Picture a DC region with autonomous vehicles, crowdsourced buses, and a single payment system for all forms of transit. These things could very well be on the horizon, but according to a group of transportation experts, they’ll mean new challenges when it comes to cybersecurity, safety, and accountability.
From left to right, panel moderator Marisa Kashino, Uber’s Annaliese Rosenthal, WMATA’s Shyam Kanaan, and Amtrak’s David Zaidan. Photo by Joanne Pierce.
Planning to deploy tomorrow’s transportation technology requires advance effort even though the problems these technologies aim to solve are acute today. WMATA planner Shyam Kanaan, Uber DC General Manager Annaliese Rosenthal, and Amtrak’s David Zaidain discussed tomorrow’s technology and today’s problems at last month’s Urban Ideas Forum.
We (Joanne and Sam) attended the event and later discussed our thoughts in a chat format, and the notes are below. We’ve also added in subheaders for when we moved from one panel subject to another.
JP: I think given that it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about short-term challenges, the moderators did well to at least draw out interesting points. Of course, “short-term challenges” might be a misnomer since WMATA has had these kinds of challenges for years. We’re focused on short-term referring to the next 2-5 years, and long-term being longer than that, it seems.
One of the first things the panel talked about was how lifestyles are changing across the region. I thought it was interesting that Shyam Kannan, the head of planning for WMATA, emphasized SelectPass, a prepaid pass which allows unlimited rides at or less than a user selected price, as a way to link trips. He talked about it in a way I hadn’t necessarily thought of before, but have since observed in my own life. People want to make multiple stops without having to pay multiple times. I could go to a restaurant, a movie, pick up library books, go to some bookstores, and not have to pay for each trip since it’s all built into my SelectPass.
SW: Shyam called SelectPass “Netflix for transit,” with the goal of mitigating people from pay-as-you-go. Though Shyam clearly had bigger visions in mind. Eventually allowing for all modes of transit under a single payment. To use your example - we would be able to go to take Amtrak into DC, take Metro from Union Station, then Uber to a final destination with one simple payment. A cool idea, though not in our near or even long-term future.
JP: This is purely anecdotal, but I had a conversation recently about Charlotte’s transit system using multiple forms of payment. If you took rail and bus, you could be paying separately and still use paper fare. Charlotte’s CATS system does offer passes like SmarTrip. But you still have a proof of purchase ticket that you show.
Metro has a sea of problems. An ocean of troubles. But SmarTrip to pay for Metrobus, Metrorail, Alexandria’s DASH bus, REX bus, Fairfax Connector, etc. is one nice thing about how it functions.
SW: It is, and even better that the SmarTrip cards are readable through your wallet! Shyam spoke of having all payment eventually being made via smartphone or “preferably smart watch.” He got some push back from the moderators for that comment, given many who need and deserve to use the system probably don’t have access to that technology. What do you see as the future of payment methods?
JP: The future of payment is going to be more mobile options, whether we like it or not. Single payment across transit systems no matter where you are in the DC area, to include Uber and others. The problem is, like the moderators said, this technology is inaccessible for some people.
So obviously, SmartTrip has to stay in some way because not everyone will want mobile payment. When WMATA finally phased out all paper fare, more than 90% of riders were already using SmarTrip. The relatively low cost of entry to get a SmarTrip card ($2) is drastically different from the cost of a smartphone and data plan. Even though lots of people have smartphones, many don’t or are uncomfortable with paying with them.
As we move toward more complex and mobile payment systems, we have to be concerned about securing our data
JP: There’s also a cybersecurity component that the panel didn’t go into, but is going to be an increasing concern as we move more towards connecting our financial systems with mobile technology.
SW: Agreed. It’s often thought of with Uber, but Metro also has plenty of data on us - our daily routine and habits. The SmarTrip swipes give them a glimpse into our travel patterns, which can be greatly useful as WMATA plans routes and scheduling.
Having to swipe twice, once for entry then again for exit, can be annoying, but is immensely valuable (I think) to helping them understand how we ride, and accommodate accordingly. With Metrobus, a noticeable difference is only swiping upon entry. Shyam spoke of the future of transit being crowdsourced buses. It seems for this to be feasible, entry and exit data would eventually be needed.
Ride hailing is a promising industry, but questions on passenger safety and accountability are still legit
JP: New Jersey is testing crowdsourced busing, or bus on demand. Related to a single payment option, should Uber be in the same category as WMATA? Uber is a private company and its goals can’t be the same as WMATA’s goals, and WMATA is beholden to certain government regulations to ensure a degree of equity in its service, particularly if it wants to cut service. There have been studies and articles about whether Uber is equitable with its clientele and neighborhoods it serves, but it’s not the same. Are we also trusting that Uber will stick around for the next 10 years? Is this company and this field of ride sharing mature enough to be stable?
SW: I’m not sure. Uber is a very different organization of course. Annaliese Rosenthal, General Manager of Uber in DC, was excited about UberPOOL and spoke of it often throughout the night - its ability to take multiple drivers off the road and into a single car by matching people going the same direction. But at the most, this allows for 3 to 4 people in a single vehicle, which is just not comparable to Metro. It seems Uber is needed at the moment, but maybe not part of a longer term future.
JP: Personally, Uber hasn’t replaced anything for me. I still take bus and rail (or walk) more than I take Uber. Part of that is that traffic in DC can be
terrible, but also that I have to gauge risk with getting into a car with a stranger. The audience joked a bit about how the MyMTPD text message number [to contact Metro police] is too long and hard to remember, but at the same time, there’s no police department for Uber. So safety and risk for passengers is going to be an ongoing discussion as Uber or any other competitors emerge on the scene.
SW: Yup, safety is very (the most) important. Annaliese brought up Uber’s rating system as their immediate feedback security system, I hadn’t thought of it being it. It’s the backbone of their company, but maybe not capable of dealing with immediate security risks. Do you feel safe on Metro?
JP: I usually feel safe on the Metro system. I also tend to ride during busier times so there are always people around.
SW: I feel safe too, though unfortunately the crowd during rush tends to bring out the worst of people; but a little pushing here and there isn’t so bad I guess. Plus the riders aren’t to blame for the overcrowding.
JP: There’s an aspect of control that Uber doesn’t allow. With Metro, if there’s some disturbance on my train I can hop off and get on another car or I can alert the operator (if the intercom works). But with Uber, I’m not about to leap out and tuck and roll my way out of a potential problem.
SW: LOL please don’t. In a much more immediate way you’re trusting your life with the driver, and who knows if he’s gotten enough sleep, if he has road rage, etc. (Hopefully) there is less room for human error with the rail system.
JP: I think, statistically, car travel is still riskier.
Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but how do they integrate into traditional infrastructure, and will they create more problems than they solve?
SW: Do you think driverless cars can solve this safety issue?
JP: Not at the moment. The technology is untested and there are larger policy implications. For instance, if a driverless car hits my car, that’s a bigger risk for me than it is for Uber. Do you think driverless cars will encroach on public transit?
SW: I don’t think so, particularly after hearing Shyam’s skepticism stemming from what he called the “geometry problem.” Because after it drops someone off, where does it go? If it returns to a staging area, that requires a lot a space and infrastructure be built; if it hangs around downtown waiting for the next rider, that greatly increases congestion; and if it returns to the roads or highways, that’s just more traffic. So ideally, for healthy urban (and suburban) living, it seems public transit is a more viable option.
However, Uber is and can be a useful and important complement. The three panelists, particularly for Metro and Uber, spoke of the importance of their relationship in serving the public. It’s tempting to see Uber and Metro as competitors, but they understand they’re complements.
JP: I thought that was interesting as well. WMATA might understandably think it’s too big and too integrated into the city for Uber to encroach too much. But beyond that, I think the fundamental problem with driverless cars is that we are not decreasing our dependence on cars. They’re still polluting whether there are drivers or passengers.
Amtrak focuses on transit-oriented development around a renovated Union Station
SW: Agreed. More surprising for me was how David Zaidain of Amtrak drew a clear distinction between his market, and that of the city-to-city buses.
Amtrak is focused on transit-oriented development and making Union Station a destination
JP: Poor Amtrak. We haven’t talked about it all so far.
SW: Ha, what did you think of his vision for Union Station, having the feel of an Apple store, with employees walking around with iPads ready to help?
Union Station. The planned renovations for Union Station include removing information booths and ticketing kiosks, so employees can carry mobile devices and help passengers with check-in and ticketing. Photo by Amaury Laporte on Flickr.
JP: I haven’t been in Union Station in years, so I’m not sure whether that’s a better option than having more kiosks or even mobile ticketing.
JP: Yeah, I don’t ride Amtrak that often. The last time was 2014, probably. One thing that David brought up was how Amtrak wanted to drive development around Union Station and around transit, and namely affordable housing. Do you think that’s the right direction, given that Amtrak is sort of a niche? Metro, I see driving that. But this was in the context of Amtrak.
SW: I think Amtrak would like there to be development around Union Station. And there has been plenty, though not necessarily driven by Amtrak. David was asked at one point if he thought the ability to provide a relatively cheap and quick commute between say Baltimore and DC would aid affordable housing, allowing folks to live in Baltimore and commute into DC. He answered optimistically to that scenario, though it clearly isn’t Amtrak’s goal to allow for and encourage affordable housing.
He was honest about Amtrak’s desire and need to operate with a business mindset, focusing on services they can get a return on - Which are the higher end, pricier and more luxuries commutes. His vision of the future was offering better wine and food on trains, not bad, just very different than the focus Metro.
JP: Yeah, and I can see how Amtrak can be a good option for the DC to Baltimore commute, though the lowest fare is $26 round trip. We know we need more housing, and more affordable housing, and building it near transit is ideal.
Metro wants to change hearts and minds about buses
JP: What do you think about Shyam and David’s point about using infrastructure that already exists. Is this a good strategy?
SW: I think it’s practical. Shyam made a good point about how everyone is a closet urban planner, and how fun and exciting it is to think about adding a station here and there, but how difficult it is in the end to get the funding and support. Metro talks a lot about Transit Oriented Development and would love to see the neighborhoods around their stations (notably in Prince George’s County) densify.
They want us to come to them, and we want them to come to us. This is a big reason why Shyam was pushing regional bus systems as the future - So much more flexible.
JP: I like the Potomac Yard BRT and I’m happy that Fairfax County is going to invest in BRT as well. It was disappointing to see WMATA hint at dropping it to save money, or to suggest that not providing full funding would lead to BRT getting the chop, though it seems to be spared from service cuts in the FY 2018 budget. Shyam talked about how if/when we achieve maintenance and safety reliability we would be turning back from a dark period in our transit history. I think the audience found that a little surprising, the notion that we will eventually be happy with how much we’ve achieved once we start pulling out of Metro’s dark time.
SW: Yes, I think he was honest about the issues at hand, but encouragingly optimistic as well. Emphasizing that if we can make smart, tough decisions today, unreliable service will be in the rearview. Do you think WMATA could get more people to ride buses, as Shyam suggested should be heavily featured in the future of DC transit?
JP: Absolutely. Bus has a reputation as being inefficient or confusing to ride. It can be both, but it can all improve if WMATA invests some effort into making better signs that tell people how to navigate the system. Clarify the difference between Metrobus and Circulator (or other regional lines), put up better signs that give people more specific information about bus routes, and not just one big map. Apps can help as well. People who can give directions on which bus to take. I think more tourists can use the bus. I don’t have the numbers on hand, but I think more tourists ride rail than bus. If it can spread out a little more, we could handle the congestion better.
SW: I agree; I often avoid buses just out of confusion.
JP: I didn’t really enjoy riding the bus until I started riding the Alexandria City DASH bus. It’s a small system, so it’s not comparable to Metrobus, but the routes are very easy to understand and there are a lot of connecting points so you can transfer between routes or Metro stations easily, or at least hop off and walk the rest of the way.
SW: Given the extensiveness of Metrobus (which is a good thing!) it would be cool if WMATA could provide maps essentially filtered to your potential commutes, like in New York City. This would make the system a lot less intimidating to me because it is nice to stay above ground :)