In May 2019, Julie Sell, Urban Transportation Fellow, spoke with Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America (T4A), which is a partner in the shared mobility project in Saint Paul.
Ms. Osborne was previously with the U.S. Department of Transportation, where she served as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy. Earlier in her career she worked as policy director for Smart Growth America and as legislative director for environmental policy at the Southern Governors’ Association. She was also an advisor and legislative aide for several members of Congress.
Q: Could you explain the mission of Transportation for America (T4A)?
A: Transportation for America is a national nonprofit that is focused on creating a transportation system that moves people to work and opportunities through multiple modes of travel. We try to do this in a way that is not damaging to the environment or communities around them. We also focus on technical assistance, on advocacy and on research and analysis.
Q: Who formed this organization and who are your key supporters?
A: It was formed about 11 years ago in the runup to MAP 21. At the time, there was going to be a federal transportation reauthorization, a potential rail reauthorization, and an airport program reauthorization, all at the same time. There was a process. The idea was maybe we can get Congress to think about transportation as one system rather than as a bunch of different modes. It was formed initially with a lot of support from the Rockefeller Foundation. We don’t have any Rockefeller support any more, but we still get some philanthropic support. We get some government grants, and we have a small membership program for those who believe in our organizational mission.
Q: T4A is also involved in looking at future mobility. How did you get involved in this particular initiative?
A: It’s kind of impossible to be in transportation and not talking about it. A lot of our work is very locally focused because that is the system that connects people. You really need to think about transportation systems and how a community is organized. Where is the housing? Where are the jobs? All of that’s handled at the local level so a lot of our work is focused at the local level.
One of the things local governments are struggling with is how can you manage all the new mobility apps, they keep popping up. They’ve got the bikeshare and the scooters, the ride-hailing. We also have the AV [autonomous vehicle] companies who want to impact emerging technologies on our streets. It’s local government where the rubber is hitting the road.
After hearing about it repeatedly in the transportation world, we thought we need to get our arms around this. One way of doing this is engaging directly with the practitioners, so that policies that are developed out of an experience we have directly with the practitioners, not a lofty pie-in-the-sky think-tanky sort of thing. That includes field testing them.
Our plan is to go work with the actual folks in the trenches, learn, and bring that back into our broader policy ideas. A group of cities that are at the forefront of these issues as a peer cohort try and share things so we’re not reinventing the wheel. We made a connection between the Twin Cities and the Fuse fellowship to help them to increase their capacity to deal with all of these issues.
Q: What are the initial findings from your work with cities, the cohort of cities?
A: Some of our initial findings are that when new modes come online, they typically go first to the people who already have access to the most options. There’s always a struggle to make sure there’s an equitable distribution and they’re going to places that might not be as easy to serve.
Another big finding is there is a sizeable number of people out there who want to believe that our transportation challenges can be solved with technology rather than with a policy. Much of our problem is based in the fact that we have separated people as far out from each other as possible, and after we’ve separated them we say, gee, it’s really hard to get to these places, how can we fix that? Once you’re trying to fix that with the transportation system, you’re using the least effective and most expensive way to connect people as possible.
Every time ride hailing or something like that comes online, there’s a bunch of people who think oh, now I don’t have to make the hard decisions. That’s always turned out not to be true, but there’s this moment where, for a while, people believe that the new gadget has gotten them out of doing their jobs. One of our big findings is we have to do a lot to fight against that. We have to be sure that people understand that every technology can be deployed well, and every technology can be deployed poorly.
Q: One of T4A’s initiatives is working with a coalition of business groups to show the impact of transportation on the economy. Among that coalition are some organizations here in the Twin Cities area. Could you elaborate a bit and explain what your objectives are?
A: Much of what makes transportation investment popular is the notion that it stokes the economy. A lot of the way that people have talked about that gets bottled up in the notion of moving cars and vehicles quickly. That comes from the 1950s when we were trying to connect cities to each other, that highways would make city centers better connected. We’ve done that now.
Yet everything we do is seen through that lens, of how can we make the vehicles go faster. Those on the ground -- those who actually need people to arrive at their destinations -- don’t want to see cars go flying past their storefronts. They want cars to stop. They want people to stroll by, those are the best shoppers. They want to create that environment where people slow down and stop, while the transportation industry is definitely trying to speed people through, and have them never stop.
So we are trying to reset the paradigm by bringing in the actual people who create jobs and push the economy forward to tell us what they need in the transportation system. What you’ll find in these local chambers repeatedly is they want more walkability, they want more bikeability, they want better transit, they want livable communities. These are the things that attract talent. These are the things that make a community attractive, and businesses want to be in an attractive community.
Q: In the larger conversation about transportation so much of the focus seems to be on mega-projects, mega-infrastructure projects and that sort of thing. That’s where much of the spending has gone traditionally. How do you shift the conversation from those issues toward new mobility? Some members of Congress seem to want to be involved.
A: It goes beyond the issue of megaprojects. It’s a very important question. It’s always fun to build something brand new. We get a lot of positive press for building the next new thing. We in government do not get a lot of positive press for doing basic maintenance and repair, or for squeezing greater use out of an already existing resource. There’s not a lot of praise out there for that; in fact, there’s a whole lot of criticism. The time it takes to rework a corridor that is heavily used is going to create some inconvenience. You get a lot of negative stories written about you, a lot of criticism along the way.
There’s a lot of people that view some of these other jobs as flossing teeth. Operational improvements, transportation demand management. Sometimes new mobility gets in with that.
On the other hand, a lot of new mobility does deal with the new shiny thing, and we can take advantage of that. There’s a lot of enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for people who want to be part of the new new thing. They want to be helpful. Sometimes in their excitement to be helpful they jump in in ways that aren’t particularly helpful. That’s something we’re looking out for.
We don’t want to preempt local government. We’re finding that a lot of the new mobility providers are realizing the inconvenience of having a transportation system that is not centrally owned. Some of the roads are owned by states, some are owned by counties, some are owned by localities. When you want to operate, it’s easier to negotiate with one entity, rather than thousands. I am sympathetic to that, because I have experienced the challenge of a divided transportation system and trying to reform it myself for decades.
On the other hand, the locals are the ones that really put the entire community together because they’re the ones that have authority over transportation, over housing, over water, land use development. They can put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I want the locals to have the primary responsibility to think about how to incorporate these methods of travel. We’re encouraging them, providing resources to increase their own capacity, to be experimental and learn with their peers.
Q: Some cities have made recent moves to realign their transportation agencies. Is that an area of focus for you?
A: Absolutely. It’s been interesting to learn about the issues that get dragged in. We’ve had tons of conversations with folks about procurement practices and things that I wouldn’t have thought would make such a big difference to our ability to manage new mobility. But it turns out it does. There are data issues, there are procurement issues, there are governance issues. To properly consider ways to move into the next phase of transportation we have to deal with all of these.
So much of what we’re talking about involves determining who should get what space and how the system should operate, and these organizations are simply not staffed or funded or designed to be operating agencies. How do you shift to handle a completely new set, and a very different set of responsibilities? I don’t know of anyone who has answered it yet.
Q: How would you respond to people who say some of these newer modes are expensive and don’t necessarily address the day-to-day needs of working people? Why is this area relevant for the average person?
A: Transportation and the built environment are relevant because they touch everything we do every single day of our lives. People don’t notice it, like water in a fish tank. It’s just water. Transportation and the built environment are things that surround us. They dictate how we behave, how we move, which has impact on our household expenditures, on our health, our access to opportunity and our ability to move up in the world.
If you want to get to work, you’re going through the built environment. So it’s pretty important that you understand the extent to which it is helping you to do what you need to do every day, or standing as a wall in the way of you getting done what needs to be done.
I think a lot about my experience growing up. I grew up in New Orleans. Then I went to school in Baton Rouge and needed a job. I couldn’t afford a car because I didn’t have a job. But I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have a car. That was a very eye-opening experience for me. You had a pretty hefty entrance fee to a part of the economy. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay that cover charge. Luckily my parents could, on my behalf, and allowed me to make it through law school and then move here to Washington DC.
When I got to DC, one of the things I found out was I could move around without a car, and I got rid of it. I used that money to pay my bills. I don’t know how I would have made it if I didn’t have that extra funding. I didn’t have to buy a car again for 11 years, until my husband’s work – he works for the FBI – got put out in the middle of nowhere. We had to get another car so he could get to work, which was a real hit. Eight thousand dollars a year.
When I moved to DC, that money that I didn’t have to spend on a car was money that I got to spend on buying a house in one of the most accelerating markets in the county. Thank heavens. It made a massive difference in terms of my personal wealth and access to opportunity.
That’s why I think folks care. It robs you of opportunity to live in a place where you can only get around by one mode of transit.