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Episode 144 Guest Janet Attarian

Janet Attarian of SmithGroup believes the human side of our communities is what allows us to build trust, show empathy for each other, and integrate that sense of place into wherever we live and the mobility systems that serve us. 


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Cohen: Josh Cohen

Attarian: Janet Attarian

Cohen: This episode of The Movement podcast felt, hmm, different.  Though we talk about some tactical items related to community engagement and specific mobility projects, my conversation with Janet Attarian of SmithGroup was also grounded in something almost spiritual, related to our shared humanity.  You’re really going to enjoy this one.  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: Our guest today is Janet Attarian, senior mobility strategist and principal at SmithGroup in Detroit. Janet spent 20 years with the City of Chicago in various roles, including five years as Complete Streets director, before spending three years as deputy director of the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department.  Welcome to The Movement, Janet.

Attarian: Hi.  How are you?

Cohen: Let’s get started.  I want to know a little bit more about SmithGroup and some of the work you’re doing, and maybe kind of fill in a little bit more of your background.  I mean, I kind of gave some high-level points there, but maybe give a little bit more background on your career and kind of how you’ve ended up here.

Attarian: It is a bit of a tale.  SmithGroup, first, is a great interdisciplinary company.  What’s, I think, really fascinating about SmithGroup is they’ve been around for over 150 years. They are the oldest continuously operating architectural and engineering firm in the country.

Cohen: Wow.

Attarian: Which is something I have to admit I didn’t know before I started.  I knew they’d been around.  And what’s really cool is they’ve been in Detroit that whole time.  Of course, now they’re across the country, and, you know, in 15 different locations.  But I think there’s something really cool about that, you know, and that history, and, you know, you feel a sense of responsibility to that history, I think, especially being a principal and therefore an owner of the company.  So that’s pretty cool.

You know, myself, I am a licensed architect, so that is my professional training, but I have spent a career learning all the sort of complementary disciplines to that.  So some people have called me a planner, some people have called me an engineer, some people have called me a landscape architect.  I’ve had people argue with me about, “Oh no, you’re really this.”  And that—you know, the truth is I am an urban designer, and what I really care about and am passionate about are cities.  Now, that doesn’t mean just big cities.  I—wherever sort of people come together, if you will, to create a body politic and try to create a sense of place.  That, to me, qualifies as a city.  And I actually appreciate that scale differentiation, and I think it’s really important.

I think, a lot of times, we focus on the big cities, and I love big cities—you know, born in New York City, you know, worked in Detroit and Chicago; you know, I love my big cities—but I also really appreciate middle-sized cities and small towns, and I think that it’s really important to recognize that we, as people in this country, live in a wide range of spaces.  And that transect is something I’m actually kind of passionate about, because I think we need to bridge the transect.  I think that’s one of the challenges facing us as a country, is we need to stop dividing along that transect, and I think we need to come together along that transect.  And that can really make a difference.

So, you know, I’ve spent a career sort of working in those different spaces and kind of never fitting into anyone’s box, [LAUGHTER] which has been both a blessing and a curse, to be honest with you.

Cohen: I’m sure it is, yeah.

Attarian: You know, everyone wants you to specialize.  Everyone wants you to be this.  They want to define you.  And it’s not that I’ve set out to be undefined, but I just find, over and over again, I’m like, “No, I don’t fit nicely in your box; every time I try to be in there, it just doesn’t work for me.”  And I really like to sit at that space where all the disciplines come together and speak all the languages so that I can help people translate and actually build better-integrated projects.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, so you touched on this concept of kind of this, the—where everyone comes together for this body politic.  And I like the way you framed that, too, because, certainly, I’ve been in small towns, in their kind of—kind of the dense part of small towns.  Right?  Or even small cities.  And I enjoy that almost as much as I enjoy being in a big city, kind of in that—you know, so there’s something about kind of where that all comes together, if you will, kind of that you were speaking to there.  Are there some things that you’ve identified are critical elements of that healthy kind of coming together there?

Attarian: Yeah.  No, it’s a really good question.  You know, I think, at the end of the day, it all starts and ends with people.  [LAUGHS] You know, to a certain extent, people are my religion.  I believe in people.  People give me hope.  You know, I just—we’re flawed.  We have all sorts of issues.  We disagree.  We—but we’re also just amazing, and we have so much in common in the end.  Right?  And so I think when you get folks that care about their community—right—when they want to create places they enjoy recreating, getting together, you know, that they find beautiful or attractive, those things might be different from place to place and how they define it, but when they do that, that’s when you have those great moments.

And it doesn’t really matter if it’s, you know, four square blocks or, you know, hundreds of square blocks, because they infuse it with personality.  They bring art, they bring culture, they create that sense of place.  That just, I think, is what we all crave.  I think it’s just a natural thing that human beings want to be in social settings.  It doesn’t always mean that they want to be super, you know, interactive with each other.  Right?  It may be that they want a place where they can be quiet and observe others.  It may mean—but we do have that need. 

And I think that’s kind of what keeps bringing me back to transportation and mobility, because really there’s no place like the public right-of-way in terms of public space.  In most cities, it’s somewhere between 70 and 75% of our publicly held land.  And, you know, the other 25% is really important too.  I love that part too.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: But, you know, it’s this crazy thing, that our public land is this infrastructure.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: And it’s a way—it’s a place where we’re constantly coming together.  We come together on streets.  We come together in public transit.  We come together, you know, in plazas.  It’s how we define where we live, how we get around, how we explain to people where we are, and all the implications, sort of, of that.  And I find that that is just super compelling, and super challenging.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: Because we’ve turned a lot of this public space over to a single purpose.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: Which is an insane thing to have done.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: You know, moving cars from one place to another.  And I’m not anti-car.  But the idea that we’ve turned over so much of our public way to that one purpose is just incredibly shortsighted, and a strange blip in time if you look at the, you know, the progression of humanity and the development of cities.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure.  No, that’s a good point.  When I’m hearing you talk about this, and you maybe even said this specifically, kind of around—this is almost ethereal or mystical, the kind of this connection between people and place, the way that you see it.  And so how do you actually make that tangible, you know, in your work, right?  Because, you know, when you’re describing this, about you believe in people and it starts and ends with people, I agree with you.  I guess I’m trying to think about, like, how do you actually make that real into some of these projects, because like to me, that seems like the really hard part.

Attarian: It is.  [LAUGHTER] But it’s also the really fun part.  I mean—

Cohen: Sure.

Attarian: So, you know, I mean, there’s obviously many ways, but it does start with listening.  Right?  I mean, you have to go in, and you have to understand, you know, what is it, who are you working with, what is it that they need, you know, what are you also trying to accomplish, though, in the bigger picture.  Right?  I mean, as people working with cities or working at cities, we also have to say, “Okay, what are those system thinking, what are those network thinking that we need that are going to affect everybody and improve everyone’s quality of life?”  But then, you’re working at any one time, usually, on one little piece.  Right?  We don’t usually, unfortunately, get to build the whole network all at once.  Right?  

So when you’re working in any one piece, you’re working in a neighborhood, you’re working in a community, you’re affecting given businesses.  And so how do you bring those two things together, you know, what their specific needs are, what their challenges and opportunities are, and then the sort of larger moves that you’re trying to make to really create a connected system?  And that is such an important concept, because we can often build projects and not build systems—right—or networks.  And that’s not good.  And yet we can sometimes focus so much on the systems and networks, we forget about the people who are being impacted by them, and that’s not good.  Right?

And so how you bring those things together and get people what they need, but also get them to sort of understand how their piece creates something larger, and the strategic importance of that and how that can help them, I think, is just some of the art, if you will—

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: —of urban design and working in communities.

Cohen: I’m kind of putting you on the spot here, so forgive me, and you can certainly kind of tell me this is not, you know—but are there any canonical examples of kind of building a project that doesn’t kind of serve the system and then also the vice versa, you’ve kind of built for the system but not for the people?  Are any examples kind of come quickly to your mind?  Not necessarily ones that you’ve worked on, but ones that you’ve kind of seen from afar.

Attarian: Absolutely.  You know, I love Detroit.  It’s such an amazing city, and it’s going through such amazing development and change right now.  But it has struggled over the years with mobility.  And I like to say that Detroit builds mobility projects but doesn’t build a mobility system.  Right?  So you have the People Mover.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: And it’s sort of this thing on its own, and then you have now the QLINE, and it’s sort of this thing on its own.  And none of them are really integrated into a larger system, and how they work together or integrated fares or anything.  Right?  So you have these projects, they’re cool in and of themselves, but they’re not yet working together to build a larger system.  Right?  So that, to me, is a great example.

And on the other side, of course, you know, like in Chicago, when we were first given the mandate, you know, build a hundred miles of protected bike lanes—right?  And it’s not that we weren’t working carefully with communities or going in or trying to do those thing, but, you know, that meant a lot of times we were putting in bike lanes in places where communities weren’t quite sure yet why is this here, like, “We don’t—” you know, either because their perception was they didn’t ride bikes, or, you know, it connected through long stretches where, you know, there wasn’t so much bike activity to connect neighborhoods.

And so I think sometimes it’s very easy and one of the reasons bike lanes are often amazingly controversial—sometimes I think, “God, is there anything more difficult than building a bike lane?”  [LAUGHS] But—is that, you know, you are trying to get that network.  Right?  

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: The power of bike lanes is in the network.  And it’s hard to take the time to build and to understand the needs of every community along the way that that bike network needs to go through.  So I think that’s sometimes where—an example of where it kind of can happen the other time and, often, causes some of the friction—right—that you hear around bike lanes.

Cohen: It was interesting, I was talking to Stacy Thompson of LivableStreets Alliance in our last episode, and one of the things that she mentioned in some of the work they’ve done is, you know, in having those conversations with their ambassadors, going out to their neighbors and having the conversations about things like bike lanes, it was really interesting to kind of—the way she framed it—and we didn’t go too deep into it.  But the way she framed it was that, you know, they’re kind of asking the community what’s important to them.  

And sometimes that bike lane can serve the community need not as a bike lane, but as a way to slow down vehicle speeds on that street.  People may not care about riding bikes, but they do care about reducing vehicle speeds on that street.  And so that’s one way to say, “All right, well, maybe this is one way we can all kind of get together on the same page here,” even if it’s not that you’re ever going to ride the bike, you know.  So I thought it was kind of an interesting way to kind of frame it, to connect those things in a different way.

Attarian: I agree.  But I have to tell you, since I—because I have done that in many places, it still doesn’t make it necessarily an easy sell.

Cohen: Sure.

Attarian: Because there is a lot of perception that the bikes still are making it more complicated for people to drive.  So, you know, one thing I definitely learned working in Detroit is that, when we were first putting a lot of the new protected bike lanes in, it’s a lot of new striping; it’s a lot of, you know, new symbols; it’s a new way of getting used to driving, you know, “Do I have to worry about this bicyclist?  And what does it mean?  And how do I make a turn with these cyclists?  And, you know, how do I park my car?”  And just there’s a whole bunch of stuff.

And even though, you know, people were complaining about speeds, they were complaining about how difficult it was to cross the street, and we said, “Look, we don’t have the resources at this moment to, you know, put in the curb extensions or widen the sidewalks, but we could come in, and we could restripe these bike lanes.  We could restripe—” stripe in bike lanes, excuse me; there weren’t any.  “Really give the road a road diet, add protective bicycle lanes in a very important corridor for the cyclists, and really slow down traffic and make this safer and so much more rational.”

And some people got it, but some people were still like, you know, “What is this?  And how are you—you know, how could you do this?  And, you know, this is just making my driving experience so much more difficult.”  Which it’s a process, you know. 

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: People learn.  And you do have to walk them through that.  One thing I really believe, and I think really helps with all of this, is to really explain things to people, which sounds [LAUGHTER] self-evident.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: But I can’t tell you how many times, politically, people are petrified of you doing that.  And I am a real believer that that’s how you build trust.  And building trust is so fundamental to creating change.  And so you have to go in, and you have to explain to people, “Hey, we’re not just doing this because we’re urban designers and we think this is sexy and great and this is like why we get up in the morning.  No.  We are doing it because this is what we understand are the issues that we see out here.  These are the types of accidents that are happening.  Here’s exactly how we took that data and how we created a solution around that.  This is why we do these types of solutions.  Like, specifically how they reduce speeds.  Right?  Specifically how we reduce conflicts.”

And, you know, you also say, “I don’t know exactly how this will play out.  You know, we—and we will come back and iterate if it’s not working for you.”  Right?  Make that commitment to them.  But really take the time to explain it.  And I have found, even when people at the end of the day maybe still say, “Yeah, I’m still not convinced,” they trust that they have understood where you’re coming from—

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: —and that you don’t have just some agenda, that you just—you know, you want to make this happen.  And that—because that prevents a lot of projects from happening, and it prevents a lot of good work being way more controversial than it needs to be.

Cohen: Yeah, you know, it’s funny you mention that, and I’ve probably mentioned this before, but, you know, I’m, I’d say, above average as it relates to being able to understand some of these concepts and understand some of these nuances around planning and transportation and so forth; I’m in the industry, so forth.  And even when I look at some of this—you know, whether it’s, you know, MPO transportation plans, whether it’s recent, you know, planning things around the new development, or something like that, that the planning commission is working on, I’m looking at this, and, like, this is all mumbo jumbo to me.  Right?  And it’s like the audience for which it is written is not conducive to what you were just talking about, which is like really helping Joe Q. Public or Jane Q. Public understand what the heck is going on in their community.  It’s like if you said, “Hey, go to the city website and pull down that information”—even if you could find it, you would, like, look at it, and it’s like, “This is Greek to me.  I do not understand a word of this.”  Right? 

Attarian: Yeah.

Cohen: I mean, how do we solve that?

Attarian: Well, you know, it’s communication, communication, communication.  I mean, you literally can’t have enough of it.  And I will say it goes both ways.  Like, I have gone into communities and sat down and had conversations with folks and been stunned at how sophisticated they can talk about transportation, in ways that I just—quite frankly, I didn’t expect.  I’ll be honest with you.

And then, I’ve also had this other experience.  Right?  And I—the two things coexist at the same time.  I think people do inherently understand that it’s difficult to get around most of the time.  We have not—this is the crazy thing, right?  We have all this technology.  We’ve done all this stuff.  We’ve turned over so much of our roads.  But we haven’t really made it easy for people.  We’ve actually made it pretty difficult for people.  I mean, let’s think about what’s happening in transportation.  Congestion?  Not going down.  Pedestrian fatalities and crashes?  Not going down.  Emissions?  Not going down.  I mean—

Cohen: VMT.

Attarian: VMT?  Not going down.  I mean, and what’s amazing about that—and I don’t want to get off from your question, so I want to go back to it—but what’s amazing about that is, more and more people are saying the right thing.  Like, I am so impressed when I listen now to young folks coming into the profession, you know, attend webinars, because I remember when I started in this profession, and I would say things like, “You know, the streets represent 75% of our public way,” or, you know, “We need to make the—our streets a great place.”  And people thought I was a little weird, and I wasn’t the only person saying it, but it was still unusual, you know.  And now you go—and people just—it’s they just take it for granted.  They’re all saying it, and it’s so good to hear it.  It makes me feel so positive.

At the same time, though, I’m like, “So all this stuff has come up.  We’ve got more people talking and implementing Complete Streets, more mayors.  And yet we haven’t been able to change those things.  In fact, they continue to get worse.”  There are fundamental changes we are failing to make, that we are really at the point where they have got to happen.  But, all that said, bringing it back to talking with folks, I think people get that, at some intrinsic level.  You know, they might not just articulate everything I articulated, but they do understand.  They—people do travel more.  They’ve seen good transportation in places.  And, you know, in the most unlikely places, you’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I really wish X, or Y, or Z.”

But when it comes to the technical aspect of how that actually gets implemented, you know, that’s not their business, it’s not what they do.  Right?  And so it’s—I think, again, it’s marrying those aspirational pieces you hear from people, to some of the technical realities that, let’s face it, aren’t always a completely smooth transition as we’re working through it.  Right?  And to make those better.

But, you know, I think it really—if you can—you’ve got to find those synergies.  You’ve got to find those places where the triple bottom line is because people are going to see then that there’s benefit, one way or another, depending on how they’re coming at it.  Maybe they don’t care about this aspect, but they care about that aspect.  Right?

You’ve got to compromise, obviously, where appropriate.  I think I was listening to the Stacy episode too.  She mentioned, you know, sometimes you need that drop-off.  Right?  I mean, absolutely.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: I mean, you know, when we were doing a lot of the tactical urbanism stuff over this pandemic, you know, not everybody and every restaurant needed cafes out in the street.  [LAUGHS] Some of them did, but some of them—you know, it was all about pickup and drop-off.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: And, you know, we surveyed every business along the way to understand their specific needs, and then had to come up with that hybrid model that was going to really solve their issues.  And that’s the heavy lift that, you know, great DOTs and public work departments, I think, are doing around the country, which is going in and having those conversations with individual businesses and property owners along these corridors.

And, you know, when we took a parking lane away on Milwaukee in Chicago, you know, that was a heavy lift.  And it went really smoothly because, you know, people went out and they—our folks were talking every day with businesses.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: You know.  They were going into their shops and showing up and saying, “Hey, I want to talk to you about this bike lane that we’re thinking about doing and how this would affect your business and how we can work with you.”  And that made a huge difference.  Right?  It’s old-fashioned.  It’s old-school.  But you got to do it.

Cohen: Well, I mean, you know, part of where my mind goes with that is that, yes, it’s old-fashioned, yes, it’s old-school; we kind of know the solution, if you will, which is, you know, communication, listening.  Why is that so hard?  Because, you know, if there’s—like, if this is like a regression and it’s like, all right, this is one to one that, like, you do this, you have this return.  And obviously, it’s not one to one.  But, like, you know, I believe you when you say that, that there’s a high correlation there between taking this approach and kind of having this outcome.  What’s keeping more places from doing that?

Attarian: I think it’s a couple things.  I mean, obviously, it’s resource-intensive.  Right?  You know, and cities are strapped for resources all the time.  So some of it’s that.  And you have to have—that’s where leadership plays a role.  Right?  Leadership is really important here, because leadership has to put a priority on that.  Right?  And leadership has to say it’s worth the time because, of course, there’s often a lot of pressure to get things done quickly.  Right?  Politically, the pressure is in the other way.  I don’t want to say political leadership is don’t communicate.  I think political leadership wants you to communicate.  But there is a little bit of concern about controversy.  Right?  And when you go into these things, you never are quite sure when and where the controversy might come up.  Right?  Now, I think, overall, this kind of work tamps down the controversy.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Attarian: I think it makes people feel more comfortable, and you can get more done.  But it doesn’t mean you might not have to go through that.  Right?  You might not have to have those hard conversations.  You might not stir up some folks that are going to, you know, rally to fight against something, or something like that.  Right?  And so you have to overcome that.

So I think leadership—what does leadership value?  I think politics, and I think resources are three of the things that do tend to—and just time.  Right?  Like how quickly are people being told they need to make things happen.  And are they given the time to do that?  Because it does.  It just takes time.  And it helps if people are continuing to work in a community over and over again, because then you’re not starting fresh.  But if you’re coming in and starting fresh, it’s going to take some time.  And you’re going to have to build it up.  It’s also the fun part of the work.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: You know, I mean, I enjoy working with people.  I—it’s one of the interesting things about moving up in your career and taking a more leadership position, is you move away from being the person who is going into the community in the same way and having those conversations.  And there are days I just miss it.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: But people look at me.  They’re like, “Wait, you miss what?”  And I’m like, “No, I do.”  I really enjoy that.  You learn so much when you talk to people.  You realize—and your own assumptions.  You know, we all bring them, no matte how hard we try.  We have our assumptions.  We have our prejudices.  And you have to bring those openly to the table and listen, and then say, “Oh.”

You know, I think some of my most important insights have come, you know, when I’ve—like, okay, so with the Planning Department in Detroit, again, I was in a leadership position, so I wasn’t usually the one presenting at the public meeting.  But I would attend, and I’d sit in the audience, if you will—right—with the public.  And I would be listening to the presentations at the same time.  And I just love listening to what the community is saying as the presentation is going on—right—and how they’re reacting to it, and what they’re hearing.  And it gives you some real insight, like, “Okay, what are we doing right or wrong in the way we’re presenting this?  You know, how are people reacting to this information?”  Because you can think you’re being so clear, and the other person is hearing something completely different.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: That’s why we need humility when we do these things—right—because you can be so sure that, “No, this is right,” or, “I’m explaining this, or I think I’m communicating this,” and people really see things different.  I came to Detroit for a lot of reasons, but, certainly, I wanted to continue to challenge my assumptions and to learn to work even more collaboratively, and to expand those languages that I speak, if you will.  Right?  You know, Detroit is a place that will humble you again and again and again.  The people are amazing, and they’ve done amazing things, often with very little resources.  You know, when we started, the Planning Department, people in Detroit hadn’t seen a planner for 40, 50 years in their neighborhoods.

Cohen: Wow.

Attarian: I mean, it’s hard to sort of explain to people, sometimes, that, you know—there was no trust.  There was no reason to trust.  [LAUGHS] So we had to build all of that.  Right?  We had to go in and be pretty humble about, you know, “Hey, you know, we really want to help.”  “Well, what does that mean?  And are you really going to help?  And, well, we’ve been pretty—we’ve been helping ourselves for a long time, so can you actually help the helpers, if you will?”  Right?  What does that mean?  And how do you do that?

And I think these are some of the things that, as urban designers, as transportation officials, we have to really go into communities and understand how they see the world, and recognize that sometimes what makes them feel comfortable may be very different than what makes us feel comfortable and that sometimes where you have to start is really small.  You know, I’ve done some volunteer work where I’ve gone in and cleaned up neighborhoods in Detroit, and we spend all this time, you know, talking about mobility and new technology.  And I’m totally—I love it too.  And, you know, mobility hubs and all this stuff.  And I’m shoveling the dirt that has grown—and the grass that has grown over our sidewalks.  So, I mean, like, just basic [LAUGHS] sidewalks that you can actually walk on.  You know?

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: That aren’t so overgrown that you feel unsafe walking along the street.  Right?  You know, if you put yourself in that position, as somebody who lives in that neighborhood, and then you think about someone like me or someone else coming in and saying, “Hey, let’s talk about, you know, a new autonomous vehicle corridor,” I mean, you’re like, “Yeah, okay.”  [LAUGHS] Right?

Cohen: Yeah.  You might as well be an alien stepping off a UFO, right?

Attarian: Yeah.  I mean, what are you doing?  You know, what are you doing?  I mean, you have to—and I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about these other things.  Right?  But you have to recognize what you’re—where everyone is.  And you have to recognize that—can I bring resources to help with these basic things?  And if I’m going to also want to do these new things.  Right?

One of the things that I’ve done at SmithGroup that I’m really proud of is we built this past summer a mobility hub with eight Latinx high school girls in southwest Detroit, in Corktown.  They had, on a whim—they are part of a wonderful nonprofit called the Mercy Education Project, which works to provide educational attainment for young women in southwest Detroit.  And they had, on a whim, entered the Ford* Mobility Challenge and said, “We are going to build two mobility hubs.”  [LAUGHS] And they won.

Cohen: Wow.

Attarian: And then they were like, “Oh, we have—we sort of just did that.  We didn’t know we were going to win, and we have no real, like—” I mean, you know, build a mobility hub—right—what does that mean?  So they brought myself and SmithGroup on to help them.  And it was just an amazing project because it’s everything to me that mobility should be.  It was completely community-driven, but we brought in all the technology.  We had—we built the partnerships.  Right?  We had Verizon and 5G network.  We had Ford.  We had Spin and charging stations.  We had real-time transit information and told you where the scooters were, where the bikeshare was, you know, when the bus was coming, all that type of information.  It was completed solar-powered.  We worked with DTE.  Everything was done with solar power on site.

But it also had a DJ booth.  It also had a selfie wall.  It had picnic tables and artwork of the girls themselves, of strong women.  They want, you know, images of women riding bikes and taking mobility.  You know, it had great lighting to make them feel safe.  You know, it had Wi-Fi and places they could charge their phones.  You know, when you think about young people moving around a city, yeah, they want a place where they can get a scooter, but they also need a place where Mom can pick them up.

Cohen: Yeah.

Attarian: You know?

Cohen: That’s a great point.

Attarian: And they can feel safe waiting.  They—and a lot of them, their phone service, they’ve got phones, but they don’t have cellular.

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: So they need that, those Wi-Fi hotspots to tell Mom where they are.  Right? 

Cohen: Right.

Attarian: Or to look up information.  And working with them was just such an amazing experience, and really putting them in the driver’s seat.  We did a design charrette with them.  We—they—you know, they were involved in all of our meetings to get partners.  We raised over $100,000 in complementary services and donations to help build the thing.

And it was a great success.  And then we had vaccination clinics when it was opened, you know, which was really important in a community that, quite frankly, a lot of undocumented, so they feel very uncomfortable going to more traditional places to get vaccinated.  We did mentoring with the girls, speed dating at it—speed-dating mentoring for the girls there.  It was just, to me, everything mobility in neighborhoods should be.  And that’s, to me, how we bring new technology to communities.

It didn’t feel foreign.  It didn’t feel weird.  It didn’t feel like a spaceship had landed in their neighborhood.  And this is a neighborhood that’s being—a lot of change is happening because there’s the great new Ford development with the Michigan train station.  And so there’s all sorts of mobility talk happening in that neighborhood.  Right?  And there’s—a lot of it’s been controversial, but—

Cohen: Sure.

Attarian: —building this was something that people really felt good about, and they felt really supported, and it was a very welcome addition to the community.

Cohen: Well, I think that is a great story to end on for someone like you who believes in people and the way you look at all of these mobility challenges and opportunities as starting with people and ending with people.  I think that’s a great way to end it.  So thank you, Janet, so much, for joining me.  This has been a great introduction to your work and kind of the worldview that you’re bringing to that work.  So thank you so much for joining me on The Movement.

Attarian: No problem.  It was my pleasure.  Thanks 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 or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

*On March 1, 2022, global technology company Modaxo acquired TransLoc from Ford Motor Company. TransLoc is no longer affiliated with Ford or any Ford properties.