Staff Q&A / Brian Shaw

Brian Shaw, director of Penn Transit Services  Photo credit: Peter Tobia

Asking people to change the way they commute to work is a little bit like asking them to change their lives.

For plenty of people, it’s just not possible to make the shift to public transit, van pooling or other forms of commuting. But for others, it may be just a matter of finding what alternate mode of transit works best for them.

“There isn’t one way,” says Brian Shaw, the new director of Penn Transit Services. “You have to provide as many opportunities for people to change their commute behavior as possible so people will hopefully find one that works for them. You have to be multi-modal in this regard.”

At the University of Chicago and Emory University, Shaw did just that, successfully putting into place programs that encouraged car and van pools, biking, walking and riding public transit to campus.

A 1995 PennDesign graduate (with a Master in City Planning degree), Shaw believes strongly in sustainability, and in his new role, will head up Penn’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative, which has a goal of decreasing the number of employees driving to campus by providing information about alternative forms of transportation and facilitating access to a variety of other commuting options.

In this entire process, Shaw emphasizes the importance of hearing directly from commuters to better understand what’s going to work for them (take the Commuter Survey at “I know there are things I’ve done in different places that have worked, but every context is different,” Shaw explains. “I’m always open to people’s ideas or concerns because we might come up with something interesting and valuable.”

The Current recently sat down with Shaw to talk about the challenges of changing commuter behavior, Penn’s significant strides in alternative transit and why he doesn’t own a car.

Q. How do you change the mindset of car commuters and get them to make a fundamental shift to public transit, if available, car sharing or van pools? What’s your pitch?
You’re not going to get everybody. You just have to find what’s ultimately going to change people’s minds.
It’s a carrot-and-stick approach that I find works best. There are things that we’re not doing with car-share parking, with car-pool parking that I think would help give folks more reasons to start looking into the sharing opportunities. There are things we could be doing with incentivizing.
Parking is arguably the most effective way to change people’s commute behavior. When you have cheap, free, abundant parking, people will drive because it’s easy, because that last thing they have to do [parking] doesn’t cost them anything. But when the parking is inconvenient, they’ll figure something else out. The other thing that we’ve found with parking is the more frequently people have to pay for it, the less they want to do so. Providing people with monthly permits is giving them an unlimited parking buffet and you’re almost inducing them to drive because they want to get value out of their monthly permit. If they have to pay for it every day, every day they don’t drive, they save money.

Q. Penn has a Sustainability Transportation Initiative. What is that exactly?
With transportation, it’s to make it as easy for people to choose the [sustainable] options you’d rather have them use. That’s the way I look at it. I’d rather influence people’s travel behavior in a way that makes sense for them, and if it’s sustainable we’re going to take credit for that. What I find is most people aren’t going to change their minds because they want to help the environment. I wish that were true, but it’s not.
With the majority of folks, there are too many things going on in their lives outside of the University that make it difficult for them to use that environmental mindset to influence travel behavior—the kids are at soccer practice, a person is taking a class after work. You have to look at it also from the user’s perspective.
Penn has done a lot already and we’re going to build off of that—the Compass Program, having all the pre-tax systems for folks, the bus system and using alternative fuels are things I would want to do if they weren’t already being done.
It’d be great if everybody could take transit, but that’s just not realistic. There are people who just don’t live where it’s convenient or realistic for them to take it. But I’ve found van pools in particular can be done when someone lives at least 20 miles from campus.

Q. I have to ask—how do you get to work?
I’m a big public transit user. Depending on my mood, I take the bus, or the trolley or the subway. Where I live, I have many options. I’ve been a PhillyCarShare member for a little while and I use Zipcar.
I haven’t owned a car in a year-and-a-half. I just wasn’t using it and it was costing a lot of money to have this thing sitting around. ... Changing your commute behavior is one of the hardest things for people to do. It’s harder than [quitting] smoking. With that, there’s a health benefit, there’s an addiction part of it with the nicotine: You stop buying cigarettes, and you stop smoking. With your car, it’s a different story because so much of our lives in America are built around having this automobile to do things—go to the store, do stuff with your kids, go to work. To not have that, or to not do those things, is a fairly challenging thing for most people to do.
I grew up in Los Angeles where your car was your life and what you drove said as much about you as anything else. That’s a mindset that’s very difficult to get people to change.

Q. How did you go from being a Los Angeles car kid to not having a car?
I got sick of being stuck in traffic. With everything I ever needed to do, it was all about how long it was going to take to get there, and how we were going to get there and what time we had to leave. I left Los Angeles in 1993 and have not lived there since. I’ve chosen to live and work in places where I’m not [concerned with} my car all the time. I found that car sharing really gets you to think, ‘Do I need to have a car to do what I need to do today?’ I find that I really limit my need to use a car to certain types of circumstances—moving heavy things, going places that you just can’t get to on the transit system in a reasonable amount of time.

Q. For people who do have to drive, I understand Penn will be offering electric charging stations and preferred parking for hybrid vehicles in garages.
We hope that there’s eventually a group of people here in Philadelphia with electric cars that will be able to park them on our campus, and the idea on our campus is to have charging stations for [electric] CarShare cars.
We’re developing the signs for preferred parking for hybrids and electric cars and we hope to deploy those in at least the first quarter of next year. [Preferred parking] means close to the elevators or pedestrian access points, being near the exits.

Q. How much contact do you have with SEPTA and other transit agencies? It seems like what Penn does can have such a huge impact on the city and region.
Part of my role is to help be Penn’s transportation voice as well as its ear, to help bring about the knowledge and put it in a context for the University and take the issues the University has and put them in a context for the transportation world. I come from a transportation background, so I understand the acronyms, the funding, the issues, the timelines—all these sorts of things so I can help Penn understand when they’re talking about these issues, what it means to the University.
Getting involved in the transportation network and world here in Philadelphia is definitely something we’re working on and will be a part of.

Q. You’re also responsible for the Penn Ice Rink and Mail Services. How do you reconcile all of your different duties?
Each of those have their unique challenges and opportunities but in a broad sense, I look at those services as assets that the University needs to have managed as best we possibly can to, at a minimum, keep them cost-neutral and at best, turn some sort of financial positive position. That’s the mantra with those two operations, to provide a quality of service that Penn deserves and has come to expect and even do some things with those that are new and different and will be of value to the community.

Q. What do you enjoy about being back here at Penn?
Just being a part of a community that I have a valued stake in and knowing that they have a valued stake in me. Penn is an important place to me, an important part of my life, and to help Penn do what it wants to do and be a part of that—to me was the cherry on the sundae to come back here.

Originally published on December 2, 2010