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Alumni: Stuart Cohen

Stuart Cohen (MPP ’97) is the Executive Director of Transform, which advocates for public transportation and walkable communities. He spoke with Policy Notes about coalition building, how transportation is linked with opportunities for low income people and the lessons learned from surviving his first year at GSPP.

You co-founded Transform in 1997. What was your initial vision for starting the organization?

As a cyclist, I had come to understand how 60 years of subdivisions, strip malls and highway-exit corporate parks were devastating our country. Planning for all this sprawl meant public transportation was being bled dry while highway projects got the green light. Huge numbers of people — especially low-income families, youth and many seniors — were cut off from opportunity. I’d always wanted to reverse these trends. But turning the tide on sprawl had became a true mission for me when I started working on global warming with Nancy Skinner in 1993. Transportation is responsible for 38% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions and the idea that all this driving could also devastate this planet, flood much of Bangladesh and whole islands was a bit too much for me.

What are the key ways that Transform has grown and evolved?

Our early coalition-building helped change this cycle of sprawl. In 1998 we convinced our regional agencies to do a “smart growth scenario” that would focus growth in walkable, compact town and city centers, and then to focus investments to help support that growth. We continued this work at the regional scale, building coalitions that helped gain more than $6 billion dollars for expanding public transportation and bike lanes in the Bay Area. Other regions in California soon followed suit. While transportation decisions happen at the regional scale, the only way to truly garner the tremendous benefits of compact, walkable communities happens if the whole region shifts. In 2006 I co-founded the Great Communities Collaborative, a unique partnership of foundations and Bay Area non-profits. In 2007 I also co-founded a statewide coalition, ClimatePlan, that pushed for “smart growth blueprints” that eventually became law. The following year, the landmark law, SB 375, was passed. Each of California’s major regions now focus their transportation planning with the specific goal of reducing driving per capita to meet climate targets for 2020 and 2035. We now have a Sacramento office and build statewide networks for change.

How have you seen Transform’s strategic priorities intersect with green business and innovation?

We were frustrated that developers that were trying to be green were often stunted by outdated codes that required excessive parking, especially for affordable housing. So we created a thirdparty certification for buildings, called GreenTRIP, that supports cities and developers that plan for low-traffic, low-carbon developments. GreenTRIP certification is given to projects that cut traffic, with incentives like free transit passes or CarSharing onsite, instead of excessive parking. This certification helps fosters community support to get the best developments approved while giving property owners a marketing edge.

Which areas of the transportation sectors seem most promising vis-a-vis green business?

Transportation has so much excess built into the system — with so many cars and most cars having just the driver. This leaves tremendous growth potential for new technology-enabled carand ride-sharing. Getaround.com is a great example, allowing individuals to make money by leaving their car at home (for someone else). With just 1 shared car needed for every 10 people the potential efficiencies are enormous.

What aspects of your GSPP training have been most useful to you?

After my first year at GSPP, very few policy problems seem overwhelming! The training has given me the tools to add to crunch data and develop truly implementable policy proposals. One of my favorite reports, “Windfall for All,” used census track data and cost modeling to show how Bay Area neighborhoods with the greatest access to public transit had transportation costs that were $5,450 lower, and reduced their greenhouse gases by 42%, relative to other parts of the region. We used maps illustrating this correlation during our state advocacy days, creating maps to match the region of the particular legislator. It has helped change the frame of public transit from a system that is wasteful and requires subsidy to one that helps families live affordably.