For the last decade, Seattle has been the fastest growing city in the U.S. The population boom, the city’s biggest since the 19th century Yukon Gold Rush, has strained transportation infrastructure, which relies almost entirely on surface buses without many dedicated lanes. In the 1960s and 1970s, voters turned down federal funding to build a mass transit system and the city has been paying the price ever since. But the tide is turning in favor of transit, with the current generation of voters approving a $54 billion mass transit measure in 2016 that will build out regional light rail over the next 20 years.
To help think big within city limits, Seattle relies on Benjamin (Benjie) de la Peña, Chief of Strategy and Innovation for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). He came to the Emerald City after nearly a decade in philanthropy with the Rockefeller Foundation, where he oversaw pioneering mobility initiatives like Walk Score, Transit Score, Digital Matatus, and the BRT Standard. As a former local to Miami, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and his native metro Manila, Benjie knows his way around cities of all shapes and sizes.
ITDP: The theme of MOBILIZE is making space for mobility in booming cities. What is your city doing to address mobility in the face of rapid urbanization? And what are the challenges in accelerating these solutions?
Benjamin de la Peña: We’ve added 100,000 people in the last 10 years. That’s tremendous growth for a North American city. To accommodate everyone, the first thing we’re doing is expanding options. Seattle, both the region and the city itself, has excellent support for investing in transportation over the last decade.
We’ve renewed Bridging the Gap with a Move Seattle levy, which is $930 million dollars over nine years for building up infrastructure. There’s the $45 million dollar per year Seattle Transportation Benefit District that allows us to buy transportation services, mostly bus services, and we’ve gotten to where about 62% of the households in Seattle are now within a 10 minute walk of a frequent bus line that comes every 10 minutes or less..
Those investments have amounted to really great ridership. About 75% of commuters within the city and people coming in from outside the city travel to work by a means other than single occupancy vehicles. We’ve lowered single occupancy vehicle use from 30% in 2016 to 25% in 2017 by increasing transit, expanding bike infrastructure, and connecting sidewalks.
We’re also figuring out new, emerging technologies like rideshare, ridehail, and dockless bike share. At the core, we provide the people who live, work, and play in Seattle with more transportation options, other than single occupancy vehicles. We’ll continue to push in terms of understanding the choices that our commuters have from the moment when they’re making that choice, and building up infrastructures that creates complete streets and more balanced uses of the street.
What impact would you like to have as SDOT Chief of Strategy and Innovation in the coming years to address the issue of mobility and rapid urbanization?
On street use, there is so much construction going on we need to figure out a way to communicate better when it comes to road closures. In transit and mobility, we’ve got a streetcar that we need to complete that network, and then we’re buying up more transportation services. Not just bus, we need to figure out how to use microtransit. How do we use dockless bike share and everything else that’s coming in? We want to make sure that all of these emerging services are equitable in line with Seattle’s new mobility playbook.
The playbook sets out four plays that are a response to this technology because the transportation system is highly inequitable. In order to function in North American cities, you need to own a car. So what we’re trying to do is first we make sure that all of these emerging technologies, which are disrupting transportation in cities, deliver fair and just transportation.
We want to make sure that we put people first, instead of being enamored by autonomous vehicles or whatever new technologies are coming. We want to decide first what kind of city do we want, then we embrace the technologies and ask the technologies to adapt to the kind of city we want.
We need to be organized within SDOT. I want to build out an information-driven transportation system now, but government agencies are not completely equipped for this. We need to act as an information broker and push out data as a service, so one of the key things I want to build out is an information infrastructure plan for Seattle. We have four mobility plans in Seattle: pedestrian, bike, transit, and freight.
We require a fifth plan, which is information infrastructure. And the question there is not about technology, it’s about what information do we need to deliver at a particular time in a particular place, so that users, whether they are autonomous vehicles, people with smartphones, or whoever else get the confirmation they need on how to use the transportation system and the choices in front of them at the right time.
What city projects anywhere in the world are most interesting to you right now?
I am absolutely fascinated by how Chinese cities have flipped their bus systems into all electric fleets very quickly by adapting to the power system rather than waiting for the power system to be rebuilt. Rather than waiting for power distribution systems to be able to handle charging infrastructure, cities like Guangzhou and Shenzen put capacitors and batteries in bus depots so that the buses can come and load. That allowed the cities to turn around and give incentives for renewing the fleet battery-powered engines.
I am fascinated by autonomous vehicles, particular multi-ride autonomous vehicles, which is still a toy system right now in multiple cities with usually just one route or one direction. But that technology could be really interesting as we provide more transportation options. I’m not a big fan of autonomous vehicles as private cars, but if these are larger vehicles that could carry more people and we could pair it with infrastructure like BRT, we will get much more efficient transportation.
Lots of cities are experimenting with scooters. We’re not sure if we’re going to do that in Seattle yet, but electric scooters and electric bikes could really be game changers. Of course you look at the granddaddies of complete bike infrastructure like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and we need to do that. We want to be able to do it in a city like Seattle if we can get past the politics, because that’s more transportation options and the game changer of the electric bike is that I can be a granny and be doing hills in Seattle.
What are you most excited to see or learn about at MOBILIZE?
I want to see DART, the Dar es Salaam bus rapid transit project. When I was at the Rockefeller Foundation, there was still a back and forth with Dar about whether it was going to move forward or not. I also want to understand what cities are really doing around informal transportation. I co-wrote a monograph on innovations in informal transportation because is still a critical piece of urban transportation. If you look at cities like Dhaka, 30% of the city’s workforce is employed in connection with informal transportation.
We need to innovate how to get all the good things about informal transit – like the availability and ability to go places that larger infrastructure can’t go – and not get all the bad things that go with it like safety problems. I’d like to see where Dar es Salaam is thinking about that and if there are other cities around the world that are thinking about how do you deal with informal transportation.
How is Seattle leveraging data to alleviate crippling traffic congestion?
We have adapted systems in terms of traffic management and traffic lights in a couple of corridors. We monitor all of these so that we’re looking at the performance of corridors. Of course that’s still driven by vehicles crossing through a particular corridor and we need to be better at figuring out metrics for people. This summer, we are piloting a study in 25 neighborhoods with the Gehl Institute on what are people doing in the streets.
That brings to the table more of our understanding of how the right or way is used as public space and gives us better leverage to ask what interventions are actually working. In developed world cities, the largest store in data is about vehicle movement and so we then respond to vehicle movement. We need a counter-narrative that responds to how people actually use space.
We are studying whether congestion pricing will work for the city so that we can price the roads correctly and correct the inequalities that are in the system. Internally we are trying to get our house in order particularly around incident management and closures. Our systems are so disparate, we don’t always know exactly what we need to know at the right moment. That’s because we gather data for recordkeeping and we don’t treat data as an asset.
What lessons from the private and philanthropic sectors are you applying to your role in the public sector?
Understand the system. Projects don’t exist in vacuums and if you want to move something forward, you can’t just be pushing at one aspect. You have be thinking about the system and how they interlock. So as I move a project forward in one segment, I have to understand what are the drivers of that system. What other pieces need to be moved and who are the partners we need to recruit for both the expertise and the support as we try to enact institutional change?
Seattle is one of the few U.S. cities that has seen increased bus ridership in the last few years. Why do you think that is?
We provide more bus service. As Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, said, “Frequency is freedom.” If I know that I’ll probably wait just five, at most ten minutes, for my bus to come, then it’s an easier choice. The worst situation is you wait 15 or 20 minutes and there’s no bus coming. Technology has helped too with apps like OneBusAway and Transit – all of these systems make bus travel more predictable because I know exactly when the next bus will arrive.
In my new role, we want to explore how we can better understand the choices that commuters make – whether to ride the bus or take a bike or drive – and figure out how to nudge them into more sustainable options. I want the agency to learn the methods of human-centered design; we need to move faster and fail and learn better, so we are also rolling out “lean” and trying out “agile”.
We know that rapid changes in technology precipitate changes in organizations and institutions and we want to be ahead of that curve.
This interview is the part of the MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam Speaker Series. In this series, we will feature interviews with speakers and researchers from VREF’s Future Urban Transport where they will discuss their work in sustainable transport and reflect on MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam’s theme: Making Space for Mobility in Booming Cities.
To learn more about MOBILIZE Dar es Salaam visit mobilizesummit.org.