In this interview, Dani Simons shares her story of working in sustainable transportation, and highlights her lessons learned after working in three different sectors. Dani currently serves as the Communications and External Affairs Director for , the largest bicycle share company in the United States, and has more than 11 years of experience in strategic communications and community affairs in active transportation. Dani holds a Bachelor of Science from Brown University and a Masters in Environmental Science from Yale. Read on to learn more about Dani’s story, lessons learned, and tips for a meaningful career path.
Please tell us about your role at Motivate, and a bit more about the organization.
Dani: I am the Director of Communications and External Affairs with Motivate. This means that I handle all of the external and internal communications, which includes dealing with the press, external stakeholders, and government affairs. Motivate is the nation’s largest bike sharing company, which is responsible for 11 bike share systems including Bay Area Bike Share, Capital Bikeshare, and Citi Bike. In each city, the bicycle share programs have different business models – some own and operate, while others just operate. Our team at Motivate strives to provide the best experience in each of these cities.
What part of your role has engaged you the most until now and why?
Dani: I started in early 2013, before the local bike sharing program launched. I feel lucky because the role has changed and evolved over time. I was involved with the pre–planning work, which included outreach, planning, developing a membership program, and managing expectations of the bike share program with the media. The role also involved a lot of problem solving and troubleshooting – and I loved it!
New investors came in last year, and through that, I was asked to take on this new role, handling communications and public relations across all of our systems and helping with internal communications as well. They felt this would help during a time of uncertainty as new ownership was coming in. I also got to lead a renaming and rebranding exercise, as the company went from being Alta Bicycle Share to Motivate. We worked with great consultants on that project, and we engaged both the staff and board to get their input. All of the hard work has led me to a point this year, where I can share the story of Citi Bike, and the greater story of bicycle sharing in the United States.
Please tell us how you came to work at Motivate, and how you prepared for this role.
Dani: I worked in sustainable transportation for the past 11 years, previously working for Transportation Alternatives running their membership program and special events, and then eventually becoming their Deputy Director for Development and Communications. Following this, I was the Director of Strategic Communications with the Department of Transportation. During that time, I developed the Summer Streets program, which closes 7 miles of City streets through the heart of Manhattan for three Saturday each August, and opens them up for people to walk, bike and play. On the surface, it just sounds like a fun special event, but it has a pretty meaty policy goal – to get New Yorkers to imagine their streets in a whole new way. My role at DOT had a pretty big big portfolio – all non–press related communications work including development of TV, print and outdoor advertisements, and the management of social media accounts. This provided a big sandbox to play in, and prepared me to deliver work in a high paced and stress environment.
Is there a specific skill-set or type of personality that is needed to really be successful in your position or in your organization?
Dani: Some of my professional idols include two of the Press Secretaries under former Mayor Bloomberg – and what strikes me about them is that they are incredible at creating messages and story arcs, and using these to advance the causes of the people they represent.
In these roles, you need to be unflappable when things go wrong. This sense of unflappability and calm will help in directing a focus to meet deadlines and answer the billion questions thrown at you. If you’re doing that in a way where you’re stressed and tense, it will limit the ability to successfully achieve this.
Both in this position, and organization, it’s about the relationships with other people and making sure you have a good relationship with other people. You can’t forecast and plan without the good people. And trust is critical.
What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?
Dani: On a personal level, there still needs to be more female leadership in the transportation industry. There ware some notable exceptions – like Janette Sadik-Khan [the former NYCDOT Commissioner] or Lori Ardito, who was First Deputy Commissioner under Commissioner Sadik-Khan and now for Commissioner Trottenberg. Lori is especially notable since she rose up the ranks from the operations side. It can be challenging to be heard as a woman in this field.
On a totally different note, bicycle share programs are designed as Private-Public Partnerships, which allows ancillary ways to generate revenue for a program that is well designed. But governments may be somewhat suspicious of that. An interesting challenge is changing that perception, by demonstrating that a private business can provide an excellent service, increase bike mode share, and do well financially, all at the same time. It’s about understanding how you build that trust, and demonstrate the results.
What would be the top three organizations or projects that you are excited to follow over the coming years? Why?
Dani: There are so many cool projects out there, but one that I’m excited to follow is the topic of driverless cars. It’s interesting to learn about the money being put into this innovation from the car industry, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. Currently, there is a lot of data that highlights how people are demanding that cities are walkable and more people are using transit. This brings a new tension in transportation, and the conversation is just getting started.
What are your top two favorite news sources that help you maintain a professional edge?
Dani: Locally, I read , , and the New York Times, as well as The Post and The Daily News. We’re blessed to have so many local outlets covering urban issues. Additionally, , helped make sustainable transportation a topic that mainstream media now reports on. And finally, , which is basically a round-up of transportation and urban planning news clips – this is now housed with the NRDC — and I learn something new every time I read it.
What advice would you give to students currently wanting to enter sustainable transportation, or government related sustainability initiatives?
Dani: I’ve been lucky enough to work in three different sectors, and I’m not even sure if that’s how job-seekers think about it today – but I learned through this that it’s not about the sector, it’s about finding where you can make actual change that you can see in a reasonable time frame. Where you can do that shifts over time, and depends so much on leadership in your organization and a whole host of external factors as well. Now I look to see who is actually making change when I consider whether or not a job might be interesting. I never thought I’d work in government, but Janette Sadik-Khan was coming into the administration and she had an incredible agenda and energy, so I took a chance, and that paid off. Under the current mayor, if you’re into affordable housing, you can probably find a good spot to work there, since this is a primary focus for him. I think it’s also useful to have direct access to the ultimate decision maker. I feel lucky to have been a part of such big projects in New York. Think about who you’re working with on a daily basis. Life’s too short, don’t work with toxic people.