The Associate Director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation talks the Pink Tax for transportation, designing roads for speed (not mode), and juggling a toddler, an infant, and a Metrocard.
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As it were, I’m just now getting to this excellent chat I had with Professor Sarah Kaufman, who’s an Associate Director at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, teacher, and transportation/tech optimist.
The following conversation is almost a year old, and like many other conversations I’ve conducted, evergreen. There have been some advances to OMNY, some rideshare options have entered and exited the market, and we’re still…many decades away from autonomous vehicles having a meaningful impact on daily urban travel. New York has a new mayor, but it seems like our streets are less safe, our Subways are less secure, and our confidence that either will change is lower than ever.
Professor Kaufman’s work is far-reaching and close to home. She’s studied the relationship between travel and being a person who identifies as a woman or presents as fem. She’s taught the next generation of engineers and planners how to take the impact of their work more seriously. She’s more bullish on a connected future than I am and you can read more below.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and relevance.
Sarah Kaufman: Nice to meet you. I’m Sarah Kaufman, the Associate Director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.
Can you tell me what got you started in transportation?
Sure. So I’ve always loved cities, specifically New York City, and I also have a bit of a background in technology. I always saw this parallel between transportation networks and computer networks and when I went to school for urban planning, I realized that the transportation sector had a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of technology. And that’s kind of what I set out to resolve.
Are you a native New Yorker?
I grew up outside of the city in New Rochelle, which is an “urban suburb.”
So I was interested in reaching out to you because of a piece that was published in the New York Times, about a month ago [April 2021 at this point 😬] at this point called “Can Tech Make The Roads Safer?” by Shira Ovide. Since you’re interested in the tech/transportation crossover, we can take this conversation in that direction.
I want to start with what have we gotten wrong.
Sure. There’s a lot of ground to cover there. But I’ll start with the fact that, in general, transportation in US cities has been planned around a very specific traveler: the nine-to-five commuter who lives in the suburbs, drives into the city, does their nine-to-five job, and then drives back home. Usually, the characteristic traveler is a white male. That resulted in highways being built that cut off and isolate mostly black neighborhoods in cities, cutting off the people of these neighborhoods from job and schooling opportunities, also not accounting for travel within the city, which is has grown in the last few decades. Cities have grown and activity within cities has grown. Finally, it doesn’t make room for activity within and between suburban towns.
That’s a summary of what we’ve gotten wrong, that’s resulted in transit being scheduled around “peak” and “off-peak,” which are also determined by the nine-to-five schedule, but more and more in cities, we see people traveling either for shift work, or for social engagements or recreation, or other purposes. They are not traveling during what is traditionally deemed the “peak.” There’s an adjustment that needs to happen there as well.
Do you think the growth of the transportation technology sector, whether that’s an app or whether that’s levels of automation, or whether that’s V2X, connecting our transportation to our environment—do you think that’s taken a trajectory towards helping, or are there areas where you think that the growth of the tech sector has outpaced our ability to grow, competently and equitably, as cities?
That’s a great question. So tech and transportation have been routed in the private sector up until this point, at least in the US, because transportation for cities has been vastly underfunded.
In addition, transportation agencies are prohibited from true experimentation, which technology requires, by limited funding and public humiliation. It’s challenging for any public agency to try out something new. Because technology requires pilots before full implementation, it’s been really difficult to do it in the public sector. And so we see innovation coming out of the private sector. One example is Uber entering cities. Much of the draw was not necessarily the vehicles, but the fact that they accepted credit cards and could be summoned on a smartphone, which were things that were not widely available in yellow taxis. (Obviously, I’m speaking about New York here.)
Let’s talk a little bit more about other types of transportation technology effects that have since been introduced. So there’s the connectivity of vehicles, but there are also small improvements, OMNY being a big technological jump: we went from tokens and coins to cards. And then there was this 20-year gap between techs, and then all of a sudden, every bus and every subway station in New York now have OMNY readers. You can get onto NYC transit with your smartphone or with an NFC-enabled credit card [and now with an OMNY card as of March 2022].
Where do you think lies issues in that type of technological jump? Are we leaving people behind?
We may be leaving people behind because smartphone penetration is not 100% and neither is credit cards. That being said, there are still Metrocards that can be loaded (even with cash) [Ed: Metrocard will be phased out throughout 2023], so I think that the system not only is ready to be implemented and is reasonably equitable but it’s also something that other major cities have had for years, if not decades. And New York is only starting to move forward in this area.
There’s still not all-door boarding on all buses [Select Bus Service routes has “all-door” boarding], which has confused me. I’m not sure why that’s not the case—it goes back to this fear or this hesitation to experiment. Do you think it’d be too challenging to train the New York public to do that? Because in European cities, it’s seamless. Is it just a learning curve thing that New York City? Do we need to just rip the band-aid off?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure why; I guess New Yorkers just aren’t used to it and don’t want to face enforcement if they do the wrong thing. I will say the only challenge I do want to mention with OMNY is that New York in particular has this real deficiency in coordinating transportation services. So OMNY, ideally, would also be used for CitiBike and the ferry, taxis—and all these other modes that New Yorkers use—but because our different modes are so siloed, we can’t do that. It would be a real advantage to New Yorkers to be able to tap into whatever mode we need at a given time because that’s how people travel around the city; they don’t typically use just one mode.
That’s a really good point. A lot of that has to do with agency culture, considering the ferries are run by EDC, and Citibike by a private company, and the MTA is a state agency, it doesn’t seem that the city has a lot of control over the future of its transportation, even though all of it happens in New York City itself. There are challenges there. And we’re hopeful that maybe the next mayor [Eric Adams, as of January 1, 2022] sees these and can address them
Two other things before we get onto the discussion about the present. The first one is bike- and scooter-share. I know you’ve written about bike- and scooter-share a little bit. I lived in Washington, DC, which was one of the first cities where the dockless bikes were plopped onto its streets one day in 2017. I was immediately taken by this and I think that the rest of the public followed, and then other cities followed as well. There’s dockless and docked bike and scooter share at this point—in more than a handful of cities.
Conspicuously, New York is not one of them so far. So there was a pilot in Staten Island and I know there was a pilot in the Bronx, for some of the dockless bike-share, and there are pedal-assisted e-bikes integrated into Citibike. And we see private scooters and private electric bikes, especially used by our delivery cadre in New York.
What do you think are the main challenges to introducing this mode of transportation, which can be a game-changer?
The main challenge of dockless in New York is the fact that people tend to throw the bikes wherever, which, in New York, I think it’s fair to say New Yorkers use sidewalks more than any other city in this country. There’s a huge potential or likelihood for dockless bikes to be left on sidewalks, blocking the path, so that is a non-starter. I also think that New Yorkers would just bring the dockless bikes into their apartments and mark them “docked” or “locked,” which I’ve heard happening in other cities as well.
Those are a few reasons dockless wouldn’t work here in New York, but it could potentially work in the outer boroughs, just not Manhattan. There would have to be some sort of regulation or enforcement for not throwing the dockless bikes on the sidewalk, which would end the program immediately. We do have Revel, which I know is in DC as well. (Full disclosure, I do some consulting for them.). That’s a dockless mode. Revels don’t get parked on the sidewalk. That’s a fantastic area for growth because it’s a way to get people who need to travel farther to avoid car dependence, while still being able to ride exactly where they need to go.
If the reaction to the Open Streets program in Greenpoint is an example of how people treat public infrastructure that’s not bolted to the ground, we’ll start seeing some of these bikes in Newtown Creek or the Gowanus Canal. I think New Yorkers are trained to understand that sidewalks are cluttered based on the way we do trash collection in New York. It’s a gigantic complaint for a lot of New Yorkers: trash brings rats, trash looks filthy, trash makes our neighborhood look unclean.
A lot of folks who won’t use the bikes will just see it as extra litter or extra clutter. For them, it’s going to be the trade-off of what benefit do I get from this in exchange for giving up public space, which I really didn’t have a say in. I don’t know that it’s ever going to be the case that we have true dockless mobility managed by the public sector because folks who own their own scooters and their own e-bikes at this point.
And you have a lot of strollers in New York neighborhoods as well. You start blocking the sidewalk for strollers in neighborhoods with a lot of families…
…and people ride their bikes on the sidewalk on their non-electric bikes, which is a policy failure in and of itself. We don’t build bike lanes in the street, and it spirals: people don’t want to give up “their parking,” people think cyclists are all like the old white men in spandex, and not delivery workers or folks who are priced out of car travel or priced out of our public transportation system as a whole.
I don’t know if there are publics out there that are ready to have this conversation, especially when we give veto power to Community Boards in New York.
The last thing I want to talk about before we get to the present tense is the Pink Tax. Could you explain your project and how it’s different to travel as a woman?
Traditionally the ‘Pink Tax” is a term used for goods and services that women are forced to pay more for. And so the Pink Tax on transportation is not saying women are paying more for the same Subway ride or taxi ride—it’s saying that women are paying more for their own safety. And that is because women experience harassment on public transportation, and that’s true in pretty much every city in the world. Here in New York, as a result, women pay more to take a taxi or rideshare because of the idea that it’ll preserve their safety on their way home, or wherever (although rideshare companies have dealt with incidents that are questionable in terms of personal safety). Regardless, women are paying about $50 more per month for their safety and to avoid harassment.
In addition, across the US, including New York, women tend to be the caregivers in their household, either for young children or elderly relatives, or other dependents. And so there’s an added financial and time burden of transporting other people around. Anecdotally, I believe that New York is more equitable in this sense. But this transportation issue remains especially important in terms of the physical access of transit, which in New York is not accessible for wheelchairs, strollers, or people who can’t handle stairs very well.
What can we do better right now for the transportation sector?
I do also want to say in terms of the burden for women traveling that the harassment issues tend to be so much worse for women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, and people presenting as fem.
A key solution is improving representation at the leadership level. Right now in the entire transportation industry, fewer than 20% of executives are women. And if you look at micro-mobility, there’s only a single one led by a woman out of a couple of dozen—similarly with autonomous vehicle companies. In addition, it’s pretty well publicized that transit boards and other leaders are not regular users of public transportation systems, so they don’t have the lived experience that their riders have. Our leaders don’t tend to be racially diverse and/or diverse in physical ability. With all of these things put together, having representation at the leadership level for a variety of experiences on transit systems and throughout urban mobility uses. would go a long way in improving transit, not just for women, but for all users. And that is something that we can work on now.
Why does that representation matter?
If somebody isn’t using the public transit system every day, they may not know how hard it is to travel with a toddler and an infant on the way to daycare, where it’s extremely difficult to get down the stairs with a stroller or to go through a turnstile with a stroller that doesn’t fit or to have to flag down a Subway station employee to open the gate for you. Having a toddler run away while you have an infant that you’re trying to manage is just a snippet of 10 minutes in the life of a parent trying to travel with young children. And if somebody hasn’t lived through that they don’t have a concept of what it’s like.
That’s a reason that representation matters.
There’s also the issue of crime management on Subways and how enforcement tends to focus on people of color. Without the representation of people of color at the transportation leadership level, there continues to be this conflict between how we reduce crime without strictly increasing police presence—without a more nuanced approach to improving safety on public transit systems.
That’s maybe the easiest step zero that we can ask our leaders, of our micro-mobility companies or autonomous vehicle companies, our transit companies, our highway departments to just listen and put egos aside. It will go a long way in changing the culture at a lot of these places.
Let’s switch gears back to tech a little bit. I ascribe to Jarrett Walker’s idea that technology doesn’t solve a geometry problem. I’m curious if there are current technologies that we can get excited about to affect our lives today?
That’s a good question. I’m a tech optimist and I do think that there are technologies that can make our lives better.
In the category of safety, some apps are helping to improve the safety of people who are traveling. For example, e-BodyGuard is an app, and much like you have a trigger phrase like, “Hey, Siri,” you could have a separate trigger word that would trigger this app. If something were happening to you, you could trigger this app to start recording video and audio; a lot of on-transit incidents that happen never make it through prosecution, because without evidence, there’s a defense of mistaken identity, for example, but if there’s a video of the crime and a clear video of the perpetrator, it’s a lot easier to prove in court. When the trigger word is used for this app, you don’t have to fumble with your phone and pull up the app and then “activate” the recording, using a trigger word to start recording, and at the same time also call 911, that’s an amazing service, because it can be used for harassment on public transportation, as well as recording other incidents anywhere.
We’re starting to see a cottage industry of personal safety apps. And while I wish we didn’t have to have them, I’m glad that they’re coming out. Another category is automated traffic enforcement. There are some systems now that use cameras to detect things like vehicle registration, or other kinds of non-emergency functions that are helpful in terms of reducing traffic stops, that, as we see over and over, can end tragically. Keeping the police out of regulating when someone had their last vehicle inspection, and making it the administrative process that it is, we can actually improve the enforcement of maintaining these vehicle inspections, as well as maintaining safer roads for drivers.
Where does data fit into the modern transportation landscape?
It’s complicated, but I do think that data is highly important. I also think that data is so uneven right now across the public sector, between cities, between agencies within cities, even within departments within agencies, you never really know what you’re going to get or how certain data sets are defined. We need more standardization of data in the public sector. From the private sector, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand data from private operators on public streets. I keep talking about getting data, acquiring the data, but then it’s a question of why it’s important.
And so it’s important for a few reasons. The first is getting a broader picture of where and how and when people are traveling because then we can better understand the service needs. That continues a need for more agile transportation systems, for example, adjusting bus routes to accommodate the true customer demand, rather than to accommodate a schedule that was created at some point. Second, determining where transportation deficiencies are, where so-called transportation deserts are. And if we can provide better public transit in certain locations, we can reduce car dependence and improve safety and improve the economic opportunities of a given neighborhood. Finally, using data helps us prepare for emergency events or unforeseen circumstances. For example, if we know that a certain number of people travel using personal vehicles in one neighborhood, and we know that a major storm is coming, we can specifically alert that neighborhood for what they should do with their cars in the event of a flood, for example.
The number of problems that can be solved without data is vanishingly small. As an educator and a trainer of younger planners and potentially engineers: my experience working with state DOTs and MPOs is that engineers don’t necessarily see the value in the concept outside of the data or the scope of work they’re given. Do you think we need to reorganize and re-figure out how we train our civil engineers and our traffic engineers to think more about the qualitative aspects of the work that they’re doing? And do you think that there is a progressive movement in education today to address that
More preparations are being made for engineers to think more in terms of the policies that result from what they’re building; and for data analysis, not to just exist as a result in terms of statistics, but in terms of what it means in a larger sense. There’s also a push to help students and early career professionals understand a bit more about the data that they’re using, for example, that a lot of historical data has racial biases in it…think police stops. Painting a bigger picture is hugely important.
I’ve been beating a drum about autonomous vehicles for a while and the fact that we’re going to start introducing either autonomous vehicles or partially autonomous vehicles into cities. (There are already a lot of vehicles with some autonomy or some autonomous features.) We need to think about the big picture. And that’s something I’ve been pushing for in terms of what does it mean for data sharing? How is data going to be protected? If we have autonomous shuttles who is going to maintain the safety of the passengers if there is no monitor onboard managing passenger behavior? What’s going to happen to the professional drivers of different cities? New York City has about 200,000 professional drivers of things like taxis, rideshares, livery cars, etc. What will happen to their jobs? How accessible will these vehicles be?
Right now, there’s an approach to autonomous vehicles, that it’s just about getting the car to stop and go, but it’s really about so much more when we bring them into a city environment. And so that’s something I’ve been trying to have New York especially become more aware of.
Technology seems inevitable no matter how long it takes. It will get to a point where these vehicles are smart enough to make “decisions” about what movements to make.
I’ve been beating the drum about how the issue of autonomy is not the technology, it’s labor because the first part of autonomy that’s gonna reorganize is long-haul trucking. There are a million truckers in this country, and they’re organized, and no matter how good the technology is going to be, it’s decades before these truckers retire or are bought off by the state, or retrained or shifted into another industry, which is another whole issue in and of itself.
What does a successful future in transportation look like, say by 2030?
2030 is a great timeframe.
So what’s interesting about 2030 is that we’re going to have a much older United States. Boomers will have crossed the line into the “senior citizen” age group. And as was reported last week (in April 2021), we have a lower birth rate. So we’re going to have an older country. And what comes with age, as we all know, is physical challenges. That plays out in transportation. But there’s an assumption that older people just go places to go to the doctor. But that’s not true. They are socializing and going to shows and restaurants. So you build a transportation system that caters more toward varying physical abilities, that has not only a diversity of gender and race but also one of age.
Another is that there’s so much potential to use data to make our cities operate a lot better. With the current crop of students and young professionals taking over more responsibilities in the workforce, we will see more data-enabled work. We’ll see things like smarter curb space, being able to use curbs for not just static parking, but also for more dynamic uses, like pickups and drop-offs of passengers in for-hire vehicles or taxis, as well as loading and unloading of deliveries. There are so many purposes that spaces in front of residential and commercial buildings can be used for that right now are taken up in an unsafe way by static parking.
I also think that we will see an increase in small-form robotics or small-form autonomous vehicles, but sidewalk scale vehicles, that will do smaller deliveries on their own of things like dinner deliveries—or we’ll see exoskeletons that help delivery people carry heavy deliveries like appliances. Japan is already working on this. It honestly doesn’t make sense to have a person have to carry a refrigerator without assistance.
In terms of mobility in New York in 2030, where would you like to see bike usage for commuting and how much more do you think we’re going to get?
That depends a lot on what happens in a month. I would like to see a lot more micro-mobility usage, and yes, bikes, but also, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, mopeds, and whatever even hasn’t been invented yet. I would like to see more of these modes. And I would like to see street allocation for these modes. And I don’t want to see a bike lane, cover all of these modes, because people ride bikes, anywhere from three miles an hour to 25 miles an hour. And there’s no reason they should share a four-foot-wide lane.
We should be thinking about our streets as speed allocated, not mode allocated so that we can more easily improve traffic flow by speed and make it safer and more efficient for all modes.
Any work that you’re working on you want to plug?
So I am working on this autonomous vehicles project about what would be the good citizenry standard for autonomous vehicle companies looking to operate within New York City.
Where can my readers find you or contact you if they want to get in touch?
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