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One-on-One with Aimee Custis of the Coalition for Smarter Growth

Name: Aimee Custis

Job: Deputy Director

Organization: Coalition for Smarter Growth

Aimee Custis

Aimee Custis


Age: 32

Alma Mater(s): Tulane University (BA Political Science/Architecture), 2007; American University (MPP), 2010

Home: I live in Dupont Circle, ~500 steps from the Metro station.

1. In terms of livability and mobility, DC has changed dramatically over the past decade. What are the three changes you like?

One of my favorite changes is the emergence of bikeshare—when I moved to DC, SmartBike (the predecessor to Capital Bikeshare) was getting underway, but CaBi itself really opened up so much more of the city to me, as someone living without a car. And in the past year, dockless bikeshare has opened things up even more—to me, and to people who never felt bicycling or Capital Bikeshare was for them. I especially love the e-assist JUMP bikes… so much so, that I’m thinking about buying a pedal-assist bike!

This one is definitely livability not mobility, but it’s still really relevant. The food scene in our region has really exploded in the past ten years. I can’t imagine DC having Michelin-starred restaurants when I moved here in 2008! I go to other cities now, and I’m often underwhelmed by their food scenes, because we’ve gotten so spoiled so fast in DC… not just fine dining, but also great fast casual (with some homegrown DC chains really knocking it out of the park) and everything in between. I try to eat healthy and eat at home as much as I can, but my busy schedule means eating out a few times a week, and in DC it’s always a pleasure.

Over the past ten years, I also think our collective consciousness about DC as a city has changed and matured a bit. Policy-wise, we’ve done a bunch of the low-hanging fruit (installing bike lanes where it’s easy, adopting Vision Zero and Sustainable DC, implemented inclusionary zoning) and it’s had a real impact on my day-to-day life. Now we’re on to much more politically-fraught changes (like taking away parking for bus-only or bike lanes), but even so, general consciousness of transportation and land use among residents is as high as I’ve ever seen it. When I talk to people at parties, they really “get it” how important things like a strong Metro system and bicycle infrastructure are to everyone’s day-to-day life.

2. And three changes you don’t like?

  • The decline of Metro service and reliability is the biggest one. But honestly, local residents have nobody to blame but ourselves—we as a region have neglected to take care of the system, and now we’re paying the price. It’s really painful, though, that transit-dependent people are the ones most hurt by this.
  • Because, on the flip side, the rise of TNCs (like Uber and Lyft) has been a boon to personal convenience, but at the cost of public attention to transportation options that actually make our cities cleaner, more livable, and more pleasant, like transit, bicycling, and walking. According to a recent study, something like over 50% of Uber/Lyft trips would NOT have otherwise been in a taxi or private vehicle… in other words, more than half of Uber/Lyft trips are putting people into cars. That’s more congestion on our roads and more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. It’s a real tragedy of the commons situation, in that as an individual it’s often the easiest choice (if you can afford it), but when everybody takes Uber/Lyft, it has real negative consequences for our cities.
  • Finally, just as our collective consciousness about DC has matured a bit, so have our problems. Affordability of housing is the biggest problem (in my opinion) on the horizon, not just in DC but many cities… and while it’s easy to think of transportation and housing as two totally different realms, in reality they’re so closely intertwined. If you can live close to the things you need, it cuts down on congestion, makes it easy to get where you’re going, and gives you back time in your life you’d have otherwise spent getting from A to B. We must, must, must turn our collective attention to finding solutions that allow everyone to have safe, affordable homes with reasonable access to the jobs, services, and other amenities that we need in our day-to-day lives.

3. What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

We just finished up a successful campaign to secure dedicated Metro funding… it’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever worked on. Locals love to hate how Metro service has declined over the past several years. The system definitely needs reforms, but without a long-term funding source, Metro hasn’t been able to plan for long-term preventative maintenance, so it’s really no surprise that things have declined. Imagine if you never did preventative maintenance on your car—never got the oil changed! Things would be pretty messed up after a while. While real changes need to be made, the system also needs enough consistent funding to fix the decay that decades of neglect have caused. As a region, we have nobody to blame but our elected officials (and by extension, ourselves) for letting things get as bad as they have. It’s going to take years of public pressure, reform, and repair to get Metro back to a world-class system.

4. Two recent bicyclist deaths on DC streets highlight the dangers of commuting in the DC area. What’s the most important step the transit community can take in mitigating these dangers?

We have to demand better-designed infrastructure. Most unsafe conditions can be mitigated by design. Paint is not enough—we need dedicated infrastructure for various modes, we need complete streets, we need curb separation where safety calls for it—not just when it’s easy for departments of transportation to build it. And while we keep up and amplify the drumbeat for better infrastructure, we also have to keep up political pressure for enforcement—whether that’s traffic enforcement, ticketing, red light cameras, whatever it takes.

5. How did you get involved in transit?

Cities have been important to me since I first moved to a city—New Orleans, in 2003, for college. I studied political science and architecture, and found (though I couldn’t have described it as such at the time) the urban fabric to really have an impact on my day-to-day life and happiness. I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and during the aftermath and rebuilding. That’s what got me interested in public policy, and environmental policy seemed a natural fit. When I moved to DC for grad school, I took an entry-level job at a transit-related non-profit because, I reasoned, it was environmentally-friendly. Within a few years, I’d gotten involved in the urbanism/smart growth community in DC, and the rest of my transit advocacy career is history!

6. Tell us about your commute. Metro, bus, walk, bike … or a mixture of everything? How long does it take you to get from door-to-door?

My commute really varies depending on the time of year, and what I have going on that day and after work. I live ~2 miles from my office, and it’s an almost-straight shot through DC from Dupont Circle to the Coalition for Smarter Growth offices just east of Union Station. My favorite way to get to work (and most consistent, recently), is to grab a JUMP e-assist bikeshare, and take the 15th St cycletrack down to Pennsylvania Avenue, then pedal up through the US Capitol grounds to the office (20 minutes).

Depending on how hot it is, sometimes I’ll grab a Capital Bikeshare bike instead (30 minutes)... and other days, I’ll hop on Metro and take the Red Line to Union Station (20-25 min). Finally, when the weather’s perfect, it’s almost exactly an hour to walk straight up Massachusetts Avenue, door-to-door. If I wake up early enough, or don’t have anything going on after work, I love the walk. It’s very zen and a great time to catch up on podcasts.

7. What are your three most essential pieces of commuting gear?

I’m pretty low-maintenance… I don’t own any specialty commuting gear. That said, my three biggest essentials are headphones (podcasts or music!), messenger bag (I almost always have either my laptop or camera with me), and my prescription sunglasses (days that I walk or bike).

8. We hear you’re also a wedding photographer. What are your top 2 transit-related venues to photograph?

Yes, I am! It’s been very fun over the past ~6 years to have photographed many people in the local transit-bicycling-urbanism community. One of my go-to favorite places to photograph couples in our region is Union Station. Both the inside and outside are so beautiful and iconic, and unlike so many places in DC, you don’t need a photography permit! My all-time favorite related photography adventures, though, was photographing a surprise-marriage-proposal-bike-ride-and-party for two members of the DC bike community. You really have to see their crazy-amazing celebration for yourself—there’s no way it won’t make you smile.

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