Cecily Foote is the Sustainable Transportation Associate at Commute.org and recent graduate from Stanford University. Cecily attended her first ACT event at the 2019 TDM Forum last week and has taken the time to share her thoughts on some of the sessions she attended, the event, and TDM industry overall.
I must preface this by saying that I swear on my commuter benefits I was not siphoned into massaging my experience into a glowing promotional centerpiece. Because the raw truth is that I have never enjoyed a conference as much as I enjoyed the 2019 TDM Forum in Seattle.
While I’m still young--only 25 and fresh out of school--my sample size of professional networking events is large enough that I can commit to that conclusion with confidence. I know the intimate size of the conference had something to do with it, but I also know that’s not all. I’ve been in the TDM world for a mere two and a half months now and already I feel welcomed, supported, energized, inspired, and generally optimistic for the futures of both myself and the world. So, thank you, everyone, for collectively cultivating an environment that fuels me with all of the above. I did not realize I had wings but already I can feel a breeze building beneath them.
My actionable knowledge of TDM theory and practice swelled a good deal over the two days of the conference. Between the structured sessions, personal conversations, and urban explorations, I found myself heading home with a densely populated notebook, a handsome stack of business cards, and enough swirling thoughts and feelings to carry me through many days of processing.
I’ve combed my notes and sorted them into a few concepts, reframes and provocations that most stuck with me. Here they are:
1. On equity
“If you don’t do stuff with people, they assume you’re doing it to them.” – Roger Millar, Washington Department of Transportation
In his welcome address, Millar underscores a thread that ran steadily throughout the whole conference—especially in the Ensuring Equity and Accessibility in Contracted Transit Services session.
I also see the flipside to this, which is if you don’t do stuff with people, they won’t know that anything is being done at all.
Seattle was an appropriate place to be talking about this because King County Metro actually has their own Equity Cabinet, full of community members, that provides recommendations to service providers and policy makers. They also, in partnership with Sound Transit, have a great on-demand mobility pilot called Via to Transit, which serves folks in Southeast Seattle going to and from Link light rail stations. I mention this pilot because one of the details that stood out to me was the language representation: there are five languages available in the online resources, seven in print, and fourteen in the call center they set up to support riders.
How well do you know your own area? How many languages are spoken? What are they? What percentage of people are unbanked? Without access to a smartphone? What percentage of transit trips are being paid for in cash? Who is commuting the farthest every day and where are they coming from? Can you name any community organizations in those places?
Equity is not a bullet point halfway down a list of priorities. It is knowing the answers to questions like these and actively incorporating them into solutions, as early as the first pilots.
2. On civic responsibility
“You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”
I failed to note the speaker who brought breath to these words, but it was sometime during the first session I attended: P3s in TDM: How Public Private Partnership can achieve mutually-beneficial mobility outcomes. I love this reminder that congestion is a sort of tragedy of the commons, one that replays itself each morning and evening on commuter roadways. How might we tackle this culture of road entitlement?
I believe strongly in designing systems and environments to optimize defaults. A version of this concept was raised in the same room, in the Q&A session after the panel—a provocation to probe more critically into the very definition of “reasonable” or “practical” when it comes to assessing whether someone’s transit options are, truly, options. The answer to the question of how to shift the default is often to charge for parking, but it seems like there’s still something worth digging into here. What does it mean to be reasonable? How much can we ask of people? And might our expectations unconsciously vary between different groups?
3. On contextualizing the labor of the trade
“While the change is linear, the effort is not.” – Jamie Cheney, Seattle Children’s
Seattle Children’s is a mere 3% away from reaching their goal of 30% drive alone rate, down from the 73% they started at. But, as Director of Transportation Jamie Cheney remarked in the Going Above and Beyond -- Bringing a creative approach to challenging employer programs session, it seems harder to achieve the last 3% than the first 40%. I wanted to include this here both to brace myself for working in this field but also as a reminder for everyone experiencing similar obstacles to program success.
But there is a tandem theme at play, and that’s a broadening of the impetus for our work. In the Ending Traffic Together session, moderator Mona Weng from Waze Carpool opened with a focus on the link between carpooling and wellness: “Commute is the new healthcare.” I’m certain we all know this truth deeply, but I like the framing of it as a potential way to entice new resources from previously TDM-dormant fields. After all, some of the leading causes of death in our country are from sedentary lifestyles, and at Seattle Children’s, two of the top five reasons for admission are for conditions related to air quality (bronchiolitis and asthma). But even outside of health there are abundant reasons to grow TDM programs and it appears they are finally catching on in more and more places.
While the sessions I attended only represented a third of the event schedule, I came away with countless insights into incorporating TDM into areas where strategies are absent while ensuring everyone receives equitable access and education. I’m already anticipating the next opportunity I have to connect (and reconnect!) with my fellow ACT members and return to Seattle to explore and ride the fabulously multimodal transit system.