There is a nexus between mobility, real estate and equity – how much one must spend on transport directly relates to how little they have left for real estate and housing.
This is the relationship that Karina Ricks explores as the inaugural director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. Mobility’s role is the design and implementation of a complete transportation network, policies and programs to manage emerging transportation including shared services and autonomous vehicles and strategies to address long term sustainability.
This new city department has very clear goals to serve its citizens:
- That every household in Pittsburgh can access fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home, without the requirement of a private vehicle;
- That all trips that are less than one mile are easily and enjoyably achieved by non-vehicle travel;
- That the combined cost of transportation, housing and energy does not exceed 45% of household income for any income group;
- That streets and intersections can be intuitively navigated by an adolescent; and
- That no one dies or is seriously injured traveling on city streets.
That might sound simple but it’s really quite a revolutionary way for a city department to be thinking about transportation infrastructure – it’s all about the relationship of mobility to the economic health and well-being of the city and its residents.
Karina formally served as the Director of Transportation Planning for the District of Columbia before becoming the inaugural director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. She is a graduate of Cornell University, Michigan State University, and a Fulbright Scholar.
Insights and Inspirations
- Learn about Karina’s Pittsburgh Micro-Mobility Collective.
- You can follow the department’s progress on twitter or facebook, or follow Karina’s mobility thoughts here.
- Take five minutes with Karina to hear what she thinks about the future of mobility and transit in Pittsburgh.
- One year in, Karina reflects on creating an accessible and inclusive city.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:05] Hi there. Thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing. My guest today is Karina Ricks, the inaugural director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. This new department has very clear goals to serve its citizens. Karina wants to ensure that no one dies or is seriously injured traveling on city streets, that every household in Pittsburgh can access fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home without the requirement of a private vehicle, that all trips less than one mile are easily and enjoyably achieved by non-vehicle travel, that streets and intersections can be intuitively navigated by an adolescent, and that the combined cost of transportation, housing and energy does not exceed 45 percent of household income for any income group.
Eve Picker: [00:01:11] These goals sound simple, but are really quite a revolutionary way for a city department to be thinking about transportation infrastructure. Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Karina on the show notes page for this episode. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small Change.
Eve Picker: [00:01:50] Hi, Karina. Thanks very much for joining me.
Karina Ricks: [00:01:53] Great to be here. Thanks.
Eve Picker: [00:01:54] So you’re the first director of a brand new department in Pittsburgh, the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. And I’m wondering how that department came to be.
Karina Ricks: [00:02:05] So the department came the way that many of them have emerged in recent years in the US, which is that the city had a department of public works, which really was primarily responsible for maintenance of the transportation assets that we have in the city. So clearing snow from streets, patching potholes, generally replacing in kind. We also had a Department of City Planning which was tasked with sort of longer term, longer range objectives of communities. But there was this missing middle that was sort of thinking about this tremendous infrastructure that we have. We’re responsible for about one fifth of the land area of the city, which are the public rights of way. And rather than just replace in kind, replace in kind really starting to think about how is this asset contributing to the sustainability of the city, the ability to thrive of our local neighborhoods? What are the policies for management and operations that need to be put in place to really get to those objectives? And so the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure was created to fill that gap. And it drew staff from both the Department of Public Works and the Department of City planning to bring together, in a way this transportation land use, economic development objectives, and think about think very proactively about the design of our infrastructure, the use of our infrastructure. And if I can go just from a minute to talk about. I had nothing to do with the name of the department. It was, I’m the first director but the the creation of the department was something that was a product of mayor. But I’m thrilled at the name. So in the US, you know, initially these kinds of departments were called the Departments of Highways, which really sort of informs their priorities right where we were thinking about things in the time that was back in the 50s and 60s. They were departments of highways. Then they sort of morphed and changed their names to be departments of transportation. Well, that’s fine as well. But what we’ve learned – Recent research that was done at Harvard University found that the time that it takes to commute, so that the the time of travel and the reliability of travel is the single most important factor in families and households being able to change their economic status. So beyond the quality of their neighborhoods, public safety issues or other kinds of elements, their access to transportation, their ability to move from where they lived to where they were going to get the different kinds of goods and services and jobs that they had was the single most important factor in escaping poverty, in changing their economic status. And so, in essence, it said that physical mobility was the most important factor in economic mobility. And so I think that really sums up what this department is about. It’s about mobility, not just moving around, but it’s about mobility of changing lives. And that’s really some of the emphasis that I’m trying to bring to my staff and to the work that we do.
Eve Picker: [00:05:26] So, you know, this is really fascinating because as I do these interviews, all the threads sort of come together for me. I’m learning a lot. And I I just interviewed an architect in Australia who’s really built an entire sort of new affordable housing model around exactly that thesis – that cities don’t run with essential without essential people who serve it and those people are generally being pushed out. Well, this was in Melbourne, Australia, which is a very, very wealthy and sprawling city. But those people are going to being pushed out further and further and further. And so we have to find a way to have them be able to afford to live closer in and be mobile in in different ways without having a car. So there in Australia, he’s developed an entire new housing model kind of based on that thesis.
Karina Ricks: [00:06:18] Right. Well, we we we also refer often to the H plus T index. We talk about the housing plus transportation index. And we have a measurable goal for my department and for the city, which is that no household in the city of Pittsburgh should need to spend more than forty five percent of their income on housing and transportation, which are the two largest household expenses. At any income quintile, so you really need to look at it across income rates, and we know just like any other city, that housing prices are increasing. But what’s interesting is in Pittsburgh today, households spend about 21 percent of their income on housing, which is which is fairly low. Go to other places. But they spend 20 percent of their income on transportation, which is quite high. So if housing prices increase, we can keep people in our city if we’re able to work on the other side of that equation, which is driving transportation costs down so that we can stay at that affordable net net affordable threshold.
Eve Picker: [00:07:37] So your department is really a whole lot more than about transportation. You’re really an economic development department, too.
Karina Ricks: [00:07:43] We like to think of ourselves that way. Absolutely.
Eve Picker: [00:07:46] Yeah how interesting. Yeah. And so you talked about broad … Well, let me just ask you about you. How did you come to be in this position? What’s your background?
Karina Ricks: [00:07:57] I took the scenic route. I would say to my boss. So my original career objectives were in environmental sustainability. And so really focusing on those issues around climate change and overall sustainability and efficiency there through some some different twists and turns, I ended up working, doing a fair amount of work in economic development, actually in Tonga, I was in the Peace Corps, and did economic development there. And then I continued to work in other communities of the global south. And and then from there, it actually morphed into some democracy work in the several countries in Eastern Europe. And I came back to the U.S. and got my master’s degree after having all of this experience. And it and it sort of, you know, these different threads came together in city building, the ways that cities are situated, the ways that that relates to economic prosperity, democracy, inclusion, equality. And those threads immediately led to transportation, because if you really can’t access these markets, you can’t access these forums where these decisions are being made, you are by definition being left out. And this is what leads to a lot of the social isolation that we have, a lot of cultural segregation that we have certainly in this country and other countries as well, where people are really just not engaging with one another. They’re not being exposed to two persons of different persuasions and different opinions. And it’s leading into a lot of a lot of strife. So, you know, oddly, it really is mobility, transportation, access, you know, that has this tremendous impact, the climate that has this enormous impact on economic prosperity, that has a huge influence over social cohesion. And and, you know, sort of political peacemaking. And so that sort of led me to this place that I’m at now.
Eve Picker: [00:10:22] Interesting. Interesting. So, you know, I connected with you through an article that I read in City Lab about the mobility conference that was held here in Pittsburgh last year, which sounded really fascinating to me. Tell me a little bit about that and the purpose of it.
Karina Ricks: [00:10:39] It was a tremendous experience. It was really one of the most inspiring things that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. So it it was prompted from there was a very exclusive conference that was held here in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago that was really contemplating what the rise of autonomy and autonomous vehicles and new urban mobility, how what the consequences of that might be for city form and urban design and architecture and disciplines like that. And it was a it was an invite only convening. It had all of the greatest brains from around the world. As part of it. I was privileged to be included in that group, which was wonderful. And all of these good people throughout this two day meeting were consistently coming back to the themes of equity and inclusion. And then and then one individual that was there kind of approached me in the course of the meeting and they said, you know, isn’t this odd? Here are all of these people, all of whom are making, you know, very comfortable livings, have high educational attainments and they’re all talking about equity and inclusion and all of these good things. But where are the real experts in that area? Meaning where are the people who live it day in and day out who are really constrained by the situation of their lives and the things that they face and the problems that they need to solve each and every day. Those are the experts. Why are they not in this room? All of us, the privileged few, are talking as if we know.
Karina Ricks: [00:12:23] And so from that kind of discussion, he and I, he and I kept up the conversation going for the next year or so. And from that came this mobility conference, which was a conference, a workshop, co-creation kind of event, where we again, by invite only. But we brought these tremendous subject matter luminaries, experts, top of their class innovators in in mobility and technology and operations. And a third of the conference were those those folks leading into the city and the nation. But a third of the people we paid a living wage and we provided mobility supplement to them were people who are on the margins, on the edges. They’re the people that were formerly incarcerated, people that are single mothers with minimum wage jobs, trying to kind of just get their kids to all the places they need to go to and, you know, scrape by their own lives. They were people who face a host of other social and economic challenges that we we paid them to be the experts in the room. And so a third of the people of the conference were that representation. And the last third were governments and nonprofits and enablers that could be a part of it. And we really workshopped what are the challenges that you face, the mobility challenges that you face? What are the things that we can do that would make a real difference, which some of them were as small as providing better lighting at bus stops at night or being able to hail, you know, make sure that the bus driver can see that you’re you’re waiting there in the bus shelter so that the bus doesn’t the one bus that comes every 40 minutes doesn’t pass you by because they didn’t see you, to creating whole new services that would address these third shift working needs – the hotel and restaurant hospitality workers that oftentimes face certain challenges in the level of service that is provided at the time that they leave work, but also concerned for personal safety as they’re carrying, you know, tips or cash or something like that. To, you know, school age, children, mobility so that their parents can do that. So we really workshopped through what is the problem, what is the set of solutions, how can we create new services, new applications, just new improvements that are actionable, that there is actually a timeline and a you know, a funding means. And we came out of there with, you know, six or eight things that we’re continuing to really work through. But the solutions and stories that we never would have heard in that very intimate, tangible way, if those people if those experts hadn’t been there saying, this is what I do to get by. This is what I’m forced to do to make these things happen. Yes, that would make a difference in my, you know, in a way that I was traveling. So that it was a tremendous event. It was really inspiring.
Eve Picker: [00:15:44] It sounds inspiring. And what were the outcomes like? I know the one thing that cityLAB talked about was the micro ability, but I’m sure there were more.
Karina Ricks: [00:15:53] Yeah. So micro mobility was one of the bigger lifts that came out of there.
Eve Picker: [00:15:58] Let’s start with that first and then we can because I think that people would be interested in hearing what that is.
Karina Ricks: [00:16:05] So the micro mobility micro transit solution was one where it was particularly aimed at the workers who work at our hotels and night time restaurants, night time economy kinds of workers who are transit services do very, very well for the daytime office based workers. But transit service diminishes greatly in those evening hours. We have many employers in the city who operate shuttles for their daytime office employees to get them from various remote parking spaces to their campuses. And those shuttles that are just parked and silent in the nighttime. And so this was an opportunity using technology to actually map where workers were to allow a hailing application so that they could indicate when they were in need of a ride optimized route so that planning could be very highly efficient so that we could we could give kind of on demand in a way on demand mobility or at least scheduled service to pick up these night time economy workers and bring them to their places of employment and back again. And using vehicles that already exist in the city, but are but are basically idled during the time that they are needed there so we can get that greater efficiency from them. And then talking with their employers who immediately saw the value of doing this because someone needs to obviously subsidize a service like this.
Karina Ricks: [00:17:50] And they immediately saw the value because of the high turnover rates that they experienced when their employees. If you need to have your your your cook, your chef there at a particular time, because you’ve got a dining room full of patrons that you need to attend to, if you need to have your room cleaning people there so that you can turn over the keys in your hotel, if you need to have trusted staff that you have trained and that you feel good about so that your customers and your clients have a great experience too. But that person is, you know, habitually 30 minutes late, you know, may not show up at all because of the mobility challenges they have. You can’t keep that person around as an employer. You you you’re going to have to dismiss them for failure and performance. But that has a cost to you to to find that next person, to train that next person to to to feel trusted with them. And so all they needed was to get their employees there on time. And all their employees really wanted was to get to work on time. So this was a this was a natural matching that we could do. So that was the micro mobility. And we called it the safe shift service and partnered with a company called Move It to help develop that application that would identify where those workers were, how to optimize the routes. We’re still working with employers to really bring that into operation. But the research has completed and so we’re continuing to advance on that one.
Karina Ricks: [00:19:35] Some of the other things that came out, as I said, were just just simple improvements, like could there be a a switch of sorts on the shelter that could illuminate, you know, something to make sure that the driver of a bus knew that there was a transit rider there in the shelter and they wouldn’t just blast by because, you know, there there’s not so many people in those late night hours. But if that bus passes them by, there’s a huge impact on the potential rider. I’m trying to remember some of the other things. But there is there is some really, really great, not necessarily deeply costly solutions that could be implemented that would have real benefits, too, so that we could do something more than just talk about how much we wanted to address equity and inclusion. But there were some things that we could really do that we knew would be welcomed and useful because they were co-designed by the people who who require them themselves.
Eve Picker: [00:20:39] Fabulous. And then there was also a description of these hubs that you have been building, and the partners. I was kind of really interested in them, the partners and and why they care and how you brought them to the table.
Karina Ricks: [00:20:55] Right. So so that’s a bit of a different initiative that came. It was, you know, maybe had some of its birth in the mobility conference. But through other inputs, we understood that there’s there’s a whole host of micro mobility, new mobility that’s coming to cities across the globe. And many cities, as is too typical for us, are caught flat footed with these new technologies. We really don’t know how to use them, how to manage them. We end up with our cities, you know, somewhat littered with e-scooters or know previously it was dockless bikes. And, you know, they’re there and we’re all excited about it, but we’re not quite sure exactly who they’re serving. The management of the public space could obviously be better in many cases. And they’re not really integrated together into a singular system. The onus is really on the user to figure out what are the what is the range of services available in the city, they need to setup a separate profile for each and every service that’s there. They need to kind of do their own comparison and cobble together their own services where they might take a ride share from this point to this point, but then a scooter share from here to here and then a transit there to there. But they need to open up three different apps and do their own planning to do that. And it’s really a very difficult and challenging arrangement for the user. We said we can do better than that. We can work with the private sector. Maybe just one provider in order to see what works, do some experimentation with them to develop our own policies, to figure out how we can really get toward this elusive mobility as a service concept where, you know, the users can have the whole buffet of mobility options available to them, presented to them in a single way so that they can choose based on what is motivating them, whether it’s time or price or environmental performance or fund factor or whatever it is that they want to do. So we put out a solicitation for a mobility collective and we said, you know, we want you to self-organize your industry, please self-organize and bring together different kinds of services. We don’t just want the walled garden, as it’s called, where it’s Uber that says, well, we’ve got scooters and bikes and car share and you only need work with us. Thank you very much. That’s wonderful. But we might see some downsides to having that much control in one place. So we said you need to have multiple companies, multiple services, and you need to be prepared to experiment with us to figure out how we best manage our public space, how we best really get to this notion of inclusion and inclusivity, and run some pilots and run some demonstrations to do that. And so we got great response. We were excited at the number of responses that we got. We selected a partnership that’s led by Spin, which is a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company, and they brought with them ZipCar and Swift Mile and Wayz Carpool and Transit App and a number of different independent ( they’re not all owned or even have an ownership stake with one another), so they’re an independent collection of companies, each bringing a different kind of service together. And they proposed to us that they would like to come to the city and establish mobility hubs where we would have this range of different services, all sort of co-located together in some of our different centers and critical destination areas that we would formulate a platform that would allow the user to tap into all of these different services so the user would really be in control that we would really use as the backbone of this system, our public transit system, so that it is additive rather than competitive to transit. That it would preserve our public bike share, which was very important to us as well. That we love micro mobility and all of the private companies that are popping up, but they’re also dispersing as quickly as they’re popping up.
Karina Ricks: [00:25:21] We don’t want that to happen that we’re we totally do away with our public bike share. That is as much a critical public transit option as buses and trains are. So that was one of the requirements as well. And it’s been great so far. We really applaud Spin for their willingness to kind of go into the unknown with us, to be really true partners, to be open and vulnerable. You know, and they’re able to do that because we’ve said we’re going to not allow any other entrance into our city while you’re going through this sort of experimentation phase with us. So we’re going to give you a safe space to be vulnerable as long as you’re willing to do that with us and to really figure this out in a very, very much of a partnership way. And I really applaud them. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner so far. They and all of the other companies that they brought along with them are really very authentically and truly working with us. And we’re figuring it out. And I’m excited to see where this is going to go.
Eve Picker: [00:26:34] It’s making me_____. It’s pretty fabulous initiative. So then there really are no results so far?
Karina Ricks: [00:26:41] It’s not not well that I would say that there have been some results so far. So we’ve talked a lot more about these mobility hubs. And so those are progressing to really ensure that we have, in particular, electric charging that can be multipurpose so that these charging stations so the recharging micro mobility vehicles is is a major limiting factor to them.
Eve Picker: [00:27:08] So that’s a core for these stations to have to be able to pull something up and charge it right.
Karina Ricks: [00:27:20] So that you can you can pull a bike up, you can point a scooter up, you can pull whatever the next generation of these things are up that the car share can be electrified. That ride hailing curbside can be managed for efficient drop off and pick up at the curb side. So a whole host of different things. And again, to the convenience of the user.
Eve Picker: [00:27:42] None of these hubs actually live yet?
Karina Ricks: [00:27:46] We’re doing the location selection right now. And then there’s there’s some like a fair bit of infrastructure that needs to go into again because it involves electrifying them.
Eve Picker: [00:27:57] And how many hubs do you are you shooting?
Karina Ricks: [00:27:59] Well, initially there’s 50, which is given the size of our city. That’s pretty good.
Eve Picker: [00:28:05] That’s pretty. And then I’m going to root for location near me, Karina. So it’s a really, really fabulous. And it really does. It’s really nice to hear that those companies care and want to think this through. It’s pretty fabulous.
Eve Picker: [00:28:26] Ok, so let me finish up by just saying I’m very excited that Pittsburgh, as you and I’m I can’t wait to see how this turns out.
Karina Ricks: [00:28:36] I’m really excited. And this is a great city to do these kinds of things. And it’s a city that values its neighbors. It’s a city that values the environment. It’s a fantastic urban and natural experience. So the people of Pittsburgh are just wonderful and they’re as much a part of the secret sauce of the city as anything else.
Eve Picker: [00:28:57] Okay. Well, thank you very much.
Karina Ricks: [00:28:59] Sure. Thank you. So great to talk to you. Bye.Eve Picker: [00:29:07] That was Karina Ricks the inaugural director of Pittsburgh’s brand new Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. Karina believes that there is a nexus between mobility, real estate and equity. How much one must spend on transport directly relates to how little they have left for real estate and housing. You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access, the show notes for today’s episode at my web site rethinkrealestateforgood.co. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Karina, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Karina Ricks