From Zipcar to Ford, the Detroit Mobility Lab, and the Michigan Mobility Institute, Jessica Robinson is one of the most popular and most respected  experts in urban transportation. Robinson is a strong advocate for earning a Masters in Mobility, but before you run off to grad school, tune into this episode to learn the basics of solving mobility challenges, whether lessons from one city are portable to another, and what it means to collect too much data.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy
Welcome to the No Parking Podcast. As always, I’m Alex Roy, here with my a friend and co-host Bryan Salesky.

Bryan Salesky
How’s it going, Alex?

Alex Roy
Pretty good. In this episode we’ve got a really interesting guest. This is Jessica Robinson. She’s currently…her title is Executive Director of the Michigan Mobility Institute, but if you go way back in time, she was at one of the original companies doing something really interesting. That was Zipcar. It feels like eons ago in the sector, doesn’t it?

Bryan Salesky
It really does.

Alex Roy
And the reason she’s here, is because every morning I come to the office and Brian and I talk, people seem to think that AVs, autonomous vehicles, are just going to be like flicking a switch, one day to the next, they’re going to work, even though people don’t know what “working” means…and that they’re just going to be everywhere, fitting into society without any kind of cultural or transit. It’s a complicated thing.

Bryan Salesky
It’s a complicated thing, and Jessica has a lot of experience when she was at Zipcar of just exactly what it takes in order to roll out a fleets from city to city.

Alex Roy
Probably looking back at what we know from how companies that do ride hailing and scooters have deployed, Zipcar, looking back, was a fairly friendly and successful deployment across the country.

Bryan Salesky
If only there was an autonomous system to take it to the next user.

Alex Roy
If only there were enough people one could hire who understand policy and culture and community to bring AVs into our cities in a positive way.

Bryan Salesky
It was a great discussion with Jessica, she is very thoughtful about what it takes to roll out new technology and some of the policy hurdles we have to overcome when we talk about connected vehicles and smart vehicles, smart infrastructure and so onin the face of the challenges that cities have to face today. She’s right at the intersection of all of that.

Alex Roy
Let’s roll right into it.

Alex Roy
So what does this press release say that’s coming out this afternoon?

Jessica Robinson
It says employers need to work together to jointly solve our talent needs. Our organization is going to be leading that effort with three leading companies here in Michigan. Brian, we should still talk. Ford, Bosch and May Mobility will be partners along with a number of other community organizations.

Alex Roy
This press release is coming out of the Michigan Mobility Institute?

Jessica Robinson
Michigan Mobility Institute, yes.

Alex Roy
Tell us what that does.

Jessica Robinson
Yes. the Michigan Mobility Institute brings together employers and education partners to accelerate the creation of talent for this industry. We really have two problems today. One is we see not enough people entering the industry and we also see those that have been around for some time or even new entrants, don’t quite have the skills that they need to be successful for the types of jobs that we see going into the future.

Alex Roy
Let’s be really specific. Okay? The mobility sector-

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Alex Roy
Is comprised of companies building hardware, companies building software for cities. Then I guess on the city side, all the folks who have to make decisions as to what kind of policies need to be in place to make our commutes better.

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Alex Roy
So there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people trying to build scooters.

Jessica Robinson
No, there’s not a shortage of people building scooters.

Alex Roy
But it’s clearly, based on how difficult it is when I go to a city I’ve never been to, I don’t know which app to use. I don’t even know necessarily the name or acronym of the train or the bus I need to take. It’s a nightmare. So the shortage is really on the city side?

Jessica Robinson
I think we’re seeing a really interesting moment in time where we have entrepreneurs, scooters or other services that have come into the market. Clearly there’s a need if people are launching new services. For years in the industry, we’ve talked about the “first mile, last mile” problem. Scooters instantly solve that by creating a relatively cheap way to get that last little bit. But I always think about when I’m in an unfamiliar city for the first time, I love to take public transit, I love subways and trains.

Alex Roy
It’s the fun part.

Jessica Robinson
It is the fun part, but the totally crazy part is when you come up out of the subway, you don’t know which street corner you’re on. Do I need the Southwest or the Northeast? Which direction is the hotel or my meeting? It’s completely disorienting.

Alex Roy
The other part is that if you come up to the street and then you need a car, renting one is horrible. You don’t want to bring your own, probably if it’s not your own city. The taxis are unreliable. Here in Detroit trying to get an Uber or Lyft was very, very difficult.

Jessica Robinson
Interesting.

Alex Roy
Last night and even this morning it took almost half an hour and two tries and a cancellation-

Jessica Robinson
To get where you needed to go?

Alex Roy
To get here to meet you fine people.

Jessica Robinson
Well I think, again, that’s the point. There is a lot of friction in the system today. You and I, we have smartphones in our hands that let us use all of these options on demand and we’re piecing together these trips. Certainly it’s still frustrating at times, whether it’s language, you don’t know the city, services not available. But I think that’s generally where we’re going is people are saying, “I want to be more specific about the types of services that I use depending on where I’m going.”

Jessica Robinson
So I use car share to get out here today. Other times I would have taken a ride share, but I think where the future of mobility is, is in that coordination. Back to your thought earlier, there’s different enabling technologies that are driving all of this, right? The smartphone, again, being a key one. We’re really seeing it’s that coordination of the technologies that are building these services. That’s I think where we will see new flexibility for us as we try and get around, come into play.

Alex Roy
That’s what your organization does. You train people to build these policies that will integrate these systems better and reduce friction.

Jessica Robinson
What we’re working on is the linkage between the engineering side of this world.

Alex Roy
You’re speaking to Bryan’s heart.

Jessica Robinson
Yes. Programmers, which so many of the services that we’re seeing now link something in the physical world, whether it’s a vehicle, an unmanned aerial drone or moving packages around with software. But the business models are changing pretty significantly as well. So the work that we’re doing at the Institute and here in Detroit now at the Center for Advanced Mobility are bringing together all of those engineering and design disciplines, but also wrapping it in the context of some of the things that we’re talking about here, different business models, different services, different demands on the vehicle.

Jessica Robinson
In a case of an autonomous vehicle that will be used in a very different way than I might use a car that I own right now.

Bryan Salesky
Who are some of the partners you’re working with?

Jessica Robinson
Wayne State here in Detroit has been a really key partner from the beginning for us. They’re a leading research university, but also very well connected to the community here. As we think about Detroit leading in this industry … I mean Bryan, you know how critical a relationship between universities and this industry is.

Bryan Salesky
Absolutely.

Jessica Robinson
So we want to make sure that we continue to invest in people here. So that’s a key one. But the news that we shared recently is, Wayne State University, but also community partners because again, as we think about people’s careers, we know that we need to connect with kids much earlier and help them see how cool these jobs can be. These are not your old school kind of wrenching on cars jobs. No offense to those that love to wrench on cars.

Bryan Salesky
I do not.

Alex Roy
What are you talking about? What are you saying?

Bryan Salesky
The point is we need all of the above. Right?

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Bryan Salesky
I think what people don’t understand is how broad the field is.

Jessica Robinson
Very broad.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah.

Jessica Robinson
And how cool and cutting edge these careers can be, particularly in Michigan where kids have a history of thinking maybe about automotive in a certain way. We’re doing a lot in terms of connecting to those that do programming with youth. Also we think that there’ll be a tremendous number of jobs created for everyday workers who you need to support fleets, autonomous delivery or otherwise. We want to make sure that we’re developing that training to help people take those new jobs as well.

Bryan Salesky
Are you also going to be sort of a clearing house for businesses that are hiring in the area to bring their jobs and almost like an ad, if you want to understand all the jobs that are available in the mobility ecosystem in Detroit, you can check it out. Is that something that’s in the cards?

Jessica Robinson
Well, I would say certainly we think that we have an advantage coming out of industry in terms of what those jobs will be, whether that’s a service that we offer in the future, I think still TBD.

Bryan Salesky
Part of the mission that talks about talent infrastructure, I thought that was an interesting phrase. I hadn’t actually heard it used, those two words put together that way.

Alex Roy
That’s a good one, yeah.

Bryan Salesky
What does talent infrastructure mean?

Jessica Robinson
Yeah. I think talent, if you talk to folks on the HR side of these businesses, they talk a lot about talent planning. Perhaps it comes from my background in mobility and working with cities too. I think you have to think about infrastructure differently, which is what are the foundational pieces and then how do you start to connect it all.

Bryan Salesky
So that’s evangelizing the types of jobs that are out there that are available, what they mean and how to get into the field and then the training that goes around it.

Jessica Robinson
Exactly, yes. It’s kind of cradle all the way through career in terms of helping people see these careers.

Bryan Salesky
So tell us a little bit about how you work with the city of Detroit. I’m curious. I think a lot of people who have never been here or haven’t been here recently, they probably have a different view of how we see Detroit, because it’s actually a really incredible city and there’s a lot happening in the downtown core. Can you say a little bit about that?

Jessica Robinson
Gladly. Yes. So I’m not from Michigan originally but have really come to love the community here for a number of reasons, including that I’ve seen particularly in mobility, the business education and startup scene converge in a way that maybe doesn’t happen in Silicon Valley. The city of Detroit in particular is really thinking about how to open itself up to partnerships. I’ve seen this in so different ways. My prior work at Ford, we spent a lot of time connecting with the city to think about how to deploy services locally.

Jessica Robinson
But we see the state of Michigan also supporting deployments, new technologies around connected intersections to make pedestrian experience safer or warn drivers that someone might be coming through a red light. The city doesn’t have to do any of that, but as a community that’s home to so much automotive and mobility innovation, I’ve really seen them step up and try and lead in that area. I think Detroit is so interesting to me because we have the legacy of being in many ways the birthplace of automotive and driving in America, where we haven’t invested in education or roadway infrastructure in some cases because of economic challenge. So we now have this dual mandate almost to bring ourselves back up as a community while also leading the world in mobility technology.

Bryan Salesky
Also laying a blueprint for how other cities that maybe have faced similar challenges can get out of that infrastructure hole that they might be in and lay out what the vision might look like for the future.

Alex Roy
But it’s also a policy hole. Is there a template for how to reboot a city’s mobility ecosystem?

Bryan Salesky
For Detroit years ago, it started with just replacing streetlamp bulbs. I remember I was on business travel from San Francisco probably about 2014, and I remember the mayor was on the line and he did a regular morning weekly show just to explain all of the improvements that were happening in the city of Detroit. The huge deal for the city of Detroit at that point in time was just replacing thousands of light bulbs per week. He was reporting that statistic regularly.

Bryan Salesky
That gives you an idea of of the starting point. Now where we are is, there’s tons of new development downtown. It’s coalesced around the stadiums and is starting to branch out. The riverfront is absolutely gorgeous, right? There’s new condo development, whether it be new industry as well as a new residential development. It’s pretty incredible. Remember, that was just 2014 and now here we are five years later, it’s almost a whole different city.

Jessica Robinson
Yeah.

Alex Roy
So you worked for Zipcar in Seattle.

Jessica Robinson
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alex Roy
What year was that?

Jessica Robinson
2008 is when I started.

Alex Roy
In the last 12 to 24 months, I’ve read a number of articles about how Seattle is one of the few cities that has dramatically reduced traffic. Did that trend have … Were you there for the beginning of that trend? Is Seattle an example that one could follow for other cities?

Jessica Robinson
Yeah. So you asked about blueprints for cities rebooting itself. When I lived in Seattle, one of the larger companies there was Microsoft in the region. Amazon had not yet actually become the size of the company that it is now. Seattle as a region has always invested in public transit, but not perfectly. I lived there through I think at least two ballot measures where public transit was actually voted down. But the community has continued to invest.

Jessica Robinson
It’s faced legacy infrastructure problems as well. I mean they’ve taken down an elevated highway as many American cities have now, but with the population boom they had to think about how to get people around in a different way. When I lived there, it actually was quite painful because they were doing a lot of that infrastructure work that the community’s benefiting from now. In terms of changing flow on certain roadways, building out the light rail that goes to the airport. We didn’t have those things for most of the time that I lived there.

Jessica Robinson
Seattle is also fascinating as is Portland, because it sits on the main freight corridor for the West coast, and that freight corridor runs straight through the heart of downtown. So you’ve got both trains with freight and then also trucks going through the freeway which basically splits the downtown in half. So it, it’s actually a fascinating example of kind of what we’re talking about here.

Alex Roy
We’ve seen the effects of unfettered arrival of ride hailing services increasing traffic. I’m from New York, so I’ve seen the massive influx of cars that are on ride hailing platforms. We’ve seen the effects of that. I don’t think there’s been an obvious solution to those things. Different cities have tried to do congestion pricing or a capped number of hours an individual driver can be on the platform. We’ve also seen scooters arrive in multiple cities, San Francisco and Santa Monica with varying degrees of success and a lot of friction. What examples or what lessons can we take away from those, what’s happened with those two modes, for when AVs come to market? Obviously there’s a policy side, there’s a community engagement side. What are the best examples for how this could be done right? What examples can we follow?

Jessica Robinson
I guess I’ll start with community engagement. I think it’s a good prompt in the sense that with ride hailing, many of those services initially were deployed globally without a lot of engagement. Scooters-

Alex Roy
She is smiling, grinning. Rictus grin as she says that.

Jessica Robinson
Yes. Scooters to a degree as well. I think those days are over. Looking back a year from now, I could be very wrong on that one.

Bryan Salesky
Have you been very wrong in the past?

Jessica Robinson
I remember living in San Francisco and working in car sharing and being toured-

Alex Roy
Zipcar.

Jessica Robinson
Zipcar. Toured around a building smack downtown and the property manager said, “You will not believe this company. They just took the whole floor of this building and there’s like three guys sitting with laptops.” And she’s like, “I don’t know what they do. Like you hail a car from your app. I don’t know. They have a lot of money, so we leased them this space.” That was Uber’s first office downtown. Everybody at the time was like, “What do you mean you’re going to ride with a stranger?”

Jessica Robinson
At the time, I was like, “What do you mean you’re going to ride with a stranger in the back of a car that you summon, on an app?” And yet many of us do today, so I think I was surprised by how quickly rideshare came into the market. From all of the public officials that I’ve talked to though, back to your question about doing this right, they I think, increasingly recognize how much power they have because they set the policy for the use of roads and sidewalks and intersections and building code, and all of those things come together to influence how these mobility services rollout.

Jessica Robinson
Most American cities are designed around a car, but a perfect example is I was walking down the street in L.A. by a hotel and was noticing they have a pull through area where you pull up, drop your bags off and then you know the valet takes your car way. Many communities had those pull through drop-off areas when people first started to use cars, because you had a driver and so you would be dropped at the curb and then continue on your way. Now we’re currently in a time where we’re used to having to find a place to store that car and then continue on foot to where we’re actually going. I wonder whether the city design will again change to enable pick up and drop off like that in a new way and if so, if that helps services in the future, the only way we’re going to get there is through those conversations in that partnership. Those building the technology and those setting the terms of the playing field for where they’ll actually be rolled out.

Bryan Salesky
Curb space is super valuable in cities. I think people are starting to switch onto this now, right, and I think we are going to start to see more kind of regimented, almost like bus stops, but it’s going to be more pickup drop-off spots for all these services and I think it’s interesting. It’s going to be interesting to see city by city, how it plays out, who ends up kind of owning that real estate and how it ends up getting managed. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jessica Robinson
Yeah, so again, draw in the car share experience here. When those services first rolled out in cities, parking was traditionally leased in private lots and over time cities saw the benefit of car sharing to reduce car ownership, which they saw as a priority and so wanted to enable that. And one of the ways they wanted to enable it was through on street parking. But there were a lot of debates at that time. And I used to go to city council meetings, have this conversation about the allocation of a public right of way to a private service, and we had to make a public good argument at that time. And I still believe that’s the case. I think the same can be said for efficient use of curb for pickup, drop off goods if you’re reducing congestion. But you know, that is not a foregone conclusion. But one third of real estate in cities is for cars driving and or car storage and it’s kind of a dumb use of space.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. I mean, on one hand it’s an incredible waste. On the other hand, as a person who drives a car, boy is it frustrating?

Jessica Robinson
It’s convenient, right?

Bryan Salesky
It sure is, because there isn’t enough. Can we go back to the scooter comment though?

Jessica Robinson
Sure.

Bryan Salesky
I guess, I thought you said earlier that scooters, like those days are over, it’s not happening. It’s not.

Jessica Robinson
Oh no, no. Actually I think scooters will-

Bryan Salesky
You’re pro scooter. Okay.

Jessica Robinson
I think scooters have shown that there was a need that wasn’t being met. I don’t think the current form of deployment is going to stick around. I don’t think anyone likes piles of scooters on their corner.

Bryan Salesky
Exactly. So dockless is the thing that you don’t think is going to survive?

Jessica Robinson
I think the piles of dockless scooters, some city we’ll figure out first how to get that back in control. I don’t know if it will be a carrot or a stick. I mean we see companies now offering charging areas to try and entice you to bring your scooter back to a nice and neat place. Others are using very significant fines to try and get the scooter operator to comply. But there’s no denying, even here in Detroit that scooters have increased people’s ability to get around. And so I think the market will drive in that way.

Bryan Salesky
So let’s go to multi-mode transportation for a minute. So in most cities you’ve got scooters, buses, rideshare, maybe there’s a train or a people mover type of type of deal. What’d I miss out? Taxis.

Alex Roy
So…flying taxis.

Bryan Salesky
The flying taxi, yeah…and at some point a self driving car. So there’s all these different modes. There really isn’t a good way to stitch all of it together. You have some ideas on sort of what the right implementation is?

Alex Roy
And the wrong one.

Bryan Salesky
Or the wrong one?

Jessica Robinson
So we’re seeing two. I mean, we’re seeing those that had a headstart in mobility through a service that they launched on their own, particularly rideshare, start to I’d say integrate with other options, whether it’s bike or transit, you can kind of do it all in one of those apps if you have it on your phone. We’re also seeing a lot of transit agencies try and do this coordination because they exist for the public good. But they also frankly are concerned that the reliable rides will be eroded off of the transit network. And so they also want to to have this seamless trip. And then in some cases we’re seeing cities, which different than transit agencies, try and do this to to coordinate. No one’s doing it particularly well or perfect today.

Alex Roy
Not even Helsinki in there’s this thing called Whim.

Jessica Robinson
Right so-

Alex Roy
People have talked and said, “Oh it’s going to be great.” But it hasn’t really been great?

Jessica Robinson
So the idea there, mobility as a service is one where you pay some monthly fee and the rest is just kind of taken care of for you. You have access to whatever mobility option you want. A lot of people have looked at that Helsinki model as being groundbreaking. It hasn’t really been replicated anywhere else in the world yet. Particularly in the western world where you have different privately offered services.

Jessica Robinson
I think a group of players in this that are well positioned are those that are, are doing payment or potentially the route planning themselves. And so you’re starting to see, Google just recently announced, you can do different things in Google Maps than you used to do. I think we’ll continue to see that as well. But the one of the greatest challenges is, it’s not a technical challenge, figuring out how to flow through a trip or have a seamless payment, that can all be done. It’s actually a policy and a will issue. There’s some distrust today on the public sector for mobility entrepreneurs. Are they actually in this to completely disrupt public transit again and ruin the bus system? There’s lots of personal identity questions. Do you trust the public sector? Do you trust private? None of it’s actually a technical challenge today, I don’t think.

Bryan Salesky
How does all of this shake out though? I mean there are all these challenges and there’s limited road space that’s available for all these things. I left out bikes, I shouldn’t have. We should actually, let’s talk about bikes in a second.

Alex Roy
Well because you love bikes.

Jessica Robinson
I do.

Bryan Salesky
You’re an avid cyclist, yeah.

Jessica Robinson
We’ll come back to that.

Bryan Salesky
Let’s come back to, let’s put a pin in that. But how does this all shake out? There’s limited road use, but on the other hand, or sorry, there’s limited road availability, what I mean, but on the other hand there’s consumer choice and options are a good thing, right? Some of these services may be better for folks that have a disability than others. Some of these options are better depending on whether you want to take a stroll through the city and get some fresh air, or if it’s in the dead of winter and a scooter is maybe not the best option. I mean, options are a good thing. So how does all of this shake out is, is there going to be some magical, call it like an operating system that’s going to sort of be the arbiter at the end of the day of how this space gets used? Do you think cities want that?

Jessica Robinson
I think what cities want is for their citizens to have access to these services to live their lives. They don’t really have a lot of tools right now. So what they’re doing is saying stop enough is enough. Whether it’s congestion charging to say basically, stay out. Or in some cases actually making that policy to say these vehicles can’t be in a certain zone. That’s not a very sophisticated solution now. Right? To just say, stop, we can’t figure it out. Just go away.

Jessica Robinson
So I think it is still very uncertain and that’s where the companies that are willing to sit and have these conversations now this is not going to be an overnight thing. I mean if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business is government does not move quickly. They’re not known for that. And so we’re seeing headway now where companies are starting to sit and talk about data. I mean super nerdy stuff here, but open data structures that become an enabler for this communication and interaction and the city, again as the ultimate owner and rule setter for the roads, we’ll use those tools to get people to stay in line.

Bryan Salesky
So that’s a really good point, right, is access to data. And this is sort of a hot topic between sort of public, private enterprises, but a lot of the local governments are in the dark around how the roads are being used and so on. And they like the first step when I talk to some of the city officials is, please just tell us, open up what you know about how these services are being used and demand and so on, because it helps inform them for a number of things, city planning and other things. What’s your take on that?

Jessica Robinson
Yeah, they are in the dark and whether it’s budget or just the industry and innovation has moved faster than they’ve been able to keep up. You probably know more about the roadway condition in any city you operate in versus-

Bryan Salesky
We know every pothole, the location of every fire hydrant-

Jessica Robinson
Yep, versus the DOT, right?

Bryan Salesky
Yep.

Jessica Robinson
And I think part of the opportunity here is they genuinely just want to understand.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. Exactly.

Jessica Robinson
In some cases they unfortunately don’t have the resources. Even if you were to somehow open up your entire dataset, we’ll stick with potholes. They don’t have the staff to process that information. And so I think we’ve seen the public sector move from, when negotiating with mobility companies, we want all the data, to say, okay, we get it. We don’t actually want all the data, because we don’t know how to use it or we couldn’t process it or it’s in a format that doesn’t really make sense to us. To what can we kind of discover together?

Jessica Robinson
But I think one of the challenges, particularly here in the U.S. is we do have laws around discovery of information. As a citizen, I think that’s really important to know what my government is doing. But having worked in mobility in the private sector, it’s also challenging because I don’t want my competitors to use those types of lies to gain a business advantage for something that is truly strategic. And that’s been a challenge too, is what’s actually strategic.

Bryan Salesky
That is a struggle. But I think there is a happy medium here where we’re not giving away a competitive advantage by sharing some information with the city to make the infrastructure better. And to take our consumption of the road use and turn it into additional positives for the community. So I think that’s where we all need to find sort of this happy medium, right?

Alex Roy
But, It’s so much of the problem of mobility in cities is really a housing problem, because when you have low density housing and street parking is limited and there’s no political will to build a rail line, then the happy medium would be to have consistent, reliable, safe bus service. But then the political will doesn’t exist to fund that either. And this seems to be an obvious place where an AVs could solve this, but cart before the horse and a lot of people just don’t believe it, if you build it, they will come.

Alex Roy
One time I looked at living in Red Hook part of Brooklyn, which is not served by rail. It has a major highway that literally separates Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn and makes it feel like like a backwater, even though it’s very close to Manhattan. If there was only a reliable service, I’d love it to be autonomous too, that at linked it. So what can AV companies or providers of reliable service like that do to engage with cities to get whatever data they have to know where they might put down such a line, because you could theoretically fill Red Hook with people if they had knew they could get to work without having to walk eight blocks, get on a train. It’s a mess.

Jessica Robinson
Yeah. Well what’s interesting about Red Hook is over the history of New York, that is not typically a place people would have chosen to live. It’s more industrial and it has that kind of vibe that a lot of people are interested in now. But Red Hook was more industrial and the infrastructure around it supports that type of use. And so a lot of cities actually are facing this now where there’s development of areas-

Alex Roy
Without transit.

Jessica Robinson
That were previously industrial. Yes, and they definitely don’t have transit. And so they are looking at those flexible options. There’s also a density question, whether it’s suburban neighborhoods or a neighborhood that’s been, excuse me, that’s undergoing infill development. It does not likely make sense to put in new rail, but those flexible options can absolutely meet a transit need maybe in an interim period.

Jessica Robinson
I’ve actually seen a number of transit agencies now go back and look at their overall network and say, we run buses and trains on dense routes and we’re going to use all kinds of services to connect people from a neighborhood like Red Hook or a less dense suburban area into those strong public transit lines. Because that’s actually the best use of the resources is to, regardless of whether it’s autonomous, a shuttle, a scooter, it’s a better use of resources to let that private company serve this particular area. We will subsidize or offer some sort of coordination to make that happen. Transit agencies are definitely looking at that.

Alex Roy
because if you’re saying that the cities are still slow to react or to make plans, I would love … It would seem fair, much easier for a company offering a shuttle service to cut a deal with New York City to put down a busway or corridor from the tunnel entrance on the Brooklyn side all the way down Van Brunt Street like a spine, for a three month trial. This is our corridor, we’re going to run a consistent AV service down here. It’s going to be affordable. And see if that creates an uptick in real estate interest.

Jessica Robinson
Yes, if-

Alex Roy
And if that can be done within six to 12 months.

Jessica Robinson
One of the challenges though is particularly young mobility startups haven’t always wanted to offer, excuse me, operate the full spectrum of accessible services. And so as a public agency you don’t have any luxury around that at all. You have to serve your citizens. So that’s another area where I’ve actually seen companies come a long way to say, yes, we will include ADA access and other things when we roll out because the public sector is demanding it so significantly.

Jessica Robinson
But I think your prompt around housing and real estate is an interesting one because why do we even move or go anywhere in the first place? It’s we have to get to work, we have to go to school, we need to eat. And the way we do that now as we go to the store and go grocery shopping. All of that is in an engineering mindset, is an inefficiency in the system.

Alex Roy
But in a human mindset it is built or baked into being human.

Jessica Robinson
That’s right. That’s what we do. We go get the stuff that we need.

Alex Roy
And we meet people on the way by accident and it’s kismet and life gets better.

Jessica Robinson
That’s right. That’s right. But that relationship between where we work, where we live and how we get around, you cannot separate those. And that’s again, why cities are so important.

Bryan Salesky
Bikes.

Alex Roy
Right.

Jessica Robinson
Let’s talk bikes.

Alex Roy
Yeah, let’s talk bikes. You are a cyclist?

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Alex Roy
And you have an Instagram-

Alex Roy
You are a cyclist?

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Alex Roy
And you have an Instagram, but you want to talk about the Instagram?

Jessica Robinson
It’s fine. Yep. BicycleChica.

Alex Roy
BicycleChica.

Jessica Robinson
Yes.

Alex Roy
And where do you live now?

Jessica Robinson
I live in Detroit, in a neighborhood called Lafayette Park, which is effectively downtown. I work downtown as well now.

Alex Roy
Do you have protected bike lanes where you live?

Jessica Robinson
We have a separated bike lane now. It has bollards which are those plastic poles that stick up. It is not fully separated where there’s a curb or something on the roadway, no. We have a number of marked bike lanes now though.

Alex Roy
And do you ride your bike in the winter?

Jessica Robinson
I do. I have. So I actually started biking in Seattle, where less impacted by snow than we are here in Michigan, but had its share of pretty pleasant bicycling weather too. I’m used to that, and I do still ride here. As I mentioned, I live downtown, work downtown, so I actually am walking a lot more than I used to. But even when I worked at Ford in Dearborn, I would bike from my home out to world headquarters.

Alex Roy
It seems like… I mean I rode a bike… I’ll confess, I learned to ride a bike when I was 22, so I grew up in Manhattan and it seemed really dangerous. So I learned to ride a bike on Mercer Street, and within months I was super confident and then I was hit by a taxi and I have not biked since. Not in an urban center. In an optimal future for me to bike again, I would need a protected bike lane and I’d want to link up with a bus or a service that allowed me to park my bike or share and get rid of it. So is it absolutely essential that a single app offer all the services inside a walled garden or do you think we’ll be able to have like an open standard, like a city can offer something where all the modes are co-mingling happily?

Jessica Robinson
I would hope that we can get to an open standard and cities would, I think, argue that that’s the way that it needs to be. We shouldn’t have city A branded with this set of services, city B with this set of services and they don’t link together because even a city doesn’t exist in an island. It’s surrounded by suburbs and the rural communities. All of that flow should happen naturally. But the link is really important for someone like me that chooses to bicycle when I could drive and own a car if I wanted to. It’s really important, going back to the question of the broader community that’s impacted here in many cities, a bicycle and a bus is how a lot of people get around, particularly because the buses don’t run into neighborhoods. So if you are working a second or third shift job, the way you get to the bus is you ride your bike and that’s where protected infrastructure, again, serves somebody near you, but it’s also keeping safe all of those people that are out there writing every day now.

Bryan Salesky
So because we mapped the streets and we pay attention to changes in lane markings and other controls that are on the pavement. I noticed that some cities, their idea of a bike lane is they just slap down paint. I was on a street that will remain nameless and all of a sudden what appeared the other day was just a long strip of green right smack in the side of an existing lane. That’s not really a bike lane, is it, Jessica? Is that actually helpful? I’d just like to understand.

Jessica Robinson
That’s a great question, and there’s, in the bicycling, pedestrian, and design community, lots of discussion about what’s the safest infrastructure. There’s also a movement around rapid prototyping with city infrastructure. Sometimes you see those things up here because an innovative DOT leader was able to push that through politically to try it because he or she wasn’t busting up the road to put in new concrete as a barrier. In other cases, that’s what you’re getting, is green paint. It is better, but it’s not perfect. There’s another thing called the sharrow, which is arrow paint on the road which reminds drivers, human drivers, that bicycles are there. It doesn’t change the laws substantially. It’s a reminder,

Bryan Salesky
From an autonomous vehicle development standpoint, we like it in general because it at least sets up the context for why we might be nudging in one direction versus the other to other human drivers because it’s clear, “Hey, we’re trying to leave room for bicyclists to be able to use that stretch of pavement.” But sometimes it’s so not thoughtfully done that I don’t know that it’s doing anything. Anyway, it’s just interesting to get your perspective on it.

Alex Roy
But the department of transportation has… There are standards for building highways. There are specific things you have to do.

Bryan Salesky
Absolutely. In order to be eligible for highway funding, you have to meet these standards.

Alex Roy
Are you meaning to tell me that there is no standard or at least a best practice for what a bike lane must consist of?

Jessica Robinson
There are best practices for sure. But again, many of this particular type of infrastructure is a retrofit and so you can’t go wider on the street because homes are built there or offices are built there. If you go narrower you might be taking out a bike lane, or excuse me, a driving lane or a parking lane in some circumstances. There are absolutely data around best practices, but it’s important to remember that it’s a retrofit, in a political context in some cases, where we’re trying in innovating to figure out what’s right.

Alex Roy
And I really wanted to talk about SimCity here today, but as Bryan has pointed out to me over and over, anyone who enters this field thinking SimCity has lessons to teach is going to be a suboptimal manager of mobility policy. I read that you are going to offer a master of mobility. Literally a master’s degree. Is that correct?

Jessica Robinson
That’s a goal.

Alex Roy
I like to ask people who work in mobility policy if they are old enough to remember when Orbits first launched the matrix of flights. And I remember this and to me that was a big deal. I remember that, and Expedia launched their flight matrix, then Orbitz sued Expedia, claiming that that was a unique interface for booking flights, but then over… And I think that they settled. And then eventually Expedia started bundling hotels and flights together, then hotel flight and car into a common matrix. So in looking at the different types of apps that might be deployed to reduce friction in how I get from A to B in a city, it would seem that having such a matrix would make sense. And yet there’s still this weird fracturing.

Alex Roy
If you go to Google Maps now, they’ll show you train, bike, foot, maybe-

Jessica Robinson
And the car.

Alex Roy
And the car, which is almost always not the best. Bus is good. And then it might show you within each mode one or two. So it’s still kind of a walled garden based on whether the vendors are offering their stuff, their services into the app. We talked earlier Bryan, you mentioned an open standard. In my dream world, a reliable shuttle service, AV service is like an air ticket, like an airline that’s available on all platforms and then the app is trying to reduce all the friction around it. Why hasn’t anyone nailed this yet? Why not?

Jessica Robinson
The Orbitz example is a really interesting one because it still requires an active choice. It lays out a menu of options where you say, “I’m going from point A to point B,” and the factors considered are time, cost, do you have a brand affinity between a certain hotel brand or airlines or whatever. It’s still requiring you to say, “Look at all the choices. Okay, that’s the one I want.” I think underneath your question of why hasn’t anyone solved it yet is each of our preferences are different, but they’re also different for each trip we’re making, and they’re different depending on which trip comes before or after. On a normal day, if I’m going to a meeting before work, then I’m going to work. I have a meeting at work, I’m doing something social after and then I’m going home.

Jessica Robinson
I may generally have a preference for the cheapest option if I’m living on a constrained budget, but today, because my kids got a show after school, I’m going to go for the fastest option only in that particular segment. You’re still requiring me to make that choice each set of the way. Even if you can enable me with a pass. Where I think this all goes is predictive, to say, “Jessica, in your calendar, we know your next thing coming up is this meeting. You need to be here. The traffic is terrible. Generally you like to take the bus. Hey, you should probably leave now, and do you want to take the bus?” Yes. I think if you can integrate into a calendar, which most of us live and die by now, that’s the true magic that gets unlocked.

Alex Roy
The one thing I would love, and I would love that, sure, is the buried piece of information in Expedia and Orbitz, it’s like one or two menus deep, is the reliability of the flight I’m about to book. If I could just have a mobility as a service app which I could subscribe to and it was predictive and it had reliability, 95%, that would make me so happy because that’s what’s missing. And I rely all the time on drivers are probably not that safe and I take it for granted. I’m like, “Eh, as long as they arrive on time.” So if I could invert that such that I know the service is safer than me in the morning when I’m cranky and tired and reliable, I would pay more money for that.

Jessica Robinson
Well reliability’s a great point. There’s an article that was written about subway ridership in New York, particularly with all of the repairs and shutdowns and the frustration, and you can validate whether this is true, as a subway rider was not that the rides were long or full, which they both are, but that you didn’t know if that thing was ever going to be there when it was supposed to. The wonder and the worry of “I got here when the subway’s supposed to be here. Did it just leave? And now I’m waiting for the next one. Is there a single track going on and so the train is totally stuck behind?” That irregularity in the unpredictability is, I think, really frustrating for people as well.

Alex Roy
So the Master of Mobility. How long does it take to earn it? What does it cost? What does that look like? Are there prerequisites on your undergraduate degree? Can I apply? Because that seems like something I’d love to have, so I could just hammer people on-

Bryan Salesky
Must have used 10 different forms of transportation.

Jessica Robinson
You’ve already earned master status. Expert status. So the master is genuinely a two year degree based in the engineering school and it, we believe, will represent the fact that you understand the underlying technology with an opportunity to specialize. If you come from more of a mechanical mindset, you can still focus there. If you’re interested in sensor fusion or driving optimization, any of those things, you can still specialize. But we do believe that we’re at this point of a new type of engineer, the mobility engineer, and if you look back in history-

Alex Roy
Cool title.

Jessica Robinson
We did not have mechanical engineers before we had steam engines. We did not have aerospace engineers before people flew. I would say it’s entirely reasonable to acknowledge that Bryan, people like you, you actually are a mobility engineer. You might argue you’re a roboticist, but-

Bryan Salesky
It’s certainly evolved though into that, that’s for sure. Absolutely.

Jessica Robinson
What we’re hearing from employers is they want people that understand the context of what they’re designing and driving, and we think that’s through mobility engineering. When I moved to Detroit, I sold my car in part because I was so frustrated-

Alex Roy
Are you allowed to do that?

Jessica Robinson
Yes, it’s a dirty secret. You actually are allowed to live in Detroit without a car.

Alex Roy
Oh my gosh.

Jessica Robinson
I sold it because I was so frustrated, having professionally worked around cars and with cars and parking. I was just done with that. I didn’t need that in my own personal life. There were other ways to get around. So I work downtown and when I had the opportunity to join the Ford team, it’s in Dearborn, the headquarters is in Dearborn, which is about eight or 10 miles from downtown, 20 minutes by car, about an hour by bike. There’s also public transit, and we have this thing in Michigan called winter, so I knew I needed some other options as well. But we also have this-

Alex Roy
Do you put chains on your bicycle tires?

Jessica Robinson
I’ve never done that actually.

Alex Roy
That’d be kind of cool.

Jessica Robinson
But we also have this beautiful thing called summer. I started in summer and wanted to do things a little differently when I joined the company. So I decided I was going to get a Vespa scooter. Here in Michigan, a Vespa that’s over 50 CCs is a motorcycle, so I had to get my motorcycle license, and so I spent the month before I started learning how to ride Harley Davidsons so that I could pass my motorcycle certification so that I could buy my Vespa to commute to work at Ford motor company.

Bryan Salesky
Was that also an excuse to buy a Harley?

Jessica Robinson
I did not buy a Harley, although the guys who trained alongside me could not figure out what was wrong with this woman who was learning how to ride a Harley so that she could ride a Vespa.

Bryan Salesky
That’s great.

Alex Roy
Why doesn’t every crossover or larger vehicle sold today have a specific cubby or bin or something in the trunk to fit your personally owned scooter?

Jessica Robinson
There’s people looking at that design too.

Alex Roy
I hope so. Bryan. We should just wrap it up right there. Thanks so much for coming.

Jessica Robinson
Thank you guys.

Alex Roy
Jessica.

Bryan Salesky
Thanks.

Alex Roy
I still can’t believe that Jessica rides her bike in the winter in Detroit.

Bryan Salesky
I can’t believe she hasn’t put chains on her tires. I actually don’t know how that would work. But there are also the the fat tire bikes. Those are all the rage in Michigan in particular. Have you seen those? They’re pretty neat.

Alex Roy
It’s like the F-150 of bikes.

Bryan Salesky
Exactly.

Alex Roy
It’s what you want, you want the F-150 if anything.

Bryan Salesky
It’s true. We should have asked her to share her secret on this.

Alex Roy
All right, so that was really… I’m glad she came by. All right, look, if you would like to learn more about the No Parking podcast, check us out on the internet www.noparkingpodcast.com. You can check us out on Twitter at NoParkingPod. Bryan’s still not on social media.

Bryan Salesky
Got a lot of things to do, Alex.

Alex Roy
But I am.

Bryan Salesky
I’ve got enough inboxes to check already.

Alex Roy
AlexRoy144 on all platforms, but all of it’s going to be stuff about the No Parking Podcast. And if you have any ideas for guests or topics you want us to cover, please contact us at guests@noparkingpodcast.com. And of course you want to learn more about what Jessica’s doing, you should check out the Michigan Mobility Institute and its parent organization, the Detroit Mobility Lab. What they’re doing is good stuff, and if I had the time, I would get a Masters of Mobility myself. Our cities need people with that knowledge.

See you next week.