April 22, 2020

Transportation is in a constant state of change: ride sharing, autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, scooters, transportation apps, streets closed to traffic, limited on-street parking, tolls for city streets. It’s all happening.

Amidst this tsunami of change — and the added pressure on government budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic — cities must keep up or risk being unprepared to meet the needs of their communities. Three FUSE executive fellows have partnered with government agencies to help design transportation solutions that meet the needs of people from all walks of life. Danielle Elkins in Minneapolis, Ben Matranga in San Francisco, and Michael Lim in Los Angeles share what they’ve learned about designing smart, innovative, human-centered transportation systems.

Danielle Elkins, who has a degree in civil engineering, has been working with the Minneapolis Department of Public Works to prepare the city for advanced mobility technologies and ensure that all residents benefit from changes, including those in underserved communities. During her FUSE fellowship, she’s brought together regional stakeholders through workshops and community events to gather feedback and ideas, and has been developing pilot projects.

Trained in urban planning, Michael Lim is co-founder of a U.S. Department of Energy-funded venture focused on preparing city infrastructure for connected and automated vehicles. As a FUSE executive fellow, he worked with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to develop a strategy for investing in automated vehicles and the infrastructure to support them. He facilitated public-private partnerships to harness new transportation technologies, and in the process set a strong direction for the deployment of AV technology in the city.

Ben Matranga has a finance background investing in infrastructure projects. As a FUSE executive fellow, he worked with the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco to launch the Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. He helped bring together numerous city departments to focus on the engineering, education, enforcement, evaluation, and policies associated with the initiative. He also collaborated with key stakeholders across the city to be inclusive of their needs and views. Through these efforts, he helped develop and implement the action plan to achieve Vision Zero.

4 Ways to Reach Communities for Input

Use technology to tap a diversity of voices.
Do what savvy companies do for marketing products and services: use mobile apps and easily accessible online surveys to get immediate feedback. Online surveys can help gather feedback from people who might be harder to reach through traditional methods because you’re not just listening to the loudest voice in the room — those who have the time and resources to attend public access meetings — you’re reaching out to communities that would not necessarily be in the room. And free online surveys make it easy and cost effective for even the most resource-strapped agency.

Talk to end users.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting people where they live and talking face-to-face is not possible. That doesn’t mean you stop reaching out to communities. Now more than ever, underserved populations must be heard, and it’s up to local governments to figure out how to make this happen while practicing social distancing.

Once the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, get out and talk to people on the street, and ask questions about their experiences using public transportation. When you’re walking, riding a bike, taking a bus, driving, you have a visceral sense of how things should work. Talking with people in the community helps you learn how to take their individual experiences and build them into the livable landscape.

At the bus stop, ask if the bus line is serving their needs, if it’s showing up on time, if it’s in a convenient spot. Do they need bathrooms at this location? Or a shovel to remove snow from their bus stop? Know what languages are commonly spoken in each neighborhood, and make sure information is available in those languages. It also helps to emphasize visuals over words. Use all of that human-centered experience of how we live in our transportation system — wider sidewalks for pedestrians, islands for buses, bike lanes — to engineer safety around it.

Solicit community feedback during test pilots.
Even the most brilliant ideas can be improved. As you’re testing new systems, products, and strategies, use in-person interviews — which during COVID-19 might mean phone calls — and online engagement and feedback tools during the pilot phase to get real-time feedback from the people who’d be most affected. Leave notice of links to websites where people can offer feedback or easy-to-fill-out postcards at key locations, and incorporate the feedback into the next iteration of your pilot. The goal should be to enable rapid and serial iteration so the project can benefit from real-time and on-going refinement until the end results best serve the needs of the customers.

Plug into the power of partnerships.
Use the power of your neighborhood network to connect to communities. Community-based organizations that represent diverse voices and groups already have established relationships — partner with them and other government agencies that have community connections when doing your outreach. These organizations can also offer connections to helpful consultants or advocates and other resources — even grant money. Be sure to budget money to pay these organizations.

4 Ways to Make Data and Technology Work for You

Keep your eye on the outcome.
Don’t lose track of what you’re trying to accomplish. With your north star firmly in place, you’ll be able to navigate different demands while balancing the needs and pain points of the community.

Tech advocates, sales people, and consultants will always have a silver-bullet solution ready, but don’t be distracted by shiny objects. To ultimately make your city more livable, focus on how to build up what you’ve already invested in — the infrastructure and systems that are in place to grow. Create solutions that actually solve a problem, rather than investing in an expensive new technology that works around the issue.

Get behind the numbers.
Use data to pinpoint needs — adding pick up and drop off zones, increasing pedestrian safety, improving access to public transportation — and map the data. But to really understand the needs of a neighborhood, tap the community for a deeper dive on issues (see tactics above). Overlay the relevant data with community input, and you’ll be able to better focus scarce dollars on the areas most in need.

Be smart about what data you collect.
Track down sound, accurate data sets. Collect data only when you know what you want to use it for, and make sure it is properly anonymized and aggregated so that it can be analyzed to inform decisions. Find the right resources to interpret, clean up, and make the data usable without losing context. Understand your jurisdiction’s data privacy regulations, and build your data capabilities around those restrictions.

Different communities have varying tolerance for data collection, so it is important to be mindful. Also, be aware of data-collection partners and their policies — it’s important to ensure that all partners are abiding by the highest standards of data and privacy.

Prioritize security.
Tech innovations can present data-security risk factors. The more data captured by cameras and critical safety equipment that rely on cloud-based systems, the bigger the risk in data breach vulnerabilities. Consider this: What would be the ramifications of, say, a hacker infiltrating city street lights? Balancing risk with potential increased efficiency is complex and challenging work that must be done.

In part, security has to do with the type, level, and amount of data you are collecting. The more data collected, the greater the liability, so cities must plan accordingly. A number of resources are readily available — including the National Institute of Standards and Technology — to support cities as they explore data collection and security issues.

6 General Pro-Tips

Weave equity into every aspect of your goals.
Many residents rely on public transportation to do just about everything — their livelihoods depend on an equitable, functioning, and safe system that allows them to travel whenever and wherever they need to go. In communities where inequitable policies have existed for decades, it’s that much more important to undo — and mend — systems that further widen the equity gap.

DON’T stay in your lane.
For public transportation to work smoothly, regional collaboration across area agencies is critical. Stay close to surrounding transportation agencies and work as a unified team. You may be able to access federal funds, jump on new opportunities together, fill each other’s gaps, and reduce redundancies.

Trust your staff.
Agency staff members are often out in the field using the transportation systems they’re working on, so they understand firsthand the needs of residents and mass transit users. Tap them as reliable sources of input for day-to-day decisions.

Take the risk.
Government agencies are first and foremost accountable to the communities they serve, and that accountability often creates a strong aversion to risk. But trying new tactics to effect positive change requires the leadership skill of taking calculated risks — even if it means something goes wrong. Experiment with different organizational structures that make it easier to take risks while protecting core functions.

Communicate good news and bad.
Be open, transparent, and vulnerable with community members. Be clear about your goals, what you’re trying to achieve, and when you don’t reach those goals. Taking ownership requires strong political leadership — it turns up the volume on every city department. But voters will be more likely to respond to requests for help.

Adapt, then adapt again, and again.
To keep up with the constantly shifting landscape of advanced mobility technology, government agencies need to continually change and adapt. Trying to predict what will come next is hard, if not impossible, but the more adaptable the system, the more prepared you’ll be to adjust.


Photo credit: Mircealancu on Pixabay