2021 40 Under 40: Ian Griffiths

Nov. 23, 2021
Ian Griffiths, Policy Director, Seamless Bay Area
  • One word to describe yourself: Intuitive
  • Alma Mater: Queen’s University (Canada) / UC Berkeley
  • Fun fact about yourself: I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
  • Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent: Flintolm Station, Copenhagen. At this station, three regional rail lines connect seamlessly above grade, along with plentiful and convenient buses and bikes.
  • Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent: SFO-Airport to Antioch BART line (San Francisco Bay Area). I think it’s incredible that this line exists - it traverses such a huge geography running from the airport, through downtown San Francisco, underneath the San Francisco Bay and downtown Oakland - then tunneled through the East Bay hills, and gets you all the way to the Sacramento river delta.

Ian Griffiths, a transportation planner and urban designer, has worked for transit agencies and consulting firms both in Canada and the U.S., where he led ground-breaking work in the realms of station design, wayfinding and mapping. For instance, he has presented his work on the customer experience and transit station design for Metrolinx and BART at conferences in North America. In 2014, he presented his paper, “Mount Dennis Mobility Hub Study: A Case Study in Balancing Urban Design Objectives with Functional Requirements,” at the Canadian Institute for Transportation Engineers conference. Also in 2014, he presented at the national American Planning Association conference in Atlanta about the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit project’s design excellence requirements. He later spearheaded the development of BART’s first ever Station Experience Design Guidelines to guide station modernization projects, which he presented at the 2019 Rail~Volution conference in Pittsburgh.

After nearly a decade of gaining industry experience, Griffiths co-founded a non-profit advocacy organization called Seamless Bay Area (Seamless). The Bay Area has 27 different operators, each with its own schedules and fares, and each controlled by a different decision-making body. With Griffiths at the helm, Seamless advocated for a more integrated and rider-focused transit system across the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area region by taking a more coordinated regional approach. While he initially launched Seamless as a side project during his free time, Griffiths soon realized that he needed to make it a full-time job if he wanted to have the impact that he hoped. He left a full-time position as a planner at BART in April 2019 to focus on Seamless full-time, building the organization into an established non-profit with dedicated staff and funding.

His commitment has helped transform Seamless from a volunteer-only effort into a respected and influential transit advocacy group. While at Seamless, Griffiths led the development of the Seamless Transit Principles, which have succeeded in building a broad network of Bay Area stakeholders to support seamless transit reforms. More than 50 organizations have endorsed the principles, and more than 17 public agencies have passed resolutions in support, including BART and the cities of San Jose, Redwood City, Berkeley and Fremont. Griffiths also developed Seamless’ Vision Map, which shows how transit would appear to the rider if it were planned as one integrated system and demonstrates how such a system would expand access to jobs and housing. And he drafted Seamless’ Integrated Fare Vision, a proposal for an integrated zone-based fare system, which strongly influenced MPO studies of the same. He developed an interactive fare calculator tool that compares integrated fares with current fares, showing how integrated fares would save riders money for most types of trips. This proposal jointly won the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC) Transformational Transportation Projects competition, leading it to be included in the region’s long-range transportation plan, Plan Bay Area 2050.

In addition to his everyday tasks at the non-profit, Griffiths also earned Seamless a seat at the table for MTC’s Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, which was convened in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis to guide the region’s near- and long-term transit recovery strategy. Since May 2020, Griffiths has represented Seamless and transit riders on the task force, where he has been a prominent voice championing reforms that advance more coordinated network management and rider-first policies like fare and service integration. For example, AECOM collaborated with Griffiths’ organization to develop a Transit Recovery Vision, demonstrating how services could be integrated in the near term to establish a connected, reliable and equitable network with the same resources available today. AECOM and Seamless modeled scenarios and forecasted the potential impacts of the length of the pandemic and mode shifts through an equity lens and presented recommendations to transit agency policymakers to guide recovery efforts, emphasizing the importance of excellent connections and increasing funding on transit access and use.

Additionally, Griffiths has published research on transit integration. In 2020, he helped scope and served as a research advisor for the Mineta Transportation Institute-funded research project, “Characteristics of Effective Metropolitan Areawide Public Transit.” The research has been shared widely and has shaped conversations about transit governance in the Bay Area, Southern California and beyond. He also authored the 2021 Seamless Bay Area report, “Governing Transit Seamlessly: Options for Bay Area Transportation Network Manager,” bringing together national and international research on governance models to propose a range of governance options for the Bay Area. Its findings were also presented at a May 2020 webinar panel that included the Eno Transportation Center’s vice president of policy. 

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

Having the opportunity to live in the Bay Area for seven years, and then live and work in Toronto at Metrolinx for three years, before returning to the Bay Area, had a big impact on my career. The Bay Area and Toronto are similar in population, and are both transit-friendly regions, but are on very different trajectories due largely to governance and political leadership. Upon returning to the Bay Area in 2015, I couldn’t help but question why a region that is so committed to sustainability, innovation, and equity is so challenged in improving its transit system. I realized the limits of advancing change ‘from the inside’ and the importance of advocacy, institutions, and elected officials in transformative change. That led me to start getting involved in transit advocacy in my free time in 2017 - and before long I felt I was making a greater impact on transit through my advocacy than through my public sector job. I have found my experience working in a different region where things are done differently has made me uniquely qualified to speak up about how the Bay Area can improve when it comes to public transit.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

In working for a small advocacy non-profit, I feel extremely fortunate to be able to focus my time and energy on fixing the core problems that prevent us from having a better transit system - funding and governance. I get to spend my time on work that I’m passionate about and that really matters. I also really enjoy seeing how important the power of ideas are, and how quickly they can lead to meaningful change.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Fundraising for our work has been more challenging than I ever expected, and despite the success and impact of Seamless Bay Area, our impact and capacity to accomplish more is limited by funding. I’d love it if I could spend more of my time on advocacy and policy and less on figuring out how to raise money so we can keep going for a few more months. It’s given me a new appreciation for anyone who works in the nonprofit sector and the importance of supporting advocates who do important work.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

I’m especially proud that our advocacy contributed to the creation of the Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, which was set up by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in May 2020 with a focus on governance and funding reforms that are needed to create a more seamless, high-ridership, and equitable transit system. The focus of the Task Force was influenced by legislation that we had sponsored with California state Assemblymember David Chiu, “the Bay Area Seamless Transit Act”, announced a few months prior, but which was ultimately tabled due to the pandemic. The Transformation Action Plan that was the result of Blue Ribbon Task Force has now been unanimously adopted by MTC and transit agency general managers, and finally explicitly identifies a pathway toward the transformative reforms that are needed to create a seamless, rider-focused, higher-ridership system. I’m proud that integrated fares, harmonized wayfinding and branding, transit priority on roads, governance reforms that enable transit network management, an overhaul of accessible transit, and a major new regional funding source to increase service and expand the network are all identified as components to transforming Bay Area transit.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

The architect Daniel Burham’s famous words have always guided me, and seem especially relevant for advocates: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”