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Episode 102 guest David Kim

Lessons in civic engagement from his immigrant parents and early rides on Amtrak and BART in the 1970s shaped California State Transportation Agency Secretary David Kim’s commitment to both public service and equitable mobility which he’s using today to transform the lives of all Californians.

Hear more from Josh Cohen in his blog Your Mayor Should be Riding the Bus.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Kim: David Kim

Cohen: It’s powerful to hear leaders acknowledging systemic racism and owning the past transportation decisions that have hurt communities of color, but it’s also important to hear the recognition that actions speak louder than words. You’ll hear that and more from Secretary of the California State Transportation Agency David Kim, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Jensen: Our guest today is David Kim, Secretary of the California State Transportation Agency. Immediately preceding his current role, Secretary Kim was vice president of government relations at Hyundai and before that in various senior-level roles at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He’s even spent some time at the local level overseeing government affairs at LA Metro. Welcome to The Movement, Secretary Kim.

Kim: Thank you very much, L’erin and Josh. It’s great to be with you today, and thanks for the invitation to join you.

Jensen: We’re excited to have you. So I guess we’ll just go ahead and get started. You have worked to provide mobility access at the local, state, and federal levels for decades. What inspired this commitment you’ve made to advance mobility through public service?

Kim: Well, I think a good place to start would be family background. My parents came to the U.S. in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and that was well before the big wave of immigration from Korea and well before there was a Korean American or Asian American community to speak of. And I would say that both of my parents were pretty unusual for first-generation immigrants. They were actively involved in the community and really plugged into civic life with nonprofit organizations, local elections, and so forth. And they were true believers in the idea that it’s important for all of us to have a voice, to use it, and to speak up for ourselves and our community. And they always felt that if we fail to use that voice we are nothing more than spectators on the sidelines watching the game but not playing in the game.

So I learned those lessons of civic engagement early on while growing up in Davis, California where I spent most of my childhood. And then I lived in LA for about a decade as a young adult. And clearly it goes without saying that anyone who spends any amount of time in LA will have some thoughts about transportation. But, you know, people always ask me how in the world did I get interested in transportation and why, and it goes all the way back to the opening of the BART subway system in the Bay Area. That was in the ’70s. I was in elementary school at the time. And so one day my dad suggested we hop in the car, drive to Berkeley, which is about an hour west of Davis, and take a ride on this brand new subway system. So the entire family went. It was a family outing, and I was completely mesmerized by the experience, and it made a lasting impression on me. It was clean, modern, state-of-the-art at that time; and, as many of your listeners probably know, a portion of the BART system is elevated above ground, and so you’re gliding over neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland and seeing the world go by. I found it so fascinating, and I guess you could say that experience really changed my life. And little did I know it at the time but perhaps it set the stage for what would eventually become a career in transportation.

So fast-forward many years, and here we are in 2021. I’ve had the really good fortune to be able to work at all levels of government, local, state, and federal, and the private secretor as well. I lived and worked in D.C. for 25 years, and while in D.C., as L’erin mentioned earlier, I did a stint in the auto industry working for Hyundai Motor Company and also spent eight years in the Obama administration at U.S. DOT and Federal Highway Administration. All of those experiences and others prepared me well for my current role, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency or CalSTA as we call it. So taking on this role has been a homecoming of sorts and has been so rewarding to play a leadership role in the state where I was born and raised.

And even though I’m not brand-new in this job, one of the most common questions I get from people is, “David, what’s your vision?” So we set out to write a vision statement because the agency didn’t have one before I got there, and quite simply our vision is this, to transform the lives of all Californians through a safe, accessible, low-carbon, 21st century, multimodal transportation system. Now, the first part of that statement, “to transform the lives of all Californians,” really speaks to the idea that transportation is about people and improving their quality of life; and our job as we see it at CalSTA is to make sure that the mobility needs of individuals as well as society at large can thrive in a healthy, safe, and productive manner. And that’s what we try to do each and every single day.

Jensen: That’s right in line with what we believe over here at The Movement.

Kim: Glad to hear it.

Cohen: For sure. Yeah, I think that’s very consistent, and it’s certainly consistent with kind of the need to bring about change. Obviously the verb “transform” there, I think, is pretty important. I love that origin story, especially of your parents talking about, you know, using your voice, because I do think that’s a really important kind of lesson to learn early. It certainly makes sense too as we look—you know, certainly CalSTA put out a statement from you in June 2020 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. And I just want to read out part of that just to kind of help our audience kind of get some context here.

The statement was, quote, “We will be part of the solution. We will promote policies and programs that reflect principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we’ll work with stakeholders to identify areas of improvement. Through these and other efforts, transportation systems have the potential to achieve their intended purpose to provide safe and equitable access to opportunity and truly enhance quality of life,” end quote. And I just want to maybe kind of give you an opportunity, now that we’ve had, you know, six to seven months since that commitment that you’ve made, to really maybe understand kind of how you’re activating that and what you’re tactically doing to help, you know, move forward on being a part of that solution.

Kim: Yeah. Well, especially when it comes to transportation, I think, it’s critically important to talk about the connection with racial equity or lack of connection historically. And I think what we try to do in that statement is to make it crystal clear to everybody that, number one, system racism is wrong and we strongly condemn it, and, number two, transportation decisions of the past have displaced, divided, and damaged communities of color especially during the advent of the Interstate Highway System. And we want to own that and do something about it. And so the statement we put out was generally well received, but at the same time we also know that words are only as good as the actions we take. As we all know, actions speak louder than words, but they also may take more time. So that statement got the ball rolling. And we are already backing it up with tangible results, and we’re going to expect a lot more in the future.

And so, for example, we are seeing deep, meaningful discussions on race and equity taking place at Caltrans as well as the California Transportation Commission and all of our other departments. And these are discussions that are impacting the types of projects that will be funded and built going forward and how our policies can better support racial equity and, very importantly, how to fully integrate equity, justice, and inclusion when it comes to transportation planning, decision-making, and project delivery.

And the idea is to make sure it’s front and center and not an afterthought or a talking point but rather a lens through which we view all of our decisions and actions. And, as we say in our statement—I really think it simply comes down to this—transportation systems are about people. And so we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that systems are designed and delivered in a manner that will provide equitable and safe access to opportunity, especially for people of color and disadvantaged communities, to truly enhance quality of life. Because in the end I think that’s what it’s all about. And for those of us who consider transportation to be our calling in life, that’s why we’re here and that is our purpose.

Cohen: Well said. And, I think, you know, certainly that’s been a theme that has been something that we’ve explored on The Movement podcast, you know, the whole time. And I think it’s gotten, thankfully, even more focused over the course of the last six to seven months as more and more folks, I think, like you and CalSTA have made more very serious commitments into things that they want to do moving forward. And I think it’s going to take some time. Right? I mean, I think that having that perspective and integrating that perspective into everything you do is not something that, I think, can be rolled out over night. Right? That’s going to take a lot of education; it’s going to take a lot of reinforcement; it’s going to take a lot of leadership, frankly. That’s a big lift and an important one.

Kim: Absolutely right. And that’s why we wanted to start by having those internal conversations within our departments like Caltrans, which is a 20,000-employee agency, and our own office as well, because change is hard. And the reality is not everybody is on board with the idea that systemic racism and transportation decisions of the past are wrong. And so a big part of it is raising awareness and educating our own workforce and doing everything we can to enlist them and encourage their help to address these issues and to approach transportation in an entirely different way. So we have to kind of focus on our own internal situation, get our own house in order, and try to reform internal policies and practices, and that’s a big part of it.

Jensen: So, Secretary Kim, speaking of Caltrans, you oversee a broad portfolio of division and departments including Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the High-Speed Rail Authority. How do you keep such a diverse group of departments and employees on the same page and moving forward to achieve the state’s mobility, safety, and air-quality objectives as well as some of those racial and economic objectives as well?

Kim: Just, by the way, a background; CalSTA is a relatively new agency. It was created in 2013, and it was called something else before that. But in 2013, following a huge government reorganization, that’s when CalSTA was born. And the purpose behind CalSTA is to bring cabinet-level attention and focus to all of the important policy challenges facing the nation’s largest and most complex transportation system. And you’re right, L’erin, we are a very large agency. We have more than 40,000 employees, and I oversee a total of eight departments, boards, and commissions; and the biggest ones are Caltrans, DMV, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, California Highway Patrol, and various others. But being a large agency doesn’t mean we cannot be nimble or innovative in responding to emerging issues, and the pandemic is a great example. We’ve been all-hands-on-deck since COVID-19 emerged back in March. And so, for example, we’ve taken actions to make sure logistics and supply-chain challenges are addressed in real-time so that essential and critical supplies can be transported without delay. And we’ve been in regular contact with all of our supply chain partners including the California Trucking Association, all of California’s ports, and many others.

And I should also mention that when Congress passed the CARES Act last spring we moved aggressively to quickly distribute funding to small and rural transit agencies. In fact, we got the first 30 million out the door faster than almost any other state. And then the other thing we did, even in the midst of the pandemic, was to award $500-worth of grants to 17 transit providers up and down the state from one of our grant programs called the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program. And these grants will leverage more than 4.9 billion in additional investment to advance transformative transit projects. And, of course, these projects will help with economic recovery in a big way, job creation and so forth. So we are really focused on partnering with transit agencies to make sure they not only survive the pandemic but to thrive. That’s a huge priority for us. And I say that as someone who once worked for a transit agency, LA Metro. I am passionate about public transportation, and I think all of us know that transit agencies have taken a huge revenue hit because of record low levels of ridership, and they are fighting for their survival. But, Josh and L’erin, I truly believe this is a temporary state and that once a significant portion of the population has been vaccinated people will go back to transit. I think there is a hunger and pent-up demand, and I very much believe ridership will rebound.

And we really need transit to thrive for lots of reasons, one of which has to do with the urgent situation surrounding climate change and the need to encourage greater mode shift. And on that note let me briefly mention Governor Newsom’s executive order on climate change that came out last September. One of the centerpieces of that executive order is to require all new car sales in California to be zero emission by 2035. That is a really important strategy, and we have to do everything possible to ramp up consumer acceptance of zero-emission vehicles as well as massively expand EV charging infrastructure. And we’re going to be heavily focused on all of these things. In fact, I happen to drive a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle myself, and it’s a fabulous car. But, at the same time, we cannot rely exclusively on vehicle technologies. We’ve got to focus on the other side of the equation, and that is to strongly encourage greater mode shift, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and reduce our collective dependence on driving. And, I think, the bottom line is that we will not meet our climate goals without making progress on all of these things, vehicle technologies, plus mode shift.

And I just want to briefly mention an effort we’re working on. It’s called the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure, otherwise known as CAPTI. I know that’s a funny acronym, but that’s what we call it. This is part of the governor’s first executive order on climate change that came out in the fall of 2019. And so this plan, CAPTI, will guide the way in which we invest discretionary transportation funds to try as much as we can to prioritize projects that create more travel choices over projects that encourage and accommodate more driving. So that means emphasizing as much as possible bike and pedestrian projects along with transit and intercity passenger rail and other projects that do not increase VMT. And I think it’s a recognition of the fact that traditional, longstanding practices of prioritizing the movement of vehicles over the movement of people has had the effect of widening inequities.

And in California and throughout the country vehicle ownership has become an expensive burden and necessity for many people, especially those in low-income and disadvantaged communities. And along with this effort with CAPTI we’re also taking a hard look at our freight system, how to move goods in a sustainable way that reduces the environmental burden on disadvantaged communities that have suffered from poor air quality for so very long. And for the most part neighborhoods that are adjacent to our major ports, whether it be Port of LA Long Beach, Port of Oakland, these are neighborhoods that tend to be low-income communities of color, and they are disproportionately impacted when it comes to being on the receiving end of harmful emissions as well as noise and other impacts. So the mission is really to build a foundation towards a zero-emission freight system as the governor’s executive order highlights, and so we’re going to be really focused on that.

Cohen: I want to dig into this a little bit. You know, obviously you have your experience you’ve had at the federal level. And obviously with the recent elections both nationally and also with the runoff elections in Georgia it now looks like Democrats are going to have both the presidency and both houses of Congress. I’m curious how you think that will impact your work there in California with Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress.

Kim: Well, I think there’s reason to be optimistic and energized from a transportation standpoint. I view it as good news all around. And as we all saw during the presidential campaign, candidate Biden made infrastructure a top priority, and his campaign team developed a very detailed transportation policy agenda that I found really inspiring. And I’ve also liked what I’ve heard from his nominee for secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, especially when it comes to greater investments in active transportation and transit and rail, reducing our overall dependence on driving.

So, for example, if you look at that campaign document that the Biden team put out, he proposed big investments in rail and transit including zero-emission transit, and he also calls for 500,000 new EV charging stations and establishes a goal that all new American-built buses be zero-emission by 2030. And what’s really exciting about that is that all of that aligns with what Governor Newsom has called for in his various executive orders. And I also think there’s a lot of synergy between the Biden platform and the transportation reauthorization bill that the House passed last year called the INVEST in America Act. And, as you probably know, that bill not only increases funding across all modes including transit and rail but it really gets the policy right, and it aligns well with our priorities.

So, just a couple of examples, a few new funding programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a really strong emphasis on resiliency, making our infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and very importantly, and as I alluded to this earlier, it sets the stage for us and other parts of the country to really expand our network of alternative-fuel charging stations. And, in fact, when the bill was going through the House last year, I’m happy to say, we were successful in getting language added to the bill that removes the longstanding federal prohibition on commercial activity at highway rest areas. And that will make it possible for us to expand the network of EV charging stations along our interstate system.

So there’s a lot to like in the House reauthorization plan, and when you combine that with the Biden administration’s desire to advance a robust infrastructure plan with ambitious climate goals, I’m really excited about what could happen over the next year and months ahead.

Cohen: Yeah. I think Biden being such an Amtrak fan is definitely going to—I’m really curious to see what the impact of that’s going to be. He clearly understands the value prop. Right? He clearly understands the value of having reliable, shared transportation that’s energy efficient, available to as many people as possible.

Kim: That’s right. And your mentioning Amtrak reminded me—and not to dwell too much on my childhood, but I mentioned the story of BART and taking that as a kid when it opened up. Amtrak, same thing; Amtrak came of age in the ’70s, and I was a kid back then. And one summer our family took a vacation from Davis, California to Vancouver, British Columbia; and we took Amtrak all the way up from Northern California to Canada. And that was eye opening, an incredible trip, incredible experience to take Amtrak in its early days as a passenger rail system. So thankfully I had that experience, and just like taking BART in its early days, that Amtrak trip had an impression on me early on.

Cohen: Thank you so much for joining us here on The Movement podcast and sharing not only your experience, kind of exposure to transit from an early age, both Amtrak and BART, but how you’ve integrated those experiences and that interest in access to mobility throughout your career at the local, state, and federal levels, and the private sector as well. So best of luck to you in your work there as the secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, and keep up the great work.

Kim: Great. Thank you so much, Josh and L’erin, for having me. This was a fun conversation, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Jensen: Thank you.

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.


Hear more from Josh Cohen in his blog Your Mayor Should be Riding the Bus.