Americans in Transit: Listening to Diverse Perspectives

The Future of Cities Following the release of our handbook for city problem solvers with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, we're continuing our quest to understand what it means to innovate with intention to achieve the best possible outcomes for city residents.

We talked to dozens of city leaders from across the U.S. to develop our handbook for city problem solvers, The Future of U.S. Cities, and learned the many ways that cities are innovating with intention. Building on those learnings, we’ve become increasingly interested in mobility – the ready access to cost-effective, convenient transportation options — and the power it may have to transform life in cities. This series looks at the challenges — and indeed opportunities — for transportation systems in cities, and how many are putting their residents at the heart of mobility solutions.

“The fastest way to move something forward is residents showing it’s a priority” – Matt Gray, Chief Sustainability Officer for Cleveland

At their best, transportation systems are the lifeblood to prosperous cities ⁠— enabling them to become more sustainable, equitable, and healthy. At their worst, they are a barrier to this prosperity ⁠— leading to high levels of carbon emissions, inequitable access across neighborhoods, and congested, dangerous roads. Transportation systems in the United States are currently responsible for over 37,000 deaths annually, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions (the largest of any source), and over $11,000 in average household costs (the second highest of any expense). 

As a result, many cities are currently asking themselves: how do we bring out the best that transportation can offer cities and ensure the kind of mobility that residents deserve? 

To better understand the voices of their residents, city governments are increasingly challenging traditional models – reimagining (or even retiring) public meetings and town halls – in favor of more creative outreach methods. These new approaches provide a safe space for all voices, especially those who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented in programs and policies that have shaped the existing mobility landscape. 

Listening to diverse perspectives serves two objectives:

  1. Uncovering new problems and ideas specific to a city’s unique mobility landscape; and
  2. Strengthening the relationship between city governments and residents, bolstering legitimacy

Equipped with a rich set of qualitative data around residents’ lived experiences, city governments are uniquely positioned to drive innovation and technology towards the city’s top mobility priorities. While the private sector may have advanced technological solutions, they are not incentivized to develop an in-depth understanding of the community ⁠— including historical context of past mobility issues, nuanced perspectives among key stakeholder groups, and residents’ needs and desires. City governments that are closest to residents and their challenges can selectively partner with companies that bring the right capabilities to address city-specific mobility issues.

Tram in San Francisco

 

 

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), for example, partnered with an equity design firm to improve transportation options in San Francisco’s District 10, “a historically underinvested neighborhood facing an imminent wave of gentrification.” Together, they used a powerful mobility equity framework as a way to engage the community and rebuild trust. The initiative also involved multiple community groups, who had strong relationships with residents in District 10. Importantly, the participating organizations were not driven primarily by a profit motive, but rather they all shared a common goal with SFCTA ⁠— to establish Community Power, “the ability of marginalized communities to influence decisions in a way that addresses their needs and concerns.” 

Through this cross-sectoral partnership, SFCTA conducted four multilingual workshops with over 150 residents and city staff excited about making transportation more equitable in District 10. Importantly, it was not enough to invite residents to have a seat at the table, the group also asked residents to help them redesign the table. Residents provided input on which physical space would be safest, gave feedback on how the workshop materials should be framed, and played leading roles in facilitating the workshop. 

The workshops uncovered the top threats District 10 residents faced — from gentrification to health to employment. With a better understanding of neighborhood-specific issues, SFCTA is now equipped to seek out partners with capabilities that help residents bring to life ideas that address these issues.

Another example comes from the city of Memphis, Tennessee, who proactively sought residents’ input on the city’s mobility vision by leaving the confines of city hall and meeting residents where they are. Through workshops in 14 districts, the city gave the public opportunities to voice their opinions and learned that residents’ priorities centered around increasing efficiency, expanding service hours, designing express routes to job centers, and better communicating bus route changes. 

In addition to community workshops, the city also administered a survey online and at community events to nearly 1,000 Memphis residents to assess top priorities for their city. Survey results indicated that residents care most about “helping low-income people access jobs and services.” Using data directly from residents, the city established a transit vision that is bolstered by community priorities, such as expanding their existing bus network so that 79,000 more people and 103,000 more jobs are within close proximity to frequent service (i.e., every 15 minutes). 

A final example of resident engagement in mobility comes from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city of over 175,000 that only has a few thousand unique riders using their costly public transit system. Our team at the Centre for Public Impact recently worked with a core team of city employees to address the challenge through the Bloomberg Harvard Leadership Initiative. The team started by getting out of the conference room and heading to the closest bus stop. The experience sparked their interest in learning more about the issue. 

Sky Smothers, a recreation manager with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told Bloomberg Cities about his experience of swapping out his 10-minute drive to work for a slightly longer commute by bus. Leaving earlier had knock-on effects for his wife, who had to rearrange her schedule to take care of their two young boys, and he also struggled to put together the exact change required.

“It really opens your eyes to the challenges people face riding the bus,” Smothers said. “If you just sat in your office, you wouldn’t know it because you would not be experiencing it.”

The bus rides were the start of a learning journey for the city’s team, who leveraged human-centered design methodology to better understand residents’ experiences. These methods are a powerful tool to help cities think outside the box in their approach to engaging residents in all aspects of the decision-making process. Equipped with residents’ insights, Sioux Falls is now well-positioned to design policies and programs that truly meet their residents’ needs.

As these examples show, talking with residents should be energizing ⁠— both for city employees and for residents who finally feel as if they have a voice in their city’s mobility conversation. It is, however, important for city governments to recognize that these powerful conversations will build expectations from residents who will inevitably ask, “So where do we go from here?” 

The last thing residents want is city governments that listen but fail to take action. Faced with a large volume of qualitative data from residents, it is critical that city governments dedicate time to synthesize what they heard into a compelling vision that can serve as a rallying call for your city’s mobility ecosystem. In our next post in this series, we will share examples of how city governments have used resident input to build a shared understanding of their city’s mobility vision.

#FutureofCities