Episode 16: Transportation Is A Means To An End, Not An End Itself

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Featuring Rob Puentes… [more context and any links/videos]

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Though our guest today has spent a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C. he recognizes that Washington doesn’t have all the answers.  The true answers come from the state and local governments and philanthropists who are trying innovative solutions to problems and sharing the results with others.  Rob Puentes from the Eno Center for Transportation shares these lessons and more on the latest edition of The Movement.  Let’s go.  

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

Cohen: I’m joined today by the Eno Center for Transportation’s president and CEO, Rob Puentes.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Eno Center, they are a nonprofit think-tank with the mission of improving transportation policy and leadership.  I was first introduced to the Eno Center a few years ago when I participated in one of their transportation policy research workshops and then later served on a panel for a session at the Future Leaders Development Conference, which is a leadership program they put on for graduate students annually.  So welcome to the movement, Rob.

Puentes: Thanks very much for having me.

Cohen: Give us a little bit of history into your background and how you arrived at the Eno Center and then what you are doing now at the Eno Center.

Puentes: I have been working pretty much here in Washington for a number of years.  I’ve been here at the Eno Center for Transportation for about three, and before that I spent 15 years at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program heading up their infrastructure initiative there.  And before that I was bouncing around at a couple of different advocacy organizations, trade organizations here in Washington, pretty much focused on this intersection between urban planning, transportation, and infrastructure.  

Cohen: Well, good.  And maybe give us a little bit more context.  I mean, I briefly gave an overview of the Eno Center, but maybe give us a little bit more context on what some of the Eno Center’s goals and objectives are.  

Puentes: Sure.  Eno is almost a 100-year-old, public-policy think-tank.  We were founded by William Phelps Eno. He was the world’s first traffic engineer who was living in Manhattan and looked out and saw cars and horses and trollies and carts intersecting with no rules behind them; and so he set out to develop the first rules of the road and how we should organize ourselves on the street.  Had a very different perspective on it back then than I’m sure it has today, but we are the only think-tank in the United States that’s focused on all modes of transportation.  

So we do everything from street-and-sidewalk-level transportation and e-scooters all the way up to aviation, unmanned aerial systems, and everything in between.  We focus some of the work on the federal government; we’re based here in Washington, but we do a lot of work with cities, states, metropolitan areas all across the country and increasingly all across the world, and we do it with the public and the private and the nonprofit sectors.  We obviously don’t do all that work at the same time. We’re just a small team here in our Washington office, but we try to focus on those areas where we can have the most impact and are the most salient in transportation today. So even though we are at a think-tank we don’t follow the ivory-tower model, and we work very, very closely with a whole range of partners all around the country, and we’re the hub of this transpiration network, looking at these big, important issues today.

Cohen: Well, let’s maybe transition into some of those big, important issues today.  So obviously right now it’s a really interesting time to be in mobility with all of the changes that are going on.  I sometimes joke that when I started at TransLoc back in 2008 obviously Uber and Lyft weren’t around then, but also neither was the iPhone.  So it’s just kind of wild to think about how far we’ve come in a very short timeframe. And so with all that’s going on in mobility right now and certainly from the city’s perspective you have the Uber and the Lyft and the testing of autonomous vehicles happening in D.C. soon and in other cities.  You have scooters; obviously, they’re present in D.C. and other cities. And so as you think about all that’s going on in mobility right now, what do you think are the barriers to achieving the green and equitable and accessible future that we all want to live in?

Puentes: It’s a great question, because it is a very dynamic time here in transportation.  And it’s a great time to be working in transportation for that reason, which shouldn’t be surprising because it’s a very dynamic time in American history, and transportation is not immune to a lot of those changes demographically, economically, globally, politically, everything.  

But in terms of kind of what the barriers are right now, you know, it may sound strange as a Washington-based organization, but I think this overreliance on the federal government for solutions remains a barrier.  There’s clearly a role for the federal government in mobility and in transportation; and as we’re working through to kind of remake federalism now and trying to figure out what the proper federal role is, we have to be careful not to rely on Washington especially at a time when there is so much innovation and new ideas coming out of cities and metro areas all across the country.  So that’s the first thing.

The second thing, I think, is taking more of an insular approach to the challenges that we’re facing.  And this may be less of a barrier as the days go on, but places that are just looking at themselves, cities, transit agencies, departments of transportation that are just looking at themselves for change are going to miss the bigger picture.  And I think what’s really exciting is places who are looking to their peers and learning from one another and taking ideas and tailoring them and replicating them. And there’s really an insatiable demand for that right now, so places that aren’t tapping into that, I think, are barriers for achieving the goals we want.  

And then the third thing that’s related is keeping this as a transportation discussion.  So if we’re just transportation people talking to other transportation people about transportation things, we’re going to get transportation outcomes.  And that’s fine, and we’ve done that for a number of years in this country, but if we can break transportation out of its box and we can break mobility discussion out of its box and connect it to the things that are very, very prominent and visible and pervasive in the United States right now, things around social equity, things around the environment, things around the economy, if we start to make transportation a part of a larger picture then we change everything exponentially. 

And as transportation people we say this all the time; we say, “Transportation is a means to an end; it’s not the end in and of itself.”  We always say it, and then we always forget it. So as much as we can keep going back to that and making sure that transportation is serving something else, that’s the way for success.  If we don’t do that, it’s going to remain a barrier.  

Cohen: Yeah, I think you’re right on there.  I think Clarence Anthony mentioned something similar at a speech he gave to the American Public Transportation Association back in November, and he was encouraging all the public transit leaders to really go outside of their lane, which I thought was a really nice way of—  

Puentes: Sure.  And he would know.  He would see that firsthand.  

Cohen: Yeah, exactly.  And so I think that is important.  And certainly the one you didn’t mention but the one that came to mind immediately when you were talking about that was housing, because certainly in a lot of our cities affordable housing, which is obviously related to equity as well, is an area that mobility and transportation impact tremendously.  And without looking at those together I’m afraid we might optimize for one at the expense of the other.  

Puentes: A hundred percent.

Cohen: I want to touch on a couple of those points that you brought up there, because I think they are relevant on a couple levels.  But, one, when you talk about the federal government and their role—and so one of the things I was thinking about as we prepared for this was back when you were at the Brookings Institution you produced a policy brief called A Bridge to Somewhere.  And one of the things that you talk about there—there’s a lot in there, but one is that the U.S. hadn’t kept pace with strategic investments in our nation’s infrastructure.  And you had said that the federal government had, quote, “lost focus.” And to put a finer point on it I think the quote that really jumped out to me was, “The federal transportation system lacks any overarching vision, goals, or guidance,” which I just thought was a very stark and clear indictment, if you will, on our federal transportation policy certainly at the time.  So I’m curious; is that still the case now, and why or why not? And how is that maybe related to what you said before, which is we don’t necessarily need to be as reliant on the federal government for solutions?

Puentes: I should clarify.  It’s not that we need to be less or more reliant; it’s that those roles are changing.  

Cohen: Sure.

Puentes: Because these challenges are so big and broad and we have estimates of trillions-plus dollars of infrastructure needs, I think folks think, “Well, these problems are so big only the federal government can solve them,” when that’s just not the way that it’s worked for a number of years now.  

And to your point, you know, even in the early 1990s when I think probably the federal government was ahead of everybody else outside the Beltway and thinking about what the federal program should look like thanks to Senator Moynihan and his colleagues, there was a clear vision and a goal.  They knew what they were trying to do, and they were trying to take the transportation program and update it from the interstate highway program into something that was much more responsive to the challenges that places were facing and all of that. So there was cohesiveness and clarity, and it spawned a whole revolution in transportation.

And to your question, no, we don’t have that right now.  We haven’t had it for a number of years, and now that we’re kind of post ISTEA and we’re clearly post interstate era, a very rational question to ask is, “What is the purpose of the federal program today?”  And I think there’s a lot of folks who have thought about that. It’s not like we can’t answer that question. And there are things that come up around safety and perhaps climate and perhaps accessibility, but we haven’t really articulated that.  

It manifests itself importantly today because of the discussions that are going on in Washington around raising the federal gasoline tax.  We certainly should be doing that, but we shouldn’t be doing it until we can put that money towards a coherent federal program, and we haven’t really heard that yet.  The administration now, to their credit frankly, has actually talked about a new paradigm.  

I don’t know if a lot of folks agree with it, but they’re trying to have a smaller federal role and putting the federal government in a different kind of frame vis-à-vis the cities, states, and metros.  And we’re going to debate that, and that may not be the vision folks are looking for, but it’s something. Right? And I think once we start having that discussion about the purpose and the frame for the program, that’ll start to loosen up all these other things.  But if we’re just leading with, “We need more money,” it’s going to be a very difficult political lift here in Washington.  

Cohen: I like the way you frame that.  I think it’s really easy to glom onto maybe a specific statutory item like, “Hey, we should raise the gas tax,” but if you don’t handcuff that to a larger vision around what you want to accomplish, I think, that’s where things can go sideways.  And so I liked how you are encouraging us to make sure we’re handcuffing those together; I think that makes a really good point. Why isn’t that handcuffed together more frequently? Why isn’t the specific policy proposal handcuffed more to the larger vision more?

Puentes: I think it gets back to what you were talking about before, and not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s because people would disagree with what I’m saying and say, “Of course there’s a vision for the federal transportation program, and that vision is to grow the economy of the United States,” something ephemeral like that.  And you can point to transportation improvements and economic growth and show some kind of parallel discussion. And that may or may not be the case, but the challenge is that’s not—I don’t think that’s a particularly salient argument, and I don’t even know if it’s true, because we’ve seen transportation investments and economic growth been decoupled in recent memory.  

So even if we get back to that, even if that’s where we settle, that would be okay; at least we have something then that is driving this program, but I want to have that discussion, figure out, “Well, what does it look like today or what is it going to look like in 2020, and what’s it going to look like into the future?” and once we start to have that discussion I think you’ll start to drive different policies, different programs, and be more responsive to these dynamic changes we’ve already talked about that are happening in transportation from coast to coast.  

Cohen: I would also argue that it needs to be a compelling vision too.  Right? It’s not only true and valid but it has to resonate with not only the folks that need to enact it but also the constituents, because at some point you’re going to have to sell that gas tax increase or whatever other policy change that’s going to go all the way down to the individual user.  You’re going to have to sell that, and I think it needs to be a compelling vision, and without that I think it’s going to run into a barrier there.  

Puentes: Yeah, and I think that’s precisely the point right now, is that they’ve been trying to articulate this vision about transportation and the economy together and it has not resonate; it hasn’t been very compelling.  So I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks that we don’t need an increase in the gas tax, for example. It hasn’t been raised since the early 1990s even to keep pace with inflation. It’s hard to look around and say we don’t need to at least fix the stuff that we have on the ground right now.  But the fact that you can’t get political alignment around it in light of these clear needs highlights that there is something that is clearly missing.

Cohen: It’s interesting to see the reception to, whatever side you are on it, but the reception to the Green New Deal and in the way that it has caused people to look at something that people have been talking about for years, but it’s raised its profile in such a way.  And I don’t know if that’s who is presenting it; I don’t know if that’s our particular time, but it just is interesting to see how that is resonating in a way that other things haven’t before.  

Puentes: Yeah, and that’s the live discussion right now, is how all this hangs together.  And, right, no matter what you think about it, they’re trying to use infrastructure and transportation for something, for green jobs and lower carbon, whatever it is, so it’s actually in service of something else; it’s not the end in and of itself.   

Cohen: Yeah.  So one of the things as I’ve talked to various leaders over the course of the last year, one of things that as I’ve been trying to understand how the best leaders are effecting change in their communities it’s become clear to me that there is the need for both the community that is in a place that is conducive to change but also a leader that is able to impact that community.  And so I want to dig into each of those in turn here, maybe starting with communities.  

And I’m trying to kind of separate the community from the actual person that’s doing good work.  So are there specific communities that you’ve come across over your time either at the Eno Center or prior that you feel like are doing a really good job of kind of framing out their community’s goals around transportation and mobility and what they stand for, what their vision is?

Puentes: Sure.  There’s lots of great examples all across the country.  And I’m going to be impressionistic. I was just in Los Angeles, and it’s hard to look at what’s going on in that region and not say, “That’s a very compelling vision and message, that  this is a region that wants to be a global leader and a world-class city, and they recognize that they can’t do that unless they have world-class transportation and infrastructure.”  

And so they’re raising money.  They’re going directly to the voters.  They’re using lots of different innovative means to raise money.  But they’re framing it around a new landscape in order to achieve these goals around economic growth, climate resilience, and social equity.  So I think Los Angeles is a great place to look at these issues, not just because of the scale, but because of the ambition that’s there and the leadership that’s in that region too.  And you can contrast that to what’s happening in New York, for example, which clearly has needs to invest in the MTA and a whole bunch of other infrastructure projects, but it’s framed around, “We don’t have any money.”  Right?  

I think a better frame in that region would be less that everything is falling apart and we better fix it quick because it’s been falling apart for a while, but more about, “Well, once we do that then this is what’s going to happen” and something that is more positive and affirmative.  And it may be difficult just given the challenges that they’re facing, but maybe they can learn from one another. So LA would be certainly one on the list of places.  

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, it seems like in LA there certainly is an appetite just based on the recent investments in public transit and infrastructure, that as a community they’re kind of recognizing that something needs to change, and they willing to invest in that.  I wonder how much of that is just due to the overall congestion that they’re dealing with and climate issues and air quality and so forth as kind of community drivers towards making those decisions. And it makes me wonder what it will take in other communities to kind of really have a tipping point, if you will, for the community to say, “Something needs to change.”

Puentes: Yeah, I think it depends on the place.  Right? There are lessons and best practices and worst practices that we can impart from other places, but the reality is that each place is a little different.  They have their own cultures, traditions, and environments, so while we can, again, learn a lot from Los Angeles, you know, there’s only so much that is directly translatable.  

But one of those things is clearly leadership, and I didn’t want to use names, but Phil Washington who runs LA Metro, a very powerful organization, and a lot of what they’ve been able to do in recent years is because of the leadership that he’s provided, the vision he’s put forth there, and his willingness to try different things and to not just do transportation as usual.  And for a field that didn’t change for a long time and now is undergoing dramatic change, that’s the kind of voice that you need in lots of other places. So I think leadership really matters, but it doesn’t have to look that way in other places.

I really like what they’ve been doing in Virginia, for example, where to try to get a handle on how that state was choosing transportation investments the department of transportation and others put together a new kind of scoring system.  And thinking that this is going to be some way just to rank projects and to make political leaders upset that they weren’t getting their projects funded that actually had the opposite effect; it gave the political leadership there the ability to say, “Thank you for putting these metrics together.  I didn’t like these projects in the first place, and I’m glad that we have this defense right now for not doing things that are no good.” So what they’re doing in Virginia, I think, is fantastic as well.  

And there’s also philanthropic leadership in a bunch of different places.  You know, that may not be as prevalent in those two I talked about. In places like in Boston there’s the Barr Foundation that’s there and the Kresge Foundation in Detroit.  They’re providing a very valuable vision for infrastructure and transportation by doing everything we’ve been talking about here, by contextualizing it and making it not just about transportation for transportation’s sake but for something else and something bigger and putting the might of the philanthropies behind it.  

So I think the short answer here is that clearly there are drivers of change in lots of different regions, but you’ve got to go into these places to really understand who is the driver and who is responsible, who is the leader.  It could be political leadership, it could be philanthropic, it could be civic, corporate, university; it really depends on the place you are, and that’s what makes it an exciting time right now. 

Cohen: Yeah, I like what you talked about there with the philanthropic, because you’re right; I don’t think I quite appreciated that, but there are a number of philanthropic groups that are contributing a lot not only money but also—again, I like what you said—context around these topics and really forcing the conversation, which I think is, again, part of the value.  And certainly groups that have benefited from philanthropy even though they’re not philanthropic organizations themselves, like TransitCenter as well, have also helped push that conversation forward. I appreciate that. I like those leaders that you mentioned there and appreciate you bringing those up.  

Let’s maybe transition to some takeaways that our audience can use because, again, what I want to do and what I think is part of the barrier is at some point we have to make decisions and we have to live with those decision.  And whether that’s not raising the gas tax for 20-some-odd years now or something else, you know, a lot of times that’s because we haven’t made the hard decisions that are necessary. And so I’m curious to see if you have any specific, tangible takeaways that our audience can use to help us build that future.

Puentes: I think the first thing—and a lot of this is redundant, what we talked about—is to frame it right and to frame the issue in terms of outcomes and not just the transportation outputs.  Again, those are very, very important for lots and lots of different transportation related reasons, but by framing it differently and framing it around outcomes, you’ve dramatically increased the amount of people who are interested in what you’re talking about.  So I think that’s the first thing.  

The second is to engage in partnerships, because transportation and mobility is such a collaborative thing by nature.  It crosses jurisdictional boundaries, involves many different actors; it’s a very difficult thing to affect by doing it alone or by doing it in an insular kind of fashion.  So we really like what’s happening with all new kinds of partnerships and relationships between all of these different groups that we talked about here already today. So kind of getting out of your comfort zone is certainly one thing.

And then learning from one another.  Because there isn’t that same kind of leadership coming out of Washington right now doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening.  This is America; there’s still a lot of great things that are happening all across the country, and it may be because of a little bit of a vacuum here in Washington.  But the reality is there’s so much innovative things that are happening across the country, and there’s huge demand for places to learn from one another, best practices, worst practices, how did you get that done, how did you get around this particular issue, who told you about this and how did—all those kinds of questions are being asked today, and so continuing to learn from one another and imparting these new practices, I think, is something that hopefully is going to be around for a long time.  

Cohen: Well, and I know that’s something that the Eno Center does with a lot of the leadership programs that you do.  You’re trying to facilitate those conversations as well. Is that fair?

Puentes: We do, and some of that is individual, and we appreciate you highlighting some of the works that we’ve done here with some of the leadership and the training classes and the coursework.  We’re also three years into working with a group of transit agencies on something called the Multi-Agency Exchange Program, which is eight transit agencies across the country where they bring together select members of these agencies to learn from one another, do all of the things that we’ve been talking about here, peer-to-peer learning, meet your match, working to understand, “Well, how have you addressed these problems in these places?” and then directly turning those into business practices, new proposals that they’re bringing right back to their transit agencies, having a very tangible and real impact on how these agencies are working.  So this Multi-Agency Exchange Program is something we’d love to see replicated all throughout transportation all throughout the county.  

Cohen: Wow.  Well, I appreciate you facilitating that work.  Where can folks find you and the Eno Center if they want to learn more about some of the things you’ve talked about today or support you guys?

Puentes: Well, we’re based here in Washington, but the number one way that folks get to us is on our website at www.EnoTrans.org.  That has all the information about not just the policy work we’ve done and the research but also a lot of these people-development functions we just talked about.  We have a publication called Eno Transportation Weekly produced by the unbelievable Jeff Davis every week, obviously, which is a tremendous resource for all things transportation.  And then you can find us on all social media platforms; I’m on Twitter, all kinds of different things.  

Cohen: Excellent.  What’s your Twitter handle?

Puentes: It’s @RPuentes.  

Cohen: Excellent.  Well, Rob, I appreciate the leadership you’re providing Eno Center.  I appreciate the Eno Center and the work you’re doing to advance some of this framing that we talked about today around the outcomes of transportation and not just the outputs, and wish you the best of luck, and thanks for joining me on The Movement.

Puentes: Well, thanks very much for the opportunity.  I really appreciate the questions and the discussion.  

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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