Podcast: Cover to Cover

Uncovering Transit's Gender Gap, Preserving Texas Freedom Colonies, and More

Planning magazine editors Meghan Stromberg, Mary Hammon, and Lindsay Nieman sit down to recap the urban planning trends and ideas from the February 2020 issue.

Meghna Khanna, AICP, author of the February cover story, "Mind the Gender Gap." Artwork by Michele Asselin. Commissioned by LA Metro.

To kick off the discussion, associate editor Lindsay Nieman checks in with Meghna Khanna, AICP — a senior director with the Countywide Planning & Development Department at LA Metro and the author of "Mind the Gender Gap." Khanna's cover story showcases how women use public transit, as seen through data collected by LA Metro and made public in a groundbreaking 2019 report. Khanna reviews potential solutions to the areas in which public transit systems fail to address women's needs, and these areas are key focuses of the department's upcoming Gender Action Plan.

Next, the editors discuss the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which aims to map every Black settlement established by formerly enslaved African Americans in the state between 1866 and the 1930s. A dive into "User-Centered Planning" follows; the article lays out how planning departments can better serve their customers' — aka residents' — needs. The editors also explore an emerging trend happening in cities across the country: the use of nighttime mayors to manage goings-on after dark. Stromberg, Hammon, and Nieman wrap up their informative discussion by giving listeners a sneak peek into the March issue of Planning magazine.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:09.070] Meghan Stromberg: Hi, I'm Megan Stromberg, editor-in-chief at the American Planning Association and the editor of Planning magazine. Welcome to Cover to Cover, an insider look at APA's Planning magazine. Each month, we'll dive deeper into the topics covered in Planning, introduce you to some of the contributors and other voices in its pages, and otherwise give you the story behind the story. This month, we'll be talking about the February issue of Planning magazine. I'm joined by my editorial team colleagues, associate editors Mary Hamon and Lindsay Nieman.

[00:00:39.040] Lindsay Nieman: Hey!

[00:00:39.610] MS: Hey, Lindsay.

[00:00:40.570] Mary Hammon: Hey there.

[00:00:41.170] MS: Hi, Mary. Thanks for joining us. And like I said, we're talking about the February issue. The main story of which is this terrific, thought-provoking piece on gender mainstreaming and public transit. I'd like to read a little bit from the opening, and then we'll listen to an interview with the author. "Planned mostly by and for men, transit in the U.S. has long failed its most loyal customers: women. But increasing efforts in focused data collection and gender mainstreaming are working to remedy those failures." The story is by Meghna Khanna, AICP, and we did an interview with her, our — Lindsay Neiman did an interview with her. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

[00:01:25.350] Meghna Khanna, AICP: I'm Meghna Khanna. I am a senior director with Los Angeles [LA] Metro. It's a transit organization. I am part of the Countywide Planning and Development group, focusing on light-rail transit design. And also I was part of the Women & Girl[s] Governing Council that was established at LA Metro in 2017. And I was fortunate to be part of the council, the first cohort that came out of the Women & Girl[s] Council.

[00:01:59.590] LN: So just first off, kind of general, can you give us a sort of CliffNotes summary of your article?

[00:02:04.870] MK: My article basically talks about that most of our transit riders in Los Angeles County, 50 percent of them are women. And for the longest time, their mobility needs, concerns, and preferences have not been accounted for in the way our transportation systems are planned. So the study takes a dive deeper into understanding how women are traveling on LA Metro's transit system, understanding what time of the day, what sort of travel behavior. And basically, it's trying to collect that data, so then we can take — get into the next step, which is developing a Gender Action Plan. And then the APA article basically dives deeper and talks about the various literature review or various case studies that have been done to see how women are traveling and trying to understand that travel behavior to then plan and design cities and transportation networks better.

[00:03:05.320] LN: And based on the data that LA Metro has collected, what were some of the needs that you think are emerging that you're starting to understand?

[00:03:13.940] MK: Key things that we noticed that most — majority of our women riders, 57 percent of them, they are traveling on our system with children. So concerns around strollers and space for these strollers on the buses and rail, they became like a very apparent issue. Another thing that we noticed that most women are traveling outside the peak period. So most women on our system are traveling between this 12 to 4 p.m., which is where our frequency, service frequency, generally drops. So we noticed that there is a mismatch between when women are traveling versus when our frequencies are not matching that need. Also, we noticed that women are making short trips. They are — most of the women are traveling within 10 miles. That's where most of the concentration of their trips are. So we need to rethink our service frequency, we need to rethink our vehicle design, and we need to rethink our strategies around the fare so that we can address some of those needs. So those are the key findings.

[00:04:27.790] LN: And has LA Metro started working on anything like that?

[00:04:32.290] MK: So I have to say that this was the first step and we are — our next step would be creating a Gender Action Plan. And the Gender Action Plan is going to focus on key areas, which is prioritizing safety concerns, talking about the station stop and vehicle design, talking about our fare policy. So some things have happened, but the Gender Action Plan will address more policies for Metro in those key priority areas, as I mentioned before.

[00:05:07.370] LN: It sounds like not only in L.A. but just sort of around the country and probably around the world too, the changes that need to happen don't amount to fixing one thing. It's sort of a comprehensive change to how buses are designed and how stations are designed.

[00:05:23.270] MK: Definitely. I think at Metro, we need to approach this holistically; we cannot just address one issue. As I was just saying, the service frequency is tied to our big — another program, which is we are relooking at restructuring our bus network, which we call the NextGen Bus Study. So as we looking at this, some of this findings from our study is feeding into that NextGen Bus Study. On the other hand, we have to work with our safety group to address some of the safety concerns we have heard from here. Our Office of Extraordinary Innovation is working on customer experience plan. So we need to look at all these different policies, different programs that are happening in Metro in light of the Gender Action Plan, and those priority areas so we can design our system to address the — all these different issues.

[00:06:19.170] LN: And you've mentioned that safety is a big concern. And as a woman who uses public transportation, I can definitely tell that myself. One of the things that really struck me about the survey was that when different groups were asked why they don't use transit, the most common answers from men sort of seemed to revolve around convenience, like transit being too slow, while most women said they don't feel safe. Just wondering your — kind of what you thought about that.

[00:06:47.370] MK: I totally agree. And again, I'm in a — I use transit on a daily basis and now take transit with my 8-month-old. It is a big concern for us. And even through our study, we found that 60 percent of our female riders, they feel safe during the day, and this number drops down to 20 percent at night. So I think safety is a big concern, and their concerns around safety [are] also centered around harassment, personal security, as well as physical safety. So as we get into the Gender Action Plan, we do need to adopt a whole-journey approach to improve safety on transit, focusing on safety measures for riders walking to and from a bus stop, park-and-ride bus stop locations, waiting for and riding the bus and train. And also over and over again, we heard that women, they prefer more human solutions rather than technological solutions — you know, people over the CCTV cameras. So those are the things we'll be working on as we get into the Gender Action Plan and safety will stay as a top priority.

[00:08:05.640] LN: That's awesome. I really recommend that everyone go and check out the entire survey because the results are fascinating, and I think, too, that you guys delivered it in a way that's really readable and easy to understand. Yeah, so this is so personal to you, I would imagine.

[00:08:22.390] MK: Yes, it's become — everything was always personal because I don't own a car. I've always taken transit. And now with a baby, the challenges are totally different. But at the same time, you know, I want her to get the same passion I have for transit. So maybe this is my way of spreading my love to her [laughs].

[00:08:44.770] LN: Oh yeah, I love that [laughs]. Thanks so much, Meghna, for talking with me today.

[00:08:49.510] MK: Thank you, Lindsay, so much.

[00:08:57.270] MS: What a great interview and such a great story. I think, I think all of us here can relate to some of the things that came across in Meghna's story and her interview.

[00:09:06.210] MH: Absolutely. Like Meghna, I don't own a car, so I'm dependent on transit and options like rideshare to get to where I need to go. And just like many of the female respondents to the survey, if it's after dark and I'm alone, I avoid taking transit and I generally use rideshare when I can. And not everybody even has that option.

[00:09:27.930] MS: It had me thinking about something sort of related. I remember being at a conference once and I was talking to someone who was also a runner. And we were — he — it was a man, and he was talking about running on a trail and how he did it at night. And I said, "Oh, it sounds like a beautiful place. I couldn't do that." And he didn't understand why. And he didn't realize it was because I was a woman. I couldn't use a trail at night and feel safe. And there was this great recent development in my own neighborhood of Albany Park in Chicago. There is this riverfront park and trail along the Chicago River. And they've recently done this massive project that's mostly around water retention and excessive flooding issues in the neighborhood. But one of the side aspects of it was clearing all this brush so that there are clear sightlines to the trails all across the park, and I finally feel like I can go out there by myself on a trail and I see other women finally using it again. And it just goes to show that it's obviously not front of mind for enough of our important planning projects, that these are sort of one-off instances.

[00:10:36.240] LN: And I think that kind of proves how important it is to do that community engagement work, to make sure that you're getting lots of different voices and experiences in there, because that man that you talked to, it wasn't something that he ever considered. So getting your feedback on that is hugely important. 

[00:10:50.700] MS: I agree.

[00:10:51.900] MH: Definitely. Because that's always something that's front of mind for women. That possibility of harassment is always there. And it's just something that we constantly have to have in the back of our minds as we go about our day-to-day, and a lot of times men don't quite understand that.

[00:11:10.680] MH: So what else is in the February issue?

[00:11:13.220] LN: Well, this month, our lead Intersections story highlights the Texas Freedom Colonies Project. Andrea Roberts founded it. She's a Texas A&M urban planning assistant professor. Her goal is to document every community created by formerly enslaved African-Americans throughout the state, which happened from about 1866 through the end of the Depression. She launched the project about six years ago, and since then they've mapped 357 of 557 known settlements. That's pretty substantial progress on its own, but especially when you consider that a ton of these communities never appeared on local maps or in Census data or even just in general, mainstream history. So data collection is a serious challenge and it's required a lot of unique community engagement approaches. A big end goal of the whole project is preservation. Over the years, these settlements have changed dramatically, due in large part to just flat out theft of black-owned lands. So it's really a race against time to deliver some much-needed resources. One of the ways they're doing that is by partnering with Texas A&M's Law School to help remaining residents work through some of the thornier issues that are related to property rights and especially transfer of property. It's an intensely personal project for Professor Roberts. Her family has ties to a couple of the Freedom Colonies, and I think through the story and through the website, you can really see the love that she has for this project and the careful attention to detail and the affection that she has for every single individual story of each colony. And I think it's a really important, beautiful project that has a lot of transferable lessons for other historic preservation efforts that revolve around communities and people and just creating more inclusive definitions of what makes a place.

[00:12:53.580] MS: I absolutely loved this story. I had, I had heard, of course, of settlements of Black Freedmen's colonies, I guess is another way they're referred to. But I had no idea there were so many in Texas, and I didn't know that they weren't well documented. You know, I figured if I'd heard about it, certainly there is a pretty robust history of them. And so it's really interesting to hear in this day and age that someone with ties to planning is using her professional skills to bring these into the forefront.

[00:13:24.730] LN: Absolutely. And she's got a team of young planners, too, who are helping her out with it. And like I said, it's a race against time. A lot of the people who still live there are getting older. A lot of those histories are being lost. I mean, they have to look at funeral programs in some cases to even learn more about the footprint of the communities. Some places there are only cemeteries left. So — but it's not all doom and gloom. There's a lot of really beautiful community stuff that's still happening. A lot of the settlements, they have homecoming events every year. We have a photo of one that happened, I think in the 90s, of a community picnic at a church, and everyone's dressed up, and they're smiling.

[00:14:06.030] MS: Yeah, it's a great image. Mary, you worked on a really interesting story about user-based design. Can you tell us a little bit about that one?

[00:14:13.710] MH: Sure. Yeah. That's another, another story we're really excited about this month, is a feature called "User-Centered Planning," written by planning consultant Tim Schwecke, [AICP,] which is all about putting the user first. It's a concept that's traditionally been used in the business world. The idea is that any and all products, services, and customer interactions should be based on understanding and meeting the needs and expectations of customers. In our story, the author explores how taking a user-centered approach to zoning codes and the delivery of related services — so, think interactions with the planning department staff, application forms, and public notices — can improve residents' customer experience. The story then walks readers step-by-step through the process to make zoning and other planning services more user centered and offers tips and examples to help them implement it.

[00:15:09.510] MS: It sounds kind of like a no-brainer, right? Of course, you'd put the customer first in any process; you'd hope that would be the case. But if you step back, like we all know, in the places that we've worked or the processes that we're in, you often just have these legacy processes or this, you know, this way that things have always been done, and it takes sometimes a fresh look at what the customer actually needs to make some changes.

[00:15:32.800] MH: Absolutely. I mean, there's a reason that local governments have a reputation for, you know, having a lot of red tape to get through. And so this story is a bit about how do you make the user or the resident experience with the local planning office easier and and just more pleasant [laughs]. One thing I really appreciated that Tim did with the story is that he accounted for the fact that not everybody has the budget to implement really big changes. So he breaks down the changes that you can make to make your zoning code and processes more user centered into three levels of effort that he calls "revise," which is the least labor intensive and resource intensive, "reboot," and "reinvent." So, for example, if you looked at your zoning code to make it more user centered, if you were just looking to revise, you might adopt minor code amendments to clear up any internal conflicts or unanswered questions that might be in there. If you were looking to reboot, you could streamline procedures in the code by removing unnecessary and cumbersome steps. Or, in terms of reinvent, you could completely rewrite the entire code to fully align with your intent to be user centered.

[00:16:53.310] MS: Love it. So the last story we want to talk about is called "Cities That Love the Nightlife." And it refers to this growing trend, mostly in Europe but more and more in the U.S., of hiring what's thought of as a night mayor. So they go by different names: nightlife business advocate, nighttime economy manager — various titles, but really doing the same function, and that's somebody who works as an ambassador or an advocate with government systems and with businesses and people who operate during nighttime hours to make sure that their needs are taken care of and to mitigate any negative impacts from nighttime economy businesses. And those businesses are, of course, ones you think of restaurants, bars, music venues. But it can also refer to things like, you know, hotels are open at night, gas stations, hospitals, and all of those places have both workers and patrons. And so transportation during the wee hours is an important consideration. So the story looked at a couple of different places. There are about a dozen in the U.S. that are trying this out to see what are some of the important considerations if you're thinking about having a nighttime mayor position and what it is that they actually do. San Francisco, maybe not surprisingly, was kind of a pioneer in this regard. And one of the things they were looking at a few years ago in 2013 was existing music venues that were gaining new residential neighbors. So, you know, the music places were there first, and so they introduced this layer of planning review into the process where residential developments would have to go through various sound attenuation processes and what have you to make sure that residents didn't move in and then hate their neighbors. So it's things like that the nighttime mayors are working on. Another place that is, you know, it's not exactly a San Francisco — we can't all relate to the San Franciscos of the world — but Detroit and Pittsburgh both have some sort of night-mayor function. And what's interesting about those places, I think of those as very neighborhood-centric places — neighborhoods have their own feel. And one of the ideas, too, is to think beyond downtown. Vibrant cities have lots of wonderful places to be at night. And so a night mayor needs to really think about the distinct neighborhood needs of each area of the city as it operates at night. One of the things being done in Pittsburgh was a special parking district was created where on-street parking meters could be enforced on weekend nights. There, you know, they were realizing that they were not capturing — you know, they were just a 9-to-5 business district, and they were not capturing the revenue that they could have had for weekend parkers. And as a result, they raised something like two hundred thousand dollars a year from those revenues. They used those and dumped them right back into the community to fund cleaning crews, to install safety and monitoring equipment. And in fact crime had been a concern before, and they found that after a couple of years of this program, it had dropped by 30 percent. So Pittsburgh is just one of those places that is, you know, maybe it's not going to be a 24/7 city, but it's certainly shooting for at least an 18-hour presence.

[00:20:18.210] LN: Does the story have any suggestions for how a city might get some of this work done?

[00:20:24.240] MS: Yeah, it does, actually. I won't go into detail on what each of these is, but there's a sidebar in the story that's "Tips for Managing Nightlife." So here's how to get started. First of all, you know, conduct a nighttime assessment. Get a sense of, what are the businesses operating at that time? What are the needs and, you know, positive and negative impacts? Identify the gaps in resources. And that includes looking at the social needs of different generations. I mean, we're not just talking about young people club hopping but also all sorts of people going out at night. And of course, the workers who may have a different transportation schedule. Third, measure risk. And again, that's looking at, of course, safety issues, but also code compliance, liability, things like that. The last thing to do is to dedicate the staff. If you're considering a nighttime mayor, you have to decide, is that a full-time position, is it a part-time position? How are they going to work with various different city departments? What, what department will they be in? Is it with — something within the planning department or in a mayor's office? So that just gives you a sense of where you might start. And those are some tips actually from the Responsible Hospitality Institute, which is one of the sources for the story.

[00:21:43.660] LN: I might cut that out and send it to my hometown, because all they've got going for residents at night is a 24-hour Meijer. So they can do a little work there.

[00:21:54.860] MS: Sounds like it.

[00:21:56.960] MH: So those are just a few highlights from the February issue. Of course, you can read it all at APA's website.

[00:22:03.180] LN: Digital planning is available online at anytime at planning dot org slash planning [planning.org/planning].

[00:22:09.960] MS: We've got lots of great stuff in the March issue. One I'm really excited about is the JAPA Takeaway topic, is — it's about planning's emotional paradox. And these two researchers looked into emotions and planning, acknowledging the fact that humans are emotional beings and it's not something we can separate from our professional lives, although planners in their training and education are taught to focus on analysis and facts, and they really make a case for getting to know a little bit more about your emotional and social intelligence and using it in your work.

[00:22:44.820] LN: There's also "Access Denied," which is about sort of the interplay between micromobility and accessibility and how a lot of the new emerging technologies and businesses that we're seeing are sort of forgetting a huge population of people and planning's role in making sure that people with disabilities aren't left behind.

[00:23:05.600] MH: Another story, "Taking the Lead," offers 13 management strategies for planners looking to climb the career ladder.

[00:23:13.230] MS: And finally, the last story in the March issue that we want to talk about is "Are You Solar Ready? 7 Steps to Successfully Manage Large-Scale Solar Development." So that about does it for this edition of Cover to Cover. I'd like to thank Mary Hamman, associate editor, and Lindsay Nieman, our other associate editor, for joining me. I'm Megan Stromberg, editor-in-chief at Planning magazine.

[00:23:42.780] MH: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. To read the stories mentioned in this episode and more, visit planning dot org slash planning [planning.org/planning]. To hear past episodes of the APA podcast, visit planning dot org slash podcast [planning.org/podcast]. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for the podcast? Send it to podcast at planning dot org [podcast@planning.org].

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