How new technologies might complement Arlington’s transportation options

Communities around the United States have begun to embrace non-driving transportation options as a key factor in standards of living.

But with such rapid changes in technology, it can be difficult to predict how cities will adapt and what they will look like in the coming years. Emerging options like autonomous vehicles and smartphone innovations, however, can be added in ways to complement transit, bicycling, and other options.

Speaking at a mobility-focused installment of the Defining Arlington’s Digital Destiny series, Arlington County Director of Transportation Dennis Leach made the case for technology approaches that begin with the community’s needs and work within the county’s existing ecosystem of transportation options.

The autonomous question

As autonomous vehicles become more common, they will unavoidably play a role in Arlington’s transportation network. But there remains ample uncertainty around what that role will be.

Dr. Sokwoo Rhee, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Scott Bogren, of the Community Transportation Association of America, emphasized that AVs have a lot of potential, so long as their adoption is integrated into the existing development patterns and improves independence and mobility for residents.

Session speakers

Speakers, left-to-right: Dr. Sokwoo Rhee, Dennis Leach, Scott Bogren

Leach explained that Arlington’s specific landscape, in which the county has intentionally built around transportation options, and how automated technology will need to fit into that model. “People are so enamored by this new technology that they do not think about, ‘What does it mean for the community?’ I would start with, how does the technology serve that?”

Many experts see two general directions the development of autonomous vehicles can take: either a personal ownership model or a shared mobility system. The former would likely induce more single person travel and vehicle-miles traveled in an area with very limited space. At least 46 percent of Arlington’s population lives within its three transportation corridors (along the Orange/Silver Line, Blue/Yellow Line, and Columbia Pike), meaning any autonomous vehicle system would have to complement existing transit options and work within that transit-oriented area.

However, with companies like Uber testing a driverless ride-hailing fleet in Pittsburgh, Leach pointed out that the industry could trend towards a shared system. If so, autonomous vehicles might become a useful option that improves accessibility for Arlington residents.

Today’s tech

Autonomous vehicles are just one of many factors that will affect the future of transportation in Arlington County. As the Washington, D.C., region continues to grow, explained Leach, pressure is increasing on transit infrastructure. Governments are struggling to keep up with shifting travel patterns, as evidenced by Metrorail’s recent troubles. But abandoning such an integrated transit system would be more devastating than the intensive track work necessary to fix it.

“As a region, we have no choice but to invest in Metro,” Leach explained. “Our success is tied to Metro’s.” This goes too for other options upon which Arlington has built its community, such as its extensive biking and walking trail network and bus investments.

For now, Leach sees the role of technology in transportation as a complement to these existing options.

“Since we are built around travel options, I think the innovations we’re going to see to help people are going to be around better information, more holistic information … they want the information packaged in a way they can really digest,” he said. “I see more of that [in the future], making it easy for people to decide how to get from point A to point B.”

While a cancelled WMATA payment pilot means that SmarTrip is not going anywhere soon, Leach emphasized that other paths exist to improve payment options. “Another area of innovation I see is making it easy for people to pay … This region is going to stick with SmarTrip for a while. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t layer on other options.”

“On [Arlington’s bus system] ART, we still accept cash, because a certain number of our community uses cash … The idea that everyone is going to have a smartphone with an app where they can pay for all of their transportation, from where we sit today, providing that option alone would not be serving our community well. The next step for us is probably more options: expanding the ways to pay.”

While agencies set out to determine the best ways to improve the process of taking transit, there are multiple governing issues to address. The panel discussed the tendency for agency functions to be “siloed,” meaning a lack of communication, and therefore coordination, across departments.

This is an issue that Leach has already begun to work on, building collaborative and holistic databases with other agencies, such as combining crash data from police with road information in order to better understand if the built environment is causing crashes in a certain area. Bogren pointed out that Arlington has developed inter-agency coordination for emergency response scenarios, showing that countywide government cooperation is possible.

“Do we really need an emergency to coordinate with other agencies?” Leach joked. If government entities worked together regularly, they could potentially develop a more holistic approach and understanding of the county’s issues that would go a long way to making transportation and other services more adaptable.

There is plenty of uncertainty around how governance and technology will affect mobility in the coming years, but one known constant is that Arlington will continue looking to apply these new advances in community-oriented ways.

Watch the entire Digital Destiny speaking session below:

Photos: Top, an ART bus in Arlington County (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, Middle, a speakers at the Digital Destiny mobility session (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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