After ushering in an inspired new era for the city of Oakland, California’s transportation policies, outgoing Mayor Libby Schaaf has some advice for how cities can be more innovative and entrepreneurial.
"Don’t freak out, listen and experiment," she suggested to city leaders and policymakers in front of an audience of mobility entrepreneurs at the Micromobility America conference in Richmond, California, last month. The event was filled with young companies building hardware and software for two and three-wheeled electric vehicles, from e-bikes to e-scooters to some truly funky new e-mobility designs.
Early in her almost eight-year tenure, Schaaf created Oakland’s first Department of Transportation, lifting it "out of the bowels of Public Works," as she described it. OakDOT, as it’s called, has helped the city become a national leader in novel mobility programs. The city encouraged scooter-sharing networks early on that reduce urban car trips, developed a Slow Streets plan during the COVID-19 pandemic that gave residents space to move, created a pilot for a mobility-version of universal basic income, and will soon launch an e-bike lending library run out of local bike shops.
It’s impressive that some cities have been able to lean into creative, progressive mobility programs during a global pandemic. City public transit ridership — the backbone of urban mobility — evaporated overnight, exacerbating municipal financial distress and inequality. City residents still haven’t returned to public transit at pre-pandemic levels and will likely be slow to do so (learn more about what’s next for public transit at VERGE 22 later this month).
But new mobility options could ultimately help city transportation infrastructure recuperate in the post-pandemic world. And cities that can tap into the best of the private sector’s traits — like being nimble, innovative and "customer-focused" — could use those attributes to help reach their sustainability and equity goals.
Don’t freak out
When shared electric scooters first started appearing on urban streets five years ago, some cities — such as San Francisco, West Hollywood and Winston-Salem — originally reacted by banning scooters outright and taking a long time to create a permitting system. Today, shared electric scooters are commonplace, highly regulated and mostly embraced by the cities that once held them at bay.
But that initial rejection period was a missed opportunity for the companies and the residents. Shared electric scooters have been found to help cities reduce inner city traffic, local car trips and vehicle emissions, and they give residents a low cost way to move around. Schaaf said: "When scooters flooded our streets, we well-intentioned bureaucrats felt extremely uncomfortable."
However, Schaaf explained that unlike the cities that initially banned the scooters, Oakland decided to "take a deep breath and let this chaos on our streets persist while we do a permitting system. ... The spirit of being comfortable with discomfort is really important for bureaucrats to learn."
Schaaf credits Oakland’s first director of OakDOT, Ryan Russo, with helping foster that open spirit. Russo, formerly deputy commissioner with the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), recently stepped down from his role in Oakland. This summer Fred Kelley took the helm of OakDOT. Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consulting group of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, helped Schaaf and Oakland establish OakDOT, recruit Russo to the role and create a vision and strategic plan.
Successful city governments need to listen more to their residents in general, but it’s particularly important when it comes to transportation. City transportation planners should create ways for residents to provide feedback and then incorporate that feedback into planning, implementing and iterating on mobility projects.
Oakland’s Slow Streets program is a good example of an evolved listening process. During the pandemic, Oakland — as well as a handful of other cities globally — decided to turn many of its residential neighborhood streets into no-through, local-only streets in order to give residents space to move and more safely use active transportation, such as biking, scootering and walking.
In 2020, Oakland announced 74 miles of planned Slow Streets, the most — and the most quickly deployed — of any city in the U.S. On the traffic barriers that the city provided, OakDOT created QR codes and a cell phone text option so residents could provide their feedback about how the project was working for them.
Well, it turned out that many residents had a lot of feedback to offer. The reaction to the Slow Streets program was deeply divided. More affluent neighborhoods loved the space provided, but less advantaged neighborhoods felt the slow streets were cumbersome and didn’t address their needs of trying to cross unsafe streets to get to necessary places such as the laundromat or a COVID testing building.
Because of the feedback, OakDOT decided to remove the Slow Street barriers in neighborhoods that communicated they were unpopular. For those neighborhoods, OakDOT developed a program called Essential Places, which instead focused on increasing safety in high-injury corridors. At the same time, the department is looking at how it can make the Slow Streets that were popular permanent fixtures.
"We were able to totally pivot because we were listening," Schaaf said. "One size does not fit all."
Oakland’s Slow Streets program is also an example of when a city tried something more experimental and launched a project before it was perfect. "It’s OK to experiment and iterate and try things. And to celebrate your failures because they are lessons learned," Schaaf said.
Few city taxpayers want to experiment with large amounts of public funds, so Schaaf said she created a nonprofit called the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation that enables the city to experiment at "the edge of government." The nonprofit takes private money and runs pilots and experiments with non-taxpayer dollars.
Of course, city experiments generally need to take low capital risks and can’t use the same type of disruptive strategy for which California’s Silicon Valley is so famous. Schaaf explained it like this: "It’s OK for you to move fast and break things. It’s not OK when the thing you are breaking is Grandma’s ankle. So we need to be partners."
But ultimately collaborative partnerships between innovative mobility providers and city governments will be crucial to help cities meet their sustainability, equity and transportation goals. At the end of the day, governments need the creativity, ingenuity and energy of entrepreneurs, and they also need to model the most successful characteristics to drive innovation.