Episode 19: We Don’t Have to Resign Ourselves to Being a Car City with John Yi and Jason Zogg

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Welcome back to The Movement podcast.  This third episode in our five-episode series from the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium features two guests who are focused on how we don’t have to resign ourselves to being in a car city.  Up first is John Yi, executive director of advocacy group Los Angeles Walks, who explains the underappreciated role that our own two feet play in the mobility ecosystem. 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: We’re here at the City of Tomorrow Symposium in Los Angeles, and my guest now is John Yi, the executive director of Los Angeles Walks, and prior to that he was the advocacy director for the American Lung Association in California.  So welcome to the podcast.

Yi: Thank you for having me.  

Cohen: Share a little bit of what your organization does and really what you’re trying to accomplish.  

Yi: Yeah, so just briefly Los Angeles Walks is a nonprofit organization, and we’re committed to increasing access for all Angelenos.  We work on safe streets, increasing mobility for everyone in the city; and so a lot of our work, sort of bread and butter is community organizing.  We work with communities. What we do is do basic things like doing walk audits where we walk around the neighborhood and we talk about built infrastructure.  We learn from the communities about what areas are problematic, you know, if there needs to be a stop sign here, if the stoplight is too short of a distance, or where seniors can’t get across.  

So we really gain this local knowledge, and what we do is we work with these communities then to take collective action to make those changes.  So that means engaging with the city or different agencies and really give communities the power that they already have but to tap into that kind of power to really advocate for themselves, for their streets.

Cohen: So maybe give me an example of maybe a type of project or a type of change you’ve been able to accomplish.

Yi: Sure.  So something as simple even as like a street ramp.  In some places where you have students who are leaving school, having a place where especially if you have disabilities, if you’re a senior with a walker, having a speed ramp that actually goes down to the road.  A lot of places have ramps that just go down in one direction that kind of goes diagonally into the street, but many times if you have it where it’s actually facing across the street and almost perpendicular to each other, that’s a more conducive environment for actually people to walk and feel more safe.  

So basic sort of ramps like that on the sidewalks are incredibly sort of useful for a lot of residents.  And stuff like signs around schools to warn drivers that they’re entering a school zone, so basic stuff like that we work a community of residents there to realize what their built environment looks like. 

Cohen: One thing that I think a lot of people forget is that everyone is a pedestrian at some part of their journey.  

Yi: Exactly.  I love that you’re saying that; it’s so important to say, because a lot of people especially in the work that we do when we’ve talked about pedestrian issues, access, safer streets, a lot of people often think that is an issue or a topic that’s reserved to a certain community, people who are transit takers, people who don’t have cars.  And in a way that’s very classist; there are layers of racism in that, but we have to realize that we are all in a way walkers, and the reason a lot of us depend on cars is because our cities and our roads are built in a way that forces us to use cars. So, yeah, I mean, I think that’s such an important thing to say, that we are all pedestrians.

Cohen: You know, one of the things that we’ve done in our city—there was a group that started this up, and they did it kind of rogue first, which was even better—was they put up these signs that just said, you know, “So-and-so restaurant is a seven-minute walk from here.”  

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: Right?  And it even had a QR code to give them a direction.

Yi: Almost like a wayfinder, yeah.  

Cohen: Yeah, but it was like a rogue one.  And the real purpose was to kind of demystify the walking time.  Right?

Yi: Oh, yeah.

Cohen: And it’s become more prevalent over the last couple of years.  I noticed it at the airport on the way down here in Raleigh-Durham where we are.  You know, they have a sign there right when you enter the concourse to say it’s a three-minute walk to—

Yi: Yeah?

Cohen: You know?  And so it’s important to, like, “Oh, three minutes?  That’s nothing.” You know? But it is funny to otherwise think about that.

Yi: I can’t even think of a city that’s even more in need of something like that than LA.  It’s because LA is such a large, sprawling city. And for those who might be from LA, I once walked from Koreatown to Downtown.  And for an Angeleno, no one would do that normally because first our perception and idea is these are just large distances; and it’s actually pretty walkable.  I mean, the streets can be better, there can be more shade, but the distance is not that far as we would normally think. And so breaking down that perception, that sort of stereotype there, yeah, we’re a city that you can’t go from A to B unless you are in a vehicle is something that we are working to break down, so it’s a very good point.

Cohen: So you mentioned shade there.

Yi: Yes.

Cohen: You know, there’s an urban planner, Brent Toderian, who is the former head of planning for Vancouver, and one of the things that he says is, “It doesn’t really matter the question; the answer is always street trees.”  You know?

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: And, I mean, obviously I think that’s only somewhat tongue-in-cheek for him, but you mentioned shade, and certainly depending on the neighborhood you’re in it’s a big issue that might impact whether people feel comfortable enough to walk.  Right?

Yi: I mean, let’s not even talk about trees; let’s talk about bus stops, having shaded bus stops.  And I so I think a report came out recently about LA, and they were saying in especially in communities of color and low-income communities there are less bus stops as much more affluent communities.  And so something as simple as shade, as you’re brining up, can make a huge difference.  

And so like a local example is the San Gabriel Valley north of sort of Central LA.  And it’s your typical, sprawling LA suburb, and that’s where I grew up as a kid. And even as a kid we couldn’t go too far on our bikes because we would be burning in the sun in the streets, so we always stayed near our neighborhood.  And so there what you literally have is entire communities that are sort of stuck in their own islands and there’s not walkable spaces to leave. So what are you relying on? Your car. So shade on the streets can be a huge change to even walkability for a lot of folks.  

Cohen: So walkability and also just beauty.  Right?

Yi: Beauty as well, yeah.

Cohen: Yeah, and again, I feel like that’s one piece that we sometimes forget, is that we think of our streets as very quote-unquote “utilitarian.”  Right?

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: And they are.  Right? But I think there’s also value in them being these places of whimsy, of comfort—

Yi: Fellowship amongst your neighbors.  Totally, yeah.  

Cohen: Fellowship, yeah, totally.  Yeah, and so it’s kind of helpful to kind of reframe that narrative around that.  Right?

Yi: Because beauty isn’t just about aesthetics.  Beauty is also about whether you want to even engage in that street to begin with.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Yi: So it’s true one can say aesthetically we need to have prettier streets, but, “Hey, if it’s not pretty then I don’t want to engage it,” and it won’t be actually utilized.  So I think it goes beyond just aesthetics.  

Cohen: Yeah.  I want to revisit your experience with the American Lung Association, and the reason I want to do that is that it may seem from the outside that your experience there versus what you’re doing now are somewhat different, but, in fact, I actually think they’re pretty related.  You know?

Yi: Oh, totally.  Yeah.

Cohen: And so I’m interested—you know, obviously over the course of the last probably 30 years the role of smoking and lung cancer has been pretty closely linked, and I think the American Lung Association and other advocacy groups have done a great job to help raise the profile of that cost of that.  And so I want to maybe kind of bring that over to the streets.

Yi: Sure.

Cohen: Why is it so hard for communities to really make the investments necessary to really make Vision Zero a reality?  Because we’ve got these communities that are making some progress. I’m still not sure that they’ve really made the commitment.  Right? You know, are there some lessons that maybe you could pull out of your experience from the American Lung Association that may be valuable as we think about what we’re going to need to do going forward to make Vision Zero truly Vision Zero?

Yi: So I love that you mention that.  So if I were to bring an example, just decades ago the idea of telling someone they can’t smoke cigarettes was just absurd.  “These are my cigarettes; I can do what I want.” I think a few days ago the City of Beverly Hills banned all sales of tobacco, every kind.

Cohen: Wow.

Yi: And so within a span of a few decades perceptions of tobacco has changed completely.  And so in a similar way I think we need to do the same thing when it comes around mobility issues.  And especially in a city like California everyone starts with two foundational facts. One is our streets are awful; no one would disagree vehemently about that.  Then a second is we have horrible traffic. So if you have those two foundational facts everyone believes in why isn’t the next step then, “What can we do to fix that?  How can we change that?”  

But the conversation rarely goes there.  Most Angelenos just kind of resign themselves to this sort of very LA zeitgeist that we’re just a car city and that’s just the way we are.  And so I think with public education, with really having some laws that enforce some folks to really think about using their metro or walking, I think, is a way that can really move ourselves in that direction.

Cohen: Yeah.  And obviously that’s the role of government; regulation is to kind of provide the guiderails or to help kind of create the outcome that you want.  Right?

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: And on some issues, as you’ve noted, the government tends to be more hands-off.  Right?

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: And then in others they tend to be more hands on.  And I think the analogy you used with tobacco and their sales really shows that there can be that change over time, even if at that time it doesn’t actually feel like it may happen.  You know?

Yi: Yeah, definitely.

Cohen: And certainly going forward when I think about what it’s going to take for our cities to change their relationship with driving, that to me feel as big as what it would take for a whole city and a major metropolitan area to say, “We’re not going to sell tobacco anymore.”

Yi: Yeah.

Cohen: Like, that’s kind of mindboggling.  

Yi: No, exactly.  It’s mindboggling, but the California health department has—I think by 2035 they’re dedicating the state to go completely zero in tobacco use.  

Cohen: So I want to build on that because this is a good connection to leadership.  Right?

Yi: Sure.  Yeah.

Cohen: So none of this happens without leadership.  And I’m curious from your perspective as it relates to your experience with leaders, whether it’s inside transportation and mobility or outside, what are the best leaders doing to affect change in that way?

Yi: You know, I think to build that kind of leadership it comes down to power, to be honest.  And the communities that usually rely on public transportation, the communities that really rely on walking whether it’s to work, school, all of that, are usually communities that are disenfranchised, usually are communities that don’t have that kind of political power.  And so I think organizations like LA Walks and a number of great organizations in this area are working with these communities and making sure these communities, they run for office one day, that people who live this kind of life experience are one day sitting on the neighborhood council, are engaging their elected officials, especially in a City of LA as this big; we have 15 city council members.  So making sure they engage with city council members and show these stories. And then when those decisions are being made there is always a layer of pedestrian issues of a mindset that’s sort of part of that decision-making.  

And at this point it’s really difficult to have that thought in elected officials’ minds, and so I think it behooves us to build that kind of power in the community to remind them to consider our issues.  And, I mean, not just for this, but I think what makes walking such an interesting topic and such a beautiful topic is that it’s super intersectional. So if you’re talking about food deserts, walking is involved with them for accessibility.  If you talk about senior issues, whether they can get to the recreation center, you know, go to the Metro, walking is included into that. When it comes to parts, that’s also included. So by making walking not just an issue for a certain group of people but an issue for all, as we were mentioning earlier, is the way we can really build power around this.

Cohen: What are some other barriers that need to be overcome in order to create this equitable and accessible and green future we all want to live in?

Yi: Homeownership.

Cohen: Homeownership; let’s talk about that.

Yi: So LA has one of the lowest homeownership rates.  I think it’s under 50% compared to other large metropolitan areas.  And the reason I bring up homeownership is, you know, we can work in these communities, bring some great changes into it, but for some time some of these communities—I mean, they see a bike lane come in, it’s a sign of gentrification; it’s a sign of development.  And so for many folks they’re afraid of that. And so in my dream role, if I could have one, by giving residents the ability to own their homes, to have a real stake in their streets, literally a stake in the streets, I think you would have a much larger buy-in of communities that often times are disenfranchised.  And so I think that would really change the way we see our streets and the way we engage with our streets.

Cohen: What’s so interesting about that is that you’ve got this idea—and it’s not an idea.  I mean, I guess there’s obviously been some data about this, but it is kind of mindboggling to me that, like, a bike lane by itself can be seen as gentrification.  You know, in some ways when you look at this world where we have so much trouble getting bike lanes, it’s kind of mindboggling to me to say, like, “Once you have one, that’s a sign that the whole neighborhood is going to get bought up,” and in some ways it’s like, “Well, shucks.  If that’s the case I’m surprised we’re not building more of them,” because, you know, there’s tax base and so forth.

Yi: It almost goes full circle because you go to more like high-income communities where you put a bike lane and then they go crazy about it because for them that’s a sign of congestion and more traffic.  So, again, there’s a lot more education we need to do, but at the same time services need to provide Angelenos to make sure that the changes that happen in their community is for the community and by the community.

Cohen: I want to maybe wrap up with this one, which is what has been something that you found especially interesting today at this City of Tomorrow Symposium or that you maybe perhaps learned that you didn’t already know?

Yi: You know, this is super basic, but technology.  Just recently I started taking e-scooters. I took an e-scooter here actually.  And so I think technology has a huge role to play. And as I’m looking at sort of today’s events I’m realizing we’re sort of at a cusp.  I’m being a little dramatic, but I feel like we’re at a real cusp of how to decide what the future city looks like, and it makes me realize how much more important it is to talk about walkability, because I feel like that will be—not I feel; I know that will be a key element of the city of the future, and if we don’t think about walkability and whether our communities are walkable, that is not going to be the city of the future, especially with the way of the electrification of cars, with these ridesharing services, and so I think that’s going to be a huge part of it, and if we don’t listen I think we’re going to miss a boat and the world is going to move on without us.  

Cohen: John, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak today.  This was great.

Yi: Thank you.  I really enjoyed this.

Cohen: Our next guest is Jason Zogg, an urban planner at Ford who is doing some fascinating work on how we engage with our streets, which serve as the largest public space in our communities.  Let’s go. Jason Zogg, you’re at Ford Motor Company.

Zogg: I am.

Cohen: We are here at the City of Tomorrow Symposium in Los Angeles.  I’m really interested in maybe getting a little bit of your history and thinking a little bit about what Ford wants to do with Central Station that Ford just bought.

Zogg: Yeah, so I’m an urban planner by training, and that seems to be a bit of an unusual species within Ford Motor Company, but it is rapidly gaining momentum.  I’ve found many great urban planners in Ford. Many of us have started in the past couple of years. And I think that Ford has a new understanding of the fact that all of its products and services both in the past, present, and future, whether that’s cars or some other mobility service, have operate within this operating environment that we call the street, especially the urban street specifically.  

And in order to make products and services that are relevant in the future we need to as a company have a complete holistic understanding of that operating environment.  The funding, engineering, planning, operating, maintenance paradigm that we have been operating with in the United States surrounding our streets, roadways, and highways for the past 75 to 100 years is going to dramatically change.  We’re about to experience, I think, 30 years of tectonic change on how we use our streets, the rules of those streets.  

And we need to get both the general public and the citizenry and also city staff and municipal officials to a point where they have the vocabulary necessary and the expertise and the tools that they need to be able to have a conversation about what exactly do we want if we could have a do-over of basically the early part of the last century.  If we could have a do-over again, how would we allocate space in our streets, what would we prioritize, how would we bring back humanity and rebuild the social fabric of our cities? And that is a component of what I’m doing at Ford.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, and I think that’s a really important component because when we think about the humanity, the humanity is going to be there regardless.  Right?

Zogg: Right.

Cohen: The technology is always going to change.  Right?

Zogg: Yeah.

Cohen: And I think that’s what some people have said.  I think Gabe Klein has talked about this in the past, about how we fell in love with the technology with the car.  Right? And look where that got us. Let’s not do the same thing again with autonomous vehicles, if we fall in love with the technology as opposed to prioritizing the underlying humanity there.  

Zogg: Right.  Yeah. I often caution people who talk about autonomous vehicles as, “We can’t get stuck in technology for technology’s sake.”  And I am not a technologist, and I have found that in my time in my previous job working in Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts around MIT, I can tell you that technologists can often go overboard with selling the technology without understanding how exactly is it that we as a society want to live and we as humans want to live and not be too over-wowed with the technology because it’s exciting and new and shiny; but how does it fit into our social fabric and enhance our cities and how we live and interact with each other?  

Cohen: Yeah, when you frame it that way it makes me think of—what was that line in Jurassic Park that, “We did all this work to create this, and we never stopped to think about whether we should.”  Right?

Zogg: Right.

Cohen: You know?  And I really like that because, again, when we think about technology and we think about the impact of technology, you’re right; there is this fetish of, like, this new discovery.  Right? And what is not as fetishized is this process of thinking about what you started off with, which is like, “What are our values as a community? What do we want to do?” 

Zogg: Right.

Cohen: And, you know, it seems like that’s maybe part of some of the work you’re starting to do with the National Street Service.  Right?

Zogg: Yes, exactly, yeah.  There was a UN report that came out, I think, in 2014, something like that, that did an analysis that most cities have 20% to 30% of their land area is streets, and then very often 80% of the public open space is actually streets, not parks, if you consider streets part of the public open space system.  

Cohen: That’s a fascinating stat, by the way.  Blew my mind.

Zogg: Right.  Exactly.  So if we go in with the assumption that this is public space and we kind of reteach and start to do culture change on the concept that streets are public space, then how would we ideally allocate that space as a society.  So the National Street Service is a program that Ford’s Greenfield Labs, which is very much our version of IDEO, our research and development in Palo Alto, came up with a couple of years ago to raise the level of discourse both among the general public and among city staff to help give people the tools that they need and the vocabulary that they need and the understanding that streets are public space.

And if we’re going to go through this tectonic shift in the next 30 years on how we allocate that space and the rules of the street, then we as a society both at the citizen level and at the city-staff level need to have just as deep an understanding of what we want out of the street as the technologists, who are designing and building and really selling, hard selling the technology, have of what they want out of streets.  And so we’re trying to upskill essentially the citizenry and city staff and city leaders on the language of streets and urbanism and make sure that we all have the tools that we need to be able to have a legitimate national debate and national conversation.  

And so we’re creating essentially a national fellowship program that has been going from city to city.  Boise, Idaho and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were the first two cities last year to go through the full program where we created a cohort of, I think, about 30 people in each of those cities who went through the National Street Service training program, became fellows, and then did individual pilot projects in their neighborhoods, then came together to do larger pilot projects.  And we want to expand this program. Last year it was focused mostly on residents, but we want to expand it to including city staff as well.  

And the name National Street Service, in case you were wondering, comes from the concept of the National Park Service, which is near and dear to my heart because I’m on a life goal to visit all 418 national parks in the next several years.  I’m 52% of the way done right now.

Cohen: Wow.  

Zogg: But the National Park Service is this entity that we all own as member, you know, citizens of the United States that protects our greatest national treasures.  And so we also need an entity like the National Street Service that sees our streets as public space that also needs a coordinated coalition and constituency to protect and own and steward.  So that’s where the name came from.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I love that context.  And where my mind was going with that was I’m trying to really dissect here the person that looks at our street in a very practical way.  

Zogg: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Cohen: They’re not looking at that as like public space.

Zogg: Right.

Cohen: And it seems like, to me, that’s like a gap here.  

Zogg: Yes.

Cohen: You know, most people aren’t able to see that connection point.  So help me understand how you as a designer and a planner have to overcome that?

Zogg: So I think sometimes I make sure that when I talk about streets as public spaces I clarify that what I’m really talking about is urbanism, and typically I’m not talking about suburban streets that have one-acre lots with homes that are set back.  I’m also not talking about interstate highways either. So I’m talking about a specific subset of streets, and then I like to talk about the difference between what a street and a road is and how a stroad, which is a kind of a combo—

Cohen: Well, take me through that, please.  

Zogg: Yeah, so a stroad, I think it was coined by the folks over at Strong Towns, Charles Marohn.  And the idea is that a street is an urban space that has high economic value where other things are happening on it in the sidewalk where you have outdoor cafes and you have ground-floor retail and a lot of pedestrian activity and social vibrancy and you’re making social connections.  A road is something typically in a rural area that has no shoulders, that, you know, you’re going through cornfields, and you’re going through cornfields at 55 miles per hour.  

But a stroad is a halfway between point where you have a land use that is relatively low density where you have to drive between each place like a Target and a Walmart, but the throughput of the road is not fast enough to be considered a road.  So it’s not good from an economic or urbanism perspective, but it’s also 45 miles per hour with a lot of congestion and a ton of traffic lights, so it’s really terrible from a throughput-of-vehicles perspective. So you’re not achieving vehicle throughput, but you’re also not achieving an urban social-fabric and economic-development opportunity.  

So in Michigan where I am currently living we have a lot of stroads and not enough really high quality, urban streets.  So I often then lead into, you know, when I ask people where they like to go on vacation—I mean, I’m not talking about national parks or things like that, but, “What cities do you go on vacation?” people will say, “Oh, I loved my time in Paris.  I loved my time in London. I loved my time in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Seattle.” And I say, “Okay, well, what exactly did you love about that experience?” And then I start diving deeply into, “Okay, I’m realizing that people like activity.  They like things to do. They like walking around.”  

And then I’m like, “What do you do when you go back home?” and they say, “Oh, I get back in my car, and I’m not in an environment like that almost for a good portion of my day.”  And I’m like, “Well, rather than going on vacation to Seattle or San Francisco or New York City, why don’t you think about how we can bring some of the aspects of that highly active urbanism into the places that you live and work and go to school in every single day?”

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that actually makes a big difference.

Zogg: And I’ve always since my time in grad school more than 10 years ago have been interested in how the social fabric was broken down by the car, because essentially in a suburban sort of car-oriented place you’re living your entire lives in a private setting.  And that’s the difference between urbanism and suburbia, is that your life is lived in a private setting; you’re going from a private house in a private car in a bubble to a parking lot, and then you’re arriving at a destination. And so the difference between urbanism and suburbia is that in suburbia you’re going from A to B, but in urbanism it’s the experience of going between the two.  So in urbanism it’s about the between; in suburbia it’s just about from one to the other.

Cohen: Oh, I like that.  

Zogg: And I think that social isolation that has come from living our lives too much in cars has had a detrimental effect on the social fabric.

Cohen: Sure.

Zogg: I mean, there have been studies for years about people who do their commutes typically on subways and people who do their commutes typically inside of a vehicle; and their feeling of the fact that somebody who is different from them, whether it’s a different socioeconomic class, a different race, whatever it is, people who are driving in cars see them as the other, but when you’re taking a subway to and from work and you see so many spectrums of humanity you have a significant amount of empathy for all spectrums of humanity in a way that you don’t when you’re in that bubble.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that’s one of the real big benefits of public transit, cycling, walking and so forth because you’re sharing that space and you’re slow enough that you can feel the aspects of that community you don’t in a car.

Zogg: Yeah.  

Cohen: Like, in a car you literally are in a vacuum.  

Zogg: Right.  And I don’t want people to think that I’m so focused or my program is so focused on just the sort of warm, fuzzy aspect of the future transportation revolution that we’re about to go through, but the paradigm of the political, bureaucratic, public-policy framework that has been built since the interstate highway act around everything from the MUTCD, which is The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, to every single individual Federal Highway Administration funding pot, which every single one of them has a completely different set of rules, to how the FTA funds transit and how you’re allowed to use each one of those dollars, all the way down to the types of traffic models that MPOs around the country almost all use, like one or two of the same types of standard traffic modeling pieces of software and methodologies, every single element of the federal, state, and local transportation planning, funding policy, engineering paradigm needs to fundamentally change in the next 30 years.  And really diving deep into the nitty-gritty of all the details that need to change about all the systems that we’ve developed in the bureaucracy and the urban planning framework is going to be a very long, tedious process, but we need to get started on that now.  

Cohen: And so where is that coming from.  Right? Is that at federal policy level?  Is that your local city council representative?  Like, what’s actually going to make those changes?  Because I agree with you.

Zogg: Yeah, absolutely.  So very often federal policy or federal regulation unknowingly or unwittingly restricts the use of certain types of dollars because the national, functional classification of roadways into highway and arterials and minor and major, all of those things, those classifications of every road in America are what federal funding is tuned to.  So for certain classifications you’re allowed to use federal funds; for certain classifications, you’re not allowed to use federal funds.  

But if you use federal funds it has to go through the MPO process, and if it has to go through the MPO process, you have to do all of these things to get it on the state transportation investment plan, the STIP, and you have to get it approved by the MPO board, and it could take years to get prioritized, and the ways in which you have to do your public participation are prescribed.  The ways that you have to do your engineering work are highly prescribed because you’re taking federal money. And when I worked in the City of Cambridge the past five years sometimes we would actually decide not to take federal money even when theoretically we could on a specific roadway because we knew that it came with so many strings that it actually inhibited our creativity and our ability to move quickly.  

And so really understanding what every single pain point is related to accepting federal money, and federal regulations, and the MUTCD, and The Green Book that AASHTO created back in the ’50s, and making sure that we’re literally reviewing every single aspect of the way that we plan and design roadways and evaluating whether or not that should be the way we do it in the future or if we need to dramatically change that in order to move faster, be more creative, integrate multiple up-and-coming and new modes quickly, and be more socially equitable.  

And it’s something that I think that we—interestingly, working at Ford Motor Company, we 100 years ago were a part of a campaign and essentially an influence campaign with General Motors and Triple A.  In order to sell more of our products we figured out what all of the federal, state, and local systems that were necessary, you know, the concept of the gas tax, the concept of car insurance, the concept of sidewalks that were raised up from the roadway and making sure pedestrians stayed on those sidewalks.  We invented the concept of jaywalking.  

I mean, we invented an entire paradigm, none of which that we’re involved in in our business.  Like, we’re not selling auto insurance, but we helped come up with all of these ideas that made it possible for us to continue selling our product, and so we need to—and I think that there is in interest in Ford Motor Company right now with our CEO Jim Hackett who has said that Henry Ford got a lot right, but he would be disappointed in the way in which the automobile has sort of broken down the social fabric of our society in certain specific ways and caused things like congestion and air pollution and whatnot.  

And so I feel like we’re in a place now where we did what we did 100 years ago in that influence campaign, and now we could take a role to potentially think about how do we rebuilt all of that transportation planning, funding, engineer paradigm for the 21st century and do it correctly and inclusively with the citizens and with the input of government and really get deep into the weeds on how we want to live as a society and rebuild that entire paradigm so that it’s benefiting everybody.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that’s a critical part.  And I give Ford credit for recognizing the deficiencies of that decision 100 years ago and then investing in ways to remediate that, whether that’s hiring people like you and investing in the National Street Service and other things I think are positive.  I want to take just a sidestep here, which is to go to from your perspective—and you’ve mentioned working in Cambridge and so forth—what has been the most courageous decision that you’ve kind of seen a public-sector official take, and really what kind of led to that?  Because, again, what I’m trying to unpack here is how do we get more of those. Right?  

Zogg: Right.  Yeah, no, that is a really good question.  I think that in Cambridge there was for several decades a significant constituency that was pushing the city council and the city manager for many years that we need to focus on being more environmentally sustainable and more socially equitable and all these things, which led to all sorts of individual policy statements and policy goals that were passed by city council and were very much generated by the city staff in the planning department and the traffic and transportation department and the DPW and really having a city staff internally that is willing to go the extra mile to make sure that those policies become a reality and are advocated for and against all barriers that might come along from, say, private developers that may or may not subscribe to that ideal or that ideal state that that policy is trying to achieve with, say, bicycle parking for example or the use of the right-of-way for dedicated, raised, cycle tracks and bike lanes and really being willing to fight the good fight and not back down when it comes to knowing that this is a policy that we support for these specific reasons.  

But I think that I have seen public officials—and I actually just heard a really interesting story about an LA Metro, the transit agency, at a public board meeting in January where the executive director suggested to the board that if we as a region were interested in doing a congestion pricing charge similar to what the New York State Legislature just allowed New York City to finally do, then perhaps we could actually make transit free, and perhaps we could actually build—I forget how many transit projects they want to build before the Olympics, but we could build all of those transit projects before the Olympics and make all of our transit free, if we were willing to do the bold step of a congestion pricing charge.  

And to say that out in public and really say to the board, “This is something that we should consider,” I think we need more people like that who are willing to publicly suggest and have their board that they report to noodle on some of these really big, bold ideas.  

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  You’re referring to Phil Washington, the CEO of LA Metro, who made that comment.

Zogg: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And, yeah, I mean, doing a comment like that is brave and valuable for a number of reasons, one of which, it is a forcing function to kind of highlight the issue, number one.

Zogg: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Number two is it helps to provide a place for negotiation.  Right? It can help expand that Overton window of what’s an acceptable place.  So maybe the compromise will come back. Maybe they don’t have congestion pricing, but maybe they still get lots of dedicated bus lanes, you know, whatever.  It’s like, “Okay, fine. I’ll accept just a bunch of dedicated bus lanes.” Right? So it is an interesting dynamic there on how public sector leaders can use their place to advance that.   

Zogg: Yeah, and speaking of forcing functions, I personally sort of academically have always been interested in, as an urban planner, the power of the Olympics.  One of the reasons I was so excited actually to go back to Boston when I moved back there the first time was that that Boston 2024 Olympic bid was in full swing and was looking very, very promising at the time.  And there are dozens of reasons I could go to in a different time of why they had community pushback and that failed, but the one benefit that the Olympics is going to have to LA and it could have had to Boston is a forcing function in infrastructure investment and speed and time that without a forcing function like the Olympics just for whatever reason does not exist.  

In the vacuum of the Olympics leaving Boston there is significantly less urgency in making the dramatic, public transit investments and land-use changes that we need to make on a scale that we need to make them and the time that we need to make them.  So, you know, sans Olympics I’m curious on what those forcing functions are without specific dramatic deadlines like that, because I would like to almost recreate that forcing function somehow or figure out what are those forcing functions that you could introduce into the urban planning paradigm to make large investments happen faster.  

Cohen: Yeah, well, I hope they don’t require a hundred-year history and a global brand like the Olympics to accomplish that.

Zogg: Right.

Cohen: Well, Jason, that’s a good one to end on.  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today and share a little bit about your experience as a planner and how that works both in the public sector and also within what Ford is doing with the National Street Service.

Zogg: Yeah, absolutely.  Thanks so much.

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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