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ACEC welcomes David Zipper onto the show to discuss the future of infrastructure funding in a post COVID economy and the future of Mobility as a Service (MOS).

 

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David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he examines the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies. David’s perspective on urban development is rooted in his experience working within city hall as well as being a venture capitalist, policy researcher, and startup advocate. He has consulted with numerous startups and public officials about regulatory strategy.

 

David’s articles about urban innovation have been published in The Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, and Car and Driver. His 2018 article in Fast Company was the first to apply the the “walled garden” framework to urban mobility. David has spoken at events including the Consumer Electronics Show, SXSW, and the FIA Conference. He focuses on topics including Mobility-as-a-Service, the uses of transportation data, the future of micromobility, and linkages between public transit, city regulations, and private shared vehicles.

From 2013 to 2017 David was the Managing Director for Smart Cities and Mobility at 1776, a global entrepreneurial hub with over 1,300 member startups. At 1776 David connected hundreds of entrepreneurs to urban leaders eager to deploy their solutions, and he closed millions of dollars in partnerships with cities and corporations worldwide. He continues to be a Partner in the 1776 Seed Fund.

David previously served as the Director of Business Development and Strategy under two mayors in Washington DC, where his responsibilities included attracting businesses to the city, promoting entrepreneurship, and overseeing economic development strategy. David led support to Washington’s first startup incubators and guided the city's response to the emergence of ride hail services. Before moving to Washington David served as Executive Director of NYC Business Solutions in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg.

 

David holds an MBA with Highest Honors from Harvard Business School, an M.Phil in Land Economy (Urban Planning) from Cambridge University, and a BA with High Honors from Swarthmore College. He has been selected as a Truman Scholar, a Gates Scholar, and a Baker Scholar.

 

Transcript:

 

Host:

Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast by the American Council of Engineering Companies. I am pleased today to welcome David zipper onto the program. David is a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government where he examines the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies. David's perspective on urban development is rooted in his experience working within city hall, as well as being a venture capitalist, a policy researcher, and a startup advocate. He has consulted with numerous startups and public officials about regulatory strategy. David is a published article appearing in Wired, The Atlantic, Slate, and Car and Driver. He's spoken to groups such as the consumer electronics show South by Southwest, and focuses on topics such as mobility as a service and micro mobility and the linkages between public transit city regulations and private shared vehicles. David was also one of the panelists on the ACEC Research Institute's most recent round table discussion on the future of engineering focused on the future of funding in a post COVID-19 environment. And David welcome onto the show. Really great to have you.

 

David Zipper :

Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you.

 

Host:

So that was an interesting panel. I listened to it a couple of times and I would imagine, I guess it's safe to say there was a universal agreement that the recovery is going to be gradual at best. After COVID-19 with your perspective from working in city hall and having that local political experience, how do you see this playing out where really the rubber meets the road? You know, you're talking about metropolitan transit agencies, you're talking about, you know, people get trying to get to and from work. How do you think COVID-19 is going to impact cities?

 

David Zipper :

That's a big question. And there's lots of different ways to answer it. And frankly, the answers are going to be different based on the, the nature of a transit agency versus a county government or a city government. But I can certainly maybe I can offer some, some overall thoughts up front and we can go into whatever detail that you like. But but yeah, in the short term you've seen transit agencies and local governments and state governments really just scrambling to keep the lights on as it were. Adjusting transit routes. Sometimes bringing up capital projects to do, to go faster because there's fewer people on the roads and there's fewer people flying at airports. So you can do airport expansions all faster. There's fewer trains running. So you might be able to more easily do capital projects.

 

David Zipper:

But that's really like a, a sort of a short term band-aid because the money's running out fast. We're already just, just today, actually, as we're recording this, there's been news about a $20 billion plus budget gap over the next couple of years in New York City's MTA, that's going to have to get closed. And the biggest transit agencies are feeling the pain first because they are really using their farebox revenue. The fairs that we all pay when we take transit they've used what they, that they collected yesterday to pay today's operating expenses. And in the big cities, that's a big chunk of their revenue, transit revenue. Transit ridership has fallen through the floor because people are uncomfortable on transit, even though it's the data suggests it's relatively safe, as long as people wear masks, but you've already seen, for example, in San Francisco, Muni, the transit service, there is consolidated routes really in a huge way, Caltrain in the Bay area, its future is up in the air there's discussion of whether to do a new tax to save it.

 

David Zipper :

And the transit agencies are going to feel the pain a little bit later because most of their revenue comes from state and federal governments that, you know, their budget is already allocated for this year, before the coronavirus hit. But there'll be a rolling impact there. And then for, for, for states and cities to, to you know, state the obvious they can't print money, they have to meet their, their - they have to make their budgets align so they can have a deficit. So what that means is that you're seeing some projects postponed, you're seeing layoffs and the Cares Act at the federal level. It gave a bit of a lifeline a few months ago when the coronavirus first hit there's discussion. Like again, as we're recording this there's discussions on Capitol Hill about a new federal investment program, it's unclear if that's going to have money for states, cities, deities, and for transit agencies, if it doesn't, I expect we're going to see pretty intense contractions and layoffs and pull back on capital projects and all of those levels.

 

Host:

It's been in my experience, you know, formerly on Capitol Hill and, and, and, and just watching this from time to time with all the surface bills that kind of come on, you always have that partisan divide when it comes down to the usual argument is that, you know, Republicans want to have the move towards devolution, but it was always that argument that, okay, we're going to Republicans would fight against Democrats who wanted to have bike trails or greenways or things of that nature, rails to trails, things like that. And then the Republicans were always going to fight against transit because they just wanted to make sure that that highway trust fund was kind of boxed in for roads.

 

Host:

Given the fact that we're in this new environment now, we're, it seems the federal government is more willing to provide aid, to deal with, to soften the blow for COVID-19. Do you think that any of those old entrenched arguments might shift, just because of the willingness to put money on the table to actually create assistance programs, do you think this might be an opportunity to break the paradigm and potentially have that money going to, you know, state and local transit agencies more freely?

 

David Zipper :

I wish I could say yes. I can't because there's a, I think unfortunately the you know, we used to say decades ago that transportation is a nonpartisan issue is simply not true anymore. The, the there's a professor at UC Santa Barbara named Clayton Nall. He wrote a book called the Road to Inequality. And in which he writes about how in the last 50 years transportation funding and particular transit funding has become remarkably partisan.

 

David Zipper :

Even to the point that if you live in a Democratic area, like say the Bay area or the New York area, even if you never take transit, you're more likely to vote in favor of referendums, referenda in favor of transit than, than any those who who'd be elsewhere, that doesn't apply in other parts of the country. So transit has become a democratic issue, which to me is unfortunate because frankly, the more people who are riding transit, the less congested roads are including those roads that are being used by some exerbs and suburbanites who are more likely to be Republican. So I would love to, to hear to, for your hypothesis to be held, to be the whole true. But from everything I've seen, like, for example, with the Cares Act you know, Schumer and the Senate and its allies had to hold out longer to be able to get a few billion dollars more for transit, it seems like it was done despite Republican opposition, as opposed to a sort of like heralding, a new breakthrough, which I wish it would on a nonpartisan bias.

 

Host:

That's something that was kind of brought up a little bit on the panel, but it wasn't really delve deep really more, more than just a couple of questions and just comments on it. But the push pull between of course, the large metropolitan areas in, on the coasts and your larger cities in the interior, but then you have those swaths of, let's say, you know, like I said, exurban or rural areas, how do you think the funding's going to be effected for projects in those smaller cities or, or areas between the two coasts?

 

David Zipper :

Well, a lot of it, right, it's going to depend on, on one, what happened to the budgets of state DOTs, and that's what, that's what those small cities and rural areas are really relying on. And this is a point that was made by Jeff Davis on the, on the panel.

 

David Zipper :

You know, even if there is stimulus money from the federal government is provided with a very generous match for highway projects for small towns. And for rural areas would say, I don't know, four to one federal match or whatever it is. There's still a one in five, 1 dollar of every five has to be put up by the local and state governments that at a time when income taxes are collapsing and tax revenue from hotels and restaurants, it's just drying up. It's not clear the extent to which States and local governments can even meet very modest matches. So if I were an official at a, in a small city or small town or a rural county, that's what I would really be worried about is to say, look, if I get a generous program with a low match, can I even meet that? I may just be grants. Yeah.

 

Host:

And that, that kind of goes into the segway to the idea of the integrated mobility or the mobility as a, and where the private sector might be able to in some way, step in. I mean, it's the few - Consumer Technology Association and CES. I've been out to a couple of their shows and seen kind of the idea of, you know, mobility as a service. The idea that you know, you might be able to have - deleverage maybe transit. And so in some way where you can actually then have vehicles, which are not so much owned, but private shared vehicles or some kind of autonomous systems, some, some cities are starting to try to get pilot programs on the road already for autonomous buses and things of that nature, which are private public partnerships. That's all nascent a little, you know, it's not fully developed. Where do you think the opportunity is for some of these technology companies that are, that are focused on mobility, and that's a big change. I mean, just the change between transportation to the concept of mobility is not so much what you own or what you have, but how do you get from point a to point B?

 

Host:

Do you think It's an opportunity for the private sector kind of enter and, and treat this as a, as a business opportunity?

 

David Zipper :

Maybe, maybe I wrote an article in Slate two months ago that noted how truly unusual this moment is, and that you know, ordinarily, there's a lot of research that shows it takes a lot to get you or me or anybody to change how they travel. We're creatures of habit when it comes to commuting, right? We have a given route we take to get to go to work or to the grocery store, to the gym or to the school. And if we're biking or if we're taking a bus, or if we're driving, we're probably going to stick to that. It takes a lot to get us to change. Just inviting you to change or me to change is probably not going to do much.

 

David Zipper :

It's really hard. What does get people to change and individual change is if you have a shock, like a like you have a new child born, and your habits have you have to move around, or let's change, maybe you change where you live, you move where you get a new job. That's an individual shock though, or a household shock. What we're undergoing now because of COVID is a society wide shock where everybody is rethinking how they travel, because they may not be going to work anymore at all. And they, if they took public transit, they may not be comfortable doing that. Now they may not be comfortable at being in ride hail the way they used to. There's lots of trips, millions of trips up for grabs in terms of how, what the new mode might be. And frankly, this is sort of a rationale for the cities to quickly put up bike lanes and, and new infrastructure that it can, can encourage people to not default to driving, which can feel like the safest route.

 

David Zipper :

It's just not sustainable at scale for cities. So the question becomes to get to your point of like, what's the role of the private sector in this? I would say that there is potentially a role for private sector actors, whether it's operators like scooter companies to step in and be able to provide, for example, a lower priced options for the short term, or maybe monthly rentals, which companies like Spin and I believe Lime have moved toward providing now as sort of a product that fits the market right now to encourage people who are not going to be, who might otherwise default to driving, to take another mode. That's more environmentally friendly, it takes up less space. And then you get into mobility as a service, which for those who aren't familiar, I would assume that everyone knows about MOS. Maybe I should define it really quick, because I don't know if all of our listeners are engaged in that. I Know some of the larger players in the engineering space are, but...

 

David Zipper :

Yeah, it's still a new field. It's a lot of people are excited about it and transportation planning and policy and technology, but it's still in its early days. The idea behind mobility as a service is to say that if we can sort of take all of these various options to get around a city for those who don't drive and knit all those options together. So you've got transit in there and scooters and ride hail and car share and bike share, and whatever else, put them all on one platform that MOS platform, it lets people choose how to get from point a to point B on all of those collective options and purchase their ticket, or a ticket that's a combination of modes on that platform. You can actually take away some of the friction, the annoyance factor of having to jump between apps and figure out which is the best service to get you from point A to point B.

 

David Zipper :

This is a need, MOS advocates claim, that really didn't exist 20 years ago when we had a very sort of fixed number for decades, really of a number of ways to get around town. You walk, bike, taxi, drive transit, but now we've got these other new modes and MOS can make a little bit simpler to navigate. So, and there's a bunch of companies that provide this now, like City Mapper and transit and so forth. And so on Google Maps, you could argue as a MOS provider in some ways. So the, the role of MOS in this particular moment that we're in is potentially a powerful one because lots of people are again, figuring out how to travel because they're breaking their old habits about how to get from point A to point B and MOS platforms can inform those decisions.

 

David Zipper :

And perhaps if the government gets involved, especially could nudge some of those decisions to be, to be resulting in a trip that's other than driving and potentially other than transit, cause people are just uneasy with it right now, for reasons that are in a lot of ways. Understandable. So is this a moment for MOS? Maybe? I would argue that these platforms are really reliant on the underlying quality and comfort of the services that they knit together. So you need to be able to provide comfortable biking and scooter lanes in a city to make people consider those options. You need to be able to provide reliable transit, to get people, to consider that which is, you know, sometimes a problem in American cities. But I do think this is a moment where MOS could be an interesting area of exploration

 

Host:

Or at least an area a time where federal policymakers can start looking at this and integrating it into, you know, long-term, you know, policy that, cause I know that, you know, Uber for example, was, was very active on the Hill talking about their fully integrated model where it's, you know, it was the combination when, you know, Uber taxi was kind of first coming out and they were talking about, we'll take an Uber to they're there, I guess, hanger or whatever they're going to consider, you know, get on an Uber taxi that will fly you to the next facility where you can go and take an Uber for your final destination. And you know, that kind of a kind of integrated, you know, closed loop system.

 

David Zipper :

Yeah, I mean, that's a little that's going to suit Uber's needs. I'm not sure cities are going to be that excited about everybody jumping into helicopters.

 

Host:

Exactly.

 

David Zipper :

I think that the high speed rail argument of saying, okay, you can take a high speed rail route to, let's say Washington DC to New York, but after you get off the train, then what?

 

David Zipper :

Correct.

 

Host:

It's how do you, how do you connect a route and how do you connect that high speed rail line termination to all the different options you can get to get to your final destination without having to get a car or, or, or reliant on one form of transportation over another.

 

David Zipper :

Yeah, I think the idea is if you're choosing between driving, flying or taking the train wouldn't it be nice if you could basically with one tap, be able to purchase your train ticket and know that there will be a, just for example, a Lyft car waiting for you because that, that car was summoned knowing that your train is running seven minutes late and it's pulling up just two minutes after the train gets into the station and you're, you've got a seamless sort of transfer from the train to ride hail onto your destination. That's the idea behind MOS, that's an inner city vision of MOS. Usually to be honest, MOS advocates are thinking more about travel within the city. So maybe the argument there would be, you know, I want to go to the place in Fairfax County, I'm in DC and to get to Fairfax County, Virginia, I need to do a combination of transit to ride hail or transit to scooter.

 

David Zipper :

And I can in one fell swoop purchase, determine my route, purchase the ticket and know that I'll have a seamless transfer when I get, when I pop out of the Metro station in Fairfax.

 

Host:

And then again, you know, a lot of this has been on the tech side because of developing the technology to allow that seamless integration of different mobility solutions. But on the engineering side, the people who are designing the infrastructure to actually enable this to happen. And that's really, you know, our core constituency from an engineer's perspective. What do you think the top, what do you think maybe a few of the, the main things that they should be looking at, or they should be paying attention to? If, they see opportunity to, you know, design the infrastructure to support systems like this.

 

David Zipper :

Yeah, I'll mention a couple of things. You know, one is the, again, the topic I wrote about a month ago I feel like there's a lot of people live in cities who suddenly have a new appreciation for their sidewalks, you know, as we're all stuck at home, trying to get exercise, to avoid going stir crazy. You realize that a lot of our urban neighborhoods have terrible sidewalks and some don't have any at all, especially in the South and the West. And I I think we've got, there's a good chance and I frankly, am hopeful that there is going to be a window of opportunity to consider sidewalk products - and sidewalk infrastructure is real infrastructure. It's less expensive than building a tunnel, but for those of your the engineers that are members of the organization that are trying to think of how can I really tap into what public leaders are thinking about now, if you can incorporate high quality wide, well lit, accessible sidewalks into your proposals for renovating a given district or into a new project.

 

David Zipper :

I think that this is a time when that's going to be thought of a little bit more directly and more constructively. I think that that also these new bike lanes and, and that are being developed, I don't see them going away. I frankly think that's also opened the door to considerations of some new technologies that will also have infrastructure needs. And I'll give one example that I'm really interested in, which is, which is parcel delivery. There's an argument that the coronavirus is a great catalyst or an accelerator of trends that are already underway. I think everybody knows that people are buying more stuff online than we used to. Now it's even more stuff than we did a few months ago. And there's been moments of sort of bullishness for sidewalk drones. I personally think that's going to take a while.

 

David Zipper :

Partly because our sidewalks think like we were talking about earlier, but the other option is is something I am actually kind of bullish on, which is e-cargo bikes, or electric cargo bikes, which for those of the audience who've been to Europe, they're widespread in Germany and other European countries. And they could be, they can utilize the existing infrastructure in cities. And most of it, at least the city of Boston is, but not an RFI today. July 21st, I think is today's date to basically invite suggestions from the private sector about what sort of infrastructure upgrades might be necessary in terms of depots to collect parcels and various neighborhoods as distribution nodes, things like that. And I, this is an area where I'm bullish in cities for the next five years. I think cities are gonna recognize that they can reduce congestion, improve neighborhood quality of life and, and utilization of existing infrastructure.

 

David Zipper :

If they shift some of these UPS, DHL, USPS trucks that they take up space and double park and can be pollutants instead utilize E cargo bikes, Europeans can do it. And I think we can too. And a lot of our cities.

 

Host:

Those are really two good points. He and I, and I, it's always kind of sad when I see a drone and Fairfax or one of the, you know, robot parcel delivery or package delivery drones get caught up on a stump or something on the, on the sidewalk and Fairfax city. It's kind of sad.

 

David Zipper :

But it happened. There was a viral video and Friendship Heights, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Washington over the weekend where you see the sidewalk drone got stuck because the sidewalk got too narrow. And I myself tweeted about him saying, because the guy who saw I was like, Oh, this I helped a little guy.

 

David Zipper:

It's kind of cute. I'm like this, isn't cute. If it's a person in a wheelchair, like we've really blown it with our urban sidewalks. And this should be a moment when we should be really investing in them. That's a very good point.

 

Host:

Well, David, I do appreciate you coming on the show. There's a lot to talk about here. I'd love to have you back on the show so we can talk about really these mobility issues when it comes to, you know, the interconnection of technology and mobility, how it all kind of ties together. You know, it's something that we'd like to explore a little bit more. Because I think our members are always looking for what, you know, what is the next thing what's going to be the next area that we might be able to invest in. And I think that, that these issues are going to be top of mind.

 

Host:

And yeah, and I do appreciate your time. And you mentioned that article. I mean, what else do you have coming out? Where should people be looking for the the article that you're writing now?

 

David Zipper :

Yeah, I'm actually, I've got a couple articles coming out in the next week or two. I write a lot about new forms of urban mobility and new technologies, and also about sort of the interplay between local policy, especially around transportation and automobiles and transit. So, so those who are in, if you're interested, you can always reach me on Twitter. I post all my articles there people can send me DMs. If they've got a question it's easy, it's a zipper, just my name at David Zipper. And then for my articles I actually have a website where I put them together. Cause I do write across a number of platforms and that's just as easy again www.davidzipper.com and you can find all the articles there. And I even have a little newsletter. I put out once a month with the stuff I've been writing and thinking about in these topics, because especially in the current environment, so much is changing so quickly. So I appreciate the opportunity to come join you and talk about some of these changes.

 

Host:

It was great to have you on and again, follow David and David's zipper and look out for his upcoming pieces. And we'd love to have you back on. So David have a great rest of the week stay as cool as possible when this heat wave and stay healthy.

 

David Zipper:

I'll go for a socially distance bike ride.

 

Host:

There you go. There you go.

 

David Zipper :

Thanks a lot. It's great to be here.

 

Host:

And you've been listening to Engineering Influence brought to you by ACEC.

 

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