Disrupting Mobility Now, Not in Some Distant Future

Kittner_CC crosswalk

At the Disrupting Mobility 2015 Summit, Paul DeLong of car2go said he’s sick of fighting with wife about missing his kids grow up because of the horrendous traffic between work in downtown Austin and his home 17 miles north of the city.

“The more people talk about this and the more we can tell this story [and demand our leaders do something about traffic], then we can do the disrupting you all are talking about,” DeLong said.

Disrupting logoNot only is his message about storytelling powerful, but it’s crucial for all of us to step back and consider how we all are not just talking about disrupting mobility in the future, but how we are disrupting mobility already.

An example of DeLong’s belief in storytelling being the real deal is, well, Mobility Lab. It is really one of our three pillars: research, collaboration, and communications (which is just another word for what we’re trying to do really well: storytelling).

Most people think Mobility Lab is one of those “silly little companies doing start-up apps,” as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab described those business types at the summit. And it kind of is that, but most people don’t know that Mobility Lab was started by and is mostly funded by Arlington County, Virginia’s government?

We have been “disrupting mobility” from within the government for about four years now. It’s truly forward thinking that the county lets us do this. But the transportation leaders there know Mobility Lab is one of the big reasons Arlington is considered a national leader in transit-oriented development. Sometimes we trumpet the innovations happening at home, but mostly we bring the best practices from around the world back to Arlington so the locals can constantly learn.

Left to right: Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab, Victor Mendez of USDOT, Dan Doctoroff of Sidewalk Labs, Kent Larson of MIT Media Lab, and Greg Lindsay of New Cities Foundation.

Arlington was great long before Mobility Lab came around. But before the Orange Line of Washington, D.C.’s Metro opening in the late 1970s, Arlington was little more than an interstate buzzing into the District. It took a long time, but now the Orange Line contributes to a pleasant walkable and bikeable three-mile stretch between the Potomac River and the Ballston neighborhood. This area is why Arlington was recently named the top location in the country for millennials: it has a bustling business climate, and there is rarely bad traffic – even though the area is dense with housing and offices.

Nearly 20 years ago, the county’s transportation department began researching its results for the TOD and transportation-demand planning. And eventually it was decided that research needed a home, which was originally going to be used a background information for something called TDM University that would help other regions learn how Arlington had transformed so they could do so as well.

There are TDM (transportation demand management) agencies and TMAs (transportation management associations) all over the country, but they are underfunded and little known. Arlington has the largest TDM organization in the country, and it is part of the transportation department.

So building on the years of research that the new Mobility Lab began housing, it was wisely decided that the research needed to be unwrapped. Its stories needed to be told not only to Arlington but to the entire TDM industry.

Mobility Lab has recognized over the past three-plus years that we have an opportunity to reframe this TDM concept by communicating it in ways that people care about. We needed to connect this obscure TDM ideas to their lives by making it relevant to the issues that connect with their lives beyond transportation: economics, tech, sustainability, education, planning, policy, and many others.

We recognized that fewer transportation reporters existed in the mainstream media, so there was an information gap we could help fill. We are now a media company, of which there are far too few in the transportation space. We take all we are learning and put it out in front of large audiences because, for far too long, we’ve all been talking amongst ourselves, and the car companies and car-only roads have been winning.

Think about the beautiful cars on beautiful open roads you see again and again in Super Bowl commercials. Contrast that to any Super Bowl commercials you see about people happy on public transportation.

Every organization at Disrupting Mobility, and all the other groups working on transportation and urban planning, need to go out and hire journalists and strategic communicators to tell their stories. And to tell the very simple story that our cities need fixing and we will have to look for low-cost yet effective ways to connect people that are popular, fast, and affordable. We need to shape the mainstream media conversations or our ideas will continue to exist in our inner sanctum of experts.

As part of our goal of collaboration, we work closely with Arlington Transportation Partners, which helps about 700 employers, 300 residential communities, and 80 commercial properties learn about commuting tax benefits and how they can install bike parking and showers, among other issues that make it easier to stop driving so much. We also are housed with the county’s educational organizations BikeArlington and WalkArlington, as well as goDCgo and Capital Bikeshare.

We run TransportationCamp, an unconference paired with the annual January Transportation Research Board meeting in Washington, D.C., that gets people excited about transportation and is now being replicated in many cities throughout the U.S. and world.

Our Transportation Techies has grown to about 1,200 members over the course of its 23 monthly gatherings, the last of which was featured in a major Washington Post article. Who knew there were so many transportation hackers and geeks in D.C. alone? They are starting to create really compelling products out of the open data that many transportation agencies and companies provide, yet there is still room for much more of this data to be turned into stories that will captivate people who could potentially change their travelling habits.

We have also provided a space for products like TransitScreen and CarFreeAtoZ to be tested before hitting the market.

All of our endeavors are designed to make planners, policymakers, and other important people sit up and take notice that the status quo has got to stop. Citizens are thinking creatively in ways that many planning and transportation-industry lifers are not. We don’t have space for more roads and we don’t have money for major new public projects, but if we think creatively, we can make a myriad of improvements.

The public sector has a chance to create pop ups and pilots that better connect existing transit systems. If they prove popular, some of those will turn into full projects and programs. The private sector can keep doing what it’s doing and hopefully governments will loosen up and play nice.

Mobility Lab couldn’t be more excited to be thinking about Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, car2go, Bridj, Split, Capital Bikeshare, and all the other companies operating in D.C. and beyond. We plan to continue finding ways to better integrate these systems into transit and to continue educating everyone about their transportation options.

Photos: Top, pedestrians in Crystal City, Arlington (Sam Kittner/kittner.com for Mobility Lab). Middle, left to right: Panel at Disrupting Mobility 2016 (Philipp Rode, via Twitter).

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