My 2021 in review (and 2022 preview)

While 2021 wasn’t quite the rollercoaster we all endured in 2020, it certainly featured its own ups and downs. So like I did in 2019, I’ve assembled my highlights (albeit not before year’s end).

Electrify all the buses

In late 2020, Senators Chuck Schumer and Sherrod Brown approached CTE (my employer), with a big ask in anticipation of a Biden-led infrastructure bill. They wanted to roll out a plan to electrify every rubber-tired transit vehicle in America, and needed an independent estimate from industry experts on requirements for such a plan. With support from other experts on our staff, a colleague and I assembled a comprehensive report of estimated costs and additional federal support required to facilitate that transition. Schumer and Brown referenced the report in the May 2021 rollout of their “Clean Transit for America” Plan, a bill framework that would have provided $73 billion to electrify every full size bus, cutaway shuttle, van, and car used in transit service nationally over a period of 12 years.

CTE’s national zero-emission transit fleet transition report.

They ran up against the Senate’s “Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill” sausage-making, but the end result wasn’t too shabby: $5 billion over five years added to the the FTA’s Low or No Vehicle Emission Vehicle Program.* By comparison, Congress appropriated roughly $180 million to the program in Fiscal Year 2021. Adding close to a billion dollars a year for zero-emission buses should kick the industry into high gear, rapidly scale manufacturing, and increase cost-competitiveness against diesel and CNG alternatives. More on manufacturing in a bit…

*The natural gas lobby did sneak in language to require 25% of all funds to support compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and infrastructure, but the net effect is a 400% increase in funds available specifically for battery and fuel cell electric vehicles.

A year of virtual conferences

Barring some unexpected last-minute development, I’ll soon be attending my first in-person conference since January 2020 with the Transportation Research Board’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The shift to virtual events has been frustrating for several reasons, but mostly because presentations and panels still feel too much like webinars. The poor networking experience and inability to grab lunch or post-session drinks with industry friends is a major drawback too. Organizers are moving mountains to keep their events on, and navigating a slew of new technology capabilities for delivering the closest approximation to an in-person event that they can. Still, we have plenty of room for improvement.

I spoke virtually on transit automation at the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit, and my internet cut out just a few minutes from completing my presentation. I was staying in Los Angeles for a couple days following a wedding, and my hotel’s WiFi reset my session after 24 hours – to the minute. I was able to log back into the event platform in time for Q&A, but the experience highlighted just how many things can go wrong in a virtual arrangement. Fortunately my other virtual conference appearance, the Electric Power Research Institute’s “Frontiers of e-Mobility” summit, went off without a hitch.

The one in-person event at which I spoke was a Council on Quality Growth summit called “The Intersection,” looking at the macroeconomic and technology trends shaping development in metro Atlanta. While I covered a variety of urban mobility topics, I tried to hammer home the point that we need to assume peak commuting patterns are dead, and rebalance infrastructure capacity accordingly. No more “commuter” transit service, but rather more consistent all-day regional service. And for highways, shattering the (already-bogus) demand growth projections used to justify new expansion projects.

I joined the Autonocast for a second appearance, this time to discuss transit bus automation (podcast link here). I also participated in two Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) virtual panels, one in April titled “What Do AVs Mean for the Environment?”, and another in June titled “AVs at Work: Transit Systems.” And finally on the PAVE front, I presented virtually at its first public sector workshop: Helping Ohio Communities Prepare For An Autonomous Future. My message has been consistent for several years now: states and municipalities need to think carefully about what automated vehicle features would actually provide benefit to their communities, and not simply chase shiny objects in the hope or expectation they will bring economic development. Nobody cares about your low speed automated shuttle pilot.

Rivian comes to Georgia

I’ve been fortunate to grow with Georgia’s electric vehicle industry over the past three years, especially as it prepares to enter a period of rapid expansion. The politics of EVs are changing rapidly, and while I’d like to see our state government do more to incentivize R&D, the shifts on consumer vehicles and manufacturing jobs are palpable.

Rivian’s policy team asked if I would testify in favor of direct auto sales legislation (HB 460) before its House subcommittee at the General Assembly in March, which I gladly did. All the other economic and political arguments against the car dealership model aside, I find they waste an extraordinary amount of valuable urban real estate by putting literally every vehicle in their possession on the lot. Adequate showrooms with exurban/rural storage (or even Carvana’s “vending machines”) would be preferable. With EVs requiring less service and dealerships optimized around service revenues, you can’t blame EV-only manufacturers for not wanting to invest in that antiquated model. But while that direct sales bill died in committee with a whimper, recent developments have raised its prospects for a 2022 breakthrough.

My (top left) testimony to the Georgia House of Representatives’ Motor Vehicles Alternative Fuel Vehicles Subcommittee via Zoom.

Rivian’s $5 billion plant landing in Georgia should boost the automaker’s political capital in the state. Though some folks are bellyaching over the huge incentives package offered to lure the company in, overpaying for an auto manufacturing plant is nearly impossible. The jobs are plentiful and well-paying, suppliers establish their own operations in proximity to the vehicle assembly plant, and the state will end up investing in infrastructure that stimulates further regional development. There are other positive feedback loops as well, including stronger ties to local universities and supply chain orientation, that will make Georgia more naturally competitive for further site selections.

A map of the Southeast’s automotive manufacturing landscape following Rivian’s Georgia announcement.

I closed out 2021 by talking to NPR about these factors and implications, and more. While I’d much rather see major investments in transit, pedestrian infrastructure, and other non-automotive modes of transportation, Rivian and all-electric upstarts like it are positive developments.

I think you can simultaneously hold the following three opinions without contradiction:

  1. Americans are buying too many oversized pickup trucks and SUVs they assuredly don’t need, and this has not only slowed progress on fuel efficiency and emissions, but has also exacerbated a massive public health crisis with soaring pedestrian road fatalities.
  2. Converting all these vehicles to hybrid or battery electric models is not a social panacea, since environmental impacts from EV manufacturing are substantial. Plus, batteries are heavy and make vehicles heavier, which means EVs are likely to kill more people on our roads and produce greater particulate matter emissions from tire and road wear.
  3. Convincing people to buy electric pickup trucks and SUVs over gas-powered pickup trucks and SUVs is a good thing.

While I would rather people buy an e-bike or ride transit, or just buy a smaller car, I would also rather they buy a Rivian pickup truck than a gas-powered Dodge Ram. Same goes for e-commerce platforms and electric delivery vans. Meeting emissions reduction targets is about the aggregate effect of many 1% solutions, not silver bullets.

A bit of reading

I’ve been setting a goal of reading 20 books a year, and despite strong early-year momentum, went through a long spell of reading little at all. I even cancelled my Foreign Affairs subscription, which I’d held for nearly a decade. But here’s what resonated with me in 2021:

Dune was the best fiction work I read all year, and I similarly loved the film. Beyond the obvious climate change and Luddism themes, the story threw me back to my Middle East Studies degree with its clear Islamic influence. For those not familiar with that pop culture trend, Orientalism (i.e. Islamic, not Far East) was everywhere in the early-to-mid-1960s. Architecture, fashion, decor, Dune, Lawrence of Arabia, “I Dream of Jeannie”…and plenty more in arts and cinema.

In the non-fiction category, I really liked Tim Wu’s “Curse of Bigness,” chronicling the history of anti-trust action in the US, arguing the economic harms of modern industry consolidations (not just Big Tech monopolies), and offering solutions to modernize our anti-trust framework to enable action. Wu’s appointment by President Biden to the National Economic Council, where he’s working on technology and competition policy, certainly indicates a more aggressive posture by this Administration to harmful industry consolidations.

Wu’s “Master Switch: The Rise And Fall Of Information Empires,” remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on technology. It has heavily shaped my thinking on the mobility tech industry that emerged in the past decade, and I frequently recommend it to others in the industry. When I first read it in 2017, I found incredible parallels between the early telephone industry and ridehailing competition between Uber, Lyft, and others.

I also enjoyed Steven Higashide’s “Better Buses, Better Cities,” one of the most popular recent works in the urban policy genre. Strong writing, clear arguments, and easily accessible to non-experts…I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about urban transportation in 2022.

An obligatory note on choo choos

One of these industries Wu doesn’t discuss in Curse Of Bigness, but that I’ve researched quite a bit in 2021, is freight railroads. Perhaps my favorite piece of reporting of the entire year was Washington Monthly’s “Amtrak Joe vs. the Modern Robber Baron,” which frames Biden’s big intercity rail dreams against the stagnant and intransigent Class I railroads.

I spent some of my spare time this year discussing strategies for catalyzing regional and intercity rail expansion in Georgia with various players working on these initiatives. Primarily new Amtrak service between Atlanta and Macon. Unfortunately, we’ll need substantial federal action, probably from the Biden Administration itself, to move any of these initiatives forward. I was encouraged to see Georgia’s US senators include an $8 million earmark for an environmental impact statement on Atlanta-Savannah passenger rail in the Senate Appropriations bill. This is a crucial required first step, but an actual project will almost certainly require cooperation from the Class I railroads, and they’ve thus far shown zero inclination to play ball.

The most gut-wrenching Georgia transportation news of the year was MARTA’s move toward scrapping its Clayton County regional rail plans, entirely due to obscene (and costly) demands from Norfolk Southern to use its right-of-way. MARTA’s Clifton Corridor project, which would extend light rail out to Emory University, the CDC, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, has likewise struggled with CSX’s obstinance. Hopefully with the infrastructure bill through, and little further need to appease industry lobbies, the Administration can begin twisting arms to make Norfolk Southern, CSX, and the other Class Is better accommodate passenger rail in their rights-of-way.

Travel observations

Speaking of trains, I found a brief window between COVID waves to visit Germany for the first time since 2015. And boy did I ride trains. Rapid intercity trains, regional trains, S-Bahn trains, U-Bahn trains, and even streetcars. In fact, over 10 days I only took taxicabs, both returning to the Munich Airbnb late at night with friends. Otherwise, I travelled entirely by rail and foot across six cities: Frankfurt, Würzburg, Munich, Berlin, Potsdam, and Mainz. I managed a similar experience in Paris and Bordeaux two years ago. It’s a more pleasant (and calorie-burning) transportation experience all-around.

Würzburg Hauptbahnhof. I walked outside the station to find buses, streetcars, plentiful bicycle parking, and a seamless walking trip into the city center. Multimodal transportation done right. Yes, those are vineyards in the background.

Those past two European trips have also highlighted the rate of change in Western Europe’s mobility landscape. Even compared with what I saw during France and Germany trips in 2014-2015. The e-scooters are obviously new, but the sheer volume of biking and biking infrastructure was impressive. I also came away feeling “robotaxis” just aren’t going to happen in Europe. At least not for a very long time. Maybe in some paratransit or suburban use cases, but certainly nowhere near the urban core of any major or mid-size city. There are simply far too many pedestrians, cyclists, and other active transportation users that will challenge automated vehicle prediction systems to the point of ineffectiveness. And that’s a good thing for cities.

More travel observations

Earlier in March, I hit the road for a two-week trip to North Carolina: Atlanta -> Augusta -> Raleigh -> Charlotte -> Asheville -> Greenville -> Atlanta. Amazingly, despite living in Atlanta for 7 years to that point, those trips were my first to Charlotte, Raleigh, and Asheville.

  1. It’s frustrating to see how far North Carolina is moving along on the passenger rail front while Georgia is completely stuck in neutral. Raleigh has a nice, if modest, new multimodal passenger terminal catalyzing an underinvested area adjacent to Downtown, and Charlotte is in the process of building its own. The failure to move similarly is a testament to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s utter disinterest in promoting literally anything to accommodate our state’s growth but new highways…which we know are counterproductive.
  2. Charlotte’s sidewalks were more extensive and in better repair than Atlanta’s. Our city leadership has failed to take pedestrian infrastructure seriously for so long, and it shows. With skyrocketing pedestrian fatalities due to auto collisions, and a new transportation-oriented mayor, hopefully we’ll begin to catch up.
  3. Augusta has incredible bones, with a Downtown chock-full of beautiful historic buildings and a large riverfront, but it just completely underwhelms. Most of those early 20th Century buildings need significant restoration work and the waterfront lacks the degree of investment we’ve seen in Chattanooga or even Columbus, similarly-sized cities. I’ve been told by more than one economic development professional that Augusta’s civic leadership has long been myopically focused on the golf course and too disinterested in revitalizing the city center. Even as Medical College of Georgia, US Cyber Command, and Plant Vogtle keep Augusta relevant in key growth industries.
  4. Asheville has great beer. That is all.

Looking forward to 2022

First off, hopefully COVID’s Omicron variant rips through quickly with little damage and we can begin returning to normalcy by early February. I’m planning my year with little consideration for the virus, and am cautiously optimistic I won’t need to make any significant audibles.

But there are a number of stories I’m following for 2022 on the transportation and energy infrastructure front:

  1. With the infrastructure bill signed into law, will the the Biden Administration take bolder regulatory action to enact its climate agenda? We’ve already seen a significant shift in its approach to discretionary grant programs from the previous administration(s), with a strong emphasis on transit and active transportation (e.g. trails, complete streets, greenways) versus highway expansions. We’ve also already seen some unprecedented actions to stall controversial urban highway expansions (I-45 in Houston) and require freight railroads to make minor accommodations for passenger rail. Were these a sign of things to come, or token gestures?
  2. How will cities and states respond to that shift in discretionary grant awards? The signal from Biden’s DOT is loud and clear: they do not want to fund highway expansion projects, which are guaranteed to drive up greenhouse gas and noxious emissions. So will local and state governments respond by prioritizing transit, rail, port, and active transportation projects to be more competitive for federal dollars?
  3. On a related note, how will local and state governments respond to growing staffing shortages and a more competitive hiring environment? We’re already seeing the impacts of bus operator shortages on transit systems across the country, but the problems for transit agencies and the public sector broadly go much deeper than that. Baby Boomer retirements, uncompetitive salaries, and notoriously byzantine hiring processes have left agencies short-staffed and struggling to maintain institutional capacity…just as an enormous infrastructure bill prepares to push tens of billions of dollars in federal discretionary funding out the door.
  4. How does the automotive manufacturing supply chain adjust to rapidly growing demand for electric vehicles? I feel like I’ve been on the optimistic side in projecting the speed of our domestic EV transition for the light vehicle market, but 2021 was pretty eye-opening in terms of how quickly consumer perceptions are changing. And clearly the automakers are not ready for the deluge of demand, as evidenced by limited production capacity and long waitlists. Tens of billions of dollars in new domestic manufacturing capacity commitments will manifest over a decade, but automakers look like they’ll be playing catchup for at least the next 2-3 years. And that’s not even factoring in other global supply chain issues. Infrastructure Bill programs to fund electric transit vehicles, school buses, and other commercial vehicles will leave those manufacturers backlogged for years as well. I strongly recommend following the research and writing coming from the folks at BloombergNEF. They stay on top of these trends as well as anyone I’ve seen.

Finally, I spent a lot of my spare time in late 2021 fighting the movement seeking Buckhead’s secession from the City of Atlanta. While legitimate grievances have fueled the movement and the city’s new leadership has no easy task ahead in addressing them, Buckhead secession’s primary motivations are nefarious. Overtly racist messaging, thriving in far-right channels (i.e. prominent amplification from Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, etc.), and principal support from Georgia’s elected officials who sought to overturn the 2020 election. Believe me, there are a lot of things I’d rather be doing, and a number of causes I’d rather be promoting. But the threat to my home is real, and the moment demands attention. Hopefully the bill that would put secession on November’s ballot dies in the Georgia General Assembly, and we can all move on in May.

In any event, Atlanta has a new mayor, Andre Dickens. I was a fan of Andre’s on City Council, especially in his role as Transportation Committee Chair, and love the fact he’s bringing transportation policy to the fore of his administration’s priorities. Looking forward to seeing what he can do in 2022 and beyond.

Happy New Year, and let’s get to work!

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