What can autonomous vehicles learn from the experience of everyone else on the road? Cyclist and veteran mobility expert Emily Castor Warren shares what she learned from her time at Lyft and Lime about the breakdown of trust between cyclists and drivers, plus how better policy and infrastructure might glue it all together.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around autonomous vehicle technology and artificial intelligence. Because this is about having honest conversations about how technology will actually affect our daily lives. I’m Alex Roy.

Today we’re talking about cyclists. We’ve got a great guest. She’s super passionate about building livable cities. But first, we have to talk about why we’re doing this episode in the first place. It’s really hard to build an autonomous vehicle that can drive safely on our streets. They have got to work, not in the lab, not in a test track. They’ve got to work in the real world around real people, cyclists, pedestrians, pets, whatever. People like me, who aren’t that good at riding bikes on the road. They’ve got to work everywhere. Now, people and dogs and pets change directions unexpectedly, and a machine has to learn how to recognize them. It’s got to be a good citizen on our streets. Bryan, my co-host, he’s the founder of Argo AI. He has a lot to say about that and we’ll get to that soon.

If you want to learn more about how the technology works on a deep technical level, we’ve got a bonus episode that dropped just before this one. It’s a conversation between No Parking’s new producer, Megan Harris, and one of Argo AI’s, senior technical folks to explain the details of the technology. For some people, they really, really, really want to know the ‘how’ before we get to the ‘why’. But the ‘why’ we’re going to talk about with Emily Castor Warren. She’s super awesome. I’ve known her on and off from events. I’ve seen her speak. Emily Castor Warren, Senior Policy Advisor at Nelson/Nygaard, focusing on transit mobility from your home base in Oakland, California, thanks so much for joining us on the No Parking podcast.

Emily Castor Warren

Thanks Alex. Great to be here.

Alex Roy

So Emily, just so people know what you’re talking about and why you know so much about it, before joining Nelson\Nygaard, you were an executive at Lyft and Lime. Can you give us the short and sweet about your time at Lyft and Lime?

Emily Castor Warren

I was super lucky to get to join Lyft on its first day of operation in 2012. So I saw the lights turn on and the cars start moving around the map and was able to join in creating a number of the original operational functions of the company. And over a five and a half year period saw that scale up, obviously from just a tiny team to over 4,000 employees. And by that point I was running the transportation policy team there, which I had helped to create, to really manage Lyft’s interaction with cities and transit agencies, environmentalists and others who were thinking about the impacts of that new mode of transportation.

And then in 2017, I left. And in 2018 I had the opportunity to join Lime, right in the advent of the scooter craze and became its first head of its global policy team, creating its policy, public affairs, research and grassroots mobilization functions to build the new set of regulatory frameworks that were being developed very rapidly around the world to legitimize this new business of dockless electric scooters.

Alex Roy

So can people who ride scooters and people who ride bikes, obviously it’s a lot of the same folks actually… I mean, do they get along with cars? Can they? I mean, what’s the problem?

Emily Castor Warren

I think it’s fair to say it’s been a contentious relationship historically. And that’s because cars are really big and heavy and historically have moved at high speeds. So they’re really dangerous to people who don’t have that same kind of protection when they’re on the streets, vulnerable road users like bicyclists, pedestrians, anyone who’s moving around in a manner on the streets that doesn’t give them that same armor that cars have.

Alex Roy

Do you ride a bike around Oakland?

Emily Castor Warren

I ride a bike around Oakland and a lot of other places that I go. I have e-bikes and road bikes. So I try to take advantage of the full range of options.

Alex Roy

So have you ever had an incident or something with a car that drove near you that made you feel unsafe?

Emily Castor Warren

Sure. I mean, I think any urban cyclist who is at it for enough years ends up having close calls. I mean, there have been times I was, you know, bumped by a car that backed up into me when I was stopped at a light. Times when, you know, I had people cut me off and do right hooks that were really close calls. But I think you end up in a state of constant vigilance and to some extent anxiety and a self defensive mindset when you’re out on the street in that way. And it’s really the job of cities to try to think about how they can craft an environment where people don’t have to be in that kind of emotional state as they’re using the roads on bikes and scooters. Where they can actually relax and feel welcomed in the streetscape.

Alex Roy

Alright. So let me ask you this. Emily, you, and you’re in the Bay area, you ride a bike. You’ve been on scooters. You know a lot of people who ride. How do you feel about autonomous vehicles? I mean, there’s people who’ve been testing for years near where you live. Do you see them? How do you feel about them?

Emily Castor Warren

I see them all the time if I go to San Francisco. We actually don’t have many of them on the roads of Oakland itself. But I’ve certainly seen lots of companies that have done testing in San Francisco and on the peninsula. And they’re at a pretty small volume at this point compared to the other vehicles on the road. So I would say they’re the least of my worries at this point. I’m more worried about people that are driving their own cars around. But when I look to the longer view of a future in which the car fleet shifts over, primarily to autonomously operated vehicles, I think obviously it becomes much more important to consider how those vehicles will interact with cyclists. And to make sure that they can do a better job than humans.

Alex Roy

As a car guy, nothing would please me more than to see autonomous vehicles deployed in places… Say, my daughter could learn to ride a bike in the street, does not have to worry about an autonomous vehicle because it’ll be safer than a lot of people I know behind the wheel of a car. Here’s a question. Shared autonomous fleets are going to come and they’re going to deploy in cities and they have to build relationships with local cities that are positive and engaging and talk to the communities. In recent years, some companies, that we do not need to name, have entered cities and they haven’t always built the kind of relationship they need to build to deploy a fleet of any type in a positive way. What lessons can you take from what you observed as to how an autonomous vehicle fleet should enter a city and build the right relationships? Cause the cyclists are a key stakeholder anywhere, especially post COVID.

Emily Castor Warren

Absolutely. And I have the perspective both of being an individual cyclist, who cares about the interactions I have with vehicles on the street, and also my professional capacity at Nelson\Nygaard. Now I work for cities who hire our firm to help them craft their policy approaches to technology and to help them design safe streetscapes. And so I think about both. You know, what is a city’s response to seeing the entrance of technology companies and how do people feel? Members of the public, advocates. Right? And I think there has been a lot of hostility between these different stakeholder groups over the last several years. And I had a front row seat to that with these really controversial business models of ride hailing and scooters entering cities. And saw kind of what the pitfalls are and maybe what a pathway can be to do it right. And I believe that it really starts with proactive communication and dialogue because there’s nothing that is more startling and upsetting to a city than to find out that there is a new technology on their streets by seeing it or reading about it in the newspaper, rather than having a series of conversations that provide opportunities for public input and discussion about the intent and impacts of that technology before it arrives.

Alex Roy

I guess, do you think people actually want autonomous vehicles on their streets? Even if they know that they are better, are people so wedded to the ways of the past? There’s been this debate about putting bike lanes in and whether open spaces that have evolved since COVID will stay or not. Do people want change? Are they, I mean, how do we get them to even be open to new ideas?

Emily Castor Warren

I think it is really important to people to reduce the levels of traffic injuries and fatalities on the road. So even though an everyday person might not know and think about, every day, that an autonomous vehicle is going to be the solution that helps result in that reduction in traffic violence, there is, I think, a level of grassroots support for finding solutions that can reduce the dramatic human toll of human operated vehicles. And it’s the role of policy makers to look at the technologies that are coming online and to measure their benefits with regard to safety and to make some decisions about whether those vehicles should be allowed to operate, if they can actually help reduce that societal indicator. But I think you’re right that people will be nervous about it when they’re not quite sure how this new type of vehicle is going to interact with them when they’re on the roads, either as a driver or a pedestrian or a cyclist. And so in tandem with the regulatory conversation that the industry needs to have to demonstrate its functional value in delivering safety, there also needs to be a public conversation to educate people about what that value is. And to simply inform them about what it’s going to look like and feel like, and what their duty and role is when they interact with these vehicles on the streets so that they’re not concerned if they see something out of the ordinary, as these start to percolate into a more common presence.

Alex Roy

It is amazing that people will tolerate all manner of bad driving from humans for the longest time, and yet they, have seldom really motivated to do something about it. Like driver education in this country is terrible. And maybe we treat driver education exactly the way we treat bicycle riding education? It’s like, whoever’s around good luck with it. And then you get me, getting hit by a cab at age 22.

Emily Castor Warren

Well, and this is a really common phenomenon, right? A really well understood phenomenon in behavioral economics around the idea that you are more likely to want to hold on to the way things are than to take a risk on something new, even if it can be proven that you would benefit more under that new scenario. It’s called loss aversion. And you want to, you’re afraid that the thing that you have now, even if it’s not perfect, is going to go away. And so it can be actually really hard to get people to support something new, or even to get regulators, to be willing to take a chance on something new, even if the status quo really sucks. And I’ve seen that problem for sure in my efforts in the past to try to help introduce new technologies. So that’s where I think a proactive effort to really make the case of how the new thing is going to deliver tangible benefits in a way that people experience and to actually start proving it through smaller scale exposure and experiments is something that is important to generating that public support so people aren’t just afraid of the unknown.

Alex Roy

So a lot of people ask how long it’ll take for AV’s to show up. And I’m sure you’ve heard these conversations, Emily, I’ve seen you at events. And I always say the ‘when’ component depends deeply on building relationships with cities, talking to the bike organizations, talking to city governments. What do you think is the missing thing people haven’t thought of for engagement? What is the magic piece to engage with like the bike community?

Emily Castor Warren

I don’t think it’s magic. I think it’s just doing the blocking and tackling of showing up, having those conversations, making yourself available and probably starting in specific communities where you can have a large enough presence both through your team and your outreach efforts, as well as through the presence of the vehicles themselves, that you can permeate that community and generate a large amount of buy-in. And getting those proof points in particular cities that will provide stories that are relatable to other localities around the country.

Alex Roy

I’ve been a car guy my whole life, and I like bicycles cause they’re cool and motorcycles cause they’re cool. But as a car guy and knowing a lot of car guys makes me really, as I get older, really scared of the way people drive and it’s why I support autonomous vehicles. I’ve got a daughter. I want her to learn to ride a bike and just walk down the street with her in any city. And I’m afraid I’m going to trip and fall and some guy’s going to cruise past and he’s not going to stop. And that’s why safety actually does matter to me in a way it didn’t when I was younger.

Emily Castor Warren

Behavior is always going to be a huge factor, whether it’s imperfect driving that results in injuries and fatalities or it’s pedestrians and cyclists doing unpredictable things. Enforcement and rules only go so far. And that’s why I’m a big believer in design because the most effective way to really shape people’s behavior is to design their environment in a way that is conducive to the best outcomes. If you provide a great facility for someone to use that is designed safely, they’re much more likely to use that than if you don’t consider their needs and then just rely on them to follow the rules and kind of shake your finger at them if they don’t. That’s why we really need to think about the streets.

Alex Roy

Emily, you believe in safety. If we all want more safety, who is the anti-safety lobby? Like who is standing in the way of doing obvious logical things that would make our streets safer for everybody?

Emily Castor Warren

I don’t think anyone’s against safety. But I think people are afraid that things that they aren’t familiar with will be unsafe. And so that fear holds them back from willingness to experiment with or even try things that are new. So providing ways to reduce that fear is the way that we are going to gain acceptance for these new technologies.

Alex Roy

Well, that’s the perfect way to end this episode. Thank you so much, Emily, for coming to join us on the show.

Emily Castor Warren

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Alex Roy

Emily Castor Warren is the Senior Policy Advisor at Nelson\Nygaard focusing on transit mobility from her home base in Oakland, California. All right, let’s talk to my cohost, the CEO and founder of Argo AI, Bryan Salesky. Bryan, what were your takeaways from what Emily just said?

Bryan Salesky

Well, look, I think that COVID has had a major impact on how cities think about using their outdoor spaces. I mean, here in Pittsburgh we’ve… Which is not different from, I know, many other cities. A lot of the side streets have been closed down, blocked off. Restaurants are using them. It’s being used for dining space, entertaining space. I see those spaces full, routinely. People are responsible, they’re wearing masks, they’re enjoying each other in a responsible way. That’s cool to see.

Now, I don’t know how that’s going to work when we get to the winter and that makes me a little bit sad. But for the time being, it’s kinda neat to see. I think that people are going to take note of how much they enjoyed that time and insist that some of those streets remain closed permanently. And Emily was sort of suggesting that. And maybe there’s other changes that previously were just too big of a gamble to take that maybe this now allows us to make a little more progress in repurposing some of our street pavement for things that I think the community has always really wanted, which is kinda neat.

Alex Roy

You know, one of the…

Bryan Salesky

And I’m a car guy and I’m saying that.

Alex Roy

Are you a car guy?

Bryan Salesky

I am. And I mean, I’m saying, ‘You know what? This has been nice from a lifestyle standpoint.’

Alex Roy

I’ve been looking at apartments in the south side of Pittsburgh. And I’d love to bike to work, but not with people driving the way they’re driving. I’d love to see the street closures stay. I’d love to see more autonomous vehicles and bike lanes. And why don’t people just buy some heat lamps and keep those sidewalk restaurants open?

Bryan Salesky

Yeah, I mean, that’s the hope right? Is that we continue to invest in, I’ll call it sidewalk / side street infrastructure that makes it perfectly usable in most days, in winter as well.

Alex Roy

What I want back is seeing people in person and the magic of not knowing who you’re going to talk to next. But everything else I want better. And we’re kind of getting that way now. I hope that sticks.

Bryan Salesky

Sure. I think Emily’s point about building relationships with cities is really important. Something we’ve endeavored to do. You know, you’re a guest in people’s cities until they get to know you and welcome you into the community. That’s something that needs to be taken seriously. She also talked quite a bit about infrastructure didn’t she, Alex?

Alex Roy

I’m all for bike infrastructure, but I have never bought into the idea that one absolutely must have infrastructure changes, which sounds to me like expensive things, to solve problems.

Bryan Salesky

Well, it isn’t expensive to put paint down in the scheme of things. It’s not expensive to put up very clear signage and designations for how the road space is to be used. I think we can all buy into that. I also think we can be more thoughtful about it, to the point about transitions from bike lanes into sharrow territory. You know, these are things that could be signed much better, that could be space allocated. You know, prevent parking in those spots so that you have ample shoulder to sort of merge into with the potential cyclists that are using that space. I think there’s still a long way we can go here without spending a ton of money. And I think Emily drove some of that home.

Alex Roy

So I feel like there’s this this day coming, and it’s inevitable, when autonomous vehicles are deployed in a number of cities and then a city where it will be very difficult to deploy them because the environment is complicated, there’s a lot of people. Let’s just take New York. It’s going to be very hard to deploy there. But there’s a groundswell in that community for autonomous vehicles to come, but the environment will be complex. And you’re going to get a phone call. ‘When can you come to our city?’ You think that day’s going to come?

Bryan Salesky

Probably not for a long time. Especially in the face of all the other issues that city leaders have today. Cities are going bankrupt because of COVID. They got major problems. I don’t think they’re going to be calling an autonomous vehicle company anytime soon.

Alex Roy

Maybe not soon. But I think that if you look at the history of elevators, and all of the economic activity that elevators unlocked. Buildings could be more than 10 stories tall, and the higher real estate became more valuable than lower real estate in height, and the density of things that were possible in terms of business operations. And I really believe that autonomous vehicles are going to unlock this and that traffic’s going to get so bad in some places that cities are going to be begging for deployments.

Bryan Salesky

Maybe, although we’re taking away road space today for these outdoor space we just talked about. Traffic, at least in the city of Pittsburgh, is not much different in a lot of the areas I’ve been. I think it’s been on the rise at the tail end of the summer than it was a few months ago. I’m not having any harder time getting from A to B. They shut down, which street was it in Manhattan?

Alex Roy

14th street bus way.

Bryan Salesky

People are getting around just fine. In fact, people loved it. They wanted to use public transport at that point.

Alex Roy

That’s true. Although they don’t want to go on the trains or buses. They do want to go in smaller vehicles.

Bryan Salesky

Right. So aren’t there some proof points here that show that we can make some bold moves here in how the infrastructure is used.

Alex Roy

Thank you, Bryan. Sounds like we’ve got our next episode.

Okay, folks. If you liked what you heard, please follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. And of course you should follow me @AlexRoy144 because my Twitter is amazing. And I tweet a lot, especially late at night. Bryan Salesky is the CEO of Argo AI, and you can learn more about Argo at argo.ai. And you can also follow Argo on Twitter at @ArgoAI

Please share this with a friend, subscribe to the show wherever you like to listen, but rate and review us on Apple podcasts because that helps people find us. This show is produced by Megan Harris and managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. Until next time, I’m Alex Roy and this is the No Parking podcast.