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Creating Resilience Through Biking & Housing

In our Winter 2015 American Bicyclist magazine, we spoke with Harriet Tregoning, the Director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a daily bike commuter, about the intersection of active transportation and affordable housing. This is our full interview, which was condensed for length in the magazine.

It’s Harriet Tregoning’s job to create opportunity. A bike commuter, Tregoning is the new Director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She comes to HUD after most recently serving as the director of the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning, spearheading several projects, including the implementation of the city’s bikeshare system. In her new role, Tregoning said her boss, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, likes to say HUD is the “department of opportunity.”

“Creating more opportunity — that is the singular thing about our nation,” she said. “Our belief that we can come from very humble beginnings and achieve almost anything… So having transportation choice is a part of that.”

We spoke with Tregoning recently to talk about her new job, the intersection of transportation and housing, and, of course, her desire for a foldable helmet. (Seriously, she says, someone get on that).

You’re currently the Director of Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — what is your day to day like?

Earlier in the administration, HUD provided about $250 million in grants to communities to do planning. This wasn’t associated with any particular program — communities were encouraged to use it for multi-issue, multi-agency projects..  It’s a partnership for sustainable comms, collaborating with EPA, HUD and USDOT. For many communities, these issues come together. Transportation and housing in particular are very big issues. 143 places get grants from us. Many are entire regions, and might have dozens of communities who participate in the planning activity. We help those communities complete their plans and provide technical assistance. They are delivering all kinds of interesting products, including zoning code changes, finishing bike or ped master plans and more. Two of the biggest things grantees work on are economic development, making communities more economically competitive and inclusive. Transportation issues run in conjunction and many places realize that transportation choices are an important part of a competitive and inclusive economy.

The other major thing is that my office helps to lead HUD’s involvement in the President’s climate action plan. For us that means working on energy efficiency and renewables in housing, both HUD-supported housing, like public housing, but also HUD-insured housing, buildings for which we might do FHA loans, HUD-assisted housing. It’s mostly multi-family.

We work with private property owners, local governments, and public housing associations. We work on energy efficiency and retrofit buildings for energy efficiency.  We work mostly on solar energy. The other half of that effort has to do with resilience. Climate change isn’t some future distant event — we’re feelings the effects now. We help communities to understand and help us understand how the assets that we insure and those we invest in are resilient to future extreme weather events and sea level rise. The biggest thing with that now is a billion dollar natural disaster resilience competition. It’s a yearlong competition.

A lot of these places are really focusing on including planning at the multi-jurisdictional level. We’re really looking at adding to their transportation choices. The Fairmont Line (indigo line) commuter line in Boston runs through a few communities that have highest African-American and highest Hispanic share of any neighborhood population in the Greater Boston area and there has been no transit service there. The commuter train runs through these communities but it doesn’t stop. There has been some effort now to realize new stops and stations on this commuter rail line that will now serve this community. Leaders are doing planning and preparation in the community to make sure poor households and small businesses there don’t end up getting pushed out because of the attractiveness of new transit project. Opening stations give critical access to jobs and opportunity to a very underserved population, but thoughtful way planning is happening and will be bulwark against displacement, which happens in some instances if communities aren’t thoughtful.

Now, not everyone can afford to invest in heavy rail or even light rail infrastructure. Providence, Rhode Island, is making the most of a series of bus lines. They looked at the five most well-used routes and made land use changes and permanent artwork to create visibility and character around the spots on these bus stations to make them more substantial and also reflect the character of neighbors. They’re investing in bus ridership and increasing appeal and convenience of bus transit.  

In the Twin Cities they’re also focused on equitable transit-oriented development. Light rail is being constructed that would normally been very disruptive to businesses and users and the neighborhood in general, but they gave micro grants to local artists to help highlight businesses still working during construction to engage the community around the coming light rail. They also created permanent connections between the community of working artists and local businesses. That relationship continues for many of artists and businesses beyond the grant period. The arts are an important part of a local economy. There are any ways to mitigate the inconvenience of construction.

Bikes Plus: The 2015 National Bike Summit is looking at how bikes add value in so many ways. Instead of saying “Look at what the bike has done for us!” we’re asking “How can the bike help you achieve your goals?”  What role do bicycling and bike infrastructure play in economic development or resilience?

Bicycling for transportation is something that can be a lifelong activity. One of the things that will indicate whether or not we live longer, whether we age gracefully in good health or not is whether we’re getting activity as part of our daily lives and biking is a really excellent way to build physical activity, not necessarily strenuous, into daily life. I think that’s going to be increasingly important to us as society but also to individuals. Places where biking is possible are also places where walking is also very prevalent. Being able to bike and walk to meet your daily needs, which is guaranteed physical activity, is so critical.

This also means the attractiveness of neighborhoods improves. It helps to revitalize neighborhoods. How much household income goes to transportation? It’s the second largest expense for a household, just behind housing. Depending on income, it can be as much or more than housing. If you live a long distance from your job and are spending a lot using and maintaining and paying off automobiles…

Bicycling helps you to become a car-light household, or even car-free household. That greatly lowers the transportation expense. It works in synergy with communities with a lot of transportation options.

These are all very important pieces of infrastructure that make biking possible. When there is a critical mass of bicyclists and facilities, that’s important in terms of sharing the road and having a safe environment in which to bike. Everyone using the road should expect to see different users: cars, buses, pedestrians, bikes, street cars — that’s the safest environment.

It’s just so easy to go door to door on bike. I beat everybody to meetings. It’s very efficient. I love to be able to get out in middle of day and enjoy sunshine and breeze.

These things do a lot for communities. The more choices you have, the more attractive it is to live in those places. Whether or not you are biking because you cannot afford alternative transport modes — I bike because it is the fastest way for me to get from point A to point B, but I  don’t consider myself a cyclist — I’m a commuter. It’s just so easy to go door to door on bike. I beat everybody to meetings. It’s very efficient. I love to be able to get out in middle of day and enjoy sunshine and breeze. I can’t say a lot of people, as much as I like Metro, feel like, ‘Oh good, I get to go underground.’ It’s nice to have that bit of pleasure as part of my commute.

Looking at your time as the head of Planning in DC, can you talk broadly about what sorts of policies or leadership tactics worked for you and what didn’t? I’m curious how you built support for projects in the community. How do you enact a bold vision with resistance?

Everybody has an aspiration for their community and for their family or household. Understanding what those aspirations are is an important part of beginning a dialogue. We’re a city that’s gone through a lot of changes. In 2001 we still had a financial control board. Our finances had been in such abysmal shape we lost some elements of what little home rule we had because the federal government had to step in and address incredible budget difficulties. Figuring out a fiscally sound and even prosperous city meant having more people who work in the District live in the District. ⅔ of the population historically worked here but did not live here.  

We needed to get to historic levels of population in the city. For many people our growth and changes were about how do we make this a city that is attractive so we can retain residents that we have and attract people to move back who might have considered this city home.

We had strengths: the transit system was already in place. We had decent bus service, a great urban form, great walkability, short blocks, a gridded network, great connectivity. So there were great strengths to build upon. Many places don’t have these things. We wanted to be able to accommodate growth in the city, and the built form that we had wouldn’t accommodate the same level of population because households are occupying more space than they did in 1850. Household composition is now larger than what it was.  That’s why we are seeing so many studios and 1 and 2 bedrooms — it’s because we didn’t have much housing stock before.

We started talking to people about why are we doing this. It’s not just because we love development or want greater height. Our self sufficiency and vitality depends on accommodating some amount of population growth relative to now. And to do it in way that does least damage to the character of our communities and neighborhoods. Some people are very afraid of change and may not have the broad perspective of what is in the best interest of the city. 

It’s important to talk to everybody.

There have been a lot of stories and discussion, in DC and in other cities in the past few years, about this idea that bike lanes = gentrification to a neighborhood. Obviously there is a lot of nuance lost in that assumption, but what’s your take on how to overcome that premise? There are community groups working to move beyond this idea at a grassroots level, but do you have any big ideas on a larger scale in terms of community outreach on this? How should advocates work with the community toward a solution?

On its face, it’s kind of ridiculous.  Almost 40 percent of households in the District don’t even have a single automobile. Just look at data for who bikes and walks.  When people say this they mean, ‘I don’t want change in my neighborhood.’ It’s not based on facts or reality. It’s a way to challenge changes to a neighborhood.

How has your role changed coming from the city planning office to HUD? Any good lessons learned so far?

I worked at EPA before Planning, so I was federal and doing national policy work for a number of years and then worked as Planning Secretary in Maryland, then Planning Director in DC.  In some ways I’m now so much better equipped to be doing anything at a national policy level, having a much deeper understanding of how states and localities do business.  HUD is a great place for me because we do work directly with states and local communities. There is knowledge I have that I can bring to bear. I now work for a former mayor. Secretary Castro was mayor of  San Antonio — and he likes to say HUD is the department of opportunity. It focuses on the economic mobility of Americans. Creating more opportunity: that is the singular thing about our nation. Our belief that we can come from very humble beginnings and achieve almost anything. That’s his personal family story.  So having these transportation choices is a part of that.  

What if you could pay for education instead of car insurance? There are many communities where there are no choices.  In some places there is very little transit or if there is it is inconvenient and you might spend hours on transportation, which you wouldn’t have to do in another city to reach the same opportunities.  

Imagine if every community had those choices. We are helping  communities offer these kind of choices.  Cities have to do things that make sure housing is affordable. People bike and walk in all communities, even when it’s really taking your life in your hands. Providing opportunities is way to foster economic mobility. We don’t do enough to guarantee housing affordability. Possibly that’s a lesson that we learned only by experience.  A lot of the affordable housing is market rate affordability.  What we’ve seen in the last dozen years is that when we start to invest in transportation choices, you see changes in property value. These are huge changes in some instances, unless you put measures in place to protect affordability for the population that’s there.  This is why so many communities are trying to do planning and put in zoning and guarantees that will enable investments to be made and communities to prosper.

What role do advocates for more bikeable and walkable places have in affordable housing? What do you see as the the connection point or area of collaboration there? What are the policies advocates should be pushing for in that realm?

Poor people walk and bike the most, so if you’re an advocate for biking and walking, you are an advocate for low-income housing.

They should absolutely be working hand in hand.  Poor people walk and bike the most, so if you’re an advocate for biking and walking, you are an advocate for low-income housing.  You’re already natural allies. Even improvements in walkability, changes in zoning that give choices, and bike facilities can affect housing prices.  These advocates should be working closely on to make sure we have permanently affordable housing working with infrastructure improvements.

If it was your job to increase the number of people biking, would you work in housing? Land use and zoning? Transportation?

I think what people neglect most is land use. If there is no destination within biking distance or walking distance, you can create the facility, but there’s not really a ‘how’ or ‘why’ people would use it.

A functioning transportation system has to have connecting destinations. Getting land use right is incredibly important. And there are many issues involved. It’s a public safety issue: With more people on the streets, creating safety in all kinds of neighborhoods is a very positive thing. If you were concerned with crime, that this is a great strategy to be working together with land planning agency on places to take steps to improve public safety.

Not everyone is willing to try bicycling as young men at age 25. We have so many costumes for our sports — people think it’s an athletic activity.  I never shower after I ride.  I realize that may not be true for everybody, but, largely, you don’t need special clothing or gear.  I’d certainly advise visibility but its transportation. It’s not required to be athletic.  Bicycling really is lifelong type of transportation that you can do your whole life.

People need to know that it’s an evolution. As cars see more bikes and pedestrians, they will respond accordingly.

Do you have any big ideas that you’re working on now at HUD that might relate to this conversation?

I’m very proud of the bikeshare system we launched here in DC. Bikeshare has become a gateway for bicycling for people who hadn’t been biking before. It makes it possible for you to be a bicyclist in almost any city that you go to. But, and there’s a big ‘but’ here, we have a bit of a digital divide, whether we’re talking bikeshare or car-sharing, like Zipcar, or Uber. It’s credit card enabled. A lot of our more low-income households do not have access to credit. This creates an unfair divide and exacerbates disparities that are already going on. This is an essential service as opposed to a discretionary good. It needs to be fixed.

I also wish someone would invent the foldable bike helmet. One that could put in a briefcase and whip out when you need it. I know there are some things out there but something you can just unfold and put on your head.  

Many, many American cities, DC among them, is on the path to provide better and safer facilities and more choices. And part of what it’s doing is making almost every neighborhood in the city more convenient, with more amenities and choices.  This has been a really great thing for the city.  You don’t have to go back very far to the middle of the last decade and that just wasn’t the case.  It’s also great for cities to see that this low-cost infrastructure can really give everybody more choice and more opportunity. 

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