Today's cities are largely built around a centuries-old form of transportation: the horseless carriage. Yet as the demands of urban movement evolve, it's time to reconsider how transportation systems are designed and who they work for, said Benjamin de la Peña CEO of the Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC).
De la Peña stepped into the role of SUMC CEO in January after working as the Seattle Department of Transportation's (SDOT) first-ever chief of strategy and innovation. He envisions a transportation future where cities can reconsider the role of cars, incorporate more shared-use mobility options and tackle the industry's systemic inequities.
Smart Cities Dive caught up with de la Peña to discuss his new role, his learnings from SDOT and the silver linings associated with some pandemic-fueled mobility changes.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: You are stepping into this role at a pivotal and uncertain time for the mobility sector. What will be the SUMC's key focus areas in the year ahead as cities and their private partners move toward a COVID-19 recovery?
BENJAMIN DE LA PEÑA: This is a moment of inflection, particularly for this last year, but [also] the last two decades with all new technologies coming in and new ways of thinking around "How does transportation work?"
The change the technologies bring has been embodied in that you don't have to own a car to be able to get around the city. The conversations around 15-minutes cities, decarbonizing transportation, all of that, links back to, "Is the way we've organized cities around cars really the most sustainable way forward?" That matters also in terms of conversations about decarbonizing the transportation sector. It's more than just giving everyone an electric vehicle (EV) because what you'll get is an electric traffic jam, and it's still resource-intensive.
So part of what we will be talking about is, "What does a transportation system [look like] that works with shared-use and transit and all other modes? That works to free people from the burden of having to own their own car, and frees cities from providing that kind of infrastructure?"
A recent report from Uber called for public transit agencies to integrate ride-sharing and microtransit services into their networks to support ridership recovery. What are your thoughts on this? Which transportation modes do you think can best complement today's public transit systems?
de la Peña: I think that's the wrong frame... I think the whole system has to work. We need to figure out: What are the most efficient systems? What are the most efficient ways to connect them? I agree with [Uber] on the point of needing to connect them. There's a lot of work that needs to be done on the side of transit agencies and DOTs on learning to manage information. That's part of the work I did with the Seattle DOT, coming up with a strategic plan for how we manage information and the skills we need. But also understanding, what are the societal goals we need to meet?
I think the TNCs, ride-hail services and the technology-enabled companies have brought in one really important thing: The use of transportation without being tied to ownership. The other is a focus on users. How do users really experience it? And what they've done is, they've lowered barriers and made it very easy. We don't do that enough in transportation agencies and DOTs to understand the user.
But what is also missing are the larger societal goals. Uber and Lyft, in their early iteration, said [the service] makes it easy to hail a car. [But that] has deep implications on congestion and greenhouse gas emissions within our cities to maintain that level of service. So we need to balance that off with understanding the users so that we address the convenience of the user and their mobility because it's also unjust to have them tied down to one particular service.
You recently served as SDOT's first-ever chief of strategy and innovation. What do you consider your "unfinished business" from the role?
de la Peña: The first one is lean transformation... We did lean transformation in SDOT and initiated it for empowerment, and it was part of the innovation program. And to me innovation... is about the ability of people to question the current process, and say, "Can we do this better?" And in the work that we did, the teams that participated cut down processes by 70%.
The other is, we can't get to shared-use mobility if the infrastructure underneath — and by that I mean information — doesn't flow freely. There’s an interesting history of departments of transportation, they grew from street sweeping to maintaining the sidewalks to controlling traffic signals before there was electricity. And so as they grew, they created more skills. And this is the kind of institutional evolution that happens with any organization. The new thing they need to grow into is managing information as an asset, versus managing information as a tool.
It's a skill set that governments need to grow into in order to manage the transportation system that's emerging. Otherwise, we're going to get superseded by services that say, "We'll handle the road network." And we wake up one day and its Alphabet or Amazon or Uber handling the whole transportation system. And we've been in places like that before, like with streetcars where the streetcar companies got to where they were not profitable anymore, and had to turn around and give it to government.
So we need to know how the system works and manage it so that the government brings in public interest... I think there's a role to be had also in helping the private sector players understand larger public goals and the way public policy works.
The pandemic has obviously ushered in many challenges, but it has also forced local leaders to implement creative solutions like car-free streets. Are there any mobility innovations introduced during the pandemic that you hope remain?
de la Peña: The commitment to protected bike infrastructure and the commitment to car-free streets. Rolling them out faster was fantastic. I think we need to step back and say, "What is it really doing for the neighborhoods that we put them in? And what are the equity issues?" I think there are deeper issues in the system that we need to be tackling.
There's a lot of changes happening, including with the new [Biden] administration, which is great. But I want to talk about what are the deep systemic issues that are changing, or that need to change if we're going to make the transportation system sustainable and equitable?
And that includes language and the way we talk about things... There's a lot of optimism with the new team that's coming in at the federal government, a lot of people who have been in the space and are very knowledgeable and that's great. But we need to think in the long term too to get to the vision we want of a transportation system that is equitable, that works and doesn't require you to have to invest X amount of money in a vehicle that consumes fossil fuels in order to be able to participate in opportunity and in community.
What we need to do also is to start measuring outcomes. And hopefully, we've gotten a bit of traction in that during the pandemic. This is part of agility, right? Stepping back and saying, "What's the most important thing that we need to deliver?" There’s still a long way to go because we have 100 years of this infrastructure and systems that we built all centered around a particular innovation, which was the horsless carriage. And we need to step back and rollback everything and get to a new vision of what the transportation system needs to be and who it works for.
Drivers across the country have been speeding during the pandemic, compromising the safety of pedestrians and micromobility users. How can cities better prioritize safety?
de la Peña: Well as that old cliche statement in management [goes], "What gets measured matters. And what gets measured is changed." And in any city you go to — I will say this without reservation — the most data you will find in any of the cities is about vehicle movement. How many cars pass through how many roads? How many cars pass through particular intersections? When it comes to counting pedestrians, it's a bespoke thing. You have to go out and count them... And so part of what we need to do is start measuring what we think matters. If we think pedestrians and people and bikes matter, then we need to start measuring that.
In Seattle, we had about a dozen bike and ped counters, which is pretty good. But we had 300 sensors that counted cars in vehicles in particular intersections. Not to mention the cameras and the traffic sensors itself. So when you get that kind of data imbalance, guess what you tend to plan for?
The other is that we need to start measuring outcomes. When we talk about our achievements, we will say "X number of feet of this. X number of miles of that." But when you ask us, "Did things actually get better for people?" We get more indirect with our measure. And so we need to do that if we're going to make our systems work more for pedestrians or ride sharing, and people on bikes, and other personal mobility devices. We need to be measuring those and measuring outcomes.