Eno’s “Convergence” Explores Intersection of Technology and Transportation

March 30, 2016

The Eno Center for Transportation held a one-day conference on March 24 that brought private sector technology and transportation companies together with public sector transportation leaders to explore the ways in which digital technology is changing the face of transportation and what those changes will look like in the years to come. Called “Convergence,” the seminar was part of Eno’s Digital Cities project, a multi-part research and outreach effort intended to provide a resource for policymakers to understand the technological forces that are shaping our transportation networks.

Eno's incoming President and CEO, Rob Puentes, gives welcoming remarks at the beginning of the day.

Eno’s incoming President and CEO, Rob Puentes, gives welcoming remarks at the beginning of the day.

After a welcome and overview by Eno Center leadership, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation Mark Dowd brought the crowd up to date on USDOT’s Smart City Challenge. On March 12, Secretary Foxx announced the seven finalists for the program, who had been chosen from among 78 applicants. Dowd described the current work between USDOT and the finalists as a “collaboration phase,” saying that even though only one city will win the $40 million prize, all seven will receive valuable technical assistance seminars and visits from DOT officials and private sector technology providers to identify specific ways that those cities can achieve their technology-driven transportation vision. Dowd said that USDOT expects to choose the winning city by the end of June.

David Strickland, former Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and current Partner at Venable, gave the lunchtime keynote speech. He focused on a number of themes raised during the morning panels including changing transportation behavior and safe mobility for all.

Strickland first made the point that new technologies, while having the ability to change transportation for the better, can take some time to take hold and have a positive effect. He argued that in order for many of these new transportation technologies to take hold investors and users must “lean into new technologies and aspects of transportation” and change their behavior.

The former NHTSA Administrator also highlighted the ability of transportation technologies to help us move toward “Vision Zero” (the complete elimination of highway accident fatalities). He pointed out that “94% of crashes have an element of human error”. He went on to say that transportation technologies could reduce this statistic dramatically if we can make safer vehicles (with or without a human driver), reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, and get more people walking, biking or taking transit.

Convergence featured six panel discussions, each of which will get its own writeup in a future issue of ETW.

  • Transit’s Technological Revolution – Representatives of Uber, Lyft, RideScout, Via, and the San Francisco MTA sat down with a moderator from the Shared Use Mobility Center to discuss how “ridesharing” platforms (Uber, Lyft), on-demand transit services (Via), route optimization apps (RideScout) and other emerging technologies can be integrated with public transportation systems. The panel had quick agreement on the “big picture” goal – seamless, fully integrated interoperability across all modes of transportation. This would mean a single app could contain your subway/light rail/bus pass and system map, while also allowing access to ridesharing, on-demand transit, or bikeshare on either end of the transit journey. However, there are of course many obstacles to that goal. Legal and policy issues make the pooling of public and private payment systems difficult, while integrating app technology from multiple public and private sources poses competitive and technological hurdles and raises privacy and data protection concerns. And the logistical obstacles – in order to have your rideshare waiting at the train station, the app needs to know, to the minute, when the train will arrive and somehow coordinate that with the closest rideshare driver, etc. – are also significant. With regard to the logistical hurdles, there was also a general consensus that land use planners need to start converting some of their closer parking areas to rideshare drop-off/pick-up areas as soon as possible. And there was an overall sense that transit agencies need to expand their thinking – the SFMTA representative pointed out that transit operators historically think of travelers as going from transit stop to transit stop, not from point A to point B, and that if people can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B using transit, they won’t take transit.

    From left to right: Zack Wasserman, Via; Emily Castor, Lyft; Andrew Salzberg, Uber; Timothy Papandreou, SFMTA; Regina Clewlow, RideScout

    From left to right: Zack Wasserman, Via; Emily Castor, Lyft; Andrew Salzberg, Uber; Timothy Papandreou, SFMTA; Regina Clewlow, RideScout

  • Using Technology to Optimize Freight Shipment – Representatives from Cargomatic, the Port of Long Beach, Roadie, and Peloton Technology discussed new technologies being employed in freight shipping (with Adie Tomer from Brookings moderating). These applications ranged from the macro – deep-water ports like Long Beach – to the very micro, such as freight shipments using unused trunk space in a personal automobile trip that was already happening (Roadie). The conversation started on the issue of congestion, but quickly evolved to how data and technology can be used to mitigate congestion. The lack of information that is visible to the public throughout the entire supply chain was an issue mentioned by the panelists. The role of autonomous vehicles was also discussed, with the panelists acknowledging that there is indeed a potential role for them. But for now most freight shipment will require a person, even if said person’s role is greatly enhanced by automation (for example, a single person overseeing a fleet of trucks platooning together down the Interstate, which also brings significant fuel savings through decreased wind resistance).
  • The Role of Cities in Our Mobility Future – This panel brought together representatives from ZipCar and B-Cycle (the manufacturer of many of the bikes and racks used in bikeshare systems) together with officials from Los Angeles and Seattle, as well as an academic from Cal-Berkeley and the founder of Hopista (technologically-assisted hitchhiking). Examining the role of the city as a provider of transportation services using innovative technology, the ZipCar participant noted that his company’s success was largely due to the early support from the local government of the District of Columbia in assigning the first 86 reserved parking spaces for the company’s vehicles in premium locations (which was a politically difficult move opposed by many real estate interests). ZipCar now has a presence in over 500 cities in 8 countries, and has pioneered a middle ground in what used to be a simple binary decision (own a car, or be a full-time mass transit rider). Likewise, Jenny O’Brien (who conducted the Hopista experiment and now works for the City of Kansas City, Missouri) told attendees about how her city has licensed technology from Bridj to assist the city in providing vanpool rides between two areas of the metro area underserved by regularly scheduled transit service. As in the earlier transit technology panel, several members of this panel focused on the need to provide seamless connectivity between the transit stop and the variety of shared-use modes that a rider can use to travel from the transit stop to his or her final destination. (The Los Angeles representative pointed out that while L.A. is late to the bikeshare game, their plan is to integrate the transit fare system into the bikeshare fare system for seamless connectivity.)
  • Technology and Data for Transportation Optimization – Representatives from WMATA, RideAmigos, AASHTO, Urban-Insights, and the Community Transportation Association of America discussed the role of data in the future of transportation. (USDOT Chief Data Officer Dan Morgan moderated.) The discussion revolved around a number of issues: what data are available and what data are being used; how are decisions being made using available data and the role of performance-based decision making; how good and recent are the data available; access to data; privacy. Some of the points made included the need for better collection and use of data to achieve specific goals, not for the sake of collecting and using data without a goal in sight. Also, the need to better share data across public agencies and private companies and the public at large was pointed out several times. Finally, on the issue of privacy and data collection, the need for the creation of incentives for users to share data was discussed, as users often don’t understand what is being collected and shared, and do not gain personally from what is being shared.
  • Beyond Speculation: The Pragmatic Policy Role in Autonomous Vehicles – After lunch, the AV session brought together representatives from General Motors, Toyota and Intel with a scholar from the University of Utah and current and former officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This panel was noteworthy for its lack of consensus on questions as basic as “will autonomous vehicles result in much more vehicle-miles traveled (VMT), or much less VMT?” and “is it more or less dangerous for a self-driving car to hand control back to a human driver in the event of an emergency?” With regards to the VMT question, the underlying assumptions about ridesharing versus single-use vehicles make an enormous difference in the outcome. Sam LaMagna from Intel (a member of the Eno Center Board of Directors) noted that his mother keeps threatening to move in with him if she does not get her self-driving car soon – a funny moment, but also a reminder that autonomous vehicles could eventually result in a lot of people owning and operating cars who would be unable or unwilling to own or operate a conventional auto. Alternatively, the assumptions about AV’s leading to lower overall VMT involve a mass migration from personal car ownership to shared-ownership or for-hire fleets. It was also pointed out that an AV scenario resulting in fewer overall cars that are running more hours of the day (equaling the same amount of VMT) would provide a significant reduction in ground-level air pollution, since about half of carbon monoxide emissions (which then turn into ground-level ozone, a.k.a. smog) are produced in the first two minutes that a car’s engine is operating, while the catalytic converter is warming up. Fewer vehicle starts equals less smog, even if the car engine stays running much longer. With regard to the safety concern, the current NHTSA Deputy Administrator, Blair Anderson, noted that AV technology had the potential to “bend the curve” on highway accident fatalities and that NHTSA is working to publish guidance on AVs by July 2016. Ken Laberteaux from Toyota said that there is a core group of experts who believe that is an “unsolvable problem” for autonomous vehicles to be able to hand back control to the driver in a safe way in the event of an emergency (he outlined the prospect of an inattentive, hands-off driver behind the wheel being startled by a loud buzzer and having to react immediately to some sort of imminent road hazard). In any case, since fleet turnover takes 20 to 30 years, panelists did agree that AVs need to be able to operate around human-operated vehicles for the foreseeable future.
  • Where Do We Go From Here? – This wrap-up panel was moderated by incoming Eno Center President and CEO Robert Puentes and featured representatives from the Federal Transit Administration, the Los Angeles County MTA, Sidewalk Labs (a Google-founded urban mobility project), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a scholar from UCLA. This panel gave several participants the opportunity to discuss new projects. These included Sidewalk Labs’ Flow (a data analysis platform that allows cities to view real-time anonymized smartphone data and traffic sensor data to determine street and sidewalk usage), which USDOT is using to work with the Smart Cities finalists, and FTA’s “Mobility on Demand Sandbox” – a series of ongoing demonstration projects to showcase various types of transit/MOD partnerships. (FTA’s Vincent Valdes said that he hopes to have a NOFA for the Sandbox program out in April, which would invite transit agencies, MPOs and tech companies to write to FTA early on in the process and identify perceived regulatory obstacles to transit/MOD partnerships, at which point FTA could either help them through the process or else give them a piece of paper saying that their perception of a regulatory problem was mistaken.) But most of the panel was devoted to discussing and summarizing the ideas put forth in panels earlier in the day.

For more information about how to participate in Eno’s Digital Cities initiative throughout the next year, please contact Eno’s Development Director, Patrice Davenport, at pdavenport@enotrans.org.

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