To truly solve climate and poverty issues, the Shared Use Mobility Center’s Sharon Feigon believes it’s not enough to increase access to shared and low-impact mobility options like transit, bikes, and scooters. It will truly require changing how we do things in areas far beyond mobility.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Feigon: Sharon Feigon
Cohen: Our guest today, Sharon Feigon, the founder in residence of the Shared-Use Mobility Center has seeded some important ideas in her decades in the industry that are starting to bloom now; shared mobility action plans, mobility hubs, and our need for more than just electric cars. You’ll get the inside scoop from Sharon, coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: We are excited to welcome someone who is considered one of the deans of the mobility industry, Sharon Feigon. Sharon was the director of research and development of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, before becoming the CEO of I-Go Car Sharing, the first carshare organization in Chicago. She then became the founding executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center where she is now the founder in residence. Welcome to The Movement, Sharon.
Feigon: Thank you.
Cohen: Let’s maybe start by giving an overview of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, the organization that you founded and led until last month when you handed the reigns to Benjie de la Peña. And so maybe just kind of give us that introduction and maybe, you know, the problem that SUMC—which the Shared-Use Mobility Center, that’s the acronym you’ll probably hear a lot in this podcast, listeners—what’s the problem that SUMC is trying to solve?
Feigon: Well, when I started the Shared-Use Mobility Center, I was thinking about very big problems, I guess, in the world. And it’s kind of been my work, to date, is really thinking about, like, how do you make systemic change, how do you address poverty and climate. So very interested in both the economic development side and also environmental-sound practices. And sort of thrown in with all of that is how do you really build community.
And so the way though that I was looking at how to solve those kind of problems was with focus on the automobile and figuring out how people could get around without having to own a car, because a car is expensive and it makes it very difficult for people who don’t have a lot of means to have to support a car. It also causes pollution, and it increases isolation in our lives. So the idea was a car-free lifestyle; and if you were really going to be successful with that, people need a lot of choices and a lot of options to make it work. So we always, at SUMC, have thought about transit as kind of the backbone in the center and then all of these emerging modes as contributing to it, and the idea is really a multimodal transportation system that works for all.
So, you know, I had been the CEO of I-Go Car Sharing, and we were also, you know, all about car-free lifestyle and car-ownership-free lifestyle, but having access to a car when you needed it. So this was the focus now more centrally on transit but also seeing, you know, bikesharing emerging when I started SUMC and carsharing continuing at that time and then of course Uber and Lyft were emerging. And so it was just, okay, if we can put this all together and make it very seamless and really create, I guess what’s now called MaaS, you know, that kind of integrated setup, then people would not have to own a car. They could get around more cost effectively, and it would be much more environmentally sound.
Cohen: So I want to maybe dig in on that a little bit around, you know, certainly the I-Go Car Sharing was Chicago. Right? That was your kind of hyperlocal solution to a problem. When you started Shared-Use Mobility Center, was that looked at as kind of trying to solve that problem in Chicago, or from the beginning were you looking at that from a national or a global perspective?
Feigon: I was definitely looking at it from a national perspective. So I-Go was local, but I worked really closely with carsharing folks in other cities; and, in fact, we formed the CarSharing Association. It was launched in Chicago in a meeting there that—and it brought together a worldwide set of organizations. But they were all nonprofit or community-based carsharing; but even in that, you know, I really valued the network and the ability to learn from each other and share our experiences.
But with SUMC—so I-Go Car Sharing was part of—it was owned by the Center for Neighborhood Technology where I worked for 20 years. And at CNT we were thinking more broadly but in terms of land use and transportation, and we worked on a national scale. But I-Go was demonstrating the possibility of carsharing and how that could work, of course, in Chicago. But we never really stopped with that. I mean, it was very local, and it built its base, but it was always about the broader system.
And when the Center for Neighborhood Technology decided to sell I-Go, the board actually provided a little bit of the proceeds from the sale to assist me in starting the Shared-Use Mobility Center. So I thought, “Okay, I’m getting out of operations,” no more cars, members, fleet; you know, this was, like, really hard stuff, “but let’s work on the policy and the bigger picture and work at a much broader scale.”
Cohen: All right, I know L’erin’s got a—I’ve got one more follow-up question. You’ve got to give this to me, L’erin, before we turn this over to you to do the next one. But I guess I want to—you know, as you reflect back on, you know, now that you’re in this founder-in-residence kind of seat with the Shared-Use Mobility Center, I’m curious as you reflect back on all of your time with SUMC; was there a particular project that you are the most proud of?
Feigon: You know, we’ve done a lot. I mean, SUMC actually hasn’t been around that long; it’s been, like, seven years. And I am amazed because we actually created the field. You know? There were all these different people working on projects, and I really think that it was through the Shared-Use Mobility Center that it kind of galvanized all these different partners and interested parties and the fact that the transit agencies became so central and involved at the same time that all the private-market players became involved. And really all of this has galvanized around the annual summit, which, you know, has been a big place where partnerships have been formed, where people have learned advancements in the field, and, you know, it really has been a kind of special learning place, which I’m very proud of that.
We also created the learning center within SUMC that is really a clearinghouse of information, of, you know, policies, what all the different cities are doing, case studies; and all of that is available to everyone to share. And then the other thing that I find, like, amazing is that the organization has become so involved in all these pilot projects, so really testing out these different strategies between transit and shared mobility providers. And the organization at this point is involved in something like a hundred different pilots. And now what’s most exciting is that they’re starting to scale up and actually become what transit is. So that was always the vision, is that all these different modes really would become part of the transit system, and that is starting to happen. The other thing that sort of needed to happen to make that work is that the staffing in agencies had to change, and a lot of places now there are mobility managers, mobility coordinators who cross different departments and disciplines who try to, you know, help manage a set of transportation options.
The other part that we did right from the start was I had this idea that we should have big goals like, you know, how many CO2 emissions we were going to reduce and how many—you know, how we were going to grow. And then the idea was to create shared mobility action plans within different cities that would kind of lay out the path to meet those goals. And while our idea of, you know, that somehow we would bring everybody together and do this as a giant group didn’t really work out, what did happen is that cities all across the country have taken on that effort to create mobility action plans and actually set goals for themselves and then a pathway to transform their agencies. And I think that it’s brought—like, the transit agencies in a lot of cities really were very separate from the city department of transportation or other players that dealt with, you know, pedestrians and with other modes. And over this time period that SUMC has been around, there’s been a lot of convergence around that, both on the public side and also the partnerships with the private players as well.
Jensen: Sharon, you briefly mentioned SUMC’s vision, and I want to go back to that a little bit. You know, in the seven, short years SUMC has been around it’s done a lot, but what do you think are some of the biggest barriers to achieving SUMC’s vision of a world where universal mobility enables everyone to live well without having a car?
Feigon: Yeah, we haven’t solved all the barriers; that’s for sure. [LAUGHTER] There’s lots more to do. I think that one of the biggest barriers is that you can’t really only focus on the mobility side; you have to look at land use. And, you know, cities and communities overall have become so auto-oriented in the way they’ve evolved that you actually have to have a car in order to get to a job. And that’s why there is this very fine balance when you’re talking about alleviating poverty, because in some cases, you know, there have been programs with the idea that giving cars to people because that will enable them to get to jobs. But at the same time, you know, a car is really expensive and there is sort of ultimately a lot of negatives that can be there with car ownership, so how do you—you know, if the transit and all this shared mobility is not going to get you where you need to go in order to have a job, in order to take care of what you need to take care of to live well, then we’ve failed. I mean, people should have cars, if that’s the only option that is going to work to live well.
So the barriers that stand in the way, you know, we have not broken them all down, for sure. So I think there is the land-use issues; I think there is this divide between cities, suburbs, rural areas that has been kind of exasperated by the last four years where there’s a lot of division, and that impacts our ability to really think holistically about how people get around. And, I think, on a very fundamental level the kind of community building that needs to take place and really understanding what the problems are and what the best types of solutions are has not been done very well. So there has been a lot of, you know, kind of top-down stuff, and we need to do things more effectively from the ground up.
I think that in one of the big programs that SUMC is involved in now in California, the mobility options program where it’s really working with grassroots communities on creating mobility options, there has been a lot of civic engagement. And there’s actually a requirement before you get the funds to do a needs assessment and to really fully understand what will work and what won’t. So, I think, those kinds of programs are going to break down some of the barriers, because I think a lot of things get built or dumped in communities or don’t get put in communities because there are notions about what’s going to work and what doesn’t that haven’t really been fully vetted.
Cohen: Yeah, I think you’re right there. And, you know, certainly when I think about the community engagement, it’s certainly been a theme that we’ve heard over and over and over again that, I think, organizations and communities are doing their best to do better on. But I agree that it’s not something that we’ve integrated completely into everything that we’re doing as it relates to transportation and land use and so forth in order to really address those concerns directly.
Feigon: Yeah. And, you know, the other thing is—and some places there have been really great examples, and actually during the pandemic and some of these street closures and some of the creative placemaking that’s gone on, I think that communities have done a wonderful job. But there needs to be vision and imagination that goes with all of this. You know? So there’s community engagement; there’s, like, really having fun with it and thinking creatively and at the same time, you know, these big changes that have to occur around land use.
But I think that when we approach mobility from a community-building standpoint you can build consensus. You know, you can build these ideas because ultimately, I mean, people want—they want to be able to get around, and they want to be able to get around easily and cost-effectively. And, you know, if it’s fun too, I mean, that’s, you know, icing on the cake.
Cohen: I mean, that’s something that L’erin and I have talked about before too, the fun part of it. I mean, I think, L’erin—L’erin and I differ a little bit on this; I think she has more fun on the scooters than I do. [LAUGHTER] They’re undoubtedly—I mean, they’re definitely fun; I just don’t let myself relax enough to have fun, I think. I don’t know.
Feigon: Yeah. Well, there is that aspect on a scooter, that you actually don’t want to relax because you need to be really careful, although that also ties in with having the right infrastructure.
Cohen: Totally, yeah.
Feigon: I mean, that’s so critical to building all of these different modes. It’s a whole different experience to ride a bike, you know, in the beloved places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam or something where it’s just, like, standard procedure and everything is, you know, separated very nicely and the lights are timed right for the bike user and you can go everywhere on a—you know, all those different things. It’s, like, if we build the infrastructure property—and I think there’s a lot of potential now to really expand it—I think that a lot of the active transportation will flourish.
Cohen: It’s funny you say that, because I actually—I mean, first of all, I totally agree. But I think, you know, there is a rails-to-trails project that goes right near where L’erin and I both live in Durham. And certainly up in Chicago I’ve gone on whatever that lakeshore trail is that goes right along the lake there.
Feigon: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Cohen: And you see how much people enjoy those projects where they are isolated from traffic.
Cohen: And it never ceases to amaze me how folks don’t connect the dots enough to say, “There’s a reason why people love this greenway” that L’erin and I both enjoy and people love the lakeshore front trail—whatever it’s called—there’s a reason, and part of that is that they don’t have to worry except at, you know, various odd places of traffic. Right? They have that freedom of knowing that, “You know what? I can go on this scooter, or I can go on this bike, or I can go for this run and know that I’ll be safe.” And that just is a—I’m just surprised more people haven’t connected the dots on that.
Feigon: Well, I think, the issue is that in the places where you need to go more frequently the streets, you know, we haven’t built that infrastructure, so it’s been set up more as a recreational activity. It’s just like, you know, people choose for vacations to go to very walkable cities where they can enjoy that lifestyle; and yet, you know, we still build all of this stuff or, like, transit-oriented developments where the transit doesn’t actually get people to where they need to go. It is located there, but it’s, like, located next to a giant parking garage. So there really has to be a change in mindset that these are essential services.
And I do think during the pandemic, again, understanding where people need to go and the people who need to go the most and are most dependent on public transit has become better known. And there is more of an understanding, I think—at least, I hope—around equity issues. And so, I think, now we’re kind of poised to maybe tackle some of that in a better way. And, I mean, with the infrastructure, you know, every improvement that’s made on any road anywhere could just be required to have that separated lane for other modes, sidewalks required every time anything is done, you know, anywhere.
Cohen: Yeah. No, and we talked about that with David Zipper a couple weeks ago.
Feigon: There are a lot of different issues with safety and use of transit. And so having lighting, having a good place to wait is all part of it and creating—you know, now another thing actually that I’m very proud of is that we have been pushing the concept of mobility hubs since back when I was running I-Go Car Sharing. We created these solar canopies for the electric cars we put in our fleet back in 2011 maybe or something like that. And the idea was to have these hubs of activity.
And I think that that’s another idea that has taken hold, and, you know, communities around the country are talking about they need their mobility hub. And it’s really, like, the physical manifestation of the app that tells you about all the different modes; it’s, like, a place where you could see those modes, you can use it as a community-building spot, and you can provide access. And, I think, that’s going to be a very important part of people learning about different modes and also sort of maybe pulling some of the land-use changes together.
Cohen: So I want to maybe build on that a little bit. I mean, certainly, you know, there has been a lot of change in mobility since you’ve been in this industry. I guess, I want to look forward though. So what are you most excited about for the future of mobility?
Feigon: Hmm. [LAUGHS] Most excited? Well, I think that—I’m pretty excited that we have a new administration and—very excited, I would say—and I think that there are some really terrific folks that are part of the new U.S. DOT and a lot of people that we’ve worked with over the years who are really innovative thinkers. And, I think, one thing that there seems to be, like, a little bit of movement in is the idea that a lot of these changes require cross-departmental interactions. So we can’t solve things just in the DOT; you actually have to work with the EPA. I mean, this is federal; this isn’t everything, but this is at the bigger policy level, that we need to put together the Department of Energy, the EPA, the transportation, you know, housing, that all of these things are interrelated. And I think that the siloed approaches that we’ve taken in the past are part of what’s held us back. So I’m excited that there are good people in all those places and hopeful that they’re going to find ways to connect these programs. So that’s one thing that, I think, will be really good.
I think also there’s just more a sense of the urgency around climate change, and, you know, it’s been getting more and more urgent. And there’s finally starting to be what we’ve been talking about for a long time; it’s more than electric cars. You know, electric cars are great, and we should transform the car part to electric, but if we don’t get people out of cars and have really quality shared transportation, whether transit and in its newer forms, you know, on-demand transportation, active transportation, all of these things, we’re not going to really be able to resolve the transportation portion of climate.
And I think there’s finally, like, some, you know, recognition of this on a large scale, so I’m hopeful that we’re going to tackle that. I know we’re going to do well on this transformation to electric, but where the electricity comes from, how robust we are in renewable sources—and those renewable sources, in my opinion, should not be nuclear sources—you know, that’s going to be a lot more challenging. So getting people into other modes is also going to be really key.
Jensen: Well, Sharon, we’ve got one last question for you. Who have been some of your personal or professional influences or allies that have been critical to your success over your lengthy career?
Feigon: Oh, my goodness. [LAUGHS] Um, wow. I mean, I don’t know. There have been so many people. I mean, I don’t think any of these changes get done alone, and it’s never just one person’s idea. You know? It really requires working together, and that’s really hard sometimes. I mean, it’s the way to make change. I started out—after college I was a community organizer. I was—a few of my friends started the Seattle Tenants Union, and I joined in in the sort of founding days of that, and then I ran a ballot initiative for rent control and worked on a whole bunch of policy issues.
And we formed a displacement coalition in Seattle, which was really we were trying to address single room occupancy housing that was getting torn down and buildings converting to condos. I mean, so these issues have been going on—you know, I mean, that was housing not transportation, but it was, like, the same issues. And then, of course, I came to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
So influences; well, influences like back in college, I guess, would have been, you know, Jane Jacobs and Mumford and Christopher Hall, and Chester Hartman was very involved. I don’t even know what happened to him, but he was, like, a big, housing influence in the early days of all the housing stuff. And Shelterforce had just started. I think it’s still around. And Denny Zane who now runs all the ballot initiatives in LA, he was the mayor of Santa Monica and was kind of, like, my model for running the ballot initiative in Seattle. And, of course, Scott Bernstein, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, I worked really closely with him for so many years.
And, you know, some of the concepts at CNT about location efficiency, about valuing the hidden assets of cities, about place mattering, those are all really important things that have influenced me. All my people I worked with on the car sharing association from all the different cities, from Philadelphia and Toronto and San Francisco, like, all of us that joined together on that—I don’t know. There’s, like, so many people. [LAUGHTER]
And then all the—I mean, with SUMC, you know, it’s been just amazing working with the research office at the Federal Transit Administration and with the Air Resources Board in California and all the folks in the City of LA, really all these, you know, innovative transit leaders and city DOT folks—I don’t know. There’s a lot of people, that it’s only by doing this together.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, I think you’ve nurtured a lot of relationship over those years to allow you to accomplish a lot. And, I think, certainly, you know, from my experience having attended some of these shared-use mobility summits and so forth it’s just—you know, some of the work that you’ve done and your team has done that you’ve helped to water and help to mature and so forth, I think, are just really inspiring, and I certainly appreciate all that you’ve done over that time as well as really just kind of continuing to get at that vision of how do we help more people come together in a community to move around effectively, safely without an automobile so that you can have equitable access and safe-and-climate-neutral access to transportation. So that’s just really, really a great work that you’ve done.
Feigon: Well, thank you. And I have some ideas about some more things that I may be doing. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Well, good. Well, we look forward to hearing those. Maybe we’ll have you back to talk about those, but thank you so much for joining us today. This has been great to hear a little bit more about some of this history and also what you’re excited about in the future.
Jensen: Yeah, thank you.
Feigon: Okay. And, well, thank you very 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.