How you define innovation will obviously impact how you implement it. Timothy Papandreou of Emerging Transport Advisors took a different approach to innovation at LA Metro, SF Muni, and Waymo to ensure that innovation solved real problems.
Check out TransLoc’s 2021 poll analyzing Americans’ public transportation expectations and behaviors post-pandemic in our Transit Value Index Survey!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Papandreou: Timothy Papandreou
Cohen: After this episode with Emerging Transport Advisors founder Timothy Papandreou, you’ll find out why he’s been nicknamed “the Honey Badger,” and what you can do to also become one, coming up 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’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Timothy Papandreou is the founder of the global advisory firm Emerging Transport Advisors, after spending two and a half years at what would become Waymo and eight years at the San Francisco MTA in strategic planning, policy, and innovation roles. Welcome to The Movement, Timothy.
Papandreou: Thanks for having me, Josh. Great to be here.
Cohen: All right, good. So we were just catching up, talking about some recent travel that you’ve had to the East Coast; you’re based on the West Coast now. And I alluded to this a little bit in the bio there, that you’ve done a lot of innovation-type stuff. Right? You were kind of—weren’t you in charge of the smart city response for San Francisco? Is that right?
Papandreou: Yeah, yeah, I was the mayor’s lead for that, which was really interesting. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: I mean, that feels like a lifetime ago. Right? I mean—
Papandreou: It does.
Cohen: Holy smokes. So that was—what—2016, back when Secretary Foxx had this Smart City Challenge; 40 million bucks was up for grabs. San Francisco was one of the finalists, I believe. Right?
Papandreou: Yeah, we were one of the seven out of like, I think, initially over 80 or 100.
Papandreou: So we got down-selected, yeah.
Cohen: Wow. So that was kind of, I think, when I first learned about kind of the work you were doing. You were in that role, and then you went over to Google X, which became Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project. And so I think of the work you’re doing as innovation. And so, at the same time, I have to admit, my bias is that I feel like too often cities are using innovation as an excuse to avoid doing some of the hard work that is kind of not often that innovative and sometimes pretty unsexy. So I’m curious maybe if you can help me square that with kind of your perspective on that. I mean, am I off base? I mean, you agree? Do you disagree? What do you think?
Papandreou: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a—there’s a lot there. So I think what’s really interesting is that, you know, what the outside perspective on what innovation should be and what the inside perspective on what innovation should be, sometimes they’re very different things. I can speak from my experience when I was in—working at the Los Angeles MTA, and also in San Francisco with the SFMTA there. The word “innovation” was used to, like, basically mean buy shiny things that have got sensors and sounds and screens and sort of stuff. But the real innovation from my years of being there was actually the internal collaborations and a lot of the public sector coordination.
So, you know, many people don’t realize, but, you know, we have a federal government, state government; we actually have regional government as well; we have county governments and local governments. And all those governments have their own jurisdictions, their own budgets, their own visions and missions to achieve. And we have to—to create innovation, you have to probably work and talk with all of them. So a lot of the innovation that I was doing initially was just getting people to be in the same room for the first time and actually work with each other. You know, the innovation was developing the cross-functional team. The innovation was breaking down the silos. The innovation was including people that were not included before, whether they were community groups or organizations that had been historically excluded because of a whole bunch of issues that we can get into later.
And then, looking around the room and saying, “Who’s missing? Why aren’t they in this room?” Academics, companies, different groups that can offer so much value to this idea. And then once we figured out what the vision was and what the alignment was, what was the purpose of being there? Always asking the why. “Why are we doing this? Who does it serve? Who does it exclude? How do we include them?” And once you got to those real answers, then the pathway was also the innovation, like, you know, can we do a different pathway, can we do a design-thinking approach, can we do a challenge-based approach, can we do a pilot of some sort, because we don’t have the answers yet? And that was where the innovation was.
The procuring the trinkets and the toys and the shiny stuff was at the very tail end. But, you know, at the end of the day, if your customer was the public and the politicians and the companies, you had different responses for different people. And sometimes what they wanted was to cut a ribbon, above everything else. And you can get so much interest to create an innovative repaving schedule that meets the needs of social equity and marginalized communities, but if there’s no ribbon cutting, the politician is like, “Well, what’s the point? It’s not innovation.”
Papandreou: “But if you actually tack on something to it where there’s a ribbon cutting with a sensor or something, then that’s innovation.” And I was like, “Okay, if that’s what you care about, I need to get the roads repaved, I need to get the bike lanes done or the bus lanes, or get the buses to run on time, et cetera. How do we marry the two so that everybody gets what they want while ensuring that we actually are moving the needle forward on sustainability or social equity or undoing the harms of the previous programs?”
So a lot of that was the innovation by the undoing, relearning, cross-functional coordination, and bringing in the people in front of the latest technologies that actually met a lot of those criteria. Because, you know, we would get—can’t tell you how many times we would get pitched by all these companies.
Cohen: Oh sure.
Papandreou: “We got the best solution.” And our response was “Well, what’s the problem that we’re solving here?” Because I don’t want to tack on another sensor onto a bus that already has 14 or 15 different devices on it. We don’t need one more. Right? What we need them to do is run on time, to be reliable, and to get us to where we need to get to in terms of our overall vision.
So, articulating that, and then really identifying your problems, and the areas that you want to solve for, really gave the private sector, and even the academic sector, an understanding of where we’re at. We don’t need to do X, Y, and Z if we can’t solve for X first. Right? So come to us with ways you can help us solve for X, and then we’ll entertain your fantasies to do, you know, Y and Z.
So those were the kinds of big changes that we did in the world of innovation. Also making us more vulnerable. You know, we showed our problems up front. You know, we aired our dirty laundry up front, saying, “We don’t know the answers to this. We can’t do this.” Or, “These are the areas that we’re struggling internally.” And it sometimes came down to we don’t need more technology, we actually need staff capacity training; we need staff skilling, upskilling; we need to learn the way to use this new technology or this new process. And it usually came down to that.
And frankly, most of the times, we just needed more funding to hire more people so we could do these things more in-house while working with consultants and other people as well. So there’s a bit of that realization of here is our baseline, here is what the outside wants us to achieve, here is what we can achieve with the resources that we have; and how do we bridge that gap? And that gap was the innovation. That’s where a lot of the new ideas came in, the new thinking, the new approaches. It was a really exciting time. It was a really, really exciting time. But, yeah, it feels like a long, long time ago.
Cohen: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Well, so I want to maybe dig into that a little bit because I like the way you frame that. And I guess I’m trying to, you know, helicopter my way into some of those conference rooms there, whether that’s in 2016 or earlier, whenever you were doing some of this, what you call collaboration, which is bringing all these different people together. The question I have is around the questions you were asking in order to generate the answers that would be a fruitful conversation. Right?
Cohen: Because what you didn’t need was the highest paid person’s opinion.
Cohen: Right? What you didn’t need was a kind of a political answer. Right?
Cohen: What you really needed was, like, true solutions, like from the perspective of how can we meet the needs of our constituents or the users or whoever, you know, you’re talking about.
Cohen: So I guess I want to dig in a little bit deeper to say, how did you actually kind of create that environment to allow for that to happen? Because I’ve been in situations where, you know, too much is political talk, or it’s—
Cohen: —grandstanding or it’s—
Cohen: —deference to the highest elected person’s opinion. You know?
Papandreou: Right, right. I mean, you know, you need a trifecta to be effective in this space because we are dealing with what we call IRL. Right? This is in real life, and we’re dealing with the right-of-way, and the right-of-way affects everybody all the time. No matter what your position in life is or your abilities or whatever you have, you need to use the right-of-way at a certain point throughout the day.
Now, obviously, with COVID, we stayed indoors for much longer than we need to, but we eventually do need to use the right-of-way. And how you use the right-of-way depends on what we’ve programmed for that right-of-way. If that right-of-way has been allocated to focus on people and to help move people, then you can participate in various ways; you have lots of choices. But if that right-of-way has been programmed to focus only on private car ownership, if you’re not part of that system, you’re excluded; you can’t access it. Or even if it’s being policed in certain ways that discriminate against certain people because they look differently or, you know, are economically different from others, et cetera, there are all these codes and messages that we’re basically giving to people on our right-of-way of, “This is who’s included; this is who’s excluded; and this is who we’re going to target, frankly, and go after.”
So, understanding that world, peeling it back and saying, “Why is the right-of-way like this? Why is this happening to certain people? Why are Black—predominately Black and Brown people targeted in these ways and everybody else isn’t?” Like, all of these things were really fundamental to go back to, like, the fundamental construct of, like, how we live and move and are policed around our public right-of-way, and using that as the basis to basically use it as our core principles of, “Here is how we’re going to correct for, here is why we’re correcting for.” Those were like the fundamental pillars to start having those conversations.
And then finding out within our own organization, where are we causing the harm, where are we the obstructionists, where are we causing the problems, and articulate why and what are we willing to fix that. Many times, though, it was that we were only part of an ecosystem, and so we had to bring in other departments, other organizations, other government agencies—frankly, other companies and operators—into the tent, to be like, “Hey, we all have a part in this, but no one is actually only responsible for this outcome. But the outcome is there. So how do we work together in our respective silos, literally, and our respective responsibilities, to not work across purposes?” Like, we all agree that we all have the right to access a right-of-way, number one. We all agree that the most efficient way to move the most number of people is in the smallest footprint possible that has the least impacts of emissions, noise, waste, et cetera.
So we agreed on these fundamental principles, but then it got really nitty-gritty. Is it bike versus bus? Is it, you know, parking versus no parking? Is it a parklet? What’s the value of a parklet if it is removing paid parking that the MTA uses to fund its transport system? While the Economic Development Department is saying, “But a parklet will generate 10 times more revenue for the city’s tax base, which you’re also a recipient of.” But we don’t get it directly.
So all of these nuanced conversations of like, you know, what are we doing this for, and then getting to the point we agree that there is an approach that we all need to make concurrently and in our respective roles. But being that ringleader and being that circus master or circus ringleader, if you will, that was one of the jobs that I had. And, you know, frankly, I would be nicknamed the Honey Badger because I wasn’t afraid to go in there and deal with scorpions and deal with all these, like, you know, snakes and stuff and all these, like, you know, rustling—you know, ruffling feathers and getting people a little uncomfortable because the status quo wasn’t working. We could point to that and say, “Look, this is not working. Here is a string of events we’ve done over the last six decades or seven decades that have led to this. You all are inheriting these legacy issues. You’re not responsible technically for them, but you are overseeing them. So how do we teak it and change it?” And that was the collaboration and the ability to do things differently.
Also, the thing that we did differently as well was we actually gave people voices who felt that they hadn’t been listened to for a long time. So, rather than inviting the advocacy groups to our headquarters, which we did sometimes, and we learned didn’t really make sense, we went to them and said, “What do you need? What’s not working for you? What would you love to have that is not going to happen?” And then we would basically filter that through our current situation and say, “Look, here is what you want. Here is the current laws, rules, and processes we have. We’re going to tweak what we can in these places, but we’re still not going to meet you where you need to be because of we have so much legacy to catch up on. Can you help us in these areas?” and actually coming and saying, “Where can you help us?”
And the conversation was completely changed because it was no longer “Stop bugging us, advocates; you want the moon, and we can’t deliver it,” to “Here is what we can do, here is how we actually can educate you as well on our limitations. Can you find solutions for us in that space? Can you figure out the go-arounds with that?” Now, and sometimes we’d have situations where they’d be like, “Look, we’ll be your political cover for this, but we need you to say this, this, and this. And then here is where you go out and speak to so-and-so and so-and-so,” so that we can actually do the work. Once we get the greenlight, we’ll get in there with the paint truck, and we’ll paint this thing overnight, and we’ll get it done. Right? But those conversations had to, I mean, happen.
Like, one of the ways that we got people to come along this journey with us and actually walk along their journey, too, was, you know, we went on bike rides with the bike coalitions, we went on walks with the walking coalitions, we went on—we went to the various food banks with the various, you know, environmental justice groups and actually went with them and said, you know, “What’s going on here?” You know, what’s going on around them. And then we brought in the regional governments to do the environmental sensors for the areas. And so, realizing that it wasn’t just because we had a toolkit of transportation and a toolkit of, like, green bike lanes and red bus lanes, parklets, et cetera, sometimes that wasn’t what they needed. What they needed was an understanding of the environmental situation or the job access situation, so it’d bring in the job Workforce Development team to have a conversation with them about here is what they care about. Our transport option is like priority number seven for them. You know?
Papandreou: This is what we can do right now for them, but here is where we can help them on situations like that. It was also we had a lot of like, you know, modal wars and modal philosophies internally about bikes are best or walking is best, and transit is best and driving is terrible, et cetera, et cetera, not realizing that people were coming from a biased place of privilege and saying that, “Well, if you don’t have these resources, and if you don’t look like you, and you don’t have these abilities, this is why they’re driving, and it’s really important that their parking is available.” You know? Or other situations like that.
So, just creating a culture internally of empathy and empathizing. We had our engineers go in wheelchairs and navigate the city and come back and tell us like how they felt about it. We had bicycle engineers ride the bus with the bus driver and see the blind—see the spaces that they can’t see and how they can’t get to those areas. And vice versa. So everybody started to create a bit more empathy with each other and realized that we’re all shooting for the same north star. We doing it a little differently, but we are not the problem. You know, there’s a bunch of other reasons why things aren’t happening. And then we worked on those sorts. It was a very targeted, systemic approach to understanding the world around us, and then to figuring out how we can approach it and tactically either address them or make a path towards addressing them with that.
One of the highlights I want to just talk about is Vision Zero program. You know, we worked with the mayor very closely, but there was, like, the police department, the fire department, a whole bunch of different departments that collectively were responsible for Vision Zero but didn’t feel the need or didn’t feel the urgency to be responsible for every single death. And even in our engineering department didn’t actually feel responsible each time a person got severely injured or killed, and the hospital didn’t either. So all these different groups that are adding to the data, knowledge, adding to the system, there was no personal responsibility or accountability that we collectively, as departments, are responsible for these injuries and deaths. And until we had that realization that we collectively can actually change this, there wasn’t buy-in.
And that took a lot of work to get that buy-in, because the advocates who are screaming, you know, literally every day about it were not being listened to because no one listens to screams. Right? We had to try and get this to a point where people could actually be listened to, but also collectively have a responsibility, share the responsibility, know that no one entity is absolutely responsible. But we knew—always knew the outcome. If we can reduce the amount of instances where people can be injured or killed, then that’s worth pursuing, even if it means changing some of our internal processes that is uncomfortable and, you know, difficult and requires more money. We have to show that opportunity there as a way to get people to collaborate so that they could actually innovate. And then once we did that, the innovative practices from around the world, we could start filtering them in and working out how to actually do that.
Cohen: The theme that you’ve touched on a couple times, which I want to drill in on a little bit, is this vulnerability. Right? You talked about airing the dirty laundry and so forth, being vulnerable with the advocates. What was the staff capacity for that? Because that—in some ways, that kind of feels like that is antithetical to the way most public sector engages with constituents, to say like, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers here.”
Cohen: “I need your help.” Right?
Cohen: So help me understand, like, how did that work as far as your team or the department’s or the staff writ large, like, to like get all on the same page as it relates to that approach.
Papandreou: Yeah, it’s funny that you should say that, because, you know, internally, they’re very vulnerable. They did feel that they didn’t have the answers. They felt very confronted some—many times. Many of our public meetings and the whole way that we structure public meetings in the public sector is really problematic, and it creates a lot of tension. It creates undue amount of stress, and it creates a lot of abuse. You know, staff were basically fielding abuse from advocates and abuse from public at large that was coming to these meetings. Because the way they were structured, it funneled all of that anger and aggression and concern and, frankly, real fear into one or two people standing at the podium, which was just not the way to design it. So we changed that very quickly to make it more dispersed, to have it more spaced around the room, to have more conversations, to allow for conversation, and then to allow them to say that “These are great ideas or great questions; we won’t be able to do this right now because of X, Y, and Z,” but this is where we can actually put it in this discussion, in this place.
And we found that, over time, while there were the particular, you know, NIMBYs and a few other people that were just consistently, you know, grinding their axe no matter what we did, they started to become more and more quieted out by the fact that there was a lot more people who felt more approached to come in and actually show their opinions. No one likes a room where there’s two or three screaming people. People just basically get turned off. But when you have these smaller conversational spaces or going to their events, frankly, going to their spaces, where you’re an agenda item rather than the main event, allowed you to become more accessible and more vulnerable.
And once they realized that people like myself at my level could cover them—so I was like, “Look, I’ll be your cover. I’ll talk to the mayor. I’ll talk to the mayor’s staff, et cetera. I’ll cover you. Go ahead and do these workshops or meetings,” we started having a very different conversation. Also, I think, in the past it was like one piece of a project, and that was the community meeting, and there was no understanding of its context with the other departments, so we would bring them in as well. “Now, look; I know you’re talking about this bike lane that’s attached to a road that’s attached to a stormwater system that’s attached to some flooding that happened last year.” We bring in the right people to have those conversations because in the past what happened is like, “It’s not my department. I can’t talk about it.” It’s like, “Well, that doesn’t help the people who don’t know city departments.”
Papandreou: They know one city.
Papandreou: And then you represent the city, so you should have an understanding. So, there was a bit of internal alignment there, there was a bit of internal changes, and then we just started understanding public engagement a little differently. I mean, you know, we made a ton of mistakes. But the ability to engage in different ways was really, really important.
And then also to allow internally staff, again, to be listened to for the first time. They weren’t silenced. They were being elevated, and they were being escalated. We had to do an internal workshop ourselves. We created a strategic plan internally for the agency, which is the first time it ever happened, where we actually did an in-reach. We actually in-reached and had sections of teams working together for the first time who had a lot of bad blood and bad history between them. And a lot of it was, frankly, therapy, and “he said, she said, therefore, however.” You know, we had those conversations. And people got to highlight what they want to see differently, what they want to happen.
And rather than asking the public, “How can we improve transportation?” and response being, “Just build 20 subways,” which was 40 years away, we kind of pushed it to them and said, “Look, what can we do in three months, in six months, in 12 months?” That conversation changed, and we had things like innovations like all-door boarding. We had innovations like mobile payment, like things we could do in 12 months or less. We had a whole different respect and conversation around what can we deliver in our current roles. And “What’s innovative? You know, what is actually innovation?” because we knew innovation could just happen on its own, but was it actually meeting the needs of the population? Was it actually helping them? And did it meet our criteria of innovation, because not all innovation is good. And so we had to be very clear about that up front. And then what that helped the politicians look at it and say, “Look, we’ve made very clear metrics, very clear criteria. We’re going to press against this when someone doesn’t want to change something on their street, but at least we gave you the metrics and the outcome.”
I was famous or infamous for saying to our board, after we had adopted a whole bunch of guidelines and criteria, saying, “If you don’t agree to this right now, you’re on record basically going against the policies approved.” Right? That is not a cool thing to say many times, but I was at a point where it’s like, look, we’ve got to make it very clear there are causes and there are consequences for going around what you’ve just approved. Right? So I think a lot of that was, again, being a honey badger, you’re not afraid; you’re here to make things happen. And if you can do it in a way that gets as many people included, they may not be happy with the outcome, but they were at least acknowledged and included in the process.
Papandreou: I mean, that’s innovation. It’s making mistakes, failing, learning, redoing, and hopefully getting it to a place that’s actually better than it was before.
Cohen: All right. So conversation with the Honey Badger. We’re going to take it to the future now. So we talked a little bit about the past and some of the work you’re doing there. So one of the things you talk about in your work is what you call “SEA change,” which is shared, electric, automated changes coming down the pike here. And so, you know, I can look out in the world, and I can see the electric—obviously, you know, there’s been some huge investments and proclamations even in the last, you know, couple months that are kind of reinforcing that. Certainly, automation, you can see that’s coming. And again, timeline—I’m a little bit more bearish, but, you know, it’s out there.
The thing that I’m not as sure about is shared. And I’m really curious what some of the incentives the public sector can use to help ensure that we don’t end up in a situation where we’ve replaced internal combustion engines and maybe there’s not a person behind the wheel, but we still have mostly one-to-one car ownership. So—
Cohen: How are we going to navigate that? What’s the answer there?
Papandreou: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, and shared is—comes in many, many flavors. And I think we in the transport world get stuck on what we mean by shared. Shared can mean shared fleets. The product feature can be shared rides. We don’t need to share rides; we can just share fleets, and we will do the sharing part. We basically have to figure out ways to give people the independent mobility access that they crave and deserve, in ways that can provide the most access to opportunity for the most people, at the most times, without crowding others out and having them stuck because of the geometry issue that we have.
So, independent mobility is, frankly, sacrosanct. Everybody wants independent mobility. They want to be able to go to places when they want to go, on their terms, in their framework. When governments—which we’ve done in the last century—have basically said, “Yes, and it has to be this 20-foot-long vehicle that runs on fossil fuel and takes up all this space,” we made a huge error. Right? And some say it was on purpose. Some say it was unintended. Either way, it was a massive error. And what we have to do now is look at one century before that, people getting around by bicycle or by horse; that form factor was okay. It comes down to the form factor and how we expect people to get around.
Now, you and I don’t need more than one square yard of space to move our physical bodies around. Right?
Papandreou: Now, if we can fit in that one square yard of space, or one square meter—I’m bi; I can do both metric and imperial.
Papandreou: So, you know, if it can do—if it can move itself in one square meter of space, then you see that we’ve got plenty of room to move everybody for the foreseeable future. If we go on some sort of device that needs about one and a half square meters of space, one and a half square yards of space, whether it’s a scooter, a bike, or some sort of variation, still, plenty, plenty of room. But when we go into what we call a private car, which is about, you know, two yards plus by about five yards wide, so about 10 to 12 yards of physical space, and then it needs double or triple that to actually move around at a safe distance, we don’t have enough room, and we’ll never have enough room.
And so it comes down to the fundamental form factor, size of the internal footprint that we need to move humans around. And you can electrify it. You can turn it—you can run it on air. You can make it out of recycled soybeans. It doesn’t matter. It takes up way too much space. And unless it’s fully automated, will kill too many people. And it needs too much car parking that is still made out of cement, and cement is one—the second largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions.
So, it will never work, no matter how we, you know, put lipstick on it. So what we need to—yeah.
Cohen: So I don’t disagree with you. I don’t disagree with you. So, hundred percent agree. What you’re presenting is a hundred percent logical. Right?
Papandreou: Yeah, logic.
Cohen: The problem is it seems like we have a hard time right now in this country, sometimes, dealing with logic. Right? You know, whether it’s climate change—
Papandreou: Not just this country; it’s all over the world, trust me.
Cohen: All over the world. Fine.
Cohen: I’ll tar the whole world with that. So—
Cohen: How do we make that transition, though? Right?
Papandreou: Yeah. But, Josh, people are actually rational. You know, they do make rational decisions, and they do make logical decisions. When you send the signals to the person that the only way to be productive and accepted in society is to buy your own car and drive everywhere, that’s a pretty clear signal.
Papandreou: So when people say, “Oh, I’m just—it’s just personal preference,” it’s not personal preference. It’s fully designed and subsidized and cajoled into this particular decision. When they’ve deleted all other options, then you’ve basically got that choice, which is use this or don’t participate in society. Right? Now, that’s what we’ve done.
So, when you ask the question how do we get people to do a different way, we have to show it. We have to deallocate the space on the street and focus it on the best form factors and the most efficient way of using people—moving people around, which is walking; some sort of micromobility, bike pod, whatever you want to call it; a vehicle that can be shared or used on your own; and then a larger vehicle that is mostly going to be high-capacity, high-speed—we call it a bus, we call it a train. Every technology company thinks they can reinvent this space, but they’re really the four spaces that we have. Or we don’t move at all; we just stay at home and do our own thing. Right? So those—in those four spaces, what do you have as a public sector agency? You have the right-of-way. You have the allocation of the origin and destination support services, whether it’s a parking spot or a secured facility of some sort, or a pickup or a drop-off space, and you have pricing tools. Those are the three means you have to shift or to change behavior.
We are disincentivized in this country to do any of those three things because all the money and all the subsidy is coming from the use of the private car. What’s interesting, though, is that personal preferences aside, the trends are showing us that this is no longer going to be the status quo in the next couple of years. It doesn’t mean it’s going to switch overnight, but we know and we’re seeing that people’s preferences for ownership are shifting; people’s preferences for mobility and access and individual mobility is increasing actually. And the propulsion that we use there, which is going to shift to electric, means we’re not going to have a lot of these fossil fuel fees, fares, and fines, if we automate as well, that basically is the underpinning funding system for this entire transportation model that we have.
So, we’re basically ensuring its demise by even shifting to electrification, forget about sharing, and then automation basically puts the nail in the coffin for it. Again, not going to happen tomorrow; it’s going to happen over a series of decades. But unless we act now and start changing that, we’re just going to basically keep the status quo going until it physically does change to an electric automated vehicle that is moving you around and you only. That won’t change. There’s no incentive for technology companies to write policy for government. That doesn’t—it doesn’t work; it always backfires. GM tried it with the Futurama state, and we ended up with the cities that we have today. And the best personification of that Futurama is Dubai: massive highway in the middle, skyscrapers on both sides, and everybody driving everywhere. Even they’re saying it doesn’t work.
Papandreou: They’re changing the model around themselves. Right? So we know it doesn’t work. All the funding that we get from the taxes goes to fund these state DOTs, and their incentive is to build more highways because they get more funding if they build more highways. It’s like it’s this never-ending loop of insanity. And unless the federal government and the state governments and then the local governments snip that and shift that, it’s going to be status quo. What we see outside will change to recycled materials, electric propulsion, automated driving, but it’s the same thing, you know.
Cohen: So let’s play that out here a little bit.
Cohen: You know, you said the—you know, we’re on this kind of death loop, if you will, death spiral of kind of reinforcing bad implications of decisions. Help me understand, like, what is that inflection point—is that the right word? I don’t know if that’s the right word—that will get us out of that, that negative death spiral and into a virtuous circle.
Papandreou: I think it’s happening already. You know, governments are running out of money. You know, this infrastructure bill aside—that was going to be a one-time big injection—the writing is on the wall. We can’t afford to maintain our infrastructure. We have too much of it. The taxes are starting to diminish. It’s stressing our system out big time. But we’re still getting one-time grants and one-time injections to keep adding and adding and adding to it.
I think people as well—the demographics are changing. People don’t want to drive around everywhere if they don’t have to. People would prefer to be driven around, frankly, than driving themselves. There are also people now who want to, like, ride more bicycles; e-bike sales are going through the roof; bicycles are still going through the roof. There are more e-bike sales than there are EV sales; I think it’s like 10 to 1 or 20 to 1. And that’s transforming how people see themselves and getting around.
But I think it’s happening at the local level. Cities are realizing that their budgets are basically too vulnerable to this. You know, what Uber and Lyft basically showed them was that we didn’t need so much curbside parking as curbside pickup. Right? And that space, that curb, is really valuable, and we’re not utilizing it very well. So there’s a whole series of things that are happening simultaneously where people are waking up to the fact that, “I can get around without having to own my own car, but I might have to own my own bike or my own micromobility pod.” So the ownership piece is a big question mark. It’s the usage and the access to different ways to get around, which is really interesting.
But once we start bringing back economics back into the transportation equation, people do make the right choices. They do make the choices that are right for them. What we find is that we have a bunch of people who can change, who are able to, and who have the resources to, but the system doesn’t require them to. And so unless we get those policy levers in place to nudge and change, we’re not going to get this group of people to make those changes.
And I’m not talking about vulnerable populations or people who are predominately like Black and Brown populations who are polices, that only feel safe sometimes in a car. Even if they had a green bike lane and free bikes, they’re being policed. Those are fundamental issues that we need to acknowledge as well and address why things aren’t changing. But all of this is not going to come from an AV company. It’s going to come from government.
And I really get—I take issue sometimes with a lot of transportation leaders who say, “Well, we hope the AV company can do this, that, and whatever.” I’m like, “Well, what are you—what signal are you giving them, dude?” Like, you need to show them that this street is prioritizing walking, cycling, and shared mobility, and high-capacity mobility. And then the AV technology company will just basically figure that out and apply an algorithm, update and say, “This is for through roads only.” But you can’t expect the AV technology company to actually create policy on the street. And that doesn’t make—doesn’t work. Again, we go back to the Futurama.
So, I think it’s time that a lot of the transportation leaders, especially in the U.S., who are running these DOTs really start making the case of what they want their streets to be used for, how they want their streets to operate, and start tactically and politically getting that change happened, you know. And we’ve seen it everywhere. We’ve seen it with the slow streets. We’ve seen it with the streateries and the outdoor spaces. We’ve seen it with the bike lanes and bus lanes. But we’re still not seeing it with pricing. We’re still not seeing it—
Papandreou: —with the parking pricing. So there are some really invisible levers that need to be acted on. I mean, New York City is starting congestion pricing to death. It’s like, “Do it.” I was in Manhattan just now, and it—the streets were quiet enough that we could actually move around and not feel, you know, congested in the spaces. But the cars were going too fast, so because there’s so much space now.
But every single street was lined with cars parking for free. You know, so we’ve got all of these in Manhattan. And I’m like, “Wow.” In the densest city in the U.S. that is the most European-ish-like, we still can’t have car-free spaces. That just to me says we’re in big trouble, you know, and we need to figure this out really fast, because my biggest fear is that we’re going to, you know, solve for the building side of climate action, we’re going to solve for agriculture and everything else, and yet we’re still debating about parking spots and pricing vehicles, and we’re stuck, you know.
And, you know, I saw the water levels in Manhattan. There were still places that were still slightly underwater, even though it was a couple days later. And, you know, we don’t have time. You know, we need to figure this out real fast. So, we need more internal champions. We need more politicians to say yes. We need to try more things. Pricing is not the answer to everything, but it is a tool that we should be really exhausting, and we should just frankly stop the subsidies to private car ownership. Because, again, people are being cajoled into private car ownership because we’ve made it so easy. Well, let’s make it so easy to do bike ownership, to do micromobility access, to do all these other things that—to make public transit work better. Those things are really desperately needed, and the reason why none of them work is because we’ve over-subsidized the private car model, and none of these things can even compete. Right?
Cohen: Right, yeah.
Papandreou: So, I mean, and then we’re surprised, like, “Wow, no one wants to take this thing.” Of course not. It sucks. It takes too long. It’s unreliable. It’s terrible inside. It’s a terrible experience. Why are we surprised? Why are we surprised?
Cohen: Yeah, going back to your point earlier, people are rational.
Cohen: So if it’s a crappy experience, people are not going to take it if they have a choice. And even if they don’t have a choice, they still might not take it. They may say, “I’ll walk instead. I’ll get a ride with a buddy,” or whatever.
Cohen: So you’re a hundred percent right. I do think that just addressing parking would be a good first step in, like, at least—you know, even if you can’t get all the way to congestion pricing, being able to, like, effectively price the curb would be a great first step into helping kind of get us a little bit closer to a good place there.
Papandreou: Yeah, I mean, we—you know, and we tried in San Francisco. We did the SFpark program. And it was really effective. Actually, it was too effective. It really surprised people how effective it was. It also changed behavior. It helped actually traffic flow. It helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It reduced emissions in noise. It gave people more access to spaces. But the way that it was—the technology wasn’t ready at the time, and the way that it was presented in front of the public became, you know, a political buzzsaw.
And so you have to look at timing. You have to look at—again, the trifecta is always a strong political advocacy voice, strong advocates, and strong internal champions. When you have all three aligned, you can do some really cool stuff. But even then, you have a limited time window, and you’ve got to get it out the gate as soon as you can.
So, in the quiet times, it’s all about building those collaborative partnerships, building those alliances, building those internal resources so that when that light goes on, it’s all hands on deck to get this done. Right? And we know that we have a limited window. I think New York is there. I think—
Papandreou: —possibly San Francisco will get there too, as well. But we have a lot of work to do, and most of the work is just reallocating space on the street, reallocating the pricing mechanisms, correcting for all the harms that have been done to people in the past, in the present as well, frankly. And that is a lot of work in itself. That’s not shiny. It’s not sexy. It’s not cool. But it will shift the needle and it will get us to those directions that we can see.
And then, you know, AV technology, eVTOL technology, all those different technologies will be layers on top that will do really well. But without those fundamental building blocks—I think of AV technology and all these other technologies, they’re like—that’s the icing on the cake.
Papandreou: But the brick and mortar is the cake, and if you don’t have a cake and just icing, it’ll just flop. Right? It’s not going to work. So look at places like the Netherlands that have made it absolutely clear what is the expectation of using the street; who is required to be where, whether you’re walking, cycling, or driving or taking trains, et cetera; and then the way that they’ve actually slowed down the system enough that even if there’s a fender bender, it’s going to be okay. They’ve reallocated the space for parking. They’ve done all these things that basically says, “We’re AV-ready. You know, we are AV-ready.” But if you don’t have those street designs and policies in place in the background, you’re not AV-ready; in fact, you’re going to be AV-vulnerable.
Papandreou: And the AV’s job is to optimize, and they will take up every single square inch of space. And so we shouldn’t be surprised if our current situation right now just gets replaced with AV technology that it’s going to be any different. It’s going to be slightly different. It could be slightly better. But it’s not going to be the change that we need. Because without those policy levers in place, the AV technology will just basically improve the status quo slightly.
Cohen: And that’s coming from a former AV technology company executive, so—
Papandreou: Yeah, we used to say that out loud.
Papandreou: Like, we are not the solution. We are part of the solution. But there’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do. Sweden showed you that you can reduce vehicle fatalities in crashes dramatically before the two letters AV even became part of our lexicon. Right?
Papandreou: So—but again, the AV technology will be the layer on top that optimizes. AVs do really well when all those things are put in place. And they’re coming. You know, they’re—
Papandreou: And they’re going through their timeline. A lot of us have been saying it from day one. It’s a decade of transition. It’s not a switch; you don’t just turn it on. And it’s going to be a layered approach. But look at agriculture. Look at mining. Look at construction. They’re in deployment mode already.
Papandreou: You know. On the delivery side, on the logistics side, on the passenger side, a lot more work to do, but there’s a lot of forces behind it to make it happen. So we need to spend these next couple of years really strengthening our policy and our allocation of space and then the pricing mechanisms, so that those signals can become loud and clear to these new technologies that are coming, on how to act in the street. You know, and I think that’s going to be the big push for us over this next decade.
The 2020s will be make or break on if we can get this in place, because then, if we don’t, we’re just going to have the same problems again. And in fact, they might be even worse. Because what we haven’t talked about, Josh, is that we could solve this for passenger, and then right behind it is e-commerce that needs even more space, even more pickup and drop-offs, even more deliveries. And, you know, all that gain that we could make on reducing VMT, reducing vehicle ownership, reducing space on the street, could just be taken up by e-commerce. So we need to look at passenger and goods, which is why I’m always busy—[LAUGHS]—just, like, constantly busy.
Cohen: Tell us where people can learn more about Emerging Transport Advisors and the work you do.
Papandreou: Yeah, you can go to EmergingTransport.com. You can ping me on LinkedIn. Everything about me is online, so I’m about as transparent as you can get. But we look forward to helping anybody and everybody. We work with governments, companies, corporations, startups—pretty much anybody in this space that wants to learn how to navigate, what they can do, how they can be part of it, and how they can work on making sure that they’ll be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Cohen: Awesome. Timothy, thank you so much for joining me. This has been great.
Papandreou: You’re so welcome. Thanks so much for having me.
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.
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