Meet Our New Policy Director: Zack Deutsch-Gross
TransForm couldn’t be more excited to welcome Zack Deutsch-Gross as Policy Director to lead the work on equitable transportation and housing advocacy. There are a million reasons he was the best fit for the gig, but instead of telling you in this introduction, we’ll let him introduce himself.
Read on for an interview with Zack to learn about his motivation to do the work, his upbringing, and his favorite tour of San Francisco for visitors:
What are you most excited about jumping into first here at TransForm?
Honestly what excites me most is the people. The staff, board, and broader TransForm community is full of some of the smartest, most passionate, and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Working with all of you to create a more sustainable, equitable, and connected Bay Area is a fantastic opportunity.
You’re from San Francisco, and grew up here in the Bay Area. When did you get curious about the infrastructure, policy, and politics you’d always been surrounded by?
Growing up, my parents and I would wake up at 5am once a week during the winter to cook breakfast for about 70 men at a local homeless shelter. It baffled me that our city could be so unequal, that we as a society could allow anyone to be unhoused or lack a decent meal to eat. So from a very young age I was always looking for solutions to make the world a better, more equitable place. At the same time, being able to walk, bike, and take transit anywhere in the city as a teenager was incredibly empowering and exposed me to a tremendous variety of cultures, experiences, and opportunities. It didn’t take much from there to connect the inequality I’d see every day on the street or while riding the bus to the lack of affordable housing or accessible transportation.
Tell us about the time you worked with TransForm as an intern, and how that influenced your path as a mobility advocate.
During my first week as an intern, TransForm was mobilizing people to speak at a BART Board meeting in opposition to the BART expansion to Livermore. While the organization obviously supports expanding transit, TransForm’s analysis highlighted how the Livermore extension in particular would come at the expense of core service investments that existing BART riders depended on like working elevators and train maintenance. Joel Ramos - TransForm’s Regional Planning Director at the time - did a great job encouraging me and other riders from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond to give public testimony about how our lives would be negatively impacted if BART moved forward with the expansion instead of sorely needed core service improvements. We stopped the project with a 5-4 vote. That model of lifting up the voices of impacted communities and supporting them with clear, cogent policy analysis stuck with me and makes me more effective as an advocate.
What’s your favorite niche subtopic within policy work?
I’m going to sound so wonky here but I love getting in the weeds on how transportation and affordable housing projects are financed. Fundamentally the biggest barrier we have toward a more sustainable and equitable Bay Area is funding. However, we need to be incredibly thoughtful about how we raise money to make sure the tax burden doesn’t fall on the very people we’re trying to serve. Figuring out how we do this while investing at the scale needed to address our housing and climate crises is why I do this work.
Speaking of the how and why, how do you describe your work to people who aren’t directly engaged with policy?
My dad always says “everything is political” and I think that’s incredibly true when it comes to transportation, housing, and land use. Where we build housing, what transportation modes we prioritize on our streets and who is in the room making the decisions has a huge impact both on our quality of life and greenhouse gas emissions. I work with government agencies, elected officials, and everyday people to enact policies and programs that make the Bay Area more sustainable, equitable, and accessible for all.
What area of policy work do you think deserves more attention because of its eventual impact?
It may feel far-off but we need to be thinking more about the impacts of widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. One of the big lessons learned from the micromobility boom was that public agencies need to actively shape the transportation landscape. Agencies setting clear policies based on community needs is really important to achieving our mobility, equity, and climate goals, especially when it comes to emerging modes.
Tell us about something that gives you hope for the near future of California and the Bay Area.
If California was a country, it would be one of the top five largest economies in the world. The Bay Area is home to cutting edge innovation and has a history of groundbreaking cultural transformation, from the Beat Poets to the Black Panthers. If there was anywhere in the world where we could solve inequality, homelessness, and climate change, it’s right here. We already have everything we need.
Where do you take people and what do you show them to demonstrate the real impacts of the kind of policy work you do?
My go-to itinerary for out-of-town visitors is to take the old streetcars down Market Street in San Francisco through the Embarcadero to Telegraph Hill. Climbing up the Telegraph Hill steps to Coit Tower gives you a gorgeous view of the bay and pops you out in North Beach and Chinatown. After tooling around for some steamed pork buns or pizza at Golden Boy, you hop on a scooter, bikeshare, or Muni and head to Dolores Park for another iconic view of the city, and maybe a burrito. For me, the entire journey perfectly encapsulates the tremendous opportunities available to everyone - from parks and open spaces to iconic landmarks to delicious multicultural cuisine - when we have dense, walkable communities connected with affordable and accessible transportation.
What’s your favorite way to get from Point A to Point B, locally?
If I have the choice and the time, walking is my favorite way to get anywhere in the Bay Area. There’s no better way to get a sense of a neighborhood or explore a new part of the region than by foot.
Describe the perfect local adventure.
One of my favorite things about the Bay Area is how much nature is accessible within a day’s trip. If you’re trying to catch me playing hookie, you’re most likely to find me hiking in the East Bay Hills or along the Peninsula. If I’m feeling really bold, I’ll catch the West Marin Stagecoach for an overnight backpacking trip in Point Reyes National Seashore. I also love biking along the Great Walkway in San Francisco. Whether you’re going to the zoo, to Golden Gate Park, or anywhere along Ocean Beach, there’s no better way to explore the west side of San Francisco. It’s just incredible to see all the kids learning how to bike or rollerblade for the first time, families out walking their dogs, and people just hanging out enjoying their community. It’s remarkable what we can do when we prioritize our public spaces for people.
Keep up with all of TransForm’s policy wins by subscribing to our emails here. If you want to reach Zack directly, you can email him at zdeutsch-gross(at)transformca.org.