The Secret to a Long Life: Lessons Learned at the FTA

March 08, 2017

Guest blog by Noah Berger -

After 15 years at the Federal Transit Administration, mostly as Director of Planning and Program Development in Region 1, I am moving on to pursue other opportunities and begin the next chapter of my career. I've reflected over the last few months on what's most meaningful to me as a transportation professional, and as a human being about what transportation means to people. 

These ruminations led to a farewell email to my colleagues at the agency that ended up being much longer than I had initially intended.  Since sending my note, several people have suggested that some of my reflections might resonate beyond the walls of FTA and have relevance to the greater transportation community and even a world outside of transportation (not that there is such a thing!).

In this spirit, I appreciate the opportunity to repackage my original email and share a few of these thoughts with my fellow transportation professionals, advocates, and all those who take an active interest in improving and maintaining how we get around:

Look for those “It’s a Wonderful Life” moments (for those of you under the age 45, this is a reference to the Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart). Never lose sight of all those things that you know would not have happened were it not for your involvement. It doesn’t matter whether you got the credit; you know you have made a small portion of the world a better place. Supervisors, do the same for your folks: help them to see where they’ve made a difference. This is what gets all of us up in the morning.

What we do is pretty important. FTA puts buses, trains and ferryboats on the roads, rails & water. More than just infrastructure, this paints the environment we live in—what opportunities we have, how we live, how we play. I recently read Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, noting that transit is central to building happy communities. To paraphrase Motel the Tailor (sorry, my daughter just played a villager in her middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof), everybody is entitled to some happiness.

Everybody deserves beauty. If transit infrastructure is built as utilitarian, soulless slabs of concrete reminiscent of the architecture of the former German Democratic Republic, the passenger experience will be unpleasant. Transit stations used to be beautiful anchors to the built environment. Encourage grantees to build transit that reflects the community, embodying the principles of placemaking. Invite local artists to participate from the very beginning—more than just 1% for art, which often ends up looking like an afterthought, make the project a work of art itself.

Transportation is an emotional issue. While we like to talk about transportation in dispassionate terms, anybody who has ever been to a public meeting about a transit project knows otherwise. After all, when are people at the angriest? It’s when they’ve just been cut off in traffic; it’s when the bus they are waiting for is late, passes them by without stopping, or never arrives at all.

Transit is a civil right. It is not a coincidence that transit has played a central role in every civil rights advance in this country’s history. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, transit has always been there: In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for integrating an intercity train leaving New Orleans, leading to the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson; over sixty years later in 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery Alabama for taking a seat in the front of a bus, giving birth to the civil rights movement; In the early 1960s, John Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders risked their lives integrated private intercity buses; in the 1980s, disability activists chained themselves to buses and trains, leading to the 1990 passage of the ADA.

Ask critical questions. Quoting Boston’s own Mel King, ask: “For whom?” We can’t forget that in and of itself, transit is neither good nor bad—rather it is a tool that will serve different communities differently depending on real planning choices. Ask who is being served by any given project and who is not. Look for unintended consequences.

Don’t forget the public in public transit. With an increasing reliance on public-private partnerships, remember the old adage “He who pays the piper choses the tune.” If we only build transit projects that serve private interests, what is the message we are giving to low-income communities that do not enjoy a billionaire benefactor?

Don’t hide behind numbers. With the embrace of performance-based planning, remain suspicious of the science behind statements of seemingly objective facts. As my old MIT logistics professor Joseph Sussman often remarks, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Historically, as chronicled well by Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, algorithms are often used to justify insidious programming decisions, including the setting of modal priorities that put transit projects and projects serving disadvantaged communities at a competitive disadvantage.

Allow for the good you can’t think of. If we’ve anticipated every use a proposed project will have, we are not pushing the envelope. People have always found ways to use every great transit line in novel ways that planners could not have anticipated. The best ones are built to allow for this kind of dynamic growth. Michael Kwartler writes in Regulating the Good You Can’t Think of about how the now thriving mix of uses in New York’s City’s SoHo neighborhood could not have been anticipated by the 1916 zoning ordinance—but due to flexibilities built into the code, the SoHo we know today was able to blossom and be fully recognized in a subsequent set of regulations. Applying this principle to transit, we should always encourage our grantees to build in a way that allows for new uses to emerge. I am proud that we took this approach when, in 2010, the City of Boston asked about the eligibility of using FTA bus livability funds for a bikeshare. While SAFETEA-LU could not have anticipated this application, we found room to finance everything except for the vehicles (bicycles) themselves—as a result, Hubway was born, the first bikeshare in the country with a direct connection to transit.

Be messy. After reading Tim Harford’s Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, not only do I feel vindicated for the state of my desk, I also see how building resilient, diverse and creative transit projects requires that we suspend our urge to control every aspect of our projects.

Be bold. While government is cautious by nature, we should resist being cautious just for caution’s sake. While it’s easier to say No, we can’t get anything done until we find ways to say Yes. Sometimes, in our quest to make a difference, we make things more challenging for those we have power over—subordinates, grantees, contractors. But this is not a constructive way to make a difference—rather, we should look for empowering and positive ways to leave our mark on the world (see It’s a Wonderful Life above).

Push up. While FTA is a fairly hierarchical organization, don’t let the hierarchy constrain you. Strong leaders challenge those above them and support those below them. Weak leaders kiss up to those above them and step on those below them.

Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t live your dream. I find strength in examples from my own family. My grandfather, for whom I was named, was told he couldn’t be an engineer because at that time he would have to work Saturdays, which he couldn’t do as an Orthodox Jew. But he was accepted into Cooper Union, got his degree in civil engineering and went on to build a bridge over the Bronx River and tracks of what is now Metro North’s Harlem Line when he was only 29 years old, as well as the IND subway tunnel under the Harlem River. My mother was the first female physics major at City College in New York (known at the time as the poor man’s Harvard) and later went on to get a PhD in physics in the early 1960s at a time when there were very few women in the hard sciences. While she died a generation too early to meet either of her two granddaughters, she would be proud to know that she helped shape a world in which neither would be discouraged, as she had been, from pursuing whatever calling they choose.

Never give up. I remember as a little kid going to one of the groundbreakings for a new subway under 2nd Avenue in the early 1970s. And less than 50 years later, my friends in Region 2 finally opened the line this past January!

Be a mentor. There is no better way to make a difference than to pass on whatever wisdom we may have to those that come after us—and hey, I hear that since Socrates, they no longer give hemlock for corrupting the youth. I am especially proud of my active involvement in the KEE Mentoring Program, doing my best to support and nurture the careers of both my mentees, Jeff Price and Debbie Ensor, through their own promotion and development. I, of course, learned from others, and remain grateful for the mentorship and support I received at different points in my career from numerous FTA and DOT colleagues, some of whom have since retired or gone on to other pursuits: Thank you Bill Menczer, Aaron James, Kate Webb, Scott Darling, Judi Molloy, the late Andy Motter, Tom Buffkin, Bill Wheeler, Wendy Lee, Susan Camarena and Vince Valdes.

Planning Directors are a special breed. Special shout out to my cohort of Regional Planning Directors for your friendship and support. At the risk of sounding like the Academy Awards (but with the right envelope), thank you Amy Changchien, Vida Morkunas, Nancy Danzig, Darin Allen, Jennifer Hibbert, Sheila Clements, Don Koski, Mark Bechtel and Ray Sukys. I am convinced that Planning Director is the hardest job at FTA—we are responsible for the bread and butter of FTA’s mission, yet do so with a fraction of the agency’s resources or support, seemingly dancing around minefields all the while. I value the work we did as a team, 10 regions of the country standing shoulder to shoulder.

Always stand up for what’s right. For me, the ultimate test of morality is whether we took a difficult stand when the situation was most dire—particularly when doing so is not easy, when it comes at great personal cost. Sometimes this means swimming against the flow of the river. While I know this is a bit over-the-top (forgive me, but I have 2 daughters in middle school and am forever trying to beat this into their thick skulls), we all must ask how we would act—if we were a Hutu during the Rwandan Genocide, would we have stood up and said the slaughter of Tutsis is wrong? If we were a German in Nazi Germany, would we have stood up to the persecution and mass murder of Jews? If we were a white plantation owner in the antebellum South, would we have fought to end slavery? The terrifying truth is that, if we are honest with ourselves, we can’t know for sure how any of us would act under such awful circumstances—we can only hope that in the face of such evil, we would do the right thing. And resolve to never be silent.

Now, with apologies to Michelle Shocked, let me end by saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go.

Noah Berger lives in Newton, Massachusetts, and is a twenty-three year veteran of public transportation. In addition to his work at FTA, Noah served as Special Advisor for Transportation at the Boston Foundation, driving the Foundation’s efforts to repackage the existing Fairmount Commuter Rail Branch as a rapid transit-commuter rail hybrid under the Indigo Line.  He has also served as Transit Policy Analyst for the MBTA Advisory Board in Boston, directed the Enterprise Community Transportation Project in Burlington, Vermont (a HUD-funded program geared towards filling gaps in the regional transit network, with an emphasis on bridging low-income neighborhoods and employment centers). He is author of By Bus, Bike or Boat: A Rider’s Guide to Public Transit in Greater Burlington and Vermont, and of “The Guardian of the Birds” in John Abarno’s The Ethics of Homelessness: Philosophical Perspectives, and has Masters Degrees in City Planning from M.I.T., and a degree in Philosophy from the State University of New York.


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