Transportation’s Chief Innovators

On March 12, the Eno Center for Transportation hosted a webinar with four senior innovation officers who are transforming public agencies and the transportation services they provide. You can watch the webinar at

The four panelists were Santiago Garces (City of Boston’s chief innovation officer), Seth Wainer (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s program director of innovation), Vincent White (U.S. Department of Transportation’s senior advisor for innovation), and Kimberly Williams (Houston Metro Transit’s chief innovation officer.)

Seth Wainer credits his experience serving as the City of Newark’s chief information officer for helping him approach and solve problems at the Port Authority. The city takes great pride in its history as a leader in canals, trains, shipping, airplanes and more. In the New Jersey city, Wainer learned how to complete ambitious projects by educating himself about many topics, while keeping his eye on the “big picture.”

He explained how innovation officers at transportation agencies have to work with representatives from numerous departments. They need to understand how technologies can be applied, and familiarize themselves with a wide range of related issues such as legal risks and optimizing procurements. To move a project along, he said, “you need a narrative that makes sense, the details need to be there, and you need to execute.”

Wainer is excited about a partnership that could be used to send high-value cargo around the New York metropolitan area. Last year, the Port Authority tested the viability of transporting goods across the Hudson River via a small uncrewed aircraft, by flying a box of Girl Scout cookies between Brooklyn and New Jersey. Wainer said, “It may seem like something from the Jetsons, but if drone cargo proves viable it may be a low-carbon way to move the most valuable items between New York and New Jersey. We are exploring routes and starting to look for customers who may be interested in investing in this space alongside us.”

Kimberly Williams described how Metro Transit’s leadership established an Office of Innovation to future proof its assets, improve customer service, study autonomous vehicles, and support the agency as it transitioned its fleet to zero emission vehicles. Her office is now also investigating the use of AI.

Five years ago, Williams launched the first phase of an autonomous vehicle pilot program. A small bus, holding up to 12 passengers and traveling approximately 8 miles per hour, successfully operated along a one-mile university promenade. Beginning this spring, a larger autonomous, zero-emission shuttle will operate in mixed traffic between transit stations and two universities. A trained bus operator will be on board at all times to monitor the vehicle’s performance and assist passengers.

Williams is especially proud of Houston Metro’s new on-demand response service. She said, after initial attempts to partner with ride-sharing companies did not pan out, the agency realized, “we had the vehicles and operators, what was missing were the algorithms to schedule trips.” After piloting state-of-the-art software, Houston Metro began its curb2curb service, “operating in communities where otherwise we wouldn’t serve.”

Santiago Garces oversees Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology, a team of nearly 150 employees. He is starting to leverage generative AI in a manner that can empower the city’s employees to analyze problems, calculate risks, identify solutions, and respond in record time.

“We have lots of data,” he said. However, finding patterns in that data (whether it is related to traffic or bus fuel use) has often involved months of painstaking analysis. Now, Garces says, new technologies can allow workers to quickly review massive amounts of information that the city already collects. For example, with simple prompts, AI has the ability to analyze 311 data, identify discrepancies in service, and make easy-to-understand graphs, maps, and other visualizations.

Instead of pointing city residents to lengthy reports, Garces wants AI to provide people with the information that is relevant to their lives. He envisions residents having a better understanding of why the city adopts certain policies. He cited an example of building a dedicated bus lane. By making data more transparent and accessible, city residents can better understand a traffic problem and how speeding up buses and encouraging a modal shift can most effectively solve that problem.

Vinn White wears several hats at the U.S. DOT. He is a senior advisor to Secretary Pete Buttigieg, serves as the designated federal officer to the Transforming Transportation Advisory Committee, and is the department’s acting chief AI officer.

Last month, U.S. DOT launched an AI Initiative to develop powerful new decision-support tools that assist in the siting, design, and deployment of Complete Streets. It is part of White’s efforts to encourage the development of new tools for generating, integrating, and activating mobility-related data.

White understands why U.S. DOT’s stakeholders can get frustrated by the government’s seemingly slow pace, whether it involves taking regulatory steps for a new technology or programming funds for innovative projects, but he explained that DOT is constrained by the ways in which Congress has authorized it to provide grants. “We need to thread the needle on what we can actually do.” He added, “It’s not for a lack of trying, we just have to be careful.”

White’s team is guided by innovation principles issued by Secretary Buttigieg. Safety is at the core of the agency’s efforts along with creating high quality jobs, increasing opportunity for all Americans, achieving racial equality, and tackling the climate crisis. When looking at innovations like automated vehicles, White said, “given the need to further bend the roadway fatalities curve, we need real measurable evidence that it can deliver substantial safety benefits.”

How Innovators Overcome Inertia and Fear

The four innovation officers talked about how they have learned to overcome the tendency for large public agencies to resist change. Bureaucrats are often justifiably concerned about the potential implications of innovation such as jobs displacement, legal risks, the potential for a project to fail, and the need to modify procedures that may have served an agency well for decades.

Williams credits her accomplishments to having the ongoing support of the agency’s leadership and engaging with the community so that innovations can best improve the rider experience.  She has also learned the importance of collaboration on both developing and implementing innovative strategies.

Williams makes a deliberate effort to understand the overall needs of the agency’s departments, asking them, “what keeps you up at night and how can we help.” In turn, Williams said she makes sure they understand how an innovation such as transitioning the fleet to electric power will impact and affect them. She emphasized the need to “bring people into the conversation and make them feel part of the process.”

Wainer agreed with Williams saying, “Top-down buy-in at the outset is really helpful. One of the strengths I try to deploy every day is a lot of positivity. I try to say ‘yes’ to anything that anyone says we should be doing. I try to go in with a smile. Maybe chief optimism officer would be a good nomenclature.”

Wainer said he doesn’t expect to walk into everyone’s office and hear “Seth, that’s a great idea.” When someone is resistant, he’ll respond, “Let’s talk about it.” Overcoming hurdles, he explained, requires keeping people together.

Regarding the reaction that many people have to innovation, Garces said “Some fear is good fear. Not all innovation works. Some risk management isn’t a bad thing.”

When Garces is told “No, we aren’t allowed to do that,” he often goes back to primary source materials to determine, “Does the regulation really say that?” Garces also emphasized the importance of leadership and culture. “We have a mayor who tells us to embrace the possibilities,” he said.

White said the key to implementing changes is “managing expectations” as well as getting “people to understand what we’re trying to achieve and how it fits within the White House’s priorities and the department’s principles. We can get a little sideways, if we’re not thoughtful and then try to introduce something that doesn’t fit.” He also has learned not to take resistance personally. The innovation work comes with a mantra “assume good intent” that reminds his team that everyone at U.S. DOT, including those who are resistant to innovation, are ultimately driving toward the same goals.

All four panelists are excited about the opportunities and potential for new technologies to transform transportation and provide more effective and efficient government services. Technological innovations in transportation are certainly not a new phenomenon. Citing the example of building a train network under the streets of New York in the early 20th century, Garces pointed out, “Everything that seems normal today, must have seemed crazy at one point. That’s just the way the world works. The pace of changing is moving faster and faster.”

In fact, transportation innovations have played a key role in U.S. history since the nation’s founding. Check out Eno’s new series about transportation innovation and U.S. presidents, where you can read how changing transportation policies and technologies, from lighthouses to electric vehicles, have had a profound effect on our lives.

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