(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 381: A Next-Generation Transport Policy

May 5, 2022

This week we’re joined by Harriet Tregoning, Director at NUMO, and Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute to talk about their report, Charting Out a Next-Generation, Place-Based Federal Transportation Policy. We talk what needs to change about federal policy and the entities that need to pursue it.

You can listen to the episode at Streetsblog USA or at our hosting archive.

Below is an unedited full transcript:

Jeff Wood (39s):
Well, Harriet Tregoning and Yonah Freemark. Welcome to the podcast.

Harriet Tregoning (1m 14s):
Thank you so Much.

Yonah Freemark (1m 14s):
Thanks so much for having us

Jeff Wood (1m 16s):
Well. Thanks for joining us before we get started. Can you tell those who might not be familiar with you a little bit about yourselves? We’ll start with Yonah and we’ll go with Harriet.

Yonah Freemark (1m 22s):
Sure. My name is Yonah Freemark and I’m a senior research associate at the urban Institute in Washington, DC. And I do research on transportation, housing and land use policy.

Harriet Tregoning (1m 33s):
Great. I’m Harriet Tregoning, I’m the director of the new urban mobility Alliance. We call it NUMO also based in Washington, DC. And I’ve had jobs doing all the things that Yonah is interested in housing transit, transportation, land use, and now running this transportation focused nonprofit.

Jeff Wood (1m 52s):
So Harry, how did you get into this work and transportation policy? Like what was your first memory of, I want to do something transportation related.

Harriet Tregoning (1m 59s):
I was 13. I came to Washington DC on a field trip and I was really gobsmacked by Capitol hill. Not because it was where the Capitol was, but because there was a transit station there, there was a whole beautiful street filled with shops and restaurants right next to where people work and right next to all those shops where all of these houses and I grew up in suburban St. Louis and I thought, wow, this is a really great way to live. I’d love to live in Washington, DC someday. So here I am.

Jeff Wood (2m 35s):
And there you are. And you’ll know what about you? What’s your earliest policy memory? What’s, what’s something that strikes you as kind of something that started your love of urban policy?

Yonah Freemark (2m 43s):
Well, you know, I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, which is a increasingly vibrant place, but when I was growing up, it was pretty boring. I would say in most parts, not a great transit system, not very many walkable areas, but when was seven, I actually had the opportunity to live in Paris for almost a year. And that was very important for shaping my views of the world and helping me understand, you know, the way a city could be structured. And that ever since then, I’ve been interested in cities and trying to understand how to make them better.

Harriet Tregoning (3m 19s):
Yeah, no, we have French planners in common.

Jeff Wood (3m 24s):
It’s amazing what happens when you can go somewhere else, whether that’s overseas or even a different city. Sometimes some people go to New York and they’re like, wow, this is so much different than or DC in Harriet’s example. Well, let’s talk about the report, charting out a next generation. Place-based federal transportation policy recommendations for more equitable, sustainable mobility. When did you all first get together to chat about what ended up turning into this report?

Yonah Freemark (3m 45s):
Well, let’s see. I think, you know, this report is part of a broader series of research initiatives at the urban Institute on place-based policies. And we’ve been producing a number of reports on things like housing policy that are more typically thought of as potentially person based than transportation is. But when it came to thinking about a transportation policy, you know, I was really excited about the opportunity to broaden our scope and think about the experience of others as part of it. And so, you know, I asked Harriet whether she would be willing to co-author this piece.

Yonah Freemark (4m 26s):
I think that was back in sometime last year. If I remember correctly,

Harriet Tregoning (4m 30s):
I think you’re being very generous. I think you just asked me to look at your piece and I had so many ideas about what else you could be saying that yes, that it quickly kind of overtook us though. I’m afraid.

Yonah Freemark (4m 42s):
Okay. That might be, that might be right. You know, I think what is interesting about Harriet’s perspective is as she said, you know, she has this incredible background working across government agencies, you know, at the city state and federal level and has this great multidisciplinary perspective that really allows us to think about federal policy as something that has importance for these different levels of government. And that’s something that we need to think about on all matters, all policy matters.

Harriet Tregoning (5m 12s):
I appreciate your saying that, you know, and I think that, you know, the thing that governments don’t do very well is kind of do that stitching together across agencies or across disciplines or across funding programs. And, you know, no one’s sitting in a community being asked what their problems are, what their aspirations are, is ever gonna point solely at a single sector or a single agency, you know, as the source of the kind of help or the kind of remedy that they really want. It really cuts across all those things. And I think that, you know, we get much better outcomes if we could have those conversations with communities about their needs and then stitch together with federal state and local funds, the right kinds of investments that mate, you know, the totality of those needs instead of creating a new problem, you know, with the solution, you know, to a single issue like we often do in transportation.

Jeff Wood (6m 7s):
So then who’s this aimed at, is this aimed at the federal government to change so that they’re trickling down to the local policy level and regional policy level state policy level, or is it aimed at local policy makers trying to get the attention of federal policy makers?

Harriet Tregoning (6m 21s):
Yes. And, and the biggest funding recipients in federal transportation funds are states. So let’s not leave states out. So it’s to basically say, what are the ways in which we can present the money, right? What are the criteria we can use and getting people to apply for the money that would get the very best projects. And because this is about the discretionary funds, largely, you know, what are the ways in which we might be able to pull the much bigger formula funds kind of into this sort of framework? So I think our audiences, both all of the traditional grant recipients, but also a lot of the communities and entities where infrastructure investments could be transformative, but they don’t necessarily know yet how to access federal in particular, but sometimes any of the opportunities to try to get funding for their communities.

Yonah Freemark (7m 19s):
Yeah. One thing that I think is really interesting about transportation policy in the U S is that when you look at the funding sources for any big project, you’re going to see inputs from many different levels of government. Almost always, you know, the federal government is almost definitely going to play a share in terms of what is going to be, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars or billions of dollars of capital costs, but typically state and city governments also play a role in making projects come to fruition. And that means that those are all points of leverage. When all these different governments have involvement in picking out what projects they want to fund and are going to fund, they can be thinking through what policies they want to be advancing as part of that project selection decision-making.

Yonah Freemark (8m 6s):
So I think the types of ideas we’re promoting in this report should be applicable to all, all levels of government. And in fact, they have to be because in some cases they’re regulations that different levels of government exert on one another that end up influencing decision-making down the line. Even if, you know, for example, the federal government is not the primary source of funding.

Jeff Wood (8m 28s):
Is that leverage a liability or benefit though? It seems like I could go both ways. What do you think about how governments are getting pulled in different directions? It also could be a negative, I imagine. So how do you make it a positive?

Harriet Tregoning (8m 39s):
I think that it is a negative when the federal government treats different types of transportation projects differently in terms of how much of a cost share they would pay. So that’s been a long-term bodice that has favored road building over say transit. But I do think that in a strange way, we don’t have enough co-investors in projects, right? That even if the transportation agencies at the federal state and local level can get together and fund a project, a lot of transportation investments would be so much more effective if the land use agencies were involved. And if land use that would make a lot of the trips shorter and more efficient, if that was part of the formula, you’d get up, you’d have a lot more success in transportation.

Harriet Tregoning (9m 25s):
I think that’s true. If you also need housing, investment near transit, that’s something you’re pretty familiar with that that should be a partner for every transit station. That’s that’s ever built. You need housing partners, you need to prevent people from being priced out. It’s absolutely foreseeable that land values are going to rise. So why isn’t this part of how we do business, you know, all the time.

Yonah Freemark (9m 47s):
And you know, I think Harriet, one of the things that we tried to emphasize in our report is thinking about transportation beyond transportation. We can’t think of investments in new road, a new transit line, a new bike path, any of those things as existing independently of the world, around them, they have effects on people’s lives in both negative and positive ways. Unless we start thinking about those effects more seriously and start integrating the other actors who might be involved in influencing or being influenced by those effects, then we’re going to continue this sort of less than ideal transportation system we have in the United States today.

Yonah Freemark (10m 28s):
And so we really try to emphasize the fact that we should be thinking about planning for transportation, with land use planning for transportation. Well, thinking about healthcare planning for transportation, while thinking about investments in affordable housing, these all need to go together in order to have the most functional outcome.

Jeff Wood (10m 45s):
So how do you pull in those other actors, the healthcare sector, the housing sector, all of those other groups that have traditionally been left out of transportation, planning decisions?

Harriet Tregoning (10m 54s):
Well, in some ways they may not be involved in the decisions about infrastructure, but they’re paying the price, you know, for not being heard in those decisions. So, you know, for every appointment that someone can’t get to, to see a doctor or to get urgent health care, there’s a cost and a consequence, both to the person who can’t reach that care, but also to the system itself that, you know, reserve time for the doctor, the nurse, and did a lot of other things to make that appointment possible. I think that major employers, they have a huge stake in how their employees get to their job sites. And, you know, we certainly saw a very vivid demonstration of what can go wrong, you know, during the pandemic, when a lot of the bus service that so many essential work transit service, I should say, not just bus, but so many workers relied on to get to their jobs, you know, became absent or sporadic, unreliable, and risky, you know, for those who were, who were riding transit.

Harriet Tregoning (11m 57s):
And so I just think as Yona indicates a lot more people have enormous stakes, especially in transportation infrastructure decisions than they might fully realize. The one thing I would add to what Yona said about outcomes and about the kinds of things that are affected. I think very fundamentally transportation is access, right? We used to really value things that were kind of close together and convenient, but in the 20th century, we pretty much substituted Automobility for proximity. The only thing we sort of forgot about is that not everyone has an automobile or can drive or wants to drive or can afford it.

Harriet Tregoning (12m 40s):
And that really leaves a whole bunch of people out of the economic opportunities that any region might have. So I think access is bizarrely enough, something that our transportation system isn’t really built to provide, especially not affordable access. You know, it’s become this thing that really caters to vehicles, their speed and their congestion, and is pretty much indifferent to people, especially if they’re not in those vehicles.

Jeff Wood (13m 11s):
There was a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that really bothered me the other day. It said, you know, we’ve been waiting for BRT for 27 years, how will it impact traffic? And I just have to kind of laugh at those because it’s like, who cares? Who cares? What it’s like to the car traffic. It matters what it, what it does for people, traffic, which is speed up their trip. And I think that’s kind of a, a frustrating way. We’ve been looking at things for a really long time. And it’s, it’s emblematic of that kind of struggle that we have to reframe the discussion.

Yonah Freemark (13m 39s):
Yeah. You know, I think one of the fundamental changes we need to see in all of our transportation planning at multiple levels of government is changing our mentality from wanting to maximize the movement of vehicles, to wanting to maximize the access of people to destinations. Those are two fundamentally different understandings of the world. Two fundamentally different ways of seeing the way we use the right of ways, the transportation, right of ways that we have in two different ways of choosing investments in front of us that said the changes that are necessary in planning and in our governmental systems to make that transition possible are huge. We need to totally alter the priorities that our state departments of transportation have, so that they’re no longer thinking about maximizing roadway infrastructure to move as many cars as possible, no matter the impacts on the environment, no matter the impacts on traffic over the longterm, we need to move them towards thinking about how can we analyze access to make sure that as many people as possible have access to all the destinations they need in their daily lives.

Yonah Freemark (14m 45s):
And that’s going to require much more than just our report, but a whole mode shift in our thinking.

Harriet Tregoning (14m 50s):
You put that really, really well. And I think that the only other thing I would really say about it is that it’s not even that the access of people is kind of invisible to the system, but they add that the transportation funding decisions now typically reward very bad planning. The less you do to coordinate transportation and land use. And the more colossal congestion you get, the easier it is for you to justify very large grants, federal dollars, you know, to widen roads or alleviate congestion. But if you do things that really coordinate that transportation and land use, you know, one of the things I did as the planning director of the district of Columbia, where we’re landlocked, we accommodated after five straight decades of population loss, you know, more than a hundred thousand additional residents in the same footprint, just by adding a little density, especially along places served by transit and shockingly our mode split increased.

Harriet Tregoning (15m 51s):
So that more than half of all trips were taken walk, bike and transit, that the number of vehicles per household fell as did the number of, of households that had any vehicles at all, almost 80% of households became households that had one or fewer vehicles. And that was, you know, that wasn’t because we got a transportation grant to let us do that right, to do that mode split, or to have that much more efficient travel it’s because our land use changed. And we had convenience in every neighborhood where destinations were available for people to walk to. So I feel like one of the things that we have to change is how we reward the things that really make transportation efficient and affordable and not reward the decisions that make it costly and bad for the environment and extremely inaccessible to many people.

Yonah Freemark (16m 45s):
Yeah. I mean, just to build on that, you know, so many communities throughout the United States, when they’re thinking through what kind of new development they’re going to allow in their communities, ask those new developments to do things like provide a minimum amount of parking as part of any new housing units or any new commercial space. They require them to pay for roadway, infrastructure improvements, which often means adding an additional lane in front of the new projects, adding a new traffic signal at the intersection that’s nearby creating new curb cuts through the sidewalks and bike lanes that might be in front of that. Building. All those things are supposedly about connecting, you know, the impacts of a development on the transportation system, but have the perverse outcome of actually encouraging more traffic and worse outcomes in terms of accessibility.

Yonah Freemark (17m 35s):
And that requires just a total shift in mentality, because what we should be doing is saying if you’re going to be investing in a big project, that’s going to be adding jobs and adding housing units, make sure that there’s good alternatives to driving. Make sure the streets are places where you want to walk. One of I can take transit. And that’s just a totally different way of thinking about the world in front of us.

Jeff Wood (17m 55s):
Yeah. It’s often about mitigation, but the mitigation is often worse than the other outcomes that you want.

Harriet Tregoning (18m 1s):
Can I take issue with something you want? I said, you talked about alternative transportation, Yona, my friend, Susan Linsky used to say that calling, you know, transit, walking and biking, alternative transportation is like calling a woman and alternative man, right? But these are the naturalist easiest things to do. And most of our trips are taken that way. And most of the trips that we take even by car are short enough that in many, many places we could take them walk by or, or some kind of transit, but I’m mostly teasing you. I know your all your heart is always in the right place.

Yonah Freemark (18m 33s):
No issue taken, you know, from my perspective, I don’t have a car. So the car is certainly the alternative for me personally. So I completely agree.

Jeff Wood (18m 42s):
It just shows though how hard it is to get away from these languages that people have set up over the many years from, you know, we’re not supposed to say alternative transportation, we can say active transportation. Now we’re not supposed to say car accidents. We’re supposed to say car crashes nowadays. I’m trying to get away from saying freeway and say, highway, there’s a lot of different languages that have been set up over over time that it’s hard to kind of break free from. It’s really fascinating and we all get stuck in it. And it’s, it’s funny.

Harriet Tregoning (19m 7s):
It is totally true. And it does indicate that there is this kind of framing of this issue that really assumes that auto travel is that it’s safe to make that assumption that everyone is always for every trip going to be going by auto, which isn’t right.

Jeff Wood (19m 21s):
Well, I liken the report that you all set out three pretty simple goals to approach and, and you mentioned access, but reducing the cost of living, creating access to jobs and activities and reducing pollution is what I kind of boiled it down to. How did you come up with these aspirations goals as kind of the three key parts to address?

Harriet Tregoning (19m 38s):
I think the biggest breakthrough, might’ve been the point that you raised earlier, which is access, right? Which is that, what is the point of transportation? You know, it’s touted all over the country for lots of different things, usually associated with economic development, right? But really the point of transportation is to connect people to the things they need on a daily basis. And I don’t know of any place where we’re actually measuring how well we’re doing that, how affordable we’ve made that access, right. And how safe we’ve made that access. So I thought for me, that was the biggest thing. Of course, we’re in a climate crisis and of all the sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in our country, transportation is now the largest and it is the only one still growing while all the other sectors are declining and their greenhouse gas emissions.

Harriet Tregoning (20m 29s):
So I think that’s a big part of it. And then the issue of who isn’t being served, you know, a lot of the differences in generational wealth, the differences in where people are in terms of their family’s success, their ability to move to different jobs and to rise and income, and then skill level. A lot of that is really dependent on what they’re able to get to. And I think that means that there’s a lot of inequity in terms of who is served and who can get to the things that are really essential for living a good life in the U S

Yonah Freemark (21m 10s):
Yeah. I mean, one thing that’s fascinating about these topics of affordability access and environmental sustainability is they’re all very much related. You know, when we talk about increasing access to destinations and ensuring that we have connections between land use development and the transportation system, we’re actually talking more generally about creating environments where the costs of transportation are lower because you’re not having to travel as far to get to basic needs and where your environmental impact is lower. For the same reason, you know, fundamentally we have a sort of consumption view of transportation right now where somehow the more miles you travel, you are getting better outcomes when it comes to your transportation consumption.

Yonah Freemark (22m 0s):
When in reality, I don’t think people will, would want if they could choose to be traveling as many miles as possible in a day, but we’ve structured so much of our society around the idea that we have to travel so many miles, 30 miles a day or something to get to basic needs. When, if we developed our society in a different way, we could do that in many fewer miles. And I think that the benefits for equity and sustainability would be large.

Jeff Wood (22m 26s):
I’m curious how, how your work works to incorporate rural areas, small towns, suburbs, different geographies. It’s interesting to think about the difference between say what you can do in a city now and what you can do in a less urban context. I’m curious how you all have thought about that.

Harriet Tregoning (22m 41s):
It makes me think about, you know, the beginning of, of any human settlements whatsoever, right? They started with maybe a crossroads market, right? Where people who were growing things or hunting things, or making things came together to exchange items, exchange things for some kind of currency, and those exchanges happen at every scale of human development. So, you know, I think for rural areas, there are towns, you know, there are villages, there are goods and services in those places. And a lot of them are walkable. A lot of them could be more walkable, but those things and the most rural of communities still exist.

Harriet Tregoning (23m 24s):
And, you know, I think that making sure that people can get not just to their town centers, their village centers, but importantly, get to places nearby where there might be more choices of health care or where there are particular services that are not daily needs that people need to access. I think the challenge in rural communities is how do you handle that? Enter town, enter village travel, and how do you do it with a population that might be aging or not able to in every case to be driving themselves. So I think that is an area where we’ve seen some technological advances that make it a little bit easier for that kind of transportation service to be available on demand.

Harriet Tregoning (24m 12s):
But I think the same principles about what makes a neighborhood walkable apply to what makes a town or village, you know, convenient and pleasant to be in an affordable.

Yonah Freemark (24m 23s):
Yeah. And I think this is interestingly, you know, the conditions faced by rural areas are similar to those of urban areas from the perspective of who’s making decisions, which I think is an important supplement to this conversation. You know, if state departments of transportation are making a majority of decisions related to transportation in the United States, they probably make 80% or more of the decisions in rural areas because they have a single-minded view of the world that the answer is to invest in roadways, to expand the highways that exist there. And the presumption in rural areas is even stronger. You know, the idea is if it’s a rural area, well, people are driving around to get place to place.

Yonah Freemark (25m 5s):
I think the problem with this is that first of all, obviously it has the same negative environmental and social outcomes as it does in urban areas. But second of all, it doesn’t address the fact that actually people have different points of view about what should be done. And one of the things that we emphasize in this report is that the process of planning the process of coming to a collective vision of goals and opportunities for what we want to see in our transportation system has to involve more than the director of the state deity talking to his or her engineers about what they want to do. It has to involve actual, real engagement with the communities that might be affected so that those communities are part of the decision-making process from the beginning.

Yonah Freemark (25m 51s):
And that needs to be done in rural areas, just as much as urban areas.

Jeff Wood (25m 55s):
That was one of the solutions I thought that was really important in your report was thinking about capacity building in other places, besides the ones that have traditionally had the power, because they have the budgets to do planning. And it seems like it’s not just urban areas that this capacity building would include, but the rural and the suburban areas that maybe right now, they can’t afford to apply for a grant they might need because they just don’t have the people power to actually do the application, for example. And so I think that was a really powerful part of what you all were saying in the report was this idea of capacity building for these other entities that might need a little bit more help.

Harriet Tregoning (26m 31s):
I think we were really there speaking particularly to the federal government because this administration has a lot of the aspirations that the, that our paper really kind of also tees up with respect to equity and structural racism, with respect to an economic recovery, with respect to a lower carbon footprint from the transportation sector. And that there are so many barriers to achieving those objectives, especially if you’re not really investing. And these ideas about building both the capacity, even for the entities that trajec traditionally get the funding.

Harriet Tregoning (27m 11s):
I wouldn’t say they currently have the capacity to effectively partner with communities. That’s just not how they typically do their work, but communities also need capacity. They need resources to do the things like you’re talking about. Jeff, do planning to engage other members of their community, to be able to think about what are the things that they, that they want their community to have. What are the assets that already exist, that they really want to feature and highlight and how can infrastructure investments, you know, serve those things and who are the partners that they need to work with in order to get the very best outcomes.

Harriet Tregoning (27m 51s):
So I think that involves, you know, a lot more upfront work and engagement to think about those things, as opposed to the kind of engagement that’s more typical. Here are three alignments. Tell us the one you hate the least. Great. Thanks ya.

Yonah Freemark (28m 8s):
Yeah, I mean, Harriet, I was actually hoping you could talk a little bit, I hate to take over Jeff’s role here, but I was hoping you could talk about some of your thoughts on, you know, what the experience from some of the Obama era initiatives to, you know, generate cross-disciplinary grant programs. What were the experiences there and how can we translate those into thinking about transportation programs today?

Harriet Tregoning (28m 33s):
Well, that is a, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I was at HUD where I ran community planning and development and the Obama administration. And one of the things that had did that most people don’t know about is that they have a huge disaster recovery program. It’s a subset of their community development block grant program. But in some years, the Congress gives HUD more money for this program than every other thing. And HUD put together. And as we get more and more disasters, I think that’s going to increasingly be the case, but most people post disaster. They lovingly rebuild things as they were exactly where they were. And we were seeing that kind of over and over again with this funding, hurricane Superstorm, Sandy caused a lot of damage and there was a, a very robust response by Congress to that.

Harriet Tregoning (29m 23s):
But after three years, post Sandy, there was still a billion dollars left in the accounts that had to be allocated. And we couldn’t put it out based on the damage assessments from three years ago, right. We didn’t know what remained of the unmet need. So we basically said, why don’t we do a competition because it’s not just the states that were hit by Sandy in order to get congressional appropriations, that disaster declaration, that appropriation covered three years, 2011 to 2013, and every presidentially declared disaster, which was 48 states. So our contest, if you will, our competition was eligible.

Harriet Tregoning (30m 3s):
48 states could compete along with several territories and several individual local governments. And we basically said we should be getting more out of our investments in resilience and in recovery. And people need to have a better understanding of what causes their risks, right. And what causes the negative impact when there is an extreme weather event. So we basically partnered with the Rockefeller foundation and we ran a series of resilience academies all across the country. We invited more than two dozen agencies to help us write the notice of funding availability. And then they participated in the academies.

Harriet Tregoning (30m 44s):
They actually help select winners in the competition. It was a really shocked to me, a way of doing business that involved a lot of collaboration across sectors, but we also did this competition in two phases. So the first phase, you couldn’t even bring a project cause Jeff knows this. I mean, you know, there’s 20 or 30 years worth of capital projects sitting in every state and local budget. None of those projects conceived of with climate change in mind or with the notion of equitable access. So we wanted to break the cycle of just pulling out some old project, but instead really examine the needs of states and communities and seeing what kind of multiple benefits could they get out of an investment in a resilient recovery.

Harriet Tregoning (31m 30s):
What other resources could they bring? What other partners could they find at the end of the day after a two phase competition, we awarded the billion dollars across 13 communities. They brought 5 billion to match our 1,000,000,220 partnerships. And the really great thing was that plenty of places that never got any of our funding, ultimately they went through this process. They found the money to implement their own projects. And they said they were enormously different projects and they would have otherwise been doing because they thought very differently about both the problem and who needed to be part of finding the solution.

Harriet Tregoning (32m 10s):
So that really has kind of inspired me to think the same similarly about what we might be able to do with infrastructure funding that is now becoming available and how we might engage communities to come up with, you know, really impactful solutions that maybe leverage many times the funding that the administration is putting out.

Yonah Freemark (32m 31s):
I was really inspired by that experience as well. And you know, one of the reasons why I found, you know, working on this piece with Harriet to be really exciting, because I think that there is an opportunity here to think about transportation funding as this, you know, strike of a match. That’s going to change the way we conceive of planning in our communities so that we see it as an opportunity to build partnerships that include people and organizations working across sectors organizations and people who want to bring in money from multiple sources so that you can make the transportation project, just one element of a broader conception of how you want your community to transform over time.

Yonah Freemark (33m 13s):
And I think there’s an opportunity here to see the federal government as the seed for that kind of change throughout the country.

Jeff Wood (33m 21s):
Do you all think the MPOs are also a possible way to kind of coordinate this funding? I was recently chatting with Jenny shirts and about her book, fixer upper and in the book mentions the MPOs might be a better vessel for say LATC monies or CDBG monies to think about things regionally. Is that something that including environmental, you know, monies that, that might come from disaster relief, et cetera, is that a possible outcome? You all mentioned, you know, MPO structure in the book. I’m curious if that might be something that came across your mind.

Harriet Tregoning (33m 51s):
Jeff, are you each dropping on our conversations are most like spirited discussions have been around NPOs. I sat on the board of our NPO and as much as I love the MBO, it was certainly true that they never had direct land use controls. You know, they were a pass through for money that came from, you know, the federal government and, and then even without, you know, an actual requirement, there’s just a lot of log rolling that happens on the MPO that jurisdictions are reluctant to Vito or vote against certain projects because they feel like when their project comes up, they don’t want others to vote against it.

Harriet Tregoning (34m 33s):
So I think that in practice it’s difficult, but in theory, and maybe with some very specific reforms, there is a possibility of doing something different because they advantages. They have a regional perspective that housing market, the job market pollution, all of these things are regional. It makes sense to solve those problems at the scale at which they’re experienced, but they would definitely need to be able to exert a little bit more forceful views on what should and shouldn’t get funded.

Yonah Freemark (35m 5s):
Yeah. You know, I also have some experience at NPO is I sat on the transportation committee of CMAP the Chicago region NPO back in the mid 2010s. And I think that what area it says is right to large degree, you know, the existence of these agencies does not mean that they ultimately serve the regional interest because for the most part, they are simply executing the priorities of their member jurisdictions or the state governments. And that, that if the member jurisdictions have a list of projects, the MPO is going to sort of take them together, take a stapler and stick them into one document to create the MPOs list of projects that has been the historical role of NPOs.

Yonah Freemark (35m 53s):
For the most part that said, I do think, you know, perhaps I’m a little more optimistic than Harriet is about changes that might be beneficial in terms of getting NPOs to play a bigger role. I do think I am a strong believer in connections between political officials and outcomes. And one of the concerns I’ve always had about embryos is that for the most part, the people who are on MPO boards are not elected. They are representatives of other elected people. And I think that that sort of disconnect makes MPOs less powerful than they could otherwise be. So I think there are opportunities to think of NPOs as political entities, maybe in the future that might change and have a regional point of view that is politicized that I think could be really positive, but we’re probably a long way off from actually seeing that implemented in most regions.

Jeff Wood (36m 43s):
Did you all catch the small line and the infrastructure bill about MPOs MPOs are required to consider the equitable and proportional representation of the population of the Metro area when designating officials or representatives. I thought that was interesting,

Yonah Freemark (36m 55s):
Which by the way, we do mention in our report, the fact that unfortunately, most NPOs have boards and voting structures that are very non-representative of the regions that they’re supposed to be making decisions for. So it’s nice to see the federal government talking about this, but unfortunately there is no requirement in any federal rule or law right now that NPOs have to actually have a voting structure that is population proportional.

Jeff Wood (37m 26s):
Is there something in the report that you all think has been overlooked? Is there something that you all haven’t been able to talk about a lot or something that feels like people don’t really pay as much attention to it as maybe some of the other things I know access is something that a lot of folks have been talking about recently, but are there any kind of hidden gems?

Yonah Freemark (37m 44s):
Well, I’ll go first. I mean, the thing I would emphasize is this opportunity to think of transportation as a collaborative multidisciplinary planning process. You know, we’ve talked about that some on this podcast, but I think it is overlooked by most people because most people are thinking about with the, you know, a gleam in their eye, all the money coming out of the federal government, they’re saying, oh, look, it’s good, fun all the projects that I have on my list. But I think that we’re what we’re proposing is that before we can go funding projects, we need to be having collaborative conversations, but what our goals are for our communities and how we can best get there.

Yonah Freemark (38m 24s):
And I think that’s a different perspective than the federal government is currently promoting, but I hope it’s one that can sort of gain influence over time,

Harriet Tregoning (38m 34s):
As much as I’m about how much money is available. You know, the ironic thing is a lot of the solutions that we’re really proposing that we’re really promoting don’t cost. A lot of money land use is it costs very little compared to, you know, a mile of new highway or an interchange. So in some ways the fact that there’s so much money tends to make people go towards solutions that are expensive. So I think that’s terrible. And that, you know, we’d like to create more of a sense of urgency about the, about the importance and the need to, to really have land uses that are compatible with these transportation investments.

Harriet Tregoning (39m 14s):
I mean, that’s even true for roads, right. But it’s particularly true for transit for walking and biking. So I think, I think that’s another area where the sheer size of the grants already puts kind of the smart things to do at a bit of a disadvantage.

Jeff Wood (39m 32s):
We just had this major knock-down, drag-out fight over the infrastructure bill. There’s still rumblings of BBB in some form. It comes and goes based on Joe mansions whims every week. What’s the energy like for reform after last year’s work, I’m sure many feel like infrastructure weeks over for the next six years or so.

Harriet Tregoning (39m 50s):
See some of these reforms, they don’t necessarily have to all happen at the federal level. So you probably, you know, that the state of Colorado has decided to kind of denominate their transportation performance system, looking at greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, that’s a big deal, right next door. The state of Utah, you know, AZ is doing something that they’ve been doing for a while, but really very closely coordinating transportation and land use even at the state level with the state deity. And that’s just not something that most places are doing. So the advantage I think of having the system, the kind of federalism we have in the United States, where there’s the federal government, and then there’s the states that the constitution recognizes and really not a lot else is that every state has incredible autonomy, you know, to deploy these grants and federal dollars in the ways that they see fit.

Harriet Tregoning (40m 44s):
So I think we have 50 or maybe 53 chances to influence those states and territories and the district of Columbia to look at their transportation systems differently and look to get a different set of outcomes that also speak to the issues that a lot of them care about, you know, greater equity, a lower carbon, more resilience, more affordability, more housing that’s proximate and convenient to transportation. I think that regardless of political party, that those kinds of arguments are very compelling. So, you know, Yona and I have, you know, 50 plus chances to also share our papers with those state governments.

Harriet Tregoning (41m 25s):
In addition to, you know, our hopes for the federal government,

Yonah Freemark (41m 29s):
You know, I w I would also add that, you know, not only do we have this separation of powers between states and the federal government, we also have separation of powers within the federal government. And so even if there’s no progress on new legislation, there can be progress within the executive agencies to make sure that the competitive grants are as effective as possible in selecting projects, developing project development processes that are as effective as possible. And so, you know, I have been watching the notice of funding opportunities coming out from the U S department of transportation for the res grants and for the mega infra and rural grants.

Yonah Freemark (42m 10s):
And what I have been really satisfied to see has been a focus in these requests for proposals on equity and sustainability, and on thinking about transportation with land use in mind. And I’m hopeful that this will continue to be a theme in the administration that we get to start to see some interesting projects being proposed and being funded by the federal government, but then it extends even more broadly and starts to be put into some of the regulations that the agencies are putting forward. So there are a lot of opportunities there.

Harriet Tregoning (42m 41s):
Maybe someone’s reading this paper.

Yonah Freemark (42m 42s):
Yeah. Maybe so.

Jeff Wood (42m 45s):
Well, that’s the point, right? Is to put it out there so people can read it

Harriet Tregoning (42m 48s):
And talk about it on podcasts and all kinds of stuff.

Jeff Wood (42m 53s):
One thing you mentioned, Yona is equity in terms of projects that we can create for people. But a lot of times, a lot of the inequities happen when things are taken away, you know, cutting bus routes, cutting trolley bus lines for diesel buses, et cetera. What should be done about those instances where things are cut?

Harriet Tregoning (43m 7s):
Well, I think that part of what we’ve seen through this pandemic is the idea that support for transit extends not just to capital, but also to operating. And a lot of cities and states have also been experimenting with lower fares or no fairs for transit and seeing it increasingly as essential for getting workers, workers that we all rely on to jobs. I think that is hugely important. And I think that we’ll see more, more of that kind of investment, but I also think it’s important that everybody feels like they, they not just can ride transit, but they want to whatever their, their income, whatever their circumstance and, you know, you know, from the work you’ve done over the years, Jeff, that in our country, there’s a real premium that people are willing to pay for convenience, you know, and for that access to be near transit, to being near places where they can easily reach their daily destinations and, you know, in a place that we both really liked, Yana mentioned Paris.

Harriet Tregoning (44m 18s):
There are many cities in the U S and around the world where there’s a lot of that convenience, but it’s much more common. I was in Leipzig, not that long ago before the pandemic, but, but just immediately before. And there’s so much transit there that there literally, it doesn’t seem to be any price premium, you know, it’s so ubiquitous that, that, isn’t the reason that isn’t the thing that gives a piece of land, additional value. Like how wonderful would it be if our cities in the U S had so much transportation choice, so many affordable options, that it didn’t much effect the price of land instead of how it is now, where it’s as scarce luxury, that quickly prices out the people who really need that access to the most.

Harriet Tregoning (45m 1s):
We just need a lot more of it.

Yonah Freemark (45m 3s):
Yeah. I mean, I completely agree with that assessment. There’s been a lot of the closest parallel that I, that I can think of is that there’s a lot of concern in lower income communities that bike lanes or other sorts of transportation investments are going to gentrify their neighborhoods and, you know, result in people being displaced from being able to live in those places. And my response is everyone should have access to good forms of transportation. And once everyone has access to that, those goods forms of transportation, we no longer have to be worried about these displacement effects because everyone has it. And I think that should be the baseline. Everybody has access to a roadway in front of their house. So why can’t we expect the same for transit and for other options, not alternatives, but things like biking and walking,

Jeff Wood (45m 51s):
Good job you on it. Well, stepping back a bit, this is my last question. What do you want listeners around the country who might be practitioners, local leaders, regular folks, or advocates to take away or be thinking about what they could do to change some of the status quo?

Harriet Tregoning (46m 6s):
I think that so many places across the country have started to make steps in these, in this direction. But I do think that these projects start not with a project, right? They start with a conversation or a series of conversations with communities about needs. And I think that if you start having those conversations regularly, then when a funding opportunity arises, then you are just returning to that conversation to realize, you know, and aspiration that the communities articulated. Right? So I think that you really can’t start early enough with having those conversations.

Harriet Tregoning (46m 46s):
And I don’t think you should be pointing yourself at any one grant opportunity. You should have the conversation now in the places in your community that have the least access. And then, you know, as ideas begin to form partnerships begin to form about what might be possible. Then you are ready to apply for funding, right? But it’s not going to work when you get a three month notice, you know, that this funding is going to be awarded even a six month notice, maybe in some cases a year notice, it’s not enough time to lay that groundwork. So I would say, you know, this is a five-year funding though, right? Have, have those conversations now, and you’ll be able to, you know, catch the wave when your community is ready, when the trust has been built.

Harriet Tregoning (47m 32s):
And you’ve got a robust set of partners that are gonna guarantee good outcomes and doing all of that just makes it much more likely that you’ll successfully compete. So start now,

Yonah Freemark (47m 42s):
We’re doing some work at urban ensuite with some folks in Rochester right now who are talking about removing another portion of this highway that they have in the middle of the city. They already removed part of it a few years ago, but they are talking about what it would look like for their community to change over time with the removal of this highway, which served historically as a huge barrier between people of different incomes and different races. And one of the things I’ve loved as a sort of onlooker as part of that conversation has been this interest in seeing this transportation investment as just one element of a broader way of thinking about the way the city is changing.

Yonah Freemark (48m 27s):
It’s about, are we sure that everybody in this community has access to affordable housing and in the places that give them access to jobs? Are we sure that people have access to parks where they can live and go to, you know, with their kids in any time possible? Are we sure that there’s the availability of social services, daycares other schools in the neighborhood, these are all related to the conversation that comes up when you start thinking about transportation investments. And I think that, you know, what Harry had said is right, we should be thinking about this all the time. Anytime we’re making choices about how to spend public money, we have to be thinking about it from a broad perspective. That includes not just transportation, but all these other aspects of life together.

Jeff Wood (49m 10s):
Well, where can folks find the report, charting out a next generation? Place-based federal transportation policy. If they want to get a copy.

Yonah Freemark (49m 16s):
I think the best answer is the notes of this call, but

Jeff Wood (49m 19s):
I will put it in the show notes. It’ll be in the show notes. If folks want to, you know, go on their phone right away. I guess if you’re on your phone, you can go to your pod catcher and go to the bottom and it’ll be in the show notes,

Yonah Freemark (49m 29s):
But they can definitely find [email protected]. If they search,

Jeff Wood (49m 32s):
You know, how I found it was by typing a true groaning and free mark into Google, and then it pops up.

Harriet Tregoning (49m 39s):
That’s a good way.

Yonah Freemark (49m 40s):
It’s way to do it.

Jeff Wood (49m 41s):
That’s the best way to go.

Harriet Tregoning (49m 42s):
And those two names don’t show up together very often. So

Jeff Wood (49m 44s):
There we go. Maybe, maybe they should show up more.

Harriet Tregoning (49m 47s):
There’ll be at least one more place. Thanks to you.

Jeff Wood (49m 51s):
Well, Harriet and Yona, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Yonah Freemark (49m 54s):
Thank you for having

Harriet Tregoning (49m 54s):
Us. Thank you so much.

1 (50m 5s):
Thanks for joining us to listen to more shows or find more resources related to transit and livable communities. Visit us on the [email protected]. If you have feedback about this podcast or ideas for topics, we should cover. Let us know, email [email protected].

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast.


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