My 2019 In Review

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2019 was my first full year back in the workforce, following two years in a city planning master’s program at Georgia Tech. I haven’t been able to write nearly as much as I’d have liked in 2019. Well, actually I’ve written quite a bit, just mostly for work. 

However, I do want to highlight some of my writing and thinking that I (and others) have published:

Planning for automated vehicles

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) earlier this year published its automated vehicle planning roadmap, which I had spent much of 2018 writing as part of a Georgia Tech research team. There’s a ton of substance derived from industry expert and other state DOT interviews, focus groups with GDOT personnel, and, of course, a lengthy literature review. But our recommendations effectively boiled down to:

  1. No fundamental policy changes, yet. Potential impacts from automated vehicle adoption are unclear and still vary too greatly to invest in infrastructure. DOTs should instead address ridehailing, increased demand for freight and goods delivery, and the likely acceleration of electric vehicle adoption, which are the root challenges widely associated with vehicle automation. 
  2. Invest in human capital. Though it’s still far too early to define likely impacts of AV adoption, DOTs still need to prepare for that eventuality. These organizations are currently ill-equipped to address emerging technologies, and should both a) hire dedicated personnel to track industry developments and engage with firms wanting to test or deploy their technology on public roads, and b) provide educational resources to existing personnel, to help them better understand the technology and its impacts on their jobs.
  3. Educate the public. With so much investment pouring into the industry this decade, technology hype hit a fever pitch. Though the industry itself (mostly) shifted from inflated expectations to more sober analysis of the technology’s trajectory and limitations, the wider public is largely unaware or ignorant of developments. Significant proportions of the US population believe fully automated vehicles are available today, and that Tesla Autopilot can safely perform the entire driving task without human awareness or intervention. For the safety of all road users, DOTs should push back against these misconceptions.
  4. Don’t throw money at a test bed. The states currently leading in automated vehicle testing entered this era of technology development with natural advantages. They either housed leading robotics/AI research universities (Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT), a large existing automotive R&D presence (Michigan, Ohio), an easy climate and topography for early stage testing (Arizona, Texas), or had Silicon Valley. Florida’s tens of millions of dollars poured into its Suntrax test bed ($42 million) and connected vehicle infrastructure throughout the state is unlikely to generate returns anywhere commensurate with the investment. The American Center for Mobility in Michigan has also drawn recent scrutiny for its exorbitant cost and likely inability to produce significant returns. My team advised GDOT against making the same mistake, but did not dissuade the agency from much smaller bets on pilot projects that could prove educational for the agency. Generally speaking, “AV tech as economic development strategy” is unwise.

Atlanta transit expansion

Prior to Gwinnett County’s March referendum to join MARTA and raise a penny sales tax for transit expansion, Atlanta Magazine published my guest op-ed, “Only transit investment—not tech hype—can solve Gwinnett’s transportation woes.” That referendum failed, but I wrote a brief recap that looks forward to the likely sequel in 2020.

Over the next several years, I’ll be advocating for and hopefully aiding transit expansion efforts throughout the Atlanta region. Not only is Gwinnett County expected to try again in 2020, but Cobb County is moving toward its own referendum in 2022. Fulton and DeKalb are planning their own expansions of existing MARTA service, with likely referenda on tap over the next several years.

I frankly see a disconnect between urbanist transit advocacy within the city of Atlanta, and the constituencies we ultimately need voting “Yes” on these initiatives. In Atlanta, we can rail against parking, push for dedicated bus rights-of-way, upzone wherever possible, and demand increased transit accessibility for the people most likely to use it. Atlanta’s suburbs need to hear different arguments – and in some cases require entirely different modes – than those in the city. They need to hear reasons to vote yes, not reasons they should be ashamed of voting no. I hope to publish my views on the way forward for our region sometime early next year.

On automated buses

I’ve been working on a couple pieces I hope to publish early next year on the promise and development challenges of transit bus automation. I’ve had the privilege of working closely with manufacturers, automated vehicle technology developers, and transit agencies on a variety of bus automation policy and implementation issues for most of 2019; it’s been an educational experience. Most transit agencies interested in the technology are primarily concerned with using it to address their chronic bus driver shortages, and some consultants have been far too eager to promise labor replacement as a viable outcome. It’s going to be a long time before technology can replace every task a driver currently performs.

And there isn’t enough public R&D funding currently available to move the technology forward. The manufacturers are hesitant to invest significant internal resources with an unclear path to commercialization, especially when confronted with far more pressing engineering challenges (i.e. zero-emission buses). Individual transit agencies can contribute some funding to address agency-specific challenges in their own operating environments, but few have those resources, and even then, any associated development is unlikely to share significant benefits across the industry. Ultimately the federal government needs to step in with significant dedicated funding for transit bus automation, and it hasn’t yet.

I’ve written multiple grant proposals this year for the testing and deployment of automated vehicles (several still haven’t been awarded), and I can share one of them I wrote for MARTA here. Following the announcement of awards for its Automated Driving Systems (ADS) Demonstration grants, the US Department of Transportation published all project narrative and technical approach documents. I’ll note that never once in the proposal do we suggest the technology would replace driver labor, and neither, for that matter, did any of the competing proposals for automating full-sized transit buses (versus the low-speed shuttles that are often incorrectly labeled buses in popular media).

Expect to read more from me on the topic throughout 2020.

Electrify all the school buses

The only other piece I wrote for this blog in 2019 covered electrifying school buses, including challenges to adoption, legislative proposals to move the needle, and how I believe diverse political interests in Georgia can rally around the issue. I’ve also been fairly active on Twitter promoting the issue throughout 2019. Little did I know at the time that my colleagues at CTE were putting together our own national campaign to support electrifying school buses. I didn’t have anything to do with that piece or CTE’s ensuing Giving Day campaign (which is still active here), but I’m proud my organization is stepping into a more active role in promoting the issue. Follow CTE on Twitter for some exciting announcements we’ll hopefully be able to share in the next few months.

From writing to reading

With a week to go, it looks like I’ll meet my year’s goal of reading 20 books (currently at 19). There’s usually no real rhyme or reason to what I read and when, but I try to keep a good mix of (classic) fiction, history non-fiction, automotive, and transportation books. And to the extent that I can tolerate it, philosophy. I won’t itemize everything here, but you’re welcome to visit my Goodreads page for my complete 2019 list. I do want to call out a few highlights though:

In the automotive/tech arena, I highly recommend both Mike Isaac’s “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” and Ed Niedermeyer’s “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors” for compelling stories about two men who left their mark on this decade, for better or worse. Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk will certainly divide retrospective analysis of the era, between those who see them as innovative heroes of industry, and those who see both as villains emblematic of Silicon Valley excess, exploitation, and rampant disregard of regulations. In the past couple of years, I’ve also found myself exploring the late 19th/early 20th Century in America. I’ve increasingly come to see it as the best parallel for the technology-driven political, cultural, and economic upheavals we’re currently witnessing. Rapid urbanization, corporate consolidation and monopoly, new labor paradigms, increasing political partisanship.

Inspiration from the road

2019 took me on 19 different trips across the US, and abroad. I rode three transit systems for the first time (Portland, Los Angeles, and Bordeaux), barely failed in my longtime goal of hitting all 50 states before I turned 30 (I visited my 50th state, Alaska, four months after my 30th birthday), watched my alma mater win the SEC Baseball Championship in Hoover, Alabama, and dodged reckless e-scooter riders in more than a dozen different cities. A few words on that trip to France though…

I don’t see high-speed rail akin to France’s TGV or Japan’s Shinkansen ever being viable in the US, despite a handful of projects that are currently moving forward. But I think there are still useful lessons for us from the impacts of those systems. I had folks in Bordeaux telling me that since the 2-hour TGV route between that city and Paris opened in 2017, it’s no longer uncommon to find Parisians who keep their jobs, but move to Bordeaux for a more affordable lifestyle. I had previously heard about a similar dynamic between Lyon and Paris, which is also available in just under two hours.

Both my current home of Atlanta and previous city, Washington, were no stranger to these 2+ hour “supercommuters.” But that trip by train is far different than it is by car – and more affordable too. Since that trip in November, I’ve been thinking frequently about intercity rail from Atlanta, and how settlement patterns might change if we had trains that operated regularly between Atlanta and Greenville, Birmingham, and Chattanooga in two hours or less. No need for expensive high-speed rail, just upgrade the existing Amtrak and/or freight lines to support railcars capable of operating up to 90 miles per hour. With affordability in America’s “superstar” cities declining rapidly since the Great Recession, we’re already seeing outmigration to next-tier metros. Viable rail connections between those cities might offset some exurban growth in the Atlanta region, with its terrible land use, environmental impact, and automobile dependency.

I was also duly impressed with the light rail system in Bordeaux, the first of its kind when it opened in 2003. Because historic preservationists demanded that any transit not degrade the aesthetics of Bordeaux’s city center and waterfront, transportation planners needed to find an alternative to overhead wires for the tramway within the urban core. Engineers developed an entirely new ground-level power supply system, with an electrified modular third rail that activates segments only as trains pass over them. Although the system hasn’t been without its issues, the technology has proven a success to the extent that nearly a dozen cities in France and around the world have either replicated it or plan to. The modular power-supply mechanism allows pedestrians to safely cross tracks, and segments that don’t operate within roadways are surrounded by grassy greenways.

Though currently programmed for it, I recognize Atlanta’s BeltLine may or may not end up using light rail. But if we do proceed with rail, Bordeaux’s system and those using the technology (which has improved over the past 15 years) should serve as models for our own system. And there’s no real substitute for seeing these things in person; I’d encourage Atlantans (or all Americans) interested in advocating for better transportation solutions to seek out and experience best practices elsewhere. I’ve heard criticism from some corners of Atlanta’s progressive activist community about the delegation of MARTA and city officials who travelled to Los Angeles earlier this year to ride the new Orange Line bus rapid transit service (which is also seen as a potential model for BeltLine transit). The critics are wrong. Our city councilors and high level bureaucrats should have an annual taxpayer-funded travel budget that allows them to visit cities with models for our own – and not just for transportation. Consider it an investment in better governance.

The 2010s in Review

What a decade! The 2010s were my twenties, and therefore featured a number of twists, turns, and career reinventions. My decade started on the Bosphorus, in what was then my favorite global city (Istanbul). I’d just wrapped up a semester at the American University in Cairo, convinced I was headed for a career in counterterrorism. Two years later, I was starting my first full-time job out of college, with Accenture’s federal management consulting practice. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would drift further and further from foreign affairs arena over the decade. First to general business and supply chain management, then to IT architecture, and finally into automotive technology and transportation.

I never envisioned this path in high school, college, or my early career, but am thrilled to have spent the past half-decade diving into a variety of urban issues. It’s given me some relief from an otherwise crippling sense of futility stressing about national politics (though I’m now engaged on federal transportation policy), and helped me become a better neighbor to my fellow Atlantans…and Georgians.

The 2020s will bring more rapid change to the Atlanta region, and I look forward to doing my part to ensure we mitigate the worst of it, and reap the best of it!

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