Business

Q&A w/ Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra

JT chats with mobility expert Ashwini Chhabra.

John Thomey
John Thomey
Nov 5, 2020
Q&A w/ Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR

Hi friends 🙌 - welcome back to Urban Tech and a big welcome to our newest subscribers. The community of folks who are interested in the intersection of cities and tech continues to grow 📈.

Subscribe now

Personally, working on this edition was my needed distraction during election stress.

Thanks for giving me a reason to tune out the election this week 🙏.

It was therapeutic working on Urban Tech and focusing on one of my favorite things in the world: cities. If you're like me, you find Federal politics immensely frustrating simply because it's much harder to get things done compared to local and state politics.

When I worked in local and state politics in NY, this was one of my biggest learnings. Many of the best public servants I've ever worked with are lifelong local government pros or spent their careers focused on local issues.

This week's Urban Tech features the first part of my conversation with Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra — someone I've had on my interview wishlist for some time.

Share

Ashwini is an expert on mobility policy and has worked on the frontlines of innovation in the space. I wanted to speak with him for an Urban Tech Q&A because I think he is an excellent example of someone from urban policy impacting how tech companies operate.

While a lot of my focus for UT, is on how tech impacts cities, folks like Awshini are a great example of how cities are increasingly impacting Silicon Valley. 

Last week, The Information's Cory Weinberg profiled Airbnb's Chris Lehane, who leads the company's policy and communications functions. Give it a read if you have a subscription to The Information. Cory does a fantastic job outlining why Lehane is so influential within Airbnb.

He is now the longest-serving member on the executive team apart from Chesky and his two co-founders, and arguably, after Chesky, the most influential. He has continued to play a central role as Airbnb grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, which did severe damage to the business this spring and is casting a shadow over the company as it heads toward an initial public offering later this fall.

Before diving in, a few notes:

  • After the Q/A, I preview a new Urban Tech product: community resources and databases. I’ll explain what that means and why below.
  • Two companies I’ve covered for Urban Tech had monster week’s last week: Custom housing startup Atmos raised additional funding ($4M at a $25M valuation) with interesting investors, including a few TikTok stars
  • I connected with the Atmos team (who I love) initially in August for a piece on construction’s trillion-dollar productivity problem (give it a read).
  • One of my favorite writers on urban topics, NYT’s Economics Reporter Conor Dougherty, profiled post-car real estate developer Culdesac.
  • As he often does in his pieces, Conor did a fantastic job weaving in historical and regional context to explain why Culdesac’s vision is so interesting and bold.
  • I sat with Culdesac Tempe’s GM Lava Sunder for Urban Tech’s last Q&A [Part 1; Part 2].

Okay, let’s dive into the conversation with Ashwini.

A Long Thing: Q&A w/ Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra Pt. 1

After working at Uber and in the NYC taxi industry for almost a decade, Ashwini Chhabra is on a mission to get people out of cars. His firm -- Electric Avenue -- which launched this Summer, is focused on helping bring new mobility modes like e-bikes and e-scooters to your city.

In the short time they’ve been around, they’ve helped companies like Voi Scooters land the lion’s share of exclusive RFPs in the UK, helped LINK scooters land Seattle and helped Revel mopeds get back on the road in New York after a summer of tragic headlines.

Ashwini believes cities should be designed for people, not their cars. He believes innovation isn’t the exclusive domain of the private sector, and that mass transit has to be the backbone of any sustainable urban mobility system. He believes geographic mobility has a direct bearing on economic mobility, and that the transportation policies we embrace reflect the society we want to create. Most of all, he believes one day our kids will play in the street again.

Editor Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length. We spoke the week before the election, so there are several references to unknown outcomes at the time like California’s Prop. 22.

For readers less in the weeds of transportation, micromobility refers to the trend of light-weight shared electric vehicles like Scooters.

JT: Your background is super interesting and reflects some trends that I'm seeing across urban tech companies. 

I'd love it if you started with how you went from law school, to the Bloomberg administration, and now you work with mobility companies; how’d you get into this space?

AC: It's kind of a roundabout path to where I am. I honestly never would have pegged when I was in law school that I would go into government or go into any particular government field, like transportation or mobility. Some of it is just making unique life choices and being in the right place at the right time.

I started out practicing law, doing M&A work. If you ask anyone who's been a lawyer, consultant or an investment banker, it's great training. You really learn to pay attention to detail. You also learn to write clearly and precisely. But for me it wasn't very satisfying. At the end of the day, it didn't feel like I was creating anything sort of solid or lasting. Then there was this opportunity in the Bloomberg administration, in the Department of Education in particular, and working with Joel Klein was the chance to learn. It was very appealing to me. 

I saw something in the NY Times about how there were former McKinsey consultants, lawyers, ex-bankers who worked on the campaign and ended up staying on. It was this idea that you could be a professional, be relatively new in your career, and you could have an impact somewhere.

So I went in and did Policy work primarily focused on charter schools. As my first foray into government, I got to work with some really great managers. That's really something that

Bloomberg did really well. He surrounded himself with top-notch managers. I alternatively had Joel Klein as a boss and had Dan Doctoroff as a boss, and they were both great experiences. 

My perspective on government changed from that experience. I previously thought of the government as this passive entity and the most you expect of it is that it shouldn't mess things up. From working in the Bloomberg administration, I came to see it as an active entity that can significantly improve daily life for people. If you've got the right leadership, government can be a really powerful tool.

I think you're seeing a great contrast right now between the Federal response to the Pandemic, compared to Governor Cuomo, here in New York. Those are such stark contrasts that highlight the value of competence in government. It's also pretty scarce, and so when you find it, like I did with the Bloomberg administration, it's a great catalyst for a lifelong love of public service.

JT: A lot of the themes you’re talking about are things that come up often when I research Bloomberg’s administration or talk to folks who worked in it. 

At my first job out of college, besides working on some political stuff, my other main focus right when I started was doing PR for Dan Doctoroff’s book. A huge focus of that book is the innovative approach and style Bloomberg brought to running NYC.

Many alumni from the Bloomberg administration are now also a lot of the leaders at urban tech companies and the companies I cover. I’d love it if you could share a bit more on why Bloomberg’s approach as mayor was unique? What aspects of the administration stuck out to you as a different perspective for running government?

AC: Not to fall back on ‘it was a very unique administration and it was the business talent’ because that wasn't all of it. You see great examples of public sector leadership in many cities and they come from a variety of backgrounds. 

I think it really was the posture in how you approach an issue. I never felt like anything that I was working on, there wasn't someone in the administration saying, “That’s great, but why aren't we doing more? Why aren't we moving faster?” And so that sense of not only has someone got my back if I want to do something new and innovative here, but it might actually be viewed as not enough. And so when that's the overarching ethos, I think you get a lot done.

And, you know, this was part of the uniqueness of the Bloomberg administration. You weren't part of the traditional Democratic machine. There wasn't this expectation that Bloomberg would even be the mayor. And so here's a group of folks who thought they would never be in public service and probably thought, “Well, we'll do this for four years and then someone else will come take over.” And so they worked with the approach of let's get as much as we can done in four years. And then they got eight years and they got 12 years.

Working at that frenetic pace for three terms meant you can achieve a lot. The perspective people brought to the job was very much driven by where they had come from and the work ethic that they had. To all us folks who came over from law firms or consulting, Joel Klein would say, it's not public service if you take the pay cut, but then you work half as hard. That's not public service. Public service is taking that pay cut and working just as many hours as you would have at your law firm or consulting firm. That's really something that stuck with me. I think that's an attitude that was embraced by people across the Administration. 

Share Urban Tech

JT: Super interesting. A big focus in media or political circles is how former staffers and aids are now leading tech’s policy and comms shops across sectors. These people are having a big impact on how these companies operate. They certainly play a significant role at the companies I cover for Urban Tech. 

Your Bloomberg experience is kind of the foil to that. It’s a great example of the private sector crossing over to the government side to make an impact. So you were in the Bloomberg administration and your next stop was Uber? 

AC: In the Bloomberg Administration, I worked in Education then worked in Transportation. I found myself at the Taxi Commission in 2010 when Uber came to town. So, I originally started working on shared transportation issues from the perspective of a regulator. 

The attitude of the Administration was simple: this is innovation. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to get a car through an app on your phone in the same way that you can, by using that same phone to call your local car service.

So, how do we foster that kind of innovation in New York? A lot of what you saw in other cities was ‘we don't want this here. This doesn't conform with the rules we have or our approach.’ From our perspective, this more or less looked like the system we had in place. It feels a little different, but why would we want to deny consumers the choice of a service like this? And if something better comes along, great. At the end of the day, though competition from these innovators has been very challenging in some ways for the traditional providers, it's had a very positive effect on the level of service provided by the broader taxi and car service industries.

For example, I took a taxi today. I paid for the ride through an app. I got out at the end and I didn't have to fumble with cash or a credit card. At the time when Uber came, it was this approach of recognizing innovation and fostering it. And then making sure that there's proper regulations and constraints in place. You need to make rules so you're not taking advantage of workers. Rules that guarantee there's transparency on pricing and that necessarily safeguards are in place to make sure that the drivers are safe in their roles in the new system/process.

But the idea of Uber or ridesharing itself, or new approaches generally, isn't one that we should be allergic to. That was my posture on ridesharing, so it was sort of a natural segue from that to evangelizing for ridesharing on the other side of the table.

I came on board at Uber in 2014 and my portfolio was Global Policy Development, which was fun. It was sort of taking this example of here’s what we did in New York -- here's how we've approached this new model there. Now, here's how Singapore should think about the model. Here's how Mexico City or London should be thinking about it. 

Then half-way through my tenure there, Uber acquired the Carnegie Mellon Robotics team, which has become the Advanced Technologies Group that does the self-driving work. After that, I shifted my focus to advocating for self-driving car technology and testing. 

That was interesting because for ridesharing you're talking to local and state regulators. All of a sudden I was talking to national regulators and to a more technically-knowledgeable group of officials who are just much deeper into the hard tech underpinning self-driving technology. 

For me, it was great because that was a whole new learning curve. I had to learn about the underlying tech in order to better explain it and to talk about it.

Fast forward just a few years, and the landscape has really changed on self-driving. There's a different set of lead players, but I can see a lot of the seeds that we planted bearing fruit.

And then in 2018 scooters became a thing and I landed at Bird. This struck me as a continuation of some of the same conversations, but around a cleaner and smaller form factor. There are none of the labor issues that have bogged down ridesharing, and I think the potential is even greater.

The team that I had built at Uber was the Policy Development team. This is kind of like an in-house think tank for the company. It included economists, city planners, sustainability experts, and GIS or mapping experts. At the end of the day, it's all about storytelling because you're explaining to a government audience (and sometimes a consumer audience) what this service can do for their cities. 

We used data and visuals to explain that. In fact, one of the first visuals that we produced showed Uber’s service area in Chicago mapped against the taxi industry’s coverage areas. It was a simple but powerful map that demonstrated that Uber serves parts of the city that taxis won't go to. It painted a very different picture for regulators and policymakers than what they had been hearing from the taxi industry.

It really turned me on to how you can use data to get your point across for advocacy. I think this is something that Uber, Airbnb, Lyft have really excelled at. I think tech and mobility companies that have come in their wake, have learned that lesson as well. 

JT: That’s a great segway into what you do now at Electric Avenue.

AC: Post-Bird, a couple of my colleagues and myself started Electric Avenue and we are a Public Affairs and Policy Development shop, that in effect does what theCentral Policy team does at Uber or what we did at Bird.

But we're doing it for a host of companies that don't necessarily need to have, or can’t afford to have, that Policy function in-house. This idea of a deep bench of subject matter experts - you're better off tapping outside expertise for that. And so that was the conceit behind Electric Avenue.

We're working with a range of clients to help them tell their story. In the micromobility space, we're working with Voi Scooters, based out of Sweden, helping them in the UK and in New York City. We’ve helped them win quite a few exclusive contracts. In fact, they've got the lion's share of the UK market at this point. We also advise Superpedestrian -- they developed the Copenhagen wheel -- and we helped them launch LINK Scooters, and helped them win the Seattle RFP.

We’re working with Swiftmile, which is a charging dock company. So still in that micromobility ecosystem. 

We also worked with Revel mopeds. They had issues around safety in New York over the summer and we helped them think through the fixes so they could come back online with better safety protocols.

Those are the kinds of companies that don't necessarily have the need or the resources to bring on a full-time, in-house Policy Development team. I don't think there's many other firms, or maybe any, that specialize in mobility-focused policy development the way we do. A lot of firms will do government relations work, lobbying, or PR. But there isn't necessarily the subject matter expertise or the research skills that we can bring. 

Share

JT: As someone who worked in politics and comms, this context on tech companies' policy initiatives is something I've always been interested in. 

It's one reason I thought you'd be such a great Q&A guest to help readers understand what the policy teams do in a company like Uber or Bird.

What about the mobility space has kept you interested? The innovation characteristics seem super attractive to someone interested in tech and policy, but what draws you to it personally?

AC: I think a lot of startups have focused on mobility and that's where you're seeing a lot of the innovation coming out of the tech sector. I think naturally it’s a space that is going to attract a lot of strong talent. For me personally, I think it's more than that. It’s also the impact. If you can solve mobility hurdles, you solve a lot of the challenges that cities face.

What you can achieve once you've unlocked mobility is momentous. Studies demonstrate that access to mobility -- which gives you access to jobs, to schooling and so forth -- is the number one factor in the ability to escape from poverty, even more so than test scores or crime. If you think about it in those terms, providing mobility solutions to people who don't have access iss huge. 

Now, that's certainly not why these companies came about. These companies came about because of the idea of being a baller and getting a black car to pick you up, of touching a button to get a ride.

But it turns out once the technology's there, it unleashes this other potential that the founders had no idea of, and probably had no interest in. I take the technology at its face. The potential of this technology Is something that far exceeds what the original intent was. And that potential is what’s kept me engaged.

So if you then segue from rideshare to micromobility, in effect it's like putting a car into a wind tunnel and stripping away anything that's superfluous. You don't need four empty seats if you're traveling alone. You don't need a trunk if you're not carrying anything. And all that's really left at the end of that process is a platform to stand on, two wheels and an electric motor.

+++

That’s all for the first part of my conversation with Ashwini. The second part will run in next week’s edition.

In the meantime, check out some of Ashwini’s work on Electric Avenue’s website. For readers who love the transportation policy weeds, Ashwini was recently a guest on the SAE Tomorrow Today podcast, where he talked about how New York City can emerge even stronger from COVID with the right leadership and policy decisions around how we prioritize public space. 

It’s a fantastic listen for anyone interested in learning more about making streets safer and returning urban space to people instead of cars. 

Share Urban Tech

Talk soon,

JT ✌️

Hi friends 🙌 - welcome back to Urban Tech and a big welcome to our newest subscribers. The community of folks who are interested in the intersection of cities and tech continues to grow 📈.

Subscribe now

Personally, working on this edition was my needed distraction during election stress.

Thanks for giving me a reason to tune out the election this week 🙏.

It was therapeutic working on Urban Tech and focusing on one of my favorite things in the world: cities. If you're like me, you find Federal politics immensely frustrating simply because it's much harder to get things done compared to local and state politics.

When I worked in local and state politics in NY, this was one of my biggest learnings. Many of the best public servants I've ever worked with are lifelong local government pros or spent their careers focused on local issues.

This week's Urban Tech features the first part of my conversation with Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra — someone I've had on my interview wishlist for some time.

Share

Ashwini is an expert on mobility policy and has worked on the frontlines of innovation in the space. I wanted to speak with him for an Urban Tech Q&A because I think he is an excellent example of someone from urban policy impacting how tech companies operate.

While a lot of my focus for UT, is on how tech impacts cities, folks like Awshini are a great example of how cities are increasingly impacting Silicon Valley. 

Last week, The Information's Cory Weinberg profiled Airbnb's Chris Lehane, who leads the company's policy and communications functions. Give it a read if you have a subscription to The Information. Cory does a fantastic job outlining why Lehane is so influential within Airbnb.

He is now the longest-serving member on the executive team apart from Chesky and his two co-founders, and arguably, after Chesky, the most influential. He has continued to play a central role as Airbnb grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, which did severe damage to the business this spring and is casting a shadow over the company as it heads toward an initial public offering later this fall.

Before diving in, a few notes:

  • After the Q/A, I preview a new Urban Tech product: community resources and databases. I’ll explain what that means and why below.
  • Two companies I’ve covered for Urban Tech had monster week’s last week: Custom housing startup Atmos raised additional funding ($4M at a $25M valuation) with interesting investors, including a few TikTok stars
  • I connected with the Atmos team (who I love) initially in August for a piece on construction’s trillion-dollar productivity problem (give it a read).
  • One of my favorite writers on urban topics, NYT’s Economics Reporter Conor Dougherty, profiled post-car real estate developer Culdesac.
  • As he often does in his pieces, Conor did a fantastic job weaving in historical and regional context to explain why Culdesac’s vision is so interesting and bold.
  • I sat with Culdesac Tempe’s GM Lava Sunder for Urban Tech’s last Q&A [Part 1; Part 2].

Okay, let’s dive into the conversation with Ashwini.

A Long Thing: Q&A w/ Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra Pt. 1

After working at Uber and in the NYC taxi industry for almost a decade, Ashwini Chhabra is on a mission to get people out of cars. His firm -- Electric Avenue -- which launched this Summer, is focused on helping bring new mobility modes like e-bikes and e-scooters to your city.

In the short time they’ve been around, they’ve helped companies like Voi Scooters land the lion’s share of exclusive RFPs in the UK, helped LINK scooters land Seattle and helped Revel mopeds get back on the road in New York after a summer of tragic headlines.

Ashwini believes cities should be designed for people, not their cars. He believes innovation isn’t the exclusive domain of the private sector, and that mass transit has to be the backbone of any sustainable urban mobility system. He believes geographic mobility has a direct bearing on economic mobility, and that the transportation policies we embrace reflect the society we want to create. Most of all, he believes one day our kids will play in the street again.

Editor Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length. We spoke the week before the election, so there are several references to unknown outcomes at the time like California’s Prop. 22.

For readers less in the weeds of transportation, micromobility refers to the trend of light-weight shared electric vehicles like Scooters.

JT: Your background is super interesting and reflects some trends that I'm seeing across urban tech companies. 

I'd love it if you started with how you went from law school, to the Bloomberg administration, and now you work with mobility companies; how’d you get into this space?

AC: It's kind of a roundabout path to where I am. I honestly never would have pegged when I was in law school that I would go into government or go into any particular government field, like transportation or mobility. Some of it is just making unique life choices and being in the right place at the right time.

I started out practicing law, doing M&A work. If you ask anyone who's been a lawyer, consultant or an investment banker, it's great training. You really learn to pay attention to detail. You also learn to write clearly and precisely. But for me it wasn't very satisfying. At the end of the day, it didn't feel like I was creating anything sort of solid or lasting. Then there was this opportunity in the Bloomberg administration, in the Department of Education in particular, and working with Joel Klein was the chance to learn. It was very appealing to me. 

I saw something in the NY Times about how there were former McKinsey consultants, lawyers, ex-bankers who worked on the campaign and ended up staying on. It was this idea that you could be a professional, be relatively new in your career, and you could have an impact somewhere.

So I went in and did Policy work primarily focused on charter schools. As my first foray into government, I got to work with some really great managers. That's really something that

Bloomberg did really well. He surrounded himself with top-notch managers. I alternatively had Joel Klein as a boss and had Dan Doctoroff as a boss, and they were both great experiences. 

My perspective on government changed from that experience. I previously thought of the government as this passive entity and the most you expect of it is that it shouldn't mess things up. From working in the Bloomberg administration, I came to see it as an active entity that can significantly improve daily life for people. If you've got the right leadership, government can be a really powerful tool.

I think you're seeing a great contrast right now between the Federal response to the Pandemic, compared to Governor Cuomo, here in New York. Those are such stark contrasts that highlight the value of competence in government. It's also pretty scarce, and so when you find it, like I did with the Bloomberg administration, it's a great catalyst for a lifelong love of public service.

JT: A lot of the themes you’re talking about are things that come up often when I research Bloomberg’s administration or talk to folks who worked in it. 

At my first job out of college, besides working on some political stuff, my other main focus right when I started was doing PR for Dan Doctoroff’s book. A huge focus of that book is the innovative approach and style Bloomberg brought to running NYC.

Many alumni from the Bloomberg administration are now also a lot of the leaders at urban tech companies and the companies I cover. I’d love it if you could share a bit more on why Bloomberg’s approach as mayor was unique? What aspects of the administration stuck out to you as a different perspective for running government?

AC: Not to fall back on ‘it was a very unique administration and it was the business talent’ because that wasn't all of it. You see great examples of public sector leadership in many cities and they come from a variety of backgrounds. 

I think it really was the posture in how you approach an issue. I never felt like anything that I was working on, there wasn't someone in the administration saying, “That’s great, but why aren't we doing more? Why aren't we moving faster?” And so that sense of not only has someone got my back if I want to do something new and innovative here, but it might actually be viewed as not enough. And so when that's the overarching ethos, I think you get a lot done.

And, you know, this was part of the uniqueness of the Bloomberg administration. You weren't part of the traditional Democratic machine. There wasn't this expectation that Bloomberg would even be the mayor. And so here's a group of folks who thought they would never be in public service and probably thought, “Well, we'll do this for four years and then someone else will come take over.” And so they worked with the approach of let's get as much as we can done in four years. And then they got eight years and they got 12 years.

Working at that frenetic pace for three terms meant you can achieve a lot. The perspective people brought to the job was very much driven by where they had come from and the work ethic that they had. To all us folks who came over from law firms or consulting, Joel Klein would say, it's not public service if you take the pay cut, but then you work half as hard. That's not public service. Public service is taking that pay cut and working just as many hours as you would have at your law firm or consulting firm. That's really something that stuck with me. I think that's an attitude that was embraced by people across the Administration. 

Share Urban Tech

JT: Super interesting. A big focus in media or political circles is how former staffers and aids are now leading tech’s policy and comms shops across sectors. These people are having a big impact on how these companies operate. They certainly play a significant role at the companies I cover for Urban Tech. 

Your Bloomberg experience is kind of the foil to that. It’s a great example of the private sector crossing over to the government side to make an impact. So you were in the Bloomberg administration and your next stop was Uber? 

AC: In the Bloomberg Administration, I worked in Education then worked in Transportation. I found myself at the Taxi Commission in 2010 when Uber came to town. So, I originally started working on shared transportation issues from the perspective of a regulator. 

The attitude of the Administration was simple: this is innovation. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to get a car through an app on your phone in the same way that you can, by using that same phone to call your local car service.

So, how do we foster that kind of innovation in New York? A lot of what you saw in other cities was ‘we don't want this here. This doesn't conform with the rules we have or our approach.’ From our perspective, this more or less looked like the system we had in place. It feels a little different, but why would we want to deny consumers the choice of a service like this? And if something better comes along, great. At the end of the day, though competition from these innovators has been very challenging in some ways for the traditional providers, it's had a very positive effect on the level of service provided by the broader taxi and car service industries.

For example, I took a taxi today. I paid for the ride through an app. I got out at the end and I didn't have to fumble with cash or a credit card. At the time when Uber came, it was this approach of recognizing innovation and fostering it. And then making sure that there's proper regulations and constraints in place. You need to make rules so you're not taking advantage of workers. Rules that guarantee there's transparency on pricing and that necessarily safeguards are in place to make sure that the drivers are safe in their roles in the new system/process.

But the idea of Uber or ridesharing itself, or new approaches generally, isn't one that we should be allergic to. That was my posture on ridesharing, so it was sort of a natural segue from that to evangelizing for ridesharing on the other side of the table.

I came on board at Uber in 2014 and my portfolio was Global Policy Development, which was fun. It was sort of taking this example of here’s what we did in New York -- here's how we've approached this new model there. Now, here's how Singapore should think about the model. Here's how Mexico City or London should be thinking about it. 

Then half-way through my tenure there, Uber acquired the Carnegie Mellon Robotics team, which has become the Advanced Technologies Group that does the self-driving work. After that, I shifted my focus to advocating for self-driving car technology and testing. 

That was interesting because for ridesharing you're talking to local and state regulators. All of a sudden I was talking to national regulators and to a more technically-knowledgeable group of officials who are just much deeper into the hard tech underpinning self-driving technology. 

For me, it was great because that was a whole new learning curve. I had to learn about the underlying tech in order to better explain it and to talk about it.

Fast forward just a few years, and the landscape has really changed on self-driving. There's a different set of lead players, but I can see a lot of the seeds that we planted bearing fruit.

And then in 2018 scooters became a thing and I landed at Bird. This struck me as a continuation of some of the same conversations, but around a cleaner and smaller form factor. There are none of the labor issues that have bogged down ridesharing, and I think the potential is even greater.

The team that I had built at Uber was the Policy Development team. This is kind of like an in-house think tank for the company. It included economists, city planners, sustainability experts, and GIS or mapping experts. At the end of the day, it's all about storytelling because you're explaining to a government audience (and sometimes a consumer audience) what this service can do for their cities. 

We used data and visuals to explain that. In fact, one of the first visuals that we produced showed Uber’s service area in Chicago mapped against the taxi industry’s coverage areas. It was a simple but powerful map that demonstrated that Uber serves parts of the city that taxis won't go to. It painted a very different picture for regulators and policymakers than what they had been hearing from the taxi industry.

It really turned me on to how you can use data to get your point across for advocacy. I think this is something that Uber, Airbnb, Lyft have really excelled at. I think tech and mobility companies that have come in their wake, have learned that lesson as well. 

JT: That’s a great segway into what you do now at Electric Avenue.

AC: Post-Bird, a couple of my colleagues and myself started Electric Avenue and we are a Public Affairs and Policy Development shop, that in effect does what theCentral Policy team does at Uber or what we did at Bird.

But we're doing it for a host of companies that don't necessarily need to have, or can’t afford to have, that Policy function in-house. This idea of a deep bench of subject matter experts - you're better off tapping outside expertise for that. And so that was the conceit behind Electric Avenue.

We're working with a range of clients to help them tell their story. In the micromobility space, we're working with Voi Scooters, based out of Sweden, helping them in the UK and in New York City. We’ve helped them win quite a few exclusive contracts. In fact, they've got the lion's share of the UK market at this point. We also advise Superpedestrian -- they developed the Copenhagen wheel -- and we helped them launch LINK Scooters, and helped them win the Seattle RFP.

We’re working with Swiftmile, which is a charging dock company. So still in that micromobility ecosystem. 

We also worked with Revel mopeds. They had issues around safety in New York over the summer and we helped them think through the fixes so they could come back online with better safety protocols.

Those are the kinds of companies that don't necessarily have the need or the resources to bring on a full-time, in-house Policy Development team. I don't think there's many other firms, or maybe any, that specialize in mobility-focused policy development the way we do. A lot of firms will do government relations work, lobbying, or PR. But there isn't necessarily the subject matter expertise or the research skills that we can bring. 

Share

JT: As someone who worked in politics and comms, this context on tech companies' policy initiatives is something I've always been interested in. 

It's one reason I thought you'd be such a great Q&A guest to help readers understand what the policy teams do in a company like Uber or Bird.

What about the mobility space has kept you interested? The innovation characteristics seem super attractive to someone interested in tech and policy, but what draws you to it personally?

AC: I think a lot of startups have focused on mobility and that's where you're seeing a lot of the innovation coming out of the tech sector. I think naturally it’s a space that is going to attract a lot of strong talent. For me personally, I think it's more than that. It’s also the impact. If you can solve mobility hurdles, you solve a lot of the challenges that cities face.

What you can achieve once you've unlocked mobility is momentous. Studies demonstrate that access to mobility -- which gives you access to jobs, to schooling and so forth -- is the number one factor in the ability to escape from poverty, even more so than test scores or crime. If you think about it in those terms, providing mobility solutions to people who don't have access iss huge. 

Now, that's certainly not why these companies came about. These companies came about because of the idea of being a baller and getting a black car to pick you up, of touching a button to get a ride.

But it turns out once the technology's there, it unleashes this other potential that the founders had no idea of, and probably had no interest in. I take the technology at its face. The potential of this technology Is something that far exceeds what the original intent was. And that potential is what’s kept me engaged.

So if you then segue from rideshare to micromobility, in effect it's like putting a car into a wind tunnel and stripping away anything that's superfluous. You don't need four empty seats if you're traveling alone. You don't need a trunk if you're not carrying anything. And all that's really left at the end of that process is a platform to stand on, two wheels and an electric motor.

+++

That’s all for the first part of my conversation with Ashwini. The second part will run in next week’s edition.

In the meantime, check out some of Ashwini’s work on Electric Avenue’s website. For readers who love the transportation policy weeds, Ashwini was recently a guest on the SAE Tomorrow Today podcast, where he talked about how New York City can emerge even stronger from COVID with the right leadership and policy decisions around how we prioritize public space. 

It’s a fantastic listen for anyone interested in learning more about making streets safer and returning urban space to people instead of cars. 

Share Urban Tech

Talk soon,

JT ✌️

Q&A w/ Electric Avenue's Ashwini Chhabra

John Thomey

John Thomey is a founder of Urban Tech, a newsletter and podcast. He’s a graduate student at the University of Southern California, studying Public Policy and Urban Planning.

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