You’ve reached the end of the line.
We sat down with Uber’s ex-policy honcho — and Transit’s new policy advisor! — for a little fireside chat. Minus the fireside 🎙👌
February 18, 2020
Andrew Salzberg: Formerly of Uber (Head of Transportation Policy). Yearslong-friend of Transit. And reliable mainstay of Urbanist Twitter. Andrew is currently on a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, where he gets to sit and furrow his dirty-blonde brow, contemplating the future of mobility. He’s also officially teamed up with a lil’ startup close to his heart, as a policy advisor 💚. We sat down with Andrew on a recent jaunt to our Montréal HQ.
So Andrew, before we get to the Uber stuff… how did you get into urban planning?
My dad is an architecture professor. Through him I ended up going to a talk, by Frank Gehry’s engineer. The way he talked about making those very curvy things stand up seemed more interesting than the process of drawing them the first time. I thought, okay, I don’t want to be an architect. But I could be a civil engineer!
And then you ended up at McGill, for civil engineering. How was that?
Civil engineering? Not always the most inspiring. I took a bunch of classes in transportation, engineering, geography. My frustration with the transportation engineering classes was that it was all about cars. Things like traffic counts, and turning volumes, and car counts. I grew up in Montréal — my dad is Dutch. So I grew up biking around the city. I didn’t get my driver’s license till I was about 30 years old…
…sounds like a lot of people at Transit.
But those classes were a pathway to start thinking about urban systems and urban planning.
After McGill, you ended up “going to school in Cambridge,” as they say.
Yeah. I was at Harvard for grad school, but really, I spent a lot of time at MIT. Once you’re a student at Harvard, you can take classes at MIT, so that’s what I did. Once I started hanging out there, I quickly realized there was a whole group working on transit.
The Transit Lab.
Yeah. MIT has a little thing called the Transit Lab. If you walk in there, you just walk into the room and there are transit maps all over the wall! And there’s people who worked in the CTA, and TfL, and MTR, and MBTA. It was this amazing crowd of people. I always felt like I was a transit nerd. But then I walked into a room full of people who were professional transit nerds.
And through the Transit Lab, you got your first job in the industry™ — working at Transport for London?
I guess I convinced them enough that, as a non-MIT student, they should hire me. I got a summer job, working on bus planning data, with the Oyster card.
And then back to school. Where you graduated into the Great Recession…
Yeah, it was summer 2009? I was planning to work at a transportation consulting firm.
In Boston. They basically orally offered me a job and discussed the salary and everything else. And then they stopped returning my emails and phone calls. And then finally they were like, yeah, our project got cancelled because of the recession. So we can’t do it.
The timing was… not great. I was a few months away from being like, I have no money. I have to move home. Right. But then I was lucky.
You found a job in China, working for the World Bank.
I was in China for a while, 2009 to 2013. It was the biggest period of investment in transportation infrastructure the world’s ever seen. Which was kind of amazing and interesting.
Why did you leave for Uber?
I kind of wanted to go somewhere that was actually operating a transport service. If you’re a consulting firm, or the World Bank, and you have a project, you deliver it. But if you’re an operator, it’s constantly happening. At Uber, everything was always on.
What were you doing there?
I started in operations for Uber in New York, when the team was like, a dozen total. The team was split into two sides, the “driver” side and the “rider” side. Ultimately, I got promoted to manager for driver operations. When I left that role a couple years later, there was like maybe 10 or 11 people on my side of the team. It grew a lot in the time I was there.
You got promoted to Uber’s Head of Transportation Policy, which took you from Brooklyn to San Francisco.
One bubble, to a different bubble.
Uber plucked you out for the position, internally?
Yeah. They needed someone, and someone came to talk to me about it, who was running the central policy team.
Why did Uber need a “professional transit nerd” for this new role?
Every city Uber operates in, there’s questions around what the impact on transit is. Or what the impact on the environment is. Although we had a central policy team that worked with governments… none of those people were, you know, “transportation planning” types. Questions like, “what is Uber’s strategy around transit?” Or “what is our thinking about sustainability, or wheelchair accessible vehicles?” They had no one doing that. And that was obviously a very important part for the business, where I think a lot of pushback on the growth of the company was on those topics.
By the time you got your promotion, Uber was a completely different company from when you started. It was getting lots of press coverage — not always the flattering kind. Was it overwhelming?
It was a challenging environment to be in. But it was interesting. You know, owning and driving cars all over cities is not a great system. And if you look in the US, that’s what most people do. I think of Uber as a partial answer — to get more people in shared vehicles. To have less requirement for parking. More electric vehicles.
A partial answer… but not the full answer?
It’s hard for an individual company to internalize the broader externalities of transportation. Even to the extent they want to solve those problems — they’re not set up to take on the whole problem. Whether it’s emissions or congestion or anything else.
Is that why you ended up leaving Uber?
More and more, I wanted to think about how we steer new mobility technology in new directions. Obviously, if you’re at Uber, you have a set perspective on things. It felt like a good time to have a slightly freer “brain space” to think. When I left, Uber had acquired the folks at JUMP, which included a lot of urban planning people. And it had a whole product team working on transit. It no longer felt like I was the only voice internally, arguing for those things.
You’re interested in “new directions” for mobility. Does that imply, perhaps, that we should be worried where mobility is currently headed?
Transportation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So when I think about this, I think about other tech spaces. Like, email works magically well without us having to even think about it. I might have a Gmail account, and you might have a Hotmail account, or a Yahoo! account, or a university account. I can send you an email, and you won’t think twice about the fact that it gets to you!
Contrast that with services like Facebook Messenger — where if you don’t have an account on that service, you can’t interact with somebody else. I don’t think that’s a model we want to follow with mobility. It’s something that worries me. That we’re going to have one operator who is your interface for transportation, rather than an ecosystem that works more productively together.
If operators want to become the “Facebook” of transportation, who’s counteracting that?
Transit agencies should take some credit for already being at the forefront of the ecosystem we’re talking about. People should recognize that public transit has been a leader. If you look at GTFS, that’s been a great step forward. It sets the bar for how other modes should be operating. We should be encouraging that behavior for other modes of transport. That way, it’s not just possible for places like Uber and Lyft to integrate transit — but for public transit to integrate things like bikes, scooters, ridehail.
Sure, but getting cities and transit agencies to support “open ecosystems” is one thing. How do you get private mobility operators to support it?
Countries in Europe have laws that try to make this kind of market happen: where people can have the best of all the options available.
That’s one approach. There needs to be new ways to think about managing marketplaces like this… Maybe through new data standards? I’m not sure that private companies acting by themselves in their own interests will be enough.
So what got you interested in us?
You know, it’s called “Transit.” Obviously with public transit being at the heart of the company, and with the vision Transit has, integrating multiple operators into one system, it seems really appealing, as a model for how the future might look. So as I left to take up the fellowship, it was also a great time to start working more directly with you guys.
When did you start using the app?
So I will admit that I was in New York for a few years, and my commute was pretty simple — I walked to the A train and there was basically no alternative. When I moved to San Francisco, I lived in the Richmond, where there’s no rail to downtown. And there’s as many as six or seven different combinations of buses that might get you to your final destination. But they all involved a transfer at some point.
The dreaded bus-to-bus transfer.
I found it super useful to have an accurate way to know, in real time, the next bus in the transfer. And in most places, I think, the future looks less like the New York City subway, and more like a combination of modes that are flexible. Ones that aren’t as legible as a subway line.
As someone who uses public transit every day, and as an admittedly big transit policy wonk: what’s the biggest way transportation policy can improve the lives of everyday riders?
You know, we’ve got to be aware of all the new technology, to make sure the ecosystem is set up properly. But look at New York, which just installed the 14th Street busway. There’s not much tech involved there. It’s just about getting the cars out of the way. Or San Francisco, which just banned all cars on Market Street. Sometimes, the old-fashioned answer is still the best answer. Maybe the best thing to do is to just make sure the buses run faster, and run on time.
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