Last week the Intelligent Transportation Society of America hosted a symposium at the University of Washington on the future of transportation and “shared use mobility” services like bike share and Uber. Leaders in the local transportation industry, on both the public and private side, debated how these new modes reflect demographic changes and how they will impact transportation modeling, planning, and funding. They also discussed the ramifications of emerging technology like autonomous vehicles and networked vehicles.
ITS America is an organization of public agencies, private companies, and research institutions dedicated to advancing transportation technology. Each year they host several two-day symposiums in major cities to bring together top experts and spread the latest knowledge. I was invited to the Seattle event, which was hosted here because the city is showcases the theme shared use mobility and the exploding variety of transportation options.
Seattle Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Scott Kubly gave the opening keynote. He noted that new programs and services are helping to keep single-occupant-vehicle (SOV) use stable in downtown, despite an increase in 40,000 downtown employees over the past four years. More broadly, he spoke to the changing needs of cities and their citizens across the U.S.: people want choices and flexibility; there are massive environmental and public health concerns that can be addressed through transportation; transportation affordability is at the forefront of social equity; and demographic shifts are seeing younger people drive less and more elderly people in the population than ever before.
Kubly imagines that at some point, if not already, some teens may prefer to get an Uber or Lyft account rather than a driver license. Many young people already prefer to own a smartphone over owning a car. He theorized about a “transportation bundle” of services urban dwellers could purchase, similar to buying cable/phone/Internet service, instead of relying on a myriad of payment systems. Using this as an example of a massive potential shift in transportation, he said that DOTs need to become system integrators. Kubly said their mission will evolve to become more about how people are being served than who is serving them.
One way that both public and private sectors could benefit, for instance, is transit agencies partnering with rideshare services to fill in service gaps late at night when its inefficient to run buses. Later in the day, a representative from Lyft said that 20 percent of their trips in the Bay Area start or end at BART and Caltrain rail stations.
Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary (WSDOT) Lynn Peterson gave a brief presentation on shifting engineering doctrines and revenue sources. She said transportation engineers have long tried to simply push more “water through the pipe”, but today they now consider livability issues, the movement of people and goods rather than just vehicles, and the provision of choices. Peterson also touched on transportation funding and declining gas tax revenue due to more fuel-efficient vehicles. She said many of these topics will be discussed at a WSDOT conference in September.
Benefits and challenges
The first panel included representatives from Sound Transit, car2go, Zipcar, and Pronto bike share sharing their thoughts on the benefits and barriers of shared use mobility. They said that on the national shared use services barely makes a blip on the transportation pie, though in tech-savvy San Francisco they account for 21 percent of trips. The panelists said the various modes have the greatest potential for non-work trips, which make up over 80 percent of Americans’ travel. They also called for a universal payment system.
There were questions on how car and bike sharing will interact with transit, the original shared use mode, but there is clearly great potential to expand. Kaleb Miller, Zipcar’s general manager in Seattle, said 25 percent of Zipcar customers sell a car after joining the service. And in an acknowledgement of induced demand, the panelists said that engineers cannot build out of congestion but that there is a potential to build into shared use mobility. Transit centers and apartment buildings can come with parking spaces for Zipcars, bike share stations, and pick-up/drop-off areas for rideshare drivers.
I asked the panelists about something referred to by Kubly and the Zipcar ownership statistic: is there an opportunity to discourage young people (16-24 year olds) from buying cars in the first place? And if so, could shared use mobility be expanded to car-dependent suburbs and small towns to decrease solo driving? The panelists answered that shared use services make more economic sense in dense places. But, there is low density potential with services like Getaround and RelayRides, in which people rent out their personal cars like they would use AirBnB to rent a bedroom. Miller of Zipcar noted that the company heavily targets the Millennial demographic and operates on many college campuses, where many young people form their lifestyles and transportation habits.
Later in the day panelists acknowledged that academic study is needed to determined whether carshare and rideshare actually have environmental benefits through reduced driving and reduced emissions.
Data and infrastructure
Other panels dived into how shared data and infrastructural changes can shape the landscape of mobility. One panelist noted that smartphones are excellent information-deliverers, but they can also be information-gatherers. Cell phone companies already know where customers’ phones are in relation to cell towers so they can charge the right rates. Google Maps’ traffic layer is created by thousands of drivers with smartphones, and Waze relies on crowdsouring for traffic conditions and incident reporting. The panelists suggested that public agencies be less restrictive and be more proactive by using a richer set of data tools. They applauded Puget Sound agencies for openly sharing data already, enabling apps like OneBusAway.
The impact of autonomous vehicles is uncertain. The panelists pondered whether they will individually owned or if they will centralized and rentable on a per-mile basis. But they agreed they are coming and will have massive impacts on society and the national economy. In particular, millions of truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, and others who drive for a living are at risk for losing their jobs in the coming decades.
Panelists considered a number of other technology improvements. High occupancy toll (HOT) lanes have been recently introduced to freeways, allowing SOV drivers to pay to enter lanes that are otherwise reserved for carpools and buses. Sensor and camera systems can detect bicyclists at intersections. Battery powered buses and fleet vehicles, such as for universities, are starting to come online but need more industry standards. One panelist said that his company’s parking payment system will soon be integrated into the navigation system of new vehicles. Connected vehicle (CV) technology will vehicles to talk to each other, to roadside infrastructure, and to a cellular network to potentially improve safety and efficiency.
One panelist said “we don’t have a capacity problem, we have an empty seat problem”. Traditional carpooling is hard to manage because of varying work schedules and the distance between co-workers’ homes. Split in Washington, D.C. is hoping to bridge the gap between carpooling, taxis, and ridesharing by offering a flexible and demand-responsive service that picks up and drops off several passengers during an individual trip using a routing algorithm.
Economics and finance
Payment has become a strong organizational and traffic management tool. Tolls, transit fares, and smartphone apps give users different choices and help agencies and companies manage demand by adjusting prices in real time. Throughout the symposium many panelists brought up the idea that people should be able to use their credit card, or a single transportation card, to pay for everything from transit fares, bike share, car share, and train tickets in either single metropolitan regions or the entire country.
In an interesting move for an engineering symposium, at one point the discussion turned to social justice. A representative from WSDOT said that one-third of Washingtonians have “special transportation needs”, which includes elderly people, children, people with disabilities, and low-income people. He said that long commute times are correlated with a lack of upward mobility for the 14 percent of Washingtonians who live in poverty. He also said many people who fall in these categories don’t have credit cards or even a bank account, limiting their ability to even purchase transportation, much less secure a well paying job or enroll in higher education.
Access for people with disabilities is a major issue, especially for wheelchair users. Ridesharing services are limited in this regard because they depend on their drivers’ personal cars, which aren’t likely to be wheelchair-accessible vans. The companies could potentially integrate with paratransit services for non-wheelchair users to ease demand on public transit.
Congressmembers Suzan DelBene (WA-01) and Rick Larsen (WA-02) were keynotes on the second day and spoke on a number of technological and funding issues at the national level. From the audience, the head of the Federal Transit Administration’s IT division asked if the federal government could work on requiring regional transportation agencies (such as the Puget Sound Regional Council) to update their plans in synchronization with technology upgrades. Transportation technology is evolving so quickly, he said, that plans written only a few years ago are outdated and don’t reflect the new capacity and efficiency that traffic tools are enabling on roads and on transit.
Nationally the Highway Trust Fund, which funds all kinds of transportation projects, is running out of money due to high-efficiency vehicles and Congress’ inability to either raise the federal tax or find stable alternate funding. One method that Oregon is testing starting this month is is a road usage fee based on distance traveled. When asked what the opposition to that is, Representative Larsen said equity, privacy, and security are all concerns. I discussed how those issues can be overcome, and which ones Oregon is testing, in an earlier post.
The symposium brought to light many of the challenges that transportation planners and engineers are facing now and in the near future. The recent variety of non-traditional transportation modes and ability to respond to real-time demand must be factored into transportation planning. New technologies are enabling users to have greater flexibility in how they get around and how to pay for transportation as a service, and autonomous cars are on the horizon in one form or another. City planners should pay close attention as transportation experiences another evolution in how people get around urban places.