TransportationCamp Chat with Dr. Kari Watkins

OpenPlans and friends are convening the third annual TransportationCamp DC on January 11, 2014, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus. If you haven’t already signed up, you are very welcome. I spoke with Kari Watkins, Assistant Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Can you describe a little bit for me about your academic work?

The research lab that I’ve created at Georgia Tech is actually called The Urban Transportation Information Lab. The whole premise of this is that in urban areas we’ve got a problem in terms of space, and congestion, and safety, and sustainability, and all these buzz words that we love to use. Transportation, effectively, is not working.

We talk a lot about increasing the choices that people have and making transit work better. I guess a lot of what we say is ‘we need to get people into transit’. We need to get more people on bikes. It’s like an obvious thing hanging out there. But how we do that is the difficult part. The way that our system has developed, it’s not easy to make the choice to be a transit rider, and it’s not easy to make the choice to be a cyclist.

We want more people to do that, to solve some of these problems that we have. We have to make these better options. It’s not really reasonable in many, many cases today. I think that a lot of the way that we can make this work better is through better information. We need to have a better understanding of the system that’s out there, and we need to provide better information to people. A lot of that is in the transit realm.

How do we get feedback from people in better ways? How do we send out real time information? How do we create apps that will get people the information they need to make it just as easy to use transit as it is for them to get around in an automobile. I started with this line of work when I was working with Brian Ferris on both of our dissertations at the University of Washington.

We created the OneBusAway app. I was looking at the impacts of all of this. It was really amazing when we talked to people about how just having real time information about their trip made such a difference in their choice to take transit. I am looking through my research to push that to the next level, and see what else we can do.

What does the ideal app look like? Because when you have a really good underlying system, if you have good information, it actually is easier to get around on transit. More recently, since moving to Atlanta, the transportation system here, the transit system here, there’s really not great headway. There’s not a lot of routes. It’s more of a rail-based system. If you’re not close to one of the rail stations, it doesn’t function as well as some other cities.

Here, I focused a little bit more on bikeability as well, because there isn’t great underlying bikeability. I think one of the best ways to feed into some of the rail is to get more people using bikes to bike to a rail station. But a lot of people just don’t feel safe doing so, because of the speeds and traffic around here, and the aggressiveness, and the fact that there is no infrastructure.

But we found that there’s not great data so that the city and region can make decisions about where to actually put bike infrastructure in. I’ve started newer projects around here looking at that, trying to crowdsource. Getting information from people about where infrastructure should go. Looking at route choice models and things like that.

What is the most exciting or interesting thing that you’re working on right now?

Most of my projects. I’m fortunate enough being at a school like Georgia Tech that I have a lot of opportunities to work with a lot of different people. I get to pick the projects that I think are the most exciting. I would say that everything I’m working on is exciting.

I wouldn’t point to one project. But I would say being able to work on these national or international issues, but to be able to apply them right here in Atlanta, where I can make a difference in my own community. The people that I’m working with and I’m surrounded with. I would say that’s the most exciting aspect. It’s that I’m working in a place where I can actually make a difference.

As you know, Transportation Camp is all about the intersection of technology and transportation. What is most interesting to you right now, on the technology side of transportation? You talked about data and crowdsourcing–what are some of the things that you think are really hot right now?

One of the things that I think is the most interesting, which is actually a little bit different from a lot of things that I have been working on, is the whole idea of autonomous vehicles. Where that could end up. I think there’s a lot of ways that people are envisioning this happening. They’re seeing a car like the Google car, and they’re imagining that this looks so much like the vehicle that they’re in today.

The truth is, as we move towards autonomous vehicles that they could be a different type of vehicle, especially if we look at things like the sharing economy, buying these autonomous vehicles. You can imagine suddenly, there’s this pod-like vehicle traveling to you to take you where you need to go. Or get you to a higher capacity, transit-type service, so that you can go the longer distance. The system itself could work a lot better with this new technology, as it’s being introduced. That’s actually something I am just into working on. There’s a lot of really interesting things going on right there in terms of technology, really revolutionizing transportation as we see it.

I don’t think that laws and regulations of the United States have caught up with the concept of autonomous vehicles. What do you think the policy implications are? What needs to change to be able to realistically consider autonomous vehicles?

That’s a fascinating question. Of course, there are policy implications to everything in transportation. That’s why we have a conference like TRB in DC. It’s because there are policy implications to everything we do. Especially in that realm of autonomous vehicles, they are very much still trying to work out what this is going to look like.

Where they need to get involved from a policy context, Federal level or State level, is as it’s coming about. You see it from the fads, that there’s still this push for connected vehicles. Differences between connected versus autonomous vehicles, which raise a lot of questions are where they should be pushing things.

I think a lot of people really don’t know. The part that I fear the most in all of this is that the people who are making these policies are not necessarily focused on the livability and sustainability of this system, sort of making sure that as this moves forward, that we’re fixing the problems with transportation system at the time.

Because I think that there is an opportunity to do so. If we’re not focused on that, on creating this system that we need to have in place, then we’re going to miss that opportunity, the same way we have in the past.

Going back to something you said earlier about transit data and transit data information, presenting that in a way that people can make use of, the question always comes up, “If that means having to use a smartphone, what are the implications for the equity of that, are there ways of bridging that gap?”

I actually have a student who just was working on some research. We have a TRB paper this year about equity issues surrounding all of these sexy apps that are smartphone focused.

I think that there are some policy implications there, as agencies are trying to roll out data. We’ve made a big push on open data, and agencies trying to open up their data so developers can do this. They have to also come back and not make open data the catchall.

We make sure that [transit agencies] have a phone‑in system as well. One of the interesting things we found in this study was that text messaging was not actually a great option, that a phone‑in service like an automated phone service felt better.

The texting population tends to be younger, the equity problem is not so much a racial or even an economic problem, as it is mostly an age problem. The younger demographic have these sort of devices, no matter what income bracket they’re in.

The older folks don’t tend to own the smartphone. When you’ve got this grandma, who is trying to use transit, because she is not driving anymore, she is the one who has no information about the system. She’s trying to make a doctor’s appointments, doesn’t know if the bus is coming, and she get no information.

We need to think from a user‑centered design perspective. Thinking about some of the different persons who are being missed and making sure that we’re still getting information to them as they need to have it.

January 11th is coming up soon. What advice do you have for someone coming to TransportationCamp for the first time, to get the most out of the day?

Jump in with two feet, and don’t be afraid to really participate, even if you feel you are younger. It’s all about discussion, so this is a chance to actually to be an active participant. I would say to older participants–because there were some jokes at the last Transportation Camp among some of my crowd as well as older–they need the older professionals in transportation at a place like Transportation Camp. Jump in and don’t be afraid to participate because you’re a little bit less technology savvy or something like that. They’ve got so much to add to this group, and you can really get a great vibe going.

 (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)