Benjamin de la Peña

Fellow, Urban Mobility

Benjie is an urban nerd and a transportation geek. His sweet spot is anticipating, planning, and managing systems change while keeping equity and justice front and center. He believes the emerging transportation technologies should serve as critical leverage points for correcting societal wrongs and dismantling racism and injustice.

He chairs the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation and serves on the US Advisory Group of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He also founded the boutique consulting firm Agile City Partners.

Benjie served as Chief of Strategy and Innovation for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) where he led the development of ground-breaking and nationally recognized technology and mobility strategies such as Seattle’s New Mobility Playbook and the draft Transportation Information Infrastructure Plan. He initiated lean transformation and also introduced agile methodologies at SDOT.

Benjie writes and curates Makeshift Mobility, a fortnightly newsletter on innovations in informal transportation. He serves on the boards of Project for Public Spaces, Gehl Institute, and was an advisor to the Roddenberry Prize.

Biggest urban challenges and priorities

CUI’s Mary W. Rowe sat down with Benjamin, to ask him about our biggest urban challenges. Here’s what Benjamin had to say.

Infrastructure and relationships

Susan Leigh Starr, the late professor from Berkley said, “The question that matters is not what is infrastructure, but rather when is infrastructure?” Infrastructure can further relationships, harden them, amplify power relationships and/or create new relationships. When does anything facilitate better connections and better relationships? We need to look at our existing infrastructure and the relationships it fosters including those that are counterproductive (climate, equity) and start to shift them. We still build infrastructure that continues to segregate and drive us to individualism—especially in North American suburbs, even though cities were meant to bring people together.

The pandemic showed us that it doesn’t have to be business as usual—we can use our pavements and sidewalks differently. So, what do the next ten years look like? We have a lot of work to do to decarbonize our transportation systems and address equity.

Data and permissions

We have to make data informed decisions. However, the data isn’t monolithic. We’ve hoovered up everything, and that’s giving us too much information. Planners don’t need individual movements, we need big trends.

For example, can we use data from more bike and scooter counters on the street rather than just asking for the more-easily available but more privacy invasive individual route data from bike and scooter shares?

Two things we fail to clarify when we talk about data are:

  • What is the exact use case of the data you’re looking for?
  • What’s the least invasive, most privacy respecting way to get that data?

What is the legal context for information? The problem we have with information is we don’t care or aren’t asking, where was that permission given to get that data? Technology vendors assume that because we gave them permission to pull our data, that they can continue to sell that data, even if we haven’t provided that permission. (Sean McDonald on Our (Mis)represented Digital Rights and Salome Viljoen’s Democratic Data: A Relational Theory For Data Governance)

We need to start being more thoughtful about data by asking what are the values that guide it and what are the goals? Otherwise, we end up treating it like a tool and use it whenever we want, without understanding what we are trying to accomplish. We also need to develop the skillset and management of information and technology, so it becomes an asset and a resource as opposed to just a tool. Over a decade ago, Clive Humby said “data is the new oil.” What’s important isn’t the data that you get, but the data exhaust because you can learn a lot from it. Similar to the threat of fossil fuels on climate change, we are starting to come to terms with the threat of data used in the wrong ways or for the wrong reasons.

Nurturing public life

Instead of looking at how many consultation processes were led, we should be asking ourselves, how many current, vibrant conversations are we nurturing and what are they producing? If nurturing public life was a government remit, what would we do? What would physical spaces and social interactions look like? We can build the social infrastructure needed to have better and more meaningful conversations, that will allow us to get the feedback on important issues like the usage of our personal data, but we haven’t figured out yet how to foster those on-going conversations