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SET YOUR CALENDARS: How to Radically Shift the Way the U.S. Does Infrastructure

Sept. 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

America is on the brink of making one of the biggest investments in transportation infrastructure in a generation — and the nation needs an even bigger cultural shift towards mobility justice if it wants to do it right.

That’s the theme of this year’s National Shared Mobility Summit presented by the nonprofit Shared-Use Mobility Center, which is seizing the historic moment to talk about how shared transportation advocates can bring about a “Big Shift” in the way the U.S. builds infrastructure, in all its forms — and in the process, radically center those who have gone unheard in the national transportation dialogue for too long.

And when organizers of the event say infrastructure in “all its forms,” they really mean it. Attendees will have their choice of sessions that interrogate the financial, political, institutional, social, funding, and informational systems that undergird the entire transportation landscape; “physical” infrastructure, like bus lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks, gets some airtime, too, but it’s far from the only focus.

“It’s critical to define infrastructure in a broad sense: not just roads, but the funding for those roads, the data that shaped those roads, the communities and neighborhoods that were uprooted and displaced to build those roads,” said Leslie Gray, a spokesperson for the organization. “And it’s also critical to recognize that our infrastructure, up to this point, has been formed and shaped by a narrow segment of the population: predominantly, white males. This summit gives the opportunity for us to hear from and learn from those that haven’t had a chance to influence these fundamental structures of our country.”

Unlike a lot of conferences out there, the National Shared Mobility Summit will deliberately platform voices that have been systemically underrepresented in the transportation field at large. In lieu of keynote speakers, the schedule revolves around a series of “key conversations,” each lead by a host who’s an expert in her field; five out of seven of those hosts are women of color, including sustainable transportation celebrities like Remix CEO Tiffany Chu, co-founder of the Untokening Naomi Doerner, legendary transit leader Beverly Scott, and more.

And the organization promises these sessions won’t be the same old tepid, business-as-usual webinar panels. Gray says the role of the hosts is not to “moderate” a sequence of mannerly powerpoints whose content was approved in advance, but to provoke passionate, hard-hitting discussions of what it will really take to fundamentally reorient the U.S. transportation network around mobility justice while reducing reliance on private car ownership.

“The reason we have a summit without panel moderators is simple: moderators know exactly where they want the conversation to go, and hosts, intentionally, do not,” said Gray. “We don’t want to have a polite panel where a moderator asks [a transportation leader] softball questions like ‘how is your agency going to become more equitable?’ We want to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions, like: “How can we actually measure equity? Whose got the power? How do we get everyone to use public transit? Is venture capital evil? Can we make gig work more equitable? Can micromobility really save the planet? … We’ve got everybody at the table at this Summit, and now that they’ve sat down, we don’t want any dinner table small-talk.”

In addition to the tough keynote conversations at the heart of the event, the Summit will also offer a slate of more traditional panel sessions that take on specific friction points in the industry, like moving innovative mobility initiatives past the pilot phase, and under-discussed ways to fund shared transportation options. Once a week, they’ll also give the mic to individual BIPOC leaders and BIPOC-led organizations to give an oral history of how they cultivated mobility justice in their respective communities.

With America in the midst of a movement to dismantle systemic racism in core institutions like transportation — and a raft of once-in-a-generation infrastructure legislation making its way through Congress — that history couldn’t be more relevant to America’s future.

“Everything about our transportation system favors private cars, and this has a great impact on our households, communities and lives,” said Gray. “And these infrastructures are rooted in racism, social and environmental injustice. The goal of the National Mobility Summit to upend the conventions around conventions themselves, because we can’t afford any more lip service.”

For more information about the 2021 National Mobility Summit and to register, visit the website. 

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