Micro-Transit is the Buzzword of the Irving Transportation Investment Summit

The City of Irving’s 2018 Transportation Investment Summit served to highlight and promote the growth of the infrastructure market in Texas and nationwide. Topics for this year’s summit ranged from current developments to visionary ideas for economic development, emerging and smart technology, and infrastructure development. This annual event hosted in the Irving Convention Center, Aug. 23-24, provided a platform to build partnerships, conceive of new projects and hear from key leaders in their fields.

“[The Transportation Summit is] a great opportunity for us to bring the interstate leaders together, the local elected officials, the state officials and the federal officials, as well as the decision-makers,” Irving mayor Rick Stopfer said. “It’s an opportunity to bring people together to talk about what’s worked in their area, and what they see the future might be. A lot of the engineers are here talking about different things and different opportunities that are out there. [The Summit] gives us the chance to get together and have great conversation and discuss what’s going on and what kind of trends we see coming.

“We worked in years past with ASHTO (American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials) to streamline environmental processes at the federal level. It used to take 20-25 years to get your environmental and design work approved. People were not talking to one another. The engineers would find something, and the environmentalists would say well, that means we will have to redo this. By working with ASHTO, we were able to streamline that process and get all the parties talking to one another.

“Another example of what we did with the light rail was quiet zones, where the arms come down and they don’t blow the horns as much, so the neighborhoods are not up all hours of the day and night. There really were no regulations for that, so we worked closely with the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) and looked at how we could implement it. Since we were willing to be a test case, there was federal money available, so some of the first quiet zones that were tried were here in the city of Irving. Working with them, Quiet Zoning Legislation was written, and we got the federal dollars to do it. Those are the types of things that make a difference.”

Last Mile Solutions

Autonomous vehicles and flying Ubers to cover the first and last mile of travel may be arriving sooner than you think. These examples of potential micro-transit vehicles are no longer dismissed as impossible or improbable but are now seen as a given in local transportation’s future.

During the Last Mile Solutions panel, experts discussed public and private sector innovation for efficient and cost-effective movement of people, packages and products to their final destinations. Customers want to be able to tie the ‘last mile’ to the entire trip for purchase as well as traveling.

“Riders can seamlessly plan their trip from light rail once they get to the station to do the last mile service effectively within the same application,” Peter Mazzoli, business development associate, Transloc / Ford Mobility, said.

Transloc/Ford Mobility studies have found that while there may be only a limited distance a certain level of ridership is willing to walk to cover the ‘last mile;’ if that last mile distance is increased by just a small amount and true ‘last mile’ transit is provided, a large increase in overall ridership can result.

According to Mazzoli, a lot of simulation was done prior to launch of their software, including varying levels of demand, times of the day, in order to see what number of vehicles should be where, when, etc. Passengers will be able to designate specifics as to where they want to be picked up and dropped off within an on demand zone for a service similar to Uber and Lyft. Overall results of pilot with the transit agency so far have been positive. By adding micro-transit options within just three weeks of service, the company was able to triple their ridership. Once the company reached a certain level of ridership, they needed to bring in additional vehicles.

“It’s no longer about putting people in cars, it’s about taking people out of them,” Mazzoli said.

“From a customer service standpoint, we have not always been as customer-friendly as we like to think we are,” Gary Thomas, president / executive director, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, said. “We try to plan [bus and train routes to] make sure they go where the people are. We hope you ride them and hope you enjoy them. We smile a lot and make sure they are safe and clean. But that’s really not what the customer wants.

“People expect a more immediate response. They are not really interested in waiting twenty minutes for that next bus to come. They expect an immediate and specific level of service. The transit industry has not done that. The transit industry needs to start thinking differently and start thinking from a customer perspective. Sometimes it’s the first five miles and the last five miles.”

Thomas stated DART has the necessary core network built with the Cotton Belt and Dallas D2 projects underway. When DART realized it could not stop or compete with Uber and Lyft, DART saw it needed to work with Uber and Lyft to cover the ‘last mile.’ Thomas commented about a panel he was on with an Uber representative.

“I was thinking there was probably some opportunity for us to get together,” Thomas said. “What I didn’t know was that a lot of the transportation industry was saying, ‘We don’t want Uber or Lyft, because they are going to take our ridership away.’ I thought about that for a minute and concluded that I’m probably not going to be able to stop Uber or Lyft, so rather than spend energy trying to stop their efforts, I should spend energy trying to figure out how to embrace that opportunity.”

Thomas advised that Plano’s Legacy / Legacy West area’s rapid growth convinced DART of the need to assist the movement of more than 35,000 people on a daily basis. Toyota approached DART requesting help. DART developed a pilot program with Toyota that operates during the lunch hour. Although there are several food facilities within the Toyota complex, many workers leave the office to eat lunch elsewhere on Fridays. Additional data was obtained during the Toyota pilot which showed the potential for other transit solutions, including micro-transit, for other major employers in the area. Those employers are crying for transportation services to help get their employees to work.

“By the end of this year, DART will have a platform where you can plan, book and pay for your trip on our GoPass app, and it will include, Uber, Lyft, trains, buses, micro-transit, etc,” Thomas said. “It is not our job to decide what your journey looks like. That’s your job. If you really want to ride a scooter in the middle of your trip, wear a helmet please. Let us provide a platform that allows you to pick. If you want the cheapest or fastest trip, you get to pick. You get to put that together, then you get to pay for it all on the same app without having to bounce back and forth. That’s the opportunity in front of us.”

“The first and last mile should not be viewed in isolation from a healthy efficient mobility ecosystem as a whole,” Zack Wasserman, head of global business development at VIA (On-demand transit systems), said. “It’s only one part of the solution. The goal is to maximize the amount of mobility we get for a certain amount of money. That means facilitating as much sharing as possible. That’s where micro-transit comes in. To get the balance right between micro-transit, on demand transit and fixed route transit, we need to simulate the way it can operate. We need tools and technology to determine fare structure and routes. We need a service where someone can plan and book, pay for a trip and take a trip using one app.”

VIA has a partnership with the city of Arlington and runs consumer-facing services in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC and through a joint venture with Mercedes Benz, in Amsterdam. The company has started licensing their services to transit agencies.

The process of micro-transit would involve the following: go to the app store and download an app to your Smartphone. You then say where you are and where you want to go, and then a small vehicle (6-10 seats) is dispatched to pick you up. The vehicle makes short stops along the way to pick up and drop off other people.

“The value proposition to you as a user is that you are getting the convenience and flexibility of a private trip, like with an Uber or Lyft, but because you are sharing it, it is much less expensive,” Wasserman said. “The system allocates the appropriate vehicle to be used based on a number of factors, including where the person is going, and time of day resulting in optimized usage of vehicles. Fixed routes that are not getting the best level of usage could be replaced with micro-transit options.

“Micro-transit arguably provides a better balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. The technology has been proven, and it works. The next part is the politics. Getting the politics right is figuring out how to provide subsidies to transit agencies or cities that want to run micro-transit at scale and that means new sources of subsidy through new federal grant programs from the DOT and others. It also means repurposing current funding that is supporting underperforming transit options.”

Rebecca Yeung, staff vice-president, for FedEx Corporation described the unique nature of issues that FedEx has while delivering packages to the last mile. FedEx’s task is to deliver a large number of shipments, potentially of different sizes in a tight timeframe to numerous locations. Yeung provided the following numbers: 14 million packages per day delivered to 220 countries using 600+ airplanes and thousands of ground delivery vehicles and personnel. The company makes use of predictive analytics to ensure service quality. FedEx Ground can process 150,000 packages per hour in the DFW area. FedEx realized that more small delivery trucks were better for delivery in residential areas than a few big trucks.

Emerging Leaders

Influential members of the next generation of leaders shared their outlook and fresh ideas for technological innovation in transportation, infrastructure and urban planning.

John Brady, director, strategy and revenue, LBJ Express & NTE Mobility Partners feels we need to actively manage capacity to keep express lanes moving. He commented that at certain times of the day, the toll lanes on 635 are charging $6.20 to go about 7 miles, and the lanes are filled to capacity. There is so much geo-location data regarding VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) available now that is not being used. This may become more useful in the future as cars send more and more data to us about trips, such as destinations, miles traveled, repetitive trips, etc.

Steve Duong, associate vice president, AECOM described MaaS (Mobility as a Service). Instead of considering transportation as a commodity, it would be a service, perhaps via a subscription. Lots of questions are raised if you don’t own your vehicle, for example, do you still need parking garages? Probably not, if an autonomous vehicle drops you off. Parking of the autonomous vehicles could be on the outside of cities, which would open up a lot of downtown areas for redevelopment into urban cores. Cars could be parked in stackable parking lots and retrieved when needed.

Chris Miller, public policy manager with Uber, stated the company hopes to be testing flying cars by 2020 and having them in commercial use by 2023. Uber is very much in the autonomous vehicle space, using shared autonomous vehicles.

“We don’t see a world where everyone is going to run out and buy an autonomous vehicle,” Miller said. “No, it’s going to be on a network, where you will push a button, catch a ride to work, and maybe pick up your neighbor on the way. What’s that one hour commute going to be if you are going to be comfortably responding to your emails and getting your morning started. That’s something we believe is really going to change lifestyles. We want to put the choice into consumers’ hands. These cars will constantly be moving.”

Miller suggested that autonomous vehicles will be parked at car dealerships and obtaining service when not in use. Cars will recharge at night. Miller stated public transportation is currently highly underutilized and they are working to investigate ways for Uber to partner with cities to provide a better service that would be less expensive.

The Texas Bullet Train is an exceptional example of bringing technology to Texas that does not exist in the U.S. The train has operated for fifty-three years with no accidents in Japan. The train never crosses a road at grade. The sixth generation of the train travels at 205 mph. In 90 minutes, you will go from Dallas to Houston.

“We will partner with all of the folks that have last mile solutions, because you won’t ride the train for 90 minutes if you can’t get to the ultimate destination and make sure that last mile is seamless,” Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs, The Texas Bullet Train, said. “We are looking at how we will connect with DART at the Convention Center in downtown Dallas, and we are looking at how we will connect with Metro in Northwest Houston. The new stations will be a destination for the local communities as well.”

“The rules for riding a passenger train are radically different than riding an airplane,” Reed said. “So how do you make that pain point as painless as possible? We will use passive measures, things like facial recognition to ensure that you have a safe experience and the good guys travel and the bad guys don’t.”

“Last year, TxDOT turned one hundred years old,” said John Hudspeth, TxDOT’s director of operations in the Dallas District. Hudspeth commented the other panelists are more focused on the ‘future-future’ while TxDOT is more concerned with the present being linked to the past. But Hudspeth did mention that NTTA is using new processes and technologies. Current and future traffic is moving in the direction of the autonomous vehicle, and TxDOT needs to consider its possible future needs based on that traffic type. Cars may talk back to the infrastructure in the future. However, there are funding concerns, as always.

“When you are dealing with taxpayer money, you’ve got to insure you are doing the right thing, and sometimes that can take some time and sometimes that may not be in sync with private investment,” Hudspeth said.

Awards

The City of Irving honored the work of Congressman Randy Weber and former Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff with Lifetime Infrastructure Champion Awards. At the federal level, Congressman Weber was honored due to his efforts in Washington, which helped ensure North Texas receives federal resources for vital infrastructure projects. At the state level, Vandergriff was honored for his unparalleled dedication to transportation development in the North Texas region.

Congressman Weber holds a key leadership role on the Science, Space, and Technology committee, serving as Chairman of the Energy sub-committee. In addition, he is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Victor Vandergriff most recently served as a member of the Texas Transportation Commission serving from February 2013 until February 2018. Prior to that, Vandergriff served as chair of the board of TxDMV from its inception in 2009 to 2013. In 2009, Vandergriff led the successful effort in the Texas State Legislature to create the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I am really honored and humbled by this award,” Vandergriff said. “It is indeed special to me that you thought enough of my eleven years of engagement spread out amongst NTTA, TxDMV, and TxDOT to consider it impactful. I consider this a team award, which we were able to accomplish together. I was fortunate to have great people to work with at each of the three stops I was at. You always hope to make things better for a time.”

Written by Alan Fleck