Courtney Ehrlichman is radically transforming the way people and goods move around cities. As founder and CEO of The Ehrlichman Group, she serves as strategic advisor to industry stakeholders, local governments, policy makers, community advocates, private firms and technology designers, keeping people at the center of infrastructure planning. Most recently, she became an advisor to the shared and electric moped company Scoobi.
Ehrlichman co-founded Roadbotics, a street assessment technology company based in Pittsburgh, and led the Traffic21 Institute, a Carnegie Mellon University testbed for tech, policy and design.
She presents regularly on mobility and equity issues at conferences around the world, and her 2018 TedX Talk has been viewed and shared widely in the industry. At every turn, Ehrlichman’s job, she says, is to be a “disrupter,” making mobility better, safer and more accessible for all.
I had the good fortune to sit down with her over coffee on a recent sunny Friday to learn about what’s happening with infrastructure planning for self-driving cars. I learned this topic is much more complicated than I ever imagined.
Catch our full Q&A below!
Talk about your background and why you got into mobility technology.
Our physical infrastructure is crumbling. I started RoadBotics because I understood that it took the City of Pittsburgh two years to survey all the streets for potholes. But, I thought, if we used a ubiquitous technology like cell phone video and snapped on some artificial intelligence, we could get them near real-time information that would allow them to do their job better, which is to prioritize, align political will, secure funding and to actually fill the potholes.
That is also a simple way to categorize and visualize the condition of roads for municipalities and governments and, should they choose to share that information with constituents, it creates more transparency around their decision making process.
I’ve also been a cyclist for years, so I see up close how much our roads matter. I take that street-level view and apply it to my professional vantage point, which is the future of transportation. So I ask, “Why build more? How can we utilize new and emerging modes for the roads we already have? How can we transform our system to serve everybody, spare the planet from melting, and create more livable, joyful streets?”
That’s what I do at The Ehrlichman Group. I advise policy makers, cities, municipalities, startups and road managers on how to utilize technology to solve these problems for people.
Since you’re helping to shape road policies, what’s happening in the autonomous vehicle industry right now that regular people like me should know?
We have a failed deployment timeline. There have been multiple industry claims made that we were supposed to have these vehicles on the road by 2020, but that’s in a month. Although Waymo has just announced they will be removing their safety driver. This will only occur in simple, controlled environments, which in industry terminology is called geofencing.
What’s the holdup for getting more self-driving cars ready for the road?
It’s the interaction with the real world. The technology is here, but you can’t just solve for technology. You have to solve for humans, weather, and all of the edge cases, and that’s really big.
What are the hurdles we need to overcome in order to get there?
We have to rethink our existing infrastructure. The way that our roads were traditionally designed, as far as how and why roads exist the way they do today, is because they were developed from the mindset of two different goals: A) We wanted to move the military from coast to coast as fast as possible, which is why our current highway system is the way it is, and B) we wanted to accommodate the traditional male, the 9-to-5, “Leave it to Beaver” kind of white collar worker’s commute. That’s no longer applicable.
We still have deficits in underserved communities, but transportation planners are now starting to recognize those. And we are seeing, thanks to former USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, today, construction projects that are reconnecting communities.
Our roads are the biggest asset we all own together. Look at all the real estate the roads take up. Now, people are starting to understand that we can reallocate the space on the street not to just serve cars. What an opportunity!
In order to do that, there needs to be data behind the uses of the street to drive those decisions.
How would data help?
Data’s power is in the intelligence it delivers. It enables city leaders to enhance our streets to become more efficient. Having data can allow for adjustments and tweaks to be made. It can be utilized to address equity and equality issues.
A great example is what happened in Los Angeles. When the city transportation leaders saw the privately operated shared electric scooters were just going to the high rent areas, the City responded by creating policies that require scooter companies to share the origin and destination data. Data in hand, L.A. now has the power to use policy levers to ensure that scooter companies distribute their vehicles in lower income areas as well. That is using data to serve people.
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Where is mobility data sourced?
Mostly from third-party companies. Cities aren’t necessarily equipped to gather, store and process the data.
City governments must know, for instance, where all the crosswalks and stop signs are located; right?
No. That’s what we were doing research on at CMU. Testing and researching how to do that. But no, don’t assume that cities have an inventory of where all the stop signs are. Unfortunately, we are not seeing the level of digital transformation on the backend of cities to keep pace. Some cities have all their processes and permits only on paper. The majority of data is acquired through partnerships and third-party companies.
By third-party companies, are you referring to those cars with all the spinning gadgets on the roof we see all over Pittsburgh?
Yes. Those are Lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors. There is a company here in Pittsburgh that collects that data and turns it into information for cities. Of course, cell phones are sensors that collect data, too, as RoadBotics demonstrates. There are a lot of other kinds of censors out there collecting data for cities. The real nut to crack here is how to turn that data into information that is useful to cities.
How do road managers use it?
Road managers can use data in so many ways, from where to install a bike lane to creating detours around road closures. If they understand demand–where people are traveling from and to–they can plan to reduce congestion.
On top of that, there are a lot of different things that data can be used for, in terms of our digital infrastructure. Now that we have app-based transportation technology, data about how and where people move is being produced. That data is really just data. It’s not useful unless it’s turned into information for these decision makers. It’s just like that old saying: we’re data rich but information poor.
“That data is really just data. It’s not useful unless it’s turned into information for these decision makers. It’s just like that old saying: we’re data rich but information poor.”Courtney Ehrlichman, Founder & CEO, The Ehrlichman Group
Across the world, the disrupters are not driverless cars but shared e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-mopeds. Right now, in Pennsylvania, the electric kick scooters are not street legal, although that will soon change. The uptake of these “micro-modes” are now accelerating the message that an old bike advocate like me has been screaming for the last 20 years: Streets are not just for cars, they’re for people.
Car ownership is declining. People in cities are relying more on public transit, shared rides & micro-mobility. Think about it, our kids are shared car/bike/scooter natives!
As a policy advocate, what data do you not have access to that you wish you did?
Gender disaggregated data sounds dreamy, but comes with major data privacy implications. But, in my dreamworld, I’m very interested in women, especially single mothers, and how they’re moving. Quite frankly, it’s an equity issue. Women make up more than 50 percent of our population. Statistically, they are doing most of the caretaking in this country, so I’m talking about the mobility of care.
Women typically travel with children and are running multiple errands (doctors, pharmacy, aging parents, school, etc.). But, again our system has historically been designed for commutes.
Los Angeles Department of Transportation did a huge study on this. And there’s a book called Invisible Women (Caroline Criado Perez, 2019) that calls attention to it, too.
What other challenges are there in road planning for the future?
2019 has really been about the digitization of infrastructure, the explosion of micro-mobility and the data sets that come with that, and concerns about privacy.
Data ethics and data privacy is a huge new area that’s really starting to open up. I’m on the board of the Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology and Pitt Cyber’s Task Force for Municipal Algorithms.
We don’t even realize our personal data is all over the place. Let’s take Facebook, for example. They use algorithms to infer things about individuals by gluing bits of data together from all the services that we sign into with our Facebook credentials. They sell information to Target. Target can tell, by diving deep into your data and comparing your shopping patterns, when a person is in the first, to second, to third trimester of their pregnancy and start sending them targeted coupons. Wild.
What do you think city streets will look like in five or ten years?
We’ll have many more miles of bicycle and non-car lanes in America. Potentially, we’ll have narrower lanes because cars will be enhanced with advanced driving assistance systems, talking to each other and avoiding crashes, staying in their lane, etc. That’s connectivity. That’s the data flowing from cars, from bikes, and from infrastructure, all connecting to each other. Figuring out how that data travels and deciding what we do with it is going to be really important, in terms of safety.
Since we’re already seeing an increase in urban populations, we need to start using high-density modes for movement on our streets. We can’t solve congestion by building more roads. Right now, we are already seeing communities take the lack of federal transit funding into their own hands through ballot initiatives. But moreso, it’s a simple geometry issue. You just can’t keep adding SUVs and single occupancy cars to urban roads. And it’s been proven time and again, building more lanes just leads to more car traffic.
I’m starting to see cities wake up to the fact that the road is the largest piece of real estate they have control over. In terms of incentivizing citizens to use other modes of transportation, cities are charging more for parking at peak times, nudging people to take a more efficient mode and ultimately reducing congestion.
Having the data about what parking spots are most in demand also allows cities to start dynamically charging for parking based on supply and demand. Imagine that: the ability to apply the most basic economic theory, now that policymakers are armed with data.
Keep up with the latest updates on the future of mobility by following Courtney Ehrlichman on Twitter and LinkedIn.