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Sarah Kaufman: Making Sure Intelligent Transportation Gets Everyone There

Friday, October 11, 2019
Sarah Kaufman
Above: Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the New York University (NYU) Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, speaks as part of the U.S. DOT Volpe Center's 2019 thought leadership series, Our New Mobility Future. (Volpe photo)

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center welcomed Sarah Kaufman on September 19th as part of the Our New Mobility Future speaker series. Kaufman is the associate director of New York University (NYU) Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at NYU. Her talk, “An Inclusive Vision of Intelligent Transportation,” is summarized here.

The NYU Rudin Center conducts research on cities and mobility, information technology in transportation, and access to mass transit. Please note, the views expressed here do not constitute or necessarily represent official policy of the U.S. DOT, and the U.S. government does not endorse products or services.

Personal transportation is a major part of daily life for many Americans. Progress in different areas of intelligent transportation can make trips lower in cost, faster, and more convenient. However, research at the Rudin Center indicates that making mobility more inclusive is key to intelligent transportation.

“Urban planning is becoming more intelligent every day…through collection and data analysis, better infrastructure, more precise planning, and other means; however, mobility is only becoming intelligent for a portion of the population,” according to Rudin Center Associate Director Sarah Kaufman. “Several groups are being left behind, including lower-income residents, women, people with different forms of disabilities, and a variety of residents who are not currently represented,” she said. 

Location, Location, Location

One recent Rudin Center study analyzed transit access and job opportunities, ranking New York City’s (NYC) 177 neighborhoods by the number of jobs accessible within one hour on transit. About one-third of residents experienced disparate impacts on salaries and job opportunities.

“They faced long commutes, often with transfers,” Kaufman said, “This takes a toll on household earnings...and even more so in unemployment rates. Access to jobs by transit is vital. The more jobs you can access, the more likely you are to earn a new, higher-paying job, or at least reduce your period of unemployment.”

Kaufman argues that we must make transit smarter, more efficient, and dynamic. For example, lower-income households—often hourly workers—tend to travel at different rush hours than white-collar workers, according to a study by the NYC Comptroller, and they tend to have access only to off-peak services (such as local, versus express, services with their associated long headways) that prolong their commutes. “That cuts into hourly wages especially,” said Kaufman, “Now that we have…21st-century data collection to plan around the revised rush hour, it’s essential that we serve these hourly workers as well.”

Urban Transportation’s Unseen Pink Tax

Other research at the Rudin Center found that not all populations experience transportation equally. One example is its finding of a “pink tax” on public transportation. The term refers to the additional amount women may be charged for products or services, and according to the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, this is typically about seven percent. Rudin Center researchers sought to determine if the pink tax applied to transportation, not in higher prices for the same subway ride, but in additional costs incurred to ensure an efficient and safe ride. Three-fourths of female survey respondents experienced some form of risk to their personal safety while on public transportation.

“That’s a bleak picture, but it got worse,” Kaufman warned. “A lot of women remarked that they couldn’t even count the number of times they had been harassed on transportation.” Most incidents in the survey had occurred within the subway trains during rush hour. “As a result of these real and perceived safety concerns, women change their behaviors,” she said. “Women in the survey reported changing their dress…and, people who can afford to, avoid public transportation, especially late at night.” Many of the women surveyed indicated that they feel safest late at night in a for-hire vehicle, though as Kaufman pointed out, those modes have seen documented, disconcerting safety issues as well.

So how much does changing modes solely for the purpose of safety cost women? “They reported between $26 and $50 per month on top of their regular monthly transportation costs,” Kaufman said. Men did not report any added cost. While the findings were sobering, the reaction to the information generated by the Rudin Center has been positive. “I do want to point out that the pink-tax work has struck a nerve,” Kaufman said. Follow-on studies are planned across the U.S.—including Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles—as well as in several international cities. “The challenges of women and femme-presenting individuals…should not be underestimated when we devise new stations and when we develop new technologies,” she advised.

A More Inclusive Transportation System

Kaufman believes inclusion is the key to successfully implementing intelligent transportation systems, and she offers three essential components. First, ensure the availability of a safe, reliable, and efficient transit system. Using the Rudin Center’s case study of the recent opening of the NYC Second Avenue Subway station, Kaufman points out that, “When people saw safe, reliable, and efficient transit nearby, they opted for it over taxis—and let me note that this is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, which could continue taking taxis if they preferred.” In fact, most of the area saw more than a 15 percent drop in taxi use following the station’s opening.

Secondly, Kaufman explains, “Data is the new oil,” adding, “Transportation is becoming increasingly data driven.” However, she cautions that it is critical to know who has access to the data and what are they doing with it. “We need to use anonymous, aggregated data for better planning and ensure that it’s secure,” she said.

Lastly, the transportation service providers should listen to the insights and concerns of their riders. This is becoming more and more practical with the proliferation of social media. “The benefit…is that it’s a two-way street:  It’s an excellent platform for sharing service information and also source of user feedback,” Kaufman described, “A kind of co-monitoring of the transit system.”

“Intelligent transportation [relies on] five key elements: reliability, data, safety, communications, and diversity,” Kaufman summarized. “And—as we add intelligence to maximize our vehicle, driver, and passenger throughput—we have to keep in mind the experience. Are people safe, comfortable, and accommodated?” 

Updated: Friday, October 11, 2019