Whether you’re grabbing groceries, going to the doctor, taking your kids to school, or interviewing for a new job, you have to get there. But for people who don’t own a vehicle, those journeys aren’t always so straightforward. This week, hear from Veronica Vanterpool, a seasoned mobility advocate and Chief Innovation Officer for the Delaware Department of Transportation, about why she’s invested in autonomous technology and what role self-driving can play in the journey toward greater transit equity for all.

Listen On
Apple
Google
Spotify
iHeart Radio
Share

View Episode Transcript

Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy with my co-host, roboticist, Bryan Salesky. Hi, Bryan.

Bryan Salesky

Hi, Alex.

Alex Roy

So when people ask why self-driving cars might be a good thing, the obvious answer is safety. But beyond that is the idea of freedom. Bryan, you and I talk a lot about the idea that mobility equals freedom, but there seem to be a lot of places in the world and this country where that freedom isn’t very well distributed. So today we’re going to talk about mobility, freedom, and a word a lot of people use, but it’s not always clear what they mean by it, or even if they mean the same thing, and why it matters. And that word is equity.

Our guest is Veronica Vanterpool. Ms. Vanterpool served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointee to the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board in New York City, where I’m from. So I know a bit about that. And this year she joined the Delaware Transit Corporation and the Delaware Department of Transportation as it’s Chief Innovation Officer. Veronica, welcome to the show.

Veronica Vanterpool

Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Bryan.

Alex Roy

All right, let’s jump straight into it. What does equity mean to you?

Veronica Vanterpool

Equity means mobility and freedom. It means providing access to all members of our society to ensure that they are able to obtain housing opportunities, job opportunities, to be active engagements in our civil society and have access to health care services. And we know that in this country, there are many individuals for whom having a car is a luxury, a privilege, and just not possible. So we want to ensure that these members of our society are able to engage and participate in everything that we have to offer and not just rely on a personal vehicle to do that.

Alex Roy

So when any given city or state has a Department of Transportation, isn’t basically that a foundational value of any DOT to do that. And I guess they’ve fallen short?

Veronica Vanterpool

Unfortunately not. We would think that that is indeed a goal and mission of our departments of transportation, but we have a very ingrained highway culture. In fact, our federal transportation bill, which provides funding to the state and to the municipalities, is often referred to as the highway bill. And this is the legacy of 1950s investments in highways across the country, which frankly have brought many benefits to the United States and to our communities, like opening up access. But there have been some significant externalities and societal, environmental, and economic costs to that imbalance of funding toward our roadway infrastructure. And what we’ve seen is that our departments of transportation have often prioritized the needs of motor vehicle drivers, or vehicles broadly, at the expense of people who need and are dependent on other modes, such as public transit, such as their own two feet to walk around, bicycling, for example, or individuals who use mobility devices, such as wheelchairs. And the outcome of that has been high pedestrian fatalities and injuries, and that’s often recorded by our federal agencies such as NHTSA and the Federal Highway Authority. So we’ve seen how that imbalance has led to communities that in fact are quite inequitable and inaccessible for many of the users of our transportation network.

Alex Roy

And that’s what people call transit deserts, places where you may have few or one or no options other than walking, unless you have a car, and that introduces a whole other set of problems. I’m curious, I heard you talk about this concept of mode shift and how that introduces a friction to people’s mobility and access. Can you explain what mode shift is and what multimodal transportation is? Because there are a lot of people who need access and freedom and don’t understand the words being used often by the people that are representing them in politics.

Veronica Vanterpool

Sure. Mode shift is quite simply encouraging people to use varying modes of mobility and those modes are what we’re most familiar with. That could be a car, that could be using subways or commuter rails or buses. It could be using a personal bike or participating in a bike share program. It could be using an e-scooter. It could be using our own two feet to walk around our communities on sidewalks or a pedestrian plaza. That is how you support mode shift. You provide alternatives to people to consider other ways of getting around. If you live in a community that’s considered pedestrian or bicycle hostile, meaning you don’t have safe modes of infrastructure that allow you to bike safety with a protected bike lane, for example, or does not provide infrastructure such as a sidewalk for you to cross or walk in a community safely, that’s considered a hostile environment. I, as a vehicle driver would not feel any incentive to mode shift to my two feet or to a bike because that would be hostile territory in my particular community. So I am just going to rely on my personal vehicle and never develop an appreciation, understanding nor awareness for these other modes, because they’re just not safe, convenient, or accessible to me.

Bryan Salesky

So I think these forces that you describe are really helpful to lay out the incentive structure a little bit better than we than we’ve heard in the past. It’s always odd to me how angry drivers seem to get over certain infrastructure that gets put in place. But it’s also surprising to me how some of the infrastructure can be implemented so poorly. So I’m gonna give you an example, out in the suburbs where I live, I’ve noticed that in all of the major highway road projects that they undertake, they are starting to put in pedestrian crossings where you didn’t normally have them, but what’s surprising to me about them is that they tend to be across like eight lanes of traffic with like paint and a sign that says pedestrians may be crossing. And then they add the light, they have the pedestrian light. I think it gives you about two and a half seconds to cross before it changes, which means that if you are brave enough, you’re basically sprinting across those eight lanes of traffic. What are they doing wrong from a design standpoint? Maybe that was not actually the best way to do it. Maybe we should have taken some of those dollars and actually built a pedestrian bridge, for example. How do we get better about the design aspect?

Veronica Vanterpool

I appreciate that question, Bryan. I think what has to happen is that our departments of transportation and our departments of planning need to expand beyond a traditional engineering approach and start working with local context and local use. So I’ve often seen those same sorts of treatments proposed as solutions, which really in fact are not necessarily the best solutions. Engineers are not necessarily, they’re not the enemy, but what has to happen is a more comprehensive and full discussion beyond just engineering departments. And certainly beyond just the department of transportation or the department of planning or engineering departments to include this local context.

Bryan Salesky

I think you said it, all good solutions are local, right? And we see the same thing when we develop the autonomous vehicle technology is we really are going, in some cases, intersection by intersection to understand the norms that other drivers seem to follow so that we don’t stick out like an anomalous kind of annoying robot driver. But you’re saying with this infrastructure, we’ve got to look at the same thing. I mean maybe the crosswalk signal was not such an important design criteria for the eight lane highway. You’re asking them to cross, let’s develop other solutions to that problem.

Veronica Vanterpool

Absolutely. And I appreciate you highlighting the local approach and the local context. We already have a toolkit of solutions that work. This is not necessarily innovative anymore. We know that reduced speeds, for example, make a significant difference in terms of traffic injury and fatality, not just for the pedestrian, but for the person driving the vehicle as well. On some of our roadways, they might be arterials or roadways that are designed to move vehicles through a community. They’re not a highway, they’re not a freeway, but they may be those roads in our communities that have speeds of 40 miles per hour that are abutted by shopping centers, supermarkets, and other services where we know there’s going to be foot traffic, for example. Well, we need to re-examine that mobility pattern and see, well, do we need to look at reducing the speeds on this particular roadway? Adding different times signals, for example. As you’ve pointed out already, adding crosswalks in areas where we’re seeing concentrated foot traffic, but understanding how people are traveling about in that particular corridor and not just smacking a deeper crosswalk in just because you think that’s going to work, but looking at the other surrounding contexts to see what other accompanying treatments can be added in tandem to that crosswalk.

Alex Roy

For those who don’t know, what is a zebra crosswalk?

Veronica Vanterpool

It’s solid, separated block lines, a zebra crosswalk just has much bigger blocks. So it’s incredibly visible. So many of our crosswalks may just have two parallel lines and then it’s sort of empty pavement in the middle. That’s not exactly the most visual marker to a motorist that someone’s going to cross there. A zebra crosswalk is something that’s really visible with these solid block, separated lines.

Bryan Salesky

There’s something really mental about this. As a driver, for some reason, I am way more cautious, traversing through the zebra ones than just the lines. Why is that? What is trained in us that, and I’m not the first to have said this, what is that, Alex?

Alex Roy

I have a theory, Veronica, maybe you have the answer. There is something, I think subconscious built into us that if you see white blocks pointed towards you, that we infer that they are things we could hit, they look like barriers or dangerous spikes. Is that true?

Veronica Vanterpool

There’s a psychology that’s tied into our local visualization. So the term of “tunnel vision” really does apply the higher and faster one drives. So if someone is driving 50, 60 miles per hour or higher, we know that that individual, just based on data and science, is really just looking in a very narrow visual, right? Because of the speeds. So when you start to drop those speeds, the driver is more aware of local context, the driver is more aware of pedestrians, the drivers, more aware of a bicyclist coming into the roadway or a ball coming into the streets. That tunnel vision is a direct correlation to a higher speed of travel. So when you start to reduce that, you start to increase the periphery vision and allows for a motorist to respond differently. So a zebra crosswalk is in that same psychology of street treatment.

Bryan Salesky

Listening to you talk, Veronica is kind of interesting. We’ve had people come on this show before and basically tell me that cars are evil. It should all be mass transit. We should eliminate personally owned vehicles and it goes on and on and on. And I don’t think that way, I think I’m much more of a centrist when it comes to these things. I do believe though that we should be building infrastructure and engineering solutions into our transportation system that give people options and where we provide some amount of equality for all road users. I hear that from you is as well. What shapes that? Why aren’t you here to take the other position, which is that cars are evil we should relegate them to 20 mile an hour roads and put a bunch of impediments in their way to convince people to just walk.

Veronica Vanterpool

It’s a focus on equity. And we talked about that at the top of our conversation here. So, equity is really about providing different options. I am not against a vehicle because I understand that many of our communities are designed in such a way that a vehicle is the only mode of transportation. So there have to be additional solutions that are outside of just banning a vehicle that, that speaks to the decisions we make about land use. That speaks to how we concentrate, or not, our housing. It speaks to how we locate the services that people need. For example, hospitals, if hospitals are on the outskirts of a community, how do people get there? So saying not to use the car without addressing some of the real reason and impediments that cars overcome for many people in communities all across the U.S. I think is not respecting the reality, the challenges of our transportation network.

Conversely, it’s still thinking about equity for those individuals who do not own a car, perhaps they can’t afford it. Perhaps they are living with a disability that does not allow them to operate a vehicle. How does that individual engage in society, find employment, find housing, and hopefully housing that’s affordable, access health care, be a civic participant. If that individual lives in a community that does not have concentrated services or housing or employment, that person is reliant on, hopefully, a public transit network or other infrastructure, again, biking or walking, if able. So we, we can’t just silo these issues out. We need to address them in a larger context. We need to understand that there are decades of land use decisions that have precipitated the need for a vehicle. 

Now, if we want people to leave their vehicles at home, we need to find alternatives for them to shift that mode from a car to something else. But we can’t just say cars are bad, leave them home. 

A lot of my colleagues that feel strongly about this often live in cities, and there’s a strong case to be made in cities, such as New York, and cities such as Chicago, and cities such as Boston, that do have a robust transit system that we need to make the investments in those systems and in these other modes, because we have the densification, we have the concentration, we have the population density, we have the clustering of housing and services, et cetera. So if we continue to invest in these other modes, beyond the car, we are fostering this more equitable, inclusive society. But when you start to look at the suburbs, the excerpts and rural communities, we have to understand that there’s some real challenges to mobility in these communities that are not just about owning a vehicle. They’re about economics. They’re about land use patterns. They’re about environmental decisions. They’re about racism, frankly. And we can’t address that until we start to understand these underlying factors.

Bryan Salesky

The policy-making part of this is non-trivial, but it’s important. I think it’s tempting for many people to who are in a policymaking role, who believe that the infrastructure is broken today to say, Hey, let’s start over. And what’s, what is the ideal network look like? Well, look, we can sit down, and I was actually part of the think tank thing a few years ago, where we brainstormed, if you were to do it all over again, what would it look like? It looks a lot different than what we’ve done, but it does not acknowledge at all the realities of what a person in a, in a head of DOT type of seat deals with right? You’re not starting over, you have existing road network that’s had substantial investment to get to where it is today. You have a budget, you have finite resources.

And the question is how to apply those to the biggest bang for your buck type of things. I guess the point that you’re also making is that, well, historically a lot of those dollars were devoted to one mode, not all. And that’s the thing that we have to sort of change, but it’s not that we’re trying to completely, you know, ostracize one mode of transportation for another and do a wholesale switch. We’re talking about making policy, allocating budget, allocating capital, for all. And that just seems so much more reasonable than what I’ve heard from others. Thank you.

Alex Roy

We’ve talked a lot about challenges and policy. Let’s talk about solutions. You moved to Delaware in June, you’re pushing two big projects right now, both incorporate new tech. You’ve also said that tech and innovation are not the same thing. So can you tell us first about this microtransit pilot you’re doing with VIA transportation? What is microtransit? What’s that about?

Veronica Vanterpool

Microtransit is something we’re super excited about in Delaware. It is using software to convert smaller vehicles into a transit vehicle. VIA’s model and other microtransit companies’ model have often been using smaller vans to supplement and complement in many cities, it depends, the existing transit service. What we’re trying to do in Delaware is draw more people into our fixed route network, using a microtransit service, and we’re doing something completely out of the box. So where many microtransit companies, such as VIA, use their software to convert these smaller vans or smaller vehicles into transit vehicles, we are going several steps beyond that. So we selected for our pilot, a rural community in the southern part of our state. That is an opportunity zone. It’s an employment hub for the agricultural manufacturing industry. So there’s some chicken plants, for example, located in this community.

We have a demographic that is high veterans. We have a lot of older adults. We have low income individuals. We have people of color. We have a high concentration of those individuals living with disabilities. So what we want to do is encourage these individuals and others to use our fixed route network. The challenge of our existing fixed route network is we have frequencies that perhaps are 1.5 hours between buses. Sometimes we have bus stops and/or bus routes that are inaccessible to our users because of the land use pattern of a rural community. So while I may live in this community, perhaps half a mile from the bus stop, it may not be safe for me to ever walk to that bus stop, because there are no sidewalks. It is a way that cars are traveling very quickly. Or more practically, I may just have bad knees and I just can’t walk. 

So we’re partnering with VIA to use this software in not just our fixed route or paratransit vehicles, but in a local cab company that may want to participate or a third party mobility provider, meaning those smaller cutaway buses that may transport older adults to a senior citizens center, or may transport individuals to varying hospital services such as dialysis. So we are seeking partners to download this app that can then transport these individuals to our fixed route network. So in more plain English, I live in this community. I never walked to my bus stop. I can’t get there. It’s not really accessible. So I even have to pay a cab every single day to get to where I need to go. That’s quite expensive, or I need to rely on the generosity of a neighbor who has a car. So we have one car in our household of five that we have to share.

Alex Roy

If I understand correctly, you’re solving equity by using technology to look at data of where the users are. And the innovation is rather than invest in an expensive transit system, you’re partnering with a private entity to solve the equity problem.

Veronica Vanterpool

That’s right, instead of adding additional 40-foot buses that maybe provide trips for three individuals in a day, instead of adding more of those vehicles on the street, we are partnering with this third party provider to get those individuals who still need our service closer into our transit network.

Alex Roy

So you’re also operating a self-driving shuttle pilot with a company called Easy Mile. Explain the vision for that and tell us about how that’s going.

Veronica Vanterpool

The Delaware Department of Transportation is very unique in our partnership with Easy Mile. We have actually purchased these vehicles, unlike many other cities or DOTs around the country that have been in the lease arrangements with an AV shuttle provider, such as Easy Mile. Our vision is to test the technology, understand how it interfaces with our transportation networks, specifically our traffic management center, our signals, our signal priorities, our streetlights, our stoplights, all of that technology to understand people’s sentiment around this sort of technology, understand the safety benefit, understanding how this AV technology might support transit operations in the future. So we’ll have these shuttles for a few years and our goal is to test and move them throughout the state. So we plan to have some programmed routes throughout the state to understand and test a few different case models. We can’t necessarily just move the shuttles without federal oversight. So NHTSA, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, is a federal arm. They have to oversee all of our operations pertaining to the shuttles. But we are looking to move them from a rural community to an urban community, to a suburban community and understand how they perform and function.

Bryan Salesky

Have you had any issues with getting folks to adopt or use this at all?

Veronica Vanterpool

So we just received the shuttles late last year. And then as we were testing the software and doing software updates, all other normal stuff for these kinds of shuttles, COVID hit. So then we were in lockdown mode. There, there wasn’t able to be travel between the Easy Mile technicians and our staff. So we really are delayed in our program. So all we’ve been doing over the past several months is testing the vehicles, doing software updates, making some installations that the federal government has required such as seatbelts, for example. So we’ve not actually transported passengers. It’s not open to the public.

Bryan Salesky

When you think you’ll be open for business?

Veronica Vanterpool

Sometime in the first quarter of 21. So we’re hoping to do a launch event early next year and start transporting people around our first route, which is in the central part of our state, the campus, where our DOT team HQ is. We have a facility there, Delaware Transit Corporation, the DMV is there, it’s a closed loop campus. So it’s a good opportunity to move people around this closed loop and start to test this technology with them. So we’re looking to see how these vehicles perform in different traffic and transportation context. So we are very interested to see what level of safety will be derived from this technology to our user base, to our ridership base. 

So there’s about 6 million automobile crashes every single year, unfortunately resulting from that is about 38,000 pedestrian fatalities. Not to count the injuries resulting to the motorist, to pedestrians, to cyclists from these 6 million annual crashes. So this sort of technology, the sensitivity of it is expected to be part of the future of our vehicles, all vehicles. We see sorts of collision avoidance detection systems in our personal vehicles, right? So extrapolating this into the transit agency and into other modes of mobility is really fascinating. And there’s a lot of expectation that we can start to really winnow down those tragic fatalities and injuries we’re seeing every year.

Bryan Salesky

It is incredible how all those stats and figures you just gave us, it’s amazing how are completely numb to it and even ignorant to it. People do not understand how frequently car crashes happen. I think only the worst of the worst get reported on, right? But there’s so much more that happens that you’re never going to hear about. A lot of people don’t understand that one of the most dangerous stretches of road is something I drive frequently, which is the Ohio Turnpike between Pennsylvania and Detroit. I’ve driven it so so much. I know it so well. I have been stopped in full stop for hours while they shut down the road and life flight people off the road twice now. Me, twice in a matter of like the last, like just in the last two or three years. I will go check the news afterwards to figure out what actually happened. You can’t find any mention of it.

Veronica Vanterpool

I’m so glad you highlighted that we, as a society have become more enraged with plane crashes, for example, then we have with automobile crashes. And when you think of the industries and how they’ve been transformed and how safe the airline industry has become over years, and then you look at how unsafe the automobile industry has become. And let me be clear. There is of course new technology that is, as you’ve talked about, reducing the incidences of crashes, but what we’re not seeing is reduced fatalities associated with those crashes or reduced injuries. In fact, while the indoor, ambient environment of a vehicle is becoming safer for the driver, there are increasing numbers of pedestrian fatalities and injuries every single year, despite this safety technology in the vehicle. So there’s a very important disconnect that our regulatory makers and quite frankly, the private industry and automobile industry needs to address. There’s a significant pushback around some of these much larger vehicles. And you may have seen these pictures on social media where you have 4 year olds standing in front of a monstrous car, obviously that, God forbid, that 4 year old is in a situation on a roadway, they’re going to get run over so easily by these monstrous cars. So there has to be a different sort of regulatory conversation with the private sector, the manufacturers of automobiles, and safety advocates and policy makers about how are we extrapolating these safety measures to the outdoor environment for other roadies.

Alex Roy

You know, one of the things that really convinced me that autonomous vehicles made sense is that you could have two vehicles, large vehicles, one is human driven, and one is autonomous. The human driver may not be able to see over the hood of the SUV or the truck, but an autonomous vehicle will have sensors that are lower, like below the belt line, below the window belt line so that the autonomous vehicle can see what a human driver can’t for a similarly sized vehicle. And just that as a starting point, makes me feel safer with the concept of having an autonomous vehicle in my neighborhood, where my daughter rides her bike. How did you first become convinced that one could extrapolate forward into a world of autonomous vehicles operating in communities?

Veronica Vanterpool

So it was quite frankly practical and pragmatic experience with the shuttles. So understanding the technology, there’s nearly a dozen different types of LiDARs, sensors, cameras on this vehicle that are painting or developing this incredibly complex 3D visual image map. And that is far superior than our vehicles now on the road, even with the advances that we’ve seen in technology, some of this technology is able to pick up objects, just a few inches off of the roadway, and that is fascinating. Then putting the shuttles in practice. So understanding how the technology has worked in practice on our route has further convinced me of the benefits the safety benefits of this technology, because I’m seeing this in practice.

So I am a transit purist, and quite frankly, a world of individuals self-driving cars worries me. I am very supportive of the idea of transit, as an autonomous vehicle, because transit just moves more people than an individual car. So I think, you know, as we continue to sort of think through this technology and the opportunities and the promise that it’s finding that balance again that we talked about from many decades ago, that imbalance of funding and prioritization of our roadway space. So as we move into this new era of technology and transit tech and AV technology, just making sure that we continue to balance the real promise and opportunity of individual self-driving cars against the opportunity and promise.

Alex Roy

Given the evolution of autonomous technology over time. I mean, it’s vastly safer today than it was years ago, and it’s getting better all the time. Why buy these low speed shuttles instead of leasing them or partnering with someone else to operate them in your community.

Veronica Vanterpool

It allows us to be experts in the technology in a way that many of our colleagues are not able to do with their limited lease stints. And because we have many years invested in this moving forward, we will then become experts in maintenance, experts in software updates, experts in how our operators engage with the technology. Owning the vehicles affords us that opportunity and that time to do that.

Alex Roy

So we started out by talking about how mobility is freedom, but freedom is giving everybody equitable access to mobility. It sounds like the glue is choice. It’s not being wedded to one solution, but offering people more choice. You believe this, how do you think it will be possible for other communities to get to understand this and not be so dogmatic?

Veronica Vanterpool

Data is incredibly important to understanding what this means. So for example, in Delaware, 6% of households do not have access to a vehicle. Those are real numbers. Those are real families, real individuals. When you start to look at the statewide poverty rate, which is 15%, and you start to break that down to certain demographics of women: 13% of women live below the poverty rate; of older adults: 8.5% of those 65 and over are living below the poverty rate; and 22% of jobs in the state of Delaware, low wage jobs. Looking at this data helps tell a story. And what that story is, how are we engaging these individuals? How are we supporting these families? How are we fostering economic livelihoods that are sustainable when we have these sorts of population statistics? The numbers tell the story.

The problem with transportation and transit more specifically in the state of Delaware is only 2.6% of people in the entire state rely on public transit to commute. So you have to start using other data to make that case because 81% of individuals in this state have no familiarity, awareness, understanding, appreciation for the importance of public transit, because the people who are most dependent and reliant on it are less than 3% of those who are commuting every single day.

So it’s different to make a case in a city like New York City, where all these other modes are very viable and accessible. Within a state like Delaware, you have to sort of switch the messaging and say, this is an economic concern, this is an issue of poverty. This is an issue of helping our older adults access services. So the message has to change. And you do that with data.

Alex Roy

Veronica Vanterpool is the chief innovation officer at the Delaware Transit Corporation and the Delaware Department of Transportation. Thank you so much Veronica for joining us on the No Parking Podcast.

Veronica Vanterpool

Thank you both for great questions and a great discussion.

Alex Roy

Well, that’s it from us. If you enjoyed this podcast and want to engage with us a little bit more, please follow us on Twitter @noparkingpod. I’m everywhere @Alex Roy144. And I will respond. Bryan Salesky is the CEO and founder of Argo AI. Thanks, Bryan.

Bryan Salesky

See ya, Alex.

Alex Roy

Please share No Parking with a friend, like us, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. This show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group and the awesome Megan Harris is our producer. 

Until next time I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking Podcast.