but also identifying that, like, “Yeah, cars inherently aren’t bad. We just went way too far with prioritizing them in most cities.” Right? And that’s basically it. You know? So my wife had a car when I met her, and I didn’t judge her. [LAUGHS] We share that car now, and I don’t judge myself. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And so I want to shift gears a little bit here, and I’m curious. You know, you mentioned you’re hiring staff there in the West Coast office of Sam Schwartz in Los Angeles. And, you know, you have a role in the community. What has made you effective as a leader?

Iacobucci: Sure. Well, you know, I think—this is a question I ask myself a lot, because I think my first leadership role that I took was when I was in the CTA about 12 years ago. I was in strategic planning at the CTA, and my manager at the time, Peter Fahrenwald, retired. And I was named manager of that department. And I say this for a couple of reasons because, A, Peter was at the CTA for about 26 years and is probably the most knowledgeable guy in the building. And so, while, I was very excited about the opportunity, like, those were some huge shoes to fill—right—and to be that. And the other thing too, I think, that kind of threw me into sort of, like, thinking about leadership and how you lead is that, you know, basically between a Friday and a Monday I was in charge of being the manager of people that were my peers. Right?

So I think for me, like, it was basically, like, “What could I do at this point to make sure that I’m a leader?” And I think a lot of those things, you know, there’s a lot of similarities to, like, just what makes you a good person overall. Right? And I think that’s always throughout my career has been a good way to do that. I would say that in addition too, what makes you a good person is that you just have to be extra communicative when you’re a leader. And I was lucky because I had a lot of good leadership throughout my career.

My first boss when I was at the CTA, John Peekay [ph][25:31] who ended up being the vice president of planning, you know, had a good philosophy that I learned a ton from him. And he was extremely empathetic and especially if, you know, understanding that people have lives outside of work. And the other thing is that, you know, most of the people that we work with have advanced degrees. Most people have master’s degrees that we were working with, and so, you know, the small stuff like making sure you’re timesheet is filled in and stuff like that, like he was very hands off and said, “Look; you’re professionals. You’ve gone through almost 20 years of education. I’m not going to ask you about these very basic administrative things necessarily. I’m not going to hone over your back.” And I always took that with me as well.

And, I think, building the right team and having the right culture as well. There’s a lot of bright people that work well together, and that’s important to find those people and to figure out everybody’s style as well. And being able to listen to those people as well. You know, when you hire really smart, determined people there’s always a sense that if you don’t listen to them you’ll probably lose them. Right? And then I think the other thing as well about leadership is, you know, not taking everything personally. Right?

And so especially in our field we’ve had people that we’ve hired that have gone on to work at other jobs. And especially with mobility companies and the rise of the TNCs, you know, a lot of smart people are going to those jobs. And, you know, in a lot of ways if that’s their desire there’s not anything I can offer them here that will match what they want to do there. Right? And so one of my first hires when I was Sam Schwartz and actually my intern over when I was at the CTA, Ben Norquist, you know, went to work for Lyft. And he’s doing a lot of the airport work, and it’s something he really wanted to get into.

And so it was tough to lose him. Right? But, you know, I think as part of being a leader you have to know that if you hire really smart, innovative people, that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for those people as well, and you might not be able to provide that. So you can’t take it personally. So, I think, those have helped me out overall, but that being said, like, it’s one of those things about leadership that I think I’m always open for other advice too. You know, so I think the more you actually do that and, you know, luckily it’s like, you know, whether it’s Sam or whether it was John Peekay, as I mentioned, you know, I’ve had, like, a great career of great leaders.

And I’ve also surrounded—you know, I think the leadership at our company too, you know, just my peers at my level, being able to talk through issues. And, you know, I have half-hour conversations commonly with leaders from other offices just to flesh out some of the challenges that we’re going through and being able just to understand and kind of troubleshoot things together. And so that’s also really helpful too, is having your own cohort to able to identify that, to have somebody to vent to, because being a leader and especially during these times is—you know, it can be a very difficult thing where you have to, like, A, make sure that your head is in the right space, you know, and then, B, you know, be responsive and help be that person that can make sure that people are always performing and everybody feels satisfied and feels dignified in what their doing.

Cohen: For sure. Where can folks learn more about Sam Schwartz and get in touch if they’re interested in learning more?

Iacobucci: We have a website., I think, is probably the best place and actually are starting to post blog posts on leadership and thought pieces. You could find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, etcetera. And then there’s also a couple email newsletters that you could subscribe to as well.

Cohen: Well, good. Well, Joe, thank you so much for giving us a little intro into your background and then also some of the work that you’re doing with Sam Schwartz and amazing leaders that you’ve worked with and some of the ways that you’ve been influenced by some of your mentors and peers to become a better leader yourself. So thank you so much for sharing that.

Iacobucci: Josh, thanks so much. Appreciate the opportunity. Take care.

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