What office are you seeking?
State Senator in the First Senatorial District
I am an Indian, American-born. My parents came from South India: my mother from the city of Bangalore, my father from a village some 70 miles west. They owned a pizza restaurant during my entire childhood and teenage years, staffed by immigrants from El Salvador, for whom they were able to secure documentation and status. From them, and my experience in that kitchen, I learned the importance of solidarity among peoples.
I am a journalist. I write frequently for the New York Times, and until I decided to run for office, I was the contributing writer to the New Yorker on architecture, cities, and design. I co-edited a magazine, n+1, from 2012 until 2019. I am the author of a book, Cubed, about the history of office work, the architecture of office space, and the development of offices in cities.
I am a labor and community organizer. I was a volunteer organizer with UNITE HERE, the union of hospitality workers, from 2009 to 2013. In 2013, I was a leader in the successful movement to restore jobs lost when the Governor cut $1 billion from our state education budget. In 2016 I was a leader in the Bernie Sanders campaign in South Philadelphia, and along with other volunteers and staffers I co-founded Reclaim Philadelphia. In 2018, I organized campaigns to fight for change in the Democratic Party and became elected as ward leader of the Second Ward, the first Asian American to hold such a position in Philadelphia. If elected, I would be the first South Asian elected to state office in Pennsylvania. I am running on a platform that focuses our housing and planning policies in the service of a Green New Deal for the state.
Some of Philadelphia’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians and cyclists based on injury statistics are PennDOT-owned arterials, many of which are major downtown streets and commercial corridors running through densely-populated parts of Philadelphia. So far, PennDOT has been indifferent to calls from safety advocates for the kinds of engineering changes to these roads that would calm traffic. Would you use your position to support advocates' calls for safer urban arterials? What types of legislative and policy changes are needed to correct this problem at PennDOT? (https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/philadelphia-traffic-fatalities-penndot-20190208.html)
Yes. PennDOT’s location in King of Prussia epitomizes perfectly the agency’s attitude toward Philadelphia. The expenditure on highways should be stopped immediately: I am calling for a 10-year moratorium on highway expansion, to aid our transit, planning and climate goals. I believe that consolidation among city agencies, none of which truly addresses transit, safety, and walkability issues at once (or we should expand OTIS, which is severely understaffed), and the relocation of PennDOT’s Philadelphia office to Center City, would begin to shift the culture in the agency. (In an ideal scenario, Philadelphia would have a PhilaDOT.)
Pennsylvania recently passed legislation enabling automated speed enforcement on Roosevelt Blvd and highway work zones. Do you support the expansion of automated speed enforcement cameras to School Zones and on other High Injury Network streets throughout Philadelphia? (https://whyy.org/articles/roosevelt-boulevard-speed-cameras-represent-rare-bipartisan-win/)
Speed enforcement cameras are a necessary component of a broader Vision Zero policy. If the city is committed to it, we ought to be able to ensure that traffic safety is being enforced through means that have been proven to reduce incidents, injury and deaths throughout the country. This will again enhance our ability to pursue other goals: expansion of multimodal transit opportunities, etc.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. that bans local law enforcement from using radar for vehicle speed enforcement. Do you support lifting this ban? (https://www.pennlive.com/news/2019/06/is-2019-the-year-local-cops-in-pa-will-get-radar.html)
As with the answer above, enhancing traffic safety augments our ability to pursue other transit infrastructure goals, by rebalancing our priorities away from cars toward public transportation, pedestrian-friendly streets, and bicycle infrastructure.
Do you support state enabling legislation to allow Philadelphia and other cities to use cameras for congestion-related enforcement? Areas that should be enforced by camera include bus zones, travel lanes, corner clearances, crosswalks, delivery zones, and non-curb pickups and drop-offs by ride-hailing drivers. Currently, the law allows for enforcement only upon the observation of an officer. Cameras allow a more cost-efficient alternative and are less subject to human and systemic biases. (https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/traffic-congestion-philadelphia-parking-tickets-ppa-20191211.html)
Act 89 transportation funds have historically been diverted to pay the state police budget, reducing the funds available to pay for public transit and road projects. What is the best way to safeguard this revenue to ensure that Commonwealth residents see all the transportation improvements they were promised when state lawmakers raised the gas tax? (https://www.penncapital-star.com/government-politics/can-you-pay-for-infrastructure-repairs-without-raising-state-taxes-in-new-plan-house-gop-says-yes/)
I support Gov. Wolf's call for a fee on municipalities that only use state police. I also again believe that we must institute a moratorium on highway expansion, in order to direct our priorities more forcefully toward safety, equity, transit expansion, and multimodal transportation options more generally, in our public realm.
What are some of your own ideas for enhancing mobility and improving road safety in your district and Philadelphia more broadly?
I believe we need structural changes immediately in the sorts of goals related to traffic safety that PennDOT pursues. In particular: we should establish clear, realistic benchmarks to increase the percentage of our of commutes by public transit and an additional percentage by bike (or other non-car transit) by 2030. We should constantly be identifying areas in need of improved transit access and identify high-risk intersections. We should require new developments of ten or more units to plan for ride-hailing and deliveries that do not block the right-of-way of sidewalks or bicycle lanes. All PennDOT capital spending projects should have the requirement of increasing traffic safety or transit equity. I would also follow Washington DC in creating a Citizen Traffic Safety Enforcement Pilot program to test training and empowering citizens to enforce parking laws in crosswalks, bicycle lanes, fire lanes, and bus stops, and I would place fines on contractors who do not restore crosswalks and bicycle lanes within 24 hours of completing work.
Act 44, which transfers $450 million a year from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to public transit agencies, is set to expire in 2022. What is your plan to safeguard and expand the state revenue dedicated to public transit after this law expires? (https://wskg.org/news/pa-turnpike-escapes-catastrophic-lawsuit-but-remains-heavily-in-debt/)
To make up for structural shortfall in transit funding, but only in part, I believe we should pass a surcharge on ride-hailing and toll I-80. In addition to this, however, we may need to consider something more ambitious, such as a regional tax sharing initiative. Essentially following the model of Minnesota, this would involve taking a portion of the local tax base and putting it into a regional fund, which is then redistributed back to our area based on some criteria other than our contributions to the pool. For example, we could create a regional tax fund for transit (the tax could be some version of a tax on capital), and we could accordingly reduce the commuter wage tax to encourage collar county buy-in to the fund.
Do you support dedicated transit lanes and legislation enabling “Automated Transit Lane Enforcement” cameras mounted on transit vehicles and on roadsides to deter other vehicles from using these lanes? (https://mobilitylab.org/2018/09/17/automated-bus-lane-enforcement-is-more-effective-than-police-among-other-findings/)
This is an excellent proposal, and furthers our broader goals of moving away from intense policing toward a culture or normative idea of supporting transit within cities.
Do you support state enabling legislation for congestion pricing, permitting municipalities and regions to institute tolls on automobiles entering into the most congested areas, and using the funds for improvements to transit, and for infrastructure for walking and bicycling? (https://www.inquirer.com/transportation/congestion-pricing-new-york-philadelphia-traffic-20190402.html)
In addition to congestion pricing, we should consider following New York City in instituting a cap on the number of vehicles accorded to Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) in cities. It is a planning and transit mistake to allow an unregulated number of idling and roaming cars to catch rides, and it increases the need for enforcement when these cars block bike lanes, curb cuts, and the like (which they do frequently). I support transit consultant Bruce Schaller's analysis of the need for a cap on TNCs combined with congestion pricing, which led to the particular policy proposal adopted in NYC.
SEPTA has the capability to expand its rapid transit service by simply running its commuter rail lines more frequently and integrating its fares with subways and buses. But to do so, the agency will need to prioritize certain capital improvements and implement some operational reforms. Do you support such an expansion for our city's train service? (https://whyy.org/articles/analysis-how-septa-can-turn-regional-rail-in-philly-into-high-frequency-rapid-transit/)
As a legislator, how would you use the power of your office to advance those changes, instead of retaining the current structure which caters more to professional-class suburban commuters?
State legislators have enormous discretion over eliminating barriers and unevenness among fee structures and the like. For example, Assemblyman David Chiu in California—as it happens, my former district Supervisor, when I lived in San Francisco—is currently advancing a bill (AB2057) that would break down barriers among transit systems in the Bay Area, one of the more complex transit regions in the country. Chiu's bill would establish a single bus fare, uniform transfer and discount policies for all bus systems, a single Bay Area transit map, and would standardize apps and develop real-time transit information delivery to passengers. It would also seek to create a taskforce charged with integrating fares and schedules across all systems as well as coordinating spending and project development. We need something on this order to advance proposals such as Alon Levy's, which I believe are the right way to go for SEPTA.
What are some of your own ideas for solutions to improve the quality (frequency, speed, and accessibility) of transit service in your district and Philadelphia more broadly?
I believe we should have dedicated bus lanes, and experiment with bus rapid transit, in areas throughout the district. There should not, for example, be car traffic on the critical bus route that goes through Chestnut Street across Philadelphia: currently one of the most clogged routes in the city. I also support both door boarding for SEPTA, eliminating transfer fees, eliminating all fares for people under the ages of 18 and for those with low-incomes. I believe we should drop fees to $1 a ride and explore a pathway to free service, dependent on funding (SEPTA currently relies disproportionately, in comparison to other transit systems, on fares and fees). In addition to the egalitarian effect of free service, there is the added benefit of losing the administrative and technical difficulties of transit card passes, and the delay in boarding. We should also be moving aggressively to electrify our bus fleet, following the successful roll-out of the 29 and 79.
California’s legislature recently introduced a pro-housing bill SB 50, which would preempt local zoning restrictions on dense housing construction near high-quality transit, and in high-opportunity areas with large concentrations of jobs or in-demand school districts. Similar bills have also been introduced by progressive lawmakers in Oregon, Washington, Maryland, and Virginia to preempt local exclusionary zoning policies like apartment bans, parking quotas, and minimum lot size rules from the state level. Do you support amending Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code to preempt local exclusionary zoning policies in this way, with the goal of allowing transit-oriented housing near state-funded transit and commuter rail stations? (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/sb50-california/604786/)
I support increasing the density of housing near transit, which is an important mechanism for fostering low-carbon lifestyles where employment, goods, and services are all easily accessible without reliance on private automobiles. In the long run, new housing production can help to ensure that wealthier households do not out-bid lower-income residents for units within an overconstrained housing supply. However, this strategy should not be employed in isolation. Even if new transit-oriented development may be broadly beneficial in the long run, it can act as a market signal, triggering increases in land prices and rents and destabilizing adjacent neighborhoods in the short run. As such, as is proposed in Maryland, any legislation of this type must be paired with significant protections for renters, so that existing residents are not displaced and do not lose access to high quality public transit. Further, since these upzonings would result in a windfall for land owners, they should be predicated on strong mandates for the inclusion of new affordable housing units, services, and employment opportunities oriented to serve the existing population.
The century-old Separations Act requires multiple bids for all different parts of public construction projects in Pennsylvania, which some state officials believe makes public works projects unnecessarily expensive and inefficient, and precluding Design-Build firms from bidding on public construction projects. Will you support and advocate for repeal of the Separations Act? (https://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/03/07/oped-s-time-repeal-separations-act-pa/98857412/)
Governor Tom Wolf has announced his intentions for Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a regional cap and trade program that could push PA to cut emissions more aggressively, while generating revenue for public transit, clean energy, and other priorities. Joining RGGI would likely require an act of the state legislature, and different interest groups within the Democratic Party have taken different positions on this, with some building trades unions on one side and environmental groups on the other. If elected, would you support legislation to join RGGI?(https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2019/10/03/gov-wolf-pennsylvania-regional-greenhouse-gas-initiative/)
RGGI is a limited initiative that I support, but whose effects will not fundamentally change the coordinates of the climate crisis to the degree that we need. My Green New Deal for Pennsylvania will set swift and responsible targets, including eliminating coal-generated electricity by 2025, and achieving 100% clean electricity by 2030, in part by aggressively increasing the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards. We should change the building code to ensure buildings are fossil-free and efficient, including eliminating the use of natural gas in new construction. Improving SEPTA service and enabling access will require hiring more drivers and operators, and the purchase of more vehicles—putting more union drivers to work and providing more Philadelphians with a reliable, low-carbon option for their commute. We must also electrify SEPTA buses, following successful rollouts on the 29 and 79 buses. There is also much room for coordination between the state and city on the intersection of congestion and transit. On housing, I propose financing green upgrades to eliminate fossil fuels and increase energy efficiency.
Tell us more about what you bring to the table as an ally for urbanist politics in Harrisburg. What makes you the right person to advance the urbanist movement’s goals politically or substantively at the state level? How would you build support for pro-urbanist policies among your colleagues from outside our region?
I am a longtime journalist on issues related to urbanism, and my book as well as my work for the Times and my work as a columnist for the New Yorker has made me literate on the issues related to transit, planning, and issues of design more generally, and I am in touch with transit consultants, housing experts, and the like, across the country. If elected, I believe I would be the most housing- and planning-minded candidate in Harrisburg. I have traveled extensively for my work, giving me experience of urban landscapes in the global south as well as the north, and I have seen what works and what does not work in cities around the world. As an organizer in the ward system, I have been able to build relationships among seemingly hostile sections of the city. I have often broken with the consensus among party officials—for example, to support Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O'Rourke for city council—so I am also unafraid to advance progressive ideas in a context that is seemingly forbidding to them. A representative from our district should represent the most advanced, considered and thoughtful policies on housing, transit, and planning, and should be working with groups like 5th Square to do so. It is one of the primary reasons I am running, and I will be excited to advance visionary legislation on these issues, as well as use my position as a pulpit to speak about them, as a legislator in Harrisburg.