On issues of zoning, housing, and transportation, Greater Greater Washington’s policy manager Alex Baca recognizes that while the decisions made are political, the outcomes she wants are simply the ability for all to exist and move with dignity.
Check out TransLoc’s 2021 poll analyzing Americans’ public transportation expectations and behaviors post-pandemic in our Transit Value Index Survey!
Episode 133: This Stuff is Explicitly Political
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Baca: Alex Baca
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: A lot to think about in this episode with Alex Baca of Greater Greater Washington. But perhaps the one that will stick with me the most is a question. Is your community focusing on the residents who are already living there, or on some nebulous future ones that you’re trying to attract with economic incentives? We’ll have that conversation 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’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Our guest today is Alex Baca, currently the policy manager at Greater Greater Washington. She previously directed engagement at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and served as the general manager of Cuyahoga County’s bikesharing system. She’s also been a journalist who has been published in CityLab, Slate, and Vox, among others. Welcome to The Movement, Alex.
Baca: Thanks so much for having me, Josh. Happy to be here.
Cohen: Longtime listeners may recall that we had GGWash’s, or Greater Greater Washington’s, former executive director David Alpert on early in our tenure, back in 2019. For those of our listeners who have joined us since then, maybe introduce us to the work of Greater Greater Washington and kind of the work that you’re doing there.
Baca: Most people are familiar with our publication, which is GGWash.org, which this started in 2008 by David Alpert, who I’ve known for almost as long because I was a volunteer way, way, way in the early days.
Cohen: That’s cool.
Baca: It’s kind of weird—[LAUGHS]—like to work there now. But it’s very cool. You know, GGWash was a very volunteer-driven publication. It was a blog—right—when blogging was a thing, and was very much in this wider spectrum of local D.C. blogging that was kind of a really interest feature of, I guess, the journalism landscape but also the sort of civic commentary landscape. But, you know, thanks to David’s efforts and sort of support, was able to grow into what I actually call kind of a more conventional nonprofit advocacy organization, which is kind of where we are now.
So we recently welcomed a new executive director, Chelsea Allinger. We have a staff of seven, including her. And we’re kind of split into two sides, so we have the publication, which is led by our really, really awesome team of journalists, and then I am on the policy side. So I actually do very little writing these days, except for emails—[LAUGHS]—and really work on getting our policy priorities over the line, which are building a lot more housing, making sure that we are reducing dependency on single-occupancy vehicles, and also making sure that we do that in a redistributive and fair fashion so that we’re not screwing people over along the way. So that’s kind of the current iteration of GGWash, is that we have this outward-facing publication that lots of people are familiar with, but we’re not just journalism; we do have a policy arm.
We’re also a (c)(4), which is really cool, so we are able to endorse and support elected officials, which, having worked for a bunch of different nonprofits, is one of my favorite things, is that we’re not a (c)(3) and we can have political opinions because a lot of the stuff is deeply, deeply political and has to do with larger questions around governance and rights and access and, you know, the really general question of who cities are for and how they work.
Cohen: Wow. So I liked that, and I like that you kind of noted that difference, because you’re right; everything that you’re talking about is political. And when you’re taking this nonprofit view and you can’t really endorse and really kind of put all of your weight behind a specific candidate, it does make it a little bit harder, I guess, to, you know, deal with these issues, which I think, as you’ve noted, are kind of foundational to how we’re going to either live or not live in our communities, going forward. Right?
Baca: Yeah. And like, you know, (c)(3)s—and I’ve worked for a lot of (c)(3)s—like, can do really awesome work, can lobby up to 15% of their time and stuff. But I think there’s a lot of value in acknowledging that housing and transportation and land use, which is, like, the policy areas that I work on, are like many, many other policy areas, like housing, like education, you know, the stuff I don’t work in and leave to experts in those fields, are explicitly political, and the decisions made around them are politicized, whether or not, you know, you want them to be.
You know, I think there’s always—there’s an attraction in that ability to pull back and be very rational and, you know, say, “This is a good idea,” and we get stuff done out of the sake of this being a good idea, and we can really organize people around that. Realistically, it kind of doesn’t work that way, so that’s something that I really enjoy about my job, is that we can acknowledge that this stuff is explicitly political and plays out in these civic forums that are often accompanied with people’s emotions and personal experiences, and, you know, just kind of the continual struggles over power and who is making decisions.
Cohen: Yeah, who has power and who’s making decisions definitely is at the root of a lot of the things that I think we’re tackling in all of our communities right now. You touched on housing there a little bit. Let’s dig into that a little bit. You’ve certainly written a lot about housing; you’ve thought a lot about it. And as you’ve noted, we can’t really tackle transportation issues until we tackle housing issues, because the U.S. has developed over the course of the last 60-plus years with residences mostly separated from job centers. And so we’re starting to see some communities and some large cities, like Minneapolis and Charlotte, eliminate some of the single-family zoning. And I guess my question for you is, is that too late after 60 years of very bifurcated housing and job, being co-located?
Baca: Yeah. I mean, yeah, probably. Right? Like, I—
Cohen: Wait. [LAUGHS] Way to be real, way to be real. It’s probably too late.
Baca: Well, like, I mean, we’re talking about this after the, like, you know, latest IPCC report came out last week, which was—you know, I think fueled a lot of, like, climate doomers, and like, yeah, everything is too late. But what I do think is important is, especially around the zoning conversation, is that—and just as a sidebar, this is not meant as like a correction, but I often—like, zoning and stuff is like land use, which I think is even more fundamental than housing and transportation. And I think that’s really interesting because people usually want to talk to me about the sort of like left, NIMBYism, like thing that happens on Twitter and stuff. And like, I just—you know, that’s not really, like, my thing. I have thoughts on it, but that’s not really my thing to explain.
You know, what I think is interesting is that I do—like, land use is my sort of like—I love land use. It’s a topic area that I find really interesting, and, like, more so even than housing. A lot of policies around housing, like when you get into housing policy, which is stuff that I’m somewhat fluent in—but I don’t—like I’m not—I don’t work on, like, direct services for affordable housing; GGWash is not a community benefits organization—or community, like, partner organization; we’re not—we don’t do that kind of stuff. Like, I am knowledgeable about that because, like, why would I not be, and I’m curious, and I’m interested, and learning about how housing is financed is really interesting to me, and knowing more about tenants’ rights is really interesting to me. And obviously, like, that’s part of my job, but also, like, land policy is very different from housing policy, and like that is like—I think that’s actually like a really interesting divide in sort of like the spatial thing that we’re talking about, like the spatial mismatch of jobs. It’s like really much—it was like a question about how we distribute our resources, and in some ways that’s not a question; we, like, know the answer to it already.
So all of that is to say, like, yeah, we should eliminate single-family zoning. Like, I don’t see a good moral case for keeping it around in zoning codes. You know, you can look at what the early advocates of single-family zoning were saying in the 1920s and the 1930s, and you can look at how it was used, which was to enforce racial segregation. And I don’t think it has a good purpose in most modern zoning codes, mostly from a moral standpoint. Then you get into the regulatory framework of, like, okay, yeah, this actually does prevent you from building apartment buildings in neighborhoods where there aren’t apartment buildings, which is just, like, stupid. [LAUGHS] So, you know, is it too late? Yeah. But is it ever too late to do something that probably, like, I think has a lot of meaning? Like, you know, no.
And zoning is—you know, for all of the sort of, like, conversations about how much we have to consider stuff and like what we need to do, like, zoning can change overnight. Like, for the most part, like, there’s a process that you need to follow, but, you know, the—like, in D.C.—and this is different than other jurisdictions, but in D.C., municipal planning falls under the mayor, due to the Home Rule Act. We can change zoning, like, virtually overnight. Like, that actually doesn’t need to be this intensive process. We just—you know, the District spent close to five years amending its comprehensive plan, which, in my opinion, is like sort of a farcical example of governance. Like, it really—like, those are amendments. That’s bad. Like, that’s bad governance, that’s bad for people. If you do sincerely believe in community control over development, it shouldn’t take five years to update a document. That’s just a bad practice. Right?
So, you know, I understand the need for the process for a lot of these things, but, you know, there’s also, I think, some justification in saying that we know the impacts of our existing zoning system; it can change. We know what it means for climate. We know what it means for equity. We do. And there are certainly things to consider, but it’s a lot easier to consider those things when you’re not restrained from building more than one unit on a really gigantic lot in the majority of most places.
So, I think that’s just a pretty, like—to me, you know, we were having all these, like, really intensive debates about zoning and what it means to, like, change codes and stuff, and, like, it’s very zeitgeisty. Zoning should be—like, this should be easy. I know it’s not. I know the reasons why it’s not. But fairly straightforward because, like, we need to do way more to get people into affordable housing, if we want to meaningfully integrate neighborhoods. Like, zoning is a big component of that, but it is one of the things that can happen the fastest. And it often takes a very long time because people just are not super interested in having these conversations because zoning is a proxy for so much else. I mean, zoning was officially neutral to begin with, and I think that that makes it challenging. Right? It’s like saying, like, “Oh, we’re going to separate uses,” but use is really a proxy for people, like—
Cohen: Yeah. And I find that zoning also is just it’s such a—perhaps this is kind of what you’re getting at as well—it’s just such a—it’s a hard thing to kind of really wrap your head around, because there’s that intermediary. We’re talking about usage, and what you’re really talking about is people, but by putting that veil over it, it makes it that much more opaque. Right?
Baca: Yeah. I mean, we, you know, get this a lot at GGWash—right—where it’s like, “Oh, White urbanist being wonky and nerdy, like, about planning on the internet.” And it’s like, “Okay, sure, yeah, we’re, like—” I mean, for what it’s worth, our staff is not all White, and so that’s very dismissive of [INDISCERNIBLE] who works for us.
But, you know, so there’s that. But also, like, sure, okay, maybe this stuff is not your preferred policy area. Like I said, I can’t—like, I can’t—I don’t wrap my head around public health; I don’t work in public health. Education? Education to me is this green egg from Harry Potter. Right? Like I just—like this is not—like, these are policy topic areas that I don’t work in, that I’m not—that I don’t—like, they’re not my area of expertise, and I trust the people who work in them. But I wouldn’t ever be like, “Oh, this is so boring and so wonky.”
And so zoning, like, yeah, it’s not exactly—looking at a zoning code is not human-scale accessible. Right? Like, it does require the sort of, like, willingness to look at a bunch of different letters and numbers and texts and interpret stuff. But lots of people do that with many, many things all of the time, and so I think this—that the, “Oh, like, this is just for people who have time and, like, can be wonky and weird about it” is, like, well, I mean, sure. But it also does literally impact the physical landscape of your city. So it’s fine if it’s boring, but it’s not really necessary to cast it off as this like “Eh, like, who bothers to pay attention to that, except for like people who comment on GGWash?” Like, well, it matters.
And so there’s a lot of stuff that, you know, you could say you find boring, but I think, like, that it is important to some people and really important to the functioning of the places that we live. It’s sort of worth thinking about it. All of this stuff could of course be more accessible. Right? I mean, that’s like a whole separate conversation about how to make meetings more accessible and how to make regulations more accessible that, like, many, many organizations spend a good amount of time on. But I think that that is, you know—there’s a lot that it may seem boring, and it may seem wonky, and I certainly hear, you know, the need to have it broken down in a more direct way for people and make it easier to participate.
But actually, you know, I don’t think this stuff is boring. And I think a lot of people don’t think this stuff is boring. And there’s a huge opportunity there in helping people understand that. I think that’s also why some of the Minneapolis stuff has been so compelling—right—and why it has translated to a bigger conversation, is that it explains a lot of things that people intuitively know—right—which is that certain parts of cities are expensive, or people move for schools, or, like, this is why there’s—you know, streets are cleaner because there’s private trash service because residents of a certain income live in one place and they pay for that.
So things that are, you know, intuitive to, I think, the general public’s, like, day-to-day experience of where they live is, like, reflected and answered in a lot of ways by land use regulations especially, also by housing finance, also by transportation planning. And, in some sense, people have already connected those dots, it’s just giving them the language to understand what it is.
Cohen: Yeah. And I—I mean, you talked about accessibility earlier. I do think that that’s an area that the more we can increase accessibility to understanding some of these concepts and understanding how they impact them on a regular basis, I think, is an important thing that needs to be done. And obviously, I think, that’s part of what GGWash serves to do, at least in the Washington, D.C. region. But I do think that’s a fundamental barrier that gets in the way of a lot of these conversations. They’re just not easy to understand if you haven’t done that investment of really understanding it, or talked to a lot of people, so forth. And that is, in and of itself, really limiting, and I think limits that conversation.
Baca: Yeah. And I think that’s also—you know, it’s also hard to sort of match up the user experience with, like, what actually needs to happen on the policy side. Right? Is like, I can say that there is, like, a lot of trash blowing down my street because, like, there is. Right? Like, I [INDISCERNIBLE] a lot of trash. There’s not a lot of trash bins, like there’s not—like our alley pickup seems somewhat inconsistent. Like, you know, I think there’s some, like, social codes that have enabled some certain behaviors. Like, I don’t think that’s, like, a prominent—like, it’s not the number one issue, but, like, you know.
So, you know, even just having my neighbors say to me, like, “I wish trash didn’t blow down our street.” It’s like, okay, so solving that is actually—like you have to translate that then into like the bureaucratic speak of, like, “Okay, how do we go through the process of finding out how we get a trashcan on our street? What would it take to expand an existing Clean Team on our street?” Like, that then taps into, well, one is a regulatory thing, like we can ask DPW for that, but then maybe we don’t have—like, we’re a one-way street. I think that has an impact on that. And then, you know, the Clean Team stuff, it’s a budgeting issue. And so I kind of did a speed run through that just to illustrate that, like—
Baca: —even something really simple, really normal, like, user experience of someone saying like, “Uh, I would like a little bit—I would like to be treated with, like, a little bit more dignity here and not have, like, trash blowing down my street,” that is a totally real and valid and important thing that we should recognize. And actually fixing it is like, oh, we’ve tapped into, like, all of these, like, levers of bureaucracy.
And that’s actually probably fine, but, you know, I think from—as, like, someone who works in advocacy and, you know, a component of my job is organizing around things from time to time, is like matching that up is actually really hard. And that’s where I think sometimes you see disconnects between just making housing more affordable, like is—like then just like opens this gigantic, like, realm of, like, strings that you have to start pulling, and it’s going to take a lifetime. And that’s not a satisfying answer to people, and like—
Baca: —that’s something that, you know, is just like a consistent thing that you have to work with. You know, I will be honest. I was like—you know, I believed in canceling rent during the pandemic. Like, yes, I do. Trying to, like, think about how to actually do that—and I mean this in like a sincere fashion; I’m not trying to write it off at all—it’s like, I don’t know—I don’t know the policy mechanism to cancel rent. Like, that was a thing that bedeviled me for, like, a very, like, long time, and sort of I come down on the conclusion of getting more money to people—right—so that, like, they’re not financially strapped and can choose what they need to spend their money on. Like, that’s my preference. But like, the actual—I was like, “Oh, if I take canceling rent literally because I believe in that, like oh my God, like, what would actually be my proposal for that and what would my answer be for that?” And I didn’t have one. And, you know, morally, yeah, I didn’t like being in that position because I didn’t have a good answer.
Cohen: Yeah. Wow. No, that’s a great example because I think that’s one that I think a lot of people were thinking a lot about during the pandemic, which, obviously, is still going on. But you’re right, actually saying, “Okay, well, how would you actually make that a reality?” You’re right. It actually gets into a very sticky wicket there.
Baca: Yeah. And like the, you know, moratoriums are easier. Right? Because it’s like there’s a moratorium or there isn’t, and you support a moratorium or you don’t. And like, I was very supportive of an eviction moratorium in D.C. I still am. And that’s easier. Right?
Baca: It’s a lot more direct. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yeah, for sure. I want to talk a little bit about transportation. So, you know, you managed this bikeshare program in the Cleveland area before this dockless and scooter tsunami kind of hit our communities. And so, obviously, that’s changed things quite a bit, and that’s evolved. You know, the dockless phenomenon has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. I’m curious what you think is missing to make micromobility work better in our cities.
Baca: So, it was actually super interesting because I had kind of a, like, midpoint system. So the, you know, Cleveland bikeshare system was the early, early iteration of Jump bikes, which was kind of like Social Bicycles, which—so for bikeshare heads out there. You know, we had bikes that could lock anywhere. The way the system was set up was to—it charged you a fee if you locked out of a hub. At one point, I dropped all the fees. I don’t think my boss was happy about that because he wanted to make money. But, you know, it did sort of encourage people to ride a little bit more, which I was interested in. So, you know, there’s that.
So, it was interesting to, you know, be living in Cleveland. And I had to come back to D.C. fairly frequently for some, like, medical and some family stuff around that time, so I was kind of like getting to see the dockless roll out, like, in D.C., like, while also managing my own system. And I still maintain that, you know, the things that make bikeshare or micromobility better are the things that make biking and walking or using your own scooter or using your own mobility device better, so that’s wider sidewalks, that’s more bike lanes, that’s improved crossings with leading pedestrian intervals, that’s, you know, at a bigger scale that’s a transit system that you can basically, you know, start trip chaining and changing your mode share so that you’re not stuck.
So I don’t—you know, I don’t know. I’ve been out of the loop for this—you know, for some time. And, like, I actually like fully—I fully cop to, like, never having ridden a scooter. So there’s—
Cohen: I’ve only done it a couple times. I find it a little discomfiting, I guess.
Baca: I, you know—so, like, I like fully, fully cop to that, which is like I—that sort of stuff came out, I think, when I had kind of like switched gears when I was like in this like “I need to, like, ride every mode and figure this stuff out” to working, you know, more in this like civic advocacy role.
But, to me, a lot of the stuff that, you know, improves safety, improves the experience for users of these devices and encourages people to use them, which is necessary because single-occupancy vehicles are the highest emitters of greenhouse gases, and they’re really expensive, and—and, and, and, and—like should not be our primary mode, especially in cities like Washington, D.C. Cleveland, in some ways, is a different conversation, but I still maintain that since it has so much excess road capacity, it’s the perfect place for BRT. That so much of that is just better user experience. I’m going to say that over and over. For the people who are already doing this stuff, like on their own bikes, on their own scooters, if they’re using wheelchairs, if they’re using other mobility devices, like, I come back to this idea of dignity a lot—right—of having space, having the right to have space and having the right to access things if you choose not to use cars or if you can’t drive and, you know, even if you just don’t want to, that you deserve as much of a, you know, dignified experience as somebody who’s driving and parking. And we just don’t have that. But I think that that is a huge, huge, huge factor in so much of this stuff. And that it’s not a tech solution; it’s a space solution.
I will say, like, it’s, like people use—like, people ride down my street on scooters, like, all the time. I sit on my porch, and it’s like just—there are, like, scooters and bikes, and I live on, like, a low-traffic side street. And it is, like, remarkable to see just like the heavy, heavy usage of both public and privately owned devices that are not cars. And, like, that we continually, continually, continually ask bus riders and people who bike and people who rent scooters to, like, show up and be like, “Please give me more space,” is just like absurd, because people are already proving—they’re already demonstrating that they are using that. We already have a constituency for that. It just—a lot of people don’t want to see that.
Cohen: I mean, going back to that, to what we said earlier, I mean, is that just a power issue, like who has the power and what modes they’re using that is, like, driving that? I mean, does Secretary Buttigieg riding his bike to work, does that make a difference at all? I mean, I don’t know.
Baca: I mean, I think it’s—sometimes you don’t see the things you don’t want to see. Right? And so I want to also be mindful that driving has a real place in our sort of, like, sense of, like, worth—right—in society, because if you don’t drive, like you’re—you lost your license. You’re a total loser, or you’re too poor to own a car. And like, because we have so greatly starved, like, other options—we made it really hard to do that—at every single level of government, car ownership tends to be aspirational. And I would be remiss if I, you know, didn’t indicate, like, what it means for people, like, to own cars. Right? Is that—like, that is freedom; that is access that is not reliance on someone else.
So, especially if you had to, like, scrape and save, and you chose the car you want to drive, and, you know, you own that, like that is really, really critical. So, you know, at the same time, I think there is—by deferring too heavily to that and continuing to, you know, build a system around that, which we’ve done in sort of a slippery slope kind of way, in the federal level. Right? It was like “Oh, we built highways,” and now we have the 80/20 formula, and now, like, this is what we fund, and we just, like, don’t really, like, regulate automakers at all. Like, we can put speed governors on cars again tomorrow, and we don’t do that. And, you know, there’s not like—you know, so there’s a whole bunch of political choices in that.
But we often, I think, center that emotional and, like, social value of owning a car to excuse the harder decisions. And I’ve always said that if people need to drive in D.C., I want them to be able to drive and park—right—like safely, accessibly. You should pay for it. It’s not free. But that, like, if you need to drive, if your alternative is three buses and three and a half hours, and they don’t show up, and you’re late for work, and you lose your service job that’s paying you $9 an hour, you know what? Like, yeah, until we build that better transit, I actually want you to drive and park. But I want you to do it safely, affordably. I think we need to change incentives.
And so having that conversation, you know, with electeds, with administrators, is actually really challenging, and is also—like, it’s just hard. Right? It’s just hard. And a lot of decision makers drive to work. You know, GGWash is doing work around road pricing, and it’s going to be challenging to talk to council members who would be paid—or who would be charged to enter a congestion cordon because that’s where their building is. And how much of the pushback that we will inevitably get is going to be based on, you know, actual concerns around racial and economic equity, and how much of it is actually going to be somewhat of a kneejerk of, like, “I don’t have to pay that to go to work now, and I must drive as a council member because the bus doesn’t take me where I need to go,” which is true. And how much can we talk about changing that to be a world in which you do take the bus or you do bike.
And so those are just, like, really big conversations, and they happen in so many different ways. And so I want to—you know, I want to be mindful of, like, what driving does mean to a lot of people. At the same time, we can’t afford to—we can afford to acknowledge that and work off of that, but we cannot afford to continue to center it.
Cohen: You’re right about the psychology of this, I think, is important to note. Both of why people like the mode they have and need it, and also getting there to be any change at all. That is a big psychological shift, and even the congestion, you know, pricing that you talked about as well. I mean, it’s just a—that’s a huge, huge quote-unquote “barrier” that needs to be overcome, is the psychological one for folks where “Hey, I’m not doing that now, and I need to do that going forward. If we have the congestion pricing, I don’t like that.”
Baca: Yeah. And, I mean, there’s also just a lot of stuff that, you know, on one hand, like, advocates, like, don’t have great data for storytelling. Like, that is something that I find lacking in, like, my resources. That is something that, like—“We’re fundraising. We’re in a fundraising drive right now; give us money.”
But, I mean, seriously, like, you know, the—to build out our staff to be as dynamic as I would want, you know, I would certainly, you know, like to have more data at my disposal to make the case of who is driving and where. You know, periodically, this pops up. The Post wrote something rather dumb, actually, the other week that was, you know, saying that, like, well, speeding tickets are giving out in Black neighborhoods, like disproportionately, which is true because the roads cut through them. Like, and so that is just—and, you know, there were some council members and some, like, advocates who I really respect being like, “This is a racial injustice,” and I was like, “This is—” more complex is a copout. That’s not the phrasing that I want to use, but it’s like this is speeding on Suitland Parkway; it’s a lot of Virginia drivers, actually. And like, that’s like—people don’t—like, people have so many priors that they’re bringing to these conversations, like myself included, that, like, that is really hard to start, like, deconstructing that and rolling it back, and not being like, “Well, actually, like, this is how it is.” Because that’s where—you know, look; if that’s what somebody’s experience is, then I have to start where they are to meet them where they are and figure that out.
But I can tell you that a lot of the drivers getting speeding tickets on 295 and 395 are not residents of those neighborhoods; they are driving through. The system is working as designed; it is ferrying people through those neighborhoods at high speed, and they don’t live there. And that, to me, unless we start really challenging our own existing notions, is going to—not have some—like not have good outcomes for people, like in policies, and that—continually trying to get that to align, I think, is a huge challenge.
It’s weird. Right? It’s like my job to do this, and I can’t accurately describe to you in D.C., like, who drives. And that’s so critical to my job. And so I’m working on figuring that out. And it seems like it should be very simple. But just like getting trash off of my street, it is not that simple.
Cohen: I want to wrap up with this, which is, what is the kind of most, I call it unpopular opinion that you have about these topics that you’re kind of expert on or that you could talk all day about? What is your most unpopular opinion, and why is everyone else wrong?
Baca: Oh God. I have so many. I should have, like, unfurled my scroll of my laundry. I think, like, my number one, like, rent control is good, actually—
Baca: —infuriates, like, a lot of people. But I also think that we should build a ton more housing. I think community land trusts are fascinating, but they don’t scale up, and they’re not a meaningful housing solution, and anyone bringing them up is just trying to ignore the realities of a just nonexistent housing stock. The—
Cohen: That’s a pretty—I feel like that’s a pretty toasty opinion there.
Baca: Yeah. I mean, CLTs are awesome, but they’re not going to solve a housing crisis.
Baca: And I think they have a really important role, but they’re not going to solve that. Free transit is not the answer, like riders just are not—like do—the pricing is not what is disincentivizing people from riding. Make it free after it’s frequent and reliable. Everything should be a tall building, like shadows are good.
I mean, some of this is, like, fairly standard, like YIMBY, YIMBY, YIMBY stuff, stuff that has been very much cast by sort of, like, online chatters as, like, YIMBY stuff. But I also think it’s, like, it’s fine to raise kids in apartments; like that’s okay.
Baca: I don’t think that, like, moving for the schools matters very much. Like, that—[LAUGHS] like, just some basic things there. So all of those are sort of like hot takes. All right, and the most controversial thing I ever tweeted is that, like, I like IPAs. So that’s not even about urbanism.
So, I mean, I don’t know. I’m noodling more on, like, driving and what the consequences of that should be. I’m kind of, like, falling down on this, like, “We should not actually give people speeding tickets anymore, but we should give them points on their license and revoke people’s licenses when they drive unsafely.”
Cohen: So make it less of a financial penalty and more of a “You do this once, depending, or twice, or whatever, you cannot drive anymore”?
Baca: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah.
Cohen: Yeah, okay.
Baca: And, oh, I guess my big thing is that I actually really dislike economic development as a way of looking at things. I don’t really feel that economic development should be the basis for a lot of the choices that we make. And it is, and that is really challenging to work around sometimes. But too often it’s this, like, “Oh, is this going to, like, hurt our tax revenue, or is this, like, going to, like, disincentivize business?” And I think it’s like—there are some cities that can really, like, should stop worrying about that, and like—
Baca: —most cities should stop worrying about that. And I think letting—creating systems in which residents can live their lives with dignity and access what they need to access is probably the most powerful economic development tool of all. But it’s so human-centered, and it’s so soft and social, that—
Cohen: Yeah, yeah.
Baca: —you know, that that tends to not land super well. So apologies to my business pals. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: No. I’m a businessperson too, and I think I agree with you. And, you know, it does seem like that’s kind of a get-out-of-jail-free card for a lot of decisions, “If it can bring jobs.” Right? And, you know, I think there’s been a lot of research to show that, you know, obviously, some of those promised jobs never end up making it. And so a lot of these things where you give away a lot of things and don’t actually get anything in return, these are bargains that are not bargains. These are Faustian bargains. Is that right?
Baca: Yeah. I think, ultimately, so much of this comes down to, you know, as a sort of concluding statement, as it were, is that, like, there are already people do—like, residents, visitors doing things, and we spend so little time, I think, paying attention to what people are already doing and how we can support them in the good stuff, that, like, that, to me, is like a much more interesting role for urban governance than defining the specific mechanics of a tax abatement that I think shouldn’t happen anyway.
That goes down to, like, the sort of granular level of, like, just look at a street and see who is biking on it and how they’re biking and why they’re biking like that, and who is driving and who’s looking at their phone when they’re driving, and who is speeding, and, like, what kind of layout of the street encourages that, like all the way up to, like, “Hey, we have people in the city who we should support and make sure that they can access and, like, the things that they need.” That’s kind of the “one front door” argument of a lot of social services that I think has caught some purchase in other areas. And I like to think a lot about the user experience of people in cities and how that filters up to the sense of who has a right to access things and what that actually looks like in practice. And the best part of my job is when I get to try to implement that, in even very clumsy ways.
Cohen: I like the way you frame that, though. I’m going to think about that, which is, you know, the way I kind of interpreted what you just said there was, supporting our current existing residents versus trying to attract any, you know, new ones, whatever those look like, you know. You’re right, I think. I feel like, too often, we’re chasing after this future thing versus almost being grateful and thankful and welcoming of those who are already here almost. Right?
Baca: And I think that makes it better for people that are coming in. I mean, so much of the standard economic development view on jobs, also, is that like, I mean, that—so, first of all, like, you know, those companies go where the CEO wants to be. Like, that’s like the top, number one—like that is the choice, is like where the CEO wants to be. Maybe that has some foundation in other things, but like, you know, it’s usually where the CEO wants to be. And then it’s sort of like the development of the workforce. So that’s like—it’s like so much of that stuff—and this is—I talk a lot about Richard Schragger’s, City Power, and he does, you know, a great job laying this out at the beginning of the book, is that, like, cities are what they are, like, sometimes, because there was, like, a long-ago reason to land somewhere, and it’s like in some ways it’s just like totally flukey and, like, doesn’t like—doesn’t really match up with, like, whatever is happening at this point in time.
And so, knowing that you can’t really perfectly engineer conditions for something kind of leaves you to pursue another avenue, which to me is like investment in people, in the place that you’re in charge of or working in. And, you know, we know a lot more now than we did in the ’60s and ’70s about cities, and I think it’s worth putting that to use.
Cohen: Mmm. I love it. Alex, thank you so much for joining me on The Movement podcast. It’s been wonderful to get some insight into zoning and housing and transportation and the storytelling that you’re trying to do there at GGWash. If folks want to learn more about supporting GGWash, where can they go to do that?
Baca: Our site is GGWash.org. So we’re starting a fundraising campaign right now to really push up our individual donations. So for those of you who like what we do, that’s always welcome. If you need to find me, email is email@example.com. I always welcome emails. So, thanks so much for having me, Josh.
Cohen: Thanks, Alex. Keep up the great work.
Baca: You are welcome. Talk to you soon.
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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