Freewheeling Transportation–The Story of Remix and Tiffany Chu

The modern transportation mix gets a fresh approach–and it doesn’t include car ownership.

Tiffany Chu riding a bus in Detroit. Chu, who is the cofounder of Remix, an application that helps urban planners with the full mix of transportation options, does not own a car.

Tiffany Chu riding a bus in Detroit. Chu, who is the cofounder of Remix, an application that helps urban planners with the full mix of transportation options, does not own a car.

Growing up, Tiffany Chu wanted to be an architect and a gymnast. Little did she know that she’d be a chief executive officer (CEO) and cofounder of a multimillion-dollar transportation planning software company—before the age of 30.

“I thought I would be designing houses for other people, but now I get to help other people design transportation systems for their whole city,” said Chu.

The 32-year-old Chu, who’s never actually owned a car, is now in the transportation industry, where she is the senior vice president (SVP) at Via, the company that acquired Remix, which she cofounded  in 2014. Via, a startup that makes mobility solutions for public transit, acquired Remix for $100 million dollars in March 2021.

Though her title has changed, Chu will still be running the show at Remix as the company will maintain its independent brand, though Remix will become a critical part of Via’s overall set of transportation offerings, she said.

“I get to lead Remix at Via. Any planning related to Remix under the Via umbrella is what I get to work on. I can focus more on product and design instead of being a CEO. I get to spend more time with our customers. I get to be the face and the voice of Remix at Via externally and represent that ethos around partnering with cities and local governments … in a very kind of social impact-driven way.”

Chu visiting Remix partner Maui Bus.

Chu visiting Remix partner Maui Bus.

We’ll talk more about the acquisition and Remix later, but as this interview is part of our Women in Engineering series, we want to focus on Chu and how she got where she is today. You’ll want to read to the end as there’s a fun Q & A.

Though Chu is not an engineer, we think she’s a great fit for the series as we cover many professions in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. And she’s definitely someone who is doing remarkable things in the industry and a person we admire for her passion and the fact that she is big on being community-oriented in design—focusing on the greater good of people in everything she does.

For instance, we appreciate her design philosophy of designing for the people. When asked about her focus on design, she said, “Meet people where they are. That has to do with urban design as well. If you’re trying to create a community, you want to use the design and the built environment as a way to meet people in the ways that they want to be living their lives. Whether it’s together or in whatever kind of space you’re trying to create, I think architecture should meet people where they are as opposed to a lofty unattainable thing that is not on a human scale.”

We chatted with Chu, who is running San Francisco-based Remix from  her new home in Seattle, Wash., where she moved during the pandemic.

She was sitting outside with her dog Nori, an Aussie cattle mix. (The author has the same breed of dog, so a pet picture exchange ensued.)

Chu was very down-to-earth and a delight to chat with. It was like catching up with an old friend. She has been super busy with the acquisition and sighed when asked how she was doing, responding, “I am holding it together, doing good. I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Chu, who grew up in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York, said she was always fascinated with the built environment and that is why she pursued a career in architecture. She earned a B.S. in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which she reminded us was the first architecture school in the United States.

There she studied urban planning and comparative media studies, discovering she was interested in design—beyond buildings.

“I think growing up in a suburb, you quickly learned visiting other cities and other places that not every place is a suburb,” she laughed. “And there’s an incredible richness that comes with living in an urban environment. I was also really excited by math and art as a kid and I think when you put those two things together, architecture kind of is one of those on the list of majors that one could possibly do that.

“And when I got there, I loved all of my architecture and studio classes and then also realized there was this other adjacent major and industry and field I could be immersing myself in and that was urban planning. If I look at like all the courses that I took while in school, I think some of my favorite ones were actually in the urban planning and the urban design tracks.

“What I ultimately learned about myself was that I was interested in design beyond the scale of just buildings. I was interested in how communities were formed, how the spatial layout and land use and zoning really do impact quality of life. And transportation kind of flows directly through all of that.”

Before starting Remix, Chu worked at Zipcar, a car sharing/rental company based in Cambridge, Mass., where she worked as the company’s first user experience (UX) researcher and designer. “I actually took a fairly meandering route to transportation. One of my first jobs out of school was working at Zipcar as a designer and that was just a really cool place for me to experience the intersection of cities, technology and design. And you know Zipcar was bringing this whole new way of thinking to a very outdated industry, which is around [the benefits of] access over ownership.”

It’s sort of ironic for Chu, who’s never owned a car, to be working on the driver experience, but it’s not as though she’s never driven a car—she borrowed her parents’ car while growing up. Though she may not be an authority on driving or owning a car, she has loads of experience using transit systems from living in big cities and traveling.

Chu and her bike in Amsterdam.

Chu and her bike in Amsterdam.

Plus, the whole point of car sharing focuses on having access to a car versus owning one. And at Zipcar Chu worked firsthand with customers during the year+ that she spent there, where she “spent time with Zipcar members (Zipsters) all over the world—interviewing them, driving with them, getting lost with them, understanding how access over ownership fit into their lives. I translated user needs into product requirements and design and supported the product through international expansion to design the best car sharing experience possible.”

After Zipcar, Chu’s “meandering path” took her to San Francisco, where she pursued a year fellowship at Code for America, a nonprofit that aims to improve peoples’ lives by bridging the gap between public and private sectors through the government’s use of technology and design She worked with the city of Charlotte, N.C. on open data initiatives, where she spent time with the city’s transportation department and its geographic information system (GIS) and geospatial mapping departments trying to understand the city’s context and needs.

“Then Remix kind of emerged in parallel, as a side project with other fellows at Code for America who then became my cofounders, so that was the meandering path,” said Chu.

Originally, the vision of Chu and her colleagues for the side project was to help people who ride transit and provide suggestions for routes that they wanted to see planned, so they came up with Transitmix, a tool to help transit planners design routes, identify trade-offs, and communicate with the public. They presented their proposed platform at the Code for America summit in 2014, and when the organization tweeted out the Transitmix prototype, 30,000 maps were created in hundreds of cities around the world. Plus, they gained attention from around 200 urban planners who requested more features of the platform.

Realizing that they might be on to something bigger, Chu, along with Sam Hashemi, Dan Getelman and Danny Whalen, launched Remix.

So today, Remix is a platform for designing and planning public transit that is used by transportation professionals, including departments of transportation and transit agencies for transportation planning and decision-making.

Its solutions are used in more than 350 cities and in over 22 countries across 5 continents. Some of the Remix offerings include tools for public transportation planning, shared mobility software and GIS software for multimodal planning needs.

While it’s not a platform for consumers, as was originally intended, it is a collaborative platform for transportation professionals that can be used by cities planning new routes or changes to invite public feedback in public forums. In November 2020 the company launched Remix Commenting, which governments and planners can use to engage with the public through public commenting.

Also, when the pandemic hit in 2020 and remote collaboration became the norm, Remix quickly responded and its product team shipped customers over 120 updates, many of which became essential to emerging multimodal planning needs in the new digital norm.

Some of its customers include the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT), Transport for London, the Chicago Department of Transportation and Seattle King County.

When asked how the acquisition came about, Chu said that she had met Via CEO, Daniel Ramot, a few years back at a conference and was really impressed with what Via, which was also a startup since 2012, had accomplished over the years.

“I think he [Ramot] was also similarly impressed with Remix, so we both kind of had an eye on each other over the past couple years. We were both newish to the transportation space, but it was also at a time when technology and software were really taking off in kind of this new revolution for transportation and public transit.

“There’s not a ton of companies who I think are partnering with local governments in a really kind of partnership-first kind of way. There’s a lot of technology companies trying to disrupt the industry and I think Via was one that was not trying to do that.

“I have always been really intrigued by how fast they’ve grown, the scale that they’ve been able to accomplish and achieve, and if I were to think about all the possible companies Remix could have ended up at … Via probably would have been the best long-term home for us because they’re a larger company with more resources, which is great, and what we want, but at the same time they’re still a startup, you know, they’re just like a bigger startup. And I think that kind of combines the best of both worlds.”

Chu riding the new SMART train in Marin County, Calif.

Chu riding the new SMART train in Marin County, Calif.

Speaking of both worlds, we wanted to get a feel for what Chu does when she’s not working and get to know her better. Check out the Q & A below for more on her favorite things, hobbies and future goals.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an architect and a gymnast.

Where did you think you would be at age 30?

I thought I would be designing houses for other people, but now I get to help other people design transportation systems for their whole city, so….

Is it true you’ve never owned a car?

That is true. But I did borrow my parents’ car when I was growing up.

Do you see yourself ever owning a car?

I hope not. Many people live in places where it’s just infeasible to not own a car, like you literally don’t have access to the grocery store, you know, basic common needs. I think the goal is not necessarily to not own a car but maybe it’s like in the future I live in a community with multiple families and we share a car or something like that.

Who inspires you?

Gosh, like a person?

Anything, a group, a person …

I think I’m really inspired by a lot of the art that’s happening right now in a kind of activism, and a lot of the social movements that we’re seeing in the kind of creative outpouring, sometimes of pain. A lot of times it’s just, you know, the need to be seen.

What is your favorite music or what are you listening to these days?

So hard to pick one….

I’m listening to a lot of podcasts. Well, I’ll tell you about a podcast I’m listening to right now a lot is “How to Save a Planet.” And it’s about kind of actionable … like climate change seems like such a hairy, difficult intractable global issue, but they’re kind of breaking it down and giving you actionable insights on how to combat climate change. I love that.

Who are your favorite architects?

I find myself a little bit more attracted and compelled less by “starchitects” and more by natural forms that have to do with community. I ’m looking a lot into [people] like Carlo Scarpa. He was a Venetian architect and urban designer. I look at Herman Hertzberger a lot. He’s a Dutch architect who does a lot of projects around kind of co-housing—so like community housing.

Is it hard running a company from a different city? Are you working from home like most of the world has been?

That’s been one of the unexpected challenges of the last year. Everyone’s remote, so it’s not like I’m the only one who’s remote. It’s not any harder than just generally being a CEO plus COVID. I think remote is just a new skill set that every leader must learn how to deal with.

What do you do when you’re not working?

You can find me running, biking, taking the ferry around Seattle, taking public transit around a city (she laughed), hiking with my dog, doing ceramics.

You’ve been named in Forbes 30 under 30 and the LinkedIn Next Wave of leaders under 35, you wrote for Dwell, you have your own company. Sounds like you have it all! What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?

I think what I’m most proud of is building something that is used by almost 400 cities around the world, building something that 400 cities around the world use every day.

What are your future plans—like, professionally or personally?

I’m really excited about the next couple of years at Via. I think Via has an incredibly strong upward trajectory and the timing is just so right with transportation being such an important issue. As more people are moving to cities—transportation being the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—so a very important and critical lever in climate change. There’s also thinking about transportation as a way in terms of getting more people access to opportunity from a social justice standpoint, so there’s no better time to be in transportation. I think I’m going to continue my work in this field because it’s so motivating to me and it’s so important. And I will see where that takes me.