TransportationCamp Chat with Shin-pei Tsay

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. We’re reaching out to leaders and thinkers in transportation and technology, and asking them about what is interesting and important in the field right now. Last week, I spoke with Shin-pei Tsay, director of research and development at TransitCenter.

Can you describe a little bit about what you’re doing at TransitCenter?

Right now, Executive Director David Bragdon and I are conducting a scan of the field and testing some assumptions. Our professional experience brings a lot of different capacities to the organization. David served for many years on the Metro Council, the Portland MPO that is the only one in the

country that elects their members. He’s worked in the private sector, and at NYC’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability. I’ve worked for small non-profits, in participatory planning and advocacy, as well as a large think tank. We’re putting all of those elements together to figure out what it takes to change how transportation happens in this country. How do all the different stakeholders work together to make this happen?

We’re interested in what are the high-impact, low-cost ways of shifting the ways people think about government and governance of transportation. How riders interact with their transit systems and help plan them. We’re talking about sharing modes, and the different ways people are doing that. How can organizations and places learn from each other.

TransitCenter isn’t necessarily going to be the one undertaking the changes. We’re doing some event convening, research, forming partnerships with other organizations, helping to get new things going, and supporting existing projects moving forward.

We’re mostly focused in the U.S. but we’re also interested in the international realm. There’s so much that U.S. can learn from other places. Countries that are not often considered as having capacity, but are doing so many innovative things to get their cities moving.

What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on at the moment?

Transit data. Those are the driest two words ever. But data opens so many doors to conversations about social structure, how cities should be run, governance. It starts off sounding neutral — show me your transit data.

People have taken transit data as a foundational layer — for trip planning, of course. But the way of organizing thinking around transit could then be applied in other places. There’s a lot of potential in just that — a way of organizing a system and communicating that to other people, then using that information to build stuff.

TransitCenter is involved in an effort to set up a resource center. All the APIs that transit centers are putting out. Data, methodologies, case studies, training materials — they are in little pockets all over the place. They are often directed toward just the transit planner or just the technologist. We can create a resource center that’s more inclusive, that raises the visibility of the data and what can be done with it.

Data standards are basically a language. When you go to other places where they have informal transit systems — they don’t have schedules or routes, but somehow everyone knows where to get the bus.

If you’re a newcomer to a city, seeking opportunities, you need to know how to get around.

This need for a language, this standard allows researchers to ask –what’s missing? We think there are routes, but they’re not tracked by the city at all. What’s the methodology for filling out that information? What are the visual tools for making the city legible?

It isn’t just developing countries that can use this standard. People in U.S. transit see the need for it. Like in paratransit — non-routinized, not scheduled routes.

Once you have a means of collection, you also have a way of understanding traffic, and you can use that to manage it. The first step is to fill out the language for that specific city, but then can use that information to even out traffic flow.

Right now there’s nowhere were all the energy that’s going into transit data is reflected. Getting the resource center up is the starting point, not the ending point.

TransportationCamp is all about the intersection of technology and transportation. As you think about the future, what’s most interesting to you right now on the technology side of transportation?

An area we’re really interested in is private and public interaction to provide public services that augment the city’s public transit service. Filling the gaps in transit systems in U.S. and Europe. These are mature countries where existing transit systems are not always great. They’re not seamless or interoperable. Land-use patterns have dictated people’s transportation choices.

Shared-use systems are very interesting to us. We’re involved in convening a shared-use mobility summit in DC next spring. There was just one in San Francisco. It’s almost hard to keep track of all the services — Halo, Uber, Lyft — there are so many of them. The crazy thing is they mostly never talk to each other.

These companies are an augmentation of a public service, and they often position themselves as a social good. They’re reducing car ownership. And they actually enjoy talking to each other. There is common ground, in addition to competition.

There are nuances in services. People sign up for more than one service. I have a bike and I have bike share. As we think about future, there are a lot of policy implications. The rideshare companies get Federal dollars — under the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement program. But companies like Uber are taxed by local authorities, under the car rental tax. The regulation does not reflect the state of practice and where it’s going to go.

Apps like Uber are great in larger cities, for people with access to the technology, but many people don’t have that access, or live in places that can’t support the Uber economy. Can this technology make transportation more equitable?

The cost of entry to take advantage of all these services is relatively high — you need a smartphone. That makes it the most convenient. They require credit cards, and definitely people don’t all have those. One new area to forge is how do you get those people access to these systems. The Mobility Lab in Arlington is thinking about people in this demographic. A good number of them register with a social services agency — could those agencies potentially serve as a guarantor? EDP are all debit cards — someone has information on those people who would benefit from having access to these services — what would that look like?

Mobility Lab would like to do a pilot for bike share — credit card access is always the thing that stops people from accepting bike share as a fully public service.

January 11th is coming up fast… What’s your advice to a new TranspoCamp participant to get the most out of the day?

Be open minded, have a sense of humor. And be rigorous–expect a lot out of everyone there.

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