Philadelphia leaders learned a lot of lessons from the 21 communities that launched a community bikeshare system before they did. Andrew Stober explains what the City of Philadelphia did differently prior to launch to ensure that the system met the needs of the community.
Episode 138: Who Is This System For?
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Stober: Andrew Stober
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: Though he is now in the private sector that measures scale with many zeroes, Andrew Stober reflects on his time in the public sector, where the scale may not be as big, but the impact sure is. 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: Andrew Stober is the head of public partnerships and carpool for Waze, after previously serving as VP of planning and economic development for the University City District in Philadelphia. He also spent seven years in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. And you may recall Veronica Davis, back in Episode 071. She’s the person that recommended we talk to Andrew, so we have Veronica to thank. So welcome to The Movement, Andrew.
Stober: Thanks so much for having me.
Cohen: You’ve been on the public sector side, you’ve been on the private sector side; what kind of has resonated with you from each kind of perspective there? On the good side, maybe what’s the stuff that you’re like, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not doing that anymore,” [LAUGHTER] or, you know, and kind of—that’s kind of the thing that really still gets your goat a little bit?
Stober: Yeah. Well, you know, what I love about working in transportation on both the public sector and the private sector, and the nonprofit side of things, is, you know, it’s the systems that we plan and build and operate. They affect everyone’s life, every day. From the most privileged person to the person in a community who is most struggling to make it through the day, from the day you’re born to the day you die, these infrastructure systems have been part of your day. And that’s something that has always been incredibly exciting to me and interesting to me.
And in the public sector, that was getting to work directly on the systems every day, was definitely the most exciting part of that work. And there was certainly also frustrating moments, moments when, you know, narrow business interests might win out over the public interest, or on the public sector side, moments when a lack of investment in sort of the basic systems to run government would cause serious problems. And those were definitely the moments of frustration.
And when I think about the private sector, you know, it’s worth acknowledging that I am currently working in a very special corner of the private sector, working for an extremely well-resourced, global tech company. And what’s been most exciting to me, here at Waze, is this opportunity to work at a global scale, you know, building systems and programs that work on every continent. The Waze public sector partnerships program that I lead, called Waze for Cities, has more than a thousand partners on six continents, where we share our user-generated data with them to make better planning and operational decisions, and they share information that they have about their assets directly with drivers to help improve their lives every day. And we’re doing it on a global scale.
You know, earlier this year, as an example, we launched a collaboration with the World Health Organization for Road Safety Week, to do in-app messaging about the key safety concerns that we hear from our partners around the world: speeding, seatbelt use, work zone safety, showing care for people walking and people on bicycles. And after a few months of work on that program, you know, in one day it launched in London, in Massachusetts, in Miami, in Mexico City, in Bogotá, and a number of other places.
Stober: And that kind of scale is exciting. Some folks who’ve worked on that scale for a while call it “addicting.” But I’ll say it’s also, for me, in its own way a little bit what I’ve liked least about my private sector experience. Working consistently at that kind of scale means you have to turn down opportunities where the solutions are more localized and not scalable.
Cohen: Yeah, I could really imagine that that scale—you know, like, I could see what you’re saying about that being addicting because I can picture that in my head, because once you’re really doing that, you know, launching in, you know, X number of global cities on the same day for this major push like that, you know, that takes a project that you might have done back in the public sector in the City of Philadelphia, which would impact, you know, hundreds of thousands or a million-plus people that live in the city—it makes that look almost quaint. Right?
Cohen: But it’s not. Right?
Cohen: I mean, that’s a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge thing that you did on the public sector side there in the city, you know, just some of those different projects, I’m sure. But like, I could see how that would be really, really challenging to kind of navigate that. How do you balance that?
Stober: So, you know, I think, from a personal perspective, I think what’s been fun about my career is the opportunity to move between those different scales. So, before I worked for the City of Philadelphia, I actually worked for the State of Colorado at the Colorado Department of Transportation as a metropolitan and regional planner. And so I got to work at the state level also. And, you know, I do think you get to have that direct contact with your users, the smaller scale you work on, and there’s something that’s very specially satisfying about that. And so I think it’s this opportunity to just sort of move between those scales and get to spend some time at each scale, is how I sort of square that circle.
Cohen: That’s a good way to frame it too. The more I’m thinking about that, it seems like there’s benefits for everyone to kind of have that experience—
Cohen: —to kind of do both. Right? Or do all of that. Right? You get the hyperlocal, you get the superscale, and then there’s some in between as well. And there’s probably a lot of—I don’t even know what the right word is, but exposure, empathy, whatever, that you gain from that experience of kind of going through each of those kind of scale levels, if you will.
Stober: Yeah. And for sure. I mean, I think, in terms of building empathy and building understanding for the user experience, there’s nothing like working at the local level. There’s nothing like presenting to a community meeting, or hearing the stories of the constituents that you’re serving and the challenges that they face. There’s nothing like being berated by an elected official at a public hearing and having to answer their questions to really, you know, help you focus on what it means to people, day in, day out, when your infrastructure works for them or, for that matter, when it’s not working. And it really exercises a different part of your brain to have to really interrogate, you know, “Is what I’m doing here, can we bring it to a much larger level? Can we bring it to many more people in different cultures, in different languages, in different environmental contexts?” in terms of the infrastructure they’re operating on.
Cohen: I love it. You’ve maybe alluded to this, or maybe I’ve alluded to it. I don’t know; it all blends together at this point. But about some of the projects that you have worked on at the local level, or maybe even—you know, maybe it’s something that you’ve worked on with Waze as well. Has there been one that really has kind of stuck with you that you’ve kind of been the most proud of?
Stober: I think what I’m most proud of was launching Philadelphia’s Indego Bike Share system and the Better Bike Share Partnership. And I know you had Waffiyyah on a previous—
Stober: —episode, which I would recommend to everyone who’s listening to this. You know, I used to joke that in Philadelphia we had 22nd mover advantage because we were the 22nd city [LAUGHTER] in the United States to launch a bikeshare system. But it’s sort of—it’s not really a joke, because we did get to learn a lot from those other systems, and particularly in the realm of equity. And we also had an imperative that was somewhat different than other cities when it came to equity. So the economic geography of Philadelphia meant that bikeshare had a really significant potential to work for Philadelphians with the lowest incomes, in a way that that was just the geography of other cities presented a challenge to having bikeable trips because of physical geography. But it was—you know, it was our planning organization, our MPO had conducted a feasibility study. And it was something on the order of more than half of all of the Philadelphians who lived below the poverty line lived in an area where bikeshare was deemed feasible.
So as we’re launching this new public transit system—something that you only get to do, you know, every few generations—it was incumbent on us to make sure that it was going to work for as many Philadelphians as it possibly could, and particularly work for those who stood to benefit the most from a new low-cost form of transportation. And so we worked very hard on that, very hard preparing for that, and we built a program with the support of the city, with some federal funds, and with some really important philanthropic funds, not just for Philadelphia, but really for the entire country, through the Better Bike Share Partnership. And you have a whole episode about that, so I won’t dive into that, but that’s definitely the project that I’m most proud of.
Cohen: Well, I want to underline something there because I think the thing that really jumps out to me when you explain it that way is that it’s so often in our communities that we just take it face value, these investments that our communities make that are for the benefit of those that already have power.
Stober: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Cohen: You know, that already have resources, that already have wealth. And I think the real mindful approach that y’all took there to really say, “How can we make sure that those who need this the most get the most benefit,” I think is really important, especially when you’re putting public resources behind something like that. And I know you had a big collection of providers of funds there, not just the public, but I think that’s a really important thing to underline there.
Stober: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. And particularly when the new systems that are being advocated for, or the policy change that’s being advocated for, is not coming from those who stand to benefit the most from it, but is coming from the elites in your community, essentially. And that’s where the advocacy for bikeshare was coming from in Philadelphia. We weren’t getting a clamoring for it from the lowest-income residents of the city because, frankly, they had much more important things to be advocating for in their communities, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t the potential for meaningful gains from it.
Cohen: What about a project that you wished you could do over again? Do you—is there one that jumps out to you that you recall?
Stober: Sure. So, I was part of a team that worked on trying to sell Philadelphia’s gas company. So Philadelphia has the largest publicly owned natural gas company in the country. Municipal gas companies are high-risk operations. Right? When their pipes break, there are explosions. And in Philadelphia, our gas rates were high, our infrastructures need a massive investment, and the organization needed to figure out how it was going to navigate a transition into a low-carbon economy while providing this, you know, vital heating services to the largest poor city in the United States.
And if the sale had been successful—and ultimately, you know, it wasn’t—today, the Gas Works would be owned by Iberdrola, one of the largest renewable energy producers in the world. It would likely be their North American headquarters. But the deal ultimately failed on the politics, and when you’re trying to do big things, you can’t neglect the politics; you can’t neglect the politics of whatever body it is that has to approve that big thing, and you can’t neglect the neighborhood politics either.
Cohen: Hmm. Yeah, no, I think that’s a great lesson to kind of pull from that. And I want to maybe tie that together with that success story here for just for a minute. Did you have to deal with similar politics—now, obviously, different because you’re solving different problems, but did you have to deal with politics when you’re advocating for this transportation mode and this investment that is, again, explicitly not dedicated towards those in the community that already have resources, which again is how not all but some of the investments that we make in communities already are?
Cohen: So did you have to deal with politics when you had dealt with that bikeshare?
Stober: Yeah. We absolutely had to deal with politics. And again, we had to deal with politics both ways—right—the politics that were happening in our city council and the politics that were happening in neighborhoods all over the city. And obviously, those two things are connected, but we had to address both of those politics. We had the advantage on the bikeshare side of having a couple of important city council people who got it and were big advocates and saw what we were trying to do. And then we were very deliberate about the neighborhood politics and spent a lot of time in neighborhoods across the city, listening, and not just listening in the way that government often listens, which is you hold a public meeting, and whoever shows up comes to offer their opinion.
And I think, you know, one of the important things to recognize in that is when you’re going to launch something like bikeshare—and you’re going into any community for this matter, right—it is not likely that bikeshare is that community’s number one problem or number one thing they want to talk to government about. And when you show up as a government official—and you could be a neighborhood planner in the planning commission or you could be the deputy mayor—it’s not every day that residents get to talk to a government official, and they’re not going to waste their time talking to you about what you want to talk about. Right? They’re going to talk to you about what’s important to them, and that’s—those are important conversations to have and listen to, but that also means you need to find other ways to gather the information that you need to make smart decisions.
So we partnered with our mural arts program and put decals on the streets in—and sidewalks, I should say—in places where we were thinking about installing bikeshare stations, and saying, “Text us. Is this a good place to put a bikeshare station or not?” We ran focus groups with residents who we paid, just like Ford* would pay to run a focus group, to get valuable feedback about really what they thought about their bikeshare system—that were not just focus groups where we were paying the participants, but we also paid to have, you know, professional marketing experts run those focus groups, and really bring to it their impartiality. Right? They weren’t—they didn’t have a vested interest in the outcome of bikeshare, so we got to hear some of maybe the things that we didn’t want to hear or we weren’t expecting to hear about our system. And all of that and spending that time up front, I think, really set us up for success.
Cohen: So I want to dig into this a little bit more, because I’m really enjoying this kind of almost case study as we talk about the bikeshare and the launch of that. You mentioned you had a couple city councilors who were early advocates of what you were trying to accomplish. And I guess what I want to maybe dig into a little bit is how exactly did that play out. So, I mean, what did they need to do in order to help advance this cause?
Stober: Started in a place that was rather uncomfortable in the staff position. It was 2009. We were coming out of the financial crisis. We were having conversations about closing libraries. Right? To talk about spending millions of dollars to put bikes on the street—right—was not a conversation that the mayor was willing to have. But we had council members who during budget hearings, who would ask questions about, “Well, what about a bikeshare system?” And our answers evolved over time, but, you know, it was when they had those opportunities to publicly question.
When the financial situation got a little bit better and they held hearings on a bikeshare system for Philadelphia, getting it that public attention. And telegraphing to members of the public who maybe not—might not be aware of these systems or about them, that, “Look, this is something important to an elected official who you respect and have high regard for.” So it—you know, there is this element that sometimes elected officials, you know, need to lead from in front and sometimes they need to lead from behind, and on bikeshare was a place where we had a couple of city council members who were really leading in front and helping to set that tone and keep the issue relevant, and keep the issue, frankly, on the agenda of the mayor.
Cohen: Do you have a sense on what drove that interest?
Cohen: You know, so was it their own personal connection to biking? Was it the hearing the needs of their constituents? What was it that was really driving that?
Stober: Yeah, so there were a few things. One, it was incredible advocacy by an individual who, very sadly, is no longer with us, named Russell Meddin, who was a tremendous advocate for bikeshare in Philadelphia and was in the ear of council people, giving them all of the arguments for why Philadelphia needed a bikeshare system. And then we had some council members who really saw the opportunity. They would see it when they would go to other cities, and they would say, “Why can’t we have it here?” And then it was also a council member who, you know, biking was part of their life and was important to them, and they recognized how many people biked in their community and saw this as a benefit to their constituents.
Cohen: You know, it is interesting when you think about bikeshare and you think about what we’re seeing with scooters nowadays in a lot of communities. Is that—they’re a very public—you can kind of see them. Right?
Stober: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Cohen: You know, and so there’s this ease of understanding kind of that investment and what it is. That’s different, I feel like, than some of the other investments that cities make that aren’t quite as visible.
Cohen: Even stuff they do for cars, whether it’s street paving or whatever, certainly it’s—you know, obviously, they have to do the paving, but then, like, once the paving is gone, you’re just driving on it; you know, you don’t really think about it. But with the bikeshare, it’s like—you know, and certainly with the scooters, you know, it’s like you actually see it. Right?
Cohen: And it’s there. It’s almost this rolling—
Cohen: —rolling advertisement, for lack of a better word. I don’t know.
Stober: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think what’s also important about that point with a bikeshare is you see who’s using it, and it can also stand out who’s not using it. Right? And so that becomes a very important part of when you’re launching a system like that, being able to answer in a very real way, in a very empirical way, “Who is this system for?” Right? “Who are on those bicycles? And what do they look like? And how are they using them?” And so that was something that we thought a lot about as we launched the system too.
Cohen: Yeah, no, I think that’s—I think that has to be—you know, it sounds like that was very much integrated into a lot of the thinking that you had, which was, “Who is this system for?” which—from the beginning, which I think is really important. And I think even just asking that question, really, it changes a lot of the dynamic. Right? You know, I saw something—somebody on Twitter the other day that was talking about an advertisement on a place for rent. And they said, “Oh, it’s close to such-and-such”—you know, it wasn’t my community; I didn’t know what such-and-such was. But they were making the comment that in these ads you can tell who they’re targeting—
Cohen: —by what amenities they say it’s near. Right? And I thought that was interesting. I was like, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that.” But you’re right. You know, if you say it’s near such-and-such, you know, social district or—
Cohen: —nighttime district, you’re implying that you’re seeking a certain demographic of person to want to live there. And, again, I just hadn’t really thought about it that way, but—
Stober: And making sure that you’re asking the people who are—who you want to have as your users. Right? I mean, one of the things that I—when I was trying to sell conducting paid focus groups internally, which there was a huge amount of skepticism about, was—right—you know, there’s a reason private companies spend millions of dollars a year on focus groups. It’s—you know, private companies don’t choose to spend money on things that aren’t a return on investment. Right? It’s so that they can hear from users in a very focused way and understand things that they can’t understand internally.
And two simple but classic examples that come back to me from our focus groups is when we talked to really all men, we heard that the color of the bike really mattered. Right? So bikeshare bikes look like girls’ bikes. Right? They have the low bar. And so when we showed them different colors, the color—what color blue, and a darker blue really mattered to whether they said they would ride the bike or not.
Our bikeshare system was provided by BCycle, which is a Trek company. And so the sample bikes that we had had a trek—small Trek logo on the side. One of the top comments we got back in the focus groups about things they liked most about the bike was the Trek logo. Right? Because it was a brand that was associated with quality, and you were going to be on—and this was men and women alike. And you got to be using a quality, a high-quality sort of prestige product.
Now, if we—you know, if this had just been the city making the decision, we would have had them take the Trek logo off. We don’t—we’re not here to provide corporate advertising—right—on our bikeshare system. But when we heard from users, “Look, this is something that attracts me to riding the bike,” that’s the kind of feedback that you only get from talking directly to users.
Cohen: Hmm. That’s fascinating. So, going back. So there’s kind of two lessons. Well, two kind of things you pulled out of that. One was that when you surveyed men, that they had specific color preferences.
Cohen: That’s really interesting. So did you end up going with a color that—
Stober: We did. Yeah.
Stober: Absolutely. And it’s—
Cohen: So you went with a color that men said they would ride and that, I guess, women, it didn’t impact them either way?
Stober: Women didn’t care.
Cohen: They didn’t care.
Stober: It didn’t impact them. They didn’t care. And so—
Cohen: God, men are the worst.
Stober: We are.
Cohen: My gosh. I mean, like, [LAUGHS] oh, my gosh, “If it’s light blue, we’re not going to ride it, but if it’s dark blue, we will.” Oh, my gosh.
Stober: Yeah. And that the shade mattered. And look. So look, you know, these are the ways that, you know, our culture plays out in really important decisions that may seem trivial but actually turn out to be really important, and you have to have a kind of empathy for, and you have to be listening for—you know, how you launch and deploy systems.
Cohen: That’s a really interesting example, because that’s one where it’s easy for, you know, for someone to let their own biases potentially lead you into a very bad position. Right?
Cohen: So my own bias, I don’t care. Right?
Cohen: But, but, if I put that, my bias that it doesn’t matter, onto those bikes and made them, you know, light blue, and you had 30% of the population saying that they’re not going to ride it, then that’s a great example where it’s like, “All right, well, we just shot ourselves in the foot unnecessarily.”
Stober: Right, yeah. Exactly.
Stober: And that’s why it’s so—you know, to me, it’s so important, always, to think about who are your users. Right? And it’s something that, you know, kind of thinking about my time in the public sector—right—and in private sector, you know, at Waze, we are just relentless about thinking about, you know, what does this mean for our users, how will our users respond, running experiments constantly to see, you know, how does something—how does a small change impact our users, running user focus groups and doing user experience studies. Like, that’s not something that happens as often as it should in the public sector.
Cohen: All right. So let’s wrap up with this; what do you believe is still missing to create the equitable, accessible, and verdant mobility future that we all deserve?
Stober: You know, I think, in the context of U.S. cities, the core mobility challenge that we have to address is that we have 21st century challenges that are playing out on infrastructure that was built between the 18th and mid-20th century with a set of 20th century attitudes.
So, you know, let me flesh that out a little bit. If you think about my home city of Philadelphia, you can look at a map of Center City, Philadelphia, at the time that Ben Franklin walked the streets and look at the map of Center City, Philadelphia, today, and the infrastructure is essentially the same.
One of your previous guests, Leslie Richards, who runs SEPTA—right—she has to operate buses on basically the same streets that Ben Franklin, you know, saw horse carts going down and people walking. Except there’s a whole set of 21st century demands that are on those streets now, everything from citizens demanding more mobility options. Right? They want to be able to drive, and they want to be able to bike, and they want to be able to walk, and they want to be able to ride transit. And the truth is they don’t want to do just any one of those things. All the bike advocates, they also want to be able to drive. [LAUGHS]
Stober: And they want to be able to ride transit. And people want to be able to walk safely. And changes in our economy means our streets are filled with delivery vehicles in a way that they never were before, and we have to be responsive to the climate, the climate challenges that we have.
But we’re—we come to this with a set of largely 20th century attitudes and 20th century institutions that shape that. So you think about one of those being the gas tax—right—our principal way of financing transportation. It’s a decidedly 20th century model to be taxing gas, as cars are getting increasingly efficient, no less the fact that we haven’t raised it, which is also a 20th or perhaps even 21st century attitude there. But, you know, that gas tax over time is just going to go away, as we have a more efficient fleet.
And no major mobility transformation has been catalyzed by the private sector alone, whether, you know, it was land grants to railroads, or military aviation during World War II leading to vibrant commercial aviation in the latter part of the 20th century, or the Interstate Highway System, or the transit systems that were launched or expanded in the ’70s or ’80s. So we need a big commitment to federal investment to support that mobility. That’s a piece that is importantly missing to creating, you know, equitable and accessible and a verdant mobility future.
And then I think the other piece, which ties back to the conversation that we’ve been having, is deliberately amplifying the voices of those who stand to benefit from the changes, because no matter what change you’re trying to make, it’s those who perceive that they might lose in the short term who are going to be most motivated and most incentivized to be vocal. And so you have to be really deliberate about amplifying voices, and then I think also thinking about, thoughtfully, how can we take advantage of technology to be responsive and making sure that as we’re taking advantage of technology, particularly that we’re doing it in equitable and accessible ways.
Cohen: Andrew, great, great, great to meet you and to get some insight. I appreciate your indulging me a little bit and going pretty deep on the bikeshare creation, because I do think that was a really illustrative example of how you’ve had to do some of these things that we talked about, which is really, you know, talking to users, understanding their needs, understanding what they want out of a solution, and getting that input and using that input to create an outcome that I think is going to serve the community—
Cohen: —you know, writ large, but also and especially the community that’s been the most impacted and can have the most positive gains from that investment. So—
Cohen: I appreciate you taking the time to kind of dive into that a little bit with us.
Cohen: That’s been a lot of fun. Keep up the great work. And thanks again for joining me.
Stober: Yeah. Thanks so much. It’s been great to be with you.
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.
*On March 1, 2022, global technology company Modaxo acquired TransLoc from Ford Motor Company. TransLoc is no longer affiliated with Ford or any Ford properties.