Monday, March 20, 2017

Fully autonomous vehicles may make us safer, but could add to traffic

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

Just what a future transportation system with autonomous vehicles looks like isn’t completely clear-cut.
However, Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas-based leading academic on the subject, has predictions for their economic impacts. In a South by Southwest presentation last week, she put forth a rapid-fire, yet nuanced, synopsis of the numerous studies she’s completed with UT students on an approaching autonomous future.
“I don’t think these cars are going to help us with congestion. I think they’re going to make it worse,” Kockelman said, adding this this will be an area that will require crucial legislation. “But I think they will save us on safety.”
Safety is certainly a top selling point upon which auto and tech experts will rely as they push autonomous vehicles as a future transportation solution.
The nearly 33,000 U.S. traffic deaths and 6 million crashes in 2014, according to Kockelman, created a cost of more than $500 billion. Driver error caused more than 90 percent of those crashes, and she said AVs would dramatically reduce that number, since at least 40 percent of those deaths resulted from alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and/or distraction.
With 100 percent adoption of AVs, the country would gain $488 billion annually in “pain and suffering” avoided from car crashes. That equates to $1,530 each year per person in the United States.
The congestion side may be a much trickier message for auto and tech experts to pitch to the public. Kockelman calculated that, in 2014, traffic created 7 billion hours of delay and caused $160 billion in economic loss.
On top of that, the bonus of “productivity en route” would be a $645 billion gain to the economy each year.
Add together the two economic gains – pain and suffering plus productivity – and the country would save a whopping $1.4 trillion in costs. On the per capita side, that comes to $4,419 per person in the country.
However, Kockelman balances the positives with the many consequences that would likely domino throughout society, including:
  • Longer travel distances, including people more likely to take induced driverless trips to destinations they currently wouldn’t drive to due to stress or other factors
  • More driving trips by people who are presently unlicensed or have barriers to driving
  • Less air travel by passengers
  • Less rail travel by freight
  • Possibly larger, less-efficient vehicles for longer trips, and
  • More sprawling land use
Kockelman continued, saying these side effects could, in turn, increase congestion and infrastructure damage in many places. This would create a need for “systems to be operated more efficiently, equitably, and sustainably, including incentives for ride-sharing and non-motorized travel, route guidance, credit-based congestion pricing, and micro-tolling.”
“We’re going to see a lot more travel, but hopefully we’ll travel together, so that will avoid congestion,” she said. Kockelman added that improved technology should make tolling more efficient and that better public transportation and true ridesharing (as opposed to Uber- and Lyft-like ride-hailing) will be keys along the autonomous path.
Perhaps most importantly, she and her co-presenter Lisa Loftus-Otway, also from UT-Austin, said AVs offer a momentary chance to have a national conversation about transportation in the U.S. – something that has never truly happened on this scale.
“We’ve never really had an honest discussion on what transportation costs us,” Loftus-Otway said. “Terminology matters and [for example, we] shouldn’t call it a gas tax. It’s really a usage fee. Growing up, I never really knew how we paid for transportation. I guess I used to think the road fairy paid for it.”
Hopefully the AVs that appear in the near-term will help people better understand how transportation works. And then again, it may take some deliberate, and creative, outreach to help people understand the issue.
“Hopefully you all have been inside [an autonomous vehicle],” Kockelman told the audience, before laughing, “I have … and it’s pretty boring.”
Photo: Busy freeway (Rafael Castillo, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Will people ever share rides in small and mid-size cities?

This article originally appears at Mobility Lab.

Why would there be much urgency in creating shared-mobility options in a place like Austin?
RideAustin, Fasten, and others easily slipped in to take the place of Uber and Lyft when the industry leaders wouldn’t agree to the city’s driver-fingerprinting requirements. Ride-hailing is still doing well in Austin. But while ride-hailing may be helping some get around, the chances that it’s reducing traffic is likely slim at this point.
One of my RideAustin drivers made an excellent observation this week: there is no problem parking anywhere in town, so driving is simply what Austinites do. It is a place with some options, like bikeshare and light rail, that make it easy to be a multimodal citizen in the core, but they are often lost against the ease of driving for people who live more than a few miles out. For them, especially with very limited nearby transit, the personal car is king.
Where there may be hope in Austin: as ride-hailing continues apace, more of those rides could become shared. In fact, a large number of rides are made by tourists and late-night locals, and many of those are obviously shared rides. Where progress really needs to be made is during Austin’s rush hour. If commuters could start sharing those hailed rides, perhaps because of TDM outreach to employers, a major dent could be made in drive-time backups.
As the local transportation management association Movability Austin notes at its website: “The transportation system is at capacity into downtown during rush hours. And more growth is coming much faster than new transportation facilities can be built.” It’s an organization that helps Austin businesses, individuals, and others find better ways to travel that help individuals and the whole community.
In San Francisco, more than half of Uber’s and Lyft’s rides are taken through their carpooling services. A new study by Steve Strogatz and Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab found that between 60 percent and 95 percent of trips in big cities could be made into shared rides, with no more than a five-minute inconvenience for riders. There is no doubt that many trips could be shared, under the authors’ model, in many smaller metro areas.
Rasheq Zarif, the head of business innovation at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America, had an interesting take on this, from the perspective of a major car company. At a South By Southwest panel, he discussed a pilot in which his company partnered with Via in South Orange County, Calif. It’s an area with very little public transportation and miles of low-density housing.
“Surprisingly, we were able to change behavior. People liked to be picked up in an on-demand shuttle in 10 to 15 minutes. And they started interacting better and opened a bigger sense of community in that area. It got people to stop looking [down at their phones all the time] and start talking to each other,” Zarif said.
Mercedes-Benz plans to continue developing better routing methods for shared rides, but for now, that Via pilot has run its course in Orange County.
Zarif added, “We’re all so focused on getting from one thing to another and another. What’s kind of lost now in that everyone’s eating on the go, and we could get back to the idea of the family dinner.” Many people in the Orange County experiment responded positively to the idea of hopping in Via’s vans with neighbors or other community members.
While these are some of the positives, Zarif said one of the challenges is that “it’s very tough to pilot with transit agencies because there is a lot of bureaucracy.” Other broader ridesharing barriers include: the increased possibility that drivers and passengers become unhappy with the time and revenue costs of shared rides, lack of awareness that shared options even exist, low gas prices, insurance and liability concerns, free and heavily subsidized parking, and many other reasons.
According to Zarif, Mercedes-Benz is focusing on modifying the design of their cars in order to facilitate shared rides. That could include ways to reduce the need for added trips such as, for example, the ability for mail packages, dry cleaning, and even groceries to be dropped off in the trunk of the car while you’re downtown doing other errands. It could also extend to easier ways vehicles get cleaned and maintained.
But Zarif said the company plans to keep down the path of mobility rather than just automobile manufacturing. Perhaps demographics are on the company’s side, as the trend may be more generational. According to company research, a majority of people said they would be willing to let other people use their cars, with the highest numbers coming from Millennials and Generation Y respondents.
Then the next question might be: with only about 15 percent of Americans having used Uber or Lyft (almost entirely in major cities), how long will it take to reach beyond and build a critical mass of small-city Millennials who will share their rides?
Photo: Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

Ford not just selling cars anymore

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

Anyone who caught Ford’s Super Bowl commercial might have some questions about the other modes – bikeshare and vanpool, most notably – that appeared next to the automaker’s cars. To Ford, it’s part of a strategic, ongoing shift.
Speaking Monday at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., said his company has done one thing really well for the past century – sell cars. But now it’s going to do two things really well – sell cars and provide mobility solutions.
“About 12 years ago, it occurred to me that the way we were doing business wouldn’t hold anymore.” He said many competitors were looking around the world at the potential to sell more cars in developing countries with growing GDPs, but Ford thought that was a terrible growth strategy. “Where are they going to go? You already can’t drive in most urban areas.”
And although it also seems counter-intuitive that Ford would want to make America’s aging transportation systems work better by providing additional options, Ford Jr. alluded to that being a key to the mobility strategy. He didn’t want to discuss the services Ford is going to start offering cities, but he hinted at logistics, fleet management, integrated payments, and autonomous vehicles as areas that make sense. “Watch what we’re doing more than what we’re saying,” he added.
The earliest public parts of what Ford is doing are already starting to take shape. In September, Ford bought shuttle startup Chariot for an eye-popping and a little surprising $65 million. Chariot currently provides 15-seat vans in theBay Area, which run along fixed routes set by rider demand. Ford CEO Mark Fields, recently claimed that, besides offering a complement to transit, each Chariot vehicle likely replaces 20 to 25 vehicles in downtown areas. (Fields, like Ford Jr., has been making the rounds to further publicize the company’s mobility focus.)
This spring, Bay Area Bike Share will become FordGoBike, expanding a shared mobility option that offers another way for more people to get to bus and rail connections.
Surely not all of the experiments under the umbrella of the Ford Smart Mobility division will work. Ford partnered with Bridj, another Chariot-like shuttle, last year in Kansas City, and the year-long pilot program ended in March with few riders. City officials have discussed bringing it back after more fine-tuning.
And Ford is also planning for autonomous vehicles that will work in a fleet-like capacity by 2021.
At SXSW, Ford Jr., said he is confident that the technology for all the ways automobile fleets can complement mass transit have predictable dates to be ready. What he said he can’t predict is when the public will be ready.
Photo: Bill Ford Jr. speaking at SXSW (

Breaking the mold in the quest for the ultimate connected city

This is part 2 of a two-part series at Mobility Lab on how advocates can create connected cities. Part 1 examined public agencies reshaping their transportation priorities. 
Pinellas County, Fla., just west of Tampa Bay, is one of several local governments in the nation to essentially embed Uber and Lyft into the local transit system. Transit riders can get $5 back if they use those ride-hailing companies to connect to a bus stop.
Such a program from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority encourages a healthy public-private relationship and, more importantly, should make it easier for more people to not rely on private car ownership or be left in isolation because of their distance from transit.
Transportation should be viewed like a smartphone. It should allow everyone to be connected to opportunities throughout the rest of society, at reasonable and low cost. And this ride-hailing partnership with transit is a crucial example of how local governments can catch up and be responsive in a fast-moving world of technology-driven transportation options.
No longer should agencies partition buses and rail from all the newer private solutions. Simply put, shared services can be complements to transit. But this is just one way that cities can look beyond traditional thinking in their mission to better connect their transportation systems.

Public agencies must engage with private service providers

Like the auto companies that have begun aggressively investing in ride-hailing efforts, many transit agencies are ramping up efforts to form partnerships with providers like Uber and Lyft. Paratransit is one area ripe for cost savings and real-time service (rather than having to book rides days in advance) through transit agency use of private services like Lyft.
The major caveat here to work out is whether ride-hailing vehicles – with drivers who can spend lots of time driving in between fares – are actually making traffic in cities worse. The only place this has been measured, New York City – which has a unique, data-sharing contract with providers – shows that Uber and Lyft are worsening congestion. The research from the American Public Transportation Association, the University of California-Berkeley, and others have said the jury may still be out on the traffic impacts, but this is an area for local governments to concern themselves. Uber at least has taken steps to help the greater cause, having entered an agreement with Washington, D.C., and several other cities to share data with transportation planners in an effort to better manage traffic flows.
Once ride-hailing arrangements are smoothed out, the next great frontier is autonomous vehicles. In 2016, the U.S. government announced a $4 billion program for self-driving cars, and Pittsburgh took steps so Uber could use the city as an AV testing ground. How can other local governments feel comfortable and confident when considering to do what Pittsburgh has done? Or what Local Motors with its mini-bus Olli – formerly operating outside Washington, D.C. – is doing? For starters, cities need to map out all the pluses and minuses (especially financially) that AVs will bring. From there, they can implement regulations, policies, and plans to safely integrate in this mode of the future.

Don’t forget about transit

“The first thing we need to do is talk with our public institutions to try and make more partnerships, more connectivity, between the different modes, new and old,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, at a panel I moderated at this year’s TransportationCamp DC. “It’s not an easy task. Transit is one of the biggest areas we can do this.”
Indeed, the cities that create connections best will do so basing it off the existing core infrastructure of roads and mass transit. But we also can’t forget that to truly make this ultimate city work, people need to buy in to the concept of multimodalism. To help get there, companies like Ford  are leading the way toward one interactive pass or app that allows people to book, pay, and communicate with all travel options from anywhere. This seamlessness is key for the commute of the future.
Broadening the possibilities of the transit ride is also key. Where partnerships for transit might make the most sense is to have private companies “get people to transit from in-demand areas during off-peak hours,” according to Mobility Lab Director Howard Jennings, quoted in APTA’s Passenger Transport. This can reduce costs to transit agencies for pricey, low-ridership routes and bring in a wider customer base – a prospect that should be a more aggressive part of the mission for transit agencies. So-called “first-mile, last-mile” options are an area ripe for transit agencies to get involved, and some places are even going so far as to subsidize rides to and from transit. Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs, Fla., became the first city, about a year ago, to subsidize Uber rides to transit.
Another APTA report finds convincing evidence that on-demand modes, in many cases, complement – not replace – public transit. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker notes, “Many people who work inside of big companies [like Uber and Lyft] understand perfectly well how the profit motive conflicts with what you’d do if you were just trying to foster a better city, and many welcome regulation precisely to plug that gap.” As evidence appears that Uber may not be the answer to traffic dilemmas, the necessity for companies like it to work within a congestion-reducing framework grows even stronger.
And pricing itself will need to be worked out between all travel modes, which means car travel and parking prices need to reflect their true costs. When it’s cheaper to drive and park downtown than it is to take the bus or train or Uber, the multimodal, connected city goal will remain a fantasy. But there are signs of creativity to balance incentives: some European cities are paying residents to bike to work rather than drive.

Ideas for breaking molds

There are many directions cities could go to become “connected.” And while it could take larger cities with more staffing power to be able to do everything well, smaller cities could at least focus on a handful of these ideas, and do them well.
And as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft get even more attractive as alternatives to transit, with dynamic in-ride app entertainment and cheaper casual-carpooling options, more and more transit agencies are examining how to use software like TransLoc that can make it easier to take services like Uber and Lyft to and from transit stations. Journalist Esther Dyson, who also spoke on my recent TransportationCamp panel, thinks this general idea can succeed far beyond city centers. “[Uber and Lyft] would have a real opportunity in small, less dense communities where there are people without jobs but with cars. They can dynamically schedule themselves,” she said, adding that hubs like hospitals and campuses could be ride-hailing hubs.
Parking is a ripe place for innovation, as it is generally overbuilt and underpriced. Santander, Spain, has become “the most connected city in Europe” because it’s focused on installing “smart” infrastructure such as sensors that monitor parking spaces. Sensor infrastructure can improve information about parking, and help people choose whether to drive or take other options.
Autonomous vehicles seem to be the elephant in the room. Cities want to prepare for them, but they don’t know how. Federal regulations and standards would certainly be a help in order to even the playing field, but there will likely be large shifts – more people might drive, parking and signage will need major reconfigurations, housing patterns will need to change – involved for the least-prepared places. draft manifesto from several Cal Poly professors examines how AVs interact with pedestrians and people on bikes, but what about how AVs work with and complement mass transit? I’ve asked before: When cars can be summoned with a button and don’t require attention from humans, will it become even more difficult for transit to compete with the experience of autonomous vehicles? Grush Niles Associates have noted that planners should start mapping out various scenarios in which AVs could be linked into the existing transit foundations, including loops, small areas, large areas, cities, megaregions and routes where buses negate the need for AVs.
Biking, bikeshare (which increasingly see slight increases in travel share thanks to better bike parking and street infrastructure) and walking may soon have some company from electric additions: battery-powered people moversElectric skateboards and hoverboards and electric bicycles could all soon close a lot of gaps in connecting people to transit options. It helps that 67 percent of those surveyed say they need a shower after a conventional bike trip, while 74 percent say they don’t after an e-bike trip, according to Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center.
And last but far from least, transportation demand management – which includes clear information about options – presents an inexpensive, effective path for forging and solidifying those connections. Arlington Transportation Partners in Virginia works with 221 local organizations in its Champions program to make sure residents and employees know about the many transportation options throughout the county. Places are also learning that their front-line transit information – maps – simply need to be clearer, because most of us don’t understand them. And, finally, to catch up with the allure of the personal car, TDM and marketers can promote these options to connect in more exciting ways that portray transit as the norm.
Having the freedom to walk from home to take bikeshare to the subway to get to work, then maybe take a Zipcar on the way home, should present an exciting opportunity for cities. Racing towards the ultimate connected city could allow for places to provide innumerable benefits like improved traffic, health, safety, environmental conditions, and overall quality of life for many more people.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Frank Oz of the Muppets highlights an awesome movie week at SXSW

Frank Oz of Muppets fame was interviewed by legendary movie critic Leonard Maltin on Tuesday at SXSW in Austin.

He briefly plugged his new movie, Muppet Guys Talking, with its accompanying website. His wife encouraged him to create the film because she thought the way the Muppet guys worked could be inspiring for leaders. There was obviously a full house for the guy who has played Ms. Piggy, Bert, Yoda and so many others.

"The reason people are touched by the Muppets is they represent your childhood," Oz told the full room at the Austin Convention Center. When he was 19, Jim Henson asked him to join. It appealed to him because Oz was shy and he liked puppetry as a safe way of expression.

He played Bert's rigid "vertical" to Henson's "horizontal," all-over-the-place character. And Oz said he and his boss's whole point of performing was to have fun, "joyous competition," and "to totally screw each other over."

Oz also discussed his work on the Muppet movies, including directing and appearing in The Muppets Take Manhattan, puppeteering the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and how doing fewer closeups (with are "very powerful") makes them even more powerful.

To a question about which character and voice is his favorite, he said he loves Ms. Piggy's neuroticism and Monster's craziness, but his all-time favorites are Grover and Fozzie Bear. I agree about Grover - he was always my favorite.

The only thing missing from the talk was that Oz didn't do any of the voices.

Other movie highlights for me at SXSW included:

I attended the world premier of Hot Summer Nights, a dramedy that started strong. I laughed out loud continuously through the first 45 minutes, then it suddenly shifted to become a darker crime caper. At two hours, it ended up being too long and will likely succeed with larger audiences, but it suffers from a lack of focus on what story it's trying to tell. 4 out of 5 stars.

Going to Brazil also debuted at SXSW and is arguably better than Nights. It's a somewhat outrageous and light-hearted girls-against-the-world story. When three visiting French girls accidentally murder a man at a blow-out party in Brazil, they have to kick butt all the way through the country in order to escape it. The beautiful scenery is straight out of classics Blame It On Rio and Black Orpheus. 4 out of 5 stars.

The third movie I caught (there were lots more to see, but I was working and had to miss many, like top festival winner Baby Driver) was Pornocracy. This was an interesting short documentary that follows the trail of the embezzlers who have profited on monopolizing the global pornography business. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Flaming Lips blow minds of "best fans in music" at 9:30 Club

All the Flaming Lips goodwill I have, and considering that the last album of theirs I consider to be one of their five classics came out in the last century, was running pretty thin by the time I walked into the 9:30 Club Sunday night in Washington D.C.

But it didn't take long to bring me back into Wayne Coyne and company's mind meld. As the wacko leader buttered us up with commentary such as how Lips' fans are the best on Earth because we stand there and smile every show. And for all the talk he gave about sadness, he noted that being at one of his shows is one of the best ways to get away from all that for a couple of hours.

As balloons and confetti exploded onto the crowd, so too did the band's music, opening with "Race for the Prize" off of that 1999 classic The Soft Bulletin and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." Coyne disappeared before fittingly riding a unicorn around the floor of the club for "There Should Be Unicorns," off the new album Oczy Mlodi. That and "How??" both held their own as far as new music during the show.

It's ok with me if the Lips feel they are best suited for carrying on David Bowie's legacy, because it really felt like we were seeing Bowie in person for the "Space Oddity" cover (see above video, in which Coyne rides his bubble ball through the crowd).

With a setlist heavy on The Soft Bulletin, Steven Drozd's guitar shone on "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." And "Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung" from At War With the Mystics was like witnessing Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd.

What would have made the concert even better for me would have been for the Lips to delve back further into their catalog than 1999. That said, the final three songs would have been tough to beat even had they done so. "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" and "Waiting' for a Superman," both from Bulletin, were transcendent. And closer "Do You Realize??" off of 2002's Yoshimi supplied a perfect ray of hope to send the crowd back out into these dark times.

4.5 out of 5 stars