fbpx

(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 343: This Food Pyramid Would be All Cars

July 22, 2021

This week we’re joined by Zabe Bent, Director of Design for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. We chat about how we think too much about the future and growth, the current MUTCD process, and how she would start the design an infrastructure bill.

A full unedited transcript for this episode is below.

Jeff Wood (1m 22s):
Zabe Bent. Welcome to the talking headways podcast.

Zabe Bent (1m 25s):
Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Jeff Wood (1m 27s):
Well it’s good to finally get you on the show. I know we’ve talked about this for maybe a couple of years now. Possibly. I think it’s been a little bit of

Zabe Bent (1m 32s):
Time. It feels like it has been that long. Yeah. Well, before

Jeff Wood (1m 36s):
We get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself?

Zabe Bent (1m 38s):
My name is . I am an engineer, a platter, and a designer, and I work at NACTA, which is the national association of city transportation officials, and a mouthful. And I am the director of design.

Jeff Wood (1m 54s):
How did you get into planning, transportation, designed cities? Was it something that happened when you were little or was it something that you gradually came to as you went through your studies?

Zabe Bent (2m 6s):
I would say it’s something that happened when I was little, but I didn’t know it then it didn’t know that this was a branch of study or employment or anything that existed. And so I didn’t know that this is something that I could do, but I was always the kid who was excited being in the first car for subway. When I was little, I loved walking to the park at the end of the street, or what have you. And I remember also having to cross a six lane arterial just to go to school as a kid. So I was born in Jamaica. My family is almost entirely from Jamaica and I remembered how different it was being in one city and then moving as a young child to New York.

Zabe Bent (2m 49s):
And so I really had these very different experiences, but I always loved walking and biking and driving and having all of these different things and having all of relatively close by having choices. And at first I was like, I want to be an architect. I want to build things. And then I realized architects don’t sleep, but I got to undergrad. And I was like, yeah, no, this is not what I want. No, this is not what I want to do. And so I got into urban planning and as a planner, I worked originally redeveloping clothes, what they called anyway, mental institutions in Massachusetts and realizing that almost everyone wanted assisted living facilities or senior housing or any number of things.

Zabe Bent (3m 38s):
And whenever I would ask why they would say, oh, because we don’t want a lot of traffic. And I was like, surely there is another answer to this. This cannot be the only way forward. And this cannot be the reason. And on a lot of projects that I’ve worked on, it was always, nobody could figure out what to do about the traffic. And so they just said, we’re going to pick a use that we think doesn’t have as much traffic. And I remember thinking, no, there has to be another way around this. And that’s how I got into transportation.

Jeff Wood (4m 5s):
I mean, you you’d think that they’d want it, that use because it was necessary or it was useful in some way, but it was just because of the traffic

Zabe Bent (4m 12s):
Predominantly, because a lot of times they were these massive facilities. I remember one of them was 500 acres, one of those 250 acres and thinking about redeveloping, the entire property in a small city, or even a midsize city, or even Boston, you know, there were people who were just like, we don’t want to develop all of this property with, you know, intensive uses because they’re in locations where the traffic patterns just wouldn’t make sense would overwhelm the network. Six of surely we can design a better network, not enough. We’re not doing that.

Jeff Wood (4m 48s):
Oh, it’s such a rough cognitive dissonance of all of that. Just from people probably that we’re asking for less traffic probably were like, oh, I’m happy to live in. My single family neighborhood were built out and create traffic and things like that. And

Zabe Bent (5m 2s):
That’s consistent in other projects that I’ve worked on too, over the years. Right?

Jeff Wood (5m 6s):
Well, throughout your work, you’ve lived in a number of different cities. Are there any standouts, places that you love even visiting? I mean, I know that you travel a lot, you go to a lot of different places around the world. Is there any place that kind of stands out as a place that you could say that you’d want to live in, or maybe that you’d want to spend an extended amount of time in, or maybe it’s just like a favorite for some random reason? I don’t

Zabe Bent (5m 27s):
Necessarily have a specific favorite city. I have several favorites, I guess. And I would say that the consistent element is that I can choose how I want to get around and I can, I still have some confidence that we’ll get there in a reasonable amount of time and not hate it. So, yeah, I mean, I love Centerra Chino. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there. So I can’t say how it is now, but I’ve enjoyed being there. Lisbon consistently is among my favorite cities. I am one of those new Yorkers who loves New York, but I don’t think it’s the best city in the world. It just suits me usually. And I love the size of compact cities. I mean, one of the reasons I like Lisbon, it’s a small city that has great transit and, you know, you can still walk around in the city and get free.

Zabe Bent (6m 14s):
You need to go put as opposed to the beach. And so you can be in other places relatively quickly. And I love that kind of accessibility to city life, but also to nature and to other activities that you get, you know, in the bay area, as you know, I spent a good chunk of time, but yeah, those are the qualities that I like about cities. And I find that any city that’s like that, I’m probably going to like it a

Jeff Wood (6m 36s):
Lot. Yeah. Other things that you do that I’m always impressed by metalworking, you do cooking, you also write some science fiction from time to time. How do those likes and interests mix into your transportation or planning, you know, profession in general?

Zabe Bent (6m 52s):
I think when we bring our whole selves to our work, we see our work as person and not just as an expert. And although I’ve been doing this type of work for so long remembering to sort of bring my whole self it’s helpful because it allows me to sort of remember that real people use these facilities that we’re designing and building and what have you. And I try to put myself with people like me, as well as sort of seeing the other perspective as I’m planning these projects. The other thing is, I think it’s great to have an outlet that isn’t, you know, your normal every day, because it allows you to go into subconscious thinking mode and also just have a moment to breathe and sort of recharge and come back.

Zabe Bent (7m 38s):
And there were definitely moments when I would go into the jewelry studio and like bang out a piece of metal or melt something because I was so frustrated by what happened in the day. And that really helps to just sort of get out your frustrations, but also it helps to check for an offer of it and come back into rethink, come at something from a different perspective. So I really enjoy those things. And I think most people would say that my perspective is always putting people first and remembering all of that really helps to set your things like outreach and engagement or having an actual evaluation framework that results in outcomes rather than just numbers for numbers, sake.

Jeff Wood (8m 14s):
Science fiction is something that you’re interested in. I’m wondering if there’s any kind of parallels between what futurists talk about and what we’re seeing in the built environment, the current time period,

Zabe Bent (8m 28s):
You’re going to get me in trouble because I am not a futurist at all. I just don’t, even though I am currently writing a novel that centers time travel as the device, I think a lot of our urban planning perspectives focus on what’s going to happen in the future. And it forces us to think about growth and change. And I think that inherently means that we’re going to ourselves on not what is happening now. And also when we think about growth, it’s, it’s often in terms of either the outlier or the sort of the biggest grower, you know, the biggest change, which really doesn’t allow us to focus on what’s happening to the everyday person or what’s happening to the marginalized group or what have you.

Zabe Bent (9m 20s):
And so I, I spend a lot of time, especially if you suddenly trying to say, please, for the love of God, demand is important so that we understand what is happening and sort of can describe it, but I want to focus on need. And that means that we’re focusing on what’s happening now, just as much as the future, but a lot of our planning processes focus on trends and growth and where we’re going to, and I’m like, please solve at least one problem that’s happening now. Just, just, just try, let’s do that. You

Jeff Wood (9m 47s):
Always see those models. And I think recently a number of different outlets have posted this as a, kind of a commentary on the model, but, you know, there’s always this undulating travel model or, you know, transportation VMT or whatever it is. And then all of the models just say, they’re all straight up in the air. Like it’s going to just go up, up and up at forever. And then I think the pandemic kind of maybe changed our mindset for two seconds. And then everybody went back to growth. Again, it seems like maybe we didn’t learn something that we should have learned from this last year in terms of the transportation and growth.

Zabe Bent (10m 16s):
Yeah, I think that’s true in a lot of ways. I think part of it is our desire to sort of re-embrace some level of comfort. And for some reason that means normal. I personally don’t find normal or getting back to normal as a comforting thing because normal wasn’t working in a lot of different ways for a lot of different people. But I also think that we’ve changed a lot of things about the way that we do projects perhaps during the pandemic. And I think the cities that are really going to do well now are cities that are also looking at their systems and our modeling system. That, I mean, I was just at a modeling conference where a lot of people were talking about how models need to change in order to be accepted models need to change or evolve in order for people to understand how to use them better.

Zabe Bent (11m 5s):
But also we need to change. Like we build models, we build the algorithms that go into them. And so we, we also need to change our thinking about what are the systems that we’re using to predict what’s happening. And that takes a lot more time and I’m trying to be patient about that, but it’s also incredibly frustrating when it’s like, we see that this is not working. I also think that the modelers that are doing interesting things are looking at how to use models, not just to answer questions of what will happen in the future, but also to simply change the way that we do analysis about our transportation number.

Jeff Wood (11m 40s):
What does some of that look like? What would that look like? If we were to change kind of the way we thought about models, generally

Zabe Bent (11m 46s):
Looking at how models help us look at geospatial data, again, not just future, but how to compare different scenarios and how we change different inputs. And some of that is certainly about the future and understanding growth and trends and where they’re happening. But I think a lot of the scenario analysis could happen now. Like what if we change the policy, which could be, but today type of thing, or a need based thing, or what if we understood how people use the network of the system differently based on some outcomes. So I think those are some really interesting analysis and there are few cities that are doing really interesting work on that front.

Zabe Bent (12m 27s):
And again, I’m using the model more as an analysis tool rather than simply a forecasting tool.

Jeff Wood (12m 32s):
And what about the metrics that we use? I mean, I feel like, well, first off I think that we are way behind. And if I’m thinking from the federal level, at least we’re way behind and having goals and setting goals and having actual targets that we’re trying to reach, it seems like just a federal kind of the process is just to Dole out money, not necessarily to accomplish anything. I’m wondering how metrics fit into that and like what we’re trying to accomplish versus just giving out money. Yeah.

Zabe Bent (12m 55s):
I mean, I think we’re in an exciting moment where we have a administration that is focused on metrics and has goals that are at least for me a little bit more aligned with where I think the organization or administration in the country as a whole could be moving by focusing on equity and safety and sustainability. And so I think it’s important to see how these are connected because it, it creates more transparency and how we make decisions that transparency creates trust. It also creates that trust creates stewardship, right?

Zabe Bent (13m 35s):
So right now we see a lot of people sort of carrying projects forward on their own and looking for a champion. But I think a lot of that is that people don’t understand how the metrics that we report are connected to the values or goals that we’ve outlayed, but you make that connection for people and they get why you’re, you’re tracking this thing. They get where you’re making different decisions and they can see the change and hopefully they can align themselves with the projects and hopefully the success of the projects so that they can become champions themselves rather than always looking for a political champion or quite honestly, an advocate or opponent of a project.

Jeff Wood (14m 13s):
Do you think people are sometimes afraid to set the values and goals because then they feel like they’ll have to, you know, back them up? I don’t know. I mean

Zabe Bent (14m 21s):
That that’s never thought about that. I think, I don’t know that people are afraid to set them, but I think sometimes especially if you have been working in government for a while, or you are an advocate from a marginalized community organization that had been in the trenches fighting for a very long time, and you just, haven’t seen a lot of change that you sort of, you had your bets a bit maybe, and that makes it harder. Of course, then to sort of shoot for the moon because you’re already not shooting that high or aiming that. But I also think a lot of our systems are siloed. And so if we only have engineers working towards something or we only have clean energy advocates working towards something, or what have you, rather than all of these groups working together, they’re not getting the full picture and it makes it really hard to get to successful outcomes.

Zabe Bent (15m 13s):
I think the best metrics, the best goals are ones that can tackle multiple items at a time. So that not only are you creating coalition, but you’re also seeing how the particular project is impacting more than one element of either your values or your goals or your system. For example, if we’re constantly saying that we only, and I’m just picking out of the air on this one, but if we’re, you know, we’re only focused on clean energy, then particular policy that doesn’t offense mobility or, or traffic efficiency or performance or road safety is not gonna move forward.

Zabe Bent (15m 52s):
Right. It’s just, it’s not going to have the same access. It’s not going to have the same number of folks who were behind it because they’re all focused on clean energy. And like, they don’t see the overlap, but if you pick a project and a metric that can show how these two things are connected, you instantly get, you know, force multipliers, you get coalition and you get movement. But I think a lot of times that we’re just too siloed.

Jeff Wood (16m 15s):
Is there a way to get out of the silo? I mean, I feels like it’s really tough. We had Ben Holland on the show recently from Rocky mountain Institute and he was talking about kind of how even inside the environmental community, it’s hard to have a discussion about land use versus just electric cars and things like that. So it’s hard to create those confabs sometimes. And so I’m wondering, you know, how possible is it to kind of create those coalitions and get those projects where you can actually have multiple different people in the room that are, have different ideas about what the end result might be, but a positive one.

Zabe Bent (16m 45s):
I think it’s just talking to people. Is it really? That sounds crazy. It’s not obviously, but I definitely feel like a lot of times we get entrenched in our thinking that this is the answer. And I think a lot of the way that we are taught to approach situations is to find the solution, which makes us feel like there’s only one thing. And I feel like I say this all the time, but there are no hero modes. There aren’t a silver bullets there. Isn’t usually one answer, you know, urban transportation over mobility is a multi-headed beast and we kind of have to chip away at each piece of it.

Zabe Bent (17m 25s):
We can’t just chop off one thing. And so I think talking to people who do work outside of our norm, that’s gotta be the way forward. I mean, we’re seeing right now a public health crisis that played out urban streets, right? We’re literally trying to figure out how do we reconfigure our streets to make sure that we can fit public health norms that are changing that’s then touching out public space. And then now we’re talking about how do you allocate public as well? That’s an equity consideration. You know, we have to think of that in the, both the current to the historical context. And now we’ve got, you know, this sort of justice framework and it becomes this bigger and bigger thing, but it also space also touches mobility.

Zabe Bent (18m 8s):
It touches equity and it touches on sustainability and it’s happening again now, as opposed to sort of long reaching and rhino things like climate change, which is a real thing, but it’s happening in the future for a lot of people, people who obviously can’t see the hurricane schedule or all the wildfires or what have you, but the things that we would do to protect the climate and the things that we would do to protect space are essentially the same. So if we align all of those different groups, I think we can make a much bigger and more immediate dent and something that is both happening now. And in the future,

Jeff Wood (18m 46s):
There was a really interesting piece in, I think it was yesterday and next city talking about, you know, the freeway tear downs and the connecting places, the other spot that got disconnected from across the freeway, but the author and I, I feel bad cause I can’t remember her name right now, but I’ll put it in the show notes and it’s in my newsletter as well. And what she said is, is that not just freeway tear downs, but maybe pavement as well, like just generally, because there’s so many things that pavement kind of means to environmental quality, to environmental justice, all of that impervious cover that is part of just paving over spaces. And I thought that was really interesting because it’s kind of a different perspective. I’ve seen so many pieces lately, I think maybe just because of the discussion of it at the federal level, for some of that funding that might go to, you know, reconnecting neighborhoods like Rondo in, in, in St.

Jeff Wood (19m 33s):
Paul, but there’s that discussion. But then some of these other discussions, like the heat island effect and everything else that happens because of climate change, it’s really interesting to see kind of that different perspective. And I’m wondering if you had any thoughts on that because it kind of deconstructs that structure of a highway that’s built out of concrete obviously to the idea of pavement generally. And I just thought that was really fascinating. Yeah.

Zabe Bent (19m 55s):
I mean, that’s a really helpful framing because I, I do think, and I was just talking about it on a panel earlier this week, but I do feel like we, we forget how much we have done to sort of create pristine spaces in urban environments. And to say, this is a separate space for this, and this is a separate space for that. And there’s certainly a place for that, but not every space can be that. And we’re we’re people. And in order to have realistic human people, skilled places, we do want to touch, you know, greenery and we want to touch water and air and what have you.

Zabe Bent (20m 35s):
And we need spaces that can bring all of those things together. Then it will help again, connection as well as, you know, long-term and short-term needs for sustainability. Yeah. I mean the freeway tear downs is a bigger issue. I think, because I think in a lot of cases, tearing them down is probably the right answer, but I don’t think that’s true in every case. And I don’t know that anyone’s actually saying we should turn out all freeways. No, no, I hope not anyway, but I do think it’s important to figure out how do we repair the harm and also how do we do that based on what we have in front of us today and how we’re bringing other people into that discussion.

Zabe Bent (21m 17s):
And again, I think a lot of people will approach a situation and in particularly in urban mobility, because everyone thinks they know the answer, but also, you know, there are other answers available, but I think a lot of times people will say, well, I want to stop sign at the end of my street. And then you actually ask them what the problem is. And they sort of go a level deeper and say, oh, you want traffic calming and you want a little bit more placemaking you want people to slow down and you know, okay, well here are the other options that we have stops that isn’t really what you want. But if we get really focused on the stop sign, like tearing up freeway, rather than having a discussion about what we really need and what we want based on what’s there now, I think we’ll end up in a very different place.

Zabe Bent (21m 59s):
So yeah, I think it’s a great conversation we have in it. And I love the idea of thinking about it broader and bringing it in the sort of bigger issues is it essentially freeways divided people, but they also cut people off from nature, right? Like they divided communities, cut communities off, run off from economic activity, from upward mobility, from green spaces, from connection with each other, with other communities, all those things. So yeah, it has to be a bigger solution than just that’s true.

Jeff Wood (22m 36s):
You mentioned stop signs. That brings me to thinking about the TCD and kind of the discussion that’s going on there, what’s the current situation with what’s going on with the kind of the pushback against them. You TCD and reforming it as a whole.

Zabe Bent (22m 52s):
Yeah. So this is the first time it’s being revisited. And at this scale, and I think 11 or 12 years, and the last time that it was undertaken, comments were open and I think they received something like 2,600 comments in this tower. LAMC 26,000. And so there’s a lot of work to be done there to understand what everyone’s saying and thinking about and doing. And so I think it’ll take some time, but the idea at this point is to really look at the document and say, is it accomplishing what it was meant to accomplish? And what is the right way to respond to the combined crisis of, of traffic safety road, safety of racial justice and equity and our climate crisis, and make sure that actually come out with a document that doesn’t just say, this is where to put the stop sign or what have you, but actually a document that enables the types of roadway, configurations that we actually need types of projects that we actually need and encourages us to make the right decisions for.

Zabe Bent (24m 3s):
And when I say us, I mean engineers, because it’s, this is a document that is essentially used exclusively by engineers, but encourages us to make the right decision for our vision of urban mobility in particular, but, but of mobility and across the nation right now we have a document that makes it possible for you to think that you might could watch to make the right decision. And I mean, that generously and what we need is a vacuum that says here is the easiest way to make the right decision. It’s going to take some time to get there though, because it’s, it’s a huge undertaking. It’s I think the draft was 700 and some odd pages. And we’re at a point now where unfortunately, and this is another issue of access, but unfortunately they are sort of going off on their own and review reviewing the comments behind closed doors, because that’s sort of what a process looks like, but that does mean that we don’t all get to be a part of.

Zabe Bent (25m 1s):
How does this document get written? How do you incorporate comments on a 700 page document where there are comments on almost every page?

Jeff Wood (25m 9s):
It made me think of what is it in UK parliament. It’s like the house of Lords or whatever, where they all argue with each other. You know, I feel like there needs to be maybe a, like a, a virtual room where there’s a whole bunch of people arguing with each other. Maybe.

Zabe Bent (25m 23s):
I mean, we were hoping that there would be some sort of like round table discussions or, you know, listening sessions or something. And they did have some of that, but what’s going to happen now is that, you know, they’re gonna go off and write this

Jeff Wood (25m 35s):
Document. Some of them felt accosted by the number of comments that were received. I felt like there were some that felt personally, like there was a personal affront to them that the document was being questioned, which was interesting to me. I

Zabe Bent (25m 50s):
Cannot really comment on that simply because I comment on it. No, I mean, it’s more like, I just, that’s not something that I can quite understand because maybe as a writer or just as, you know, person in this world, I don’t know, but I’m, I’m used to hearing people say, what the heck is that thing? And you know, how do we make it better? Or what have you, and you sort of, you say, okay, fine. It’s not working. Okay. Okay. But you take, you know, you take a breather and then you come back and you’re like, okay, how do I fix this? But also, you know, this is something that’s been around since 1970, the current iteration has been around since 1970 something. So I get sort of your

Jeff Wood (26m 31s):
Bias, you know, I think that’s how we met. I was yelling about Gary back in 2010 or somewhere.

Zabe Bent (26m 37s):
One of the gear is subway and I didn’t disagree. I just said that you’d probably get BRT sooner.

Jeff Wood (26m 44s):
Yes. Different discussion. I know recent events. Exactly. Yeah. The, the manual. Are there any ways that you’ve seen that the manual has stymied good decisions are a particular instances where you’ve seen something that might’ve been different? If there was another approach?

Zabe Bent (27m 4s):
I think the easiest and most relatable thing is signal warrants, which is something that comes up in pretty much every city that I’ve ever worked in, where in order to get a traffic signal over the pedestrian crossing, you need to prove that there’s a certain amount of demand for pedestrian crossings. And literally I’ve heard people say, you know, there is a senior center on this side of the street, it’s, you know, three or four or five or six traffic lanes to cross traffic flows freely. And the next intersection is, you know, a five minute walk away.

Zabe Bent (27m 47s):
Oh, but there isn’t enough pedestrian demand there. So the signal is not warranted. That’s sort of like, you know, if there were a bridge across this river, then we would be able to cross. But since there’s no bridge across this river, we, we can’t cross it. And it’s like, well, do you want to cross the river or not? That’s the real question. Right? Like, you know, it’s sort of like if you build it, they will come work for cars, but it works for other modes too. And so you can’t measure a demand that you haven’t created an outlet for. But the other thing that’s really worrying about that is even if people died at that location, trying to cross the street, trying to create that demand or satisfy that number, you still have to wait until four more impact before you can build it there because it’s not warranted until five people have died there.

Zabe Bent (28m 34s):
And obviously, you know, that’s a little bit insane to think about, like how did that number become the number? How did, how did even, you know, 150 people become the number for a demand that’s less five, five desks. And I think that is the easiest thing is that the idea is to maintain traffic flow, to do use delay, to reduce vehicle congestion. But this is a document that was based on creating safety and clarity on our urban streets, making sure that everyone could recognize a traffic signal recognize when a stop sign looks like everyone knew what the rules of the road were and how to design for them. And our system has changed a lot, but also we understand more about the way that people need to interact and the document needs to change to reflect that.

Jeff Wood (29m 22s):
Yeah. I was reading another piece that you were quoted in and it was talking about the immune TCD and how, you know, basically you’re saying that it’s been created for cars and about cars and everything is related to cars and then everything else is othered people, walking, people, cycling people on mobility devices, anything else? It’s just like, well, you’re not a car. You aren’t a part of the club.

Zabe Bent (29m 44s):
Yeah. I mean sort of if we had a food pyramid and levels, 1, 2, 3, and four or car, and then at the bottom was everything else. And it’s like teeny tiny pyramids. And that’s essentially how it feels when going through the documents. And I think there’s a way to do it. That is mode agnostic. Probably. I think that would take a lot more effort and time than maybe we have right now. But I think that the main thing is to simply say, if we want to have safer streets, if we want to have equitable networks, if we want to have sustainable outcomes and meet all the crises that we’re facing right now, then we need to make sure that at the very least, all users are on the same swing.

Zabe Bent (30m 24s):
But the best way forward is probably to elevate the most vulnerable users to make sure that the modes of travel that we know to be most sustainable or most vulnerable are prioritized. And right now we’re not doing

Jeff Wood (30m 37s):
It right now. The American jobs plan slash bi-partisan plans slash invest act slash everything in the world act is going through Congress in terms of transportation and infrastructure. If you had the opportunity to start from scratch on creating a bill, how would you start it out?

Zabe Bent (30m 56s):
Wow. An infrastructure bill specifically, I felt like I have to be careful what I say because Beth Osborne is going to come after. It’s not the right thing, which is great. She’s great. But if I were going to create an infrastructure bill, I would figure out what are the types of infrastructure we need to make sure that everyone who resides works lives in our communities has access to work, to play, to food, to help here at school, bio sustainable mode, whatever we need to do in order to make that happen. And I know that seems really sort of like a pie in the sky, but I think if you put that sort of forward and you sent her that notion, then it means that people should be able to walk to school.

Zabe Bent (31m 44s):
People should be able to take their kids to school without having to get in their car, because obviously that’s creating traffic congestion, but people should be able to, to get to work. People should be able to go to the hospital in a reasonable amount of time and that cannot be done. If folks are stuck in traffic, I think we need to make sure that any infrastructure we’re building is not single use, which is what we have now, when we build highways and roads for cars, those are single use facilities. We cannot continue to build those. So I think we need to make sure that we are building for multiple moments at a time and that we’re putting the efficiency and productivity of those sustainable modes first.

Zabe Bent (32m 26s):
So that’s like how I would approach the problem. And in order to do that, I think we need to make sure that we are connecting basically pedestrian bicycle and transit routes that simply have had investment in decades. And that means infill projects. That means, you know, projects that are repurposing existing facilities and sort of redistributing both the space and the time and the budget that we are spending those sustainable modes. We shouldn’t be building new roads for, you know, car struggle and we should be building new connections for walking and biking and transit.

Zabe Bent (33m 8s):
We should be purposing those facilities. I also think, and this is sort of less infrastructure based, but I think we need to make sure that those are facilities that have sort of policy underpinnings that support them. So, you know, I think we need to look at our commuter benefits package, especially in the last year. We’ve seen that a lot of people, at least office workers don’t have to commute, but they need other infrastructure improvements in order to make that work like how many people paid extra for their wifi connection so that they can have SPAD faster speedier connections out of their own pocket or came out of a company pocket or something like that. Maybe we don’t need parking subsidies.

Zabe Bent (33m 50s):
Maybe we need internet subsidies, those sorts of things. So I think we need to think about how they’re all connected to each other. And I think we need to build more green infrastructure. Literally we separate our roadways from our Greenways and I would love to see more of that incorporated. I’d love to see, you know, like a bus stop with a rain shelter, you know, how do we actually make sure that we’re incorporating greenery into our spaces? But I think infrastructure is like, what is the backbone of how we get around how we make connections? And I think it has to be more about getting work and it has to be about going to school, getting to the hospital and getting to all these different things by sustainable notes.

Jeff Wood (34m 35s):
It’s really interesting. I mean, Emily Badger has kind of been on a roll lately with some of her pieces and the New York times, she had one, a couple of weeks ago about the flattening of rush hour and had that discussion. Then yesterday was one about the kind of hollowing out of downtowns and the changing needs of urban spaces that we’ve now kind of seeded to offices from where they used to be warehousing and everything else. And that kind of speaks to your discussion as well. I mean, I think that ultimately we need to think about how people get to work and whether they actually need, you know, express buses versus the internet connection. Like you said, it seems like there’s going to be a flattening out. Maybe. I mean, who knows what’s gonna actually happen?

Jeff Wood (35m 16s):
I mean, I I’ve said many times on this show that I don’t like to make the predictions, but we like to talk about it, but there’s maybe a flattening out. And then what does that mean for, you know, transportation services more generally, like if we do flatten the rush hour, does that mean we can spend money more equitably? And what does that actually mean?

Zabe Bent (35m 32s):
Yeah, I mean, I think we have seen with the pandemic, we’ve seen people traveling at different times of day than we would normally see or peaks it at least at different times of day and then much, much smaller peak in many cases. But you know, San Francisco for example, has changed its plus network like four times in the past year or so. And that has been to respond to when and where frontline, frontline workers are trying to get work. And many of our transit systems are very much focused on commute hours and very much focused on downtown hub and spoke systems. And that’s not how people who are going to, you know, from home in the Bayview to, you know, their job at SF general or to wherever it might be.

Zabe Bent (36m 24s):
It’s just a very different travel pattern by time of day and by location. And I think when we see plus networks and networks and scooter systems and bike share systems, all these different things that are changing previously, those trips were dedicated to people in cars because you know, the transit network couldn’t really shift that way because it’s just not built that way. But I think more and more networks need to respond to that need. We need to see all day networks and we need to see people traveling to the locations that they currently need to get to need more rating systems that only works if we realize that, you know, the office worker is the most flexible worker now, not the weeks, but our systems are pretty much tailored to them.

Zabe Bent (37m 8s):
Right. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (37m 9s):
Yeah. It’s kind of weird to think about that and we’ve done it for so long that maybe we can’t see a different outcome than maybe the one that we’ve been so used to. I think we’re creatures of habit and inertia, and sometimes it’s hard to get out of that. Absolutely.

Zabe Bent (37m 23s):
We want people to go back to normal and that’s the normal that wasn’t working for. All of those workers who took, you know, two hours to get to work, what would our systems look like if we designed it so that they could get to work in 30 minutes to 10 minutes,

Jeff Wood (37m 36s):
Didn’t really work for transit agencies either. I think they’re spending strange amount of money on these commute patterns where they had bus layovers after rush and you know, during the morning and then afternoon, and then you had, you know, drivers that maybe weren’t doing something in the middle of the day or they had to come back and they had a different shift or whatever that might be. So it was kind of just weird and the focus on that maybe, you know, 10% of time for 19% of the travel, you know, the trips, it’s just a weird construct. And the idea that everybody’s traveling at the same time, every single day is weird. Reminds me of one of those like silly, you know, old, 1950s British films where they’re trying to show you the city. And like they have this like art deco drawings and Bob gets into his car and drives to work.

Jeff Wood (38m 18s):
And there’s like the factory with the, with the smokestack. And I don’t know anyways,

Zabe Bent (38m 22s):
No, I mean, I, I totally see those sort of things. And you know, even the Jetsons, you know, we have this sort of very much focused on, okay, now everyone’s going to, to work and you know, it’s hovercraft or what have you. Yeah. I mean, we’ve assumed that as normal, but if we don’t start serving other types of trips and other types of day, then the idea of car shedding will never become real. And you can’t check your car. If you’ve got to take your kid to school, you know, at seven or eight, and then you have to go somewhere else. And those trips are completely, you know, odds from each other. Or, you know, you’ve got to go to, to work at a bar or restaurant at 11 at night, and you don’t have a chance of function at that hour, or it takes you three hours to get home.

Zabe Bent (39m 3s):
All of those things, we need networks that respond to those needs.

Jeff Wood (39m 8s):
What’s been exciting to you lately in terms of transportation cities generally, is there anything that’s like, you know, getting you very excited for the future or maybe for the present?

Zabe Bent (39m 19s):
Yeah. I have really enjoyed seeing how cities are pivoting from what they’ve learned during the pandemic. And we have little people in the background, hopefully that’s how that goes, but that’s, that’s also part of new normal in my opinion,

Jeff Wood (39m 34s):
I didn’t even notice. I mean, I noticed it, but I was like, oh, okay. Yeah.

Zabe Bent (39m 40s):
Yeah. So I think it’s been really interesting and exciting to see how cities are learning from the work that they’re doing right now. And not just, you know, how to put down a better, faster biplane or extend a curb or sidewalk or what have you, but how do you use space differently and how to deliver it faster, how to sort of integrate the work that they’re doing with something else someone else is doing and asking questions about how to engage with people differently, how to redistribute investment so that we’re addressing, you know, historical wrongs or simply trying to create a better present and future. All of those are even just, the question is exciting to me.

Zabe Bent (40m 24s):
I of course want a lot more than that. And the cities that I think are really trying to grapple with these questions and change the way that they work, not just, you know, putting down different projects is one thing thinking about how to deliver those projects differently is what I find most exciting right now.

Jeff Wood (40m 41s):
It’s interesting to read pieces about how those are being implemented as well. Some of the open streets and some of the things that have been kind of reconfigured, but also some of the negatives that come out. I mean, we often see it as a really big positive thing, but there’s been a couple of articles recently in eater. And even, I think in maybe it was Bloomberg or maybe it was fast company can’t remember, but a couple about people who are disabled and they have problems getting through them, all that is, you know, the popup restaurant. And so it’s interesting to kind of take a different perspective and look at the things that there’s a benefit to these changes and creating access for people, but then maybe it takes away access from other people who might need it even more. I

Zabe Bent (41m 16s):
Think it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m going to be honest about that. I think it’s good that we’re hearing from those perspectives that are saying good, God, you’ve done this wrong or Hey, you forgot about this very obvious thing or obvious to me. And I think it’s one of the ways that it shows that it really is important to hear from multiple voices. But I also think in our efforts to move very quickly, sometimes we sort of do a new thing in an old way and forget about, you know, all these other things that we might’ve learned. And in some ways I’d give cities a lot of credit for that because cities have, you know, city employees have been going through a pandemic too. Right. They’re trying to do all these things in the midst of trying to figure out, you know, what does our work crew look like?

Zabe Bent (42m 0s):
Not just now in general going forward, but now today, because you know, Sam called in sick because of COVID or what have you. So I think it’s important to recognize that the people who are doing this work are also people who’ve been going through a pandemic, but I also think there are some things that are really just crazy to see on our streets. And I think we’re going to have to reckon with them going forward and think, okay, now that we’re not in response mode and we’re not just putting down something out of nowhere, how do we, how do we move forward? How do we not just say, okay, well, this is what we’re doing today because it’s new and we have to do something, but how do we learn from what we’ve done and sort of figure out what’s the right way to do it going forward or, or what’s a better way I should say it to do it going forward.

Zabe Bent (42m 49s):
What did we learn here? And that, I mean, I can see it’s frustrating, but it’s also exciting. And quite honestly, I’m horrified with anytime someone puts up a pop-up restaurant across a sidewalk or by plane, I’m just like, you’re cutting all backpacks obvious, like, yeah, I’m like that’s two feet wide, but we can get through that much with someone in a wheelchair. What are you thinking? Right. But sometimes we’re just trying to get it on the grass.

Jeff Wood (43m 11s):
You had a quote in the Washington post that I’ve thought was really apt our streets, our physical manifestations of our policy and our funding choices. I just thought that was really appropriate in a wonderful way to kind of like connect everything together. Yeah.

Zabe Bent (43m 23s):
This is one of those moments where this is just how my brain is wired, but you put your money where your mouth is. Right. You know, if we say we care about one thing and we’d build something entirely different, then it makes people wonder if we really care about that. But I think a lot of times as engineers, we tend to say, you know, this is the solution based on the way that I was taught. And we kind of forget that the end user is an actual person and forget how it sort of sits in the, the environment that it’s designed for. So, yeah, it’s one of the reasons that I think we should care so much about evaluation, frameworks and metrics and outcomes and how we tell the story of a project, but what we decided to build and how we decide to build it is absolutely a manifestation of our, our values and our policy and our financial decisions.

Jeff Wood (44m 15s):
Does that connect to something that we traded messages about in terms of equity as well? I mean, I think that, you know, there’s a lot of discussion about equity, but oftentimes it goes to discussion about just outreach, but not necessarily the structures and the processes that put together that equitable outcome.

Zabe Bent (44m 32s):
Yeah. If you, a lot of times we work with cities that are trying to figure out that the way to do equitable engagement and to do outreach in community is that they might not typically hear from, and sometimes they say they don’t come to our meetings or, you know, we didn’t, we only had a few people show up or what have you. And, and I’ve been on the end. The other end of that, certainly every time I had a public workshop, I would say, please come to my party for the little guy, sorry I get it. I really do. I’ve been there. But I think if we focus too much on engagement as the equity and sort of leaving the decision-making to folks, once we’ve already designed our project or a policy, that is absolutely not the same as demonstrating how the project or the policy or the outcomes for the metrics are tied to things that people care about.

Zabe Bent (45m 31s):
And so if we can change our actual evaluation metrics in our analysis tools to be more equitable and to, to lead to more equitable outcomes, then people are going to engage with us because they see that we actually care. And it’s a really different framing. So the difference between, you know, sort of saying, do you want vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream, or, you know, do we want to have a conversation about ice cream or cake, right? Those are really different questions. And I think in order for us to get to a place that makes more sense, we not only need to redistribute the wealth and build different projects, but we need to incorporate different voices and how we get there and make sure that it’s not, you know, at the end game, but actually demonstrate to people, this is how we are using your feedback.

Zabe Bent (46m 18s):
This is how the project changed. This is how our policies changed as a result of your feedback. Otherwise, why would I come to your meeting either? I don’t believe here, I’m just going to talk at you and you’re not going to do what I am thinking, or you’re not going to react to what I’m thinking and people get that. And they see that if there’s no trust, they won’t come. What are you working on now? So many things. So I’m working an update to the urban bikeway guide, which we absolutely want to make sure to update and refresh the design guidance. That’s there for bikeways and cycling. But we also want to make sure that that is touching on shared mobility in a way that it hasn’t really before we want to sort of figure out what new things our cities doing when it comes to cycling infrastructure and how we can learn from all the different ways that the pandemic has changed, the way that people move around cities, hopefully shift towards more integrated work in that regard, not just again, not just what to build, but how to build it, how to deliver it.

Zabe Bent (47m 25s):
I’m working on also some federal policy, still trying to figure out what’s going to happen with the mut CD and sort of trying to advocate for again, more engaging and more proactive solutions there. We’re looking at ways to take our policy discussions about setting speed limits from a safe systems approach, rather than from a, what does the driver want approach 85% rule. Yeah. Which is basically the 85 percentile rule. We’re looking at ways to figure out how to incorporate that into our training, how to incorporate it into our platforms, policy platforms.

Zabe Bent (48m 6s):
So that folks have resources if they want to pursue this on their own. And there are some, there are many cities that are paid looking at this and how to do that. But we’re also looking at what are the mechanisms the cities are using and looking at enforcement and trying to figure out how do you come to a more equitable and connected enforcement pattern. Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of data that shows that our current enforcement of basically ticketing is having a true impact on road safety. And so we want to make sure that if there is enforcement, that it is actually connected to road safety, it should not be used as a tool for pretextual traffic stops or revenue generation or all of the other things that people believe that it’s really about.

Zabe Bent (48m 54s):
Obviously the first call is figuring out what are the design solutions and sort of lasting solutions that we can implement to get to more self-reinforcing projects and design. But then the other thing is just understanding what are the policy levers that need to be in place there? And what are some alternatives to

Jeff Wood (49m 12s):
That you could put just a big tree in the middle of every road that would slow people down, right?

Zabe Bent (49m 17s):
I mean, that’s a traffic circle. You know, there are plenty of cities that are doing that, and it’s effective in a lot of situations. Sadly, it’s not effective in many other situations. There was, there were more trees in pretty much every city, but yeah, we’ve, we’ve got to come up with a situations. I personally don’t think that that necessarily means that a human being with a gun should be pulling people over, but there are other solutions there. So having a broader conversation about that, I think would be really, and we’re going to have novel. Nice. Yeah. Those are my things.

Jeff Wood (49m 49s):
So this is the novel about time travel. It’s a part of it anyways.

Zabe Bent (49m 52s):
So part of the sort of device, this person is trying to figure out how to move through her, her own life. And apparently I did not know this and I almost don’t want to say this because hopefully no one will jump the gun, but apparently there aren’t that many novels centering time travel that are also centering women. I think there is one or maybe not movies. I don’t want to misspeak here cause I’m sure I feel like someone must’ve done this, but yeah. It’ll be how to, how do you move through life basically? That’s that’s my short answer. We’ll see. I’m almost done. So those will hopefully be the two fingers crossed. So I’m going to pick it

Jeff Wood (50m 27s):
Up, looking forward to it. Where can folks find you online if you will? I

Zabe Bent (50m 31s):
Am on, I think all social media platforms. That’s Zabe Bent. Yeah. And at NACTO and in the interwebs.

Jeff Wood (50m 44s):
Nice. Thank you so much for joining us.

Zabe
Thank you, Jeff.


Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast

Testimonials

…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory


I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs

Subscribe

To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free