Takeaways from the Transportation Research Board’s 99th Annual Meeting

Takeaways from the Transportation Research Board’s 99th Annual Meeting

January 17, 2020  | ENO CENTER FOR TRANSPORTATION

This week, 14,000 transportation researchers and practitioners convened in Washington, DC for the Transportation Research Board annual meeting. Session topics covered all modes of transportation, all levels of government, and a range of issues including governance, finance, legislation, regulation, and innovation.

Eno staff attended dozens of sessions and presented at two. Below are our takeaways from key themes of the week.

Behavioral science

The notion of drawing from behavioral research in psychology, economics, and neuroscience to inform policy design and planning processes was addressed in this year’s TRB programming. Discussions about congestion pricing highlighted behavioral science principles, in particular the idea that commuters may be “nudged” into a congestion-mitigating transportation behavior by, for example, earning transportation credits for shifting to travel times outside of peak commute hours or to non-single occupancy modes. This was demonstrated in San Francisco’s BART Perks Test Program, conducted in early 2019. Behavioral science is also relevant in the context of improving access to discounted public transit among low income populations. Per the results of one study, participants in an experimental group that received a 50 percent discounted transit card took about 30 percent more trips overall, and took more trips to health care and social services than did participants who received a regular transit card.

A workshop titled “Nudging the Commute: Behavioral Science and Mode Choice” covered the subject of applying behavioral principles to transportation demand management policies and practices. Panelists included Dr. Ashley Whillans, Assistant Professor in the Harvard Business School’s Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets Unit; Doug Palmer, Vice President of the behavioral science nonprofit, ideas42; Joseph Sherlock and Lyndsay Gavin, researchers from Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight; and Michael Kaemingk, Senior Advisor at the behavioral science company the Behavioural Insights Team. Panelists pointed to examples like use of incentives, message framing, and leverage of social norms as tools that can encourage outcomes like mode shift away from single occupancy vehicle travel, shifting travel time to non-peak hours, and improving uptake in low-income reduced transit fare programs. Importantly, participants agreed that behavioral tools cannot entirely replace policy solutions, but rather can be used to inform policy design of issues that are fundamentally behavioral. Behavioral tools should generally still be used in tandem with policy changes, as in the context of congestion pricing. In that example, behavioral science can be used to understand how to encourage drivers to shift to carpooling or driving at non-peak hours, but mode shift will primarily be facilitated with improvements to public transit and walking or bicycling infrastructure.

A key takeaway across all sessions that touched on behaviors was that while much of the behavioral science research currently underway occurs in academic institutions or research centers that specialize in the topic, there is an increasing interest in the topic among public officials. In the District of Columbia government, for example, a special team housed in the Office of the City Administrator called The Lab @ DC uses behavioral science methods like randomized evaluation and resident-centered design to test policies and improve government processes. Partnerships between the public, private, and academic sectors can help to surmount the challenges of incorporating behavioral science into transportation policy, namely determining research questions, obtaining data, and funding pilots and full-scale programs.

Equity

Equity themes came up throughout the meeting’s programming. Sessions touched on a range of topic areas, including new mobility, performance measures, community engagement, and aging in place. Participants of the Equity Reframed panel discussed the historic impact of interstate highway construction and urban renewal projects on present-day inequities in housing and mobility and covered a range of solutions to ensure accessible mobility for all.

On the new mobility front, Richard Ezike of the Urban Institute stressed the need for the unbanked and riders without smartphones to access an increasingly mobile, online, and tech-based mobility ecosystem, and the need to craft regulations and policy with the goal of ensuring new mobility contributes to, as opposed to detracts from, a more equitable transportation system. Chris Hart of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority discussed how agencies can better serve riders with physical mobility challenges by emphasizing system-wide accessibility and adopting preventative maintenance contracts as opposed to repair-based contracts. Other participants, including Beth Zgoda of ICF, touched on the importance of applying an equity lens to existing performance measures, and reframing how transportation benefits are assessed by asking, for example, if the demographic makeup of those benefitting from a transportation investment similar to the region at large. From a broader land use and urban design perspective, Dr. Sandra Rosenbloom, Director of UT Austin’s Safe and Healthy Aging Lab, discussed the challenge of reconciling most seniors’ desire to age in place in the suburbs with the lack of non-automobile transportation options, which can leave seniors with little access to services and recreation when they give up driving unless efforts to retrofit suburban areas can make it easier to age in place without a personal vehicle.

Other sessions highlighted the work of practitioners in cities across the country. Representatives from the District Department of Transportation, City of Portland, City of Minneapolis, and New York City shared some current efforts to improve community outreach, expand transportation access in all neighborhoods, and use data to inform equity initiatives. These efforts include Portland’s Walking While Black initiative to survey and address the unique concerns of Black Portlanders as pedestrians and the integration of equity considerations into the policymaking process through Portland DOT’s Equity and Inclusion Program. DDOT and New York City officials also underscored the importance of proactive and targeted community outreach in not only hearing from a wider range of community members, but also building community support for transportation investments. Presenters from both Minneapolis and Portland highlighted the role of data, including indicators of neighborhood change and demographics, to target transportation investments, ensure equitable access to (and use of) shared mobility devices like scooters, and identify areas where vulnerable populations are most at risk for traffic fatalities and crashes.

Pedestrians and automated vehicles

The Pedestrian Committee and its subcommittees were busier than ever with multiple workshops, sessions, and subcommittee meetings stemming in part from over a hundred papers submitted. Many of the presentations and discussions relied on and/or contributed to the wealth of data and research available through the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC). The Subcommittee on Automated Vehicles (AVs) and Pedestrians met on Monday afternoon with a diverse group of researchers and companies with expertise in both pedestrian safety and behavior and automated vehicle technologies and development. Presenters noted educational materials and reports available through PBIC, and researchers and regulators reported on recent and upcoming studies, regulations, and legislation around AVs that will (or will not) have an impact on vulnerable road users. Existing research as well as research needs topic areas discussed included infrastructure, policy, data, and best practices.

Governance and performance measurement in transit

Eno staff joined panelists from the University of Texas, Arlington, TransitCenter, Santa Clara Valley Transportation, and Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) to discuss governance and performance measurement in transit. Moderator Nat Bottigheimer of the RPA kicked off the discussion asking how to choose performance measures, when to use them, what levels of data aggregation are appropriate when, where the data should come from, how to integrate performance into project development, and who benefits.

Elizabeth Presutti of DART discussed the intersection of using metrics for transit funding formulas and political feasibility due to governance structures. In order to increase funding levels with consensus, DART has taken a similar approach to formula funding as congress has with highway funding: grow the pie. DART leaves formulas as they are and gives all cities in the region additional funds on top the previous funding levels. Adam Burger of Valley Transportation focused on the use of data not as metrics for allocation or evaluation, but as measures of current performance to indicate the need for collective transit in a region with 95% of commutes taken by car. He emphasized the importance of data to effectively support the creation of municipal partnerships for transit. The simple single performance measure of speed led to more pro-transit partnerships. Eno’s Alice Grossman discussed the role of collaborative project management to plan and contract projects with public and private organizations through the lens of the Los Angeles and Puget Sound MOD project. She emphasized the importance of collaborative goal setting and relating performance measures back to goals as a means to develop a robust data sharing agreement allowing for effect and in-depth project evaluation. David Bragdon of Transit Center led with the perspective that governance has a huge impact on transit performance. He focused heavily on the mélange of transit governance structures found in the US, and noted that there are always tradeoffs and the grass is often greener on the other side. Bragdon gave concrete examples of metropolitan areas with strong centralized transit governance wondering if efficiencies could be achieved through de-centralization (such as the New York Region), and metropolitan areas with many agencies all with their own board structures worried that the fractured nature of transit governance hinders efficiency (such as in the Chicago region).

Closing thoughts

The discussions touched on here were merely a subset of the breadth and depth of topics covered at this year’s TRB. Next year will be TRB’s 100th annual meeting, and Eno looks forward to following and helping shape discussions of the topics described here in the meantime.

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