Inclusion of Underserved Communities in the Mobility Innovation Economy

By Albert Shen

Albert Shen is a Senior Advisor, Advanced Technology and Research, Toyota North America, and Former National Deputy Director, United States Department of Commerce, Minority Business Development Agency.

Aug 22, 2017 | Governance, Society | 5 comments

The recent explosion of technology integration with the transportation industry has rapidly disrupted traditional transportation legacy planning methodologies. The number of options and the traveler information available to the everyday citizen has created a new dynamic in which anyone can call a car or request product delivery at the touch of a button. Cities across the nation are developing new smart city initiatives to integrate open data with new transportation systems so that people can move more freely in their communities. New public transportation systems are being thought of as critical foundational systems to the smart city initiatives that will get people out of their cars and into reduced carbon footprint transportation systems. Soon, artificial intelligence will be operating the nation’s transportation systems at maximum efficiency, and with reduced operating costs compared to the use of human capital.

However, as technological innovation continues to progress at light speed, the country’s underserved communities are continually left behind. With the United States projected to be a majority minority country by the year 2044, governmental policy and resources must be adjusted to meet the demands of our rapidly changing demographics.

I recently attended the Meeting of the Minds Mobility Summit in Cambridge, MA. It was an inspirational gathering of national thought leaders on deliberate and systemic planning for the future of mobility in the greater Boston area, with emphasis on climate change and equity. Autonomous cars, climate change, shared mobility, disability access, and parking, were many of the subject matter areas that highlighted this summit. What was not surprising to me, however, was the lack of integrated diversity in the room.

This is a consistent pattern that I have observed over the years in any forum on innovation, technology and transportation mobility planning; the minority communities are typically not at the table. Although the summit had noble intentions and championed equity as one of the main pillars of it’s objectives, a more deliberate recruitment methodology is needed to ensure that the voices of underserved community thought leaders are in the room to contribute policy recommendations.

When I was a Seattle City Council candidate in 2013, I took significant time to visit the most distressed communities in the south/central parts of Seattle, WA where a new light rail system was being put into operation. Although this community had a brand new light rail system running through it, the neighborhood did not have a dedicated stop in the community for the people that needed it the most: primarily the Filipino-American community that has historically resided in this diverse zip code. As a result, citizens in this community had to walk an extra mile in either direction to reach a light rail station so they could get to their job centers. Stations installed on other parts of the line were favored in locations where gentrified Transit Oriented Development (TODs) were being planned, while underserved residential communities were dismissed.

The local political community has always touted Seattle as one of the most diverse communities in the United States: the Rainier Valley, zip code 98118. However, what elected leaders often do not talk about is that the most diverse communities are never the wealthy communities with power or financial influence. Where were these policy makers when it came to addressing racial & economic disparity during the planning of the light rail line? These underserved communities lack the systemic political and financial networks to influence governmental resources & decision makers on the placement of public transportation systems. Leaders that were supposed to stand up for the underserved communities failed to be the voice for the people that needed the system the most. Unfortunately, this happens too far frequently all across the country.

As the mobility innovation economy surges ahead, it is vital that federal, state & local governmental leaders consider underserved representation on many of the planning commissions, boards and diverse supply chains to support the development of new mobility initiatives. During my time in the Obama Administration as the National Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency, we developed new policies and initiatives to enhance and open doors for the diverse supply chains to be part of the innovation economy and the Internet of Things (IoT). The mobility movement must not only consider the people they serve, but must also be aware of the supply chain of minority entrepreneurs that are bringing the technologies to market.

The main stream innovation entrepreneurial community must be inclusive of all communities, providing access to capital and access to opportunities that are servicing the growing technology mobility disruptive revolution. Silicon Valley technology companies are still struggling to diversify their executive leadership, workforce, and supply chains. The steps taken by these companies to add diverse Chief Diversity Officers are a positive step but unless an executive mandate is spread systemically to all levels of a corporation (board level down to entry level staff and supply chain), then corporate diversity initiatives will continue to slog along with mediocre results.

Beyond the civil injustices of recent events in cities such as Ferguson, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, etc. and the disenfranchisement of minority communities by the U.S. criminal justice system, there are distinct underlying issues that primarily center on economic & mobility disparity. Communities all around the country with high concentration of minority population, unemployment rate (especially among youth minorities), low workforce readiness, lack of affordable housing, lack of broadband, lack of equitable economic opportunities and most importantly, lack of access to multiple efficient transportation and mobility systems, are forcing underserved communities to leave growing urban centers where the digital revolution is occurring.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker (RI) once said, “Generational wealth and opportunity in the U.S. was created from biased government policies”. If we are to cure the systemic wealth inequality and bring true equity to all communities then governmental policy must alter course so that it seeks a more direct injection of diverse talent in all aspects of the mobility technology revolution from elected positions, key appointments, educational curriculum, and public/private sector investments. Our mentality must change from tolerance to institutional embracement of diverse backgrounds and the economic impact that diverse communities bring to the U.S. economy.

As climate change continues to erode U.S. coastal cities such as in Boston, the mobility community must not forget the underserved communities who do not have the technological or mobility resources to relocate from direct weather disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, or the eventual flooding of lower priced properties in flood zone areas that are predominately occupied by minority & underserved communities.

With the election of President Trump, a nationalistic policy ideology has emerged which is directing massive federal resources away from serving underrepresented communities. This very biased re-prioritization of government resources reinforces Senator Booker’s key message about generational wealth creation only benefiting the elite. It is now more imperative than ever that the U.S. economy be a global leader on innovation and mobility technology. We as mobility leaders must alter our trajectory so that the underserved communities are woven into all aspects of government, innovation leadership, supply chain and financial investments.

The thoughts and opinions are that of the author alone and do not reflect the opinions or representations of Toyota N. America.


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  1. There is a foundational error in this argument. ” out of their cars and into reduced carbon footprint transportation systems.” This issue is reduced air pollution independent of the car or other mobility designs. Present big box transit pollutes much more than future cars. Human scale is required to bring air pollution levels down to healthy levels again and tons of iron in a train will never be low impact even if ridership were magically induced.

  2. J.Roane is right. To reduce footprint: [1] reduce the ratio of iron to flesh; [2] reduce VMT (not necessarily PMT!) ( or better yet reduce ton-miles traveled which is equivalent to [1]; and [3] burn renewals to move these ton-miles. Buses average 7 passengers (occupancy 7/40 = 0.175) and a 5-seat sedan with one passenger is occupancy 0.2. 5-seat sedans average 1.5 passengers = 0.3 occupancy. We know that SOVs are a lousy solution, but so are buses. The margin of merit comparing today’s transit fleet to today’s personal vehicle fleet is zero. Simply consider the world with ONLY fixed route buses and subways. Then consider the world with ONLY personal vehicles. Neither works any more than the competitive zero-sum mixture we have today. We need to stop vilifying each other’s preferred modality and start working out how new technologies and new business models will address the problem. When I look in 40 years there had better be none of the current vehicle solutions visible outside of history books.

  3. I am interested in learning of any examples in which entrepreneurs of color were engaged in the design and/or planning of new mobility solutions. What was the process for bringing diverse voices into the solutioning conversation? Was there consideration for entrepreneurs in those communities contributing in a way that supported economic growth for their businesses and the neighborhoods they reside in?

  4. With all of the technology that is now available and is emerging I’m hoping that at some point people will use participation maps to show “who is in the room” when people are gathering for conferences and planning. Such maps could show geographic distribution of participation and could also show representation of business, faith groups, non profits, universities, etc.

    Sharing such information would provide transparency and could also help people in these meetings connect with each other after the event, and people who did not attend to also connect. Furthermore, an analysis of participation could lead to a better understanding of who’s not in the room, and who needs to be invited.

    • Daniel – that’s a good idea. Maybe we could implement that at Meeting of the Minds. Do you have any examples of, or better yet any ready-to-use tools that create, a participation map? These are the kinds of demographics that we currently share at our events:


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