Women in MaaS Interview Series – Renee Autumn Ray

In our latest Women in MaaS interview we catch up with Georgia-based mobility as a service expert, Renee Autumn Ray. Her unique blend of public health and urban planning experience drives her passion to ensure transportation is accessible for everyone. Having worked with vulnerable communities including older adults and people with disabilities, Renee shares how she thinks MaaS and technology can help.

Renee Autumn Ray, Accessibility & MaaS Expert; Member of the Transportation Research Board and Georgia Bikes

Can you give us some insight into your background?

Public health fascinates me so leveraging my master’s degree in urban planning to work in that field was a natural choice. This led to some incredible local government experience from getting laws passed on pedestrian and bike safety to obtaining a $600,000 grant for sidewalks near schools, alongside working as a consultant for chronic disease prevention.

My urban planning background has been invaluable in explaining how cities help or hinder the health, safety and well-being of residents. Much of my work has focused on vulnerable populations such as older adults and people with disabilities but I soon realised these systemic issues couldn’t be fixed at the local or regional level. This led me to work for a private healthcare insurer.

It was there I operationalised a mobility as a service (MaaS) prototype built around similar groups of people in specific geographic areas. Looking back this prepared me to work in MaaS full-time – most people had a software, engineering or computer science background, not human services working with vulnerable populations. Taking this experience and combining it with the two major requirements of MaaS – access to real-time information and payment provision – is what led me to Conduent.

What projects are you currently working on?

I started participating in the Transportation Research Board eight years ago. It’s one of the few places where academic researchers interact with industry and the public sector in the same space. There’s a real need across transportation for better data collection tools to capture more data, make better use of existing data – and obtain greater value from it. PhD academics help us solve those problems.

I’m on the Intelligent Transportation Systems Committee – where I provide input into how we can create a multi-modal technology and data-driven ecosystem. I’m also on the Emerging and Innovative Public Transport and Technologies Committee which is making a massive impact and is a tremendous opportunity to experience the leading edge of transport innovation. On a local level, I contribute to Georgia Bikes. Working in transit, the growth in bike use and it’s part in the first/last mile, made this a perfect fit.

Are people encouraged to use active modes of transport in the US?

We’ve made progress but there’s a catch-22. When you talk about spending money on a sidewalk, bike lane or bus only lane, there’s a lot of frustration from drivers. They feel their access has been denied by people who’re getting subsidies. That’s one of the biggest challenges to change. A common argument is that nobody bikes so access isn’t needed but there’s no safe, convenient system in place. We need the infrastructure and to educate people more.

The problem is, we tend to compartmentalise people based on a mode of transport that they use at any given point in time. That’s not an identity. It’s a strange way to think about transportation and it causes unnecessary friction as we don’t have a common way to talk about how people travel.

How do you overcome this catch-22 cycle?

What’s most helpful is the increasing power of the millennials. I’ve seen an incredible change in mindset at the state level in Georgia where politicians say their children don’t want to own cars, they want to ride transit. So there’s an economic development argument for alternative modes of transportation because it’s going to attract a young workforce. That has made the biggest difference in funding and political momentum for agencies to start putting more money into these modes.

Millennials are of an age where they want to buy houses, make career decisions; they’re entering their prime earning years – and are a bigger population than baby boomers. We’re seeing a lot of businesses relocate to be adjacent to train stations so they’re well situated to hire the best people. That demographic change has been the most powerful – even more so than the activists who campaign on these issues.

Why do you think millennials don’t want to own cars?

They don’t want to be trapped into owning a car because it’s the only option they have. One of the other hallmarks of millennials is they appreciate and are willing to pay for experiences over material goods. Personally, I find commuting much more enjoyable than driving a car in congestion.

I think that’s a big reason for millennials; they can use their phones, read a book or have a conversation. Driving isn’t pleasurable for most people. A recent study said that one of the main reasons people take Uber or Lyft is because they want to go out drinking and know they can’t drive home. It’s that freedom of choice to have options.

Does MaaS have a role in enabling freedom of choice?

One of the powerful things about MaaS is allowing people to see multiple options in real time and make decisions based on that. We have electronic reader boards on some of our US highways which tell you the speed of the traffic. This means you can ring your wife and tell her what time you’ll be home. Maybe you know it will be 20 more minutes so you can call your mother. We know so little about the customers who use our system, what their desires are, how happy they are, but we do know that people value real-time information. I think putting disparate pieces of information in one place will be very beneficial for people.

What are the challenges of aggregating this disparate information?

A primary barrier is you create a voluntary system and hope that everyone uses it. However, one of the most exciting things to happen in the transit world in the past decade is the rise of the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). Transit agencies knew where their vehicles were and they would post a schedule as a series of stops and times on a piece of paper, bus by bus. But there wasn’t a centralised place for that information which made it difficult for transit users to find so they could get home.

Google and TriMet standardised the software code for bus and train schedules and then made the specification freely available. It was so useful to passengers that it was quickly adopted. There have since been similar initiatives for bike share and some incredible work is happening to add code extensions for demand response too. This includes paratransit and wheelchair accessibility. I’m passionate about how we can standardise information like this so more people can view it, access it and learn from it, and I’ll actually be presenting a white paper on this subject at the ITS America conference in June.

How can this data further support accessibility?

Firstly, we need to change how we think about accessibility as there are varying degrees of disability. Someone with an ‘invisible’ condition may live with chronic pain, cognitive or behavioural health issues that make travelling difficult. I’d like to see evolving modes of bikes and scooters as mobility aids to help people get to their destination.

We also have the ability in transit to push data to the end user or a third-party app. Is this bus standing room only? How full is it? People might make travel decisions based on this, such as someone with PTSD who doesn’t like crowded spaces. You don’t know all the use cases but if you make information available, people can use it as they wish.

What trends are you seeing in the sector and can they improve accessibility?

Probably the biggest trend in transportation in the past decade has been the rise of Uber and Lyft and how that has been enabled by technology. The first time I was in San Francisco, a friend of mine called an Uber and walked me through taking the trip and paying through the app. It was incredible. These companies understood that people wanted to make travel decisions in the moment, plan and pay – all from their phone.

When you compare Uber and Lyft with traditional paratransit and other forms of transportation for people with disabilities, the latter is a poorly functioning system. People have to go through an eligibility process and then call a number two days in advance. The agency provides a preselected time for pickup and because it’s a shared ride an extra 45 minutes could be built into the journey. It’s a similar process for the return leg. Compared to the ease of Uber and Lyft you can understand why people who rely on paratransit are so disappointed in the service quality.

Could paratransit agencies utilise similar technologies to Uber and Lyft?

They could do but there are several challenges that make it more difficult. One of the primary ones is the guarantee of service (which is a good thing). It means you’re entitled to access the same way I can take the bus that runs by my house whenever the service operates. The problem is that you always need capacity available so it adds tremendous cost to paratransit whereas Uber and Lyft don’t have a guarantee of service.

Another big challenge is that we don’t have much information about who our customers are and whether their needs are being met. Sometimes when you introduce a better service an agency quickly becomes overwhelmed with pent up demand and runs out of money. People have been so poorly served that they won’t just take the necessary trips, naturally they’ll want to go to see friends, go shopping or whatever else they want to do.

What do you think MaaS and mobility will look like in 20 years time?

With less dense land uses compared to most of Europe, making MaaS work in the US will be interesting. I think we’ll see dramatically improved transit in East Coast cities, maybe Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, or Denver where it might be reasonable over the next 10 to 20 years. We might have a system where you can combine a transit ticket with bike share, Uber, Lyft, Zip, or a parking or toll pass.

My hope is that the street becomes a valuable public resource for more people to enjoy. It’s a significant investment and use of land – a public asset not just a utility. Transportation is a huge part of this. Being able to have a rich social life makes people happier. We need to help people to live full lives, travelling as frequently as they want, wherever they feel like going. I think this is going to be really important.

About Renee Autumn Ray

With a master’s degree in urban planning, Renee started her career with a brief spell in land development before moving into public health working with vulnerable populations including older adults and people with disabilities. This experience has led to an impressive career helping organisations to understand the importance of the built environment on citizen health and wellbeing.

As someone who enjoys being constantly challenged, Renee isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues to ensure everyone enjoys the freedom to choose how they travel. As a member of the Transportation Research Board, she works tirelessly to advise on how multi-modal transport and MaaS technology can help to improve accessibility, with the aim of creating spaces where people want to live, work and have a high quality of life.

You can connect with Renee on LinkedIn