Updated: Dec 28, 2019
Growing up in New Haven, Conn., in a suburb devoid of sidewalks and mass transit, Joshua Schank felt “mobility constrained” by his parents’ lack of availability -- or willingness -- to drive him places in their car. His attitude changed dramatically, however, at age 10, when his father, a university professor, moved the family to Paris, France as part of a year-long sabbatical.
To help get Schank to and from his new school, his parents bought him a monthly pass on the Paris Metro. To his surprise and delight, they also broadened the boundaries of his new classroom: he could travel alone on the city’s subways and buses wherever and whenever he wanted to go.
For Schank, a Columbia University and MIT-trained public policy specialist, this new-found freedom marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for mobility. It has defined his career, and now drives his work as the chief innovation officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), the county’s main transportation system planner, developer, builder and operator.
“LA is the perfect place to resolve mass transit issues,” he explains. “This is a place where people suffer under the tyranny of a system that is almost entirely focused on single occupancy vehicles.” Metro’s goal, he adds, is to “try to free people from that system, give (them) other options, and enable the most disadvantaged members of society to have better transportation.”
Mobility for All
Officially, Schank is the director of Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation (OEI). OEI serves as both the liaison between Metro and the private sector, and the architect of Metro Vision 2028, the agency’s strategic plan to increase mobility for everyone in LA County over the next decade.
“When we talk about mobility,” explains Schank, “we mean reduce the number of people who are driving alone, and increase the number of alternatives to driving alone so that mobility is improved for everyone.” The major benefit, he believes, will be reduced travel times for all, whether they are driving, riding mass transit, walking or riding a bike.
And what is Metro’s mobility mogul most passionate about?
“Allocating street space based on mobility benefits, not on (the current) first-come, first served basis,” says Schank. “A busload of people should not have to sit in traffic while one person driving an SUV clogs up the road (ahead of that bus).”
Tapping the Private Sector
Ideas for meeting Metro’s mobility goals come from within the agency, and from unsolicited proposals from the private sector. Schank and his OEI team actively encourage private companies to submit their best ideas for Metro’s consideration and potential action.
One recent proposal identified a way to reduce by a factor of four – from 40 years to just 10 years – the time it would take to complete Metro’s planned countywide build-out of its FastTrak ExpressLanes. The breakthrough? Build the lanes that create the most revenue first, then use that revenue stream to finance the rest of the construction.
Doing Things Differently
For Schank, every day is about helping Metro and its suppliers think differently about mobility. His days typically begin early with a short drive from home to a Metro Red Line station, then a 30-minute commute to his office at Metro headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. The day continues with discussions and negotiations with Metro colleagues and the agency’s external partners as they “work to resolve the challenges that inevitably come up when you are doing things differently.” On a recent day, for example, discussions centered on projects such as Mobility on Demand, Microtransit and other public-private partnerships that would change the way that Metro does business.
But life at OEI is not all about meetings. It’s also about getting out and taking the pulse of Metro’s constituents. Since joining Metro in October 2015, Schank has encouraged OEI and other Metro employees to participate in monthly “ride-alongs” on MetroRail or buses to experience directly the transit services provided by the agency. “Only by experiencing the transit system on a regular basis can we help to improve it,” he offers.
Models for the Future
Schank draws inspiration for his mobility vision from the work of city planners past and present. Baron Haussmann is credited with designing and creating in the mid 19th century the grand look of Paris today. Schank does not necessarily condone what might be called Haussmann’s “scorched earth” approach – razing many of Paris’ original over-crowded neighborhoods to create elegant boulevards, bridges and parks -- but he appreciates Haussmann’s singular focus on creating a city that worked better.
In the modern era, he also admires the work of Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City traffic commissioner who made famous the phrase, “Streets are some of your best assets; they are hidden in plain sight.” In 2013, Sadik-Khan used a series of low-cost but highly controversial changes in the allocation of street space to transform New York from an environment ruled by automobiles to a place that was healthier and friendlier to pedestrians and bicycles.
Schank acknowledges that no one approach will resolve Los Angeles' mobility challenges, and that no one person or organization will deliver all the right answers. “Our best (transportation) projects will happen when we bring together the technology, innovation and ingenuity of the private sector with the public policy goals that we most care about,” he said. “That will create some good stuff.”
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