The second full day of sessions and exhibition hall camaraderie passed almost too quickly. So many things were happening at once, it was, as is usually the case at conferences such as this, necessary to miss more than you could take in. The choices were tough, but there was much to consider and also, in the wake of the day, much to chew on.
In a session early in the day on addressing the issue of vulnerable road users, Iteris’s John Lower spoke of the growing interest in transit-oriented community developments and how they are drawing large numbers of residents and small businesses alike, as they reduce exposure to vulnerable road users, while also promoting mobility diversity in the form of scooters, bikes, rollerboards, Segway shoes, and larger and more protected spaces overall for foot traffic. His talk followed quickly on the heels of a presentation by Leidos’s Dr. Stacy Balk, who reinforced the truth of some jarring statistics: that road fatalities are the #8 global source of death, and the #1 source for people ages 5-29; that half of all road fatalities are vulnerable road users, i.e. not those in the cars but those in and around the road environment; and that two-thirds of such deaths occur at night.
While the direct focus on saving lives was not pinpointed in all discussions, it swam beneath the surface of every conversation like a current. Perhaps the most important session of the day was the State DOT Roundtable, which drew so many DOT directors and secretaries that it had to be split into two back-to-back forums.
Both panels were moderated by HNTB’s John Barton, National DOT Market Sector Leader. The agenda was light in its inquiry, the point being less to challenge the panelists and more to use the line of questioning to open up a flow of disclosure and recommendation. It was a warm room in that regard, an atmosphere of information-sharing that sparked rather a lot of chit-chat between the panels.
Caltrans Director Laurie Berman—who, incidentally, it was announced is retiring from her post this year—spoke about mobility demand in her state and how one major challenge was balancing diverse need with some of strongest climate control regulations in the U.S. “We must look at this challenge as an opportunity to improve equity in transportation,” she said, citing the 250-some transportation providers in the state and how the state is presently working to make a seamless means of allowing any and all travelers to use any one of them in a single interface. (She also quickly made the interesting point that TNCs are hindering transit growth. Hmmm ...)
Hawaii’s Jade Butay discussed his island state’s unique challenge of having no more room for more roads and a populous who simply loves its cars. “Even if it’s less than a mile,” he said, “people are going to drive it. That is what we are faced with.” He pointed to the Honolulu Rapid Transit project on deck for 2025 as a major step forward in addressing multimodal offerings. He also was very plain that the best way the federal government can help is through the issue of more grants for mobility development projects.
Jennifer Cohan, secretary of the Delaware DOT, limned her state’s own unique challenges, the most notable being now small the state is relative to those surrounding it, and how this has made it difficult to attract transportation providers. “We are more or less doing it ourselves,” she said. “Scalability is a huge issue, but we are working with major businesses to develop dynamic mobility options.” One example she gave is a state-run bikeshare program that is in the offing.
Washington State’s Roger Millar, always a colorful speaker (and past contributor) said in no uncertain terms, “If you set a relationship with people where you don’t include them, they will assume you are doing it to them.” In other words, open the channels of discussion first and leave them open, or else failure is imminent. He went on to impress upon the audience that identifying stakeholders, especially those who do not on the surface seem to be so, is an apex challenge, as is making sure providers are empowered to benefit communities and not just stake a claim: “Private firms have to do well while they are doing good, and vice versa.”
Caltrans’ Berman chimed in as well, saying, “Cultural change is just as big a challenge. How do we try something different and make it attractive?” while ITS America’s Shailen Bhatt stated, “Siloed transportation will not work in the 21st century. There can’t be federal highways and county-owned roads and so forth. It all has to be looked at as one system with the same needs.”
This sentiment was echoed by HNTB’s Jim Barbaresso (also a past contributor)” “It comes down to equity. The right fleet, the right mix of options for everyone.” He encouraged planners to consider the visually impaired and the cognitively challenged in their planning.
The most challenging statement came later on from Bhatt, who said, “We need to do away with the gas tax in the face of increased electrification.” This remark gave me pause, as it did not seem to consider even slightly what is going to pay for our crumbling roads and bridges. Full-scale electric vehicle buy-in is years and years in the future. Incentives are dwindling; range remains an issue for drivers, as does power. I took the remark to be premature in some respects, though in hindsight Bhatt’s point is well-taken. No one wants to be further taxed in traditional ways; road user fees would seem to offer a more equitable way of drawing funds for maintenance and development.
There were so many faces on the panels and so many salient points made, it became tough to corral them all, but here are a few more soundbites:
Maryland DOT’s Peter Rahn: “How to we keep up with what industry says it needs? We face knowledge and progress challenges. For example, we’ve been using UAS since 2015, but tough approval processes slow us down. Yet on I-95 using UAS, we can clear a crash site in 45 minutes and reopen the road.”
New Jersey DOT’s Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti: “Funding and training, those are our two biggest challenges. My biggest concern is the education process to gain public acceptance and trust. How can we communicate what we’re doing, that is the most important thing. People don’t have to do this, remember. Internal combustion engines are still everywhere. So we have to come at this as though we are selling a product. And we have to focus on how we communicate.”
And finally, Kansas DOT’s Julie Lorenz, with my personal favorite statement of the entire panel: “When I think of disruption, I think of reading a book and my kids disrupt me, or how my dog disrupts my sleep. In each instance, I can go back and finish my chapter or get another hour or two of rest. But within our industry, 'disruptive' doesn’t fit. These are not disruptive technologies; they are transformative ones.”
In other words, no going back to sleep.