No matter how quickly people can move long distances from Point A to Point B, the first and last mile of that journey are crucial to the successful operation of any mass transportation system.
Panelists at the 10th Annual Northeast Tarrant Transportation Summit earlier in February talked about how to bridge those gaps with bikes, scooters and self-driving cars, and, pushing the edge of that subject a bit, a hyperloop.
Panelists included Steven Duong, associate vice president of Design + Planning for AECOM; Chris Miller, public policy manager of JUMP, part of Uber's answer to the final leg of the last mile of connectivity; and Vineet Jain, head of New Business Development and Strategy for drive.ai, which is already operating two autonomous driving systems in Arlington and Frisco.
Johan Petterson, vice president of the North Texas Division of Dannenbaum Engineering, was moderator.
Duong spoke on what he referred to as the “longest mile possible,” connecting the Dallas-Fort Worth area to the state’s southern border along the Interstate 35 corridor, possibly using hyperloop technology.
If you don’t know, hyperloop is a next-generation, high-speed mobility system popularized by Elon Musk that is drawing worldwide interest. It would move people in pods propelled by magnets inside a vacuum tube.
It’s being seriously considered in a feasibility study headed by the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the cities along I-35 to the border. Duong says Texas is to be commended for even considering the technology, no matter what happen in the future.
An emerging concept in the study of transportation that is being promoted by Uber, JUMP, Lyft and other companies is creating mobility as a service.
An advanced model of that is a service in Helsinki, Finland, called Whim where consumers pay a flat fee for access to any form of transit available in the Helsinki area; they don’t pay separate fees when switching from a train to a bus to a taxi to whatever form transportation takes.
Whim recently announced a short list of cities in the United States that it could consider to expand the program.
“Guess what cities are on that short list? Dallas and Fort Worth and Austin,” Duong said.
He said the concept of moving transportation away from a commodity model to a service model is sometimes described as “Netflix for transportation.”
“When you do this, and we bundle all these different modes together under one umbrella and you pay one fee, you start to have the ability to shift benefits and costs around the system,” Duong said.
“Things like hyperloop and JUMP and Uber Elevate and all those other sorts of innovative technology we're talking about today are becoming much more closer to reality in the U.S.,” Duong said.
“Now it's time for us to turn the leaf over from, ‘Hey, this is the concept and the visions and stuff we want to do,’ to ‘OK, what is this really going to be like in our daily life? How is it going to impact us? How do we start getting arms around this? ’ ” Duong said.
To see more on Whim and view the available smartphone app: https://maas.global
JUMP is a brand owned within the Uber family and available on the Uber app for electric bikes that, according to the app, lets users “move through traffic faster, easily ride up hills, and reach your destination without breaking a sweat.”
“JUMP bikes are pedal-assist electric bikes, so the harder you pedal the faster you’ll go. An integrated GPS and lock means that you can find a bike near you and go for a ride,” the app page says.
Company representative Miller proposed, “What if with one app we had the ability to share a ride, whether it's a car, bus, an electric scooter or electric bicycle? That's where we need to start thinking. That's where we need to move to transportation as a commodity – something we can use and something we can make fit into our lives.”
He cited a study from the International Transportation Institute forum saying that sharing rides could reduce the need for vehicles by 97 percent. That’s a pie-in-the-sky goal, Miller said, but shared rides and electric rides are a pathway to that goal.
More information on JUMP: www.uber.com/ride/uber-bike
Miller said uberPOOL is a program very popular in San Francisco in which the company facilitates carpooling through a smartphone application. More than half the trips in San Francisco are pooled trips.
“Press a button, get a ride with someone else heading in the same direction,” he said. “We're actually going to encourage you to walk a couple blocks to really, in real-time, get the efficiency down.
“And I know a lot of transit folks sitting in the room going, ‘Yeah, that's what a bus is,’ and that's right. How do we work together to make it affordable, convenient and efficient for users, because that's the ultimate goal? Because people won't do it unless it's all three of those things,” Miller said.
More information on uberPOOL: www.uber.com/ride/uberpool
Miller quotes Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi: “Cars are to us what books were to Amazon.”
Mobility as a service, Miller said, is everything from JUMP bikes and scooters on the ground to the uberPOOL to the shared cars, to the ultimate innovation of Uber ELEVATE, a helicopter service that will begin test piloting in the Los Angeles area at the end of next year.
“We firmly believe the future of transportation at Uber is three things: shared, autonomous and electric. Autonomous is down the road, but electric is things we could be working on right now and switching fleets over to electric vehicles is something that's very important,” Miller said.
Autonomous isn’t all that far away in North Texas, however. It’s as close as Arlington and Frisco.
Jain, of drive.ai, said he was asked recently in Arlington – where drive.ai has a pilot project – why companies were dedicating hundreds of people and millions of dollars to develop the technology.
“Honestly, I didn't know where to start because I had so many answers,” he said.
Maybe the worldwide death toll from traffic accidents – 1.3 million people annually according to the Worth Health Organization.
“That's 10 Boeing 787s going down every single day for a year and I can assure you if that was happening, I would not get into an airplane,” Jain said.
In the United States, the National Safety Council said on Feb. 13 that preliminary figures for 2018 were 40,000 fatalities on the nation’s highways.
Jain said 94 percent of fatal traffic accidents worldwide are the result of human error.
That’s one reason for the autonomous technology research.
Another, he said, is that in the United States, transportation accounts for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions with the attendant effects on human health.
Jain said drive.ai firmly believes in not putting technology on the road just for technology's sake.
“We know that autonomous is a long-term vision and a long-term play and we hope that in a few years and maybe decades, it's going to change the world. But we really think that today, we solve the real problems.”
Drive.ai deployments – where customers in a few cities today can use the drive.ai app to call self-driving cars to take them where they want to go – rests on three pillars, he said.
“One is industry leading technology. There’s no doubt that you need good technology to put these things on the road to make everybody feel safe,” Jain said.
“Two is local partnerships, which is demonstrated a little bit via our local partnerships with Frisco and Arlington.
“Three is people-centric safety, and I'll go into the definition of that,” he said. “Basically, we don't define safety just as how the car drives or how the person inside the car feels. We define safety as, ‘How does the community feel about this product? Do they feel safe? Do they feel comfortable with the fact that self-driving cars are on the road?’ ”
Jain said the app was deployed in Frisco to address what the company saw as a local transportation problem with moving people from offices to retail and restaurants and the like.
“It's an area that we call too far to walk because, in the Texas heat, no one wants to. And it's too close to drive because if you do drive, you spend more time looking for parking than you do actually driving. And on a one-hour lunch break for some of these workers, that's not feasible. And so we saw a real opportunity to show that autonomous vehicles can solve real problems today,” he said.
“And that's what we've done. I think it's been fantastic to work with the partners in the area. It's been a public/private partnership in every sense of the word. And it's really proven at that business model that we can see can be replicated in other places,” Jain said.
“Arlington was interesting as well because it was a different problem. We're solving multiple-use cases in Arlington, the most noteworthy I think being actually Cowboys games,” he said.
During games, drive.ai moves people from more distant parking lots to avoid congestion around AT&T Stadium.
The City of Arlington has been a great partner, Jain said, and has been able to help drive.ai understand real transportation problems and how to solve them.
Texans think there are many reasons to be glad they live in Texas, but here’s one they may not realize.
Traffic congestion is terrible and the state can’t build its way out of that. That forces the consideration of other alternatives.
“Texas is one of those really unique places that is considered a mega-region,” Duong said.
Working through the connectivity problems among Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and points south will transform Texas more than other places in the United States, especially as logistics become more important in trade.
“So, a concept we also like to talk about is turning Texas into a logistics hub, not just the cities themselves or the facilities themselves but with the entire state,” Duong said.