Improving Public Transit Through An International Fellowship

Oct 24, 2013
Tony Mazzella, 2012 German Marshall Fund Urban and Regional Policy Fellow

At a time when some are questioning the cost and value of international study abroad, experienced fellows provide very clear and resonant examples of how international exchange and learning can improve the quality and effectiveness of public services that we use every day. Tony Mazzella, an American transportation expert and policy analyst, is using insights gained from his recent experience on the German Marshall Fund Urban and Regional Policy (URP) Fellowship to enhance the City of Seattle’s public transit system. The URP Fellowship is a competitive grant that provides mid-career professionals from the U.S. and Europe the opportunity to expand their professional expertise, networks, and ability to effectively solve local challenges through a focused, transatlantic learning experience. Applicants must be policymakers or practitioners in state or local government, leaders from the private sector, or representatives of non-profit and policy organizations and have at least 7-10 years of experience in their field. Typically visiting two to three cities during the fellowship period, American fellows can travel to any European country and European fellows can travel to any American state. Eager to learn more about this extraordinary opportunity, we asked Tony to provide his insights on the fellowship experience.

1. What inspired you to apply for the German Marshall Fund Fellowship?

I have been a transportation planner for over twenty years and have been with the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) since 1999. My most recent experience has been in the area of public transit planning. Specifically, I was the project manager for the development of the Seattle Transit Master Plan and now lead a planning team of SDOT staff and outside consultants in developing a new streetcar line for Downtown Seattle.

The Marshall Fund offers a range of grants and fellowships to both Americans and Europeans in order to foster collaborative relationships and knowledge-sharing between the United States and Europe. These opportunities include short-term (1-3 month) fellowships, geared to the working professional, in the areas of urban and regional policy and sustainable development. Within these broad fields transportation plays a significant role. Public transit, in particular, is key to a sustainable transportation system that efficiently and effectively meets travel demand and reduces motor vehicle usage.

Many European cities have excellent public transit systems which can serve as a model for Seattle as Seattle attempts to significantly upgrade its transit services and facilities. My research goal was to examine best practices from two European cities – Munich, Germany and Zurich, Switzerland – which are universally recognized as leaders in the field of public transit. Both cities offer riders a wide range of transit modes – subway (Munich), streetcar (or tram), commuter/regional rail, bus and, in Zurich, a ferry network – and a seamless ticketing and fare structure regardless of mode. In addition, both cities provide easy and timely transfers between modes and transit integration with bicycling and walking to significantly increase mobility choices. Such technical and program measures are built upon a strong foundation of policy and public education which connects planning, engineering and progressive environmentalism.

My particular objective was to learn how Munich and Zurich prioritize public transit in both the policy and technical realms to develop world-class systems which are the envy of the world. Priority measures include exclusive transit lanes and traffic signals that give priority to trains and buses at intersections to improve speed and reliability, significant capital investments in transit stations, high service frequencies and accurate and readily-available traveler information.

My research methods included reading the English-language professional literature, interviewing transportation/planning professionals and others in each city and experiencing their transit, bicycle and pedestrian systems as a knowledgeable use. Fortunately, English is very widely spoken among German and Swiss professionals and much of their written work has been translated into English.

My intention was to take back from Europe ideas, strategies and methods that could be employed by Seattle as the city further develops its transit system; and, to share my results widely with colleagues, decision-makers and members of the general public.

2. How has the fellowship experience influenced your current work?

The transit priority policies, technical measures and public education messaging strategies have exerted a profound influence on my current work as a transit planner. For example, as project manager for the planning of a new Downtown Seattle streetcar line I have advocated for inclusion of dedicated streetcar lanes and aggressive traffic signal priority along the entire line. These measures, if implemented, will help increase ridership and significantly improve streetcar travel times. In addition, I have worked to develop an operating plan that will provide 5-10 minute frequencies throughout most of the day and into the evening.

At the policy level I am now part of an intra-agency team that developing a series of strategic planning documents that will clearly and powerfully articulate the need to choose public transit as the preferred travel mode to meet the travel demands generated by new growth in jobs and households expected to occur in Seattle over the next 20 years. These policies will stress the relationship between excellence in public transit and Seattle’s goal of achieving compact, walkable and denser communities particularly in the city’s inner-core neighborhoods and other urban centers city-wide.

Finally, I am also working on an agency-wide communications plan and strategy that articulates the department’s commitment to a sustainable transportation system that emphasizes walking, biking and riding transit, efficient movement of goods and services and reduces private auto trips.

3. What tips would you provide others applying to the German Marshall Fund URP Fellowship?

Given the extremely competitive nature of the URP Fellowship and the large number of applications dealing with transportation, I chose a research topic – public transit priority – that was relatively precise and focused and yet applicable to transportation/transit planners across the US. I also knew that my topic was one of continuing relevance to my German and Swiss counterparts.

My choice of Munich and Zurich was based on these cities being models of excellence in public transit, non-motorized transportation, sustainable development and environmental progressiveness. Professionals in both cities were largely fluent in English so interviews went smoothly as I had little familiarity with German; and, they had published widely in English which facilitated my pre-trip research.

Surprisingly, establishing contacts in Munich and Zurich was much less of a challenge than I had anticipated. Essentially, I built upon several contacts I was provided with by Seattle colleagues and reached out to the authors of professional articles I found on-line. In addition, the Marshall Fund provided possible contacts from previous fellowships in Munich (as there had been none prior in Zurich). People’s responses were extremely gracious and to a person they agreed to meet with me even though my actual trip was months away. Several initial contact persons suggested others to meet with in their respective cities. Eventually, I had over 20 appointments scheduled in all. And with only one exception, I was able to meet with everyone.

The selection process included:

  • Brief application which stressed the feasibility of the achieving one’s research objectives and the use of the knowledge gained in the applicant’s actual job upon their return to the US
  • Brief interview by a selection panel of three Americans and three Europeans based in Washington DC (for me, a phone interview)
  • Two letters of recommendation

Once selected, the Marshall Fund staff worked with me to finalize my schedule of interviews and arrange the transfer of the grant funds to cover my expenses.

While abroad, I wrote six blog posts that described some of my experiences in real time. Upon my return to the US I worked with the Marshall Fund staff over several months to author a policy brief describing my experiences, what I discovered in the course of my research, lessons learned and conclusions. I also participated in a webinar with another 2013 fellow and a conference call with 2014 fellows to answer their questions and offer advice.

Originally from New York City, Tony Mazzella earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work and Social Policy from the Hunter College School of Social Work. Following his decision to change careers, he earned a Master’s in Urban Design and Planning from the University of Washington, Seattle. Tony’s first professional job in transportation planning was with the City of Kirkland, WA where he managed Kirkland’s first neighborhood traffic calming program. In 1999, he joined the Seattle Department of Transportation where he has managed variety of projects from neighborhood-based small capital projects to comprehensive and long-term sub-area and modal plans, including the 2012 Seattle Transit Master Plan. Most recently, he is leading a planning team to analyze streetcar alternatives for Downtown Seattle.

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved