InfraStrategies’ Joshua Schank helps transit agencies align their infrastructure priorities with the equity and mobility needs of their customers.
Growing up in New Haven, Conn. in a suburb devoid of sidewalks and mass transit, Joshua Schank felt “mobility-constrained” by his parents’ availability—and willingness— to drive him places in their car.
His outlook brightened dramatically, however, at age 10, when his family moved to Paris, France to allow his father, a university professor, to pursue 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. They also expanded the virtual boundaries of his new "classroom": he could now travel alone on Paris' subways and buses wherever and whenever he wanted to go.
Embracing Mobility Freedom
For Schank, a Columbia University- and MIT-trained urban planner, this newfound freedom was incredibly exciting and marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for mobility in general, and public transit in particular.
“When we came back from Paris, I was extremely disappointed to go back to the world of suburbia with no mass transit,” he recalls. “I felt that the level of freedom I’d experienced in the City of Light was something that everybody in society should have regardless of their income, age or ability to walk. It's really important to be able to go places, and to have self-determination with respect to transportation.”
Today, Schank’s focus on mobility and creating choices for urban commuters drives his work as a managing principal at InfraStrategies, an Irvine, Calif.-based consultancy that specializes in developing, funding, financing and managing trans-portation infrastructure programs. It also underpins his work as a Senior Fellow and adjunct professor of public policy at UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
In Schank’s experience, most transit agencies try to 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. But those agencies, he believes, often focus too much on projects and not enough on process.
“We help our customers figure out what their goals are, what needs to be done differently, and how they need to change their organization to move in the right direction,” he explains. “Sometimes that means shifting away from making sure their jobs work well to making sure their customers’ experience works well.”
Before joining InfraStrategies in February 2022, Schank spent more than six years as the chief innovation officer (CIO) for LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, which he helped stand up in 2015. The office served as a portal for new ideas between Metro and the private sector and guided the development of Metro Vision 2028, a strategic plan to increase mobility for everyone in LA County by 2028.
As Metro’s CIO, Schank also helped the agency develop, pilot and implement a variety of innovative transportation initiatives including Metro Micro, a micro-transit system; and World Class Bus (later renamed Better Bus), a program to reduce the LA’s bus transit times and improve the ease and convenience of using the bus.
For InfraStrategies, Schank remains focused on strategic planning and innovation for public agencies. In a slight reversal of roles, however, he now also helps tech companies sharpen their pitches to public transit agencies.
“100 percent of what I’m doing,” he notes, “is about moving people more efficiently, more effectively. And I don’t think you can do that in urban areas without having more people using modes that are NOT single occupancy vehicles.”
Schank is familiar with LA’s traffic issues of course, but he now works with clients all over the country who are facing similar problems. And his advice to all of them is the same: allocate street space based on its mobility value.
"A busload of people shouldn’t have to wait in traffic while one person in an SUV is clogging up the road and creating pollution,” he emphasizes. “Cities have an obligation to their citizens to use transportation infrastructure as efficiently as possible.”
Standing Up for Mobility
In many cases, Schank advises his clients, implementing transportation infrastructure is not necessarily about having enough money—Los Angeles voters approved sales tax Measure M in 2016 to generate $120 billion over 40 years to expand rail, rapid bus and bike networks—but rather about local leadership. City and transit officials have to overcome resistance to transportation infrastructure projects (think removing traffic lanes to build bike lanes or bus-only lanes) by locals who simply want to drive faster.
“We build better public transit so that people have an alternative to driving,” clarifies Schank. “And it's not because we want to make driving faster. It's because we want to make (getting around) easier for the people who don't have or want to use cars.”
LA Metro is making great progress in this regard, he claims, with its build-out of bus-only lanes and bus rapid transit, both of which Los Angeles will need to reach its goal of staging a car-free Olympics in 2028.
Championing Congestion Pricing
One of the mobility measures that Schank championed at LA Metro and still advises for clients with growing traffic concerns is congestion pricing, a system under which drivers are charged a fee for using congested transportation infrastructure during peak periods. The goal of congestion pricing, which has been controversial, is to reduce traffic congestion,
improve air quality, and generate revenue for transportation improvements.
“By pricing roads more effectively and making it more expensive to drive, you make it better for the people who are doing it,” Schank offers. “Congestion pricing is probably the single most critical thing you can do to improve mobility and equity, and reduce environmental pollution.”
These days Schank is on the road more days than not, traveling around California and across the country helping clients sort out their transportation infrastructure goals and how best to achieve them.
He contributes regularly to thought leadership in the transportation industry, penning articles for InfraStrategies and participating periodically in industry panels about mobility infrastructure. And true to his passion for effecting change in transit agencies, he’s working on a book about the experience of trying to make changes in a public agency.
Inspired by Students
When Schank is not on the road or working from his home office in Los Angeles, he can often be found in the halls of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies in Westwood
“I get to go to an office where there are really interesting people (students and faculty) working on cool stuff, and hang out with them and hear what they’re working on,” he says. “I also teach and advise students on their Masters of Public Policy degrees as they work through their final capstone projects.”
To be sure, these student interactions fuel Schank’s optimism about the future.
“As a group, UCLA students care passionately about creating transportation systems that are equitable and environmentally sustainable,” he observes. “When I tell them all the challenges they’re going to run into (technically and politically), and what they need to do, and they still want to do it, I know they are really motivated to tackle the problem.”
Motivated by Others
Schank is also inspired by thought leaders in mobility infrastructure past and present. Among his favorites are Phil Washington, who was LA Metro’s CEO during Schank’s tenure as the agency’s CIO, and John "Janno" Lieber, who runs New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“Phil Washington is someone who knows how to lead people and listen to their ideas and then lead them successfully towards executing a project,” Schank notes. “That’s what he did so well (at LA Metro).”
He also admires the style of Lieber, who has been a fierce advocate for congestion pricing in New York.
"He’s not afraid to say, 'Hey, we're going to make a change. It's going to be really important and if you're standing in the way, here are all the reasons why you're wrong,’” says Schank. “I think that's very gutsy. It's not easy being a person who champions having drivers pay more. But he’s doing it.”
Empowering the Future
Ultimately, Schank suggests, transit agencies can deliver equitable and innovative mobility solutions by aligning their processes with their transportation goals, and empowering their employees to take measured risks in pursuing those goals.
“When you fix a process, you create an avenue by which innovation can occur,” he proposes. “Innovation is not about having a new idea or a new technology, it's about creating an environment in which new things and the best things can come to the forefront. And that’s what I get most excited about.”
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