Where Can You Make The Most Difference?

A quick note: Tabitha Decker, Deputy Executive Director of TransitCenter, pointed out that every response here is from a white male. I did not take the necessary steps to adequately represent the city’s diversity, both inside and outside transit circles, in gathering responses for this post. That is my mistake, and I apologize for it.

I’m a recent college grad and I am trying to figure out what to do next. I’m a native New Yorker and have always loved transit, and I care deeply about the state of the system. I was hoping you might have some advice as to where someone like me can make the most difference, or at least support the folks working on these challenges. At the MTA, from the inside? A transit-oriented nonprofit? Local or state government? Should I give up and work on alternative modes like bikes or scooters? What’s the best way to get involved in mobility in NYC? -Alex Bitterman

Andy Byford, President of New York City Transit

Hi Alex,

It’s great to know that, like me, you share a passion for public transit and the economic and environmental benefits that it brings.

This is my 30th year in this business and I’ve enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. I used to stand at London Bridge Station as Ops and Safety Director for South Eastern Trains and take quiet satisfaction from watching the morning peak service arrive, knowing that my team made that happen. I do the same on NYC’s transit system today.

There will be plenty of opportunities for good people at Transit and with suppliers and consultancies in the next few years as we embark upon the biggest transit challenge and turnaround job in US history. Fast Forward will modernize every aspect of what we do and we need quality people to help us deliver it.

My advice is to figure out the particular area you wish to work in, brush up your resume and get applying.

Best of luck

Andy Byford

President, New York City Transit.

Brad Lander, New York City Councilmember

Dear Alex,

Thanks so much for your love of public transit! Honestly, every path you suggest is worthwhile. The only chance we have is smart and dedicated organizing, both inside and outside government.

Without the tireless advocacy of TA, Families for Safe Streets, Riders Alliance, and Transit Center there’s no way we’d have Vision Zero, Fair Fares, the bus turnaround effort, or congestion pricing. Think how much more is possible if some of the youthful energy of the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal can support transit and transform our cities away from car-dependence.

There’s so much to learn and contribute at the MTA or DOT. We can kvetch about bureaucracy—and we sure need to do all we can to make it more efficient and hold it accountable—but it’s the inescapable form that democracy takes in delivering large-scale public goods. We are lucky for the people who learn to navigate it and make it work.

A decade ago, in my first year in the City Council, my young policy director, Michael Freedman-Schnapp, gave me the data, vision, and courage to support the Prospect Park West bike lane, when no other local elected officials did. I knew a lot about affordable housing, but little at the time about transportation. It was his internal leadership, more than anything else, that set me on the path to be a safe-streets and public transit champion. (Michael is now a VP at Forsyth Street Advisers and the board chair of Riders Alliance.)

The War on Cars podcast just had a great episode highlighting millennial state and local elected officials—like Boston’s Michelle Wu, Minneapolis’ Lisa Bender, Seattle’s Teresa Mosqueda, and NYC’s Antonio Reynoso, all members of Local Progress (which I’m honored to chair) -- who are rising to power while “kicking butt and challenging long-standing assumptions about the role of the car in the city.” Helping shape the policy and vision of the next generation of elected officials is another great way to contribute to an alternative future.

There’s no magic answer, and many people move back and forth between inside and outside jobs over their career. But please don’t give up on our subways and buses. The commitment of young people like you to public transit is really the only chance our city has.

Brad Lander

New York City Council

Jon Orcutt, Communications and Advocacy for Bike New York

There’s no single or “right” answer here. The good news is that the ecosystem of agencies, organizations, companies and officials working on NYC’s transportation issues is big and provides an array of opportunities to make a difference.

Advocacy and policy organizations provide a route to helping define issues in a big-picture way, though achieving progress can seem very incremental, punctuated (hopefully) by sudden moments of reform. For example, bike and pedestrian advocates worked for nearly 20 years of agenda setting and winning small steps before Mayor Bloomberg in 2007 unleashed city government to do bike lanes and more space for people in a real way. And transit advocacy has always been a more or less Sisyphean undertaking.

When leadership is good and committed to getting things done, working at an executive agency like NYC DOT or NYC Transit can be pretty great. What’s better than creating real, tangible change like turning car parking into bus lanes? But these are very big places, so do homework about what available jobs really do, and whether the bosses of particular divisions are effective, reasonable etc.

Today the NYC Council is taking an increasingly vocal role on the city’s transportation challenges. Working for an elected official you admire is another route into public issues that could span from ultra-local to global in potential impacts.

Plenty of people have spent time in all of these areas, and now also in private companies like Citi Bike. Probably your best bet across the board is to find people inside or with experience in these areas willing to talk to you about how the day to day goes, and the opportunities to make progress.

Larry Gould, Planner at Nelson Nygaard (formerly a planner for NYCT)

Hi, Aaron,

It would help to meet Bitterman to see what his/her skill set and approach is, but based on his few words, I will vote for the inside with a ton of caveats.

  • Alex needs to go to a grad school with a practical approach to transit operations, planning, policy or management.

  • He/she needs to choose carefully among available entry routes into the organization(s) to be in a unit that affects outcomes on a significant scale, then be prepared to move around to join even more influential silos.

  • Expect some painful times, some boring times, but jump on every opportunity to use the current crisis to make real progress.

  • Stay long enough to learn why things are how they are. You can't dig up a dead body if you don't know where it's buried.

If Bitterman chooses something else:

  • Advocacy is a faster route to taking action.  This is due to turnover. But there is a real difference between organizing and fundraising vs. developing policy, and most advocacy is organizing and fundraising. Whatever you choose, beyond your day job, hang out with activists to learn where the cutting edge actually is, at the moment.

  • The only part of government that really affect transit are activist city DOT's, like NYCDOT.  They affect transit at about 20 percent the rate of transit insiders, but compare that to NYMTC, State DOT's, City Planning, or FTA and they're better than anything except transit insiders. If you expand the definition to go beyond transit to streets (ped-bike-etc), then city DOT's look even better and the transit insider rules apply.   

  • Consulting could be on the list. That path also needs to start in grad school, but I can (obviously) speak to the opportunities there too.

But really, Bitterman should think about matching skills, ability to maintain focus when frustrated, sensitivity to sub-optimal compensation, and strength for a constant battle with silo-identity.