TransportationCamp Chat with Nick Grossman

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 Nick Grossman, General Manager of Policy and Outreach at Union Square Ventures.

Can you describe a little bit about what you do?

I work at a venture capital firm in New York City called Union Square Ventures. We invest in the applications layer of the internet and typically social companies that apply a network model to a problem or a sector. Things like Twitter, Tumblr, Kickstarter. In the transportation space, we’re investors in a company called Hailo, which is a taxi e-hailing company. And companies across all the tech sectors from science to health to education.

What I work on specifically, in addition to being on our investment team, is looking at the public policy and regulatory issues that affect the ability to innovate in all of these sectors. We care a lot about tech policy and internet governance and pivotal issues like privacy and freedom of expression. We are paying a lot of attention to issues where the internet is colliding with cities in various ways and opening up new questions and presenting new challenges to regulators and policy makers. There’s plenty of that in transportation, with the growth of Uber and all the peer-to-peer ride sharing companies and all of the other companies in the transportation space. Also Airbnb.

You’re starting to see more questions stemming from networks of people collaborating in new ways on the internet affecting urban issues in a way that they didn’t used to. That’s really creating some interesting questions and some hard problems and some opportunities, about how we insure for safety and equity and all the public policy considerations in urban policy in an era where new ways of doing everything are possible.

As you know, TransportationCamp is about the intersection of technology and transportation. We’re trying to really advance the level of conversation of tech’s role in the future of transportation. As you think about the future, what do you think is the most interesting to you right now on the technology side of transportation? You talked about e-hail. Are there some other things that you’re looking at that you think are interesting?

People are applying internet and mobile technologies to mobility and transportation in every way imaginable at the moment. You’ve seen some flat-out successes like Uber and Waze. You’re starting to see a lot more experiments like what’s going on with ride sharing. There’s a lot of different varieties of ride sharing that are happening right now from things that look like taxis to things that look like carpooling to things that look like buses. We’re not sure yet what’s going to work there, but there’s a huge potential there.

The thing that still gets me really excited when I think about peer to peer and transportation is the idea that there’s this massive fabric of mobility happening all around us all the time but we don’t know how and we’re not able to tap into.

I don’t live in the heart of the city anymore. I live outside of Boston. An area that is moderately served by public transit but has a ton of people driving through it. There are certain routes out here that are a little bit hard to do if you don’t own a car. I think about that. I think about the ability to tap into that as something really, really exciting and really game changing when you talk about access and investment in infrastructure. I think that seems to be one big frontier in transportation technology that’s very promising but also technically now more and more possible but also socially and thinking in terms of market development hard. But I think there’s a lot of potential there.

The other issues that are faced within all this that I think is really interesting and that we’re just barely scratching the surface on is what to do with all the data that’s coming out of all these systems. Every time someone takes a ride on Uber or Hailo or Lyft or SideCar. Every transit ride or every data point that comes out of people using Waze. We’re collecting this massive trove of data about how our transportations systems work and don’t work. Where people are, where they need to go. It’s really a planner’s best imaginable thing to have all this data happening but it’s also figuring out how to work with that data is really complicated.

In the business there’s a lot of issues about privacy. I think that if there’s one issue that I want to focus on if I were able to be a transportation policy maker–I’m not, fortunately–is this question of how would we hope to take best advantage of all the data that’s coming out of all these systems to inform planning and policy decisions, whether that’s where to locate a housing development or how to regulate the ride sharing companies.

How could we imagine making the best use of all the data that is being produced while respecting the privacy of the individual users, while respecting the relationship between platforms that are producing and collecting all the data and their users because there’s a trusted relationship there?

And also, sort of a corollary to that is that there’s because we’re producing all this data we’re able, theoretically, to hold ourselves a lot more accountable to the decisions that we make in ways that were never possible before. We could use that to let ourselves experiment more with new ways of doing things. I’m thinking more from a regulatory perspective, not from a planning perspective.

This idea that we could enable an environment of creativity and experimentation and innovation on an unprecedented scale because whatever experiments people do there’ll be data that comes out of it that we can use to hold those experiments accountable. Switch the regulatory model from what we’ve been calling the 1.0 model–where you have to decide something up front, whether it’s a good or a bad idea, but you don’t really have any data or have a small amount of data–to a 2.0 model, where we don’t need to make as many determinations up front. We’ll have tons and tons of data coming out afterwards. That’s a really different model.

And so, in both of those scenarios you’re talking about applying data to decision making and judgments, making judgments about the transportation network in ways that we’ve never done before. That’s data that belongs to cities. It belongs to government. It belongs to individuals. It oftentimes resides within a private company that develops that data in relationship with a user. How do you untangle that opportunity, I think is a really big and interesting, important challenge.

Are there particularly interesting policy or regulation issues happening right now that you see in the next year or so are going to be helping to advance this idea of regulation 2.0?

I don’t know about in this next year. I don’t know about specifically addressing this idea of regulation 2.0. One area where there was a lot of movement in the past year was around ride sharing. California produced a set of rules creating a new class of transportation for ride sharing apps. It seems likely that other states will take those on or adapt them in some way because there’s a bunch of companies that are charging really, really hard at that particular issue.

For someone who hasn’t been to TransportationCamp before, do you have any advice about how to get the most out of their experience there?

For a lot of people who haven’t been to TransportationCamp they probably also haven’t ever been to an unconference. I think the biggest opportunity and the thing that’s the coolest about TransportationCamp and other events like it is that it’s so open and everybody’s so available and there’s a lot of flexible free time. You have face-to-face access to a lot of people you might not have otherwise. I would say don’t be afraid to go up and talk to people because that’s the whole point.

The whole point of TransportationCamp is to try and flatten out whatever hierarchies there are. If there’s somebody that you’re interested in go say hi and go talk to them and see where it takes you because it’s all the conversations in the hallways that makes TransportationCamp awesome and unpredictable.

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