Episode 17: The Intersection of “What Is” and “What Could Be” with Sarah Kaufman

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: We’re going to try something new here on The Movement.  I just returned from the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium in Los Angeles, California, a daylong exploration of the ideas, challenges, and solutions that stand to transform the way we move and live.  Speakers and attendees ranged from Fortune 500s to startups to city government and community organizations. I was there to talk with the speakers and attendees about the courageous decisions that will be required to build the city of tomorrow.  Over the next few weeks you’ll hear directly from some of these leaders who are improving communities, making lives better, and creating greater access for all.  

First up this week, Sarah Kaufman from the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation uses her research to explore the intersection of what is and what could be to ensure that diversity, openness, and courage are critical elements of the city of tomorrow.  Next week we’ll transition to how two leaders, Adonia Lugo and Romel Pasqual, have put that openness into practice by building an event, CicLAvia, that has helped over 1.6 million people access their streets in a different way and they made it open to everyone.  

The following episode will feature John Yi, executive director of the advocacy group Los Angeles Walks, and Jason Zogg, an urban planner at Ford, who share some tools that you and I can use to interact with the community around us, including the largest public space in our communities, our streets.  Next, without someone to help translate between the private sector that can move fast and the public sector that is more measured we may never reach the city of tomorrow. That ability to translate is the superpower of Jeffrey Tumlin, a principle at consulting firm NelsonNygaard. And finally we’ll wrap up our series from the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium by chatting with two city leaders, Diego de la Garza in Los Angeles and Ryan Russo in Oakland who are actually in the trenches not only deploying mobility but doing so equitably.  

A larger theme from the City of Tomorrow Symposium was putting people and not technology first.  To do that we’re going to need diverse perspectives, access for all, to speak the same language, and then of course the leadership to actually put it all into place.  Before we get started, be sure to subscribe to The Movement so you don’t miss these great guests coming up in the next few weeks.  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: Hi, I’m with Sarah Kaufman.  She is a professor at NYU at the Rudin Center.  She teaches; she does research there; she studies all kinds of great things, and I’ll let her go into all of those details on all of her different research interests and all the things that she speaks on and does research on.  And what you may hear in the background is that we’re actually live in Union Station in Los Angeles.  

Sarah and I are both here for an event called the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium.  And so we’re both here for this, and we could have done this at the symposium, but we thought, “Why don’t we actually take this on site so we’re doing like a true transit situation,” and that’s where we are.  We are in one of the waiting rooms. We’re surrounded by people playing the piano, we’re surrounded by people waiting for their trains, and the sheer mass of humanity. I guess Sarah just got off a train.

Kaufman: [LAUGHS]  I just got off the packed LA Metro, the surprisingly packed LA Metro.  

Cohen: Right.  So it’s a Wednesday rush hour, so maybe that should be expected, but, you know, packed train cars are not necessarily what you would expect for Los Angeles, so that’s exciting.  

Kaufman: That’s right.  

Cohen: So I want you, Sarah, maybe to give us a little introduction to maybe some of the research that you do.  Because I think it’s such a neat—you’ve carved out a really neat niche in what you talk about. So maybe give us a little context on what you really dig into there.  

Kaufman: Sure.  Thanks.  And thanks for having me, by the way.  So at the Rudin Center, which is housed within the NYU Wagner School of Public Policy, we try to focus on kind of very timely issues in transportation.  And we have a lot of fun with that. So sometimes it’s new modes of transportation like scooters and e-bikes and what the issues are in those areas especially in New York, but we also work on kind of amplifying the voices of the underrepresented within transportation.  And that involves women’s safety, which we addressed in our report on women’s safety on the New York City Subway; people with disabilities, which we addressed in our report on how paratransit in New York is really lacking in its innovation; and we’re going to start looking into even more interesting topics including drones and how they might fit into a dense, urban streetscape.  

Cohen: Wow.

Kaufman: Yeah.  And we have a lot of great events, so it’s a fun place to be.

Cohen: And you guys have fellowship programs too, right?  

Kaufman: Yes, so we have the Emerging Leaders in Transportation, which is an annual program for people who are clearly going to be running the agencies or the companies in the future, so the people who walk in to the Emerging Leaders program are really exceptional people.  The point of the Emerging Leaders program is we know you’re going to be a leader someday; here are some tools to help you along the way to help you get there as you navigate your career. We do that with three initiatives through this program.  

The first is giving them face time with executives, and these are leaders who come and give kind of unfiltered talks.  It’s a safe space; nothing gets tweeted, and so these people are very candid about their careers, what they would have done differently, what advice they have for people in their 20s and 30s or earlier in their careers, and that is extremely valuable to people who are early on.  The second thing we do is we help them develop an idea and develop a pitch for it. So usually people early in their careers have ideas but are brushed off as being too green.  

Cohen: Yeah, totally.

Kaufman: But if they’re given a minute, say, in an elevator with an executive in their organization or company they can pitch this idea, and so we work with them to think it through.  What are the ramifications? What do they need to think about? Who are the stakeholders, and how do you communicate it to the leadership at their level? And then finally the third thing we do is we give them a network, and that might be the most important thing.  

In transportation, as in any industry, your professional network is what gets you through.  And so the emerging leaders—now we’ve had five years of it—they have hired each other; they have given each other guidance.  And it really helps people to have kind of nodes within other organizations so they get a whole picture politically of what’s going on.  And often a point of pride is that the Emerging Leaders program is very diverse racially and gender-wise and in many other facets and more diverse than transportation leadership tends to be.  So giving people a network of people who know what they’re going through and facing can really give them an opportunity to succeed in their own careers.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, speaking of careers, how did you get started really focusing on the cities and future and so forth?  And I should mention that I got introduced to you in 2015. We were both at a conference and Greg Lindsay who is also a New Yorker or lives in New York and is a futurist and city wonk as well—and gadfly is the best description I could call him.

Kaufman: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: When I was talking to Greg, Greg was like, “You’ve got to meet Sarah,” and so that was kind of how we met almost four years ago.

Kaufman: That’s great.

Cohen: So now fast-forward to today and you’ve been continuing all that work on the future and the cities and these technology issues, so how did you get started with that?

Kaufman: I’ve always been drawn to cities, and I have a background in technology.  And when I say technology I mean that I studied some computer science in college, but I was very bad at programming.  I tried to write a Pac-Man program, but Pac-Man wouldn’t move. And so that’s about as far as I got, but I always understood it conceptually.  And then I ended up going to get my masters in urban planning. I was planning to focus on how technology impacts cities, which is still something I’m very interested in, but I saw so many parallels between computer networks and transportation networks.  

It’s almost like transportation networks are computer networks that have been laid out on a city’s grid.  So there were so many links, so many connections between the two that it seemed really fun to be able to match up urban planning, technology, and transportation.  And so I followed that path, and it’s been really interesting to see it come to the forefront in a more popular sense.

Cohen: Yeah.  I mean, in some ways you’re kind of a little bit ahead of your time.  Right? I mean, it’s kind of the world has caught up. And obviously New York City was the epicenter of a lot of the battles with Uber and Lyft over the course of the last couple of years; and now some of the e-bike stuff, as you mentioned before, New York is kind of a touchpoint for that.  So there’s a lot of stuff where you were kind of in the right place at the right time, I think.

Kaufman: That’s right.  Well, and earlier in my career I was at the MTA and trying to open up subway data.  That was something I was working on, and I was—

Cohen: I don’t think I knew that.  Okay.

Kaufman: Yeah, so in 2010 the MTA would not release publicly subway schedules, which now looking back on it it’s pretty absurd because during rush hour it’s basically every four minutes a subway comes; why wouldn’t you release a schedule?  But that was what I spent years working on, is convincing people basically one by one to release the data to the public, which now they do release and becomes the backend of apps like Google Maps and other apps that help people get around cities.  

Cohen: So that’s wild.  I don’t think I knew that.  So maybe just let’s do a brief aside to say, like, “What skills did you need to use in order to help convince folks that this was the right thing to do?”

Kaufman: My grandmother would use the word noodge, just to irritate people, but really it was about going to people one by one and knowing their pain points and saying, “You’re trying to connect buses and trains at the same stop for easier transfers.  Wouldn’t it be easier if people knew when they could get on the bus based on when the train is arriving rather than having them run up the stairs out of the subway and have kind of no concept of what’s happening?” It creates a dangerous situation and really inefficient to have people lack knowledge about where they’re going and what’s happening.   

Cohen: So, I mean, would you say this is like an ignorance issue like they just didn’t appreciate that other people could find this information valuable?  Or was there actual kind of turf wars going on too?

Kaufman: It was a lack of technical knowledge, but also there was a resource issue that was really valid.  You know, who is going to do this? Who is going to maintain it? Because it was clear that it wasn’t kind of a one-time spitting out of data.  Schedules change all the time, about four times a year for most agencies, and it is an issue to get it into the right formats for these outside companies to use and then to go back and make adjustments as needed.

Cohen: Yeah, I guess there’s some change management there too.  Right?

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: Because for most of these folks this wasn’t in their job description, and maybe even, like you said, they don’t even have the technical skillset to even do it.  Right?

Kaufman: Right.  Right.

Cohen: So you could have some folks at some level saying, “Yeah, I get it.  I’m down with this, but we just don’t have the people,” and, “Oh, yeah, to find those people it might take years,” you know, or whatever.  

Kaufman: Right.  It was a really big pull.  

Cohen: Interesting.  So now you’ve been doing this for several years.  And what I think is so interesting about the work you’re doing is you’re sitting at this kind of unique intersection of what is and what can be.

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: You’re doing a lot of work with the future stuff; you’re doing a lot of work with future leaders; and so I guess my question to you would be what do you think the barriers are to getting to what could be?

Kaufman: That’s a great question.  And I didn’t think of myself of being in that position until you said it, but, yeah, it’s really fun to dream about what could be.  And I think that I have great leeway. We have a fantastic director of the Rudin Center named Mitchell Moss who kind of gives me space to dream up what I think is important and what I see as valuable, and that’s a fantastic resource.  

In terms of getting to what could be, overall I think it’s a matter of changing the status quo and equipping our kind of public agencies with the courage and ability to knock out things like obsession with car culture, things that tend to get in the way that are not related to solving the problem at hand, issues like workforce development that can be solved.  So I think it’s about kind of people getting out of their own way.

Cohen: Yeah.  So, again, I want to kind of reflect back on that MTA kind of discussion we just had about the data.  So there’s kind of a knowledge issue. Right?

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So do people even concede that there are changes necessary to achieve what could be?  Right?

Kaufman: Right.  

Cohen: And then there is, “Yeah, I get it; I just can’t do it.”  Right?

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: And so when you say change the status quo, I mean, do you think it’s you still have to get their buy-in that what could be actually requires some fundamental changes?

Kaufman: Yeah.  A lot of public servants are not in a position to think about what could be because they are so bogged down in the day-to-day requirements of their roles.  And so that’s why I think academic institutions come into play really nicely, and for-profit companies as well, as kind of the dreamers. And that’s not to say that there aren’t dreamers in the public sector but that they’re not often given the room or permission to dream.  

And at MTA, in terms of the data discussions, it was about half of them who would say, “I don’t know why we need to release this to the public,” you know, “There’s a PDF online if they really need to know the schedules.”  And then half of them would say, “Okay, I see where you’re going with this.” You know, this is in the early days of the smartphones too, so it wasn’t that obvious. What they would say is, “See what you’re doing with this, but this is just not something we can spend time on right now.”     

Cohen: Yeah.  It does strike me that the—you know, you mentioned the car culture, and I follow a little bit of what I call New York City transit street Twitter.  And it’s interesting because I saw there was Corey Johnson who is the speaker of the council made a Tweet the other day about how one of the police precincts had confiscated some e-bikes, nominally that had maybe been used for delivery, but one had a child seat on the back.  

Kaufman: That’s right.  

Cohen: And he’s saying, “Look,” and the police department had #VisionZero.  

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: So, you know, it just was interesting.  It’s like, “All right. Well, somebody thinks that these are the things that are causing the road deaths as opposed to—I don’t know—the cars.”  

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: It’s just there’s a disconnect there.  

Kaufman: There is a disconnect there.  Yes, you’re right. And it’s also because the police department is acting under the guidance of Bill de Blasio who has been convinced by several constituents that e-bikes are extremely dangerous.  To be fair, some e-bike users do ride on the sidewalk; and e-bikes are almost silent, so it’s very hard to hear them coming, which does create a hazardous situation.  

That being said, there are about 30,000 e-bikes on the streets of New York, and they are primarily used by people of color, immigrants, especially for their jobs and their livelihoods.  And often the same people who hate e-bikes are the same people ordering in dinner, which is delivered by e-bike. So it’s a really complex situation, and if we’re really thinking about Vision Zero it’s clear that the two-ton vehicles on the streets are the main perpetrators of safety issues.  

Cohen: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because you have safety of course with the car culture there, and then of course you have the congestion.  

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.  Right.  

Cohen: Which, you know, mindboggling to me that you could have a bus full of people that takes up the space of, let’s say, six cars, maybe it’s one of the Artix [ph][19:05], and yet they’re stuck in that same light cycle of everyone else.  

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: And that’s kind of another reinforcement of that car culture.

Kaufman: Yeah.  It’s shocking that people are so attached to their cars.  I actually ended up in a battle on Facebook with my moms group where people started freaking out about the congestion pricing, and I was sitting there defending it.  They’re right to say, “This is a really heavy cost on our family,” which it probably is, but at the same time I think a lot of people who own cars have trouble seeing the effect that car ownership has on society in terms of air quality, congestion, and wear and tear on the streets.  

Cohen: Sure.  I think I read somewhere that someone said, “Oh, my gosh.  This is going to be such an imposition on our family,” and the response was, “Well, it should be.  That’s kind of the point.”  

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: And to go back to your point, which is about the status quo, the only way you change the status quo is you have to kind of shift something.  Right?

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: And it’s kind of like, you know, when you have a tsunami the ocean floor sometimes—I guess it happens a couple of different ways, but he ocean floor, if it goes up and it just shifts that volume of water and then it creates this—you’ve got to have some sort of shift in order to make that change.  

Kaufman: Right.

Cohen: So the congestion pricing in New York City, I think, will certainly do that.  

Kaufman: Well, it’s questionable because everybody wants an exemption at this point.  

Cohen: Yeah, well, so that’s going to be fascinating.

Kaufman: So it’s going to be really interesting to see how it plays out in terms of exemptions and reduced fairs, reduced congestion prices for certain users.  So I’m starting to get nervous about how much it will actually reduce congestion.  

Cohen: I actually wonder if it’s done poorly if it’s actually going to submarine any other potential for that to happen.  You know, there’s some talk in LA about this; there’s some other places that have had loose conversations about this.  And I could easily see this being done really, really poorly and then everyone else pointing to that and saying, “Ha. Told you it could never work in the U.S.”

Kaufman: Yes.  That’s true.  I could see that as well.  

Cohen: And going back to your point earlier, you know, Bill de Blasio in New York City has gotten some constituents in his ear about e-bikes; you’ve got potential exemptions with the congestion charge.  Both of those kind of go back to a fundamental issue in leadership, which is really like, “Who are you working for?” Right?

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.  Right.

Cohen: And I’m not trying to impugn any particular person with that statement as much as really just ask the question, which is like, “What do you care about?”  Right? What is really driving you? Is it the health and safety of all New Yorkers, or is it the health and safety of just a few? That’s a really tough question to me.  

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.  Well, I think a really interesting point that was made was on another excellent podcast in transportation, The War on Cars, in which the hosts referred to car culture or car addiction as “the liberal blind spot.”

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Kaufman: And I think we see that with Bill de Blasio who is a progressive leader in a lot of areas but has a blind spot for vehicle usage.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  It definitely seems like something that as a New Yorker you kind of are seeing directly.  So I want to kind of transition to this concept of courage. We’ve talked a little bit about that.  And so from your experience being on the ground in New York and surveying the transportation landscape, what do you see as the courageous decisions that public officials have made as it relates to transportation and mobility either in New York or elsewhere?  

Kaufman: I think there are a lot of examples of kind of courageous leadership in transportation.  I think most recently the one that I find extremely courageous and interesting is Meera Joshi in her leadership of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.  And she has recently stepped down, but during her tenure she increased driver pay, which is something that was not happening elsewhere in the country, and she also increased accessibility, wheelchair accessibility of taxis and for-hire vehicles at a rate unprecedented around the world.  

And she got a lot of flack from people who did not appreciate the increased fees for rides and the drivers who were opposed to getting these kind of bulkier, pricier, wheelchair accessible vehicles and the for-hire vehicle companies, which did not want to comply with the major requirements of this ruling.  So she faced a lot of pressure from many sides, but she followed her moral compass and did what was the right thing to do.

Cohen: Wow.  That’s a great one, because I think you kind of got a lot of folks that you’re kind of making angry.  Right?

Kaufman: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I can also see an argument that by raising the wages you’re therefore raising the cost and that some people are going to say, “You’re making us less competitive with some of these other modes and so forth.”

Kaufman: That’s right.

Cohen: I could see how that could be a really touchy subject.  But, again, I think that’s where the rubber meets the road.  Right? I mean, if they were easy decisions they would be taken care of at some lower level.  Right?

Kaufman: That’s right.  That’s right. And what incentive do private companies have to pay their drivers a living wage until a regulator steps in and requires it?

Cohen: No, that’s exactly right.  And that’s really the purpose, the good use of regulation—right—is to kind of guide the market in the direction that you want.  Now, it requires being very mindful about that approach—

Kaufman: That’s right.

Cohen: —you know, analyzing that approach on a regular basis to make sure it doesn’t get out of whack.  Right? Because you can certainly see how it could get sideways if you have this regulation in place, and it certainly happened before Uber and Lyft got into many towns, where the regulations hadn’t caught up with this kind of new reality.

Kaufman: That’s right.

Cohen: And whether you like it or not, I mean, it’s clear that the model that Uber and Lyft have created—whether they’re sustainable or not is a different question, but it’s clear that it’s resonated with the public—  

Kaufman: That’s’ right.  

Cohen: —that it is filling some gap that taxis in most places were not doing well.  Now, interestingly enough I found that if you’re getting to an airport taxicab is still by far the best way to get from the airport because—

Kaufman: Really?

Cohen: Yeah, because to get an Uber or a Lyft to come pick you up—

Kaufman: Oh, to meet up with them is really challenging.  Yes.

Cohen: Yes.  It’s always a challenging thing, as opposed to the taxi where you can just literally walk outside and you step right in.

Kaufman: Right.  That’s true.

Cohen: So I feel like that’s an area, especially in a big taxi city, that Uber and Lyft just can’t compete.  And I still think that they’ve got a lot of challenges to go, especially now that they’re public.  

Kaufman: That’s right.  Yeah. Meera Joshi is now a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center.

Cohen: Oh, good.  

Kaufman: So we had an event a couple of weeks ago featuring women leaders in transportation, and she was one of them.  And the theme of the panel discussion was leadership and any differences that they see as being women at the helm versus their male counterparts.  It was a friendly, happy discussion; and then during audience Q&A we got a heckler who was going after Meera for the taxi medallion value going down, which The New York Times has recently revealed was not her fault.  

And he just went after her and wouldn’t stop talking.  And so Meera took the opportunity to say, “One of the things that I’ve learned as a leader is how thick of a skin you have to have.”  And I think it was a really valuable lesson in action about how courageous her decisions had been and how they’re still following her along the way.  This man had also been wearing a “fire Meera Joshi” shirt, which is really amazing that he went and got that made.  

Cohen: Hmm.  Yeah, wow.  And, yeah, leadership is certainly not easy.  On the concept of women leaders I want to touch on one more topic.  You had mentioned the other day that there was a conference that you saw that had no leadership, no women at all on any of the panels that you saw.  And you said, “This is why I have these events for women,” so take me a little bit into that. I want our audience to get a little bit of that part of you, because I think that’s an important leadership thing that you’re doing for the industry and that it’s an important one.  

Kaufman: Yeah.  So I’ll start out by saying something that many of your listeners might know is true.  The transportation industry is mostly led by men in many places, and I’m not just talking about the executive level because we do have great examples of women leaders right now including Seleta Reynolds and Polly Trottenberg and several others, but still between the executive and lower levels it’s still dominated by male managers who often undervalue and underpay and underestimate female employees.  

And if we want to get more diversity at the leadership level, which is what everyone should want so that every viewpoint is represented—we want more diversity in terms of gender, race, age, physical abilities, everything.  If we want more leadership to represent more facets of society, we need to be able to bring people up through the ranks. And one way to do that is to give them people to look up to and to learn from. So that’s why I like to have these women leaders and transportation events, so that they can share their experiences, so that they can share advice with people in the room who may be interested in hearing from them.  And so I think it’s really important to do that.  

And then you have this Harley-Davidson conference, was a full-day conference with multiple panels and not a single woman.  And I did hear from one of the participants who I know is a good person, and he said, “Well, we’re going to have a female moderator.”  Now, whenever there is a conference and there is a female moderator, you’re still positioning the speakers as [OVERLAPPING] [30:44] the experts in the room, and the moderator is just there to be kind of the social engagement person.  It’s not really valid to have your diversity person be the moderator.  

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, and so I think the lessons I want to pull out of this are, one, it’s important that women in roles like yourself are continuing to do the work you’re doing, but, two, men like myself and others have an opportunity to say, “We won’t serve on a panel that doesn’t have a woman.”  Right?

Kaufman: That’s right.

Cohen: It’s a very easy thing to do, and so I would encourage everybody that does listen to consider that as you’re considering all of the various opportunities you have to serve on panels that you have some power in that.

Kaufman: That’s right.  And it’s about being an ally.  You can also do that for panels that don’t have people of color.

Cohen: Yeah.

Kaufman: If you’re going to have a conference about the Future of Transportation, which this was, you should probably have more than one voice.  

Cohen: Yeah.  No, totally.  And I just think the more we can be aware of that, the more it will help to address it.  

Kaufman: That’s right.  I agree.  

Cohen: So I think that’s a good place to look to for the future of transportation.

Kaufman: It is.

Cohen: Sarah, where can folks find you if they’re interested in learning more about your work or staying in touch with you?

Kaufman: So all of the research is online at NYURudinCenter.com, R-U-D-I-N-C-E-N-T-E-R dot com.  And I tweet maybe too much at @SarStar, S-A-R-S-T-A-R.

Cohen: Awesome.  Well, Sarah, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today.  I really appreciate it.  

Kaufman: Thank you so much for having me.  

Cohen: And enjoy the ambiance of Union Station.  

Kaufman: Yes, it’s lovely.  [LAUGHS]

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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