Boston Mayor Michelle Wu came into office with a clear mandate from voters to think big. From promising fare-free transit to a city-scaled Green New Deal, she essentially told voters to raise their expectations of what’s possible for city governments to achieve. And it’s that kind of grand vision for Boston that pushed Tiffany Chu, who currently serves as a senior vice president at the ride-hailing and transit technology company Via, to accept Wu’s offer to become the mayor’s permanent chief of staff.
“[I’m excited about] just being able to lean into what’s possible,” Chu said in an interview. “There’s so much going on in the city of Boston that I think makes it a really inspiring time to be there.”
Wu, who will announce Chu’s appointment Wednesday, has in some ways made an unconventional choice. After all, Chu currently lives in Seattle and has not worked in Boston politics, so she brings an outsider’s perspective to City Hall that could help inject, and give life to, fresh new ideas.
Chu also represents the promise of Wu’s campaign. She has an extensive background in transit, having cofounded and led Remix, a company that worked with hundreds of cities around the world to plan and improve their public transit systems. She also served as a commissioner in San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, where she helped the city deploy its climate action plan by developing a strategy to eventually get 80 percent of trips in the city to be “low carbon.”
It’s that experience that makes Chu a promising choice to lead Wu’s staff. “At the end of the day, when you work for a mayor, when you work for a city, your entire job should not just be about the politics, but it should be around delivering government services that are simple, beautiful, and easy to use,” Chu said.
Chu is also not entirely a newcomer to the Boston area; she earned a degree in architecture with a focus on urban planning from MIT. And while her work in transit was what Wu said was a “huge part” of her decision to hire her — and yet another signal of the mayor’s commitment to making transit a key priority — so too was her training as an architect and designer. “City government is special because we are charged with doing the big and the small,” Wu said in an interview “and [Chu’s] background as a designer who has changed systems and implemented sweeping innovations is still based on getting all the little details right.”
Mitchell Weiss, who served as chief of staff under former mayor Thomas Menino and is on Wu’s transition team, said that Chu’s resume was tailored for this job at this particular moment. Wu, he said, was looking for someone with “a real true passion for cities and especially for Boston, real experience leading teams and rallying them through big challenges, and real expertise at the intersection of mobility, climate, economic opportunity, technology, and the like.” And that’s exactly what Chu brings to the table.
Chu’s appointment also reflects one of Wu’s principal goals as mayor: to expand Bostonians’ views on what’s possible. “I’m certainly someone who grew up not only thinking that there was no chance I would be in government, but actively feeling invisible in front of so many of our government structures,” Wu told me. “It is past time for all of our communities to see city government as a platform for change and City Hall as a home for making that change.”
That sentiment is one of the reasons Chu has decided to move to Boston. “What excited me the most about [Wu] as a leader is the inclusivity that she brought to her campaign and her team and what her message represented, in that someone — myself, I’m also first-generation Taiwanese American, and my parents emigrated from Taiwan — to know that immigrants can also rise up to become mayors and leaders in the community in such a major way,” Chu said. “That’s been hugely inspiring to me.”
Chu, who will assume her new role next month, has her work cut out for her. The city is facing several crises, from COVID-19 to housing affordability to climate change, and she’s going to have to help the mayor steer the city in the right direction. But her experience has prepared her well to help implement Wu’s vision for Boston. “The whole thread of my career thus far has been about tying together my passions for cities, for urbanism, for architecture and design, and transportation,” Chu said. And now she has an opportunity to showcase that.