Self-described as a “planning geek” and “transport nerd,” Harriet Tregoning is a veteran smart-growth advocate who has been wrestling with issues of planning, mobility, disaster resilience, housing and community development issues for over two decades. Her work has centered both on resilience in the face of a changing climate, as well as on an economy based on enhancing quality of place, economic opportunity, fiscal stability, transportation choice and affordability.
Harriet is the Director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, a new collaborative effort that aims to guide policymakers, the private sector and people toward a shared vision of cities and urban mobility. The pace of technology-driven disruption in transportation is not only changing how people get around but changing cities themselves as ride-hailing, dock-less bikes and scooters, and even autonomous vehicles are added to the list of transit options. NUMO aims to help answer these questions through collaboration with alliance members around research priorities, innovative pilot projects, public engagement and policy development in cities around the world. Hosted by WRI Ross Center, NUMO is an outgrowth of the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, which more than 170 companies and governments have signed on to as a guiding vision for more sustainable, inclusive, prosperous and resilient cities.
Harriet has been deeply engaged on planning, smart mobility, disaster resilience, housing and community development issues for the past two decades. She has been working with organizations around the country to help states and localities prepare for a range of future challenges, including smart mobility; climate change; disaster recovery and resilience; housing affordability; and community development. She served in the Obama Administration as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. She initiated the first ever $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition. Her work encompassed helping states, regions, cities, counties and towns across the country build a strong foundation for resilience in the face of a changing climate, and for a diverse and prosperous economy based on enhancing community quality of place, economic opportunity, fiscal stability, transportation choice, and affordability. She was the Director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning under the past 2 Mayors, where she worked to make DC a walkable, bike-able, eminently livable, globally competitive and thriving city.
She studied Engineering and Public Policy at Washington University. She was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Harriet believes good transportation policy is good land use policy. We can’t fix our transportation woes without addressing the root of the problem: development patterns that have allowed auto-mobility to be a substitute for proximity. I’m right there with her.
Insights and Inspirations
- Good transportation policy is good land use policy. We can’t fix our transportation woes without addressing the root of the problem: development patterns that have allowed auto-mobility to be substitute for proximity.
- Transportation is about access. Essential workers during COVID-19 pandemic had always been essential but they were poorly served by existing transportation options during the pandemic.
- We often think of redundancy as a bad thing, but in another context, we call it choice. A resilient transportation system provides real choices for all trip lengths.
Information and Links
- NUMO New Mobility Atlas is an extensive global platform that tracks and visualizes the rapid growth and proliferation of new mobility in cities. Right now, it’s been updated to reflect the current shared micro-mobility landscape globally.
- Sign up for Leveraging Mobility Disruptions to Build Better Cities, an eight-week edX course co-developed by MIT and NUMO and offered for free starting May 12.
- Read how Bogotá company MUVO deployed 400 free e-bikes to help health workers respond to COVID-19 as the result of a hackathon.
- Speaking of Bogotá, learn more about how cities in Latin America are responding to new mobility challenges during the COVID19 crisis, and how actions taken now will affect future resilience planning.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:16] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:22] My guest today is Harriet Tregoning, the director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility Alliance. As a self-described “planning geek” and “transport nerd”, Harriet is a veteran, smart-growth advocate. She has been wrestling with issues of planning, mobility, disaster resilience, housing and community development issues for over two decades. In her work, she has focused on resilience in the face of disaster and challenge, including the changing climate and equity in transportation and access.
Eve: [00:01:06] Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Harriet 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: [00:01:27] Hello, Harriet, I’m really honored to have you on my show today.
Harriet Tregoning: [00:01:31] It’s my pleasure. I’ve been really looking forward to it.
Eve: [00:01:34] Great. You know, you’ve said for many people, change is a really difficult topic. And you actually said I can’t say I love it myself in my own neighborhood. And it sounds to me like change has been a theme in your career from planning director in DC to director of HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience and now heading up the new Urban Mobility Alliance. So, you wrestle constantly with what could be better and what should come next. And right now, the huge change we’re all confronting is driven by this pandemic. I’m wondering what the thread is that you see emerging around Covid19, this pandemic, and transportation issues.
Harriet: [00:02:17] Well, I think the link has been really, really an important one and I think the pandemic has revealed both the vulnerability of our transportation system and pointed out who is not being well served, how transit is vulnerable and yet essential, but also highlighted that while there are some risks to being close together, that is also essential in many ways, to have things and people that you need near you. So, I think in many ways you could see the pandemic and its impact very much through the lens of transportation and, you know, even our development pattern and how that affects what people can get to easily or not.
Eve: [00:03:13] Yeah. In Pittsburgh, we have a pretty active bus system, which is all about, you know, cramming people onto this moving box, right? And that’s the exact opposite that you want right now. What other way can these can people get around right now?
Harriet: [00:03:32] Well, I think what it highlights maybe, Eve, is not so much even that that type of transportation is that, is an optimal right now. I think it suggests that we need redundancy in our transportation system. That we, there are many occasions, you know, global pandemic or not, where one mode of transportation isn’t suitable for you, but yet you’re trapped if that’s the only mode you have, whether that’s auto mobility, whether that’s transit, whether that’s, you know, maybe you have mobility issues in general and it’s hard for you to do other things like walk or bike.
Harriet: [00:04:14] But, you know, one of the great things I got to do when I was at HUD was really work on resilience from disasters. And at the same time, in D.C., I had a firsthand experience with being a local official during the last great, you know, during the Great Recession and an economic crisis. In both of those roles I got to see first-hand how important those transportation choices and options really are. Think of evacuating Houston in the advance of a predicted hurricane. Now, despite having more lane miles and freeway than virtually any other U.S. city, things were utterly gridlocked and people couldn’t get out. We had an earthquake in D.C. in 2011. The federal government and all the governments in the area told people to go home while they check the stability of buildings at exactly the same instant and the gridlock was unbelievable. But if you were on a bicycle, you had not just a normal commute home, but you had a space commute because no other vehicle was moving. And so, you didn’t have to worry about speeding cars or things like that. So, that redundancy is really, really an important thing. And what we’re seeing is that we don’t have that in the US in most cases, that people have at best, they have one choice and when that choice is no longer suitable for whatever reason, they’re really stuck.
Eve: [00:05:47] How do you change that? How do you design that redundancy into a transportation system in a city?
Harriet: [00:05:54] Well, one of the great things, you know, that’s true about the moment we’re in right now is both the technology and some degree of electrification have provided us with a lot of additional choices that can either substitute for or better complement the transportation that we already have. We’re a long way away from a perfect intermodal system, but e-bikes, e-scooters, e-mopeds are recent additions to many cities across the globe and those additions can cover a range of trips from, you know, a few hundred yards to, you know, to on an e-bike you could easily go seven or ten miles without breaking a sweat. Those options are really, really new things in cities and a lot of ways and so, having those to help you get more easily to a transit stop or help you get from a transit stop to the place that you need to go, bikes can be great because they can carry cargo and probably electric cargo bikes are one of the fastest growing types of individual transportation that’s out there. Some places, Germany for example, have seen unbelievable increases in e-bikes. I have to say, I’m a proud bike owner myself as of last summer. It’s really game-changing and super fun as a way to get around. So, I think that making provisions for walk, bike and micro-mobility on our streets where people don’t have to be in fear of their lives from fast moving vehicles is really critical.
Eve: [00:07:38] Probably in my mind that’s the real issue, you know, these solutions like e-bikes and e-scooters and e-mopeds are all fabulous, but it’s the traffic on the street and a cultural shift that really has to happen, maybe as much as these solutions, right?
Harriet: [00:07:55] You know, you’ve really hit the nail on the head with that comment. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of latent demand for that sort of transportation, that people are totally fearful about riding in mixed traffic with automobiles, and so I think it’s really up to city planners and transportation departments to provide those safe facilities and, you know, it’s absolutely been demonstrated that if you build it, people will use them. Those things are really important. I could give you another example from when I was a local official during the recession. You know, we saw hundreds of cars drop off the DMV rolls in D.C. I was afraid people were fleeing the jurisdiction. But it turns out they were dialling down their transportation costs because they could. So, they were getting rid of a car. So, they were a two-car household they were becoming a one-car household. I’m sure in their minds, temporarily, right? Just a temporary step to lower their costs. And some one-car households became no-car household. Again, maybe they thought of it as a hardship, but there were other options that they could use so it was absolutely doable for them. As a consequence. we had very little bankruptcy, very little foreclosure in the district because people could manage those economic hard times and it was similarly true for the other inner ring jurisdictions, Arlington and Alexandria. But in the same jobs and housing market, which was the Washington metropolitan region, the jurisdictions fared extremely differently and so did households. If you didn’t have those transportation choices, you were stuck. And those communities saw so much more bankruptcy and foreclosure, so much more, so much higher declines in property value. There are still some parts of our region who have not fully recovered. Whereas the places that had these choices, the market and the budget debt, but they didn’t plummet and the rebound was so rapid that this was really a case where those jurisdictions sprang ahead in terms of their resilience. They didn’t just recover, they did better. They improved on their share of the region’s job and housing growth post-recession. I know in part because of the lesson of those choices and what they can do for the resiliency of households and of jurisdictions.
Eve: [00:10:19] I was in Beijing a few years ago and was really struck by, you know, first of all, they have a pretty wonderful subway system. But the stops are really far apart and whenever you go to a subway stop, there are literally thousands of bicycles parked outside it. Thousands. So, the culture there is very much you have an old battered bike and you get yourself to, you know, the next bit of transportation which gets you where you want to go faster. And so, it’s sort of this connected string of things that get you to places, not just one type of transportation. I thought it was pretty fabulous. I’m afraid China’s probably going the other way now. The other thing in China that I thought was really amazing was, if you watched bicycles on a street with cars it was almost like a dance. They just sort of respected each other and the bikes would keep going and the cars would move around them. It is an entirely different arrangement then in our cities here.
Harriet: [00:11:22] I think that that’s a good point, too. And I think that you see, when bicycles become a visible and significant part of the transportation picture, they are treated differently. You know, I’ve been in Shanghai and been in a mob of cyclists. I mean, the largest group of cyclists I’ve ever been in and it wasn’t an organized ride. People were just, you know, riding, you know, going about their business and, you know, and they took up lanes, you know, travel lanes, general purpose lanes, you know, for the bikes. And it didn’t, you know, it wasn’t causing an outcry. And in places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the cyclists easily outnumber the vehicles on any given day and they’ve given over more and more of the right-of-way to accommodate cycling. You have to wait through several light cycles in some places, you know, on your bike in order to get through an intersection because there’s so many cyclists. So, yeah, that makes a difference.
Eve: [00:12:20] Why are we not there in the US? Like, why are we sort of lagging behind all these other countries?
Harriet: [00:12:25] Well, I know that you’re all about real estate. I mean, I think the answer is the real estate issue. We, in the U.S., with the advent of the automobile, you know, more than a hundred years ago, we started making decisions that, more so than any other western country, we started substituting auto mobility for proximity. I mean, think of how much proximity was valued and how, when we didn’t have an automobile for transportation, you know, things were close together. You know, neighborhoods had almost everything you needed, you know, in walking distance. Even the streetcar suburbs, which is one of the earliest examples of transport and real estate kind of going together, a lot of those early streetcar suburbs were actually owned by property owners and developers who wanted to open up land for development, even though distances weren’t very far. But with the automobile, you know, our U.S. cities in particular really bent over backward to accommodate the automobile and accommodate those who wanted to use auto mobility in order to access what was largely cheap, undeveloped land, you know, to put factories, to put office parks, to put housing and to use cars instead of walking or biking or streetcars to be able to get people there.
Harriet: [00:13:57] And what’s happened increasingly is that auto mobility is out of the range, the price range for many households and that means that they don’t get access to really important things that are part of economic mobility. They can’t get or keep a good job because their transportation is unreliable. They can’t access health opportunities, educational opportunities, you know, without a lot of time and effort. So, it’s really created a bifurcated society. And I think one of the things about this crisis that we’re in globally, is that some of the workers that we most value, that we most rely on, who are part of the food chain, the supply chain for our food, who re-stock grocery stores, who clean, ICU’s, these low wage workers are really struggling to get to their jobs and to keep doing the important, and at this point even dangerous things that they’re doing to serve the rest of us. And you know, that is part of the example of why and how our transportation system is not serving us.
Eve: [00:15:04] And I think also in terms of real estate, 30 years ago people did not live in cities. So, cities have really seen a pretty, pretty significant comeback. And in places like San Francisco, especially, it is out of reach of those workers to be living in the city. So, they’re being pushed further and further and further out, which means that transportation becomes an ever bigger problem, right?
Harriet: [00:15:32] This whole conversation is really about transportation and land use, like, these two things have to happen together. That’s an example of where the land uses and the provision of housing isn’t keeping up with the provision of jobs. And in California, part of that conversation is really about their tax structure. But yeah, I think in every place we have that mismatch, that spatial mismatch that we need to solve, and I’d rather solve it with land use and real estate than providing lots of additional transportation infrastructure that’s costly to maintain, costly to access and keeps people further apart.
Eve: [00:16:13] Yeah, I mean I read an article recently in Strong Towns, I think it was a an old one, but about the parking requirements for a retail space, which sort of drives that space to become a little bit of a strip mall. And obviously the more parking a small retail space has to provide, the more they seek cheaper solutions, which, again probably further out of the city. All of those decisions, all the parking requirements, all the decisions that are sort of burdened on land use just make the problem exponentially worse. If you waive those parking requirements for a small business so that they could locate in the heart of a small main street, then they’d be within walking distance of a lot of people and…
Harriet: [00:17:03] I think that’s right, and I think that parking, the parking requirements, which, you know, one of my heroes is Don Shoup, you know, who’s written a wonderful book called The High Cost of Free Parking, you know, and his researchers, the students and graduate students at UCLA have basically identified that there are six to nine parking spaces for each and every automobile in the US, which is horrifying to, kind of, contemplate and that, you know, at any given moment that parking isn’t being used, right? You know, and when retailers provide parking, what they want is, you know, parking for, you know, Black Friday. You know, they want the peak of the peak parking, which means that any other time, it’s mostly not being used.
Harriet: [00:17:56] So I think smart cities, you know, are lowering parking requirements, requiring shared parking, you know, so that the time of day usage can be shared. So, an office building and an apartment building, you know, might be able to share parking or a movie theater and, you know, and an office might be able to share parking and they’re also de-coupling the parking. So, if I don’t want to have to pay as part of my apartment rent for a parking space because I can get by without a car, I don’t want to have to have that parking included. And I don’t want to have to buy a house or a condo where that is necessarily included either. I’d like to be able to purchase those things separately only if I need them.
Harriet: [00:18:40] So all those things that cities are doing to de-couple parking and to be smarter about it means that they’re producing less parking going forward. And almost everyone who’s looking at the future of travel is also thinking that we will have less individual car ownership in the future and also less need for parking. Because right now, you know, not only is parking wasteful, but we don’t drive cars that much. You know, our average in the US is 5 percent of the time, on average, the cars are being driven along, 95 percent of the time they’re not being driven. If you’re in some other business, yeah, you’d say, oh, my gosh, that’s not an asset utilization that’s very good. I should be trying to be more efficient. So, I think that’s also the future.
Eve: [00:19:30] And then, of course, as parking requirements are reduced, you’re freeing up land. Much needed land for affordable housing and other things like that, that are close in to jobs. So, they’re really big issues. So, yeah. So, what’s your background and what path led you to all of this?
Harriet: [00:19:51] So, I studied civil engineering in school, but I’ve been, you know, I’ve been essentially pretending to be a planner for more than 20 years, really. And I have to say I was probably a reluctant planner. I admired planners very much but, you know, I wasn’t necessarily trained in it.
Harriet: [00:20:10] And my first job, my first official planning job was actually to be the secretary of planning for the state of Maryland. I worked with an organization you might know, the Urban Land Institute.
Eve: [00:20:22] Oh, yes.
Harriet: [00:20:23] When I was at the Environmental Protection Agency to help create a national smart-growth movement, because, from my perspective sitting at EPA, we were kind of swabbing the deck of the Titanic to worry about what was smaller and smaller amounts of pollution coming out of tailpipes and smokestacks and utterly ignoring the changing use of the land. That more and more land was being converted to roads and driveways and parking lots and making watersheds impervious and causing lots of runoff, and even though automobiles were getting more efficient in terms of fuel and economy and pollution, that people were driving more every year. So, and EPA was doing absolutely nothing to address those issues. So, from a pollution perspective, I thought if we could figure out a way to have more compact developments, so in the course of doing that I actually became completely impassioned about the idea of returning to a historical development pattern that was six thousand years old, you know, the walkable neighborhood, and that so many people would benefit. If we had more walkable neighborhoods, it wouldn’t be a rarity and an expensive amenity that only a few could afford but if we had it for everyone we’d be healthier, our transportation would be a lot more affordable, it wouldn’t be nearly so expensive to serve people from a government perspective, and maintaining infrastructure, we’d save farmland and forests, we would reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. I mean, there were just tons of reasons from so many stakeholders’ perspectives why it was better, that it really did grow into a movement.
Harriet: [00:22:02] And so, ever since, I’ve been doing something having to do with this. I mean, the good news, the bad news is that there are so many reasons why we have the development pattern that we do in the US than in other parts of the world, that any one change, any one job can’t fix it all. There are hundreds of jobs, hundreds of things that would need to change and have begun to change to make a difference. So that there are lots of jobs that I could be in and I’d play a role in that change and have held a lot of those different jobs, whether it’s doing disaster recovery at the federal level or sitting on the board of our transit agency or being the head of planning for a state or for a city, and now at an advocacy organization that really focuses on all the different stakeholders in transportation.
Eve: [00:22:52] Yeah, no, I agree with you and I’m doing my little bit at Small Change and trying to support projects that make a difference in the same way. You know, I’ve been fortunate with this podcast to, to interview really amazing people tackling these issues in so many different ways it’s absolutely astounding. So, do you think we’re better off than we were when you started thinking about this decades ago?
Harriet: [00:23:16] I think we are. I think that, as you mentioned, the comeback in cities, the increase in walking and biking in a lot of our cities, the increase in transit use, you know, relatively speaking I would say we’ve hit the peak and declined and obviously transit is on life support at the moment with this particular global pandemic. But transit of the value-add for real estate has also been amazing. You know, I find it wonderful that there’s now something like walk scores that people look at when they’re deciding where to site an office or where to buy a house or rent an apartment – to look at what’s the stuff within walking distance?, how convenient is my neighborhood going to be? So, yeah, I think that we’re definitely making progress.
Harriet: [00:24:02] We have a, we have a long way to go to make it normative in the US for these choices to be ubiquitous and every-day. But I think every crisis that we’ve had, whether it was the Great Recession or what we’re in the middle of now, point to some of the benefits of proximity and I think we’ll see more of that when we come out of the health part of this crisis and start really looking at the impacts on the economy. And my hope is that we can do more to provide that infrastructure that will make it safe and comfortable for people to use the transportation choices that should be available to them – the walking, the biking, the micro-mobility, the transit – that we’ll continue to think about trying to put the things that people need closer to them. And I think telework is going to be a much bigger part of our future employment picture and that also means that on any given day in any ostensibly residential neighborhood, there’s gonna be an office building’s worth of workers, you know, in that neighborhood needing coffee, needing a place to meet people for lunch, you know, needing a place to get out of the house and do some work and hopefully that will encourage more mixed use in even those currently residential only neighborhoods.
Eve: [00:25:24] Yeah, so a real loosening up of zoning as well that can really help make better cities for everyone, right?
Harriet: [00:25:31] Yeah, absolutely.
Eve: [00:25:32] So I have a question for you and that’s what’s next for NUMO?
Harriet: [00:25:37] Well, NUMO is definitely looking at both responding during this crisis, but also looking at what’s coming. You know, a lot of the micro-mobility that have entered market in the last couple of years, you know, have brought some new choices to residents, but they have come in as pure market players when in fact micro-mobility might be a great thing for employers who can’t fill certain types of jobs to be offering to those workers. It might be that cities are interested in using micro mobility to help people better access transit or to be a substitute when transit isn’t running for whatever reason and really think of more integration of these new choices with the existing public transportation system. So, I think those opportunities are there. Those have not been the business model that a lot of these new entrants have been using. But we’re working with some folks right now to talk about how employers, hospital employers, grocery employers are really interested in helping their workers get to their place of work and that having dedicated fleets of micro-mobility vehicles, whether those are e-bikes or e-scooters or e-mopeds. Those might be really great choices for them and I think they’ll find that that’s true, not just in the crisis, but after. And I think that’s also true for transit agencies. You know, if we could integrate the payments across different types of transportation, you pay once and you can take, you know, you can have a number of choices for how you get from the place where you are to the place you want to be, even if those trips involve an e-bike and then a train and then a scooter at the other end. If those were all part of a seamless transportation experience, a lot more people would be doing it and you could bundle trips in a way that really create value and incentives for the rider for the person needing the transportation.
Eve: [00:27:45] So this is sort of a perfect storm for transportation and technology and maybe this horrible pandemic will kind of move a little forward more quickly and we’ll see something good come out of it.
Harriet: [00:27:56] Yeah, and I think the data that all of these new options are generating is a whole nother thing that we haven’t been getting from, you know, we don’t know nearly as much about any individual car movements as we know about transit and about these technology-enabled micro-mobility devices. So that tells us a lot about who’s traveling where and when and where there are big gaps where people don’t have access and how that access, you know, that access this crisis has really highlighted how really important that is. Whether it’s two grocery stores or to hospitals or to critical places of work. So that’s, that’s the thing I think we’re gonna be focusing on.
Eve: [00:28:41] Well, thank you very much for talking with me today. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Harriet: [00:28:45] Thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure. I’m really happy to have done it.
[00:28:52] OK, thank you. Bye.
[00:28:56] That was Harriet Tregoning, the director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility Alliance. While she calls herself a reluctant planner, planning has been the full-frontal focus of her career as she has tugged and wrestled with issues of how to make our country better, more sustainable and more equitable. Harriet believes good transportation policy is good land use policy. We can’t fix up transportation woes without addressing the root of the problem. Development patterns that have allowed auto mobility to be the substitute for proximity. I’m right there with her.
Eve: [00:29:44] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website 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.
Eve: [00:30:01] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Harriet, 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 Harriet Tregoning