University of Southern California: Price PhD candidate’s journey from foster care to academia inspires his research on improving local travel

When Zakhary Mallett wanted to get around the Bay Area as a foster child, public transportation was his only option. Inspired by the time he spent on buses and trains for most of his childhood, Mallett, who is now a PhD candidate in the USC Price School of Public Policy, set out to learn how the systems operate, who uses them and how they are funded.

Zakhary Mallett outside the USC PRice School front entrance
PhD candidate Zakhary Mallett (Courtesy: Zakhary Mallett)
“I saw that [public transit] was only used by transit-dependent persons like myself in some areas, but seemed to have a competitive edge in other areas where people of all classes seemed to use it,” Mallett said. “I wanted to understand why that was and figure out how we could create that in more environments.”

A pivot from public official to professor

Before arriving at Price in 2018, Mallett served on the governing board of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for four years. He remains the youngest person ever elected to the transit district’s board.

“It gave me the opportunity to have an influence and challenge the mainstream ethos, and try to bring more fiscally and economically conscious planning processes to the policy discussion,” said Mallett, who has his bachelor’s in urban studies from Stanford University and a master of city planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

His return to academia was spurred by repeatedly being denied the opportunity to voice his against-the-status-quo opinions.

“Infiltrating [the system’s] mainstream thought proved to be quite a challenge!” he said.

He wanted a chance to change the entire ethos of public transportation – and what better way to supplement his lived-experience than with evidence-based scholarship.

Mallett aims to uncover how transit systems can allow for a more equitable distribution of cost. For his dissertation, he is examining the fairness of rail transit pricing policies. For example, Mallett found that 41% of BART’s rail cars are used to service the busiest travel periods. He is analyzing how that cost may be paid for by people who travel during peak and off-peak times.

“What I anticipate finding based on past research is that the additional costs outweigh the additional fare revenue, and so there is a resulting disparity of off-peak travelers paying a higher share of their cost relative to on-peak travelers.”

Mallett is also hypothesizing that people who live farther away from cities’ cores pay less for the services they receive. These suburban areas are also usually whiter and wealthier than city centers.

“In a lot of these pay structures, even though you pay incrementally more the further you go, when you divide it by the actual miles you travel, distance is rewarded,” Mallett said.

Picking a PhD program: People matter most

When Mallett was looking for a PhD program, faculty experience was his top qualification. “[I] was trying to see which schools have the faculty with interests and expertise that could best support my research aims.”

Zachary Mallett headshot
PhD candidate Zakhary Mallett
(Courtesy: Zakhary Mallett)
Mallett ultimately chose USC. During his three years here, Mallett has earned an array of scholarships from the American Public Transportation Foundation, the Railway Association of Southern California and the California Transportation Foundation. He has also earned two Graduate Fellowships from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program.

Mallett hopes he inspires other Price students to apply for scholarships and further promote the School’s work.

“I would like to have more like me out there and increase our brand and Price’s impact,” he said.

With the assistance of his advisors Genevieve Giuliano and Marlon Boarnet from USC Price as well as Brian Taylor from UCLA, Mallett hopes to complete his PhD by the summer of 2022. In addition to his dissertation, Mallett has worked on research analyzing the intersections of space and transportation, and finance and transportation. Alongside Boarnet, he examined the kind of land uses that encourage ridership of dockless e-scooters. He is currently working with Giuliano and USC Price Research Professor Dan Wei on a study of the feasibility and impacts of implementing road use charging for commercial vehicles in California.

“I challenge the assumption that the amount of travel that we all consume needs to be assumed as fixed and that we need to accommodate it. Some of this travel is induced, and I feel it’s important to expose that,” Mallett said.

A goal to guide policymakers’ decisions

Mallett may have moved away from public service and into academia, but his dedication to the common good remains. Upon completion of his doctorate, he hopes to land a tenure-track position at a university and prepare future practitioners and scholars while also generating relevant research for policymakers.

“I won’t have a hand in implementation, unfortunately, but I can at least do the research, stand behind my findings and let policymakers make decisions” he said. “I would love future opportunities to serve as an expert or witness to provide testimony to policymaking audiences on transportation planning and finance.”

Public transit systems have seen ridership decline dramatically, especially during the pandemic. In 2020, Los Angeles Metro ridership declined by 42% compared to 2019, according to KCRW.

Mallett wants to see ridership increase – but knows that will only happen if people have a reason to use public transit.

“Transit cannot be competitive when we have such dispersed travel patterns that are – I argue – a derivative of the subsidies that we give to travel,” he shared.

Critically, Mallett wants public transit systems to truly embody their intended purpose: serving all people.

“Transportation affects everyone,” he said. “My job is to produce knowledge at this point and so that’s what I have to do.”

Reflecting on his journey to Price, Mallett views his doctoral program as one step in a mission to change the way people view and use public transit. Reaching this point has been a tremendous undertaking – and Mallett’s momentum shows no signs of slowing.

“I’ve had to make my own way since being an adult, so achieving these milestones of getting into top-rated schools, becoming an elected official, among other things — it’s taken a lot of work and fighting and struggling to make it.”

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