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The Future of Transportation – Part I

As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CATALYST Academy at Cornell University. The purpose of the summer program was to bring high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to Cornell to spark an interest in engineering and the university. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute group activity. This blog post is a summary of the presentation portion of my workshop.

Transportation has always been about moving goods and/or people from Point A to Point B. Whether we are discussing the ancient empires with routes to trade goods, the slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas, or the latest flight deals that allow for global travel, transportation is an essential part of the economy. Today, the transportation industry is at an interesting crossroads of ‘we’ve been doing it this way for decades’ and ‘new technologies require new thinking’.

“We’ve Been Doing it this Way for Decades”

For the last six decades, the basic formula for transportation planning has changed very little. We examine existing conditions, forecast changes over a 20 to 30-year period, and then predict how people will move and what mode they will use. While this model gives us a general idea of movement at the regional level, it can be problematic when used at other scales.

Among the challenges with the current model, I discussed two with the students. One challenge of the model is that it assumes people use one mode to take a trip between point A and point B. Where in reality people, particularly in highly urbanized areas, use multiple modes. For example, if a person takes public transportation, they still have walk trips from home to the bus stop and the bus stop to work. The other challenge is emerging megaregions, where people are able to commute between regions on a daily basis. For example, there are people who commute to DC daily from Philadelphia, which is part of a different metropolitan area. However, the travel models are still regional in that DC and and Philadelphia have separate travel demand models.

‘New Technologies’

With the advancement of technologies, the transportation industry is facing new challenges and opportunities. I discussed:

  • Changes in Communication: With the popularity of smart phones and tablets, people are able to have face-to-face communication with the click of an application. Where long distance relationships required a plane ticket or long-distance phone plan 10 years ago, now we are able to communicate globally via Wireless internet.
  • Shared Economy: For the transportation industry, the shared economy includes sharing a motor vehicle, bicycle, or car ride. Programs like Car2Go, ZipCar, and Getaround allow for people to forego car ownership but still have access to a car when they need one. Bikeshare programs are a gateway to increasing the number of people biking as well as fill a short to medium transportation need. Rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft provide access to people who do now own a vehicle and have been shown to increase transit usage.
  • Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): When I was young, I was told we would live like The Jetsons by the time I was an adult. I also remember watching Maximum Overdrive and being freaked out at the thought of a semi-truck chasing people around. There has been (and still is) skepticism around AVs. However, fully autonomous passenger and freight vehicles are being tested on our roadways. There are still public policy questions around safety, cyber security, and infrastructure needs.
  • Delivery Bots: I showed the students a video of a delivery bot in DC. The technology is being deployed in communities as both airborne drones and little motorized food delivery vehicles. If and when this technology scales up, what will be the future impact on how people and goods travel?
  • MagLev: I shared with the students that there are ongoing discussion of using MagLev trains as an alternative mode of travel between cities. For example, the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail is examining a maglev train that would travel from Baltimore to Washington DC in 15 minutes.
  • Space: There are some big thinkers, such as Richard Branson, that envision a world with commercial space travel.

‘New Thinking’

With the emergence of new technologies, humanity will face unique challenges and the current generation of teenagers are equipped to provide the solutions to those challenges. Some of the things I shared with the students:

  • They are the first generation where access to technology and high-speed (and pocket sized) computers are the norm. I told them they do not understand the struggles of having to use a pencil to rewind a cassette tape. The first Apple iPod was release when many of them were born. The do not know a world without technology.
  • They are growing up in an inclusive society. Although the U.S. still has its share of –isms (racism, classism, sexism, etc), this group has grown up in a world that has been more socially inclusive than any other in U.S. history.
  • They have access to instantaneous and unlimited information. When I was in high school, research required flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia Britannica or going through card catalogue to find a book. The current generation has the ability to pull information on any topic at any moment. With the click of a button, Siri can answer question on music, history, biology, physics, etc.

The purpose of the presentation was to get the young people thinking about the current challenges and opportunities in transportation. After a brief question and answer, I broke the students into teams and assigned them an activity to address many of the issues I discussed in my presentation. In the next post, I will describe the group activity in detail and the ideas generated by the students.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

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Connecting the Dots- Food Justice Part 1: Understanding Food Systems

 

In my former “life” in the Capital Region of New York, during graduate school and figuring out a career path, I was able to work in a passion of mine- food justice and access. I even wrote my graduate thesis on youth development and food justice so it was a joy to work in the field (pun very much intended). I had a few hats that I wore: urban agriculture project assistant director, garden volunteer and youth coordinator and trainer, mobile vegetable market assistant coordinator, nutrition educator, recipe developer and cook. Or in other words: growing, buying, slinging, cooking, and talking about healthy foods.

The biggest takeaways of my experience, that permeates my work with Nspiregreen, was the need for knowledgeable people that can relate to communities to connect the dots. In this case, it was connecting dots for people in terms of:

  1. Where their food came from and how it was grown OR how to grow it and
  2. Healthy food could be easy to make and could also be tasty

Many people I worked with and spoke to can think of plants growing in a field and understand the concept of farms, they can see produce for sale at a grocery store, and they can think of prepared dishes and foods they enjoy; but generally these things stay compartmentalized in their minds. Often understanding of the life cycle of that produce, or food systems, from seed to stomach is lost. I’ll be writing this in two parts, today I’ll cover the first point: understanding food systems.

The teens I worked with at the urban agriculture garden year after year were often taken aback when I would pick a cucumber off of the vine, take a bite or slice some off to share it as a snack. “Uh, don’t we need to do something to it?” one kid said. “Other than wash the dirt off, nope!”, I’d say. We’re talking about food that they helped grow with their own hands and hard work, but they didn’t immediately see it as food. To them, these were plants, and you don’t just eat random plants. Produce came from shiny cases in the grocery store and were periodically spritzed with water.

To further help them make the connection we would hold an informal cooking class every Friday, sometimes with a local chef, where we would harvest our crops, wash them, then make some lunch together. Often we would have them experiment with mixing ingredients and creating dishes. I even taught them how to can vegetables (Spicy Pickled Carrots) in one class. It took a little nudging and bartering to try new things, but most of them liked at the very least one thing we made throughout the summer.

During their time in the garden as part of their jobs, we would have activities about the current food system. This included visiting farms, grocery stores, watching documentaries, and having discussions about our experiences. On visits to farms they could learn about dairy production, raising chickens and pigs for meat and other produce operations, as well as see agriculture or related sciences as a viable career option. On very hot days, we would huddle inside a local school and watch documentaries about monocultures, large scale factory farming, and processed foods with a prize given out every time someone heard a certain buzzword to keep them from falling asleep. One activity that everyone loved was a scavenger hunt in a grocery store that included items like: list all of the countries or states where the apples are from, find your favorite breakfast cereal and write in what order number “sugar” is listed as the ingredient, find an item produced within the Capital Region, etc.

At the end of the summer, they had successfully learned:

  • To grow and harvest food using organic methods
  • To cook with produce and make healthy recipes
  • To determine where their foods were coming from
  • The impacts of food from far away and large factory farms
  • The importance to buy from local farmers or producers wherever possible
  • The importance of healthy food for the human body
  • That access to healthy food was a social justice issue

Also by the end of the summer, they were regularly taking home the food we were growing or sitting down to snack on a cucumber as well.

Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 





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