Boston Is Emerging as a Center for Mobility Innovation
It goes without saying that mobility – the movement of people and goods – is an incredibly hot space. Start-ups are cropping up across the entire value chain as significant capital is deployed by incumbent strategic investors, mobility-specific funds like Fontinalis and BMW iVentures, as well as general tech funds looking to get in on the action. While headlines debate whether the nucleus of mobility innovation is Silicon Valley or Detroit, Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has not only churned out an impressive array of start-ups but has also attracted established businesses seeking innovation and research talent. The included graphic primarily highlights the mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) players, representing a snapshot of the businesses that are solidifying Boston as a driving force in the mobility space generally.
The region’s strengths as a mobility player are arguably under the radar. Recently, Héctor Naves Sordo visited Boston to investigate the local scene on behalf of Swiss Re, a large re-insurance company that set up a local presence in 2016. Héctor shared his astonishment at the depth and breadth of the ecosystem, “I came to Boston to explore the AVs and IoT technology landscape and was blown away. We hear so much about Silicon Valley as a hub of innovation. It was energizing to discover an East Coast counterpart that is exploring the future of mobility, connected cars and AVs, topics that Swiss Re is monitoring closely as they will impact motor insurance and society in general.” Boston’s own insurance behemoth, Liberty Mutual, also has a group dedicated to future mobility and recently released an open API portal that combines public transportation data with proprietary insurance knowledge to power new products.
Local investors are engaging as well – some have been doing so for several years. Chris Cheever, who leads the Boston office of Fontinalis Partners, a mobility-focused venture capital firm says, “The talent pool here – both academic and entrepreneurial – provides fertile ground for the kind of innovation that is going to take mobility into the next generation and beyond. We recognized this early on, which is why we established our firm with both Boston and Detroit offices in 2009. We’re seeing more investors scouring Boston for mobility opportunities. Of our current portfolio of companies, approximately 25% are headquartered or originated in the Boston area, and as much as 50% have significant operational presence here. It really is a tremendous environment for mobility startups.”
The Boston Mobility Roundtable, an informal coalition of regional private sector companies, came together in late 2016 to support regional visibility and growth opportunities with respect to mobility. Recently, public sector officials from the MBTA, City of Boston, MassDOT and MassPort joined the Mobility Roundtable for an open discussion on the best ways to connect and collaborate. Kris Carter, Co-Chair of the City of Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics said, “We are fortunate to have such a thriving innovation ecosystem in Boston, and we see our role as a champion for the sector and key collaborator in helping unlock new opportunities for the people of Boston. Whether that is providing consultation, test beds, or pilot program opportunities, it’s critical to work cooperatively in providing new mobility choices in an equitable way across the city.”
While transportation programs, infrastructure and norms are largely regional, transportation challenges are universal. Localizing innovative new mobility thinking or concepts for a city’s particular needs can create a ripple effect that expands our collective thinking. Already, mobility enthusiasts from Austin, Washington, DC, Silicon Valley and Detroit have been hand raisers to collaborate with Boston area efforts. Sharing solutions and learnings from programs conducted here (or carried out by Boston-based companies elsewhere) is just one way that Boston can continue to solidify its reputation as a center for mobility innovation.
On June 20, 2017, one hundred and twenty mobility leaders will convene in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss the future of mobility in the Boston region at the Boston Mobility Summit. This summit aims to harness the ingenuity and innovation already underway in the Commonwealth as well as the expertise of invited global thought leaders with best practices directly applicable to Boston’s challenges.
This day-long leadership summit will bring together C-suite executives from the private sector and public sector, non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs and academics to share local and global best practices applicable to the Boston region. The focus will be on transformative new technologies, policies, financing mechanisms, design and collaboration models with a particular focus on low-carbon and equitable solutions.
If you are interested in attending this invite-only summit, please fill out this application: http://cityminded.org/boston-application.
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Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.
Unsafe drinking water is an urgent problem that disproportionately affects low‐income communities of color in California and across the U.S. In California, we’ve learned that the right environment and policies inspire stakeholders to come to agreement on prioritizing solutions that provide the best results based on each system’s unique problems. Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, political willingness, and mutual agreement are all critical elements that, when combined with the right technical solutions, allow systems to thrive. In parallel with ensuring the right institutional and funding support systems are in place, we also need to choose and implement the most viable technical solutions for each system (which may in turn inform the support systems).
SFPUC’s Green Infrastructure Grant Program uses green infrastructure to combat CSOs and safeguard its watersheds. Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) installations are engineered stormwater management tools that slow down, clean, and route stormwater to keep it out of a sewer system. Simultaneously, GSI provides native habitat, beautiful landscaping, groundwater recharge, and non-potable water reuse. Through this program, SFPUC encourages landowners to build GSI on their property by providing grants that cover design and construction. “Green stormwater infrastructure is one way that we can invest in our community, efficiently manage rainfall, and ease the burden on the City’s sewer system,” said SFPUC Utility Specialist Sarah Minick.
Data concerns are not going away. Data sharing and open data initiatives will likely become even more important as the transportation industry grows more interdependent among citizens, public agencies, cities, and private companies. In an internal context, de-identification of data allows data to be shared across an organization, allowing all users to access insights, and a common picture of demand and service performance across the network. This allows marketing, planners, and operations teams within transit agencies to access the same secure data when doing short term and long term planning. This also enables data sharing between agencies and transit operators which have adjacent service areas, and allows them to optimize timetables and typical transfer points. In an external context, de-identification allows for safe data sharing across different public, private, and community stakeholders, and lays the foundation for collaboration, interoperability, and common understanding, while putting privacy first.
I spoke last week with Krishna Desai from Cubic Transportation, and we discussed three big problems facing transportation, and the ways that Cubic is approaching these challenges:
1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.
I spoke last week with Njogu Morgan, a post-doctoral researcher specializing in transportation equity in Africa, specifically South Africa, where he is based. As a historian, his research centers around how we can use historical context to better understand current transportation system inequities and access. He’s starting a new research network of emerging and developing scholars who are interested in mobility issues from a historical perspective.
At Connect the Dots, it is our mission to build better cities, towns, and neighborhoods through inclusive, insight-driven stakeholder engagement. We help community, private, and public sector partners to develop creative solutions that move projects and cities forward. Engagement is at the heart of this pursuit, which is why we are sharing our practices with you.
When you decide to take your engagement activities online, we encourage using tools that are functional on a wide range of devices including basic smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. We have also developed remote but non-virtual options to bridge the digital divide.