Session 6 – Transportation Justice
In the morning, we spoke w/ some old-timer veterans, Phil Chin, Landy Dong, who were the co-founders of Chinatown TRIP, the transportation justice advocacy organization for Chinatown. I heard them advocate for bus lines and public transportation to better serve the community in various forms: - Opposing empty express lines that would go through Chinatown w/o serving its constituents - Setting up railings in a high-speed expressway tunnel to protect pedestrians - Scramble lights to allow cars to more efficiently turn and give pedestrians explicit time and space to cross intersections on Stockton - Working w/ bike / scooter share companies to reduce bike share impact on sidewalks After reading the texts on transportation justice, I’ve realized how important of a public service that transportation is. Again, my suburban upbringing hardly impressed upon me the importance of public transportation – growing up in San Ramon, I either biked everywhere or asked my parents or friends for rides to anywhere. We had one bus line that went through town that no one ever rode, so I really had not understanding of the benefits that transportation brought. The texts, as well as meeting these transportation veterans and champions (both from a practitioner and advocacy perspective), realized how much transportation can segregate or diversity, enrich or impoverish, a community.
Yet, the most interesting point for the morning was asking these transportation advocates about their views on rideshare – Uber and Lyft. I feel deeply conflicted about Uber and Lyft and I wanted to hear their perspectives. On one hand, I believe in the potential of Uber and Lyft. From an engineering and network analytics standpoint, I do think that Uber truly creates more optimal routing for public transportation. Mathematically, bus routes are crude guesses at commuter flow and quite frankly, are suboptimal – the routes are refreshed every 5-10 years only after grueling policy reform and community opinion and then are static for those long periods. Conversely, Uber and Lyft are dynamic transportation networks that adjust almost instantaneously to rider demand. Whether that’s a bigger event over the weekend that calls in more drivers to meet that customer demand or whether that’s a temporary surge in calls such that drivers are routed over to FiDi from Richmond District, these are optimal network flows that adapt to customer demand. Throw in UberPool and if we drink the Uber Kool-Aid, Ubers are little vehicles of public transport that precisely factor in users’ origins and destinations to move more people at cheaper prices for the customer. Yet, ride-share is not black-and-white. While mathematically optimal, as Will said today, their implementation is shoddy. Congestion in the cities (upwards of 45K Ubers in the city) seems not to portend a reduction in car ownership. What happens to taxicabs? Declining rides aboard BART and Muni? The rapid decline in the worth of a medallion? I’ve definitely read of the suicides in front of New York’s City Hall. But as for taxis, I know that they are suboptimal network flows, in comparison to Uber and Lyft. Hand-hailing a cab is intensely suboptimal, especially if there is a customer right down the block heading to the same location, a case in point. I believe that commuter rail, however, still serves an important purpose and does relieve traffic from the road. But even buses – are they just larger, more inefficient guesses at commuter flow? Uber and Lyft not sharing data is also an intense problem for the city. Even though market force capitalism generally buck against regulation, I definitely see the aggressive, investor-beaten drive of these companies to make profits and withhold any sort of business intelligence. Especially as Uber and Lyft drastically affect urban traffic, I see that the current legal jurisdiction over taxi services residing at the state Public Utilities Commission (which results in the current laissez-faire modus operandi) leads to a free-for-all which has brought about negative effects in ride-share execution in the day-to-day of a metropolitan area. I’m not opposed to ride-share – truly, I think that ride-share does create value by more intelligently anticipating and transporting travelers. There is such a large available market here that I don’t think community organizations (unless another corporate entity, perhaps the taxicab unions, can stand together against ride-share) can simply oppose ride-share through restriction. Regulation is needed, but I think communities can stand to benefit from ride-share if both parties take a less combative stance.
How can ride-share better serve the community through designated loading zones and sharing of bus / taxi zones?
How can ride-share price differently for seniors and under-served populations?
How can ride-share provide extensive services for the disabled?
How can ride-share work w/ pubic services to subsidize fares for low-income populations?
These are some of my thoughts in which communities can band together w/ ride-share to make transportation more accessible, keep it equitable, and get more people more places in less time and lower cost. Protecting the community shouldn’t be a zero-sum game w/ ride-sharing companies seeking to make a profit off connecting riders to drivers and I believe that there exists immense potential here.
In the afternoon, we got to speak w/ two legislative aides who worked previously for Chinatown CDC and now work for separate members on the Board of Supervisors. After having spoken to a staffer for my US Congressman for my Hacking for Defense project about defense procurement, I really appreciated talking to these municipal aides to understand how policy is made at the municipal level. I asked them about TNCs aka Uber and Lyft and it was reassuring to hear that the legislative staffs and supervisors are aggressively working to understand the impacts of these transportation companies. The aides were less willing to share specific perspectives as they are probably hammering out their opinions as we speak, but I could tell that there was an emphasis to work w/ these companies and to understand their work. I also thought it was interesting to see that they aren’t as engaged w/ the judicial system. Although the attorney’s office is their client in that the prosecutors and defenders work in the justice system to enforce laws, the courts are quite separate – and really don’t interface all that much w/ the legislative system. It’s a bit different to what I learned about in government textbooks growing up where I always thought that our triply divided form of government meant that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches worked hand in hand, but it definitely seems like that the executive and legislative branches interact and engage much more frequently.
The round-table conversation w/ the legislative aides echo what I see at the higher levels of the military and even the corporate boardroom – this funneling of information flow, this intense ground-work done by an army of staffers (be it legislative aides for a municipal supervisor or US Congressman, consultants for a client’s C-suite, or DoD bureaucrats briefing a general officer or senior executive), this watering down of information into succinct slides (that almost seem disingenuous to me, to abstract away the nuances and complexities of any decision or policy) such that these decision-makers can make a decision. In some way, it seems like the decision is already made before the briefing gets to the decision-maker – how could they unravel information that may complicate the material being briefed, how could a leader spare the time to dig for more details or even know the right questions to ask? It seems like… for every 100 page policy report, the leaders only have time to read the Executive Summary – and then make a decision promptly off that. Although I don’t like writing executive summaries and watering down months of field work and data into 5 slides or a 5-bullet point white paper, I’m slowly realize that these summaries characterize how information is funneled to leadership and how important it is to both effective write these summaries and critically analyze them as well.
Session 7 – Sustainability + Community Tenants Association + Open Spaces
In the morning, Deland gave us a mini-lecture on trying to define sustainability and providing a framework to understand it. This introduction was extremely helpful b/c I have never thought about what sustainability means – and I always associated it w/ environmental justice. She provided a great four-block framework that has given me an intellectual quadrant to slowly understand sustainability:
- Environmental Quality
- Economic vitality
- Cultural continuity
I had always separated economic vitality away from sustainability and never quite understood where to place cultural continuity, so I appreciated that Deland made a space to include all these factors in achieving sustainability. Although this framework is reducing in simply naming four factors, it has been educationally helpful to me to start defining sustainability.
Over lunch, we got to speak w/ the President and two Vice-Presidents from the Community Tenants Association and match a face from the pictures of their gatherings to the actual people themselves. I appreciated that Erika contextualized how important their advocacy and education has been in rallying the community for tenant rights and how their influence has been duly noted by elected leadership in acknowledging and hearing this community organizing body’s needs.
In the afternoon, we paged thru architectural plans for various open spaces in Chinatown and it was quite shocking to see the differences b/w the nicely drawn design plans. Guinevere and I looked through the design layout for Chinese playground – and this was the first time I had ever seen an architectural plan for open space – how a space for net sports would encourage teenage athletics and socialization, how a clubhouse would offer indoor respite, how open space for tai chi would give seniors space, and how a play structure would give kids entertainment. I had always taken parks and open spaces for granted and the only investigation I had ever done was to look at a map to figure out how to get out of a natural park or navigate its trails, and it was fascinating to look at it from a community and urban plan perspective – how to intentionally plan and allot space for a community’s felt needs. It was always humbling to think about how these design plans actually play out – how Portsmouth Square’s bridge is under-utilized and attracts transients, how the lack of seating forces many seniors to stand, and how its actual presentation and implementation just differs from the geometrically cut design layouts underlying the actual park.