The peril of climate change inspired Meg Merritt of Movitas Mobility’s entry into the public transit industry and continues to motivate her fight to change how we incentivize and penalize different transit modes.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Merritt: Meg Merritt
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: If we’re going to combat the huge impact that transportation has on carbon emissions, it will take burrowing into the peculiar psyche of Americans. Meg Merritt of Movitas Mobility and I do just that, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Meg Merritt is principal at Movitas Mobility, a consulting firm based in Austin, Texas, specializing in policy analysis, stakeholder negotiation, and multimodal transportation insights. Meg began her career in transit and land planning and has also spent time in the transportation technology startup world where she managed the multimodal mobile experience for private mobility companies and transit authorities. So, welcome to The Movement, Meg.
Merritt: Thanks so much for having me, Josh.
Cohen: So I touched on your career there. I want to dig into that first, because I think you’ve had a really interesting career. I mean, you did transit planning at Cap Metro in Austin; that’s the transit agency there. You’ve lectured at a university setting, in transportation. You’ve—I mentioned technology executive. That was at RideScout, which became Moovel North America. You’re doing consulting now. What inspired this mobility journey? I mean, this has been a pretty consistent kind of piece of your life here. What inspired that?
Merritt: You know, I have to say, my freshman year in college inspired it because I kind of came into transportation by way of learning about climate change, honestly. Very first class I took on the environment and ecology, which who knows why I signed up for it, but when I did, I was pretty appalled that, even back then, a third of all CO2 emissions are generated by the transportation sector. And, as I started to think about what I wanted to do for a career, I was quite interested in land planning and its relationship to transportation.
And my—one of my very first jobs was at Capital Metro as a TOD planner. Capital Metro is our transportation authority here in Austin, Texas. And in doing that, I recognized that, heck, you know, not a lot of people are going into transit to focus on CO2 emission reduction but are really interested in curbing emissions otherwise. So, I thought that that is something I would want to pursue long-term, and here I am, still doing it. Still very dedicated to transportation and transit specifically as a huge way to help curb some of those carbon emissions, but getting there in a policy environment that we are in today in the United States is easier said than done.
Cohen: Yeah. That’s for sure. Well, let’s talk about that a little bit. So, certainly, I feel like there’s been a lot of talk about climate, and then also mobility as well recently. Certainly, we had the major automakers meeting with President Biden and making a commitment to shift toward electric. We had the August IPCC report about the impact, and then we also have—we have the impact that a lot of us are feeling here, with hurricanes and wildfires.
So, a lot going on, and I bring all that up to say that, that said, you know, you brought up mobility and its connection to climate there. I actually wonder if we’re not even talking about this enough. Is that fair?
Merritt: We’re not talking about it enough. I think you’re spot on. I think we are not talking about it enough. And, I mean, there—we’re talking a lot about sectors and different impacts we can do. I think it’s part of cultural zeitgeist that we all recycle, and additionally, that perhaps that system, too, is flawed. I think most people know that, and understand that single-use plastic is—and use of single-use plastic is a bad habit. They don’t necessarily have ways to break it.
I think that people in the general public are not thinking about transportation, especially when you talk about things like household costs of buying a car. You know, people just put it in their budgets and don’t think twice about it. And, unfortunately, I think that it is one of the most naïve things any of us can do, is just to assume that we need a car. We really need to be questioning that ecosystem, just like we’re starting to question the single-use plastic and other components of the CO2 equation that we are starting to understand as the public at large.
Now, the industry is talking about it a lot. But I want to talk about something that I find fascinating about transportation. So we know that it’s roughly a third of all carbon emissions, and yet, it is the only sector for which all of the key performance indicators that get us to a lower carbon footprint are actually increasing. So one thing we use quite a bit, as you well know, is vehicle miles traveled. That’s a great index for understanding travel trends.
In transportation, our vehicle miles traveled is actually increasing year over year. Maybe we have—we aren’t too familiar with, obviously, the latest of the pandemic data, but—and then, emissions is increasing. And, you know, how is that even possible? I mean, that’s a byproduct of the VMT, even though more and more cars on the road are electric. But it’s—
Cohen: And theoretically newer—right—so they have less—
Merritt: And theoretically newer.
Cohen: —less emissions and so forth.
Merritt: Yeah, yeah. But it’s really our habits that are getting worse, if anything. Another thing—and again, I’m talking about before the pandemic. But another thing that I’m very interested in is this really quick fix that we think about with autonomous vehicles. And the data is showing us that, though autonomous vehicles—and we can even assume an electric autonomous vehicle—we know that vehicle miles traveled in the network would actually increase. Right?
Merritt: Because some autonomous vehicles will be delivering folks and then will be zombie cars, or however you want to put it, while they are going to pick up the next individual, and so on and so forth.
So, having said that, I think we should start to focus on other metrics that are sort of sub-metrics of getting us to that lower carbon footprint, and vehicle miles traveled is certainly a good place to start. But that’s where transit really comes into the picture, because we’re not focusing enough on the role of transit in getting people—more people to move efficiently through space in our cities.
Cohen: I’m glad you brought up that single-use plastics, because I have a friend of mine who was on a crusade against single-use plastics and was trying to remove all plastic from her life. Right? And it obviously—quite challenging, right? I mean, just so hard. It is so, you know, integrated into everything we do. And I want to maybe pull out kind of something you’re talking about there, which is this challenge between individual actions that you or I may take—right—versus incentives or structure or penalties or taxes that governments can do to do that. Right? And I feel like a lot of our approaches have been in this very micro, individualized, kind of decision-making framework.
Cohen: You’re choosing to live with one less car in your household, or I’m choosing to take the bus to work, or whatever. Right? That’s not going to cut it. Right? We need to have—
Merritt: Not going to cut it.
Cohen: —government-level, you know, mandates, incentives, taxes, whatever kind of carrots or sticks we need to use. Right? Have you seen any of those that are especially—I don’t know, what’s the right word—resonant, or that have—you know, that you think are especially effective there?
Merritt: Yes, in other countries. I mean, we have some pilot projects in the United States, and, obviously, our bigger cities have done a nice job at inviting more folks to take transit. But at a federal level, regardless of which administration in, we are in a political atmosphere that’s selling a stick solution to the public in terms of taxation on VMT or, perhaps, more tooling, or other means that we can come up with. Right? Are not as easy to implement when the country is as divided.
Now, I personally think that infrastructure and transit is apolitical; however, we’re in an environment where it has become an agenda item for Democrats. But really it benefits everybody, and it’s really the baseline public good of society, and it’s perhaps one of the last vestiges of upward mobility in the United States, in job access. It is transportation access that only transit can provide. So I think we need to look at the carrot side, of making it more inviting for Americans to take transit. And that is just appealing to the American ethos of “I want something, and I want something now.” I mean, that is why—
Merritt: Look, the car is so inviting for that reason.
Merritt: So I think that we can appeal to that part of the American heart by increasing the level of service for transit. Now, that is a big movement in the transit industry, and many, many cities have seen huge success stories in trying to make their fast, frequent, reliable network more accessible to folks and more reliable, with 15 to—10- and 15-minute headways. So that’s part of it.
But the other part of it is the—is staying competitive with travel time. You know, pandering to that American impatience. Here in Austin, we are working on a big, comprehensive program called Project Connect, with two light rail lines, several MetroRapid, which is kind of like a BRT service, and a fast and frequent and reliable system. And part of that thinking is how can we reduce the travel time to be competitive with the car.
You know, a lot of transportation engineers coming out of school in the ’50s, probably until the late ’90s, came from an atmosphere of car throughput, trying to—they were always thinking about how many cars can we get through an intersection, and that was the definition of level of service. And we still use that today in transportation planning, at the intersection level and in cities. But in most big cities, that level of service is pretty poor, with grades similar to what we did in grade school with, you know, most of them being an F. Well, that doesn’t feel good.
So now the industry is sort of turning to this focus of person throughput, how many people can we get through an intersection in a minute. And look, that’s just math. And that is appealing to anyone who’s taken a math class—
Merritt: —regardless of your political affiliation. Right?
Merritt: And so when you start to shift to that understanding of, “Gosh, you know, why don’t we focus on person throughput?” The minute that you start to focus on person throughput is the day you realize that transit has a phenomenally important role in getting people around a city. And one of the best ways to do that, where possible, is to provide dedicated right-of-way in the street for transit. And this is also a big movement in the transit industry, and we’re seeing really big wins.
But we have a bit of a gap in data now, thanks to our pandemic. But, suffice it to say that, all data, early data—because this is really only started in the last decade; we haven’t really seen the return on investment that I think we will in the coming decade—is to say that we need to focus on the carrot. Make it super inviting for folks to take transit, and for Americans, that means time. Make it convenient and almost to the point where it is competitive with the same trip by car.
Cohen: I’ve certainly thought about all those kind of components that you’ve talked about, but I never thought about it in that way that you framed it, which is kind of this appealing to the American ethos of, like, I want it fast, I want it—you know, I want it when I want it. So I kind of like that; I like that frame of really, like, thinking about this from like, “Look, American—you know, America is not Europe, it’s not—you know, it’s not going to have some of that same, you know, mostly old infrastructure. It’s not going to have some of the cultural dynamic, so forth. So how do we take advantage of whatever some of the American strengths are and, you know—or some of our unique quirks, or whatever they may be as Americans?” So I really like that frame, and that’s really, really interesting to think about. So I’m going to reflect on that a little bit.
Going back to that point about the throughput, it does seem to me that, like, that is a—changing that kind of definition of level of service is like a key component of that. Is that—has that officially been changed, or is that just like some people are kind of choosing that instead of kind of the old auto-focused?
Merritt: You know, I would have to say that it is my understanding, from the American Society of Civil Engineers, for which I am not a member, nor am I a PE—so I can’t say this with too much certainty, but I work with a lot of PEs—I don’t think that it has officially been changed, or if it has, it’s certainly not in Texas. I know that there are movements to change it, and, unfortunately, the folks that are advocating for that change are getting a lot of pushback from the industry—not necessarily just ASCE, but the industry in general, because it’s just the way that things have always been done.
The issue is that in fast-growing cities, like Austin, Raleigh, Nashville, Denver, Seattle, Portland, these cities are not in a position to opine on the merits of something that they already know is not working. And so what I’m seeing is that cities and transit agencies are working together to come up with travel-time and speed-and-reliability programs at the city level that do take that newer framing of throughput into consideration while prioritizing transit. So that’s doing things such as, “Hey, let’s look at the travel time of, you know, 15 bus routes. Where are we seeing trends in the bottlenecks? Where could we improve—what could we do at certain intersections around those bottlenecks to increase the reliability and speed of transit and give it priority?” So that could be allowing the transit vehicle to go on a green before—
Merritt: —the car, so it can always get over into the lane it needs to be in. And little things like that. Well, those little tweaks that are tailored, custom-based on the data and constant analysis by public sector folks working on these projects really makes a difference. You know, it’s just that it’s sort of the “one degree a day” thing; after a while, your whole ship is in a different direction. Well, same thing is true. And I’ll say that I don’t think that they’re sitting around and waiting for the American Society of Civil Engineers to change their opinion on that. They’re just doing it, because they don’t have the luxury of sitting around and coming up with new official metrics. They have to get people to work on time. And so they are just doing it, guerilla style, so to speak, in their own towns and cities.
Cohen: So, going back to this kind of concept of kind of American kind of—how America is—I don’t know—just different or unique or whatever. I mean, one facet, though, that I think we have to acknowledge is that, in most places, we don’t have a lot more room for additional lanes. Right? You know, I know there always seems to be like, “Yeah, we can add more lanes.” But, you know, in most places, you know, adding additional lanes is just not possible. So then the question, if you’re going to have that dedicated right-of-way that you talked about before, to really get that kind of competitiveness with the car trip better, is going to necessarily require taking away a lane from someone that’s driving currently. That—from a political standpoint, that, to me, is like where I feel like we sometimes get squeezed. Right? Because the elected folks don’t want to be the ones who are saying, “I’m taking away lanes.” Right?
Merritt: I hear you. But let’s talk about getting the most juice for the squeeze. How many people are we moving in said lane over the course of a year? That should be a consideration. Right? Also—
Cohen: I agree with you. I’m just—I’m trying to think about those—
Merritt: I hear you.
Cohen: —citizens who are not as enlightened as us maybe. I don’t know. [LAUGHS]
Merritt: Well, I’m going to tell you the story. So I—in Austin, we put in dedicated lanes, or semi-dedicated lanes, for bus lanes, in late—like 2008, 2009, something in that neighborhood. We don’t have a fact checker here, but around that time. And in many cases, it was taking away a parking lane or parallel parking spots.
So, first of all, I think cities are afraid of what you just said, and they don’t examine what is actually possible. There is a lot of creative solutions out there. Taking away parallel parking, though unpopular, is—but serves more people—is a consideration that cities could make. Additionally, sometimes turn lanes, or you’ve maybe heard some lanes referred to as “chicken lanes,” are not always being used, and there are some really good, safe workarounds, such as bulbing out at intersections, that transportation officials in a city can do.
Basically, that fear is overcomable in more creative ways than just, quote, “taking away a car lane.” But if taking away a car lane is the only option, you know, there again, it takes a network-level analysis. You can’t just say that that’s a bad decision. Surprisingly, a lot of times when transportation authorities do that, that traffic—you know, the water will find a way to move. It can just disperse in other places in the network. And ultimately, if it’s serving more people with fewer travel-time minutes, then was it a good decision? You know?
So, that’s that. But I’ll tell you a story in Austin that when we put those lanes in, I was working with a friend, and he moved to Dallas and came back, and picked me up from work, and then we were going away to grab dinner with other friends. And he hadn’t been in Austin a while, and he saw the bus barreling down that bus lane. And he said to me, “You know, the reason why we’re in traffic is because that bus has its own lane.” And I had to correct him, and I say, “Well, actually, that was never a travel lane for cars. That was a parking lane, which”—then go into the explanation of how that invites its own share of drive-alone trips.
And, you know, it’s just that perception. And I said, “I understand why you see that.” You know, we’re bumper to bumper. But there is a bus passing us every minute. And that bus has got—” and this was in rush hour “—you know, anywhere from 45 to 65 people in it, at the time.” Because back then even, those buses were pretty full. So, if we do the math on that, we are—they are accomplishing more in that amount of space than we are with just the 10 cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic in this block.
And I think once he saw that perspective, it was like a light bulb went off. Right? But until you can think about it that way. So there are things that our industry has been talking about doing for a while, which is, you know, advertising those wins. Every time a bus passes, have a light-up board that shows drivers how many people are being served.
And by the way, those are the people—many of them are frontline workers who have been able to keep the world going in the pandemic. And if anybody questioned transit’s value, it’s really important to look at the travel trends and who is riding transit in the pandemic. And then, beyond that, you know, we’re all traffic. Everyone who ever uses a road is part of the problem, unless they’re part of the solution.
And so I think it’s a matter of reeducating the public, but also getting people comfortable to be in society again with people that are not like them. You know, there’s a joke here that the last place to go see all of society is the grocery store or transit. And it’s really true. And I bet—and this would be an interesting anthropological social experiment—that when we are out of the worst part of the pandemic and looking like a recovery is on the way—and not like the one that we thought we had this summer, but perhaps a longer one—that we will see a real comeback in transit ridership because people want to be around people. And it’s been one of the loneliest parts of the pandemic, to be so isolated.
So, I think that’s the first part of that education, is trying it, and getting more people interested. They’ll get interested once they quickly find out how much faster it can be.
Cohen: Yeah. No, I really liked that. You mentioned kind of water will find its way and what, you know—certainly, you know, I’ve tried to explain induced demand to my wife, who’s not in transit, you know, a number of times. And I just—I can’t quite, you know, explain it to her in a way that, like, it makes sense. And, you know, she’s a Ph.D.-level public health expert, so she’s clearly smarter than me, but for some reason, like I cannot explain induced demand well enough. And, like, it’s like one of those counterintuitive thoughts.
And so what I was thinking about with the water finds a way is that, kind of the opposite of induced demand, obviously, which is, you know, when you take away a lane—you know, and we’ve seen this over and over again—it doesn’t actually end up being the—you know, what was it—carmageddon in L.A. or whatever.
Cohen: It doesn’t end up being the Armageddon that everybody thinks. Because what happens is that it disperses, like you said. It kind of—you kind of create a more resilient network instead of it all being funneled into, like, one area.
It does seem to me that, like, there’s, like, some of this, like, science and math that is, like, on our side here, but is like really hard to really grasp—right—for the layperson who’s not an engineer or a planner. Is there any good way around that, other than just, like, to show them the proof of, like, “All right, we did it, and nobody—you know, it wasn’t insane”?
Merritt: You know, I think showing people graphics with this concept of throughput has proven really helpful, because there’s this old adage—I think Jerrett Walker originally said it—that technology cannot overcome geometry.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Merritt: Meaning, you know, there’s only so much space and so many people we can fit in a space. So we need to take the time to explain that concept. It’s also this miseducation about solutions. You know, people know these projects are hard to do. And so it’s so much easier to glom onto what seems like a silver-bullet solution, with autonomous vehicles, for instance. But then when you start to talk to people, and you’re like, “Oh, so you know that in some cities a quarter of all gridlocked downtown traffic are empty Uber and Lyft cars, which is a very good indicator species for how a future of autonomous vehicles could look.” And they say, “Well, what do you mean?” Well, think about it. If an autonomous—just like an Uber and Lyft, when they’re on the way to the next trip, they’ve got to be deadheading, meaning there’s nobody in the vehicle. That is creating traffic. And it’s like people—really smart people have never really thought about that.
And these take policy conversations that are difficult. I think coalition building and education is the most important part of that. But going back to our American impatience, doing all of that hard work takes a long time, and it is difficult. It has a lot of emotions involved. You know, you’re dealing with people’s travel habits and the way that they think about getting to work, but additionally, actually implementing the project comes with its own cost to the community. And, for some reason, construction for a highway doesn’t seem as egregious as something that actually has a lower carbon footprint.
And so I think that’s part of it, Josh. But, you know, another thing is, since we’re having a psychology lesson here—
Merritt: —it’s cognitive dissonance.
Merritt: I mean, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with in my career—members of the public, that is—who will tell you that they’re extremely concerned about climate change, they recycle, just genuinely thinking that they need to make changes in their life on a personal level. But then when you suggest a traffic change, like, “Oh, well, this left-hand turn might go away—” by the way, asterisk, in the name of a project that will reduce the city’s carbon footprint by X, then, you know, never mind that the earth is burning, and you just told me you really care about that—it’s like this just upheaval of injustice, and that’s cognitive dissonance.
Merritt: That’s saying, well—that’s just “not in my backyard” attitude. If you want to play a part in the solution for climate change, then, guess what? Your everyday habits are going to have to change. And if you’re not willing to give up your travel patterns, and our government is not willing to charge you for not giving up on them, then you know what? Let’s reward those that do make good choices by making their travel time better. Let’s give them the guarantee that they will not be in traffic. Let’s give them a comfortable ride. Let’s give them inviting stations that make them want to come take transit every day.
So there’s all these things that we can do. I don’t—when I started my career, I definitely was, let’s, you know, policy stick, policy stick, policy stick. But I just don’t think we’re going to get there with that. And we really have to take the onus of being the entrepreneur in transit and inviting people to the service more and more.
Cohen: I like this. I’m gathering that you’re background is not in psychology as well. You’re an amateur psychologist, like me. But I do like that, you know, it does seem to me that this kind of—the psychology of this is actually a part that, again, I don’t really think I’ve really thought about in that way. Other than, I think, you know, one of the ways I’ve definitely thought about it is that, you know, from the, you know, kind of experiential standpoint or the empathic standpoint as it comes to leadership, where elected officials—mayors, so forth—they should be riding the bus. Right? They should have that experience of, you know, knowing what good service looks like and also seeing what the bad service looks like, and what it’s like to, you know, have to, you know, wait in some traffic where single-occupancy vehicles are making 40 people on the bus, you know, late for work. Right? So—
Cohen: I think that’s a really important part of that. I want to wrap up with this. You know, we’ve talked a lot about psychology here, but I want to maybe, you know, kind of come back a little bit to a little bit of your experience. As you think back to some of the leaders that you’ve worked with during your career, either in the private or the public sector, I’m curious if there’s anything that they did that helped them be effective at getting stuff done.
Merritt: Yeah, there have been. Right now, I’m working on a project with Austin Transit Partnership, and the CEO, Randy Clarke, I think, is a great leader in reminding people that these projects are very difficult, but we’re doing the right thing. At the end of the day, we are doing something that on paper we all would agree, climate change is bad, and we should be doing things to improve it. And then when we hit a snag in policy or it’s tough to do the project, you know, people get really discouraged. But keeping that focus on what’s important. So, you know, that’s one example of a leadership tactic that I think has been really transformational in this discussion of getting more people to take transit.
And then another attitude that I’ve really appreciated is having leaders in land planning who really specialize—you know, AICP, the American Institute for City Planners, is a great example of this. They teach basic tenets of good transit planning to land planners because those two things go hand in hand.
Merritt: So I find that people coming from that pedigree of urban planning really do a great job of then being leaders within their own communities to understand that transit and transit-supported density go hand in hand. Yes, there are champions in every community that can do this, but I think we underappreciate the leadership of staffers in our planning and zoning department and staffers in transit departments who work together to get some of that stuff done.
Definitely having mayors and governors who are champions for these things, absolutely helpful. But even in places where it’s—like Texas, where it’s not easy at a state level to just get transit policy implemented, there are local leaders at the staff level who are doing the work every day to move the needle. And, you know, you look up 10 years later and, boy, there’s huge changes in the street. And it’s only because of that dedication and daily day-to-day leadership of staffers who are empowered to make those choices and are educating the public as they go along.
Cohen: I’m really, really, really glad you mentioned that, because I do think that’s probably an underappreciated area, those staffers who are having to not only do that work day in, day out, but also sometimes have to manage with those political changes. Right?
Cohen: So, you know, they’re having to manage, sometimes, left turns and right turns, from the political sphere and still, at the same time, kind of moving the ball forward, if you will. You’re right. That is a really underappreciated area. So I’m really glad that you mentioned that. And Randy Clarke, certainly another good mention as well. He was one of—he was our guest back on Episode 031. So, yeah—
Merritt: Wow. Yes. So you probably understand that, you know, and his philosophy on that. And I think we’ll see more of that in transit in the coming decade. Hey, we have new empowerment through a hopefully—fingers crossed—accessible infrastructure bill. And, I think, more—it will attract more and more great thinkers to the transit industry.
Cohen: Mmm. I think you’re right about that. Well, Meg, this has been a great, great conversation about, you know, a little bit more, again, not where I necessarily thought we would go, but a really fascinating conversation around the psychology of some of those sticks that maybe you thought at the beginning, and now you’ve kind of moved more to the carrot side of how can we make it more attractive for people to move about our community effectively, safely, more carbon-friendly as well. And public transit and walking and biking, obviously, are a big role in that.
So, thank you so much for coming on to share that. Where can folks learn more about Movitas Mobility and some of the work you’re doing?
Merritt: MovitasMobility.com has all of our information, and we’ll be putting up some of the projects we worked on recently, here in the next couple of months. But I want to thank you, Josh, for spreading the good word of all things mobility, as we all try to educate and learn away. And I look forward to catching up in person when that is a thing again.
Cohen: Amen. Amen. Well, thank you so much, Meg. Keep up the great work, and we’ll talk soon.
Merritt: Sounds great, Josh. Have a good day.
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.