TransportationCamp Chat with Tom Fairchild

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 the transportation and technology field, and asking them about what is interesting and important in the field right now. I spoke with Tom Fairchild, Director of Arlington County, Virginia’s Mobility Lab.

Can you describe a little bit about what Mobility Lab does?

Mobility Lab is an initiative of Arlington County that does research and analysis first and foremost on how Arlington’s TDM programs work, how Arlington goes about encouraging individuals out of their single-occupancy vehicles.

It’s through a variety of programs that include outreach to employers to make sure employees receive their transit benefits and a set of commuter stores strategically placed around the county. And with other programs, we know that these all compiled remove about 45,000 car trips a day from the roadways.

The interest of the government in these types of initiatives is highway road congestion, but now our research and analysis goes beyond that to looking the health implications, improvements, outcomes, and other sustainability natures of our programs.

Additionally we’re involved in the development of new types of tools to make it easy for people to get out of their cars. This includes technology tools–of course our involvement in Transportation Camp–and we do a variety of hack nights, and we’re sponsoring the deployment of OneBusAway here in the DC region.

We are also engaged in a lot of collaborations with other organizations that have overlapping mission statements like Open Plans and a variety of other groups even that are involved in housing or other areas. It’s finding that common space so we can work together to make things better.

What’s the most exciting thing that Mobility Lab is working on right now?

I am excited about the OneBusAway deployment that we’re involved in. OneBusAway is an open source initiative that was developed at the University of Washington out in Seattle.

That has been deployed now in several cities around the country including New York and Mobility Lab was engaged in a project to deploy it here in the DC region. The exciting part about that is with over 20 different transit agencies in our region, it’s difficult for app developers to integrate all these different agencies, keep track of the fees, et cetera.

So OneBusAway will bring it all together into one space and I think it will really make our development of tools so much better and we’ll be able to take advantage of some of the open source tools that have already been developed on that platform.

As you know Transportation Camp is all about the intersection of technology and transportation and this year we’re trying to advance the level of conversation about tech’s role in the future of transportation both at the event and hopefully more widely. As you think about the future, what’s most interesting to you right now on the technology side of transportation?

I think we have a long way to go. My belief is that individuals who occupy our most exciting cities are largely shunning their automobile. And when it comes to transportation, everyone has preferences. It’s like in food; some people like Thai, some people like Italian, whatever.

And when it comes to transportation, some people like to bike, some people like to take a train, some people like to take a taxi. But I think that really at the end of the day just like with eating, everybody needs food and everybody needs transportation.

Getting to point A to point B and understanding what those options are readily and wasting as little time as possible understanding what will get you to your destination is very important.

Where we are going to see the real leap will be when we have information available in real time that shows the three or four options. Perhaps those will be your three or four individual top preferences and you will be able to choose from those quickly. Now we have hodgepodge of apps for the most part. We’re getting there with a lot of things and things are moving in this direction, but we have a hodgepodge of apps that show a hodgepodge. Maybe they have some of the options and don’t have others.

And so I think we have a distance to go and a lot of that is on the data side, making sure that the data is standardized and available to app developers so that they can display it in a way that people really want to see it.

Is there a policy implication to that? Are there policies that need to be advanced and are those things that are in the works right now?

Absolutely. Mobility Lab just in October hosted an event with Ray LaHood, the former U.S. DOT Secretary. It was one of his first events out of office where he came and spoke here in Arlington. He was asked specifically about open data, and he said he really sees that this should be essentially a mandate.

It underscores similarly how we see it that transit agencies‑‑for good reason‑‑have been focused on providing that transportation service for so long now also need to be aware that the data that they have behind the scenes really needs to be out there and available to developers to implement these applications.

Many of the agencies are doing this, but not all of them and some of them are doing it in a proprietary way with the formats they’re providing. For all these reasons, these have become very complex issues for an app developer.

And at a certain point someone might say, “Forget about that agency because it’s too complicated,” and pretty soon you have kind of a patchwork effect and certain jurisdictions might be left out and certain agencies might be left out. That’s really not what we need and want. We need something that is more robust, that shows the full range of options for people to take advantage of.

When you talk about app development, that of course brings up the question of equity and whether people who don’t have smart phones or don’t have ready access to the Internet can take advantage of these kinds of advances. What do you see as a way of helping to bridge that gap?

You’re right and there need to be places where everyone can get this information and also say that we need to be aware that some of those options are more readily available to everyone than others as well.

Not everyone is going to jump in Uber Car and that will probably never change. But even Bikeshare, you have to have credit in order to get a bike currently for most of the citizens around the world. So there are some obstacles on that side. But from an information standpoint, smart phones are obviously very important but there’s also an open source project that we developed here at Mobility Lab that’s been taken on by a commercial developer to take to the marketplace called Transit Screen.

That’s a project where all of the options are displayed and put up in locations where individuals can see them. This might be at Metro stations. They might be in lobbies of buildings. They could be in store windows. It could be in a whole variety of places where anyone would be able to get that information.

When it comes it smart phones, not everyone has them. But it’s also interesting to note that a wide variety of people do have smart phones. Surprisingly even people who don’t have a lot of economic resources, oftentimes a smart phone is essentially their computer.

Another exciting thing on the technology side is some work we’re engaged in right now in looking at the health implications of these options. We are increasingly aware that cars make us fat and lazy a lot of the time.

That’s very unfortunate because Americans spend a lot of time in their cars. And it’s stressful, so the mental health implications and the physical health implications are grave. We’ve been sold a line of goods by the automobile industry for years that we’re hot and sexy when we’re in a car, but the fact is we’re getting fat and lazy.

The health implications of being on a bike, obviously that’s a great activity and exercise. Walking, even riding a bus, all of those turns out require a great deal more physical exercise and physical activity and certainly far less emotional and mental stress than driving a car.

Will cars be considered the cigarettes of tomorrow? I don’t know, but I think we’re heading in that direction where we can hopefully at some point have a reasonable conversation that cars are very unhealthy for our country and for the world.

January 11th is coming up fast. What advice do you have for a new Transportation Camp participant to get the most out of the day?

First, be there. I think that the best way to understand and to get in the spirit of the game is to just arrive and come realizing that we’re all in this together. There are a lot of folks that are coming in together from around the country and around the world with it being the day before TRB begins. People arrive in the DC region from everywhere to take advantage of the activities around TRB with Transportation Camp being one of them.

So first come, but secondly come with your ideas and come with the idea of participating. I know that we humans are sometimes reticent to just dive into an unknown crowd, but everyone is coming into an unknown crowd here and it’s fun.

But also come with your ideas and think about what would be the most interesting topics for you to be engaged in and don’t be shy about putting those down on the sticky and handing those out so perhaps we can make a session around them.comes, and other sustainability natures of our programs.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]