Episode 3: Transit Geeks, Equity & Hard Decisions: With Jim Aloisi of TransitMatters

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

 

Featuring former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, Jim Aloisi

Jim Aloisi shares how his merry band of “transit geeks” at TransitMatters (where he is a board member) gets in the weeds with a unique brand of technical advocacy providing practical transit solutions. For more information about The Movement podcast, head to www.transloc.com and follow host Josh Cohen at www.twitter.com/CohenJP.

Episode Transcript

Josh: My guest today is Jim Aloisi. He is a partner at TriMount Consulting in Boston. He’s a board member at TransitMatters, and he’s also a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.

Jim, I asked you to come on today because your advocacy work with TransitMatters, as well as your stint in the public sector, I think, can provide a really great perspective on my topic. We, as a transportation industry, have overinvested in technology, and we’re underinvested in those hard decisions that will be necessary to achieve the verdant, accessible, and equitable future we all want.

Jim:  Thanks for having me, Josh. Let’s have an interesting conversation about the future of mobility.

Josh:  Sure. Tell me a little bit about your work at TransitMatters and your role as a board member there.

Jim:  TransitMatters is a transit advocacy group here in Boston. We’re an all-volunteer group, although we have actually received some grant funding for the first time, and we’re looking for our first full-time position as we speak. We’re basically a board of like-minded people who care a lot about sustainable mobility — we’re passionate about transit and cycling — and who think about advocacy in, I think, a fairly unique way.

It’s a technical advocacy. In other words, some advocates, they have their views on certain topics. They walk up to city hall or the state house. They knock on doors. They make their case. We’re different. We don’t do that. We get into the weeds. We have board members, and just members of the organization, who we affectionally call “transit geeks” who understand the details of how things are operated and maintained and the scheduling in ways that it gets very granular but also enables us to provide useful feedback and advice to the MBTA and other organizations about how to improve service.

Our form of technical advocacy has really caught on. People like it. It’s respectful, but it’s also very much grounded in the facts and the data and best practices. We have found that enables us to have really strong, positive collaborations with the MBTA in a way that has moved the needle on a few things. That’s the TransitMatters story in brief. It’s one of the most interesting developments I have been involved in in the greater Boston area, frankly, in the past several years.

Josh: What I think is so example in the Politico story, it highlighted how there was some Green Line trains that were coming in from the end of the Green Line — and I’m not from Boston, so I’m certainly familiar with the T, but not nearly as much as you — and they were holding up basically the rest of the system there in downtown and not only costing money but also costing a lot of commuters and folks trying to get home time.

What I think is so interesting about the work that you did there, you provided a very concrete way to address the problem. You identified the problem, and then you used that — the data geeks, if you will — to really have a very technical but good step forward that the T could take. That strikes me as a very different approach as well.

Jim: Yeah. I think you’re right, Josh, and we’ve done that not only in that instance but in several other instances, most recently getting the T to adopt a different approach to bus shuttles when they’re shutting down the subway system to repair it. We like to think a little bit outside the box but not so far outside the box that we offer impractical solutions.

The whole point is to understand the facts, get into the data, and then offer practical solutions that are going to be helpful for the T, both from a cost-savings perspective and also from an improved service perspective. We’re one of these transit advocacy groups that’s very progressive, but we want to see costs reduced, and we want to see service improved. We think you can do both if you understand how the system’s run and then try to bring best practices to it.

It’s still a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but so far, it’s been quite a success. As I say, what’s nice about it is the T has been responsive. When people know that you know what you’re talking about, it becomes a very different conversation. So it’s not just advocates talking about policy on a broad scale, even though we do also do that. It’s advocates who know what they’re talking about in a very granular way, and that enables the kind of back and forth that gets things done. I think our view is it’s in our interest as riders and people who care about public transportation to offer solutions that can be low-cost and high-impact.

Now when I was secretary of transportation, there were a lot of people in Boston that wanted to build a transit tunnel between the Silver Line service that we have coming down Washington Street and South Station. It was a fairly short length of tunnel, but because of where it was located, the estimated costs of the tunnel was around $2.1 billion — with a B. There was no way we were going to generate that kind of revenue for that project, and there was no way the federal government was going to support it.

So what we did instead, using federal stimulus money — now this was 10 years ago — we bought new buses. We worked with the city to take out a lane of parking. We striped it as a bus-only lane. We built a new bus stop at South Station, and we were able to get people basically to the same destination. Not as optimal as a subway. No one argues that. However, the bus is full on a budget of $1.7 million — with an M. We were able to provide people with the service that they wanted and not have to be frustrated because we couldn’t spend $2.1 billion for a tunnel. That’s an example.

It’s a cliché when people say we need to do less with more. Well, we should do less with more if we can. It’s not true that you can do that in every circumstance. The goal really needs to be what kind of transit service do people want? What do they need? What kind of mobility service do they need? Then find the best way to get it to them. And if it’s not the most optimal way, accept that, in the short term at least, it’s better to give them some service that’s a little bit less than optimal than to give them nothing.

Josh: I like the way you frame that there with really think about the type of transit system you want to deliver and then kind of work backwards from there. Then what do you need to do from the revenue side? What do you need to do from the expense side to create that? Where does it need to go? Who does it serve? So forth.

Do you feel like that’s being done writ large throughout the transit industry? I know your experience is largely in Massachusetts, but I’m sure you, obviously, pay attention nationally. Do you feel like that’s being done, that more strategic look at that? Or are folks getting too caught in the day-to-day operational weeds?

Jim: I think it’s a mixed bag. I’ve been co-teaching a course this semester at MIT on the topic of sustainable mobility, livable communities, the environment, how all these things are connected. We’re living in this time when technology is taking a particular direction when it comes to mobility. A lot of that is to the good, but some of it for me is a little bit scary, and it’s challenging transit agencies to think about this service question.

If you think about most transit agencies, particularly in urban areas, there’s only three basic approaches to providing public transportation. There’s rail, heavy rail, like intercity rail. There’s subway, which is also fixed rail. And there’s bus. If you think about those three, you’ve got the rail and the subway — which are kind of fixed — they go from point to point. Bus is also fixed traditionally — fixed-route bus service — but it doesn’t always have to be.

What I’m seeing these days is a resurgence of people thinking about how to transform the bus transit experience into a really modern, agile, 21st century mobility experience so that it’s not the bus of the 20th century that people, frankly, condescended to. But if we move in the direction where we’re thinking more about things like bus rapid transit, dedicated bus lanes, if we’re thinking about whether the public sector and the private sector could collaborate on a more agile bus service that was not necessarily a fixed route but that responded to areas like that we have in many places that are transit deserts — so that are underserved — where you might be able to have instead of 40-foot length buses, which you see a lot in places like in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, wherever, that you’d have shuttles. They’re more agile, and they’re more crowdsourced.

We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible from a public-sector perspective. The private sector has tried this. We had a micro-transit company called Bridj. It was a product of Cambridge here in Massachusetts. They unfortunately went out of business. They tried to think about micro-transit in a particular way. We can critique whether they did right or wrong, but there is something to be said about having a more agile approach to bus transit that complements and feeds into a fixed-route system.

All of this depends on both the use of technology to get schedules right, to get people to crowdsource those buses, to do that kind of thing. It also depends on hard infrastructure. The issue with technology or any mobility that we’re providing is we’re stuck with a legacy infrastructure. In other words, we’ve got to work within the infrastructure that’s been built. To unbuild it, to undo it is a massively expensive and impractical approach. So you’ve got think about how to take what we’ve got and adapt it to 21st century mobility paradigms.

A lot of that, I think, is — particularly in urban areas — younger people who don’t necessarily want to drive, who prefer to have mobility in a variety of ways during the day. They might want to have a transit experience, a cycling experience, a walking experience, a TNC experience all in the same day because that’s their lifestyle and that gives them the freedom and the flexibility to make mobility choices. Not everybody has those choices, and one of the things that we all have to be careful about and mindful about as we’re trying to match the power of technology to the actual delivery of service is we can’t leave people behind.

So people of lower income… We think everybody has access to smartphones and apps or to bank accounts, and not everybody does, particularly in urban areas. Senior citizens who may not be as adept or agile on some of this stuff, we’ve got to think about the folks that are potentially being left behind and make sure they’re not. That’s another challenge, the challenge of ensuring that as we modernize our system that we’re doing it in a way that’s equitable and that gives everybody a fair shake at getting access to jobs and other key destinations.

Josh: Definitely. I think the place where — and I think you’re kind of speaking to the thesis that we talked about at the top, which is this over index in technology. I think the risk sometimes with technology, the technology is presumed to serve many more needs.

The reality is there’s a place for micro-transit. There’s a place for subway, obviously, in dense urban areas. There’s a place for bus rapid transit. There’s a place for cycling. There’s a place of TNCs. There’s a place for walking. All of these pieces together is what creates this mobility experience, and I think where we get out of whack sometimes is when there’s this belief that any one of those can serve all needs. That’s just simply not the case in a complex urban environment.

Jim: It isn’t. Now I saw something interesting. Two weeks ago, I was in Sacramento, California, and I went on a tour of a program that they’re doing out there. I would not call it a particularly transit-friendly place. It’s California. It’s highway-oriented. The tour I went on, what they’re doing in California is this pilot program, is they’re using cap-and-trade money. They’ve got their cap-and-trade programs in California that assess fees on motor fuel and energy.

They’re using some of that money, and the tour we took was to three different affordable, low-income housing complexes. They’ve taken the money. They have built electric charging stations. They have leased electric vehicles. They have hired Zipcar to basically implement a Zipcar-like program for those residents of those communities who are able to drive but are not able to afford to own an automobile.

Basically, they sign up. They get a Zipcar card, just like anyone would have a card. The constraint is they can only use the vehicle for three hours at a time per day. So they use these vehicles to do things like basic stuff, life quality stuff. They go shopping. They take their kid to the dentist. They may take their kid to a museum for a couple of hours. It gives them the freedom of mobility, because they don’t have transit available, in a way that is completely green.

The other nice part about it is they’re actually teaching people who did not have necessarily great computer skills how to go online, how to schedule one of these things, how to be a little bit more integrated into today’s 21st century world. It’s a fantastic way to see how technology and innovation come together in a sustainable way to provide equity to people who need basic mobility. I thought, in a way, the idea is modest, but in another way, it’s a really exciting way to think about how to do what we’re talking about, which is tame the technology, bring it to people who we have the responsibility to make sure they have equitable mobility, and do something creative with it.  

We talked to folks from Zipcar who are managing the program. We talked to people who are managing the affordable housing complexes. And we actually talked to residents who use these vehicles and whose lives have basically been transformed and improved because now they have access to an electric vehicle for three hours a day that gets them to do stuff that they used to have to walk or avoid doing.

Josh: That’s fabulous.

Jim: Now the reason why I say that story is that it’s not always… The discussion about technology and transit is an important one. Oftentimes it’s relegated to urban environments. Here, even though Sacramento’s an urban environment, I would call it an urban-suburban environment in the sense that it’s not really transit-friendly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about ways to deploy technology equitably and innovatively. I could see that happening in many other places across the nation really.

One of the things that we’re all dealing with in every metropolitan area of the country is we’re choking on traffic congestion. How do we get people access to their destinations in ways that can ease that congestion and improve their lives? We’re finding people in places like Boston and other cities displaced out of the city because they cannot afford the price of housing. Where are they going?

They’re probably going to the suburbs. It’s a reverse of what happened in the mid-20th century. Are we following those people? Do we know, are they also adding to the congestion? Would they prefer, would they benefit from an agile public-transit system that maybe worked off technology but gave them basic service that they need? Those are the kinds of questions that I’m hoping we can explore here in Massachusetts, but I think people are beginning to think about it all across the country.

Josh: Definitely, and even in Sacramento, they’re actually at a really interesting place where SacRT, the regional transit system there, is piloting some agency-owned micro-transit — actually with our firm — and had some really good experience with it so far. It’s interesting to see how it fits into the larger network. Again, it’s early, early times there, but I think the goal there is to see how it can essentially increase the mobility for people that need it.

I watched an interview you did this summer with WGBH, and one of the things that you talked about was the years of disinvestment in the T. There were folks who were unwilling to make the hard choices to invest in the proper maintenance and so forth of the T, and the T’s not alone obviously. New York’s dealing with this as well. How do we resolve this? What’s the way forward here?

Jim: Well, I think what’s helping resolve it today is just a completely different way of thinking about personal mobility. We’ve seen a paradigm shift in terms of how people want to move around. Younger people are less interested in owning cars as early as they used to. They’re less interested in getting drivers licenses as young as they used to, particularly in urban areas. People’s views towards personal health have changed. More people are cycling. More people want to walk. More people like the experience of transit as a way to move around. More people care about sustainability than ever before.

So what we’re seeing generationally, I think, is a shift toward people hearing about and desiring more sustainable ways to move around. That’s driving, I think, some of the change. It’s driving some of the innovation. It’s why you also see people in that cohort of sustainable mobility advocates who remain skeptical of the emergence of autonomous vehicles, for example.

What does that mean? They remain skeptical of the explosion of TNCs, transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft, because they worry that these so-called innovations are adding to vehicle miles traveled in the city. They’re adding to congestion. They’re polluting the environment because they’re not electric vehicles by any stretch.

There is a clearer understanding of what sustainability means and how to get there. It’s not that people oppose innovation. What I say to people about TNCs is there’s absolutely nothing innovative about me driving you somewhere in a car with an internal combustion engine. People were doing that in 1950.

What’s innovative about it is the business model, the algorithm that enables you to pull up your phone and get the car to show up. That’s the innovation. From a technology perspective, from the mobility-service perspective, they’re using early 20th century technology.

We’ve got to be mindful of that, and as we’re trying to regulate TNCs, in urban areas in particular, we need to think about how to regulate them in a way that reflects a desire to see them move increasingly toward a more sustainable platform. Their business models are changing in real time. If you asked Uber or Lyft four years ago, “What do you guys do?” they would say, “We sell software to people who drive other people. We don’t own anything. We don’t provide mobility services. We provide software services.” Now today it’s different. Now today Lyft bought Motivate. Uber has a stake in Lime. I read that they might buy a stake in Bird. They might buy all of Lime. So now they are owning stuff.

Josh: They bought JUMP too.

Jim: They bought JUMP. Now the companies that said, “We don’t own anything. We just sell software,” now they own stuff. I think it’s a good thing, by the way, because now that they’re owning stuff — they’re not owning cars yet, but that’ll come, particular if the autonomous vehicle thing takes off because I think that’s their future vision — now that they own stuff, they’re going to be more accountable in many ways to being a participant in making sure that mobility works for everybody sustainably.

We don’t know how this is all going to sort out because it’s happening, literally, in real time, but it’s important to notice this business model shift and to watch where it’s going and to help guide it in a way that is useful for everybody. It’s an interesting time to be in this business — both as participants and then from a consultancy perspective, but also from an advocacy perspective and a teaching perspective — because it’s literally every day or every week where something exciting and new is popping. I think the thing for advocates is to figure out how to work with the public and private sector and to just guide this process along in a way that we’re all going to be happy.

Josh: Sure, and I think that’s definitely a key piece of it and them working together. I want to transition to your time as transportation secretary for the state of Massachusetts. I’m curious. Going back to the theme of hard choices and courageous decisions, what do you feel like was the most courageous or the hardest decision you had to make as secretary?

Jim: Certainly, I would say asking people to pay more at the gas pump. It was a tough and courageous decision. We actually did not get a gas tax increase, even though I fought pretty hard to get one. We got a sales tax increase instead.

Josh: You had advocated for what? A 19.5-cent increase in the gas tax?

Jim: A 19.5-cent increase in the gas tax. It was 10 years ago. We were at the beginning of the Great Recession. We faced… I think it was $160 million operating deficit at the MBTA, and we were facing a default on the Turnpike Authority bonds, which was unheard of. That was about to happen, and all of this happening in the middle of this fiscal crisis. We needed net new revenue.

Nobody doubted that we did, but then of course… The gas tax politically, historically is a toxic subject. We knew that, but I frankly didn’t expect it to be quite as toxic.

Putting the brakes on what was called the Silver Line Phase III tunnel that we talked about earlier and replacing the $2.1 billion proposal with a $1.7 million dedicated bus was a big deal. It was a courageous decision, if I may say so, only because there were many people who were very good friends of mine in the industry who wanted that thing to happen. The reality is it wasn’t going to happen.

You can either sit there and lie to people, give them visions of sugarplums, or you can actually get something done. I opted to get something done. That’s one decision that has been proven pretty durable because it’s one of the most successful and busiest routes now in the system. People really wanted to get to that destination on that route, and now they’re able to do it.

These are not positions for the timid, and so you’ve got to go in with your eyes open. It’s enabled me in the years since to be a much more effective advocate and a collaborator with folks who want to improve the system. Some former secretaries go off and just do what they were doing before and make money and be happy about it. I decided that it would be my life’s work to continue what I was doing, only on the outside, and to try to be as effective as I could be to get change done.

It’s been terrifically exciting. I really didn’t know 10 years ago how technology would be influencing the discussion and informing our thinking. It’s been very exciting. It’s challenging, scary, but it’s a great place to be.

I certainly had no idea that I’d be involved at the level I am in this kind of technical advocacy with TransitMatters. Almost everybody involved there is a much younger millennial, and I’m this political… Call me the token baby boomer. It keeps me active and vibrant because I’m around really smart people who know some of the geeky details much better than I ever will.

It’s a great time to be in the mobility world, the mobility business. I think your question is the right one that we have to ask every day, which is… We should definitely embrace new things in technology. But as we rush into the technology fever that we’re in, we’ve got to stop for a minute and think about what’s the service people want? Are they getting it? What are the interim solutions? What are these maybe less than optimal solution but they’re short-term and people can be helped tomorrow, as opposed to 10 years from now? There’s a way to blend these things, but you’ve got to think about them both at the same time.

Josh: I think that’s a great way to frame it and a great way to wrap us up here. Jim, if folks want to learn more about your work or contact you, I know you’re often writing in CommonWealth Magazine. You are certainly not shy about your views there. What would be the best way for folks to either reach out or stay in touch with some of the work you’re doing?

Jim: They can reach out to me at jim@trimountllc.com. That’s T-R-I-M-O-U-N-T-L-L-C dot com. I’ll answer emails, and they can read my occasional pieces in CommonWealth Magazine. Those are probably the two best ways to reach out to me and to see what’s up here in Boston.

Josh: Well, excellent. Well, Jim, I appreciate all the work that you’ve done as a public sector official and also as an advocate currently. I appreciate that you’re still sticking it out there and making your points of view clear and sharing them with the broader world. I think Massachusetts is better for it, and I appreciate you joining me today. Thanks again.

Jim:  Well, thanks, Josh. Appreciate it and look forward to bumping into you some time soon.