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The future is shared transport

The pandemic might have changed some things, but I think mostly it revealed or exacerbated existing conditions. So far it has not fundamentally changed my view of the future of transportation. Three key realities remain true. One, we have to reduce emissions from transportation to address climate change and air quality. Two, we have a limited amount of public space for mobility and increasing demand for it. (The pandemic intensified the demand with more deliveries and public outdoor space for dining, recreation, and non-motorized transport.) Three, our transportation system is unequal, unsafe and inefficient in both funding and how public space is allocated and enforced. (This past year further illuminated the inequity and violence around enforcement in public space and expanded my definition of safety.)

Maybe because I was a math major in college, when faced with multiple problems I like to find the intersection of their solution sets. In this case, the use, space allocation, and funding for systems of shared transport is clearly in the intersection of all three problems.  While the space and emissions benefits of shared transport are fairly clear, shared transport is also important as a place for social integration. I believe it is critical for a multiracial democracy to have places where people safely share space with people from different backgrounds.

Over the past decade my thinking about shared transport expanded. In part because I spent several years living and traveling in the Global South and saw a variety of shared transport systems that have been around for a very long time. And as new technology (e.g. electric scooters) and the ability to book fares on smartphones has created new shared mobility opportunities (and a new place for competition to take place).  

As I left my research role in Santiago, Chile I wrote a paper about shifting regulatory frameworks for transportation (presented at Transportation Research Board 2017).  My premise is that transport can be framed on two axes: the spectrum of how collective/shared the vehicles are, and the role of the state in providing the service (publicness). This graphic could be updated, but the idea is still useful.

As the graphic shows, shared transport ranges from bicycle sharing to trains that can carry thousands.  We need many types of shared mobility to match different land uses, demand levels, and personal preferences. There is no one size fits all regardless of who is operating the service. (I want to start thinking about how urban freight/deliveries fit in.)

Given the intersection of problems we need to shift trips from private motorized vehicles to shared vehicles (and non-motorized modes). The important policy questions are often around what is the role of the state in regulating, funding, and operating each service to achieve this goal and provide equitable access. The graphic illustrates there is an increase in publicness as sharing capacity increases. This is due to the need for large capital investment that lends itself to a public monopoly, but public ownership exists across the sharing spectrum.

I don’t know exactly what the mix of public and privately operated shared transport services will be in the future (or how Autonomous Vehicles will manifest), but regardless of that future it will be essential to have a digital platform that provides users with information about costs, in both time and money for any given trip, and books fares. Many tech companies have figured this out and are trying to be the platform. But it is critical that the platform be owned by the public sector.

Public control is necessary to ensure fair competition, facilitate equitable access, and achieve public policy goals. The digital platform is essentially the marketplace for shared transportation and, especially if there are private operators, the site of competition by giving consumers (comparable) information. The public sector can set the rules for access to the platform, like ADA accessible vehicles or providing service in low-income communities.   

A digital information and ticketing platform also provides the mechanism for government subsidy for transportation, either for equity goals or incentives to shift behavior to shared trips. Subsidy could be applied at the trip level, for types of services, or for individuals. Even if some public transit service is free, a platform allows public subsidy for low-income people to make trips where and when high capacity public transit service doesn’t make sense. For example, free transfers to bike sharing controlled by a different entity or a subsidized taxi trip late at night.

Another key reason for public ownership of the platform is to ensure access for cash users as the trend toward smartphone and contactless payments continue. Cash use is needed for under-banked people and privacy reasons. The platform has to be attached to an easy way for people to add cash to accounts that can be used to pay for all forms of transportation.

The MBTA Fare Transformation project is designed to be the foundation of a public platform. After integrating all of the MBTA services together, the plan is to bring in other services and develop joint fare products. The retail and fare vending machine network will provide access to cash users not only to the MBTA, but potentially to other shared mobility options. If all goes according to plan, it is a good example of a public agency acting proactively to protect the public good in the future.

Transit Governance Part 2: The MBTA FMCB

Since the Massachusetts legislature is considering the next governance board for the MBTA, I thought I would post a reflection from my front row seat at the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) for 5.5 years.

For the uninitiated the FMCB is a volunteer five member board who were all appointed by Governor Baker to oversee the MBTA. Over the course of almost six years there have been eight members; three members have served the entire time. The Board met three (sometimes four) times a month for almost five years and now meets twice a month. And meetings generally last from 4-5 hours.

I officially started at the MBTA in December 2014 before it started snowing and the agency was still under the MassDOT Board. After the Governor’s panel recommendation, I remember the staff conversations about the wisdom of creating a new board. When the FMCB started I became a key staff member doing presentations. Based on my experience, the transparency, scope, and power structure are all worth reflection.

The number and detail of the topics the Board took up and the sheer amount of time in public session made the FMCB an experiment in transparency in transit governance. It exposed the public or anyone with the ability to sit through long meetings (and later live-streams) to details of running a transit agency that usually are handled internally.

The frequency of meetings keeps the MBTA in the news every week and front of mind as the agency worked to recover from a number of crises. The meetings created a space for public input and Board members are generally more available to advocates than other members of MBTA or MassDOT leadership. The Board strives for consensus and it appears that members want to have an open debate on hard issues.    

In an idealized sense, public policy decisions are made by applying community values to the best information available on costs, benefits, and tradeoffs. Especially in complex organizations like transit agencies, expert staff are needed to provide the best information to a decision-making body (Board, Chief Executive, elected officials) which applies the community values.

However, given the power dynamics and the public nature of the FMCB meetings, staff subject matter experts didn’t always feel like they could speak freely about the complexity or unintended consequences of Board decisions. During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid. Sometimes the Secretary or General Manager (GM) would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either.  

I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.  

One consideration is what level of detail the Board should operate at. One of the things that the FMCB did is bring to the Board many decisions or discussions that previously would have ended with the GM. There are clearly policy decisions that should happen by a Board in public (like fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning). But once you get past those items that require votes, it is hard to know where to stop. The downside of too large a Board scope isn’t just staff unable to speak freely, but also the number of Board meetings to cover all the material.  

For the first four years of the FMCB, the Board met three to four times a month requiring a significant amount of executive time preparing for meetings. As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a Board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM. When I talked to peers at other agencies they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their Board meeting that often.   

The external safety panel found that the frequent Board meetings had a ‘detrimental effect’ on the agency. Preparing for Board meetings replaced regular senior staff meetings, with a focus on the Board’s agenda instead of issues that were raised up internally. There are a lot of mundane and important issues, like safety, that transit professionals deal with on a daily basis that require executive, but not necessarily Board, attention.  

A lot of this boils down to what is the role of the Board compared to the General Manager and Secretary of Transportation. It often felt like all three were playing similar political roles, instead of complementary roles, without a clear power structure. In practice this meant that sometimes the strategic energy of leadership was spent trying to position each other, instead of jointly positioning the agency outward or forward.

The FMCB diminished the role of the GM, not just by setting the agenda, but also with staff. Under the MassDOT Board, the GM and the Secretary were the main conduits of information to the Board outside formal staff presentations. The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the Board and staff. I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or Secretary directly to Board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.   

The muddled power structure creates access for some new ideas, but based on relationships not the merit of the ideas. It was difficult for staff to understand the priorities when they got different feedback from multiple leaders, which creates frustration and wastes time and effort. If an organization is going to use a hierarchical power structure than the structure should be clear to all involved.

I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds.

In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire. It makes sense for the Board to be the site of public policy decision-making by applying the community values to the staff expertise marshaled by the GM. There should be clear roles and responsibilities between the GM, Board, and Secretary for the benefit of the staff and the public.

Having the Board operating at a higher level would scale back the number of meetings. This could create a better balance for executive attention to issues that come externally (from the public and Board) and that come up through the ranks internally. In order to make sure this doesn’t diminish the important transparency the FMCB provided, the MBTA would need to use other methods for leadership to explain themselves and engage with the public.

Transit Governance Part 1: Advocacy Relationship

In my quest to encourage transit agency and advocate collaboration to increase transit equity, I need to take a moment to talk about transit governance.

Who does a public transit agency work for? The idealistic answer is the public. But the real-politik answer is important to the relationship between transit advocates and an agency. This answer lies in the intersection of where the agency’s funding comes from and who appoints the leadership (Board and Chief Executive). Another way to ask this question is what elected officials should be held accountable for a transit agency’s performance or decisions.

Governance structures for transit agencies vary across the US and often get very complicated. There is utility in having the funding source directly connected to the governance board. There are arguments for making an agency clearly the responsibility of a single elected official or elected body so that accountability is easier. But both can limit the representation and lived experiences on the board (which should be addressed).

Understanding the governance structure is critical for advocates to know where the decision-making power lies and how to direct their advocacy. And it is also important to understanding what role advocates need to play and what role the transit agency can play in making change.

In my personal experience most transit professionals are in their jobs because they want to improve public transit. It is a mission-driven organization and the stress is too great to stay if you don’t care. So in all likelihood transit advocates share some common goals with the workforce and middle management of the agency. I believe pushing change forward requires inside/outside collaboration. Governance defines how that collaboration can work because it determines the roles of the different players in making change.

How the agency can advocate for itself depends on the governance model. My personal experience is in Boston (working for the MBTA) and in Atlanta (as an advocate for MARTA). In Massachusetts the MBTA works for the Governor and the majority of the (non-fare) funding comes from the state. When I lived in Atlanta MARTA was funded by the City of Atlanta and two surrounding counties and the Board was appointed by those jurisdictions (and some seats by the state).

MARTA was able to advocate for itself at the state legislature (see photos in this post) and work directly with community groups to support more funding. But it didn’t get any operating funds from the state of Georgia (due to racism, but that is a story for another day). The MBTA is functionally part of state government, so is unable to advocate for itself as an entity separate from the rest of the administration. But it does get state funding. I worked with the same General Manager in both places so know the difference isn’t solely about leadership.   

This means in a region like Boston, one of the main roles for advocates is to speak-up for the transit agency in a way that the agency can’t. Asking the MBTA leadership to go against the position of the Governor (whoever it is) is like asking someone to publicly contradict their boss. It is tempting, but not really a recipe for success. This might be frustrating for staff and advocates, but it is the existing reality.

Regardless of the governance, advocates should hold the agency accountable for the decisions that are in their control and push (or change) the relevant elected officials on decisions that are out of the agency’s control. And at the end of the day advocates are always playing a supporting role, it is the transit agency that has to implement any changes and have the trust of the public to spend public funds.

Advocates, your role is to push transit agencies into the stars we need them to be! This can be hard to remember when you are trying to get your voice heard and secure funding for your organization, or if it feels like you are fighting the bureaucracy. But you are a supporting character with the goal of organizing yourself out of being necessary. Understanding your role within the existing governance structure (or trying to change it) is critical to helping the transit agency shine brighter.

(Agency staff, if you missed it, check out my posts about accountability and movement building inside.)