Transportation Sage Ratna Amin Reflects on Transit and Planning

SPUR's transportation expert talks about her years with the Bay Area's premier civic planning org

Ratna Amin. Photo: SPUR
Ratna Amin. Photo: SPUR

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Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director at SPUR, is leaving later this month to take a position with Deutsche Bahn Engineering and Consulting USA as a Principal. That’s the North American consulting subsidiary of Germany’s national rail operator. She’ll be working in their Oakland office. “It’s a huge growth opportunity for me although I’m very very sad to leave all the work in progress here at SPUR,” she wrote in an email to Streetsblog last week.

Streetsblog sat down with Amin this morning to hear her wisdom and reflections on the Bay Area’s challenges to create a better, more equitable transit system and streets that are safe for children and families.

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Streetsblog: We’ll get into your vision for the Bay Area in a moment. First a bit about you. You’ve been with SPUR for six years. Before that?

Ratna Amin: I was a consultant, doing a range of things related to work force, civic education, and a bit of transportation. I was really interested in and still am in group process and strategy.

SB: How did you move into transportation from there?

RA: I was in the engineering library at the University of Pennsylvania.

SB: As an undergrad?

RA: (Nods.) I saw some transportation magazines and flipped through them and realized transportation was a thing.

SB: A thing you can make into a career you mean?

RA: Right. And I took a few courses at Penn my senior year.

SB: And then on to a transportation and planning degree for your Masters?

RA: I went to Berkeley. But I grew up in New York City and Virginia.

SB: So you’ve lived places with more comprehensive transit systems–NYC and Philly.

RA: SEPTA was so crappy back then.

SB: Philadelphia’s Muni.

RA: And I used Amtrak a lot.

SB: I’m not getting why riding a crappy transit system and reading some magazines made you want to work in it?

RA: I’d worked in many policy areas, but what’s so cool about transportation is how many components there are in the system. There’s infrastructure. There’s public policy. There are stations, signage, branding, communications. It’s so big and multi-faceted and that’s what so appealing to me. And its geographic scale.

SB: You’ve got engineers, communications experts, marketers–lots of different disciplines so it never gets boring.

RA: It’s huge. As somebody who really likes working with government and public agencies there are so many public agencies to work with also.

SB: I would think that’s one of the main frustrations about it–all the different agencies. 28 in the Bay Area. How does that interfere with life in the Bay Area?

RA: I have two kids and I live in Oakland and I want to live a non-car lifestyle. But we need a payment system that enables that. And what that requires is not just a very flexible and rational payment platform and fare structure but actually a product that everybody uses. So it’s part of our community. And part of our school. The Clipper system is the beginning of this; the vast majority are on it and using it.

SB: But it’s still too complicated with all the different operators and the weird pricing structures. And you’ve still got Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor that isn’t on it.

RA: If you’re in Paris, in that region, it’s safe to presume that whomever you’re with is on Navigo. Same in London with the Oyster Card. Same in Hong Kong. Same in the Netherlands.

SB: Right. So the collaboration between the agencies reflects in the population. All the operators are on the same system, so all your friends are too and everybody can travel together.

RA: We don’t have that shared experience here in the Bay Area. Everyone is doing their own transportation thing.

SB: When I travel to different countries, Tokyo, Switzerland, etc., I’m always struck by how family is taken into planning decisions. I recall seeing small children walking around unattended in Amsterdam. There was a time I saw a play area on a commuter train in Switzerland, something you’d never see in the Bay Area. Everything is about families and kids.

RA: In the Bay Area, even in so-called walkable, transit places, once your kids are a few years old there’s nowhere to ride a bike and the biggest danger they face is being killed by a car. This infuriates me.

SB: Different values here.

RA: The numbness and complacency of “my kid can’t roam outside.”

SB: So what do we do about it?

RA: Where to begin! I don’t think in general we take good enough care of children and family, it’s not just in transportation, it’s in our schools, our streets, our health system. We need to have a whole cultural shift to elevate the needs of kids.

SB: Prioritize kids and suddenly we’d be designing streets and transit very differently.

RA: I read in the front of a cookbook it said that in Italy they save the best olive oil for the kid’s lasagna.

SB: Meanwhile we’re taking our kids to McDonald’s.

RA: Not only are they cooking lasagna for children, but they agree the kids should have the best. That’s not what we do here. And when you talk about the lack of family friendly transportation, it speaks to who shapes transportation.

SB: Not enough mothers on transportation boards?

RA: The longer I’ve been at SPUR the longer I’ve been working to address the lack of diversity and the more I’ve been trying to include more voices and perspective on who gets to lead and decide things. We all know most of 20th century transportation was led by men and engineers and I think that the homogeneity of thought shows in the systems that we have.

SB: But that’s changing.

RA: I’m really excited about how that’s changing in thought leadership, in staffing, and in design processes and community engagement. I think it’s especially innovative at the city level.

SB: But not at the state or regional?

RA: We need to grow diversity at the transportation districts, the DOT’s, the higher levels of government. I’m Indian; my family is Indian, a lot of the communications I see from the transportation field, either customer communications or thought leadership, are just never going to draw them.

SB: Why?

RA: Because their traditional values are so deeply around family and good schools and getting a toe-hold in jobs and it’s not about being able to walk to a coffee shop or be part of the sharing economy. Some of the language used in the urbanist world just doesn’t translate for a lot of people. That’s not to say that they don’t share some of the values, but there’s a communications gap.

SB: So talk with them about safe streets for kids to get to school, rather than promising “road diets” and “bike-share” and they’ll be more apt to listen?

RA: I encourage planners and city officials to take what they’ve written about projects and show it to one person on the street. If they understand and respond to your outreach notice or your sign, take that one step to see if the message you want to send is actually being received.

SB: You were named in Mass Transit magazine’s ‘Top 40 Under 40’ in 2015 and the Women’s Transportation Seminar Bay Area Chapter ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2018. So you’re at the forefront of that. How can the industry continue to broaden its horizons?

RA: Professionally and where I grew up in NYC, and then in suburban Virginia, I was the only non-white person in my classes and my street, certainly in my profession. When certain people speak they get more attention and play and it reinforces a picture of what an ‘expert’ looks like.

SB: Which is often not a person of color or a woman?

RA: Arielle Fleisher and I and others who work with me at SPUR are supporting women and those often not heard as thought leaders, as experts, as people who have something to share. I’m very worried about this with new transportation technology.

SB: Scooters, bike-share–that kind of thing?

RA: (Nods.) It is again a very homogeneous field of leaders that resembles the past. When you look at a California being a majority minority state, it’s unconscionable for our decision making groups to be so unrepresentative.

SB: The vast majority of transportation technology companies of the world are still largely staffed by white males. So you see a danger they’ll repeat the mistakes of the 1950s? Or make new mistakes?

RA: I don’t want to feel like we’re bashing white men; it’s not my intent. But culture really matters and it’s hard to understand other people’s cultural experiences unless you’ve walked in their shoes. That’s super important for transportation. It’s a blind spot.

SB: Do you have a specific example?

RA: Safety.

SB: You mean the way women gauge safety versus men?

RA: (Nods.) It comes up at bus stops and stations, that’s probably the number one experience. But we’ve done very little about that problem in general.

SB: We wrote about the Transbay Transit Center and how its male architects were talking about how their $2.6 billion depot stopped treating bus passengers as second class citizens. What do you think most women would prefer–a huge architectural gem of a bus stop in downtown San Francisco? Or safer, well-lit sheltered bus stops throughout the East Bay with arrival information, etc.?

RA: Right. So most bus stops look the same as they did 10 or 20 years ago in this region. Meanwhile, we paid for some really expensive transit extensions, that still have done nothing to solve this basic problem for people who use the system. We’re skipping steps. And how about routing some buses to people’s final destinations, instead of them all going to the center?

SB: So focusing too much on exciting big infrastructure rather than mundane improvements and the basics of where people want to go. Part of this is about how agencies do outreach?

RA: Outreach is not research. Go ask Uber or Lyft what user-research means. It’s not a public meeting.

SB: Right, because most of your customers have better things to do than attend public meetings.

RA: Private companies never tell you they’re having a public meeting. Instead, it’s an array of outreach and analysis. The good news is the Bay Area is basically overrun with people and firms that do this kind of work.

SB: So transit agencies should hire them–or do customer research in a similar manner in house?

RA: I’m doing a plug for them. But that’s why we’ve been doing so much work around user research and customer experience and design because those are all approaches that require you to find out people’s true wants and needs. That’s something that conventional transportation methods have not been good at.

SB: I had a friend in from Southern California last week. And we were in Castro Muni and I was helping him figure out how to take transit to Berkeley. He already had a BART ticket, but of course that won’t open the Muni gate. When he asked the station attendant what to do, he was just pointed to the Muni ticket machine. But then my friend couldn’t get the machine to take his credit card. He couldn’t figure out why he needed a different ticket in the first place. After a few minutes he looked at me and said if I weren’t helping him he’d just have gotten an Uber.

RA: We hear that all the time. Do we want people to enjoy the system, use it more, like it more? If the answer is ‘yes,’ you do things like provide ambassadors instead of making excuses for how we can get by without it. You get rational fares, better maps. I did the research for our ‘Seamless Transit’ report about the fragmentation problem. My number one finding was that the customer experience was not understood, accounted for, and addressed in any kind of serious manner. I see that starting to change thanks to advocates. And innovators within agencies.

Ratna Amin at the 12th Street / Oakland City Center BART. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Ratna Amin at the 12th Street / Oakland City Center BART (speaking of customer experience, there is no signage whatsoever at eye level at this portal). Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

SB: So in what way do you think SPUR has most helped to improve these issues?

RA: I’ve approached things at SPUR to try and get things unstuck. I’m really excited about where the Caltrain business plan is going and SPUR’s Caltrain corridor vision plan helped make that happen. I’m very excited about where things are headed with transit fares and improving payments, and I think SPUR’s Seamless Transit report helped launch that movement. It’s a tiny movement now. But it’s exciting that people say “seamless” all the time.

SB: There’s even an organization dedicated to it.

RA: Seamless Bay Area, right. Same thing with planning a second rail crossing. Those are examples of where we’ve done big research projects and that’s catalyzed things.

SB: Thanks in large part to your advocacy work we now we have money for planning that second Transbay tube.

RA: BART just put out a ‘Request for Proposals’ to start the planning.

SB: Anything else?

RA: I’m really excited to see agencies we’ve worked with start to acquire different kinds of expertise. Some of these problems might actually be a branding problem, or a user experience, but not a planning problem. Not an engineering problem. They require a different skill set. That’s something we tried to help facilitate. We’re starting to see great success stories, like SFMTA staff are starting to spend more time understanding customer experience as a discipline. Another example–MTC is doing a business case for fare integration, a business case being another way of approaching a sticky problem in our region.

SB: What will you be doing for DB exactly?

RA: I’ll be helping to grow their presence, first of all in the Bay Area and beyond, and help grow a team of people. DB consulting can offer a lot of different types of help on public transportation and mobility generally, by leveraging resources from both Germany and around the world on ticketing, governance, rail planning and operations. DB also has a rail academy to help train people.

SB: Twenty years from now, in an ideal scenario, how will a trip to San Francisco be different from what it is today? What will you see and notice around you?

RA: I live in Rockridge. When I go into the station I’ll never wait more than a minute or two for a train. The parking lot around the station will be gone. We’ll have built some really tall towers there so there are more people in the neighborhood. You won’t see a lot of cars. You will see people walking around, using their micro-mobility devices. People are living life outside much, much more.

SB Will people be walking in the middle of College Avenue?

RA: We will have invented some kind of shared street. It’ll feel like one contiguous neighborhood around a station.

SB: And the freeway? Add a greenway to it? Turn it into something like the New York High Line? Tear it down?

RA: We might not need to tear it down, but we’ll have made all the vehicles electric. And we’ll have given access to the freeway to urban vehicles, e-bikes, rickshaws, e-scooters; they’ll all have access to the freeway.

SB: What will you miss most about SPUR?

RA: The really deep camaraderie and the space that exists to think out loud. And to have a dialectic process and to think across issues in a really open way. I don’t think every workplace has that. I think the whole region benefits from SPUR having that kind of culture.

  • david vartanoff

    Worth remembering that the Capitol Corridor is “managed” by BART so getting on the clipper system should have happened many years ago.

  • Kevin Withers

    SPUR has been involved in area transportation strategy for decades. Do they share responsibility for the current dysfunction?

  • keenplanner

    It’s ironic that Amin shut down a discussion about the necessity if unifying the 26 Bay Area transit agencies to really achieve a Seamless Bay Area scenario. Amin’s small picture is to make it easier to pay with the same card across different transit systems.
    If we really want a coordinated system of regional express buses that are connected to BART and the other rail service providers, they need to be controlled by one entity. It seems that neither Amin, SPUR nor, more importantly MTC, is willing to really put the transit rider first and provide regional transit that reflects riders’ needs. This is the only way we can put a dent in our chronic automobile congestion problem.
    I hope that in the near future these agencies wake up and take the steps needed to give the Bay Area a working transit system.

  • keenplanner

    Capitol Corridor is managed by Caltrans. It’s a major failing that Clipper can’t be used on the trains. Fortunately, Clipper works on CalTrain.

  • Daniel Carroll

    It’s a little more complicated. As Wikipedia says:

    “Like all regional trains in California, the Capitol Corridor is operated by a joint powers authority. The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) is governed by a board that includes two elected representatives from each of eight counties the train travels through. The CCJPA contracts with the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District to provide day-to-day management, and Amtrak to operate and maintain the rolling stock (locomotives and passenger cars). The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) provides the funding and also owns the rolling stock.”

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