Transportation Is Politics: A Q&A With Yonah Freemark

Quick announcement: I will be a guest at this month’s Why Your Train is F*cked show at Caveat on Thursday. This month’s theme is the A/C/E lines. Tickets are $15, come one come all.


Thank you so much for your kind words at the news Signal Problems is winding down. It warmed my heart to hear how much it has meant to many of you.

I’ve gotten so many great questions for the final mailbag that I will need two editions to address them. One will be for transportation/MTA-related questions, and another for questions people asked about my experience reporting on the subject, what I’ve learned, and newsletters/journalism in general. There’s still time to send questions in if you haven’t already.

A note before we get to today’s Q&A with Yonah. Although I created a newsletter people like, I also screw up from time to time. And last week, I screwed up. Several readers pointed out that everyone I surveyed for my roundtable on careers in NYC transportation is a white man. This is entirely my fault. I did not take the necessary steps to adequately represent the city’s diversity, both inside and outside transit circles, in gathering responses for that post. That is my mistake, and I am sorry.

Reader Erin McAuliff emailed in:

I’m glad Tabitha [Decker of TransitCenter] pointed out the lack of diversity in the respondents you chose. I would love one of the “questions” you answer to be an ode to the women and people of color integral to making transit work in the region. -Erin McAuliff

Rather than wait for the mailbag, I want to take the time to do so here.

In no particular order, here are just of the few of the many people I could have chosen:

  • Polly Trottenberg, NYC DOT commissioner, has been a strong leader on the MTA board and street safety issues.

  • Veronica Vanterpool, MTA board member who works full-time for the Vision Zero Network, is an ideal board member for any transit agency, a stalwart advocate on a number of issues from bus service, accessibility, paratransit, and generally being the voice of New York City transit riders.

  • Tabitha Decker, Deputy Executive Director at TransitCenter, holds a key leadership position at one of the most important transportation non-profits in the country. She played an instrumental role in the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a group of advocates that fought for years for better bus service when few others were talking about it.

  • Sarah Meyer, Chief Customer Officer for NYC Transit, leads a dedicated team working some of the most thankless jobs in the entire city: fielding subway and bus customer complaints and devising strategies for communicating with NYCT’s customers.

  • David Jones, another MTA board member and President/CEO of the Community Service Society, has been a leading supporter for Fair Fares, a critical program that will benefit tens—and, eventually, hundreds—of thousands of New Yorkers.

  • Keep your eyes on Sunny Ng, creator of goodservice.io, who is quietly putting together some of the best real-time service and data reporting tools on subway performance out there.

Erin’s question asked about “women and people of color integral to making transit work in the region.” To that end, according to the most recent Diversity Committee meeting in February—yes, the MTA board has a diversity committee—51,772 of the MTA’s 75,007 employees (69 percent) are minorities (18 percent are females, but it doesn’t look like they provide an authority-wide figure of non-white-male employees). The MTA doesn’t work without them.

Transportation Is Politics: A Q&A With Yonah Freemark

One of the core premises of the MTA—indeed, the entire concept of the authority structure—is that separating transportation from the pressures of politics is a desirable goal. The authority structure insulates decision-makers from the voting masses, allowing them to enact policies that may be unpopular at the time but benefit the region in the long-run. Or so the logic goes.

After several generations under the MTA’s thumb, there’s growing evidence that structure doesn’t work so well. And some, including Governor Cuomo and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in their own ways, have doubted the wisdom of diffuse responsibility.

Yonah Freemark, a PhD candidate in urban studies at MIT and founder of the influential site The Transport Politic, goes a step further. He believes that rather than insulating transit decisions from politics, the political process ought to play an integral role in setting transportation policy.

I was skeptical going into my conversation with him, but came away convinced that one of the fundamental reforms that needs to happen in New York is for politicians to run on real transportation platforms that provide clear goals and accountability to voters. Unfortunately, the current structure isn’t conducive to that.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Aaron Gordon: I feel like the last half century of New York City transit policy has been expressly to try and remove transportation decisions from the political sphere. That was supposed to be one of the main benefits of the authority structure. And you often hear this, with people talking about how we need to make transportation decisions, not political decisions. It sounded like you were coming at this from a different perspective. So can you tell me why you think this is not a good thing?

Yonah Freemark: Well, I think the fundamental point we have to reconcile with is the fact that there is no such thing as any sort of public policy decision that's not a political decision. There's no such thing as a policy that can be just decided based on transportation expertise. Everything we decide in the public sphere is a question of ideological and political preferences.

And given that fact, the idea that we can ever take transportation out of the political sphere is, in my view, disingenuous or naive. We have to be considering questions of transportation as questions that are deserving of debate and that don't ever have clear answers related to them.

So in the case of New York, what we've seen since essentially the formation of the Port Authority at the beginning of the 20th century is a desire to put transportation into what are described as public authorities and therefore supposedly isolated from the political process. And the way we do this is we appoint people to boards, we have independent chairpeople and these authorities are therefore supposed to make decisions outside of the "interference" of politics.

But I think what's actually happening is that politics of course remains important in decision making. It's just hidden behind a veneer of these authorities. And so the answer is not to further isolate transportation from politics but rather integrate transportation into politics and to move it away from isolation, this authority structure and move it towards direct oversight by political officials.

And I think that the current system where people like Governor Cuomo can simultaneously say, I want the MTA to do x or y thing and say I do not control the MTA is both true and absurd. We need to move away from that.

AG: New York is one of the most interesting cities to have this conversation about because it has gone from one extreme to the other. The first 50 years or so of New York City transportation policy, once the subway existed, was dominated by a very populist agenda, with the struggles to try and raise the fares and being completely unable to do so because it was so immensely unpopular. That created a lot of problems downwind. And then going to the authority structure where the people who set the fares do not answer to the public in any way. So what's the right balance? Where are you looking for models where that balance is struck well?

YF: I think that it is unquestionably true that the fare in New York City was kept low for many decades because of the fact that there was direct city control over the subway system for quite awhile. But I must say I don't necessarily consider that a negative thing. I think we have to play out the questions of what we want out of a transportation system through critical debate. And that means having active and contested political elections at the city council and the mayor seat and in the governor seat that revolve around questions related to the transportation system.

So, I think we need to make transportation something that is talked about clearly in the election process and where political people who were running for office are able to promote clear platforms that attempt to address problems.

I don't think there's ever going to be a perfect solution. And of course there may be policies that introduce populist ideas, but I see that as a more legitimate and less anti-democratic approach than simply having an authority decide things with no public legitimacy.

I can look a lot at what happens in European countries, where to be fair mayoral elections are much more contested than they have often been in New York City. But if you look at places like Paris, London, Lisbon, cities that I visit a lot, transportation is at the core of the public debate at the appropriate level of governance depending on who controls the transportation system.

So in Lisbon, the city of Lisbon controls the municipal subway system. And the result is that when there are election campaigns, the city is filled with billboards from the different candidates representing the different parties promoting their ideas about how they want to improve the transportation system. That sort of direct association between what you're voting for and who you're voting for in terms of transportation is something we just haven't seen in New York State or New York City because there isn't that clear association in voters minds.

And we can also see that in London and Paris. In London the current mayor, one of his key campaign planks was to stop fare increases and he has been able to pursue that policy once entering office. And in Paris, the elected head of the region, which controls the transit system, ran on basically buying new regional rail trains for the entire region. And she has pursued that policy as part of her mandate.

I think that we need to find a way in American cities to make a similar connection between what you're running for in terms of this transportation policy and the ability to execute it. We need to put the power in the hands of the people who are running for office.

AG: Transportation was a big issue in the last gubernatorial election here in New York. But even voters in counties or New York City boroughs that might express their displeasure with Cuomo’s handling of the MTA at the ballot box apparently didn’t do so, at least not in huge numbers, even though the opposing candidate ran expressly on a ‘Fix The MTA’ platform. Not withstanding the degree to which anyone may or may not have had problems with Cynthia Nixon as a candidate, it did kind of suggest to me that transportation just doesn’t have that resonance with American voters. Do you think that’s true?

YF: I think there may be somewhat of a dilution in terms of voters association between the governor's position and transportation. You're raising an important problem, which is that any political official is running on a package of policies, not just one policy. So it's transportation but also, you know, housing development and all sorts of different things that affect people's daily lives. So they may not be voting just on transportation issues.

That said, despite the fact that the gubernatorial election discussed issues of transportation, it remains true that a very large share of people in even New York City are not aware of who actually run the public transportation system. People continue to believe that the mayor is responsible for the MTA. And the result is that even if you know people were running on a campaign issue related to transportation, they may not have been aware of the state's role in that process.

We need to have more clarity about who is in control of these things. And the fact that Governor Cuomo continues to obfuscate his role in the MTA makes the situation worse because when he wants to be in control of the MTA he is, but when he doesn't want to be in control of MTA, he isn't.

One thing I would point out very quickly about the Paris region: one thing that has been interesting over the last few years is that the trains and buses throughout the Paris region have been renamed to the same name as the Paris region, which is called Île-de-France, and this is shown all over the new trains and buses that have been added to the region. They have a very large logo essentially they say "Île-de-France Mobilités” on them. And what has become clear is that visually there becomes a connection between the transit system and the regional government. And I think we need a similar direct connection in New York and other parts of the country.

AG: If I can play devil's advocate a little bit with getting politics back into transit. Sometimes, sound transportation policies are not obviously popular. I’m thinking here about things like bus lanes, bike lanes, or even congestion pricing, which is polling about 50/50. So how do we wrestle with that?

YF: I mean, I would say two things. One is the current authority system is not producing particularly positive outcomes for the transit system. So I don't see a movement to a system that's more based on electoral concerns to be one that would necessarily produce worse outcomes than we see today, because most of the outcomes we see today are really problematic from a perspective of providing good transit service. It may be true that there are certain policies that you or I would like to see that are unpopular, but they're not happening now either.

The other thing is that, you know, New York is an interesting situation where many of the services, many of the services provided by the MTA, the state agency, are reliant on infrastructure conditions controlled by the city as, as you well know, in terms of like the streets and the traffic lights and the bus lanes. And given the fact that the mayor does not have direct control over the buses, you can get a perverse outcome where the mayor has no real incentive to improve the transit system because he or she is not in charge of the transit system.

I think that's why Corey Johnson's view about integrating the transit system into the city government may make a lot of sense because what essentially he's saying is we need to think about how these different policies interact with one another and put them under the same leader.

That's one thing that I'm really optimistic about Chicago for, where the mayor essentially does have power over both the streets and the transit system and the people of Chicago are aware of who controls those two things. And then the person who won the election just recently, Lori Lightfoot, has put together a pretty strong transportation platform that is fundamentally aware of the connection between things like bus lanes and improving bus service. I'm hopeful that she's going to pursue that platform, but it was certainly something that she put forward as a key element of her campaign and she did win. So I'm optimistic. And that's something that New York should probably look to find ways to replicate.

AG: Yeah. I'm glad you brought up Chicago because that was going to ask you about that. But now I don't have to.

There’s obviously lots of talk about MTA reform because everyone knows the current system isn’t working. When Cuomo talks about reform, he often speaks of the need to make it clear who is in charge, and that person should be him. Do you think this is a positive reform?

YF: The authority structure continues to be at the heart of the problem in my view, because it allows the governor to claim that he or she is not responsible for decisions made when he or she happens to not like the decisions or those decisions are unpopular.

I would say that in other regions, in other parts of the world, the mayor or in the Paris case, the regional president, sits as the direct head of the authority that runs the transit system. So there isn't this sort of second degree control over the authority. There's a direct connection between who you vote for and then who goes and literally makes the decisions on the board. And I would like to see a transformation in these authority structures so that they place more responsibility on the elected official to literally vote for the decisions that are made about the transit system.

Now that said, I think there are cases where you can have organizations that are authorities but that act like mayoral entities. And, that is the case for the CTA in Chicago where it is called the Chicago Transit Authority and it does have a board with members appointed by the mayor and the governor. But when the mayor decides that he or she wants to do something with the CTA, he, at least in the past, has instructed the head of the CTA to undertake those things and they have been voted on by the majority of the board that he or she has appointed through the CTA. So it essentially acts as a direct connection between the elected official and the agency itself.

AG: What's your general forecast for reform in New York?

YF: I do think that the fact that Corey Johnson, who is the head of the Council and has made the idea of making the transit system an element of the municipality, is a big deal and it does open up, I hope, the beginning of a conversation that is very important.

The big question in my mind is whether state officials would ever be willing to lose their control over a transit system that obviously has regional and statewide impacts. Clearly entities like the LIRR and Metro North Railroad are very important to people outside of the city of New York. And we have seen those as connected to the subway system. So I am skeptical of the ability to move forward on this in terms of municipalization.

But I do think there are potential ways to reform the way the state government interacts with the MTA. And I think that one of those ways is for the state, governor, and for future elections related to the state to be directly run on what to do about the MTA and for us to continue to see transit as an important question to be considered at the state level, which I think is probably the more realistic outcome we're going to see in the next few years. And that's going to require continued contestation in gubernatorial races about transit issues. And eventually, I hope it means electing a governor who takes running the transit system to be one major element of his or her day to day mandate.

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