How do policies that make transit more equitable get implemented? That’s a question that Laurel Paget-Seekins, Leadership in Government Fellow at Open Society Foundations, is looking into. Laurel draws from her experiences as a transit advocate in Atlanta and former Assistant General Manager of Policy at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. In this episode, Laurel reflects on her time working with advocates in Boston to implement a low-fare youth pass, and her experience in Atlanta advocating alongside agency leadership to win more funding for bus service. Those collaborations led Laurel to think deeply about how the power to enact change is built from both the inside and the outside of government. “How do we make sure that we're holding the government accountable while also trying to build trust in the institution of government? Part of that is understanding that our government institutions are essentially a collection of people who are managing a bunch of business processes, fiscal assets, and technology systems that are patched together through years of underinvestment. And so we have to get at those root problems, as well as the big policy questions to make government work.” - Laurel Paget-Seekins
How do policies that make transit more equitable get implemented? That’s a question that Laurel Paget-Seekins, Leadership in Government Fellow at Open Society Foundations, is looking into. Laurel draws from her experiences as a transit advocate in Atlanta and former Assistant General Manager of Policy at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
In this episode, Laurel reflects on her time working with advocates in Boston to implement a low-fare youth pass, and her experience in Atlanta advocating alongside agency leadership to win more funding for bus service. Those collaborations led Laurel to think deeply about how the power to enact change is built from both the inside and the outside of government.
“How do we make sure that we're holding the government accountable while also trying to build trust in the institution of government? Part of that is understanding that our government institutions are essentially a collection of people who are managing a bunch of business processes, physical assets, and technology systems that are patched together through years of underinvestment. And so we have to get at those root problems, as well as the big policy questions to make government work.” - Laurel Paget-Seekins
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Hosted by Kapish Singla
Edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
Please note that transcripts are generated by a combination of automated speech recognition software and human transcribers. There may be errors in the text.
Kapish Singla From TransitCenter, I'm Kapish Singla. This is High Frequency. In Season Two of High Frequency, we're having conversations on how transportation agencies are learning from past mistakes and remedying inequities in transit. All season long, we've explored this from a few angles, from an advocate led bus network redesign in Miami to a transit agency in Seattle convening an Equity Cabinet, made up of community leaders, to help co-create policy. The common thread in these discussions has been the following question: how do policies that make transit more equitable get implemented? And it's this question that Laurel Paget-Seekins, a Leadership and Government Fellow at the Open Society Foundation is thinking about and building tools for. This question is about governance, budgets, personnel, advocacy and, of course, politics. And Laurel is particularly focused on exploring the inside outside nature of those wins. That is, how agency staff and advocates work to build power together. Laurel draws from her experiences as both a transit advocate in Atlanta and as former Assistant General Manager of Policy at the MBTA in Greater Boston.
Kapish Singla So Laurel, for the past few years, up until December 2020, you were the Assistant General Manager for Policy at the MBTA. Could you give us an overview of what you and your team worked on?
Laurel Paget-Seekins I was at the MBTA for six years and I started off in the Office of Performance Management and Innovation, the data analytics and research lab. And what we did is we used data and public engagement to help inform policy decisions and to improve service.
Kapish Singla How did your team use community engagement and data together to inform policy?
Laurel Paget-Seekins A number of years ago, the MBTA made a decision that they wanted to eliminate cash on board, and we knew from our fare collection data that only eight percent of the trips that were paid for on board were in cash. So most people were tapping a Charlie card or using a Charlie ticket that had money on it or had a pass on it. But eight percent of the trips were being paid for in cash on board vehicles. And so it was very important not to just say like, "Oh, well that's only eight percent." We needed to actually find out who those folks were and why they were using cash and how we could serve them. And so that is a case where you have to do engagement - like you can't just tell from the data. But we were able to use the data to help us figure out how to do the engagement. And so since we knew we were looking for 8 percent of the trips we needed to figure out how to find those folks. And so we used the data to figure out where the highest cash usage bus stops and send our community engagement folks out to those locations to try to talk to people, as well as going to communities where we knew there was high potential cash usage. So we did a lot of outreach at senior housing, homeless shelters, and other places where we knew we would find people who are using cash to be able to find out what would work for them. But I think that this is a useful example for understanding when the edge cases - the most extreme values - are actually the most important part of the dataset, as opposed to where you're mostly thinking about the distribution.
Kapish Singla You've used the term "edge case," and I just want to step back and ask you to both define it. And then why is it significant to look at those edge cases?
Laurel Paget-Seekins I think that the reason that I use the term "edge case" is that I was a math major in college and my favorite class was discrete mathematics. And then when you're doing a proof, you have to find every single case and make sure that it works in every single case. And so I think that the value of government is that you have to make something work in every single case, right? That, you know, where a private business could decide - we're just not going to try to serve this market or we're if it's a really bad snow day, we're just going to shut down. The role of transit is to serve everyone all the time. And so you have to be thinking about all of the cases, even when they're very small percentage of the population.
Kapish SinglaWhen you did the engagement, how did that change the implementation of the fare program? What solutions came out of that outreach?
Laurel Paget-Seekins We had identified two major ways that people could add money to a fare card. One is fare vending machine that would be at bus stops and another was at retail locations. And so a lot of our outreach was about which of those solutions made more sense. And what we found was that it really varied by types of users. That when we talked to seniors, they were much more worried about safety and wanted to make sure that it was at a retailer where they felt comfortable, as opposed to other people who felt that that that would be inconvenient and they wanted the fare vending machine that would be available 24/7 and in a location that was convenient for them.
Kapish Singla Let's go back in your biography a bit. Could you tell us how you got started in transit advocacy in Atlanta?
Laurel Paget-Seekins I got into transportation and public transit because I moved to Atlanta without a car and realized that public transit was in the intersection of social justice, racial justice, environmental and climate and energy, and that it would be a great way to try to impact all of those things. And so while I was a grad student at Georgia Tech, I was supporting transit advocates in Atlanta working for more resources for transit, but also transit that better served the needs of the sort of everyday transit rider instead of planning transit around the needs of commuters who had cars and trying to get people out of their cars onto transit, which ended up creating this bifurcation of transit that was for high-income commuters and transit that was for low-income people who needed transit for all of their types of trips.
Kapish Singla Currently, you're the Leadership in Government Fellow for the Open Society Foundation. What are you working on and thinking about in the duration of the fellowship?
Laurel Paget-Seekins What I'm thinking about is broadly transit equity, but less about the what. And much more about the how. Which is: how do we actually get those decisions made? And that, I think, is a little more intangible. But there are useful lessons to learn from community organizing and the lived experience of people making change. And so my theory of change being that change happens through the relationships between people inside of agencies and community organizers and people outside of agency working within a creative tension together to build power with each other, to change complex systems and reshape those power structures.And so I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what is the sort of conditions for change and those relationships, whether they're formal or informal that make more equitable decisions happen.
Kapish Singla Is there a partnership from your time in Atlanta or in Boston that you think is particularly instructive?
Laurel Paget-Seekins Starting when I was an advocate in Atlanta, we needed a state law changed after the Great Recession and MARTA was facing a budget crisis and the Georgia Legislature had a law that only allowed MARTA to spend 50 percent of their tax money on operating and 50 percent had to go to capital. Well they needed more for operating. And so we needed to get this law changed. And so the leadership of MARTA and the head of the union came to me and said, "We want to do this day of action. We're going to paint red ex's on the side of a third of the buses and rail cars to demonstrate what would happen if we had to make these service cuts." And then my organization organized rallies and a march to the statehouse on that day to get everyone galvanized around the issue and succeeded in getting the law changed. So that was a place where there was clear collaboration. And so then when years later, I was at the MBTA, there had been a 7 year campaign by advocates for youth to get an affordable transit pass. And then the MBTA had agreed to pilot it. And so I took on the implementation of the pilot. And it was a very collaborative process where the MBTA staff, youth organizers and the partner staff, we were working with cities and towns and nonprofits. We met for months to figure out the technical policy details of how to make the program work. And I think because we were all in the room together, figuring out the very weedy details of our fare collection system and what would and wouldn't work, and all of these details, we were able to build empathy with each other, but then also find solutions that would work in the short term and in the long term for all of the different partners.
Kapish Singla And why are these two case studies instructive for you as you're thinking about the how of transit equity?
Laurel Paget-Seekins They're instructive for me because it's an example of, from my personal work, of one time when I was an advocate and one time when I was inside. But that that they're really based on these relationships between staff members and advocates that were able to successfully make a change. The advocates won this pilot right from the leadership. It wouldn't have been successful if not that we hadn't had the staff inside trying to figure out how to make it work. So I think that to me is instructive of, in the case of the MBTA, because of complexity that even if you win from the outside, a policy decision. The need for collaboration, thinking, and the implementation side is super critical to making sure that it actually works.
Kapish Singla [What advice do you have for transit advocates that are listening to this interview?
Laurel Paget-Seekins You have to think about how to hold people accountable for the decisions that they can make within the existing power structures - make that clear as much as possible so that you can understand where are the people that can make that decision so that you're holding government to account without unnecessarily undermining the institution of government. Because we need to be building trust. The government can and should increase equity and solve the large problems that we're facing. And so how do we make sure that we're holding the government accountable while also trying to build trust in the institution of government? And part of that is understanding that our government institutions are essentially a collection of people who are managing a whole bunch of business process, physical assets, and technology systems that are patched together through years of underinvestment. And so we have to get at those root problems, as well as the big policy questions to make government work.
Kapish Singla And what's your advice for agency staff who want to become effective changemakers?
Laurel Paget-Seekins One of the things that's most challenging is... To try to hold in your mind at the same time the idealistic view that you know a better world is possible while also struggling through the frustrating details of that maze of broken systems. And how you use sort of pragmatic empathy to keep yourself going. What is possible in the short term? And where you can be most strategic. And then another common issue in public facing agencies is what I call the "fortress mentality," which is in the face of constant criticism, there's this tendency to want to pull up the drawbridge and prevent yourself from hearing all the constant complaints because it's overwhelming. But that how do you make sure that you're actually are still hearing the justified complaints and concerns of the community, even while you're not getting overwhelmed by the constant criticism. And finally, to think about how you're building power across and outside the existing power structures with how you're finding your allies internally and across government agencies, in between government and community to develop the coalition that you need to make change.
Kapish Singla Thank you so much for your time, Laurel.
Laurel Paget-Seekins Thank you.
Kapish Singla That's all for today's episode. I'm your host, Kapish Singla. This episode was edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla. This is the last episode of Season Two of High Frequency. We'll be back in 2022. High Frequency is a TransitCenter production. Learn more at TransitCenter.org.