REIMAGINING OUR STREETS RECAP.

June 25, 2020

How do we reimagine streets to create more just and equitable cities? How do we ensure safe, accessible, and affordable transportation for all? What role does technology play in building more vibrant, diverse, and unified communities?

Review our conversation between eight city builders (startup founders, activists, planners and policy experts) to explore future scenarios for our streets and their social, environmental, and economic consequences.


5 Key
Takeaways

Our discussion on how explore future scenarios for our streets and their social, environmental, and economic consequences brought up several key points such as:

Embrace “Inno-fusion”

Partnerships between tech companies, mobility companies, startups, and policymakers are resulting in “inno-fusion,” allowing human creativity to develop new ways of using existing public and private services. Blurring the lines, and setting up these dialogues, between public and private will help to encourage multimodality in the transportation sector.

Curb Appeal

Curbsides have emerged as fundamental to help retail and restaurant businesses recover post-pandemic, providing spaces for deliveries, pick-ups and outdoor dining along streets. Could this become a permanent fixture in high-density cities, instead of parking provision, if new revenue models are introduced?

Don’t Skip Inclusive Planning

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some urban-planning projects are seeing rapid acceleration – shrinking timelines from decades to mere months. This might seem like leaps forward for cities, but are crucial steps like community engagement being skipped in the fast-track process?

Connectivity For All

Universal broadband and free public wifi access should be considered utilities. If remote learning is going to become the norm, it is essential that we make it accessible to all kids so that no one is left behind.

Don’t Skip Inclusive Planning

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some urban-planning projects are seeing rapid acceleration – shrinking timelines from decades to mere months. This might seem like leaps forward for cities, but are crucial steps like community engagement being skipped in the fast-track process?

Dror Poleg - Author of Rethinking Real Estate and the Co-Chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Technology and Innovation Council in New York


Javier Lopez - Chief Strategy Officer at Red Hook Initiative


Anthonia Ogundele - Founder of Ethos Lab


Tiffany Chu - Founder and CEO, REMIX, Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment and Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee


Maya Ben Dror - Future Mobility Platform at World Economic Forum


James Mirras - Founder and CEO, Circuit


Stephen Smyth - Founder and CEO, Coord


Adam Lubinsky - Managing Principal at WXY, Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation


Tara Pham - Founder and CEO, Numina


Destiny Thomas - Founder and CEO Thrivance Group


Tony Garcia - Co-founder of Street Plans Collaborative


Miriam Roure:

Hello, everyone. And welcome to Reimagining our Streets, our Long Format Discussion. My name is Miriam Roure and I’m the Program Director at URBAN-X, the venture accelerator, where we start to reimagine city life, built by MINI and the venture fund Urban Us.

Miriam Roure:

And today, we have a very special and long event. During the next three-and-a half-hours, we will host 11 different back-to-back conversations about building more equitable and sustainable cities.

Miriam Roure:

As you very well know, over the last three months, many of the preconceived notions around what our streets should be have been completely uprooted. And we are seeing, with great pain, how structural inequality is built into our neighborhoods and the devastating consequences of the pandemic, as well as the continued abuse of policing systems in these same neighborhoods. With this in mind, we have invited 11 city makers, startup founders, planners, activists, community organizers, and policy makers to share their perspectives.

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Miriam Roure:

And with that, I’m going to introduce our first speaker, Dror Poleg, the author of Rethinking Real Estate and Co-Chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Technology and Innovation Council in New York. Hi, Dror. Thank you for joining us.

Dror Poleg:

Hi, Miriam. Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Miriam Roure:

So we’re going to just jump straight in. We only have 20 minutes per conversation.

Miriam Roure:

So I got to read your article, Did Cities Fail Us. And I know something that really struck me was how you start by providing a historical framework that links the great migration of African Americans from South to North during the 20th century, not just through the abolition of slavery but also through industrialization and the promise of cities. Can you tell us a little bit more about what is that promise of cities and how do you think it might or might not have delivered on that promise?

Dror Poleg:

So the cotton industry expanded, particularly in the 18th century, following a technological invention of the… Sorry. Of the 19th century, of the cotton gin, which actually made it easier to grow new crops of cotton away from the shore, which helped spread slavery across the South. Around the middle of the 20th century, a new invention started to become popular, which was the mechanized cotton picker. Which basically meant that a lot of the labor, the slave labor, and later on, the sharecropping labor that was used in the cotton industry, was now redundant.

Dror Poleg:

So that economic relationship between the industry and the need for these cheap or kind of forced labor was finally broken down. And at that point, that drove the great migration of mostly Black Americans from the South, which was mostly rural, agricultural, to the North and to the industrial cities in the North.

Dror Poleg:

Now people in the North, as they were going to the North, they were hoping to find a new world there. So not just to change jobs but to go into a part of the country which was first, initially, without slavery. So it was supposed to be more open and more liberal. It had all these modern industries that were industrial and meant that now a laborer doesn’t mean that you’re a slave or a sharecropper, but you can be working class or middle class, work in a factory alongside other people, have access to greater opportunities, opportunity for your children to mix with other people from different classes, and hopefully have the option to move up economically.

Dror Poleg:

And of course, some of these things did happen and some positive consequences did happen. So we did make a lot of progress there since the 1950s and definitely since slavery was abolished. But as we look at America today, we see that it is almost as segregated in terms of housing and in terms of education as it was 50 years ago. In terms of income inequality, I think the Gini coefficient has been trending up since the late 1960s. So in many…

Dror Poleg:

And of course, I mean, when we just look around us, beyond the statistics, we see the pain and the suffering and there’s still the strong emotions that really burst to the surface over the past few weeks following the killing of George Floyd. And we see that a lot of these wounds have not healed at all. And maybe because they haven’t healed for so long, they’re becoming even worse in some ways. Because people felt that so much good has happened and so much progress has been made. And still, these gaps persist.

Dror Poleg:

So it’s becoming hard for some to even imagine what else can be done if we did all this and we didn’t solve it. We moved, we tried, whole industries were reinvented, and the problems persist. And these problems have a lot to do with housing and cities and the way they’re designed, of course.

Miriam Roure:

I think something else that you point out as well is, on this notion of like what is urban and how this idea of the city. We’re thinking about Chicago, we think about New York. We think about highly dense neighborhoods that have walkability, have proximity between different people that might or might not have the same background and/or economic opportunity. But the reality of what is urban is also quite diverse and quite different. What are your thoughts about that?

Dror Poleg:

Yeah. So if you Google later, if you check with the UN or the World Bank, they will tell you that America is about 85% urban. Now again, to someone who’s never been here, you would think, exactly; new York or Chicago, everyone lives in big buildings and takes the subway. But as you drive around or fly over America, you notice that almost everyone here lives in single-family houses. So about 60% of all the housing stock of the US is detached, single-family houses. Another big chunk is attached family houses, which are still basically two buildings on a relatively big lot. And I think less than 20% of Americans actually live in apartments, in what you would consider urban. By the way, 7% or so actually live in trailers, which is another amazing statistic. But that’s a different discussion.

Dror Poleg:

Now, the fact that people live in suburbs mean that a lot of the theoretical promise of cities actually doesn’t touch most of the people in this country. To make it even worse, the people who moved North, into the so-called urban North, found themselves in a perfect storm of various things that actually worked to diminish the opportunities for them.

Dror Poleg:

So starting with America’s zoning laws, which very much favor, in a unique way, the construction of single-family houses on relatively large lots, that disincentivize, or even prohibit, the mixing of uses. So to have all sorts of retail or work opportunities within walking distance to housing communities? They diminish the opportunity; or prohibit, even; the construction of more dense housing. So if you try to build an apartment building in the suburbs, it will be very hard for you. And even in the city, to build an apartment building that is more than two or three stories high is very, very difficult in a lot of areas.

Dror Poleg:

And part of that is because America’s zoning laws are uniquely biased towards localism. So they give a lot of power to local communities, which sounds good in theory, but it basically means that I have the right, because I have property rights over my own land, to actually tell everyone in my area what they are allowed or not allowed to do.

Dror Poleg:

Now, that’s just one aspect of it. At the same time, over the past, during the Cold War, America built a lot of highways, partly for defense purposes, like justified in that sense. And it also subsidized the ownership of cars and the car industry, which was a major employer in the 20th century in America. It also didn’t tax oil because of the power of the oil companies in America and the structure of that industry, which meant that people were encouraged actually to live in places that you have to drive to and to work in places that you have to drive to. Which, again, meant that people that already owned a house in the suburb had a great quality of life, people that owned a car had access to economic opportunity. But that theoretical story of a city as an employment market that people have access to didn’t really exist in reality.

Dror Poleg:

Now to make this even worse, there were explicit policies that actually prevented African Americans from living in certain places. And from having; even those of them who can actually afford to buy a single-family home couldn’t get loans because of redlining policies and other policies. And of course, many of them couldn’t afford to buy a single-family house on a large lot so they wanted to live in an apartment. But these apartments were not being built in those areas where more affluent communities were living and more opportunities existed.

Dror Poleg:

So you get this perfect storm of various conditions that basically mean that housing, over the past 70 years, was the main source of wealth for most Americans. This is where they parked all their savings and also all of their non-savings. I mean, more of their net worth was in their house because they had a mortgage as well. And if you bought a house in the suburbs, let’s say here around New York in the eighties, even? Not so long ago. Today, that house is worth about six or seven times more than it was worth then.

Dror Poleg:

So people were building wealth by buying a house. That’s how they sent their kids to college. That’s how they saved for retirement. So people that were prevented from buying a house in the sixties and seventies missed out on this huge wealth creation opportunity that, even if you take all these bad policies out today, the damage is already there.

Miriam Roure:

Yeah. And I think, related to this, we were talking before connecting about that video that appeared in the New York Times. And this idea that it’s not just zoning. It’s like the house being such an important part of property and wealth for Americans. Both people who had access to houses. And then, they didn’t want to have the value of their houses diminished, as well as people who didn’t have access to those.

Miriam Roure:

Yeah, maybe it’s worth like talking a little bit about that story. And I think it relates to many of the things that we’re seeing today in terms of how this is not just zoning. And yes, zoning is pretty important. But there’s also thereabout the fear of the other and what that means for one’s wealth or how that is linked to one’s own economy.

Dror Poleg:

So the video you’re referring to shows a group of young kids in Queens, in Rosedale, Queens. And I think it was shot in 1975. And they were just going for a walk in the neighborhood. And they saw some people waving an American flag. And they thought, “Oh, there’s a parade, something fun. Let’s go and see what’s going on.” And they ended up being chased away and called all sorts of very bad words. And a TV crew was there and ended up interviewing them. And I very much recommend watching the video. It’s really, it’s heartbreaking to anyone. And even beyond race, just as a human, to see how people can behave to other people.

Dror Poleg:

And the New York Times went ahead and found those children and interviewed them. And also tried to interview other people from the neighborhood. And one interesting theme that came up in those interviews is the role of economic anxiety. So beyond racism, the fact that people bought a house in a certain neighborhood with certain characteristics and how afraid and terrorized they are of the thought that something new will be built here or some kind of new people will come here and how that might affect the value of my home.

Dror Poleg:

Now of course, that’s no excuse for racism. But the interesting thing is that our system currently encourages people to own a house, to park all of their savings in the house, to rely on the value of that house for their ability to retire with dignity. So that actually reinforces the feeling that anything that might come near my house is a threat to me and I have to respond with force and sometimes in ways that are so ugly that it’s surprising that humans can behave that way. But it’s important to know the economic incentives that are there. And I think there is a way to live differently, to incentivize people to be a little less afraid of other people. I don’t think that racism is only based on that. But I think that would help take the edge out of certain issues.

Miriam Roure:

Yeah. I think that there’s definitely an interesting link between what we see as systemic inequality and capitalism. And those being, in many ways, completely intertwined.

Miriam Roure:

And yeah, I think going back to a little bit more of the zoning conversation. There’s two things that struck me as well, from some of your articles, that have to do with… Again, like that correlation between density and walkability and the link to upward mobility. As in, right now, we’re in a situation, in a moment in time, where density is the equivalent of the fear of the pandemic. And so, in some ways, there’s that tension that exists within this notion of density.

Miriam Roure:

But, yeah. I think it’s very important to understand, what are those links between density and economic opportunity? And not just thinking about cities in general but actually cities with certain density.

Dror Poleg:

So cities are essentially labor markets. People congregate because they want to be closer to employment opportunities. Companies go to cities because they want to have access to a larger pool of labor which basically means better talent and generally more options.

Dror Poleg:

Now again, in theory, that sounds very well and very good. But if your city ends up really being so spread out, which is just a bunch of suburbs, and having such bad traffic and no public transport, meaning that everyone has to drive? Then first, the number of people that you really have realistically, with easy access to the center of the city, becomes much lower than what it looks like on a map. The environmental impact of it is much worse than it could be. Because part of the idea of cities is that, Glazer pointed out in a lot of his work, is that they’re much better for the environment because they allow people to share resources and to share infrastructure that is both very expensive for the public taxpayer. And also, it’s very expensive for the environment because you have to build more roads and heat up more spaces and build more parking.

Dror Poleg:

So cities are very good, both for the environment, both for economic opportunities. And maybe the most important thing about them is that they force us to be together and to get along. They allow us to see other people, they allow us to interact with other people, they force us to interact with other people and to depend on each other and be in the same place. And I think, when we look each other in the eyes, it’s much harder to be cruel and hateful. I mean, obviously sometimes people that are neighbors, they fight enough. But I think when your children go and play in the street with someone, it’s much harder to think all sorts of abstract thoughts about them. Because you’re all in the same boat and you end up facing all sorts of similar challenges.

Dror Poleg:

Now this is backed by academic research. I mean, both on the economic front and the environmental front. But even in terms of psychology and culture? My friend, Anja Jamrozik, in her own writing and newsletter; she’s a behavioral psychologist with a PhD from Penn; cited a few researchers that showed that areas that are more walkable mean that people actually speak to each other much more. And then, that means that people have more social capital to have more connections to rely on when they need help. They have better economic mobility because they can rely on their neighbors and on opportunities nearby and on people recommending them and thinking about them when an opportunity comes up. So a lot of these things trickle down.

Dror Poleg:

And again, so density doesn’t necessarily mean we should all be like a housing project in Hong Kong where like huge towers. It actually means that, because you build houses a little further out, like in Paris, for example? So not like in; again, like in extreme situations, you can actually create more parks and more public spaces, which is another thing that is unique to cities. So a lot of America is built on the assumption that if I want to go and sit on a nice patch of land, I need to own that patch of land in my backyard. Otherwise, it’s not available to me. And the beauty of cities is that they create these spaces that allow us to go and, again, do things together with other people. And hopefully, not even pay for these things. But that they’re publicly available for everyone.

Miriam Roure:

I know we have only a few minutes left. But before we leave, I wanted to touch on this notion of cities as bundles. And I quote, “They group together different people in services for mutual benefit.” And today, one could argue that, given that knowledge workers, the ultra wealthy, there’s a group of people who have flat, highly dense urban cores, like in cities like New York. These bundles, in some ways, are currently undone, at least how it existed previously. How do you think we might go back? How do you think those will evolve? As in, are we going to go back to those same bundles because they were proven to be so beneficial for everyone involved? Do you think we’re going to have to find a new sort of bundle? How are you thinking about this equation?

Dror Poleg:

So all the bad things that I just described? I think we’re in a position to see them get much worse if we just leave things to unfold without action.

Dror Poleg:

So cities, as we saw during COVID-19? They have a bunch of wealthy people and middle-class people that live in them. But these people rely on about four or five times more other people that are service workers and essential employees that are there to provide all sorts of services that makes cities great. Now we saw, during the last few months, how essential these people are. But this crisis also expedited the automation of a lot of these service jobs. Which mean that those middle class people that live in cities are actually becoming less reliant on those other people that live near them.

Dror Poleg:

So if, in the past, they had to be together? Now we’re seeing an opportunity for a lot of people to just move out of cities altogether and say, “Hey, I have a knowledge job. I can work from anywhere. I don’t need to be in the city. I can leave all the waiters and drivers, et cetera, in the city on their own and see you later.” So we might end up with a society that is even more segregated unless we make cities attractive, both for these more affluent people, but actually, more livable for these service employees and to allow them to live with dignity. And also, to allow them access to economic opportunities so that they could move up. If not them, then their children. [crosstalk 00:25:12].

Miriam Roure:

Thank you, Dror. I think, with that, we are going to move to our next conversation. And I’m sure you will continue also on this topic for the conversation to come.

Miriam Roure:

And yes, we’re going to switch now. Thank you.

Dror Poleg:

Thank you, Miriam.

Dror Poleg:

So I’m now becoming the interviewer after this great conversation with Miriam. And I’m going to have a chat with Javier Lopez, who is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Red Hook Initiative. Hi, Javier.

Javier Lopez:

Good afternoon, Dror. Thank you.

Dror Poleg:

Thank you. So maybe first, if you want to say a few words about what is the Red Hook Initiatives? What do you guys do? What is the purpose of the organization?

Javier Lopez:

Sure, sure. So the Red Hook Initiative is an 18-year youth and young adult-based organization in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We serve around 6,000 residents a year, the majority of them being young people aged 12 to 24. We have a variety of services that range from traditional after-school enrichment programming to urban farm and agricultural work to community organizing to health education. I mean, everything that you think a young person could be attached to, we try to extend them. And we’ve been doing it in Red Hook, like I said, for 18 years. And my role is, I really support the organization and their community organizing work, their public Wi-Fi Project, their Urban Farm Project, and really pulling together the racial equity and oppression, anti-oppression work, for the organization.

Dror Poleg:

Thank you.

Dror Poleg:

So what have you seen over the past three months and what ideas did it give you about the role of technology or what… I’m sure a lot of our viewers are technologists or investors and people that are looking to build things. What kind of opportunities or gaps did you identify?

Javier Lopez:

Well Dror, as a youth development organization, the switch from the traditional, face-to-face work to working remotely for our young people has been very seamless for the young people but has been very hard for the staff and community that has traditionally served them on a face-to-face basis.

Javier Lopez:

So one of the things that we realized right away in the neighborhood is that infrastructure was a great need. In Red Hook, Wi-Fi, like every other community across New York City, is not a fully free public utility. And our community of focus is the public housing community. And what we really wanted to lift up was how we could expand our public Wi-Fi program called Red Hook Wi-Fi and extend it to the public housing residents who immediately came to us and said they had needs in health, they had needs in food access, they had needs in ensuring that the multigenerational families who were trying to get internet connection, had it.

Javier Lopez:

So from an infrastructure standpoint, there’s a big need. And then, from an overall orientation of how multigenerational families can access and use a virtual world is a huge gap. And is an area of great need of importance to us.

Dror Poleg:

You mentioned to me, when we chatted earlier, about your telemedicine initiative and how, both tying new technologies to respond to the crisis. But also, the strong need of the human element in that process. Can you tell us a little bit about how that played out?

Javier Lopez:

Sure. So one of the things that we quickly realized when COVID hit is that our community, a Black and Brown community, a community of color, that has been disinvested in for decades? We knew that the comorbidities that individuals had would leave them at high risk of really being negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Javier Lopez:

So in Red Hook, unfortunately, we do not have a hospital. We don’t have a fully functional Community Health Center. So we immediately started to put together a list, a series of questions, that would look at food access, health care access, behavioral health and trauma support. And we initiated a survey that went out to residents to get a sense of what their needs were. Simultaneously, we were lucky enough to connect with a bunch of clinical practitioners and residents from universities in New Jersey and in New York City who were willing to volunteer their time.

Javier Lopez:

So we had a survey, we had a group of medical support volunteers. And we needed to develop an algorithm that would allow us to understand how to prioritize what people were saying to us on a face-to-face survey standpoint and how that could lead to a medical telemedicine response. And we were lucky that we worked with a couple of colleagues that were able to build out an algorithm and a rating scale that would allow the volunteer clinicians and practitioners to follow up with those residents that had a highest risk. So if you had asthma, if you were above 50 years old, if you didn’t have access to a clinician and you were in need of medication, you were immediately, through this algorithm, risen in the queue to get a phone call and to have a telemedicine visit in this virtual space that we created on our own.

Dror Poleg:

Now, me coming partly from the tech world? When I hear this story, I’m like, “Okay; a survey sounds very easy. I just send an email to everyone. I get the responses. Problem solved.” Is that how it worked in practice?

Javier Lopez:

No, it definitely doesn’t work in practice that way. You know, one of the things about communities of color, specifically? They are always surveyed. They are consistently surveyed and there’s never usually a reaction or something that comes in response. The information leaves. Luckily, for 18 years, we’ve been in the neighborhood. We’ve been able to establish a rapport in a place-based existence that, when we called up, people were willing to stay on the phone and walk through their answers. And that we were committed to, as an organization, to not just take that data and wait for a response. We connected them immediately to the volunteer clinical providers that were willing to offer their time and service.

Javier Lopez:

So trust was there. This wasn’t a data mining experience. This was an experience that would allow people to get the response that they weren’t getting by the traditional, clinical medical systems in Brooklyn or in Red Hook.

Dror Poleg:

You mentioned that the population is being surveyed constantly. Can you elaborate on that? And also on how is the data used? What kind of decisions is it driving? How transparent are those decisions?

Javier Lopez:

Sure. This is such an issue in Black and Brown and communities of color and LGBTQIA communities of color. Academics, public sector, private sector? They’re always assessing people in our neighborhoods, assessing for, “What do you need for X service?” If you’re the public sector. Or if you’re the private sector, “What are your purchasing habits?” And the academic sector? “Oh, we want to research streetscape design.” And all this information is extracted, taken from people. And then, people then, outside of the neighborhood, come with the response to that information that has that in mind.

Javier Lopez:

And it is such a problem that we really need to, first, raise it as a problem. And then, second, think through how grassroots groups and community organizations and individuals can actually own their own data and they can facilitate dialogues with their own data via open sources.

PART 1 OF 7 ENDS [00:33:04]

Javier Lopez:

They can facilitate dialogues with their own data via open sources, and then they can also monetize their own data. Because again, people are getting rich off of the poverty and off of the disinvestment that they’re trying to fact find for. And that is a real, real problem in communities of color and communities that have served for over the last 20 years.

Dror Poleg:

So if assuming there are people in the audience who have capabilities and resources that they can can bring to bear on these type of problems, how would you recommend to them to go about these processes in order to understand the problems in order to develop solutions?

Javier Lopez:

It’s interesting because there’s been such a commitment from the tech and VC community about coding, right? So there’s such a consistent method of, we got to get girls who code, people, young people of color code. So the foundation of investing in coding is there, but how about this? How about making an investment or curriculum that allows young people to interpret and create data sets of their own with their own neighborhood data that doesn’t exist right now, that could be a curriculum that could be an investment strategy in the schools that already have a commitment to coding. That would be a maturation of the coding commitments that have been done.

Javier Lopez:

I think also we can work really hard and those who are interested in the space to connect those young people who were in coding and who could hopefully get these data visualizations that describe connect with other people of color and data experts from their neighborhood or neighborhoods like themselves, you have a lot of people helicoptering in who have no ties to the neighborhood, have no cultural, racial or gender connections to the neighborhood that want to talk about how to develop a better understanding of data.

Javier Lopez:

Well, why don’t you just work to hire those people from the neighborhood who have those skillsets that can lead with dialogues and discussions. And then finally, I really believe this is possible, but established community owned and operated data open source data portals, there’s a lot, there’s a big movement for that across the country. I’m excited to see how that movement can manifest in black owned data portals in the neighborhood that can then be really leveraged as a community to bring in resources and investments that stay in the neighborhood.

Dror Poleg:

You brought up the issue of education and some good things that children are learning today in all communities, I hope. We all know that over the past few months, most kids were at home with their parents, if they have parents. And how was, I assumed the impact in Red Hook and some communities was different from the impact that we see in television, in some other communities and the kind of trendy stuff that we are seeing in our own little bubbles. What was the impact that you see on the ground?

Javier Lopez:

Yeah, on the ground it’s been a mixed bag of experiences for families. You know, we have a lot of essential workers who had to continue to work. I forgot the duration of the COVID pandemic up until now, the foreseeable future, who were at home with their young people and then the young people that were home, they were tasked to play multiple roles, whether it be for the elder in the household, for their school learning experience, they didn’t have a lot of support because their families had to work. So, what we realize is there’s not a supportive infrastructure to really support the virtual learning and remote world in a community where essential workers are prioritized and tasked with having to do the work that they are asked to do in households where they may be the sole breadwinner and the young people then have to fend for themselves.

Javier Lopez:

And I also want to lift up the reality in New York city, that the mayor erroneously cut youth based funding for youth work during the summertime period. So there’s a summer youth employment program that was cut. So you have that cut to a program that gave young people jobs. So they have not a lot to do right now in the moment. But then prior to the summer that the household was really influx in terms of like how the young people had to navigate supporting the elders of their household and dealing with the reality that a lot of the family members that had to work weren’t in the household so that, it’s not a romanticism. It’s been a very hard journey for our young people who have to catch up academically, maintain their households and figure out a way to navigate a learning system that they know through TikTok and other mediums, but learning is a lot different

Dror Poleg:

Reading between the lines. I assume that, if people were behind in terms of education, probably the last three months, put them further behind, people with no access to good internet or without the right devices or without a kind of safe and quiet place to learn remotely. Is that the case?

Javier Lopez:

It’s a concern. It’s a major concern going in. We’re not even talking about special needs students, right? But not talking about those students who need that in person support in order to really excel. So as we look to the fall, we haven’t had any real traditional enrichment programming in the summer to catch students up. A lot of schools rely on the summer to maintain a certain academic rigor, those types of support programs are not available.

Javier Lopez:

And when you reflect on the last three months, as I described before, it’s a new learning medium. The teachers weren’t prepared, the schools weren’t prepared. The infrastructure in the households are different. So I’m very concerned about how black and brown young people in New York city and in Red Hook are coming into this fall school year, ready to excel. And I think whatever’s being designed right now, if it doesn’t center that reality. If those who were making substantive investments in education for the fall, they’re not centering young, black and brown people in their planning or folks who are suffering economically in their planning, you’re going to design something that is not equitable. You’re going to design something that’s going to create more inequities.

Dror Poleg:

So I’m trying to see a silver lining here.

Javier Lopez:

There is a silver lining.

Dror Poleg:

So much learning is moving online in theory, at least democracy… I mean, we know that housing is segregated as a result of that school and education is segregated. And we know that, in America, even public schools are largely funded by property taxes of wherever they are, which means that public schools in good neighborhoods have much more resources than public schools and in less well off neighborhoods. In theory, the internet promises to have… To allow everyone the access to the same academic material into the same good stuff. What is currently standing between the community that you are presented and the ability to make the most of these online resources?

Javier Lopez:

So universal broadband free access. You know, I know it sounds like pie in the sky for people, but I think that it needs to be seen as a utility now more than ever when you consider the fact that the remote learning is going to be a norm that has to be championed by those who may be watching this and those in the public sector that are asking for it. And we have to re envision what a learning environment could look like for young people in my neighborhood that I serve. So when I think about wraparound services and programming, all of that has to evolve in change. And I would be lying to you if I knew what that was. But I think if you think about a seven day a week cycle and schedule, the traditional school day has gone out the window and it will not probably be normalized for the foreseeable future.

Javier Lopez:

So you have to reprogram how you extend out traditional education and wraparound services to supplement the learning gaps that are going to be apparent. And I think those who were in the not for profit community and the for profit community, focusing on youth development, it’s really working with young people to better understand what their needs are and what their goals are as they see it. And then compare that to the curriculums that are being tested in the schools in the remote way, and just seeing where they’re meeting and where they’re not meeting and then being prepared to course correct over time. I think you cannot go into this and think like, this is the universal way of working. Every student experience in New York City is different, every school is run differently as you described. And I think there has to be attention to all that when designing support and the traditional education that has moved from.

Dror Poleg:

So in a perfect world, if I would give you a wishlist, we have technologists and builders here listening, starting even education, but then even with other topics, what would you like to see being built? What kind of tools would help you in your job better and make an impact on people’s lives?

Javier Lopez:

I don’t want to put too much emphasis on AI because I think the human aspect, even with Zoom is just as important. But I think the teacher community needs some support on assessing how young people are learning differently. If there’s a method to capture that, whether it be through more student reflection spaces, via an app or via a module that would allow them like, “did you really get this lesson?” You know, polling, just capturing what the student experiences I think is just, it needs to be a heavy investment in that because the student experience cannot be relied upon the teacher experience. And I’m not sure where the balance is from the education standpoint, but I’m worried that the teacher experience and the school experience is being prioritized over the student experience and the family experience. And I think we could put more investments in understanding what the family needs are, what the student needs are to better prepare the student, but also to get the school in a better space of like what they’re rolling out.

Dror Poleg:

Even if people have access digitally to classes, I assume they don’t have the right place to go and study quietly. Are there any spaces in the neighborhood where children can actually go after school or during school hours that [crosstalk 00:43:35] is fit to learn? If they’re not at school?

Javier Lopez:

This is where physical distancing is a hindrance. A lot of households are packed from family members. So, if you don’t have that universal broadband, trying to get a signal is a difficulty. Parks can be maximized to a greater degree. Any public space needs to be reconfigured and retrofitted to support public wifi access, to allowing young people in a social distance, physical distance way, to learn outside of the household. They can’t be in their household all the time. It is not safe for some families. It is not healthy in other ways. And we have to develop a neighborhood wide infrastructure to support that type of connectivity for young people to get that quiet time and space. Cause it’s not always in the household as you described. And I think we can open up the libraries and other public spaces that may have been closed because of COVID to reconfigure, reimagine it, as student workspaces that allow them to work independently and outside of the house.

Dror Poleg:

And I think libraries have a much bigger role to play in our lives. It would be nice of them to make a comeback and become relevant. Again, I see we’re running out of time Javier. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. And I think the floor remains yours for the next interview. So I am off, thank you.

Javier Lopez:

Pleasure.

Javier Lopez:

My friend.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Hello, hello.

Javier Lopez:

Anthonia Ogundele, it’s a pleasure to see you once again online. How are you this afternoon?

Anthonia Ogundele:

You know, this morning, I’m out here on the West coast.

Javier Lopez:

Vancouver.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yeah. So, so great to see you.

Javier Lopez:

It’s great to see you as well. I wanted to first ask a couple of softball questions before we get into it. So, forgive me for how easy these might sound but…

Anthonia Ogundele:

It’s all good. I’m ready.

Javier Lopez:

You didn’t give me a sense of who Anthonia is, and what does the Ethos Lab space for the world and the audience to know? The floor is yours.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Wow, well, Anthonia is an extremely curious individual. I… Someone has said the Jill of all skills. I am a disaster planner by training and career. I’m an urban planner as well by training. And I’ve recently embarked on this new enterprise, the Ethos Lab in response to becoming a new mother and wanting to ensure that there are spaces in the city that, where my daughter feels safe, where she feels protected, reflected, and connected, as we say that really centers her humanity. But at the same time acknowledges the technological reality that young people are all entering into including herself. So, that’s what the Ethos Lab is. The Ethos Lab is a space where, or was to be a space before COVID. We were creating creative coworking spaces for young people that were tech infused environments that supported culture and STEM focused exploration. We have recently transitioned to developing an online platform to facilitate that mandate, where young people are able to cocreate these experiences for their own personal growth and development.

Javier Lopez:

We are a kindred spirit. So I’m going to transition into thinking about a little bit harder about like how technology and planning and smart cities and design plays a role and will continue to play a role across cities across the US and Canada and abroad. So when I, I’m going to ask you this question and let me know how you take it. It’s- can smart cities, processes and design be both technologically centric, while also centering the black and brown experience of those who live in those neighborhoods? Is there, how do you center the black and brown experience with technology and with the smart cities processes that I know that you’ve been part of and aware of? What, what would you…

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yeah, I mean I think it just already starts off, first off with you and I kind of operating in the same place around engaging particularly with young people. Youth do not operate in only the physical space and they don’t just operate within the digital space. In fact, they straddle between both all the time. And so I think even of our generation, seeing this kind of online and offline, and we’ve seen some of that language in a lot of great thinkers right now is not a thing. And so when we’re talking about creating smart cities and thinking about integrating technology into the urban form, or also, and how it informs our, our practices, we really need to think about who are the individuals that are creating or building out these products and the possible biases that are built into the algorithms that are being created.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And I know that there’s been a lot of conversations, particularly being Canadian and what the fate of the big development in Toronto around the big smart city space there, a lot of conversations around privacy. But I think that as we have seen in the digital space, a lot of these conversations around racialized communities, either being not present within the workforce, but also that technology is not recognizing images, faces, and even filtering jobs because of certain algorithms. This is extremely important as we start linking it with city building.

Anthonia Ogundele:

So I think absolutely there is a way of integrating technology and also centering the humanity of the black experience as we’re trying to do with the Ethos Lab in the creation of space. And I think that that is, I saw your conversation before. There’s a lot of great workshops around coding, but it’s about contextualizing it and making it and empowering the young people to co create these environments that they’re occupying. And, you know, we’re going to get into some ways to structurally change that, but that’s where I’ll leave the response. I think it’s a necessity and we may fall an ill fate in the physical environment that we were seeing currently in the digital environment of lots of anti-racist, sorry, lots of racist behavior, particularly within spaces that young people occupy.

Javier Lopez:

So true. I mean, I just was with a bunch of students yesterday and they have set accountability for racism online amongst peers is just not there. It’s gotten worse, from the Zoom bombs to everything associated with just engagement. A lot of young people feel not safe and are experiencing visceral reactions in a way that they felt that at least they could go to somebody if they were in school or in a different place, but now they feel like they have to take that all on and navigate that. So I completely agree with like how to protect that is key. When I think about bias in systems, people think about trainings, trainings always thrown out there. We’re going to train ourselves out of bias. Is there, have you ever experienced through processes in your work, a way to assess bias, the prevalence of bias in work to, to really react to it and address it? Is there anything where models or even ideas that you could present to the audience that really allows them to check their bias, whether it’s implicit or explicit?

Anthonia Ogundele:

Oh my goodness, this is such a… it was such an intense question. Even when you were preparing me for this. I can’t really think of a very strong kind of bias assessment tool, but I mean, there are systems in place around debugging when something is not working. So in a digital context, I think that even just having a baseline understanding or debugging who is in the room to make sure that what is produced does reflect the community that it endeavors to support. And I think we cannot shy away from also just the straight facts around the nature of our community, the diversity of our communities that these things need to be considered right from the get go right, from the get go. And so I think structurally, assessments come on the backend. What I would say is that upfront that there needs to be some checks and balances in place to ensure that those biases are mitigated, whether that be hiring, hiring black and brown folks.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And particularly in the talking about anti-blackness in a black context that you actually hire black folks, were already, we look at that in terms of hiring around, whether it be gender equity or sexual orientation. So I think that we need to kind of extend that way. And in particular, with our space of interest, specifically youth, that are often disempowered in these in systems, not being able to vote, not able to own property, all of these different things, they are very much subject to these environments that are often created by adults and often created by adults that we know holds a specific bias that disenfranchise them.

Javier Lopez:

You know, the thing about young people is, as you get older, right, as you become like a, like I say an old G or somebody who’s just trying to hold on to the youth, but recognizing you’re going farther and further away, the talent is there and yet we saw it play out with other TicTok warriors that really impacted the national speech by the president of this country. How do we continue to elevate young people’s space in the world that you’re in? Like, what do we have to do better to allow those in the audience to consider young people as co-developers just as you do and as I do. Like what has to change from what you experience this far?

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yeah, I think, fantastic question, I think one thing is we oftentimes need to kind of get out of the way, right? I think that there, that young people have a lot of amazing solutions. I mean, we’re seeing it with the disruption to the rally that the leader of your country was putting on, but we’ve also seen it in terms of climate action. Like there are young people that are mobilizing on major issues. And for us, what’s been really interesting, and I think in the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of, kind of parent or adult blogs that talk about like, “are your- when are your kids ready to talk about race?” They’ve been talking about race it’s that we haven’t really been, we haven’t been listening. So, I mean, that would be the second one. So there’s the kind of get out of the way, but then it’s also listen.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And I’ve said on other panels before, I’m a student of hip hop and I’ve often said, hip hop is kind of the slave drums of our time. You know, if you listen to the music, you know where the kids are at, you know where they’re at. And so even listening to the music, understanding the mental state of where young people are at, but at the same time, the intense creativity that oftentimes doesn’t get… That oftentimes doesn’t get the elevated platform to be able to be practically engaged fostered, to be able to rethink systems, to rethink ways of being, unfortunately, what we’re seeing black youth are huge culture creators, huge. And we know this. And so right now, young people are engaging, particularly black youth, are engaging in with technology in a very consumptive way. And it’s about giving them, not even so much giving them, but like presenting opportunities where they’re…Where there’s the ability to build.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And so if we’re talking about, we’re just talking about TicTok, we’re talking about that online digital space. We cannot be surprised about the disconnected relationships that are then happening in physical space. For young people, they are one and they are the same. And we really need to, as adults, recognize this. It’s not enough to say, I don’t know about TicTok or I don’t want to be a part of it. Understand it’s shaping the relationship that the young people are having within with each other, both black and non-black, but also it’s impacting their relationship with their selves. And that’s where I would say kind of the last one, the last piece in there, what can be done is, is again creating that space for imagination and allowing that imagination to be valid and fostered.

Javier Lopez:

If there was ever a monetization of black Twitter and what black Twitter has contributed across the world and across the country, I mean, I don’t think the numbers could be, can be captured. I mean, everything to me relating to Twitter as a person of color, I know who I’m looking for. I’m the one…

Javier Lopez:

They tend to be all black leaders in different spaces. And I’m always surprised about how shocking that may be for those non white people who don’t know necessarily that exists, black Twitter what’s that? It’s been around for a decade. It’s nothing new and it’s shaped everything and support everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to Nike release states for kicks, or sneakers, depending on where your regionality is to music. And when I think about the future of young people and what is the trends emerging for them, and in my space, digital activism is without a doubt for the last five or six years grown exponentially, the level of accountability, some people call cancel culture, some people call it accountability. What trends do you see at the Ethos Lab space regarding young people and what they’re developing and what they’re talking about that the audience may not be in tune to from your day to day work?

Anthonia Ogundele:

You know what, it’s been really interesting with the young people in the lab. We mainly do talk about work. We’re kind of, we’re co creating a space together. So we mainly talk about that. But what has been a really interesting insight is that young people are actually kind of drunk off of social media right now. That’s what I’m hearing. That there is just, they’re looking for deep and meaningful relationships online and the ability to pull them offline. And it’s funny, I’m hearing also from parents that there’s just the desire for basic communication skills face to face, like being able to foster or create that. So, that’s one thing is just what we’re hearing from young people. What I’m also seeing is that the digital world environment is truly where young people are interacting. So I’ve talked about different social media platforms like TikTok, but also maybe even Instagram, but what young people have actually been moving closer towards is that space of more of a fortnight counter strike video game type environment.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And that is extremely telling when you have young people imagining a different reality for themselves in terms of a space that might model what the everyday reality looks like as well. But within this context and in talking about anti-black racism, a number of them have said they’re so happy to just even be apart of this opportunity to shape a new world, right? Like that’s just feeling like they’re a part of the beginning of something and that they’re going to be given the tools and opportunities to be able to build it. That has been extremely great. But what’s been also telling is that we do a gratitude circle that one of the black males that was in the group was like, I’m just thankful to be alive.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And so I think when we talk about innovation and also integrating technology, like there is you can’t really, you can teach a young kid how to code. You can teach or participate in these large hackathons or all of that innovation, but the mental load and trauma associated with what has happened in this time and the everyday existence in a black body is something that needs to be taken into consideration when we think about creating these different spaces and as well as introducing new innovations and having them participate in it as well.

Anthonia Ogundele:

So I’ll just give this one quick example as well. We just did a hip hop writing workshop. So we’re an organization that’s focused predominantly on again, STEM and culture, but we did a hip hop writing workshop so that young people were able to have that opportunity to write, to think about their feelings in a different way, just in this time. Is that something that would be presented at like a STEM or robotics camp, a space to decompress just on what is happening for the day. And so I think we really need to think about integrating these types of practices, especially when we begin engaging black communities, brown communities. And I’m going to say in all communities as well of youth that are currently feeling the mental stress and being pulled between these two different worlds that were, which I am, I’m now really getting into.

Javier Lopez:

I couldn’t agree with you more it’s experiencing how many times the performative ally shift, the performative engagement of young people, where they are part of something, but everything has been designed for them and decided for them. They know that, they feel that, that’s another example of trauma. That’s another example of not being valued. And by you creating that space, by giving them the space to co-create, not only does the relationship improve, but the confidence improves, their ability to participate in mediums and spaces that maybe they didn’t think that they would be welcomed, improves. And I think a lot of people who don’t work with young people just don’t get that. They really think, “Well, this is what they want because we did a market trend analysis on purchasing habits. This is what they need. These are the impressions and the retweets”.

Javier Lopez:

And there are people that, and if you don’t have a person, people centered approach that really values one self determination, what ends up occurring is you have a rollout of traumatizing products, initiatives, and programs that are ever present for the young people in our lives. And I just want to highlight that you’ve created a space as a black woman in Vancouver. You’re breaking off that, you’re breaking the patriarchy. You’re challenging white supremacy. And I am indebted to that work because I know your journey in getting there probably was seen as maybe not the most ideal for the outside world in terms of opening up your own space. So if you wanted to give a close to the young people that may be interested in starting their own company or organization, there are people of color or people from the LGBTQ community. What advice would you give that person in the audience right now?

Anthonia Ogundele:

Like a youth or you’re saying like, if I was talking to a younger self?

Javier Lopez:

Say me and you 10 years ago. And we were like, “wow, we got to do something here”. And then here you are and here I am like, what did you need to hear at that time that you figured out that maybe you can say to the audience now?

Anthonia Ogundele:

You know what, it’s unfortunate but it’s one of those, just do it, just like jump out there put your whole self out there. And you know what you’re going to get hurt. Like, know that you’re going to hear no. Know that there’s going to be these, whether it be different barriers that are put your way in terms of progressing, but I’m actually quite grounded on the close relationships that are around me. So you surround yourself with people that know who you are and that are there for your best interests.

Anthonia Ogundele:

In this time, as a lot of organizations are seeing different support from other outside organizations now realizing the gaps that are happening, it’s really, need to be very clear of your own integrity. And again, align yourself with people that are there to see you as a partner and not to see you as someone to kind of prop up or performative. And so I just want to add just one last thing. And we’ve talked about it, around the structural changes. The endeavor is that this will be a cooperative. And so as we engage with young… As we engage with cities, and as I told our chief planner here last week, you will not extract the information and put it in your planning document. We want to enter in as partners. And I mean, having the young people come in and be like, “this is our information, and we’re sharing this with you. And it’s ours”.

Javier Lopez:

That’s amazing. That’s great. That’s the way we all have to lead. I think the young people are going to hold this even more accountable. We have got to be ready, cause they ain’t playing games now. Anthonia, thank you very much. I think our time is up. I will shift to you to introduce the next panel. This is a pleasure to know you.

PART 2 OF 7 ENDS [01:06:04]

Speaker 1:

I will shift to you to introduce the next panelist. It’s a pleasure to know you, to speak with you and I hope to get to Vancouver soon.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Oh, absolutely. So good to catch up with you.

Tiffany Chu:

Take care.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Take care. Hi, Tiffany.

Tiffany Chu:

Hi Anthonia.

Anthonia Ogundele:

How are you?

Tiffany Chu:

I’m holding it together. You sound like you.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Doing pretty well. You’re out here on the west coast as well?

Tiffany Chu:

Yes. Pacific time zone, a little bit later than everyone on this call, but it’s good to be here.

Anthonia Ogundele:

It’s all good. I’m on the west coast, Vancouver as well. Here we are. I was going to do a full introduction of your bio, but I think it might actually be more fun if, Tiffany maybe you want to share three things about yourself. One that is maybe curiously fun. One that might be stiff professional, and one that maybe speaks to your forward-thinking nature.

Tiffany Chu:

Oh, okay. I like this format. So I guess fun, I don’t know if this is fun, but this is pretty fun. I guess, fundamental to who I am as a human being. I am the daughter of immigrants. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the eighties and moved to Flushing in New York. So definitely have the east coast roots. I actually grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac at a very suburban town in New Jersey called Bridgewater, really well known for our mall, and you get the picture. That actually really shaped my interest and passion for urban design and planning and transportation.

Tiffany Chu:

Then I moved to San Francisco about six and a half years ago and I guess a professional thing is I started my own company called REMIX. Did not intend to be an entrepreneur, but it was a fun prototype hackathon project that kind of fell in our laps when we were working at a nonprofit called Code For America. And then it kind of took on a life of its own and became REMIX. Being a founder has been my full time job for the last six years or so. And what was the last one?

Anthonia Ogundele:

Just maybe just speaking to your kind of forward thinking nature. Something that what do you see out there right now? What are you thinking about? What do you think about quite a bit?

Tiffany Chu:

Yeah, so I would say my emotions, as probably everybody, has wildly vacillated between extreme depression and extreme hope it literally goes like this, every single day in the span of my bedroom and me and the internet.

Tiffany Chu:

I would say right now it’s just a really rough time for everybody, but I’ve been really heartened to see all of the crazy things that are happening in transportation. There’s a lot of positive that’s coming out of it. I’m glad we have this venue to talk about it.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Awesome. Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to get into it here and ask you some of the questions that I had prepared and knowing that there are many planners probably in the audience as well, Jay [Pitter 01:09:44] offered this amazing essay called A Call To Courage that really talks about equity and planning in a very real way and some solid, actionable steps. One of the things she mentions in there is that design is not neutral and often technology. And you know, that being your space in terms of your platform that you’ve created, often technology and data is seen as neutral.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And we understand that this is not the case. Given our current context and the need to address these matters of equity, how do you address these biases in the development and updates of your platform and or how do you think it might inform how you’ll move forward in addressing product development?

Tiffany Chu:

Really insightful and timely question and one that I think about quite often. Taking a step back a little bit. For those of you who aren’t familiar REMIX is a collaborative software platform built and designed for transportation decision makers from planners to analysts, anyone who has to do with designing public transit or designing safer streets or managing their shared mobility programs like bike share, all that kind of happens in REMIX in a single platform. As a designer, I am well aware that design is never neutral. Software is never neutral.

Tiffany Chu:

Both inherently are embedded with the biases of the designer engineer, who is in charge of building it. I would say that one of the biggest areas of focus for us is actually as a company we think about because software is inherently opinionated, what are the nudges that we can provide the transportation industry through small user experience design considerations, or behavior nudges that can actually lead users to consider something like equity as a first thought, as opposed to an afterthought. One small example in our product is you can actually do a Title VI service equity analysis, which is something that’s federally mandated by the U.S. government. That’s something that’s actually pretty front and center in our product as a part of the onboarding process if you’re a U.S. transit agency, which basically says you can’t disproportionately impact disadvantaged populations, when you change different parts of your network, which is inherently kind of a data analysis question.

Tiffany Chu:

I think what that means is as technologists, we have this huge responsibility, maybe even similar levels of responsibilities to planners in the way that they prioritize what they work on and the outcomes that their projects achieve.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think that you really hit on it in terms of the nature of what REMIX does in terms of informing and providing this information to decision makers in. I’ve been in the platform. I do love the name, as I was saying before, I really love hip hop. REMIX, it has an extremely accessible user interface and makes the information just so clear, and you’ve already talked about how it integrates with federal policies, but despite this really great knowledge that is held by transit agencies, not just in the U.S. that are subject to that regulations that you’ve brought up, but 325 cities around the world, we still see instances of unequal access, to traffic deaths, to basically outcomes that don’t align with best practices despite having the data. These transit agencies have the data, why aren’t they making the decisions? What are the gaps that you’re seeing?

Tiffany Chu:

I’ll be the first to say that data by itself is never going to solve equity. I think where the gaps are, is in the priorities of how different forms of transportation is funded and where they go. Just even starting from when the highways and the Federal Highway Administration in the U.S. was formed, that was inherently in the way that they built and prioritize projects, it was inherently a racist project. A lot of the mayors who wanted highways to come in, wanted them to be running through what they had deemed blighted neighborhoods and basically kick out a lot of the black populations that were in the inner core of the city.

Tiffany Chu:

I think I would say follow the money. That’s something that software is not necessarily in a good place to try to be the savior. It is at its core, a policy issue in the way that our country, actually I think Canada does a better job at prioritizing different modes of sustainable transportation and giving the money to transit agencies that need it, when compared to the U.S. But I would say that data is one piece of the puzzle and maybe a part of kind of the narrative storytelling that agencies can do better at, in order to get more funding, but in the allocation of resources, that is I think the underpinning of sound transportation planning decisions, and data can help, but we can’t, it’s not going to ever do the whole thing.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yeah. Well, I think I’m just going to kind of riff off of that question as well. It’s like, okay, so if the data and decisions are in the hands of these transit agencies, do you maybe foresee a use case for REMIX to be in the hands of the people, of just general everyday folks in a way of supporting advocacy and lobbying for these transit decisions as well?

Tiffany Chu:

I love that question because it touches on, I think one of the areas that we really believe in at REMIX, which is kind of democratizing access to tools, and I think there’s a lot of barriers to even knowing as a resident how to communicate with your government. And now, it’s even harder with like, or maybe even easier with all the digital public meetings that are happening. I would say one of my favorite examples of REMIX is when the planners have actually brought REMIX out to public workshops, as a way to kind of peel back the layers and open up the black box where planning happens and engineering and stuff happens [crosstalk 01:17:23]. In Department of Public Works or et cetera, and actually giving the chance for folks to respond and react and maybe even iterate and try out themselves what a different bike lane configuration could look like or the higher frequency of a bus route.

Tiffany Chu:

I really believe that, that is maybe where the power of software and tools do come into play is really lowering that barrier to entry for participation and not just kind of boxing up the profession of planning into people who have the title of planner.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Yep, absolutely. And I see that, it’s funny, you kind of see it even just as a young person playing with like a bus or those toys, they’ve already kind of gone outside the bounds of what planning is, but they’re already thinking about it. They think about it all the time, and specifically even working with young people as well, how they get to school, these are things they think about all the time. It means freedom in many ways, these transit agencies and transit systems. I’m going to take kind of a dial it back to kind of how you’re positioned and where you are in, in terms of you launching and starting up this business a number of years ago.

Anthonia Ogundele:

And it’s so interesting, your story about it being kind of a hackathon, kind of a big project that who knew it would be what it is. I think it’s absolutely, I think it’s awesome. But Silicon Valley is known to have a very distinct approach to spinning up and starting businesses and solving problems. And there are accusations, and in fact, examples of how these methods have been quite damaging in terms of impact in social cohesion to omitting and truly interrogating the matters around racial bias and equity. I’m really interested to hear kind of the evolution of your approach. I’d love to hear how it’s kind of started and maybe kind of what your ethos was at that time and the thought around it, and maybe how it’s evolved now to reflect what REMIX is today.

Tiffany Chu:

I would say, I have found myself in this place where I occupy two very different worlds simultaneously. One of them is technology and Silicon Valley and everything that comes along with that. That’s actually a newer industry to me than urban planning, which is kind of what I studied and what I wanted to do. It’s been difficult, honestly, for me to kind of bridge the gap in language, and of course, language, words define our reality. When I speak with someone from the tech world like an investor or other founders, I have to use like startup-y language to connect with them and explain to them where we are in our trajectory and our milestones and our growth curve and all that. Then I have to completely use a different vocabulary when I talk to our customers and our clients and people who are actually doing the groundwork of improving transportation.

Tiffany Chu:

It is a little bit jarring for me to try to kind of marry those two worlds. In a way I do think that the team and the culture and the values that we’ve built on our team kind of reflect what I hope to be the good parts of both of those worlds. We had just actually a visioning exercise at REMIX recently, like why do we exist? What world do we want to see enabled? I think for my team and I work with about 60 folks, half of them are transportation and planning practitioners from local government and et cetera. And then half of them are software engineers and product designers. But what both of those sides do have in common is a desire to achieve a more equitable world by expanding access within it and believing that access to better tools and data enable cities to push for better transportation infrastructure, which then obviously accelerates a more sustainable resilient future.

Tiffany Chu:

We’ve been really excited to see, and we’re really leaning into what our customers are teaching us, especially during COVID, we’ve been so amazed to see all of these cities, city of Seattle, Cambridge, Somerville, New Orleans, Oakland, kind of leaning into projects and accelerating them in a way that provides more access to more people. And I think that’s kind of the core of the work that we do. Then at the same time, we want to be able to enable kind of a community surrounding us that may be more tech people because we’re in San Francisco. We actually have a Women in Urbanism series where my team set this rule where 50% or more of the speakers must be people of color and we want to elevate those voices. It is really infused I think, into the world that I have found to inhabit in that Venn diagram.

Tiffany Chu:

I do hope to see Silicon Valley kind of realize that software is only a means to an end and you have to have a really strong perspective about what you want the end to be if you’re trying to make a positive impact on the world.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Wow. That’s amazing. I was going to kind of interject and figure out, answer that question, in startup world, they talk about culture eats strategy for breakfast. And it seems that you have really ingrained it into everything that you do within your organization. We have about three minutes left here and I’m really interested in kind of where do you see kind of more of the future. I’m going to ask maybe a two part question here on, are there any kind of transportation planning problems that you’re actually surprised we don’t have a technical solution for? And so maybe that’s presenting an opportunity for the people that are watching to maybe dig into.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Then I’d go into the second one, and now where do we go from here? Where do we go from understanding our current context and what’s happening now? As organizations are looking to deeper embed, and actually it’s a necessity to embed these anti-racist practices in terms of technological development and also just organizational operations. Where do you see, where do we go from here? Maybe ideas around tech problems that someone should really try and figure out. And then where do we go from here?

Tiffany Chu:

In terms of problems, I would say a very human problem that I’m not sure if it will ever have a technical solution, but maybe someone can work on it is, I think in all the projects that we’ve worked with, with our customers, every single customer has an issue with silos in their organization. So you got planners over here, you got DPW over here, transit over here, mayor’s office over here, I’m a commissioner on the environment department, they have their own transportation initiatives. And maybe there’s something around breaking down silos or barriers that could really enable the public sector to move forward faster.

Tiffany Chu:

Then to your next question, where do we go from here? I would say that COVID has really completely upended the jobs of people who work in transportation mobility. We’ve been so shocked to see just the number of new scenarios that planners and agencies literally across our 300 plus city portfolio, just the amount of planning that’s happening for all different possible scenarios of COVID is probably four to 10 times more than the amount of planning and the types of planning that we had to do prior. Prior it was like, “Oh, you got to plan for your five year plan or your 10 year long range planning. You put it on a PDF on the shelf or in the online folder.” Then it kind of sits there. Now planning is just moving so much faster, you got the quick build projects, you’ve got bike lanes in Europe being accelerated like 10 years faster than what they had been budgeted for.

Tiffany Chu:

It’s just kind of craziness. If anything, I think we’re going to see a much faster acceleration of the planning profession and the industry and how transportation is, well I hope, stuff that typically would have been planned in decades, hopefully maybe could be planned in a couple of months, obviously with the appropriate amount of community outreach that needs to happen. I think with more iterative projects instead of like, “Oh, this is the end all be all. It’s never going to change after this.” You can also have the opportunity for iterative public engagement too. I think there’s a whole slew of crazy outcomes that the industry is grappling with. I think we’ll lean on our creativity to see it play out in the best possible way.

Anthonia Ogundele:

Thank you so much. I would love to talk so much longer with you, but it’s time for us to transition to Maya who’s coming in to be interviewed and to have that conversation. Nice to chat with you, Tiffany.

Tiffany Chu:

See you soon, Anthonia.

Maya Ben Dror:

Hey Tiffany.

Tiffany Chu:

Welcome Maya. How are you? I think we lost your audio. I think we hear you a little bit. You want to try? We heard you for a second. Can you try again?

Maya Ben Dror:

Can you hear me now?

Tiffany Chu:

It’s a little better.

Maya Ben Dror:

It’s a little better?

Tiffany Chu:

Yes, yes. Okay. Let’s try this. I’m very excited to be in a conversation with Maya. I actually learned recently that Maya and her background has also intersected with REMIX’s world in the past through some of the mobility projects that we’ve been working on. I actually want to ask you first, Maya, what is it that gets you up in the morning?

Maya Ben Dror:

Can you hear me better now?

Tiffany Chu:

Oh, that’s way better. Oh Maya, I think we lost you again. No.

Maya Ben Dror:

Can you hear me now?

Tiffany Chu:

Yes.

Maya Ben Dror:

Yes. Great. I’m trying for multiple devices. Thank you so much for that intro, and yeah we have intersected well through my work at The Forum. If I were to capture that a bit and speak to that for the sake of those that are not familiar with The Forum and what it does. The Forum is a platform for private public partnerships that is steered towards shaping a better world.

Maya Ben Dror:

In the context of mobility, I work as part of a team that has its arms in New York, in Geneva, in San Francisco, in China and in Japan. We’re trying to shape a better mobility future and we’re looking at safety in mobility, sustainability or environmental impacts of our mobility systems or ecosystems I should say, and societal issues and inclusivity and equity.

Tiffany Chu:

That is covering a lot of ground. Maya, can you share a little bit about your personal journey and how you ended up at The World Economic Forum?

Maya Ben Dror:

Yes. Well, I’m half Israeli and half Finnish. So I’m myself sort of a blurb of two worlds colliding if one were to describe that. I started my journey with the public sector and I was working on clean tech and the clean tech era, and it was based out of China on and off.

Maya Ben Dror:

This is how I know one of the other speakers here, Dror. We lived in China in similar times in our rich China past. And I then at some point decided that I would shift to the private sector and worked for a few startups. One of which is Better Place that was conceived at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos to enable mass production or mass electrification interoperability system. It was back then the most invested start-up in the world, but went bankrupt as we might some of us know. And then shifted to the third sector, feeling that electrification is ahead of us. We still have a lot of work to do. And there are many gaps between what the public sector can do and the private sector can do. And then third sector seemed like a good approach.

Maya Ben Dror:

I moved back to China after exiting Europe and in the U.S. feeling that given its enormous impact on our mobility systems, because it has become the world’s largest manufacturer and market for vehicles in 2009, pretty clear that that is going to be a shaper for many of these emerging markets that are going to have enormous footprints on the state of the world, given that mobility is about a third, between a quarter and a third of emissions, depending on if you’re looking at global or local. And that’s how I arrived at The Forum.

Tiffany Chu:

I think what is fascinating about your background and your experience kind of sitting in between the private and public sectors, as well as at a global scale, you’re probably seeing trends around the world that many of us don’t on a day to day basis.

Tiffany Chu:

I guess I’ll start with a pretty big question top of funnel, and then maybe we’ll narrow down as we get into it. One of the top of mind areas that I’ve been noodling on, partially because it also affects me and my business at REMIX. Everyone’s wondering, what is the role of government in helping us get out of this crisis right now? And specifically, what is the role of government in helping us get out of this crisis and move towards a sustainable mobility future? Are there any examples that you can share that you’ve seen already, that you think are very promising that the audience can learn from?

Maya Ben Dror:

Yeah. There are two, I guess there are two ways by which I want to address your question. The first is speaking from my role at The Forum. I think we’re noticing now more than ever, and I think that you’ve mentioned that as well in your conversation, that local governments are playing a crucial role today, as they’re deciding on how to funnel recovery funds and even their reactions to the crisis, to the multiple crises actually that we’re facing, have really opened our eyes to the various opportunities out there. Voters are now exposed to ample opportunities that perhaps we’re not exposed to before. Government can enable that through introduction of open streets through the repurpose in carb and so on. So that’s one approach.

Maya Ben Dror:

But on the regional and national level, government now, as in any huge crisis, have an opportunity to decide on how much funding and whether or not funding would be contingent upon meeting particular requirements. We have been looking at whether or not these recovery funds proposed by the European commission, by the federal government, and by the Chinese government, for example, are going to be looking at electrification or clean technologies as means towards improving the state of mobility going forward, be it in the air, be it on the ground and be it in the ocean.

Maya Ben Dror:

We’re very excited to see that some countries have actually been very sensitive towards that. And I’ve seen an opportunity in rethinking their way that they distribute their subsidies and funds. For example, China has postponed the phasing out of subsidy for electric vehicles by two years, which was major news for the industry. We already have seen the numbers of vehicle sales, electric vehicle sales in China, go way up already in April. This was promising and all eyes really were on China at that point in time, even though we might not be representative of other markets, it does have a footprint because of it’s production power, and because if it’s multiple joint ventures from large auto manufacturers from around the world, we’ve also seen…

Tiffany Chu:

Can I ask you a quick question about that? So for the electric vehicles, the purchasing trends are going up. Were those, if you happen to know, people who would not have even bought a car before COVID? Or are these people who were going to buy a car and they chose electric?

Maya Ben Dror:

It’s an excellent question and I would say China, again, is not representative of other countries. Whereas the ratio of people owning a car per 1,000 people would be about 175 in China for 1,000, in the U.S. it’s over 800 for 1,000 people, in Europe it’s around 500, 450 per 1,000. Then China is an emerging country in that sense, which means that most vehicle buyers are new car buyers. And there are over 200 million cars, new cars, bought in China every year. So the fleet is growing tremendously. That increase we’ve been expecting to see anyways. The question I think would be, are electric vehicle sales higher than internal combustion engine vehicle scales, and if we were to compare it with a business as usual, if there was that situation, then how would that look like? We’re comparing to the former year and we’re seeing a good recovery.

Maya Ben Dror:

One of the notes that we’ve been hearing from the business sector is that since a lot of electric vehicle manufacturers are also being very noble and very bold in the way they’re selling their vehicles. They’re putting a lot of emphasis on services, on contact less experiences, online experiences, they’re tapping into a market that is so ripe that they might be seeing a greater recovery than other markets. But even without that, there’s just so much push from the national government for electric vehicles. And so many new cars have been introduced to the market just a year ago, so that we’re looking at 2020 as the year in which they can actually seize ground. And the battle for market share is still in existence, which is a great push as well. But those are very local conditions, I guess.

Tiffany Chu:

Yeah.

Maya Ben Dror:

Maybe to sort of go a step backwards and say, electrification is one means by which we can achieve a better environmental footprint, but actually bio safety and safety in general, equity in mobility system. Also, depends on our ability to share modes and to swap between modes and to enable and mold multi-modal ecosystem. And those are still under a huge challenge. We are seeing efforts and we will see more efforts of different providers. We see partnerships between micro mobility companies and shared mobility and fleet operators and lease companies and transit agencies and cities that have come together doing COVID. We’ve had one pilot project called We All Move that has tried to foster that even further, whether or not that will continue still remains a question mark, and whether or not people would feel comfortable sharing a mode of vehicle no matter the size or sharing a ride…

PART 3 OF 7 ENDS [01:39:04]

Maya Ben Dror:

The vehicle, when nobody decides or sharing a ride. It still pens and waits for governments to act and for the industry to engage in conversation and align on standards, I guess.

Tiffany Chu:

So, one thing that I mentioned in my previous conversation with Antonio, was the speed at which cities are reacting and trying out new things and experimenting. And it turns out that your thesis work was actually about short feedback loops in the way that we introduce new policies to implement, enforce, and learn. Can you share any relevant takeaways from your thesis that you think may have unique applicability to our world during this time? Oh, Maya, we just lost you again. Do you want to try-

Maya Ben Dror:

Oh, yeah. I think I muted.

Tiffany Chu:

Oh, perfect.

Maya Ben Dror:

[inaudible 01:40:00] Muted [inaudible 01:40:00] myself. Yeah. So thank you for asking about my thesis. I think that a lot of research have proven right. I think that we’re all sort of researchers and as you noted policy makers, those that have dropped to plans that have to show those plans, are now taking those out and say, “you see, this is valid. This can be implemented quickly sustainable.” So for my specific research thesis there was on tocology transition theory that try to look at the role of government, back to your former question. The role of government in transitions. And I… And one of the observations that I’ve made in my thesis that was looking into the role of social media based data in our transportation planning. I should say, low carbon transportation planning. And that was the focus in it.

Maya Ben Dror:

And in a case study in China showed that, actually there is so much collaboration going on the ground that, where policymakers are extracting information that is valuable from app providers wrote optimization apps from right healing companies and so on and through partnerships that really enabled them to improve the way they manage their streets without compromising on privacy. And that’s arguable. And I think that one of the notions that were made in theory, which is, policymakers do not treat technologies or innovation in a silo and wait for innovation to show its value to the market before it comes about, but rather get dirty, get in it, protect innovations that seem to bring a promise for a better future that can solve problems, even if the business case is not in existence just yet. And that’s through that policy encouragement through regulations that create a market through protections for innovations or injecting grants and funding to innovations.

Maya Ben Dror:

We can actually bring about that future closer than what it would have otherwise be. So, policy can do a lot. Policymakers should, can, and are doing more in recent years and should continue to do so. And that’s how through these partnerships and through these thinking from, growing innovations or what I call innofusion, because you innovate, then you infuse and technology might change on the ground, the way you implement it. And then, work together with these innovators to make sure that they… That the implementation of these technologies is beneficial. And I would give one example in closing, Uber. When Uber was introduced in China, in the city of Chengdu, 2014. When it introduced… Sorry, 15, when it introduced the pool function. The first thing that happened to me, was I was reserving a ride, I was supposed to get a second rider.

Maya Ben Dror:

I was super excited. Was the first pool ride that I ever have… Could have taken. But the car was empty. There was just the driver, and I asked, where is the first rider? And he said, “in the back of the car. In the trunk.” And I was pretty shocked.

Tiffany Chu:

What!

Maya Ben Dror:

And he said, “it’s a package.” And then I realized the impact of innovation without regulation or the impact of our creativity. We are very creative humans. And once we have an opportunity and innovation meant to serve X, might serve X, Y, and Z. And we just have to keep an eye for that. And this again, enhances the need to work collaboratively and through short loops.

Tiffany Chu:

So the first driver was trying to just get like a… An object to a destination as opposed to him or her or themselves. And-

Maya Ben Dror:

Yeah, it was cheap. It was quick and it was accountable.

Tiffany Chu:

That speaks to a lot of the blurred lines now, between a lot of the ride hailing companies looking to delivery as their kind of savior during this time of COVID when human don’t want to travel next to each other, but packages can, and that’s safe and that’s okay. And maybe that’s where the next billion dollars is going to come from.

Maya Ben Dror:

I have to respond to that and say, we’ve also seen buses in Wuhan, at the heart of the crisis there, delivering goods. So-

Tiffany Chu:

Really!

Maya Ben Dror:

[crosstalk 01:44:26] Goods. Yes. So I would just recommend that we just remove the barrier between public and private. I think that this is a 20th century terminology that speaks to our role that could not quantify a lot of the externalities of mobility. And now that we know, the public funds are actually funding a lot of our private vehicle activities through infrastructure, through air quality, through safety and so on. Then maybe if you would remove that language, and we just talk about mobility as a service.

Maya Ben Dror:

And then, collaborations should continue. There is no one solution. We know that there’s the backbone, which is probably active mass micro mobility, but then there are also… There is also a need for more tailored mobility options. And the more we have, the more likely we are to shift away from single occupancy vehicles.

Tiffany Chu:

That is novel. If you remove the words, public and private, I feel like a lot of people won’t know what words to use. Like what words would you recommend that we use if we’re trying to bring down the barrier between public and private?

Maya Ben Dror:

So, mobility service and most likely it’s a partnership between the two and we see VIA, and we see Moovit, and we see Zillow. We see so many companies that are partnering. So there is the company that sometimes it’s a white label, and then it’s a transit operator, be it a private one, be it a public one that is providing the end services. But actually, it’s a partnership between a few. And I don’t think we should expect the public sector to be able to deliver products that the private sector is currently delivering for. And I think that when it comes to market, we should blur these lines because they are already blurred and we should encourage multi-modality and transportation demand management as a best practice.

Tiffany Chu:

Amen. Well, thank you so much, Maya, for sharing your insights on this very broad topic, and I’m going to leave you to the next session.

Maya Ben Dror:

Thank you so much Tiffany.

Tiffany Chu:

See you soon.

Maya Ben Dror:

See you soon. Hey James.

James Mirras:

Hey Maya, how are ya?

Maya Ben Dror:

Good. So nice speaking to you. You’re dialing in from Florida, correct?

James Mirras:

I’m actually in New York.

Maya Ben Dror:

You’re in New York now. Okay. So I would have to actually start by saying James, there aren’t that many people that I know that had a dream, that wanted to do something good, and they started doing it and they kept on doing it, and actually make it made a living out of it. And I don’t know many entrepreneurs that were able to be successful in the first shot. So, I’d love to hear from you. What is your narrative? What is your story?

James Mirras:

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. You might be giving me too much credit there. But no, I appreciate it. Here at Circuit, we actually launched out of a hometown problem. My co founder, Alex Esposito and I grew up in a town called East Hampton, New York. We had a big tourist influx during the summer season, and that led to a parking issue that then led to a congestion issue. Then that leads to a pollution issue and just becomes kind of a mess. And at the same time, there was two large under utilized parking lots nearby. There were just a mile and a half away from where people want it to be. So nobody parked in them. And our idea was, “how do we get people to bridge that gap?” And we actually launched the service saying, “let’s use electric cars to cut out the cost of fuel. A smaller capacity vehicle’s better than putting another large capacity bus on the road for that short distance. And let’s get advertisers to pay for it, use their dollars for… To create a service that people need. And that helps the community.”

James Mirras:

What we didn’t realize at the time was that as we expanded that model, this is a problem faced everywhere. I don’t know if we’ve come across a place that hasn’t needed some additional help on that zero to one, zero to two mile gap. And what we kind of transitioned as we realized the product that we did have in the market, was to really focus on the transit and be a true transit operator. So launching those systems, working with cities with… Through city contracts, through tourism contracts, through private developers and multiple different funding angles to expand that concept and really focus on urban mobility and doing it by… With fully electric vehicles.

Maya Ben Dror:

What I’m hearing is really a great example of what Tiffany was just asking. How are we going to collapse at private and public and use sort of setting up and providing a service that you call transit as a public… As a private company originally. It’s just an indication of how that might be suc… How that this is successful. And you’ve been around for a decade.

James Mirras:

Yeah, yeah. It’s hard to believe at this point, but yeah. No, that’s exactly right. And our… As being on the private side, we do face and we work with public agencies through public private partnerships. And even when we’re not, through that direct private… Public, private partnership, we do work hand in hand with the cities that we’re in. Even if it’s privately funded, we want to be there for the city to compliment everything else that the city is trying to do as well as existing transit.

James Mirras:

So really, working hand in hand. I kind of agree with what you were saying, where there shouldn’t be that distinction necessarily. Where we consider ourselves part of the public transit system, even though we might not be, or might not officially be in every market. So, I loved hearing that. And that’s a big thing that I think kind of goes hand in hand. And with the topic today of reimagining the streets is, how do we do that? Our speed to market is what we want. We can make an impact now and we have been, but we can… We have a solution that’s in place ready to roll. It’s really, how do we get that into more markets and make a bigger impact.

Maya Ben Dror:

And how to, brings us to the notion of financing. You mentioned that you were looking at advertising. I think that’s a very novel approach to rely on advertising to maintain your business. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

James Mirras:

Yeah. And I think with that… And the big thing to know, advertising’s been a great source of funding the service. It’s provided a ton of rides and then probably a few million rides around the country. But what we realized is, as we are expanding and working with more public agencies, transit agencies was, advertising alone can’t meet the level of service that the community and the public needs. It’s a great supplement and a great revenue source to help with the total cost of the system. But what we realized, and this is actually when we first realized it in the city of San Diego, we launched there privately through advertising funding and they said, “we love what you’re doing. Why don’t you have 30 cars?” And we said, “well, we don’t have 30 advertisers.” So, that started the conversation on, how do we get the level of service that the community needs. And some of that is mixing different sources of revenue.

James Mirras:

So the advertising has been great. It’s still great. We have a great product and still something we focus on. And what it can do is reduce the net cost of the service to either a public agency or private. And really, the systems built around the flexibility in both what we’re doing, the vehicles we’re using, how we’re doing it, but also in how it’s funded. So, having different partners there, I think is the key. What we’ve realized with urban mobility, especially in that zero to two mile is, we are… There’s multiple groups that have different needs within that same zone. And it shouldn’t be necessarily one person’s job to pay for all of that, if that’s possible to get to. So, our job and what we like to do is bring in those different sources of funding and revenue to make the whole system work better for everybody.

Maya Ben Dror:

And I think it’s amazing that you’re able to think so creatively and to think about different sources of funding. Given that you’re basically talking about a two mile gap. You’re talking about this last mile, these dense urban areas, these areas where you might be servicing tourists, you might be servicing those that are just parked their car and want to get into a central zone. Tell me a bit more about this two mile gap and how do you ensure that you’re complimentary to other services?

James Mirras:

Yeah, it’s a great question. Because that’s… From our core product, we’re focused on that. And that’s because we do think it’s kind of the linchpin to the rest of the transit system. If you can use mass transit or… And if you can’t get to, or from a station, you might be less inclined to use it. If you are at your apartment building and the grocery store is a mile and a half away, you could take a bike, you could walk, but if you don’t want to, the best… Next best option for those shorter trips is an on demand type of service. The problem with that is if you’re just getting in somebody else’s personal vehicle, it does pose problems. But although that’s a great option for many trips that last… First and last mile is tough.

James Mirras:

So, the focus on there is really to alleviate and make a convenient option for people to choose the best option. Whether that’s ourselves, mass transit, using a bike, but really focusing on that, I think opens up the other forms of transit and focuses them where they do best. Our system isn’t designed to move tens of thousands of people, 10 miles in and out of a city. But with that, if we can open up and make more efficiency within that zero to two miles, there’s more resources to… For those services to do what they do best.

Maya Ben Dror:

So your vehicle is really purpose built and it’s of sort of a medium size, a shuttle size. If I was to describe it in my words. And that is shared and is electric. And just these two on their own are a great approach. And I think we should all be appreciative of that opportunity to replace other more polluting modes and less equitable modes in a shared and electric mode, already a decade ago. So that’s like thumbs up. And research to show that if we combined shared electric and autonomous, we can actually triple emission reduction by 2050, we can actually arrive at 2050 with 0.5 billion cars instead of two million cars. So you’re helping us, putting us on path. If you were just to describe how you view automation, because your business seems to be right on track.

James Mirras:

Yeah. No, and I hope we’re on that path and then hope we’re helping because that’s the goal. And I think the great thing is, what we’re doing now is what we see autonomous vehicles and services mimicking in terms of urban mobility, a larger fleet of smaller capacity vehicles that are fully electric, fully shared. Can adapt by the hour of the day on how they’re serving, what they’re serving, who they’re moving or what they’re moving. And that’s exactly what we’re doing now. So I think from our perspective, we can’t wait for autonomous, when it’s ready. I think that’s in the future. If that’s best that then… If we can get there, I think we’ll be the first adapters of it. And we’ve been talking with a lot of AV companies about kind of being a go to market partner for them using our existing operations while they kind of scale up and wait for policy to come in place along with the technology.

James Mirras:

Unfortunately as much as I… We would probably appreciate the autonomous vehicle market more than anybody. I don’t think it’s right around the corner just yet on full scale and urban environments. However, we can start to work that technology into our systems for certain portions of service. So, from our perspective it’s… I think it’s going to be a great thing. Are about… Candidly about 70% of our cost goes to jobs for drivers. So as much as we love that aspect of it, obviously looking at reduced budgets and the good of the community as a whole and less public dollars needed, and still creating plenty of jobs with autonomous. I think it’s going to be a great thing when it’s ready, but in the meantime, I think we have a product that can fit well and help that product get to market. And that’s kind of our view on autonomous.

Maya Ben Dror:

Great. Great Perspectives. Obviously we see a lot of designs that have just been introduced over the past months that are very similar to the design that you have, sort of the bi-directional, sort of shared vehicle. And you specifically are also looking at how people can get in and out of the vehicle without needing to cross right next to each other too much. Can you talk a bit about that? I don’t know how you came across with that design, but that’s the design that you have, and it seems to be like the best design in days like these.

James Mirras:

Yeah. The vehicle we use primarily in most of our markets, we do have different types, is a six seat electric vehicle. It looks like a big golf cart. Really. We’d like to call it a small shuttle, but it’s six seats, three rows of two passengers with the driver in the front. Everybody has their own door. So what we realized is, when we started with the vehicle, was really the only well produced and distributed EV vehicle for our needs, with that amount of seats. And with that different look where it does stand out from the rest of the vehicles on the road, you know what it is. So it was really… Wasn’t really a choice on our part. It was the only option. But what we’ve saw over the years is that, it’s a huge driver of demand.

James Mirras:

When we talk to cities and other groups, the biggest equation, right. Is cost per rider. How many people can we move for the least amount of money? And when we look at that vehicle, not only reducing cost being electric and from the private side, but also how do we increase ridership and demand and create part of that. It starts with the vehicle and the experience. So we’re heavily focused on the experience it provides from the vehicle perspective, it is able to be open to air, you have your own window, you have your own seat. You also have your own door to get in and out of. So even pre-COVID, which we can get into in a bit. But pre-COVID, it had that same value. People like getting in. You didn’t have to climb over anybody and not to say that’s bad, but it was a way that… We saw a lot of people appreciating the service for that, which honestly, when we first deci… Pick the vehicle, that wasn’t the intention.

Maya Ben Dror:

Well, lucky you. Yeah. Some things are just a matter of luck, I guess. But now looking at outside of the vehicle, how do you think… How would you suggest that cities would enable your service to be even more widely accepted by people? What would you expect of the curb design, the loading zones, the infrastructure around it. What are the suggestions that you would make for a city that is prepared to introduce that type of service?

James Mirras:

Yeah. And I think that’s a great question. I think as we go… Because we’re in the in between the fixed route and fully on demand and we kind of offer all those services in between. But as you look at the city itself, I think our big focus is to keep infrastructure needs light. That capital expenditure, as much as we can avoid that for the cost, the impact, the timeline. That’s best. However, there are issues in every city we’re in with loading zones. Where are we allowed to pull over? Where is it safe for boarding? Where is it safe to load up a wheelchair into one of our ADA cars? So I think from an infrastructure perspective, I would love to see high level vision, less vehicles on the road, personal vehicles that is. More shared use, more EV, micro mobility and those types.

James Mirras:

But along with that, I think what’s exciting is the ability and that we do see a lot of cities kind of relooking at their streets, even the way they are. So around curb space and curb management and things of that nature, because bike lanes, it is something that we deal with in every city and being a service operator that is from an infrastructure perspective, we want to make sure we have that access accessible for services like ours and others. So it’s a seamless experience for the community, but also without having to invest in a ton of infrastructure and fixed stops and… So enough way finding to get people to where they need to be, but also more on the safety and designated curb space, I think is the biggest thing on our end that would definitely be, not only help us get a few less tickets, but also help the experience from the passenger.

Maya Ben Dror:

And this really brings me to the next question, which is very much COVID related again, we see as Tiffany has noted before in her conversation, we see more and more cities, dedicating space for micro mobility and active mobility, pedestrian and putting restaurants on the streets, enabling pickup zones. And we’ll hear from Stephen in a bit about how that is managed from the curb angle. But as you think about, when you think about those structures, these complex… Added complexity to the streets. What are the type of recommendations that you would make? Would you say that there is in need for the industry to come together and come up with standards, with guidelines. Engage in a conversation with the city to be able to manage the multiple modes, many vulnerable modes on the road to enable the scaling of that phenomenon. As I understand, this is a positive phenomenon in your view as well.

James Mirras:

Yeah. Yeah. I do. It’s tough because we… What we’ve seen and we know is that, every city is different, every town is different, whether it’s geography, the community, the group, what the needs are, everything’s different. And so, it’s tough to say that there should be… Maybe it’s from the private side, there should be one set of standard guidelines, but I don’t think you’re getting at that. I think having some standard or some case study and con… I think opening the conversations, the biggest thing. Because a lot of the groups doing some of the innovation, some of the… They are open to working with others. They know… We know our solution, it’s just one mode of the network and it’ll always be multimodal. And we need to work with others and we need to compliment others to make sure that our product stays there.

James Mirras:

So I think opening the conversations first, I think we… I have seen more willingness and conversation from cities and… But cities is a broad term from different groups within any city. So I think that conversation is opening up. I think my concern and our focus is, how do we make these changes that we’re able to make now without waiting too long to figure out what’s exactly right. Let’s test something, get feedback, figure out how it works. But, also our system is built on flexibility for that reason. So we can take that feedback in and make quick changes. So, I think that’s going to be the key as well as being that risk appetite, if you would call it that. But knowing that we can mitigate some of that risk with flexibility and being able to adapt, but let’s get some things on the ground and get things moving and see how the community.

James Mirras:

Because the ultimate goal of this is to make the city a better place to live and communities to have a better livable city and livable streets. So, I think making an impact now is more important than anything, in my opinion. And we have the tools as you alluded to before. We have the tools to do it now.

Maya Ben Dror:

That’s awesome. I think we’re at time and with that I would say, we should all work together, we should work collaboratively and we should not wait. Time is now and I think that there’s no better time than a time of crisis for us to move faster, to open up to new ideas and to partner. So I’m leaving this to you, James, and our next speaker.

James Mirras:

Thank You Maya.

Maya Ben Dror:

Thank you for sharing.

James Mirras:

All right. Stephen Smyth, thank you for joining. Is founder and CEO of Coord. How’s it going today Stephen?

Stephen Smyth:

Doing well James. Thank you.

James Mirras:

Awesome. And thanks for joining obviously, and thanks for the conversation. It might’ve been a better segue than I imagined from the previous conversation, talking about making an impact and starting the conversation on how we’re going to reimagine our streets. Look at curb. I think Coord lines up pretty well with that. So if you don’t mind, I think first and foremost, a little more background on Coord and what you guys… Where it came about from experience and why you started it. And then from there what… A little more into what you guys do.

Stephen Smyth:

Absolutely. Thank you. Yeah. So we started over four years ago. We actually spun out as… We started as a project with an Alphabet Sidewalk Labs. And we’re focused 100% on curbs. So very much on point in terms of topic. And sort of to step back for a second. Our bigger mission is really to help cities manage their streets in general. And what we quickly realized that curbs alone is a massive undertaking, which will keep us busy for many, many years, hopefully. So that’s what we do. So we help cities specifically to inventory, allocate, price and operate their curbs digitally. And you might ask why. And if you just look at the macro trends of… Basically cities need to support more people, whether residents, commuters, visitors, et cetera. And they are basically a fixed amount of space.

Stephen Smyth:

And so, the simple idea is let’s use technology to help with space allocation, right? And so, what we quickly realized that, the curb space is kind of just sitting there, at least was often overlooked, I would say. And basically not digitized at all. And we saw an opportunity to help cities manage that space better. Space that they already own and operate. A lot of exciting opportunities in the city space. And the urban tech space require significant changes and regulation. That is not true for curbs by a merge. So it’s… We’re tremendously excited to help cities to innovate in that dimension. And clearly the… What’s been going on in the past few months has really shone a light on that. And so I’m delighted to be here to share a little bit more and discuss some of those happenings.

James Mirras:

Yeah. And call me biased. But I couldn’t agree more. I think that curb management is where it starts. We are going to need modes of transit, their freight and deliveries do need to be made. So how do we do that while still looking at the street and how to change it and reimagining it? So, I couldn’t agree more. And I think right now I… From my view and being in a city or just walking around different cities, I think most of us would agree that, what… How we see the curb is for a place to park your car, your personal vehicle.

James Mirras:

I guess… I think we’re all kind of seeing that might not be the road ahead and we don’t want it to, we [inaudible 00:29:48]. Personally, I hope there’s less of them on the road to park. But interested on your take on that personal vehicle, I would assume much of the curb space relatively is designed right now for the private vehicle. I’m interested in your take on that shift and what it will be for in the future, what we’re hoping it… Or what’s more beneficial for it to be for.

Stephen Smyth:

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s… Most people certainly grown up thinking of the curb space that way. I know I did. But I think it’s worth noting that cars are not going to disappear. And indeed, while car sales have flatlined, they’re flatlined at a massive number. So the way that the global car park is it’s called. The number of vehicles in the world is essen… I believe there’s… I want to say world economic forum research. But basically it’s anticipated to double in the next 20 years. So cars are with us, whether we like it or not. And so… But I do think that, that’s… That is very much what most people think of curbs for. And we have a slightly different vision, as you might imagine. And so we don’t think it’s water and oil. It’s cars are going to be here.

Stephen Smyth:

They are a valid mode of transportation for certain use cases, so to speak. But we believe that there’s also a, what I’ll call a shared use curb, which will be increasingly necessary and a tool that cities need in their tool kit. Again, as they need to support more people per unit time, per units… Per unit length of curb, if you want to think of it that way. And so that’s something that we’re endeavoring to bring into the world. So to give cities that ability to… Instead of a curb which is 20 cars parked, metered or not. Imagine a curb space where there’s a bike or a scooter dock. There is a loading zone for commercial loading. Obviously we’ve seen commercial loading take off. It was already growing rapidly, but step function growing because of COVID. And then also pick up and drop off areas, PUDOs as they say in the trade.

Stephen Smyth:

And so if you kind of imagine all of those different curb uses, none of which is parking your car. They serve… We’ve run the numbers and they can serve seven times more people in the same length of curb, same time of day, that kind of thing. Per day, I should say. And actually also interestingly, generate more revenue for a city, which I think is a really important point. So it’s… There’s this assumption that it’s kind of a trade off to support more people. The city loses parking revenue, and that’s not true. And it makes sense because there’s economic value being created by serving more people I think is hopefully intuitive. And so we very much want to help cities to A, realize that at kind of the nuts and bolts level and a given block face at a given time. And B, actually not just reimagine that curb, but we implement that curb in a way that A, serves more people and B, can generate more revenue, which can after all be then reinvested. And this is something that-

PART 4 OF 7 ENDS [02:12:04]

Stephen Smyth:

Can generate more revenue, which can after all be then reinvested. And this is something that’s actually often done with parking fees already, reinvested back into transportation in a given area. And I know that your service actually relies on that kind of funding. And so that’s, I think, a great example of using curb access fees, if you want to put it that way, to actually reinvest in different transportation modes that may be more useful to different groups than a private passenger vehicle.

James Mirras:

Yeah. No, and that’s, again, I’m not going to argue that, if they can create additional revenue to invest in transit systems. But no, I think, it’s extremely important and I’m excited to see that shared-use model in place. I think, with that, we could dive a little bit deeper just quickly into… There’s more people, right? But what are the other problems I think? Because I think that curb space and redefining can do a lot. And what other problems besides increasing revenue and serving more people? There’s got to be more. Because when I look at it, I think, when we… Some of the stats we use where, I think, 30% of congestion in cities is caused by looking for parking, things like that. So just, what are the other problems that this can solve? Because it seems like, again like you said and noticed, the curb space is a big enough problem. So it seems like it could have a huge impact, beyond just serving-

Stephen Smyth:

Really impacted. But I believe it’s a [inaudible 00:04:33], I’ll call it, has been creeping back up. So I think… And, subway usage, et cetera. So I think we are seeing a slow, but gradual, kind of restoration of usage, I would say, of these shared modes. And obviously, we’ll see how that unfolds. But I think the kind of the genie’s out of the bottle, or whatever the expression is. And so obviously, I don’t think the fundamentals of shared modes have suddenly disappeared. Clearly this is turbulence, I would say, in that evolution. But the cost of owning a car has not fallen overnight and, arguably, the contrary. And so, yeah, I do think you’re going to see… I’m personally anticipating outside my window, seeing the step function [inaudible 02:17:27] then mixed with more passenger vehicle traffic. And it’s… Even with reopening in New York City this week, it’s noticeable. And actually worse traffic than ever. Right?

James Mirras:

[inaudible 00:02:17:40].

Stephen Smyth:

And so that’s potentially creating gridlock the likes of which we’ve never seen before. But I do think that it’s, with months, not years, I think, things will start to shift back to the previous equilibrium. Because the fundamentals have not changed, in terms of cost of ownership and so forth. And I do think actually, again, the private passenger vehicle may be even a slower method than it was before of, getting around due to the kind of the increase in urban freight plus the increase in private passenger vehicle use.

James Mirras:

Yeah. No, it makes sense. And still the need for that curb management then, especially with that increased delivery. And I know we’ve all experienced that, either directly or seen it happening, but… And I could hear the horns behind you, so. It’s back, and I’ve been hearing the same from friends in the city. I haven’t been back yet, but…

James Mirras:

Looking at that… So when I think of looking at cities, talking to cities, about curb space and re-imagining the street, things like that… We touched on it in the last conversation, but the infrastructure needs. I think the biggest hurdle to me is how do we distinguish between infrastructure needs, and adapting and putting in systems that can work with the infrastructure. For many reasons, one being cost, the other being, I think, impact to the community. A lot of times that includes construction or changing of the street, but as well as timeline. So, in my eyes, quick solutions or solutions that are able to facilitate quicker movement and quicker change, I think are great. It sounds, in my mind, I picture Coord being a key piece of that. Is that what you’ve seen in some of the results with any clients?

Stephen Smyth:

Yeah. So, we have an interesting vantage point, in that we work with sort of three different types of entities. Cities themselves, the fleets I mentioned as well, but also engineering firms, transportation consultants. And so they… Their bread and butter is, I’ll simplify it, it’s designing and pouring concrete, right? And so that’s when they’re happiest, big infrastructure projects. And of course some of that is necessary to maintain infrastructure, but I’m kind of… What’s the right word? I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s so much that has infrastructure that’s already been invested in that is basically sub-optimally used, let’s put it that way. And, again, I go back to our bread and butter curb space, right? So obviously lots of money has been spent on signs and concrete, et cetera, paint, over the years.

Stephen Smyth:

And the signs are built to last for 20 years, literally. And so… And it’s… We were somewhat shocked, candidly, when we started our business, to realize that cities basically didn’t have any digital records of all of that. And so before we go invest many, many millions, hundreds of millions, in new infrastructure… And it’s not either-or, clearly, but a lot of these investments I think are questionable when you consider the fact that the cities have not yet sort of maximized the efficiency, for want of a better term, or the utility of the existing investments. Right?

Stephen Smyth:

And so… And particularly, I think, cities generally have had challenged budgets in recent years, but clearly COVID has further impacted that. So I think there’s this huge pressure to do more with less, candidly, and to make small investments to get big returns, just like most companies do. And I think that we are already starting to see that, actually. So as, I think, most startups in this space, we were anxious to see how COVID would impact us. We actually saw a surprising amount of consulting dollars, studies, et cetera, that continued to get spent, as cities looked to actually do what I just said, and actually get a better inventory of what they have, and so that they can do more with what they have, from an infrastructure perspective.

James Mirras:

Yeah. That’s great to hear. And kudos to you guys. And it’s great to hear that that shift is in a good way and it looks good post-COVID, from your own perspective business, but also mine. And just, living and working with cities, I think, the more that… The solution and showing data and redesigning what they have is a great way to put it in. And you’re right on that inclination for pouring concrete, for lack of a better term, not to put words in your mouth. But I do think that could be some of the silver lining, is that now it’s time to maximize what they have and do more with less. It’s great to hear.

James Mirras:

And I think, with that talking about revenue from cities… You touched on it before, but I don’t know if you’ve had any examples or cities where, if they are able to get additional revenue from curb space management, besides transit, has there been conversations or goals or anything noted from cities, and what that additional revenue will mean for them?

Stephen Smyth:

Yeah. Yeah. So we’re certainly seeing an interest, very perceptively, in talking very upfront about revenue in a way that I think that was less the case three-plus months ago. And in our world, that manifests in a few different ways. Literally, we’ve heard of cities where they’re kind of… The order has come down from the mayor’s office to the parking department, to basically look at how to increase prices. We’ve heard of cities where… I mean, we’re, candidly, part of conversations with cities where they’re looking to create new fees on new types of curb uses. So commercial loading, for example, is charged for in relatively few places. So New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, I believe, are the main places in the US where it’s charged for. Almost everywhere else, it’s not. You can get ticketed, it’s time-limited, but there’s not a fee. Right?

Stephen Smyth:

That’s it… We’ve seen a number… That’s why I was in a city council preparation meeting yesterday, helping the city to sort of think through that. There definitely… There is an interest in charging in new ways for the space as well, not just increasing prices. Right?

James Mirras:

Yeah.

Stephen Smyth:

And so that’s evidence that we see. And to your question about how it’s being… How those cities plan to reinvest it? Again, to the point I made earlier, we are seeing interest in reinvesting it into transportation projects in the area from which the fee came, so to speak. Yeah. So that’s definitely a thing. And there’s, from a political perspective, that’s more palatable versus going into the general fund. Which is… It’s hard to understand… It’s hard for the fee-payer, so to speak, to understand where that money goes, by definition.

Stephen Smyth:

So that’s definitely a trend that we’re seeing. And so… And I think there’s also… I know your model is advertising-supported. And I think we saw this in the last downturn in a way, the sort of ad-supported street furniture model became a thing, before cities tended to own and operate that infrastructure and actually sell their own ads, I think. So we’ve seen that. That happened in the last downturn, as cities look for more creative ways to basically fund infrastructure and services and the public right-of-way. I think we’re going to see the same thing here, right?

James Mirras:

Yeah.

Stephen Smyth:

Possibly by a factor of two or three, who knows?

James Mirras:

Yeah. And I appreciate that. I’m excited about it. I’m excited to see the post-COVID curb management world, [inaudible 02:25:52] the dining and where it’s built for the community and for the people.

James Mirras:

So thank you, again. I think we’re out of time and I’m sure we’ll get kicked off soon, but I really appreciate it. Keep doing the good work you’re doing.

Stephen Smyth:

I appreciate it, James. Thank you.

James Mirras:

Thanks, Stephen.

Stephen Smyth:

So with that…

Stephen Smyth:

Okay, so I’m delighted to welcome Adam Lubinsky, who is a Managing Principal at WXY and Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. So welcome, Adam.

Adam Lubinsky:

Great. Thank you. Great to be here, Stephen. Great to listen to you and James too.

Stephen Smyth:

Oh, I’m glad it was enjoyable. So I wanted to just kind of kick things off by asking kind of your, I guess, greatest hits maybe, sort of COVID-19 adaptations that have most intrigued you, most surprised you. And just kind of get things rolling that way.

Adam Lubinsky:

Sure. I mean, I think, the biggest adaptation in many respects has been in terms of behavior, and not yet in terms of physical changes to the environment. Obviously, there are a lot of essential workers who don’t have the option to work remotely, but, for me, what was startling, as someone who’s running a firm and working with lots of people, is the way in which we began to adapt to working remotely. And that, it just happened with stunning speed. And, I think, as many people have been imagining, we’re not all just going to switch back to working at our desks as usual. And so that really opens up a kind of shift in the way we’re living in cities, that ripples out to our streets and our sidewalks in all sorts of ways. And I think in many respects, we were already moving away from this kind of notion of a centralized business district.

Adam Lubinsky:

You look at the remote… Sorry, the reverse commuting patterns and the kinds of fragmented office spaces that exist in the wider metro region. And the way Brooklyn Queens Waterfront has developed with work space. We are already experiencing a different way of going to work and that’s just going to start to accelerate. And so, starting to think about what that means for neighborhoods, whether people are working at home, or there are more options to kind of pop in and out of local workplaces, I think will change the nature of sidewalks and commuting and local retail and all of those things. So yeah, that’s going to be a slow burner. But the shift happened so rapidly. And I think we’re going to be figuring it out for a while.

Stephen Smyth:

Clearly the shift had to happen rapidly at a level, right, by law, I guess, among other reasons, and for health reasons clearly. And I’ve talked to a number of cities who are… Have sort of a… How should I put it? An agenda of actually making some of these changes permanent.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah.

Stephen Smyth:

They basically… They… There’s always this challenge in giving up curb spots for parking, right, and reallocating for something else. So this has created sort of the perfect opportunity to do that. And we’ve seen meal pickup zones next to restaurants be [inaudible 02:29:53] established, and those were parking spots. And so that’s a thing that that city wanted to do and has had an opportunity to do now, temporarily, and we’ll see if those become permanent changes. Right?

Stephen Smyth:

So there’s one question though, which is that are some of these changes happening too quickly? Or put differently, should we not be so quick to make them permanent? Right? Because the… Sort of the usual community input steps perhaps have not been followed. And I think particularly in this time of the racial justice movement, right? So getting that level of input from the community in these changes, has sort of been a step that has necessarily been skipped, as an emergency measure. But, I guess I’m just curious your thoughts on to what degree is this sort of a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we should make those changes permanent? Or to what degree should we revert them all and sort of do it in kind of the quote unquote proper way with all of the community input?

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. And I think in a lot of ways, we haven’t seen lots of big changes yet in sort of neighborhoods. There’ve been a lot of interest in changing things in commercial areas, and all of these commercial areas… A lot of them, have business improvement districts behind them. And they’re very eager, both to get workers back, but also setting up an environment that makes work exciting. And then there have been some temporary closures in neighborhoods, but those still feel very temporary. And I think there is a big opportunity there. But you’re right. Certainly, how we do engagement around these things, is so critical. And, in essence, I think everything we do now in planning terms has to have a kind of layer of equity-indicators associated with them. Right now a lot of the changes being made, certainly thinking about curbside dining, they have a focus on social distancing.

Adam Lubinsky:

And so, from an equity-indicator perspective, you’re not really thinking about, “Well, what does closing Atlanta traffic provide for public health?” How do we start digging deeper into what were a lot of the underlying public health issues that existed before COVID? How can we start thinking about street closures in a way that really start deeply addressing those? Whether it’s not just simply closing streets, but providing areas for neighborhoods that are very far from parks and that don’t have spaces for active exercise and active recreation? And so a lot of our movement towards adapting street space has been for more passive recreation and for supporting commercial activity, as opposed to active space that supports public health efforts.

Stephen Smyth:

Yeah, that was actually my next question. So clearly, there’s been this move to establish curbside dining. And I know in a number of cities, it’s been quote unquote self-permitted. Because otherwise the process would take too long. And so, restaurants are essentially certifying that they’re doing a thing and they’re getting a permit online, or whatever. And for no charge, right? The permit has no fee, right? And so, back to the kind of the topic of our track, so to speak, designing and pricing public space. There’s this need to support local businesses, right? And then there’s also this need, to your point, of providing space potentially in the curb space that… Or the sidewalk, that is for, I’ll call it recreation, right? And so given… Particularly for neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to parks. And so currently the same space can’t be a restaurant and a skater area at the same time, or a place to sit with your dog, or whatever. So how to resolve that?

Stephen Smyth:

And the economists would say, “Well, you price it.” You establish a price for it. And so that not all restaurants will want to do it, because it’s not for the price of free. And perhaps this is more of a steady state issue, in months from now versus right now. But I still think it’s worth talking about now. Because obviously, the precedents that are established today, will have a way of sticking around.

Stephen Smyth:

I actually heard a story yesterday of a business in San Francisco that just is literally building in the curb lane, a structure, right? And you’ve got to wonder, will that ever come down? Anyway, so it’s just some thoughts there. So do you have any thoughts on how to sort of think about that? And how to frame that trade off?

Adam Lubinsky:

Sure. I mean, I guess I would approach it analytically and start to look at where the tension points are. And, to me, the real tension points are going to be parking and neighborhoods, where you might want to have active open space in the street, at the curb side. And so that tension is looking at where people have free parking now, but they’re close to transit. That is something that we should have been pricing all along. Cities around the world charge, have different ways of registering cars and paying for curbside parking. And so I think we have a basic question in New York, which is you look at neighborhoods, residential areas, where people aren’t paying for parking, but they’re close to transit. And yet, you’ve got a residential neighborhood which may be short on supply of open space.

Adam Lubinsky:

And that’s a real tension point. I don’t think we’re yet at a tension point between restaurants and then residential neighborhoods demanding that street space for active open space. I wouldn’t want to charge restaurants for taking that space. One, the cars aren’t paying for it yet, except on some commercial streets. And two, we want to bring some vitality back to our cities. So I think the big question is really still on the parking and on parking that is within a certain distance of transit. And then thinking about who are we really giving that free space to? And what are the other public health demands that are present there? And how can we convert that space? Now, how we convert that space is a really big design question. Not like a park, it’s linear, it’s not wide. And so that’s… That becomes a real challenge to get into.

Stephen Smyth:

Got it. Just to switch gears a little bit here. Just, we think a lot about enforcement at Coord. And we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately, again, particularly with the equity issue and racial justice, how we can design into our system, or at least encourage cities to, I guess, for a better way of putting it, to minimize that risk, right? Because in any system there will always be some risk of bad things happening.

Stephen Smyth:

And so one of the kind of street design ideas is to have narrower streets. Traffic moves more slowly, there’s less need for speed enforcement. Another one is to use cameras more. Obviously, there’s privacy concerns, but cameras tend to be less biased in many ways than humans, enforcement officers. And so just, as we’re sort of thinking through in our line of work, what this means for the operation of the street… And again, particularly enforcement, I think, is a big area. And so it’s less of a planning question, I guess, and more of an operational question, but it does impact the design of the street. Just wondering if you have any thoughts around that? And if that’s something that comes up in your work? And I’m just curious.

Adam Lubinsky:

Oh, sure. Yeah. No, that’s a great one. I mean, redesigning streets I think could make a lot of headway in terms of reducing deaths. And I think you’ll find that injuries and deaths from traffic accidents are higher in communities of color. They also really constrict the way kids and young people and old people are able to use urban space. And so, really thinking about street design, again, using equity-indicators to support the people who really need that space, to be different. And so, yeah, like narrowing streets… And again, that’s thinking about parking differently, thinking about how much traffic flow we have going through residential neighborhoods. I think there are… Thinking about creating streets that are all at the same grade, so you don’t have to step down from a curb. So rather cars have to go up onto a kind of table, onto streets. So that slows them down as they go onto residential streets.

Adam Lubinsky:

So there are kind of prototypes and typologies that we should be exploring. And then there are site-specific things that we should be getting into. Our office looked at a kind of version of the Barcelona Superblock and how you could adapt areas of New York City to create these superblocks, structures. And then within them, having these more accessible streets that are really shielded from as much traffic flow. So, there are both prototypes and design changes that we could roll out in all sorts of places. And then let’s think, in a kind of geographic way, what we can start doing in different areas.

Stephen Smyth:

Got it. One last question for you. And this came up in our preparation call. And I hadn’t thought of it at all, but I thought it was kind of cool. So I know you’re working on a project for a charter school, and my understanding was sort of thinking holistically about kind of the interior and exterior use of space to accommodate, I guess, temperature checks and things like that, with back to school in the fall, instead of the social distancing measures, et cetera. I guess, as it relates to the re-imagining our streets, so the exterior space. Could you tell us a little bit more about kind of what that idea looks like? Is that literally kids lining up in a curb lane, on a sidewalk? What does that… Tell us more about that.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. No, it’s… I think, again, like a lot of everybody’s focus has been on restaurants and restoring business activity, which is important. But then there’s this whole other layer of how buildings and the right-of-way start to play off of each other in a different way now. And so that’s the sort of notion… And what you work on so much, Stephen, is looking at the right-of-way, which is critical. But now, everything at the ground floor of the building level has been called into question, how it can function. And in the case of restaurants, it’s whether they can get customers in. But for offices and for schools, it’s whether they can get people in, in a timely fashion. And so, there are lots and lots of office buildings in New York that have tiny lobbies and slow elevators. And so how do they filter people into their buildings?

Adam Lubinsky:

And similarly with schools, which, if you’ve got kids or you’ve seen kids pile into a school, it’s this mad rush into the front doors. And so, thinking about what it means to slow that down, to do temperature checks, to get them to clean their phones after they’ve been potentially on public transit, to do hand washing in Purell, that’s going to take a real operational shift in how they let kids into school.

Adam Lubinsky:

So this project that we’ve been working on, is really trying to get into the guts of what that means, to slow that down, to get kids to line up and space themselves out. What does it mean relative to other things on that block? Is there a possibility to take some of that curbside space to do some of that queuing? Those are all open questions. And I think, we are modeling an approach that sort of has minimal permitting requirements, and then might have additional permitting requirements, to just see what’s possible. But the reality of even half the number of kids on a given day, going back to their school, it’s far more complicated than I think a lot of people have dug into.

Stephen Smyth:

Got it. So I know we just have a minute or two left. Anything you’d like to end on?

Adam Lubinsky:

Well, I just think there’s a big place for the work that you’re doing. And so those kind of tension points that we talked about, which is really curbside space is like the missing link in so many conversations and figuring out how to treat it, is so great. So we hadn’t met before, but I’ve really enjoyed digging into the work that you’ve been doing as well.

Stephen Smyth:

Likewise, likewise.

Adam Lubinsky:

I’m excited to continue our conversation offline.

Stephen Smyth:

Likewise. And I happen to agree with you, not surprisingly.

Stephen Smyth:

And it was a pleasure meeting you through this as well.

Stephen Smyth:

So with that, I will sign off and let you move on to your next session.

Adam Lubinsky:

Great. Great. Thank you, Stephen.

Adam Lubinsky:

Hi, Tara. Good to have you here.

Tara Pham:

Hey, how’s it going?

Adam Lubinsky:

Good. I’m very pleased to introduce Tara Pham. She is the founder and CEO-

PART 5 OF 7 ENDS [02:45:04]

Adam Lubinsky:

Introduce Tara Pham. She is the founder and CEO of Numina, which is an amazing company looking at, essentially, how to measure street level activity using all sorts of technology, and hopefully making our streets better places as a result. So, Tara, I’m going to give everybody a chance to hear a little bit about how you work and what you do. So in essence, give us a sense of how sensors enable us to improve our streets. What are you doing at Numina?

Tara Pham:

Yeah, so we make a sensor that very easily deploys on fixed infrastructure, like light poles and buildings. And our sensor actually uses a camera to detect what is going on in the street. What is unique about our product from other, say, traffic cameras or traffic sensors is that, with our technology, we’re able to differentiate pedestrians, bicycles, different types of vehicles, even things like dogs and bags of trash, and we do it in a completely privacy first way. So even though our sensor is camera-based, it is actually analyzing the raw data, which, in our case, is imagery, onboard the device, gleaning what types of things are there, where are they in the street, but then discarding the imagery.

Tara Pham:

So we don’t save any imagery. We don’t transmit a video and we don’t, as a company, ever intentionally collect personally identifiable information. So we’re actually doing everything we can to anonymize the data and aggregate the data such that it prevents re-identifiability.

Tara Pham:

And so the ultimate output is that we’re able to tell cities how everyone uses their streets, not just cars. And so we’re kind of a nice compliment to some of Steven’s work, for example. Our data feeds into some other platforms that have been featured here, useful for companies like Tiffany at Remix, for example, or for you guys at WXY, to hopefully incorporate more data in some of the planning processes for public realm.

Adam Lubinsky:

So we’re at a kind of interesting moment in terms of thinking about surveillance and privacy as it relates to technology. And on the one hand, we’ve got all of the concerns that have come out of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the concerns about surveillance there. On the other hand, in the pandemic, you’ve got this idea that actually, maybe it’s going to be important to identify people through technology. And so I’m curious, you’ve made a real business decision in a way to avoid that privacy issue. What do you think about the issues around the pandemic and the need to use technology to identify people in terms of contact tracing?

Tara Pham:

Yeah, I mean, to put it simply, we don’t want to get into contact tracing. So I guess fundamentally, our belief is that, in the public realm, so what we’re considering the space between buildings, that can be street, sidewalks, parks, plazas, even the driveway if that’s sort of shared and accessible to the public, and especially in urban areas, what is actually first and foremost the most valuable data is this information at scale. So we can tell you actually what percentage of people are actually practicing social distancing, how many people are actually staying six feet apart.

Tara Pham:

To us, that is extremely valuable, first and foremost, and we’re just not in the business of identifying individuals, and we’re not in the enforcement business at all. With our platform, there’s actually not a way to even know at a specific time there was an incident, and ask to see footage from that. We don’t have the video or the imagery. We do have data points, but we do everything that we can to really look at these systems in meaningful datasets, meaningful sample sizes, but not looking at individuals. And so you could kind of think of it like a HIPAA-compliant way to measure the public realm.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. I mean, it is incredibly useful data and I’ve looked at it quite a bit. And it seems to me that most of the time, you are gathering this data not necessarily for the public, but for public agencies. And so I really wanted to sort of understand the difference. Like what’s the difference between making this totally open source as opposed to giving it to public agencies? What are they doing with it? Why can’t we see it? How can we see it? When can we see it? How does that work?

Tara Pham:

Yeah. So the dream is that the data is publicly accessible, and ultimately, it really should be, no matter what, through things like the Freedom of Information Act. So, so the data is requestable. The reality is that, often, when we’re selling our product to public agencies who are the ones implementing it, often they do want to have kind of a first filter on that data. So they want to be able to, for example, understand the data, understand what they’re going to do with it. And some of them are like, “Yeah, sure, share it with whomever,” others aren’t, and that’s because data creates accountability.

Tara Pham:

And I’m understanding on both sides. I think one of the flaws that we have in our political system at large, but especially at the local government level even, is that we don’t have fast enough feedback loops. We don’t have kind of the ability culturally, like we don’t have the acceptance for our local policymakers to experiment and learn. So by the time data hits the papers or the public’s eye, there’s an immediate expectation that we have a plan to act on it or that this was a known problem and so it should have been solved already.

Tara Pham:

And the truth is that, at least for what we do, the kind of data we collect has not been available, I mean, really prior to our company. The way that we measure things is really novel. And so it’s making this data available much more quickly than it has been before previously. You might count with a clicker and a clipboard, and you’re only doing a pedestrian count once a year or, at best, once a week. That’s at the very best.

Tara Pham:

And so I think the thing that in my dream world we’d have is more leeway for our local policymakers to actually run experiments or say, “Hey, prospectively, or proactively, we are going to measure something, sort of take the temperature, understand what’s happening, and come up with good solutions or interventions that we have time to test and get to the right solution.” And I think right now, the way that public discourse works is by the time a problem is known, there’s a demand for a solution, and people just want to be angry and don’t necessarily understand that it is work on the part of cities to actually respond to that data.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. And I think it’s responding to the data and understanding how agencies are setting priorities when they’re receiving back that information. And so that, I don’t think you’ll have the solution, I don’t think I’ll have the solution, but this question about aggregating so much information quite easily now because the platform you use is remarkable, and then wanting to convert that into a space where people understand what you’ve found and can relate to the solutions that are being taken. So that’s a big question about how we’re able to interface with our public bureaucracies and agencies.

Adam Lubinsky:

And so I guess, and we chatted about this a little beforehand, but the question is how do we use all of this information to kind of improve the public discourse? And you talked a little bit about your dream world, but there is something about information, providing people with access, to prioritize, create solutions. So keep going with your dream world there.

Tara Pham:

Yeah. I mean, if I had the answer, first of all, I wouldn’t be the first. Other smarter people than me have tried to tackle this and failed, but I think there are some really promising things around participatory budgeting, for example. At least what I like about that model, at a baseline, is that we’re all coming to the table together. I think a lot of cities, especially at the neighborhood level, are planned around anecdata. Like the person who shows up to the community meeting tells their personal experience with the parking spot at the curb, or that bench at the park, and, “People are just loitering around it and it’s creating a problem for me,” and we don’t get that full sort of quantified unbiased view.

Tara Pham:

The thing was cities is, and places in general, we all experience them differently. And so having data to at least say, “Here’s a common truth or a common input that we’re all going to agree to work off of,” ideally, that would be helpful. We’re at an interesting time where it’s hard to even agree on facts right now, but I think at street level, we can a little bit more. And then I think if we actually have a pre-agreed upon model of we’re going to look at the data, we’re going to run an experiment, we’re going to, based on the outcome of that experiment, check it against hopefully some values or some goals that we set ahead of time, that really helps us get to better solutions.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, that would be good.

Tara Pham:

Yeah [crosstalk 02:55:45]

Adam Lubinsky:

Tell us a little bit more about [crosstalk 00:02:55:46]. And so just to repeat that in case you missed it, what are you doing in New York City now? What are those efforts doing to improve the streets? Thinking about climate, thinking about the pandemic and congestion, what are you up to you?

Tara Pham:

Yeah, so we work in about 20 cities around the world. We are based in New York City, but ironically, until recently, it’s been one of our smaller markets, and part of that is we mount a fixed infrastructure. So we mount to, for example, light poles that are mostly under the control of the DOT, and they have lots of companies competing for that light pole space. And so, only until recently have we found ways of getting out specifically in New York.

Tara Pham:

We work a lot with business improvement districts. We are working very actively with the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, which they are the stewards of 26 miles of linear park that connects the Brooklyn waterfront. And we actually just participated in the Transit Tech Lab, which is public private partnership between the partnership for New York City and local agencies.

Tara Pham:

Interestingly, in the last few months, what we’ve been looking at is how lockdown due to COVID-19 has actually affected on street behaviors. With the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, we have seen, I mean, many weeks where, just week over week, it’s had a hundred percent increase in bike ridership. So some of it is it’s spring and the weather is nice, but it definitely is beyond just the seasonal flux. We’ve seen massive increases in bike ped traffic there and changes in when people participate in that sort of active transportation.

Tara Pham:

So it’s not just the traditional commuter patterns, we’re seeing the rush hour actually… Well, so 6:00 PM is actually a quiet time on the Greenway, which used to be rush hour. Now, rush hour is maybe midday, and probably because it’s more recreational, or maybe we have different types of laborers, different types of employees getting to work that way at different times. So that’s been really exciting and we actually started with one sensor in the Greenway and we’ll be expanding to 40 sensors later this year, all along the Brooklyn waterfront. So that will be very exciting.

Tara Pham:

And the reason that that project I think is so cool is we’re actually going to be researching the Greenway as a transportation asset because Greenways, in many communities, and certainly in New York, often connect transit deserts to transit. So really also hoping that this data shows we have a real need for resourcing groups like the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative heavily I think will be really important. And we think of New York as the subways and certainly I love the New York City subway, but there’s also other modes and other ways of travel that we want to be able to account for.

Adam Lubinsky:

You talked a lot about your research, and I’m curious, just in terms of the way you structure your office and your workforce, how are you drawing people to Numina? What are their backgrounds? What do you look for? It’s just interesting because I’ve interfaced with a lot of sort of civic tech companies and there just are many different stories about how you bring together people to cover all of these different challenges and skills and expertises.

Tara Pham:

Yeah. Great question. Well, I think with everything in planning, as you know, it’s become so interdisciplinary.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah.

Tara Pham:

So actually, on our team, we actually don’t have any planners right now officially. And so it’s important to note, we almost always… Well, we always work with some ground level partner. We don’t consider ourselves planners. We don’t make the end planning recommendations. We are a technology company. So our product is intentionally rinse and repeat, whereas we know that communities are very specifically not one size fits all and locals are their own experts. So we always work with local groups to actually take our data and turn it into whatever the intervention or the redesign or the recommendation should be.

Tara Pham:

So actually, we, right now, don’t have any planners on staff, but we do have many passionate bicyclists, many transit riders of course. We are actually remote first now. So we are not all New Yorkers, but we are a pretty diverse group. And I would say we’re mission-driven. So in terms of how we recruit, we recruit on very specific values. One that is sort of first and foremost is to be a listener. Everyone on our team is a listener. And our mission is to empower cities with data to become more equitable and responsive. And so to us, that is thinking about all the people who are parts of the community and being able to measure them and represent them well in the room when it does come time for the planning process to happen with the data that we provide.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. And if I have time for one last question, thinking about all of these people that you have working for you and all of these cities that you’re working in, I’m curious sort of where you hold out the most hope for making changes to streets. Like you talked about working less in New York, and I don’t know if that’s challenges being able to apply your technology. So where are you seeing a kind of civic willingness to make changes and to install… Well, first install your technology, and second, to make changes to the streets based on what they’re finding with your information? So not to out any particular cities, but where are you finding that drive to make changes to streets, and why?

Tara Pham:

We’ve had sort of like an ebb and flow in terms of different types of cities that we work with. We want to work with all types of cities. We’re very focused at street level. So what that means is like each of our sensors is really looking at a specific space in front of it, and that kind of functionally works the same, whether it’s in even a rural area versus Midtown Manhattan.

Tara Pham:

So we’re working across a range of environments. I will say we’ve had a lot of luck and interest in working with midsized cities who, for the most part, are built very car-centric. And a lot of them are trying to make their first steps to becoming more walkable and bikeable, and they don’t have any even baseline data about pedestrian and bicycle traffic. So that’s a huge opportunity for us to kind of equip them with the data, where sometimes they’re able to leapfrog over what would be the big redesign in a bigger city. Bigger cities just have more inertia.

Tara Pham:

And so, we love working with like midsized cities. We’re doing a lot of work with parks right now, and so that’s really exciting. Some of those are like trails in small cities. We actually just started working with a number of cities in the Northwest Arkansas area. And I didn’t know until working with them that they actually have one of the most robust bicycle counting infrastructures that I’ve encountered. And that was just surprising to me because I’m thinking, “Oh, the biggest cities are going to have that,” and they’ve really blown me away. And they have a very outdoorsy, strong bicyclist culture I think.

Tara Pham:

And so that’s been fun, but big cities also kind of lead the way. So I’m excited to see Oakland and New York City and Boston and all of these big cities actually start to like adopt slow streets. I think that’s also a really awesome opportunity.

Adam Lubinsky:

Yeah. Yeah. Great. I think we’ve got one or two minutes left. Any last thoughts that you have?

Tara Pham:

I had questions for you that we didn’t even get to.

Adam Lubinsky:

We’ve got one minute. One minute.

Tara Pham:

Okay. I know that Steven asked about your work in schools too. I think schools are so interesting because, right now, we’re all feeling like, if the kids are at home with you, and I wanted to hear your thoughts on if schools are public realm and how are they the same or different?

Adam Lubinsky:

That is a great question. And I think people don’t really know how to define public realm, I’m finding. Like it’s easy to define the right of way, which you and Steven work in. The way I talk about schools is more as public infrastructure. And so, you think about a school as a place where kids go to learn, but they also contain open space, almost always. They contain assembly space. They’re often feeding kids two meals a day.

Adam Lubinsky:

And so I think what we’ve found with the pandemic, with them being closed, is this unbelievable gap in our social infrastructure systems. And so, whether it’s public realm or public infrastructure, I think figuring out, if they’re not going to be open, how we incorporate those needs elsewhere, because people’s apartments are really, really difficult, whether you’re turning a bedroom for two kids into a classroom. And so, they serve a unbelievable series of functions that we’ve either got to get back open in some fashion, or we need to replicate and create other ways of providing those services.

Adam Lubinsky:

So thank you for asking them about that. It’s huge territory stuff we all need to figure out really soon. [crosstalk 00:21:25], Tara. It’s great to speak with you.

Tara Pham:

Yeah. Thanks for your time, Adam. Thank you. We’ll talk soon. I’m going to welcome Destiny to the call.

Destiny Thomas:

Hi.

Tara Pham:

Hi. Where do I see you? Hi, Destiny.

Destiny Thomas:

Hi. Very cool.

Tara Pham:

Thanks for joining me. As an intro for you to everyone watching, Dr. Destiny Thomas is the founder and chief executive officer of Thrivance Group, which takes an interdisciplinary approach grounded in intersectionality to building equitable access into neighborhoods. That was the definition I just made up, but I would love to hear your exact definition. And just as a little bit of context, Destiny has an MPA, with an emphasis in public health and nonprofit management, and a PhD in social and cultural anthropology. That’s informing years of work in cities and with community groups. So I’m loving your interdisciplinary approach. And maybe just to hear, in your words, what does Thrivance Group do?

Destiny Thomas:

Thank you. Thank you for the introduction and thank you for having me here. So the Thrivance Group is actually heavily rooted in intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory was given to us, was gifted to us by Kimberly Crenshaw, who’s actually an attorney, and I think she’s still a professor at UCLA. But intersectionality, it’s a way to understand a person or individual’s lived experience as being a network of interlocking systems of oppression. So how we experience life, how we move throughout the world in our bodies, is it formed by the different identities that are imposed on us structurally?

Destiny Thomas:

So an example of that would mean, when you look at me, right, you might see a Black person, someone might see a woman, right? Someone might see a queer person, right? But my identity would be my combined experience as a human being based on those different identities and how different systems and structures impose oppression on me through those identities.

Destiny Thomas:

And so Thrivance’s theory takes intersectionality theory and seeks out the ways in which our identities inhabit joy, creativity, spirituality, wellness, wellbeing, kinship formation, and all of the things that we love and enjoy about life. It is the ways in which those things show up in spite of interlocking systems of oppression. So through everything that we do, we put forth this deep-seated intention to assert that, despite these systems of oppression existing. Like racism, there are ways in which we show up that are great and that are thriving despite that. And so that’s the lens that we do all of our work through.

Destiny Thomas:

And at the Thrivance Group, we serve agencies, municipalities, other firms, nonprofits, and also individuals, as consultants to inform their work using that framework. So we’re planners, but we’re also behavioral health specialists, we’re trainers, professional development specialists, so on and so forth.

Tara Pham:

I noticed in your email signature, you have a comment about radical self-care. Do you want to share that, how [crosstalk 03:10:26] at the Thrivance Group?

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. So radical self-care is a value and a virtue at the Thrivance Group. We believe in preserving the things that make us thrive. And we know that a lot of times, especially being people who are racialized in our lived experience, we don’t get the benefit of rest. And so we know that even when we rest and even when we create boundaries around us, that isn’t a revolutionary act of self-preservation, and that is something we are doing in spite of this overwhelming sense of urgency and everyone’s desire to be on Zoom now, and everyone’s demand of our labor without consideration for our wellbeing. So we ask our partners and each other to hold us accountable for not working on Wednesdays. I’m getting better at it. Not there yet.

Tara Pham:

Love that. Could you give me your quick definition of environmental and infrastructural trauma-

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah.

Tara Pham:

Because that’s [crosstalk 03:11:28] that you’re focused on.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. So environmental trauma is… First of all, to take one step back. We know that, for the most part, Black people and Brown people and Indigenous people who encounter trauma encounter that trauma more often than not in the built environment. And so when we lift that truth up, we also look at how the built environment is constructed to facilitate that trauma happening.

Destiny Thomas:

And so some of the ways that environmental trauma shows up is in the literal infrastructure. Like this practice of putting tactical urbanism or quick build bike lanes on top of failing concrete or above ground where there’s lead pipes, that’s environmental trauma, encouraging people to go outside and enjoy the public ground without creating an environment that’s actually healthy for them or without acknowledging the things that are in that space that could actually be harmful.

Tara Pham:

Yeah. Amazing. And so, can you give some examples of how you’re addressing that in your work?

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah, absolutely. So one of the ways that we address that work at the Thrivance Group is through this motto called dignity-infused community engagement or dignity-infused planning. And it’s this process by which we have an interdisciplinary team come out and participate in project development from beginning to end, or from whatever point of juncture our group is brought in. And we do a very thorough analysis of what’s needed, what the prevailing priorities and demands of the community are, and how those priorities, whether they’re transportation-related or not, converge with the issue of transportation or whatever the project focus is.

Destiny Thomas:

And so an example of that would be if you were to hire our group to go do community engagement about a brand new quarter project lane reduction or a bike lane, what would precede that work is us going out with behavioral healthcare specialists, mental health practitioners, housing resource navigators, maybe some folks who work in underground economy, sometimes we even would look to partner with the people who govern that space, whether that’s a gang or a religious institution. We all go out there together and do the work of planning before the work of planning starts. And that helps us to inform our recommendations moving forward, and it also helps us make sure that we maintain community voice and dignity through every stage of the process. That’s one of the ways that we try to avoid being contributors to structural racism and environmental trauma in the work that we do.

Tara Pham:

I love that for so many reasons. One thing that I’ve noticed in the last like maybe five to ten years is like equity is such a buzz word in planning, and it’s great that it’s on people’s minds, but then you get into the room with the planners and it’s a pretty homogeneous group, and all the things that you’re talking about at the conferences or in the workshops, they go out the window. And if they don’t have a framework to really come back to, is this meeting our values, is this answering the questions or answering to the perspectives that we promise to include, sometimes they forget.

Tara Pham:

And it’s really frustrating because then those decisions that happen in a room with just a handful of people end up scaling to affect many people. And if their perspectives are not diverse themselves, they tend to forget some of the things that we agreed on earlier in the project.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. Do they forget though?

Tara Pham:

That’s a good question.

Destiny Thomas:

[crosstalk 03:15:40]. I talk about, a lot in my work lately, I talk about our field’s obsession with white comfort. Comforting white people is another way to put it. And that notion has been challenged already, but I think that if we can’t point to a project, whether it’s been implemented or is still in the works, if we can’t point to a project and unequivocally refute that the origins of it aren’t the censoring of white comfort and priorities, to me, then that’s evidence of erasure and potential for environmental trauma.

Destiny Thomas:

And what I mean by that is if we look at just our academic backgrounds in planning, right? The things that tell us what sound planning is have very racist legacies and origin stories. And while there may be some benefits to those project elements or to those frameworks, they might benefit Black people every now and then, if we aren’t challenging the origin story, and if we’re not willing to create a new origin story and a new way of doing things, then frankly, it’s mal-intended, right?

Destiny Thomas:

And so we could get in rooms with people all day and agree to do certain things a certain way, but we all know that the folks in this room, or in that room where we’re making decisions, have a desired outcome in mind. “We want a bike lane,” or, “We want a road diet,” or what’s some other cool stuff coming up? “We want a roundabout here,” right? You’ve got the end result in mind. If we’ve already arrived at that and the community hasn’t been a part of that process, who are we censoring in our work? It’s convenience, it’s comfort, it’s efficiency, and it’s probably money.

Tara Pham:

Yeah. I’m curious, I mean, we do a lot of work around justifying bike lanes, and there’s good reason for that. People of color are 54-

PART 6 OF 7 ENDS [03:18:04]

Tara Pham:

… reason for that. People of color are 54% more likely to be hit by a car in this country. So, anything we can do to make safer and more accessible infrastructure we want to do. At the same time, it is not uncommon for us to hear, and I don’t necessarily mean numina, but people involved in these projects to hear, “I see what you’re doing, but I can tell that that’s not really for me.” So I’m curious if you have thoughts on, I guess, how to address that. Is it truly just bringing in the community earlier? Making sure that those outcomes aren’t pre-decided? Is it other-

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah, it’s really that. And I think what’s unfortunate and really sad about right now, in the midst of a pandemic, is that our field has really missed an opportunity to, prior to this point in time, build deeply rooted relationships at the community level that aren’t transactional in nature. Very few of us can point to connections at the community level that are connections outside of our need to convince community to have a project there. And then during the pandemic, we missed an opportunity to be co-facilitators in the literal healing of people who are being impacted by COVID-19.

Destiny Thomas:

So, I would say to your question, when people push back and say, “I just don’t see myself in the work”, it’s because the work was not created with them in mind. And speaking that truth and acknowledging that I think is an important first step in the direction of atonement and healing.

Destiny Thomas:

But I was offering up to someone earlier that at this point, while we’re all thinking about how to be responsive to both uprisings and a pandemic, at this point, just like how our brothers and sisters in the public health field created these frameworks for disparity, right? And these practices that are what we call harm reductive, right? We need to take on harm reduction as a practice in transportation.

Destiny Thomas:

And so yes, more black and brown people are dying from and being negatively impacted by crashes in the built environment. Very true. We are being negatively impacted disproportionately by just about every public health crisis. That speaks to a larger problem, a structural issue. And so I think that our…

Destiny Thomas:

What I mean by being harm reductive in our work as transportation planning professionals or firms, is that, okay, so what’s the solution or intervention if the community doesn’t want the bike lane? And the fact that we’re not ready to sit with that question says a lot about whether or not we truly are ready to be allies in this work, or accomplices in this work.

Destiny Thomas:

When you get to a place where a community member says no, and you honor their consent, which is another term that is popular now, we can start to honor people’s consent. That’s an important place of juncture. And that, “No, we don’t want a bike lane”, it does have a lot to do with valid fears of being displaced, not seeing themselves as choice mode users. And so there’s a broader conversation that needs to happen about how we get there.

Destiny Thomas:

I have offered up many solutions. Give bikes away for free. Make transit free. Deal with the environmental racism that’s happening around that project area. Maybe stabilize housing. Put some policies in place that push up against speculation. There are a number of things that we can use our positions of power as transportation planners, who are often the best friends of developers, right? There are things we could do and ways we could use our power to make our communities more comfortable with these investments and interventions.

Tara Pham:

When you suggested these sort of policy changes or interventions, what is the common pushback that you hear? How is “no” delivered? I’m curious, because-

Destiny Thomas:

How is “no” delivered from the community level?

Tara Pham:

Just some [crosstalk 03:22:48] that you’ve offered. Are there resistance to that, and what are the nos that you’ve encountered?

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. So the polite nos usually come from people who feel like what I’m proposing is inefficient or not feasible or unrealistic. And my retort to that is always, “It’s only not feasible because you have kicked this can down the road so long.” And so once this becomes Praxis, then it won’t take you 18 months to talk to one community member about a bike lane.

Destiny Thomas:

The less tactful nos that I get tend to definitely be full of hateful rhetoric, and folks challenging my solidity within the space. And to them I say, “That we are now at a point in time where you don’t have a choice. This is going to happen differently.” There are entire communities of people who agree with that sentiment. Even within the ranks of urban and transportation planning, folks are tired. So now’s an opportunity to read up and lean in, or experience what it is like to live in uprisings and folks challenging your work nonstop.

Tara Pham:

Yeah, yeah. What do you see is the most tactical things that both cities top-down and communities bottom-up can do to practice anti-displacement?

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. I love that question.

Tara Pham:

[crosstalk 03:24:27] question, sorry.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. And I love that question. I think that, I don’t know tactical, but I think that what’s really needed is to revisit our regulatory, our policies, around environmental protections. I think that there is some opportunities for [Deepa 03:24:46] and [Seqwa 03:24:47] to incorporate some anti-displacement requirements.

Destiny Thomas:

Now that we recognize houselessness as a public health issue, we also recognize racism as a public health issue, right? That is impacting the environment. And so our environmental protections need to be in alignment with that. And our implementing agencies need to know how to predict, measure and mitigate displacement within their project footprint.

Destiny Thomas:

So, that’s one practical, to me, way that our implementing agencies can intervene. And then I would say similarly at the community level, building capacity and knowing how to navigate and share that narrative with local government so that we can make sure folks are civically engaged.

Tara Pham:

Great. Well, we are out of time. Thank you so much for your time, Destiny, and great to chat with you.

Destiny Thomas:

Thank you.

Tara Pham:

Thanks URBAN-X for having us all together. And passing it off to Destiny and Tony.

Destiny Thomas:

Hi Tony.

Tony Garcia:

Hi. Hi, Destiny. Bye, Tara. Good to see you.

Tara Pham:

You too.

Tony Garcia:

How’s it going Destiny?

Destiny Thomas:

It’s going well. Have you been introduced? Should I introduce you?

Tony Garcia:

You can if you want. I don’t think I have been introduced. I’ve just been watching you guys banter.

Destiny Thomas:

Okay, cool. I’ll introduce you. Tony Garcia is co-founder of Street Plans Collaborative and leads the Miami office firm. Tony is a co-author of the globally acclaimed series Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change. Co-author of The Tactical Urbanism book published by Island Press in March, 2015.

Destiny Thomas:

And together with Mike Lydon, is the recipient of the 2017 Seaside Prize. He was awarded the 2018 CINTAS Foundation Fellowship for Architecture & Design. And founded the Ludlam Trail project, which will result in an addition of over 50 acres of new park space in Miami-Dade County.

Destiny Thomas:

Tony is a registered architect, a former part-time faculty member at the University of Miami School of Architecture. And most recently was a co-author of both The Bloomberg Asphalt Art Guide, a document that lays out how cities can use art to reclaim road space and public space. And NACTO’s Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery.

Destiny Thomas:

He’s a graduate of New York University, and the University of Miami School of Architecture. And lives in Miami with his wife and two children. That’s a really cool, yeah. That is a very cool bio.

Tony Garcia:

Thank you for reading that whole thing.

Destiny Thomas:

Absolutely. So I’ll get into some questions. I don’t know how much you know about me, but I’m very invested in this un-urbanist movement.

Tony Garcia:

Yeah.

Destiny Thomas:

So I have some very un-urbanist questions for you.

Tony Garcia:

Okay.

Destiny Thomas:

And I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to share them ahead of time.

Tony Garcia:

That’s okay. I like it. I like the surprise. And I’m a Twitter follower of yours, so.

Destiny Thomas:

Oh okay, so you’re ready?

Tony Garcia:

So I’ve been keeping up, yeah. No, I’m not ready.

Destiny Thomas:

Okay.

Tony Garcia:

I’m not ready. But go for it, let’s do this.

Destiny Thomas:

Great, okay. Have you identified ways to prevent displacement that happens as a result of transformative tactical urbanism?

Tony Garcia:

You know, I haven’t, and as all this conversation has been going around, we’ve really been thinking about it. And for the longest time, my answer to that was, “That’s just so far outside of what we do.” We’re transportation planners, we focus on mobility. And for a long time, I mean, as long as I can remember that’s been my answer. We can’t social engineer displacement or not.

Tony Garcia:

But obviously with the conversations that have been going on recently have really opened our eyes, and we’re still trying to wrap our minds around it and listen, and really think about where we adapt our work, and how we change our practice in general. Not just about around the idea of displacement, but you said a whole bunch of things just now with Tara that we’re grappling with right now. Like where did the genesis of these projects? And how we work within a system that’s basically a project mill? We’re just here to process a project, get it out the door.

Tony Garcia:

And we started our work in tactical urbanism for the purpose of trying to combat that project mill, because we didn’t want to go through the motions of just checking a box on a form. So the whole idea behind thriving is going beyond what you just did the bare minimum of what you had to do. We don’t want to just do the bare minimum.

Tony Garcia:

So we’re still struggling with that. And we’ve started in our practice most recently in the last month. All the new projects, we are going back to our clients and just challenging them and making sure that there was a process before that led to this point. If we’re being hired to do a bike lane or a mural, for example, an intersection mural or a crosswalk, we’re doing that right now in Chattanooga. I went back to the client and I said, “What got us here? What made you determine that we’re going to do an intersection mural here?” And she had really good answers, and there was a whole background that led up to this point.

Tony Garcia:

But I can’t say that all of our projects are like that. I can’t say that I have faith that all of our projects are going to be like that in the future. And you’re in this business, I think when it comes to transportation agencies in general, they’re all about just handing you a project.

Tony Garcia:

And we’re actually working on a project right now that is a bike lane project. It is not a community of color at all. It’s a community of white privilege. They are freaking out about this bike lane, freaking out in a bad way. So it’s like in that case, how do we get to that decision of the bike lane? And the opposition to the bike lane has more to do with, not those people not being involved in the processes, but the fact that their commute is going to get a little bit longer or they just don’t want the change to happen.

Destiny Thomas:

Comfort in privilege.

Tony Garcia:

Comfort in privilege, 100%. But at the beginning of that project, I told our client, I said, “Let’s go into this with the humility that maybe they’re right. Maybe we don’t need to do this. And all the decisions that got us to this point were faulty.” And for whatever their intentions are, their comfort is not… their conclusion is not wrong. Maybe the bike lane is not the right solution. And it’s been a struggle. That project has been a struggle. [crosstalk 03:31:53]

Destiny Thomas:

What is it about the pushback in that community that causes you and your client to lean into the pushback and consider, “Maybe we shouldn’t do it”? What is it about that community versus in maybe predominantly black and brown communities, that makes that pushback so much more effective in terms of system change, than the pushback that you might get from a black community around fears about displacement?

Tony Garcia:

Right, right. That’s a really good question. But just before I answer, I wouldn’t say that I’m leaning into not doing it. I started the project by telling the client, “Let’s listen before we assume that this is the right project, or this is the right solution.” The reason that we do tactical urbanism in the way that we do it, is going through a process of iterating. Let’s build out something small, see if it works. If it doesn’t work, let’s be honest about it not working, and not just bulldoze through and do the project anyway. That’s the whole purpose of doing a tactical project, is to try to ferret out those problems that don’t always work.

Tony Garcia:

In this case, the reason that the community might even be successful ultimately, even if we don’t think professionally that they have merit, is because they have money, and they have the ability to write letters. And it’s a retiree community so they have plenty of time. And that’s it, they just make it their life’s work to organize and write letters, and be generally angry and confuse things and make up things.

Destiny Thomas:

Right.

Tony Garcia:

Whereas in communities of color, people are focused on the bare essentials, right? I have to go to work. I have to take care of my kids. I have to make sure that we’re healthy. I have to put food on the table.

Tony Garcia:

Where’s their room there for a fun public meeting, or a non-fun public meeting, where we talked about a bike line? There’s no room there. And we do struggle with that. I’ll admit also, not a lot of our work is in communities of color. So we’ve been thinking also about, not how we do more work in communities of color, but where we are, how we approach that work, and how we are co-authors or how we share authorship and co-creation of those projects.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. You mentioned street murals. What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter street murals that have been going up?

Tony Garcia:

The one in Washington was, when it came out, I thought my favorite asphalt art project of all, for many reasons. And I know that the mayor was criticized a lot for that being a performative act because of other policies that she’s had. But just on the face of it, the where it was, and the national dialogue we’re having, I loved it. I loved it. And I think we need more of that.

Tony Garcia:

And I love even more the reaction of some, just recently in Cincinnati, you had the, I don’t know if you’ve of heard this, the city engineer or somebody in public works, they had a similar Black Lives Matter mural, and it was being taken off for street safety reasons because it interfered with people’s understanding of the space and the existing white lines that were there. So I was like, “That’s hilarious. Go down that path and see what happens.” Because when we argue with the city engineer, we don’t have any sort of moral justification other than the fact that the streets are unsafe, as they are. But taking off something like that, I think there is a First Amendment issue there. And it’s just not very tasteful I think.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. Follow up question. If you were asked by a municipality to implement this type of asphalt art with that kind of messaging, Black Lives Matter, and you knew that that city was mistreating black residents, would you step away from that project or would you still do it?

Tony Garcia:

100%. And one of my critiques of that Black Lives Matter in Washington, was that the photos that you had were of a bunch of white volunteers painting that. The initial Black Lives Matter in Washington. Which I thought, not just the optics, but just the whole way that that project came to be was not great. The result was great. But the way that it got there, I don’t think made a whole lot of sense to me.

Tony Garcia:

But no, we wouldn’t have any place I think doing that. And in fact, we’re working on a project right now. It’s funny that you’re saying this. And we haven’t been hired to do a Black Lives Matter mural, but we’ve been hired to do a mural on the border of West Philly. So, it’s an area that is gentrifying, and where our client is the gentrifying agent basically, or one of the institutional agents that’s doing that. And they hired us to do a mural in this location. And basically we said, “We can’t do that. I mean, we’re going to have to go out.” And we contacted a local community group that has contacts in the community with artists. And the contract was ours to do the art. So we’re turning that around in a way that we’re taking from our fee to give to local artists, to actually do the work, to do the designs. And we’ll all paint it together. But the genesis or the origination of the idea and the design itself will come from people who are from there. People of color primarily.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. I’m going to ask you one more question. And then I want to use the remaining time to just have more of a fluid discussion with you. So you come from, or you worked in the academy, right? You’ve worked in academia?

Tony Garcia:

Yeah.

Destiny Thomas:

And one of the biggest critiques in this moment is that our planning, engineering and architects, recent graduates, did not get the type of education that we would want our planners, engineers, and architects to have in order to be responsive in this moment. So what would you do if you were a professor of a class that was about to graduate, a group of students who were about to graduate, what would that lesson plan look like? What would that curriculum look like? What would be the key skills that you will want those students to have in order to be responsive and harm reductive in this moment?

Tony Garcia:

That’s a really good question. That’s a tough question. I don’t know. We come from a position of having to argue and fight for compact walkable urbanism, which is not the norm in academia as it is. And so putting that aside, I would approach it from the point of view of developing empathy and listening, which is not something that they teach you in architecture school. My background is in architecture school primarily, not urban planning school. And you’re taught how to design, how to draw, but not really how to listen or to do that type of very intense, high-touch outreach that you were talking about before, where you actually go out and you talk to people and you meet them where they are. That’s not a part of normal academia.

Tony Garcia:

So, number one is having a studio. This is what I would do. I would have a studio where the studio class is about a project in a community of color, where the students have to engage a community member or a community group and work with them to actually do the design. Because that’s the way that architecture school works. You’re given a problem statement at a site, and then you come up with some sort of a solution. Most often, it’s a solution that… Or the potential clients come to you. They come to your studio and you hear them, and then you go out to the site and you view the site and that’s it. And then you go back to the studio and you design.

Tony Garcia:

So having more engagement in the world, and having the studio go out actually into the world, that’s what I would do. I think that that would be a class in and of itself to address equity and issues of just listening. That’s how I would approach that.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. What about, another thing that I always have concerns around is the ways tactical urbanism can create hardship for people living with disabilities. Does that come up for you? And this is a genuine question as someone who’s also a planner, how can we be more responsive to the needs of people who feel like just the built environment in all its innovation is incredibly harmful to people with disabilities?

Tony Garcia:

Yeah. Disabilities absolutely come up in our work. And there is instances where a municipality has resources to try to do something about that within the context of our work. We haven’t come up with a really great solutions, or elegant ones, to accommodate for things like sidewalk expansions, or bike lanes, where they interact with sidewalks or bus stops, for example.

Tony Garcia:

So in a lot of cases where we go out there and we deploy these tactical projects, and they do come at the expense of people with disabilities, unless the city can come in and help us. Because doing concrete work, it’s just a matter of resources. We’re working with very little money. And we don’t often have enough to address those issues, which are just more expensive to address. But it goes back to your other question, which is what is the genesis of the project? Why do it?

Tony Garcia:

Why do it. Why do it. And I still don’t have an answer for that. And I struggle with it. We spend so long, me personally spent so long in my community just vouching for and trying to push for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, that sometimes we’re blind to the damage that it can do. Because we’re just so fervent and passionate about this is important. It’s important for everybody to be able to walk and bike, and where we get a win, we get a win. Whether it’s a tactical project or a longer-term project. And so oftentimes we are blind to that.

Tony Garcia:

We did have a project actually in Akron, Ohio, where we were working in a community of color. We were working with the local community groups. And the pavement condition was terrible. It was just in really bad shape. And it was in anticipation of a longer-term investment that the city was going to make. So they were already going to go do this project without the tactical project. So we said, “Let us help you make it better.” So in some cases we’re piling on to a bad decision. I don’t think it was going to be a bad decision ultimately, they were going to do a very good project, but the pavement condition was bad.

Tony Garcia:

And the city had not actually ever been out to the site. So just having the city go out and walk with us along the site, they saw the bad pavement condition. And so they came out and patched it up, so it didn’t stop the project. And that was one of the comments that we got back on our survey was, “This is really nice, but the pavement condition is terrible. And there’s places where I have to veer off into the travel lane to continue on because I can’t go here.” But I’ll take as a win, the fact that the city had to get out of their chairs and out of their city hall and walk around the neighborhood, to actually see what was on the ground.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. I think that that’s an effective strategy. I’m getting a little bit of echo. But I do think that that’s an effective strategy in that. And I think even taking that concept one more step further, is what would it look like to just hire community members to be planners? That way we don’t have to tell people why it’s important to go outside and look at the space that they’re designing, they know.

Tony Garcia:

Right, right. Totally, totally.

Destiny Thomas:

Thank you for what sounds like really important work that you’re doing. And for having the values that you have. Unless there are other things that you want to lift up with our remaining time? I’ll pass it back to Miriam.

Tony Garcia:

I just wanted to say thank you for your contributions to the field. I wish we had been listening for longer. And I don’t know, just thank you. And your article in CityLab recently really was an eye-opener for us. And it made us think a lot about our practice, and it’s going to have a lasting effect on our work, on our personal work. I can’t speak for the profession at large or our municipal clients. I think that’s going to take all of us working together.

Destiny Thomas:

Yeah. I won’t sleep until we get it. I hope y’all know that.

Tony Garcia:

Good, good.

Destiny Thomas:

I won’t sleep.

Tony Garcia:

Good.

Destiny Thomas:

Thank you.

Tony Garcia:

Awesome. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Miriam Roure:

Thank you so much to all of you. I wanted to thank all the speakers, Destiny, Tony, Tara, Adam, Stephen, James, Maya, Tiffany, Anthonia, Javier, and Dror. I really appreciate the openness in every single conversation. And thank you for your time to forward the conversation around building more just and equitable and sustainable cities for all.

Miriam Roure:

I would want to encourage everyone of the audience to please continue to engage with us at URBAN-X, and continue to share ideas and create the future that we all deserve. And with that, thank you so much.