This month on the ‘Women In Shared Mobility’ series, our CEO Sandra Phillips interviewed Clarrissa Cabansagan, New Mobility Policy Director at TransForm.
Clarrissa Cabansagan is the New Mobility Policy Director at TransForm, a non-profit transportation advocacy organization based in Oakland, that combines high-quality policy analysis with coalition building. TransForm promotes walkable communities and transportation choices to connect people of all incomes to opportunity, keep California affordable, and help solve our climate crisis.
Clarrissa currently leads TransForm’s efforts to ensure disadvantaged communities benefit from bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and tech-enabled shared mobility options. Clarrissa is a Bay Area native. She received her BA in Ethnic Studies with a minor in City & Regional Planning from UC Berkeley, and Masters in Transportation Policy & Planning from UCLA.
Women in Shared Mobility: equality and inclusivity across shared mobility services – strategies for covid-19 and beyond.
Clarrissa Cabansagan, new policy director at transform
Sandra Phillips, chief executive officer, movmi
Before we begin, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Clarrissa Cabansagan and I am a policy director at TransForm. My area of focus is shared mobility. I’m the new mobility policy director and I have a background in a lot of bus advocacy and active transportation advocacy and as someone who is thinking about reducing climate pollution from a regional perspective, I’m doing a lot of TOD campaign work as well as what we call our sustainable community strategy in the Bay Area. It’s called Plan B. As a regional transportation policy advocate I saw an opportunity to think about shared mobility. For a good number of years we had been working with housing developers in incorporating car share into multifamily development and so when bike share came on the scene I think in the late 2000s, I can’t even remember when, we started thinking through what it would look like for our system to go from a couple hundred bikes to thousands of bikes. In that seeing opportunity to get more people who would otherwise not purchase their own bike, to get them on to active modes.
Quite honestly, we were feeling around in the dark. How do we actually influence the private sector as policy advocates? We had mostly done lobbying at government agencies and so quite quickly we recognized that no one was thinking about access to bike share and now scooter share for low-income communities and our mantra is that if we have a new technology, just like the car was a new technology at some point decades ago, how do we make sure that low-income communities of color actually benefit from this new technology and that they’re at the forefront of planning for that mass distribution versus at the tail end or an afterthought? All of our work in shared mobility is focusing on how to direct new options to communities that are currently those that have the fewest options for getting around. They usually are the less transit dense parts of our region because we are seeing displacement happen in our urban centers and it’s happening across the globe. We do pilots, we do policy making in the space but it’s in that realm of public-private partnership. How do we encourage shared mobility to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities?
1. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGES WORKING WITH INDUSTRY PARTNERS OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS?
The opportunity here I believe is that instead of being the Advocate banging on government agency’s doors telling them ‘hey, you’re not spending your money properly, you should be spending it in X, Y and Z categories,’ it was the first time that we were more aligned or like one of the times where, we were more aligned and saying ‘hey, private industries is now trying to drive a profit on the public right-of-way’ we agree with you cities that this needs to be regulated and they need to conform to all the things that we’ve been trying to push, in terms of public policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to make sure that mode shift is not just clutter on the street, that it’s actually producing or giving options to communities that need options.
I think government and nonprofit advocacy groups like TransForm we’re in alignment there and in concert, those two efforts were able to push better regulations on certain things, like e-scooters or we’re seeing a moped share and one-way car share has been around for a while. I think the fact that it was easy to say private industry ‘you’re gonna profit off of using our public right-of-way so make sure you’re doing so in a manner that’s consistent with our public policy goals.’ That was like an opportunity that was much different than if I were to say ‘Ellis city government, hey, can you spend more money on bike lanes’ and then I’d have to do the rundown with the council members and lobby them to agree with me. That’s something that we should be doing here. It was easier it was clear that uber and lyft for example were kind of going unregulated, at least in California, they’re regulated at the state level, so our cities were
frustrated or enhancer agencies were frustrated and as a voice for mobility, and for mobility justice, I think that’s where we just kind of inserted ourselves and I like to say that at TransForm, we’re asking the questions that no one’s asking. When we saw everyone start to think about uber and lyft – ride hailing is it really increasing mobility is it or is it just driving up our pollution? Our question was ‘what impact is it having on disadvantaged communities?’ and really driving home on ‘can this provide mobility for low-income families? ‘Can this help bypass the family’s need to spend most of their income on the car?’ Which a lot of low-income families will do. When they get that stable income, it’s ‘go and purchase the automobile.’ So we were asking the questions that were not really the big public policy question. Are reducing climate pollution? We, at TransForm, we’re thinking, ‘how does this improve mobility for people who don’t have options?’ I think that that’s consistent in our pursuit of mobility justice on all modes, not just on buses, not just on trains but understanding the holistic needs of communities and where a scooter might fit into that or where a rideshare trip to transit might fit into that.
We are a multi-modal organization and I think that lends to thinking very differently than some of our advocate partners who are mostly thinking, ‘well, does this increase riding bikes? ‘Does this impede on pedestrian movement?’ When you think only in the silos of different modes you don’t get to see that larger conversation of ‘who needs options?’ How does this option help reduce driving overall?’ and because we’re learning as we go we’re seeing really interesting data out there. I know for sure that a lot more people in Oakland, where TransForm is headquartered, a lot of people in Oakland are riding scooters more than they’ve ridden our bike share system and the bike share system has been in place a lot longer than the scooters. To see a million trips on scooters in over six to eight months versus half a million on bike share bikes over one and a half years, that’s a real data point that we look at. We are thinking ‘Who’s on the scooters that’s different than the bike share?’ because we do believe that there are different populations served and the more options people have, the more they can opt out of car ownership. The whole swath of mobility options will then lend to reduce auto ownership and thus less driving.
2. HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED TRANSPORTATION, PARTICULARLY WITHIN THE COMMUNITIES THAT LIVE IN TRANSIT DESERTS?
I’ve been on lots of webinars and everyone’s talking about what’s going on during this crisis. I do feel like what’s more pronounced is who’s driving to work? So when I look at it in the Bay Area, people are speeding on our highways now because no one’s driving. It’s more affluent workers like policy folks, like ourselves, that have the luxury of working from home. We are not essential workers but we’re highly paid folks that can afford Auto travel and we’re doing it. The fact that highways across the globe are not congested is telling that more affluent people are driving. When you look at some of the numbers, I know That Transit app did a survey of people riding transit. There are essential workers continuing to ride transit because that’s what is getting them to work, I do feel like there is likely a drop-off of people on transit because of wanting to be less exposed. I haven’t dug into the weeds on the data but my gut tells me that based on what I see going on in our community, a lot of people that are still taking shared modes, probably less than they were before.
We did some analysis on who is taking uber or a scooter or a bike share ride and I feel like those people on those modes are likely essential workers or people taking essential trips that don’t have access to an automobile and or maybe they do and they’re using the bike in the scooter for recreation. I think it’s a moment for us to recognize that one, we need redundancies in our transit systems, and not to say that scooters are a replacement of a seat on the bus, but it is our bike-share systems and how micro mobility can help us in times like this.
You saw, essentially, transit agencies pulled back a lot of their service, especially when I think of San Francisco and how much service was pulled but people still need that transit. I can see that the thousands of bike share bikes could help people that have lost that transit service. Someone has to do some analysis there to see if it’s really doing justice to the communities that have lost their specific lines, but I do think that there’s something there. If someone can learn how to get on a bike share bike or on a scooter when the bus is not running, they can opt into those modes and have access to low-income discounts on those modes then.
I can honestly care less that a private company is managing that system because if the alternative is that person hopping in their car and their solo driving to work, I still think that those bikes and scooters are a win when it comes to climate pollution, over that person hopping in the car. The challenge, I think we have for shared mobility, is ‘how do we make them more affordable to people who otherwise would not be able to use them?’ Or for whom it’s easier or cheaper to have a transit pass than it is to pay per trip and so I do feel like some of the movement from scooter companies or the bike share companies to give access to essential workers are fascinating. How do we, in perpetuity give essential workers who are probably the lowest paid among us, free access to shared mobility? We’re working on it. We’re trying to find the funds. We believe that that’s something that is important to think about. Do I have the bucket of funds from the state level that says this is what you should use? No, I don’t but my sense as a transportation advocate is that just like we subsidize bus service for people who desperately need it, we need to see transportation as a social good and it’s not enough to say ‘if you can’t afford the car then you’re just stuck on transit.’
I feel there’s this dichotomy that we give to people. We have severely underfunded transit systems, very expensive shared mobility options and even more expensive car options and none of those are really good unless you live within access to good transit, then it’s working for you but it depends on where you’re going and it depends at what time of day that you’re traveling. I’d like to see someone do some really great analysis on how people are traveling. If some essential workers are traveling during Covid, to see what policy pushes we can have as a result of this.
3. IF YOU HAD A GENIE IN A BOTTLE TO GRANT YOU ONE WISH MOVING INTO COVID-19 RECOVERY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I think we need to get a better handle on what it means for people, for individuals, to have to pay for their transportation. If you’re in a car, there’s a sunk cost of the car – you’re really thinking about your gas and right now gas prices have plummeted. For the most part, people are thinking they’re not paying per trip when they are in their car, which is why people feel like driving is the cheapest option and depending on how many people you’re trying to move out at once. If you have a family of four or five, if you do the math in terms of what you dole out, at that moment you’re not paying every time you put your family of five in the car. When we think of the affordability crisis, the housing crisis and not to mention this massive recession that we’re in right now, it’s even that more acute, how people have to think about spending their very limited resources. If we came from an environment where the normal person is challenged to have to pay every time they use something to get around, it’s even worse now because of the economic crisis that most families are in. That’s the only thing that I think I’ve tried to shed some light on when we’ve worked with some scooter companies on their low-income program. It’s that when you’re talking to someone who has very limited resources and they have to make the decision, ‘do I pay my rent or do I feed my family?’ ‘Do I accrue more debt?’ That all of those are trade-offs people make when they have very limited resources and you can’t just assume that that person has a credit card on file, that has an unlimited ability to take X number of scooter trips. That person is probably thinking, ‘well, let me load five dollars or ten dollars onto this scooter platform and then I can get X number of trips’.
I know I’m not talking about the low-income programs but I’m just thinking about someone who has limited resources and they’re paying per trip. A lot of these services are pay per trip. Some of the companies are working on subscription packages but we already know that it’s harder for a cash-strapped person to pay upfront for a package of things. I guess what I’m driving home here is that we know that pay per trip is not a good model. How do we come up with a better model that makes shared mobility and transit more attractive than this car? Where I don’t see payments or money go out of my pocket every time I use it. That’s our challenge and unfortunately we’ve skewed our whole urban environments, to the automobile. It’s an uphill battle but there are ways that you make transit and any shared modes cheaper. It depends on who’s paying for them, so if I’m an employer and I give all of my employees a transit pass and it’s given to me in bulk, as a bulk discount, by the transit agency, whether or not I use the transit pass, it’s there for me to access. How do I unlock that benefit to more of these essential workers whose employers are probably not giving them that benefit. There are many examples, Seattle is a great example. You see transit ridership pretty high or it has increased but when you pull back the layers of who’s paying for that transit, it’s often the employers and that is a long-standing thing that was in policy. I love hearing from what’s going on in Seattle – in borrowing from that and trying to tell our transit agents or transit/transportation agencies here, ‘how do we get non-individuals to pay for the thing that we want?’
It doesn’t have to always be on the public’s dime, it could be on private industry, such as large employers, to pay for that benefit and in doing it’s not on the individual’s choice that’s determining whether or not they’re taking that transit. So if I make bike share free or scooters free for people, will they ride them? That’s a question that we’re actively asking on some of our mobility projects here in the Bay Area. We’re creating mobility hubs at affordable housing complexes with CARB the California Air Resources Board and we’re testing out at what level of incentive does someone choose these options more than what they’re currently using. I think a lot of this is in recognizing that the point of payment is actually a barrier, especially to people for whom economically it’s a harder decision to pay, every time you get on one of these things. I don’t think transit advocates think so much about that. We think it’s cheaper than riding an Uber, but there’s still that that payment that is the challenge for a lot of our low-income folks here, even for middle wage earners, when housing costs are so low. I’m interested in finding ways where we push on other folks to pay for the thing we want people to do.
If an employer wants to buy bikes for every employee, like Clif Bar does here in Emeryville. I remember some friends worked at Clif Bar in Emeryville and they got a bike when they joined the company – that’s a great thing. Does it assume then, that people commute to work via bike? No but it gives them access to a bike that they wouldn’t have otherwise themselves. If a large employer or other entity hands out bike share memberships, I feel like there is an opportunity there that is not just expecting someone who’s already not going to have the propensity to make the choice on to the more sustainable modes and to choose that. I know that’s kind of like a psychological thing but we have long-standing data about what is that mode shift ability based on value of time, based on where you’re going, income and all of that. We already know the things that help people on to transit, biking or walking. Sometimes it’s fixed based on where they’re going and what time of day they’re traveling and who they’re bringing along with them and it differs based on, to some degree, your economic status. If you’re a high income household, living in a luxury condo in downtown San Francisco you’re gonna have different trips than that family of five I described that might live on the outskirts of San Francisco, who has a different kind of job and different, maybe more complex trip patterns, such as child care or school trips.
4. WHAT IF THERE WERE TDM MEASURES WITH EMPLOYERS WHO HELPED COVER COSTS TO MORE GIVE ACCESS?
I think especially, TDM is such an interesting space we don’t take into consideration, but when we do our advocacy, some parts of TransForm do, but there are others. You can think of a central business district as having a TDM strategy and maybe it’s the city that pays for something, maybe it’s parking revenues that pay for free bus passes, so there are probably models there to look at and I feel like right now, we just know that there are people who are essential to the lifeblood of our cities that we depend on day to day. Shouldn’t it be an easy thing to say we give them transit and shared mobility for free and we’ll figure out how to fund it? We give them mobility free because they are such essential workers and right now they’re probably spending so much money out of pocket on transit or their own car trips to go to work. That’s a no-brainer for me but just like we think of low-income folks who have a short end of the stick in terms of access and resources and because of our racist policies.
Here’s a subset of people for whom that should be a specific population that we got your ties in our policymaking but we don’t think about that as a population, to program funding for. It’s actually interesting that you’re saying that if anything they cry has actually shown us who is really truly essential and and so why are we not thinking of how we help them get around and funny enough during the pandemic all of a sudden we are thinking and all these programs are popping up so let’s take that out of the pandemic and keep it somehow. This is my dream. We showed that we could reduce congestion on our highway. We’re working from home. Why can’t we just have work from home days so that we don’t have to continuously widen our highways. There is savings of billions of dollars. That’s kind of oversimplifying that situation. I know that our trips are probably essential to normal business later on, but that’s something someone needs to be looking into. How do we retain the air quality benefits of less people driving to work every day? That’s just something that’s very apparent right now. How do we solidify that into when we go back to regular life?
One calculation I think is a parallel is our senior population. I don’t know if this was consistent across the board but here in California we saw grocery stores with senior hours and so a senior population is one where we’re not thinking enough about in terms of mobility. That’s a whole other population that has trip needs right now or service needs right now where you can come up with some probably really interesting shared mobility concepts, like gig economy concepts. How do we get groceries to the elderly during this moment? Is it them just having to be at the store at a certain time? That’s another call out. Here’s another population with very specific needs. They get drowned out when we’re thinking about transportation options and the question for whom is one that we like to ask. For whom are we planning? Are we planning for the able-bodied cyclists like myself? That lives within walking distance to work? We should not be planning for me to have more options, we should be planning for my grandma who needs more options, who drives everywhere still and she needs to not drive everywhere. When we can figure out which of these populations are most important to dedicate new programming efforts to, then I believe we can glean something from this moment, where people are travelling very differently. To think about travel, differently than in the past.
We’re doing all these campaigns about Express Lanes and that’s about congestion on their highways but some highways apparently, it’s the non-essential workers that have more affluent jobs and they drive. That’s oversimplifying who, but it’s causing us to question ‘what campaigns should we be focused on? What new campaigns come out of Covid that are super relevant to the moment? The other one I wanted to mention is we’ve been helpful with the slow streets effort here and that was to really think about minimizing the number of people crowding the lake here in Oakland. It’s the one of our biggest assets when it comes to recreation and so we’re still seeing a lot of overcrowding there. The city has said we’re gonna just fast-track this bike plan and all the bike boulevards in the bike plan that we’ve identified. Let’s roll them out as slow streets to get people more space to walk and bike and so I believe that there are a lot more people walking, skating and other modes and how do we make sure that these folks who are returning to cycling or returning to walking more, maintain that kind of activity going forward? I’m hoping that people will recognize ‘wow, I should walk more. I can walk to the grocery store now I don’t have to drive to the grocery store or I can to bike places that I just thought I had to drive to.’ So there are travel behavior shifts that are happening right now that we want to kind of capitalize on but it’s a question, are people just going to go back to the normal way of getting around when we go back. This is a big question.
We are seeing lots of people, lots more people walking though because people are couped up in their homes. They are going to our regional trails for example. You saw my dog hop up here, I go to trails all the time to walk my dog and they’re never as crowded as they are during Covid and so that tells me there’s just a pent-up desire to be outdoors and now people are rediscovering what’s in their backyards. We have a ton of regional parks here that people normally do not frequent. Covid is getting them to those parts in ways that they normally don’t visit with that much frequency but because they’re stuck indoors, they are aching to be outdoors walking or hiking or biking. So we’ve been here for more than 40 days I believe. I haven’t been counting.
Maybe there’s some messaging that needs to happen as well. Some kind public education campaign that’s not just here’s how to walk and bike safely but these are healthy habits that you should continue. How do you bake that into your life going forward and not just in this period? I don’t know if anyone’s working on that but I can imagine active transportation advocates are interested in even something simple. Now more people are baking, let’s get new members into our fold. That’s probably what a lot of bi-coalition’s are doing right now activating members that are new or coming back to biking.
What are your thoughts on the future of shared mobility and what developments are to be expected in 2020? If you would like to be interviewed or to nominate a woman working in Shared Mobility for our next series, get in touch with us here.