Justice for All, and Roses Too: A Conversation with Reggie Ramos, the New Leader of Transportation For Massachusetts
7:10 AM EST on January 17, 2024
In September, Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), a statewide coalition that advocates for better, more equitable transportation systems across the Commonwealth, welcomed a new Executive Director, Reggie Ramos.
Ramos most recently had worked in roles at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston and at the MBTA, where she led the team that launched expanded Fairmount Line service and free bus pilot programs.
Ramos's appointment marks the culmination of a restructuring initiative at T4MA that resulted in a new core leadership team and a renewed organizational focus on "transportation justice for low income, working class, communities of color, and residents most impacted by transportation injustice" (editor's note: two members of that new T4MA leadership team, Stacy Thompson and Alexis Walls, also serve as volunteer members of the StreetsblogMASS board of directors).
Last fall, StreetsblogMASS sat down with Ramos to discuss her unique perspective on transportation justice, what she learned during her tenure at the MBTA, and her stint as a professional florist.
The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
StreetsblogMASS: To start with, I’ve read the press release that introduces you, but could you tell me about who you are in your own words?
Reggie Ramos, Executive Director of Transportation for Massachusetts: I’ve been working in transportation in various capacities, strictly speaking, I would say, for 10 years. But I really started about 15 years ago.
I’m a lawyer by profession, and my first sort of experience with transportation (in the Philippines) was really just being involved in cities, and asking questions like “Why are there potholes?” I would be the person who would go to City Hall and ask who to talk to.
I was born and raised in the Philippines, and that's where my transportation career took off. I was very lucky to have gotten training in Singapore, and then I worked in various Asian megacities like Jakarta, Hanoi – these cities that sort of inform my perspective on transportation.
When you go into Singapore and Hong Kong, these are mature transportation systems and huge global cities. Their transportation systems have developed in a relatively short period of time, relative to legacy systems. And in southeast Asia, equity is really sort of – there's inequity in every area, and it’s really heightened.
But I think the best way to really study equity is in places like those where equity is so out of whack. It sort of refracts your lenses to see how this doesn’t work for these particular communities, and gives you an internal compass to almost look for the right indicators that would signal that something is wrong.
StreetsblogMASS: And where was your first government job?
Ramos: I was first a consultant. And then I was a consultant to a city in the Philippines, and we did a lot of transportation-related stuff. And when I left government I was an undersecretary for transportation.
I also concurrently held other positions, like spearheading an international airport. And then of course being a climate negotiator, which brought me to be on the lead negotiating team up to the Paris climate talks, representing the Philippines.
In 2015, the Philippines was leading the climate-vulnerable countries. It was a huge opportunity but also it was symbolic of what folks in the margins can do. The Philippines is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world and it became incumbent upon us to push for more radical change.
And then I reached a point in serving my country where the backsliding of democracy, that is sort of public knowledge…
StreetsblogMASS: So I admit that I don’t know much about the Philippines’ current politics, except that the Marcos family is back in power.
For those of us who served government, at least for me, it reached the point where there was a difference in principles and values. It reached the point where your contributions and your willingness to make an impact are – the backsliding of democracy and rise in populism became too much. I think it also discouraged younger public servants from pursuing a life of serving their country.
For me, that is a very – it was very emotional. I think public service and advocacy are personal. It is sort of what gives you motivation — to make an impact, to make changes, and to think bigger than yourself, and bigger than your immediate community...
And working in transportation, transportation projects have a long time horizon, from planning to actual implementation. You start in knowing that there is a possibility that you may never see it come to fruition.
A mentor of mine told me that you have to have a mix of being morbid about it, but also hopeful that you get to see it come to reality. But then, mix the long-term time horizon with election cycles, right? Even in Massachusetts, we have to reckon with that, and in the global south you multiply that with political instability. You really have to swim against the tide in systems where projects can endure that and implement projects in spite of that. To be able to do that really takes so much of one’s self.
Ultimately it led me to pursue work in other countries, and pursue my master's degree here in Massachusetts.
So then I came here, and worked for the T. I really didn’t think that I would go back to transportation, Christian (laughing). I wasn’t looking – it was like I had a breakup with transportation in a major way, and why would I get back into transportation? He broke my heart!
But then somebody said, "you should apply for this job." And long story short, I became the Deputy Director of Pilots and Innovation at the T, looking into service pilots like additional frequency on the commuter rail, ferries, the viability of additional bus routes, all of that. That became my beat at the T. I started in 2019.
StreetsblogMASS: What was the pilot you worked on while you were there that you were most proud of?
Ramos: I think the Fairmount Line for me is very memorable. I was sort of sitting on the shoulders of people who had worked on this for so long, but I saw it through this last stretch and that was very special.
It was also very memorable because we implemented it during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it persisted and endured, which goes to show how much that corridor needed that service. But also was kind of bittersweet, because it took that long a time for us to realize how important it was, and how hard advocates had to work to prove to everybody during the pandemic that that service was essential.
Like I said, transportation work is not for the impatient. It’s really long term.
StreetsblogMASS: T4MA has been a little dormant for a while, but you’ve got a new strategic plan. Tell us about that.
For the last 18 months T4MA went through a restructuring process, kind of just examining what do we want to be, what kind of coalition do we want to be?
So as a result, T4MA really wants to center its work around transportation justice, which really means having a safe, reliable, sustainable, accessible transportation system for all. And particularly centering the lived experiences of low-income folks, communities of color, and people with disabilities.
And also recognizing that there have been structured systems in the past, like racism and redlining, which contributed to the transportation injustice now being experienced by disadvantaged communities.
So we want to center our work around this sort of mission and vision, aiming towards a more intersectional coalition. We're leveraging on the strengths that T4MA has already displayed over the years, and the alliances that we’ve built. But it’s really a more intentional way of looking at the ways we advocate for policies, and how we support programs and projects...
The most immediate thing is that we are going to do is go into a statewide outreach tour, to visit organizations and communities across the state.
There’s often sort of a disconnect between policy talk and everyday life and experience. And this dissonance has created a gap between what is needed and what we think is needed.
So as an example, a curb ramp might not seem all that important or all that critical to an able-bodied person. But a person in a wheelchair or a mother with a stroller, a curb ramp makes a big difference. We feel at T4MA that we can host these conversations. We want the conversation to be inclusive. We also want to empower folks who have not been part of the conversation to be part of the conversation and intentionally carve out that space for them...
We’re back. We’re back as an advocacy force. We want to be intentional in what we’re doing, and we want to be a high-impact organization.
StreetsblogMASS: I have one last question – I read in your biography that you owned a flower shop at one point?
It was 2010 or 2009. I decided I really wanted to do something with my hands.
StreetsblogMASS: Were you already a lawyer at that point?
I was. I became a lawyer at a very young age, when I was 24. I was a trial attorney for a long time, and I was just spent. So I said, "I want to do a flower shop." My parents had a space in their garage and I asked to build it there.
It actually survived. I started supplying restaurants and hotels and I learned that those are the ones that actually make money.
Going to the flower market was a highlight. I have friends at the market who, to this day, I still visit when I go back to the Philippines. You get to know their families, their business. And that sort of created a beautiful reprieve from all the stress of my other work.