Shin-pei Tsay, Executive Director at the Gehl Institute, has quite the extensive background in the world of public life. Prior to the Gehl Institute, she was the Deputy Executive Director of TransitCenter, a national foundation aiming to improve urban transportation. She also founded and directed the Cities and Transportation Program under the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she investigated policies to mitigate climate change, and developed a project with Senator Bill Bradley and Secretary Tom Ridge to reform and fund the federal transportation program. Other efforts throughout her career include creating Safe Streets for Seniors and Play Streets programs in New York City and co-founding Planning Corps, an organization that matches urban planners with neighborhood-based projects.
Simply put, she aims to make people’s lives better. Learn more about Shin-pei’s accomplished background and what she sees as the future of the transit industry.
Talk a bit about your work with the Gehl Institute. What projects have you worked on recently?
The Gehl Institute was founded to change policy, governance, and even systems of practice so that we value all people in public spaces and that people can thrive. We define public life as the social interactions in public space, the everyday life we live in the public realm, and our civic life. Through our research, we connect that people-priority to broad issues such as public health, climate change, and social justice.
On the communications side, we will publish A Mayor’s Guide to Public Life to show there are patterns any mayor can apply to make public life possible for all people. We’ve interviewed many mayors on their public life projects and found that there are five distinct actions they took during the life of a project: invite people to participate, measure how well they’re doing, try small things as part of the bigger picture, improve as you learn, and formalize the changes so that public life is maintained for the long-run.
We’ve also been working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [the country’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, supporting research and programs targeting some of the most pressing health issues in America] to figure out how we can create a value proposition for health and equity in public spaces. We’re asking questions like: What do healthy and equitable public spaces look like? Who needs to be involved and what needs to be in place for communities to achieve them? We’re pulling this understanding together right now.
What are some trends that you see in the transportation industry?
The sharing economy and technology have made a huge difference. Whether or not it’s made things more sustainable…it depends. Land-use patterns have to change first. But there are some promising signs. We’re seeing more bike share and we also saw the passage of local transit tax measures in last year’s election, which speak to the demand of people wanting to move around their cities in a different way.
There’s huge buzz around automated vehicles, though I’m a little worried about cars replacing cars in places where space is a premium, or where it should be a premium. The more sustainable patterns of development balance out the car-to-people ratio. We’ve often designed cities so the majority of public space goes towards cars. It’s currently more of a 80/20 split cars-to-people. It needs to be more 50/50 and it can go further to 20/80 if you put public transit in the mix. New technology solutions make that easier. You don’t need to own a car to have all the options at your fingertips.
You serve as the City of New York Public Design Commissioner. What do you look for in permanent structures, parks, and art?
I care about how well the design supports people and view projects with several key questions: Have the designers considered how the community would perceive the physical change in the community? Does it reflect the purpose of the space? Will the design support those kinds of activities and are there any inhibitors? A design should be supportive of people and neighborhoods, regardless of its purpose. It should make people feel proud to have change in their neighborhood.
You also founded the City and Transportation Program under the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. What are some of that program’s accomplishments?
The program started when federal policy discussions on climate change was stalling in the U.S, though it was the biggest carbon emitter around the globe. Surface transportation is the fastest growing sector of carbon emission too. So we looked at how cities, instead of nations, could be effective actors, and implement local innovations and solutions that could make a difference.
Though the role was quite small within the organization, we were another voice that supported city collaboration, regionalism, and cooperation at the local level. Our work also influenced the guidance from the European Commission and for Chinese mayors on local sustainability, with a focus on small-scale improvements through walking, biking, and transit. The research we did helped national decision-makers prioritize less carbon-dependent transportation in cities.
Carnegie Endowment is an international organization that works at an international or national policy level. Putting cities in the middle of that context and giving them some global prominence was a really different program focus.
What would you say to cities that don’t invest in public life?
Public life is seen as a “nice to have” and not a priority. Every sector we care about – housing, public education, economic development – all depend on a just and thriving public life. Research shows that to achieve a thriving, healthy, and just society, it is important for people to have social connections and trust in their institutions just as much as public services are made available to them.
If a city is interested in any of the major challenges, invest in public life and incorporate it as a success criteria of any project.
Where’s your favorite place to bike around New York City?
Anything in the low-rise neighborhoods – Brooklyn, East Village, West Village. I like going up on the Hudson Greenway up to the George Washington Bridge. I’m not a risk-taker on my bike and NYC has done an incredible job in making it easy to bike. Outside of the U.S., Copenhagen is a fun place to bike around, you feel very dignified and valued when you’re on a bike.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.