Featuring Collective Strength’s CEO Robin Rather… [more context and any links/videos]
Episode 006: Transit is The Worst Framed Issue in America
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Rather: Robin Rather
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Welcome, everyone. My guest today is Robin Rather. She is the CEO of Austin, Texas based consulting firm Collective Strength. There she specializes in market research and strategy for a range of business, nonprofit, and governmental clients. And I actually don’t know Robin that well. I first was made aware of Robin when I saw a tweet of one of her slides that was during her presentation at Rail~Volution.
She was one of the keynotes speakers earlier this year in Pittsburgh, and even though I wasn’t there I saw the tweet that showed her Top Ten Essentials Community Checklist. And I loved it so much I reached out with a fan mail, and she responded, and then I watched her keynote on YouTube, and now I’m even more of a fan. So that’s how we got to here. As my listeners probably know by now, my hypothesis is that the transportation industry is spending billions of dollars on technology, AVs, electrification, TNCs, scooters, so forth, but we’re underinvesting in the people and the decisions that are going to need to be made on how to deploy that technology, and I think that’s going to be critical on whether we achieve this green, equitable, and accessible future that we all want. So that’s really the context for our conversation today. I’m really looking forward to talking to you, so, welcome.
Rather: Oh, thanks so much, Josh. It’s great to be here with you today.
Cohen: Well, good. Let’s get started with something you mentioned in your keynote, which really if you haven’t seen I encourage the audience to check it out. If you just Google, “Robin Rather, Rail~Volution, and YouTube,” it will pop up. But one of the things you mentioned in there, which I thought was really interesting, was you said, “I think transit is the worst framed issue in America,” and you went beyond that and you gave some data, which was great to show the distinction between how people think about issues individually and then how it impacts the community. And you mentioned things like water and energy were close together, but transit there’s a big disconnect between the impact individually and the impact on the community. So I guess to maybe start I’d love to get your high-level impressions on what we need to do to change this framing problem around transportation.
Rather: Way to dive deep right off the bat, Josh. That’s one of the things I love about you. But, yeah, I do think transit has a hellacious framing problem. Part of that is people don’t understand how to connect transit to what’s urgently important to most people. To be honest with you, if I was framing transit, I would focus it quite a bit on how transit gives people more economic security. The biggest problem in the country right now—and I say this regretfully, but since the mid ’90s, more specifically since the events of 2001 and in the meantime, 2008 included, we’ve gone from a very supremely confident country, a country that really believed in its own American dream, a country that knew that if they worked hard their kids would have a better shot than they had no matter what their station in life was—that’s how it used to be—and nowadays it’s factually true that most parents do not feel that their kids are going to be better off than they were.
Most people in this country feel like our economic foundation is highly insecure, and there’s a great deal of just general anxiety and I would even say despair around what the economic future really holds. And I would go further and say that most of the professionals working in transit, as incredibly well intentioned as they are, whether they are transit engineers or transit professional advocates, I think their day-to-day reality is not necessarily as economically insecure as the vast majority of Americans, so they’re not necessarily intuitively in touch with it. I think transit can be positioned as a very important way, if not the most important way, that people can address the future in general and their own personal economic future and the future of their kids, but we’re not working hard enough to really position it that way.
Cohen: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting. And in your keynote you also gave some examples of your local elected officials there in that area, including some folks you really respected as well as the new transit CEO and how they were framing transportation and some of the bond initiatives and even some of the technology, and it was really just kind of—tone deaf is not the right word, but it was not presented in a way that was going to be resonant with the folks and with the general public, the ones that need to vote and so forth. I guess I’m really interested in kind what tactically can be done to help those folks, again, a lot of these folks that you respect and like, to help them see that difference. Right? Because, again, they’re all well intentioned, but how do we actually tactically move them forward?
Rather: Okay, that’s a great question. Let me go back for your listeners and just paint the picture of what I consider to be an example of criminally ineffective, ridiculously ineffective messaging around one of the most important transit elections in the country just a few years ago, which was here in Austin. And this was a very high-stakes election. As you know, we don’t have a particularly robust bus system here, and we have little to no light rail. I mean, it’s just a transit desert practically here, and so this election was critically important. And the framing that was used—and I say this affectionately because my mayor and my council members and my friends were all about this, but the frame that they used, the actual messaging that they used, which I showed in my slide, was literally—not making this up, not trying to be funny, this is what the posters said. “Traffic Bites. Bite Back.”
Rather: To me, first of all, I didn’t find that funny. I didn’t find that clever, and nobody else did too because we lost that election terribly. It was a route. And as much as people may say that traffic bothers them or they’re spending too much time in traffic, at the end of the day transit voters are not motivated by traffic. What I’m suggesting is they’re motivated by what is in their economic best interest, what makes their life much more, not just a little bit more, but much more economically secure and what makes their friends and neighbors, their community’s life more economically secure. A good way to avoid the pitfalls of lame messaging that have been dogging us for at least the past 15 or 20 years that I’ve been involved, what helps a lot is to actually ask people and then to actually listen to people and then to actually implement what they’re talking about, not just in the marketing campaigns but also in the system designs. Ask people, “What kind of transit would make you more economically secure and make your kids more economically secure? What do you need? How does it need to look? Where does it need to go?”
And this sounds very simple. From a market research standpoint, this is not rocket science. It’s alarming to me how often this step either gets skipped, or it’s just a box that somebody checks off a list, or they get to the listening stage but they don’t actually do anything with it, and that’s how we’ve gotten to this point. I just think we can do so much better than that both on a local level and I think it’s important that we have some national air cover that frames transit as the economic engine of the future.
Cohen: I’m curious. In that election, when you saw that messaging, was it something that you immediately had that reaction to? And did they hear your feedback?
Rather: I thought, “This election is over,” when I saw it. I didn’t think it would resonate, and it didn’t resonate with people even in a booming city like Austin. What a lot of people are getting out of our boom cities is displaced. A lot of people are getting gentrified out of their homes and their neighborhoods that they’ve lived in for decades and even for generations. And so understanding what it really means to bring transit and empathizing with the problem of displacement, really working with disaffected and disinvested communities and the people that live in them to really understand how they’re seeing it, what they need, what would make them feel more secure, what would help them stave off being displaced, that’s incredibly important. And in the campaign I referenced little to none of that happened, or if it did happen it wasn’t taken seriously, and the messaging campaign reflects that.
Cohen: Yeah, and I want to get back to that in a minute because I want to talk about some other work you’re involved in as well that touched on that. I think from the perspective of what you’re talking about there it is interesting to kind of reflect on what I call this negative lens that was portrayed there, you know, “Traffic Bites. Bite Back,” versus what you had mentioned in your keynote about this positive, bold vision for the future and kind of this negative versus positive and what can transit do to help on that. And I agree with you; I think that that’s necessary.
I also wonder though if it needs a little bit more of that emotion in there. And what I mean by that is really recognizing kind of the stories behind some of the data, because, you know, APTA puts out a new study every week that talks about the impact of public transit at a macro level, but it’s not really resonant as far as, “This means that more people in our community have access to more jobs,” and what that actually means is that more kids are going to have food on their table, which means they’re not going to school hungry, which means that they’re better able to concentrate in school, and so forth. I mean, there’s a lot of downstream effects from having great transportation in a community, and I think that’s part of what I hear you really pushing there.
Rather: One hundred percent. It was my honor to work on a statewide, multimodal system program in the State of Tennessee a couple of years ago, and we did a lot of on-the-ground research trying to figure out the best way to frame the statewide, multimodal grants that they were contemplating. And part of what we found is the idea of more connections and more choices. If you combine that frame with really powerful narratives about that community college student, that instead of it taking four or five hours to get from their house to the local college, which is how the bus system is routed right now, if we could just cut that back to an hour, what that would mean to that particular student, similarly that single mom that’s trying to get to a job across town without a car. There are a million absolutely fantastic stories and narratives that you can tell in every town and city that’s contemplating transit. Unfortunately, we’re not telling them. We’re not telling them well; we’re not framing them well; and we’re not coming across as that positive, bold solution that we should be.
Cohen: Well, and I think to go back to those community checklists that we referenced earlier and you referenced earlier about actually going out into the community and engaging with the community and listening first, I think that’s one that is all too often not done. And, like you said, it’s not rocket science. We know the ways to do this, we just haven’t actually done it most of the time. Obviously some people are doing it.
And I wonder; you know, I’m always fascinated when we see public transit leaders for instance or sometimes elected officials actually taking public transit. And obviously sometimes it’s a publicity stunt, but sometimes I think it’s a really great way for someone to build empathy for the existing system, the existing gaps, the folks that are using it, the folks who potentially are not using it that you can sometimes look out the window of the bus and see. I think that’s a really important thing, and I wish that more people would take the time or consider that part of their job, if you will, if you’re an elected official, appointed official, transit agency senior leader, so forth, to make that investment.
Rather: Oh, yeah. Well, clearly we should take all of that that we can get, but I think there’s a more systemic issue here in that if you look at the history of New Urbanism and the history of transit advocacy back when a lot of it started, the modern age of it anyway—it started back in the ’90s, a particularly blessed economic age, if you will; there wasn’t economic insecurity to the same degree that there is now in many places—the pressing problem was an environmental one. It was sprawl.
And the pressing problem was developers were doing almost nothing but sprawl-based development that was fragmenting important land. Our land fragmentation was through the roof, and so the challenge for transit advocates at that time—and it was a desperate challenge in a way—was to try to get developers to actually develop in downtowns and closer in, to build more dense product, and to build up the kind of density that makes transit systems viable. This was a herculean task back in the day.
Fortunately or unfortunately, or maybe it’s a bit of both, the industry got really good at it. The planners got great at it, and developers slowly but surely started realizing, “Oh, my gosh. We can make way more money once we get the hang of this infill thing. We could make a fortune doing that and attracting way more affluent clients,” and off to the races we went. And that’s where we’ve been stuck pretty much since the late ’90s when we started to get super effective at that. And the problem now is there are so many developers making so much money at the higher end of the density game that this massive degree of displacement is going on.
In parallel, in my experience, the share of voice that developers are getting is overwhelming and totally flooding out the voices of the people most affected by the displacement and, by the way, the people most likely to be positively impacted by transit. And there’s a huge imbalance there that absolutely has to be fixed. And nowadays you have everybody from Richard Florida, the author of the famous book The Rise of the Creative Class, and many others sort of commenting on this predicament, this paradox but not necessarily offering a lot of solutions.
I do want to mention that there is one group that I’m a huge fan of right now. The woman whose brainchild it is, is one of the board members for Rail~Volution, Shelley Poticha. She has orchestrated a partnership called SPARCC, which is specifically focused. NRDC is one of the partners, but there are many others. It’s specifically focused on how do you do transit-oriented, community-oriented planning that is specifically designed not to displace people, not to gentrify, but to actually lift up and strengthen the communities that have typically been kind of mowed down by TODs and gentrification. And I went to their conference recently, and it was such a stark difference.
Most of the people there were young. Most of the people there were people of color. Most of the people there were not planners but were actually a mix of planners, engineers, and community advocacy groups and activists from all over the country. And the potential for where we can take that is tremendous. The work that that kind of a group is able to do is something that I hope gets replicated over and over, but right now where we find ourselves is just in the very nascent beginning of relearning how to really listen to communities, try to really understand what they need, and then actually implementing it and making it work all the way around and not just for developers.
Cohen: Yeah, I think that’s a really good frame. I appreciate you mentioning that. You know, our area here in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina just missed out on the Amazon piece, which I guess we were a finalist for, and I think most of the people around here thought we were getting Apple’s expansion as well, which obviously ended up going to Austin. It was announced recently. And I just published a blog post about that because what it seemed to me was that people look at economic development as a very simple equation around community values jobs, company has jobs, community provides incentives for a company to bring jobs. And it really struck me that the jobs themselves, in my mind—and maybe this is part of my privileged perspective on this—are a means to an end. Jobs are a way to enable the community that we want to live in and to be able to participate in that community and so forth. And by just kind of going all the way down and focusing on the jobs as opposed to all the other impacts from bringing 10,000 additional employees to Austin or to Raleigh-Durham or wherever, I think, really misses some of those external impacts that are beyond kind of what the benefit is for Apple or Amazon. I don’t see that many people talking about that part of it, but I think what you’re talking about really fits in very nicely to that because I think we need to recognize all the negative externalities that these kind of decisions make.
Rather: Oh, absolutely, no doubt about it. And I think Austin is a great example of a city—no city in America has probably done a better job of bringing in high-paying jobs, especially tech-related jobs than we’ve done over the past 15 or 20 years, and I think many people here are very proud of our track record of doing that. At the same time, as I said, we have literally mowed down and displaced vast sections of the people that really built Austin and made it the cool city that people wanted to bring their jobs to.
We now are in the process of circling back and understanding how do we protect everyday people, regular people; how do we protect people in their own neighborhoods and protect them like we would protect our environmental resources or any other community treasure. We are in the process of learning how to treasure our own people as much as we do anything else, and that’s going to take time; that’s going to be a long, drawn-out process, but I’m hopeful that the devastating effects of the way we’ve been doing it are so visible now, they’re so in our face now that I really feel like we have no choice but to circle back and relearn how to really take care of ourselves at a level and at a scale that we’ve just simply forgotten how to do. I don’t believe it was a conscious decision. Some people would argue otherwise, but I don’t think as an industry the planning or transit industries consciously said, “Oh, let’s just take out miles and miles of important, culturally important, low and middle-income neighborhoods. I don’t believe that was a conscious decision, but now that it’s extremely evident that that is in fact what’s happening and is, in fact, accelerating, my hope is that we relearn how to do it right, how to do it better, how to do it in balance.
Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s a theme that we’re starting to see in a number of different industries. I mean, I see that in the world of human resources, and I think now it’s being called people operations in a lot of different places, but this concept of shifting from looking at your employees as kind of assets to be mined, just like, “How do we get the most out of them?” to, “Hey, these are actual people, and we can’t just strip mine them; we have to invest in them, and we have to recognize that if we give them room to take a vacation that it makes them more well-rested and adjusted and better employees too.” So I do think that there is some shift even if at some of the macro level, you know, some of the work going on in Amazon warehouses may not be the case, right? They’re not quite there yet, but it is kind of interesting to see at least some more awareness around, again, these externalities around what are we valuing. Right? Are we just valuing the jobs? Are we just valuing the transit at the expense of all these other things? And it really comes down to making sure you’re understanding all those different pieces that you’re thinking about.
Rather: Yeah, it’s a lot about not letting the pendulum swing too far in the wrong direction. I mean, yes, everyone in Austin complains about the impact that all these jobs have in terms of displacement and a host of other negatives, but at the same time I’ve been to Indian reservations. I’ve been to cities that literally have no jobs. You don’t want to get too far out in one direction or the other. The idea is to find out the balance between a healthy, thriving economy and thriving neighborhoods with people that can thrive in them, and you’re trying to not let things swing into the extremes. And in so many cities and towns in America right now we’re operating at one extreme or the other, and we have just got to get better at finding that balance.
Cohen: Yeah, I like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Ann Arbor, Michigan, but there’s a deli there called Zingerman’s. Are you familiar with them?
Rather: No, uh-uh.
Cohen: They were founded about 35 years ago by a couple of gentlemen, and one of the things they’ve done as they’ve evolved is that one of their CEOs talks about, “enough.” Right? And so they’ve made a conscious decision not to grow much larger than they are. They don’t franchise. They’re based in Ann Arbor. They haven’t done outposts in Chicago or anything like that. And it’s all around this concept of it’s enough. Right? We have enough. We don’t need to get bigger for bigger’s sake; we have enough as it is. And I like that as far as it’s this good check on, “Well, why are we doing this? Are we doing this for the right reasons, or are we doing this for the reasons that, ‘Oh, we want Austin to be the best, biggest city in Texas,’” you know, whatever that is, but, “Are we doing this for the right reason?” I like that framework that they use.
Rather: Well, it’s interesting, because if you talk to people who have been to business school, if you talk to tech moguls one of the things that is ingrained in them during their training and education is if you’re not growing, you’re dying. The idea of a harmonious stability, that sense of just of enough, that is not in their lexicon. It’s, “Go, go, go; grow, grow, grow. If you’re not growing, you’re spiraling down.” And so that’s why a lot of people look at nature-based systems to try to re-inject the concept of a healthy balance or a prosperous kind of stability.
But I think we should also talk about, you know, some interesting things are happening at the very root level of technology. You have sort of a mainstream idea now that giving kids unlimited access to technology too early is actually bad for brain development. And what I’ve seen—as I mentioned to you before, I was in the tech industry before I came into planning and sustainability, and what you’ve seen is, “If we can build it, it must be good. It must be launched. It must be bought,” and you don’t have the ethical or human side of the equation baked in into the process of product conception and launch and adoption. You don’t have that, “What are the ethics of this technology? What are the predictable problems? What is the real impact on kids or on humans?”
I see another huge round of this coming up in the push towards for the very innovative, autonomous vehicles or so-called driverless cars issue. It’s so sexy, it reminds me of the early days of the actual Internet. I’m ancient enough to remember a pre-Internet time and what the advent of the Internet really meant and how excited people were about it. It’s another big milestone, but what this is actually meaning for people, how would you even start messaging around that, most people I talked to, they wouldn’t but their kid in a driverless bus under any circumstances ever. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable even thinking about driverless vehicles, and yet they’re going to come sooner than we can even imagine. And I seriously doubt that the impact on humans and the surrounding community and let alone kids—I don’t see a lot of attention being paid to that, and it’s usually not until after something has been deployed and widely adopted, it’s usually only until the negative impacts are in our face that we start saying, “Oh, shoot. Maybe we should have thought through this a little bit more.”
Cohen: Yeah, that whole kind of theme there is reminiscent of one of my favorite quotes in one of my favorite movies, in Jurassic Park when Ian Malcolm gave the quote, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” which I think that’s very reminiscent.
Cohen: You mentioned Shelley earlier. I guess my last question here is who else is doing this well? Who is doing a good job of making the hard decisions, doing the good framing, doing the hard work in that community essentials checklist?
Rather: I’ll answer that in a second, but I am going to say that I think Shelley Poticha is light-years ahead of anyone else that I’m tracking. And as someone that was at one time the executive director of Congress for New Urbanism; as someone who was head of Reconnecting America, a very effective, at the time, transit advocacy group; as someone who headed the HUD Sustainable Communities grant program, not only headed it but basically invented it; and as someone who is now at NRDC, a top national, environed group; the work that she is doing, in my mind, is unparalleled. Right now it’s the benchmark that I think others should set their clock by.
I would also point to anyone that is currently either making transit free or contemplating making transit free, would also be in my pantheon of heroes. That single policy change would go a really long way and in places—I believe Seattle has experimented quite a lot, maybe more so than any other region I’m aware of. They have a very aggressive transit, free-pass system. I think almost all students get a free pass. I think lots and lots of corporate employees either get a free or subsidized pass. Addressing the equity issues and the economic insecurity issues and establishing transit as something that has a profound effect on economic security, that is the single best way, the simplest way to demonstrate the seriousness of purpose.
Cohen: Excellent. I agree, and I think there’s a lot of good work that’s being done on that front. I think Austin is doing some good work with youth passes. I know Raleigh, North Carolina where we are is also doing that, and Columbus, Ohio has made free bus passes available for 45,000 downtown workers, which I think is a good way to not only provide access. Obviously I think most of those folks are probably higher income, but I’m sure there’s some folks in there that aren’t, and I think there’s a lot of value also in getting some of those folks who are higher income on the bus as well, especially in a place like Columbus where I think it’s not quite as varied a ridership group as you might find in a major city.
Rather: Yeah, I agree with that. I do feel like one of the flip-the-scripts that we need to do in our transit thinking and messaging and system building is—and I said this during my plenary at Rail~Volution—to me, it’s also a moral issue. We should be doing everything that we can do for the least advantaged people in our communities that we’re working in. They should come first. What helps them get to a job, what helps them the most is what we should be doing first. I don’t believe that’s the dominant paradigm right now in transit planning. In fact, I think there are a lot of folks that think it’s the reverse, “Oh, if we can just get the so-called K-riders, the more affluent riders taken care of, then magically we’ll be able to take care of everyone else,” and I don’t know how many times we have to prove to ourselves that doesn’t work.
And I do think it’s okay now to say, “We’ve come through a long period where technology and finance came first.” I think it’s all right now to say along with those, “We need to put what is morally right in that same front-of-the-line list of priorities.” And in transit especially there is such an opportunity to dramatically impact the least advantaged people. The biggest problem most people have with just a simple bus system is it takes too long to get to school or get to a job, even a very menial job. It can take hours and hours. And a lot of the legacy bus systems that we have, they are not set up for speed; they are not set up for, “Hey, this person may have a minimum wage job, but it is critically important to them; and, no, it’s not okay if it takes them four hours to get somewhere that would take a person with a car 25 or 30 minutes.”
Cohen: Well, I think that’s a great place to wrap up. Robin, I really appreciate your perspective on this. I think we need more people with that point of view, and I appreciate you using your microphone to continue to encourage more people to have that perspective and to think of transit as a moral issue and transportation and mobility and access for more, so thank you so much for joining me today and bringing that perspective.
Rather: It’s always good to talk with you, Josh, and thank you for asking a lot of provocative questions and for making space for these kinds of discussions. I look forward to crossing paths with you again 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.