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September 7, 2021Episode 16. To Have or Have Not: When transformative mobility options are beyond the reach of underserved populations.
FEATURING: Ipek Sener
Travel for many of us has become more convenient, affordable, productive and, in some cases, more enjoyable than ever. But not everyone enjoys the benefits of options like bike sharing, ride hailing, and e-scooters. TTI Research Scientist Ipek Sener helps us understand how underserved populations are missing out on the promise of life-enhancing transportation technologies.
About Our Guest
Dr. Ipek Nese Sener works in TTI’s Mobility Division, where her research focus examines the intersection of social and behavioral sciences and brings together the elements of mobility, safety, equity, health and technology. Ipek has led various interdisciplinary and data-driven studies examining individuals’ decisions and activity-travel patterns, the changing nature of transportation choices, and the related impact on and/or connection to wellbeing, as well as sustainable and equitable mobility.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation, conversations about how we get ourselves and our things from Point A to Point B, and all that happens in between. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:32):
Transportation has changed as much in the past decade as it did in the entire century before that. And that’s perhaps most obvious in the personal mobility choices that still seem very new to many of us. Thanks to the transformative technologies that brought about ride hailing, e-scooters and bike sharing, how we get around will never be the same. But the benefits of these options have not been equally shared. If you’re physically disabled or poor or non-white, or if you live in a place where access is a problem, you’re less likely to use the newer mobility services that have transformed modern American society. It’s that disparity that keeps Ipek Sener busy. As a research scientist, Ipek’s work aims to identify the obstacles that prevent underserved populations from enjoying the promise of shared mobility and then search for ways to circumvent those barriers. Welcome, Ipek. We’re really delighted that you could do this.
Ipek Sener (guest) (01:34):
Thank you very much, Bernie. Thank you for the invitation.
Bernie Fette (01:38):
In reference to your work, when you speak of underserved populations, it sounds a little like an example of the haves and the have-nots. Is that a fairly accurate way of describing things, or how would you correct me on that?
Ipek Sener (01:54):
You are absolutely right. Think about for instance, affordability issues that we are facing all the time. So when we are using a service, when you are trying to use a service that has been owned by a public system, then you have to pay for it, and if you don’t have the money, the resources that you can just pay for that service, you can just pay for the mode of transportation. Like the TNCs, what we call transportation network companies; Uber and Lyft are the most popular transportation modes of TNCs. So there is a cost, direct cost, and that has been a burden, especially for low-income households. In addition to that, when we are talking about, let’s say bikeshare programs, there can be an up-front cost of membership, and that can be a burden for people who are not really able to afford the service.
Bernie Fette (02:55):
Ipek Sener (02:56):
There are a lot of have and have-nots or lack of service–lack of access to the service — lack of awareness that we don’t always have that information to use the service because they are really a lot about the technology use and the person might not really be involved with the technology, might not have the information to use the technology. So it’s very much about do not have the information to use the technology, or very much about whether or not you have a smartphone. Most of these new services require for you to have a smartphone or an app that you will have on your smartphone. So if you don’t have access to a smartphone or if you have access to a smartphone, but not really to a good high-quality data plan, you may not be able to use these services.
Bernie Fette (03:47):
Right. And you mentioned access a couple of times and in your work, you talk a lot about making travel more accessible and more inclusive. So can you expand just a little bit on what you mean by both of those two things?
Ipek Sener (04:02):
Sure. With accessibility, we are really talking about to be able to reach a destination or a service. So individuals should really be able to have the tools to use that service, to be able to reach to that service. Inclusiveness is a little bit different concept. So when something is accessible does not necessarily mean it is inclusive. So if you want a system or a service to be inclusive, you really need to be talking about every single individual’s needs. It shouldn’t be really different because you are from a different gender or you are from a different age group, or you have different abilities or disabilities.
Bernie Fette (04:47):
Or even different locations.
Ipek Sener (04:48):
Exactly. That’s a great point. Yes, everything really should be responsive to the needs of the user. And it is really that there’s this concept of inclusive design, and what it says like from the very beginning, the service or the system should provide enough capability to serve for the people. So it is not really like you have this vehicle and you’re doing some accommodations and it will be wheelchair-accessible. Instead you are starting from the very beginning when you’re designing a system or a service and it will respond to every need for every individual, regardless of their personal or other characteristics.
Bernie Fette (05:35):
One thing that I’m curious about is that when you were watching several years ago as ride hailing — you mentioned Uber and Lyft — when ride hailing and shared mobility were bursting onto the American scene, which hasn’t been that long ago. I think that maybe some of the early stages you were even finishing up your graduate work at the time.
Ipek Sener (05:54):
Bernie Fette (05:54):
Yeah. And thinking back to that time, what was the first thing that you noticed that signaled to you the need for research in this area or the anticipation — boy, we’re really going to need to examine this particular aspect of what I’m watching unfolding right now.
Ipek Sener (06:16):
Well, I had personal opinions because when you look at these new mobilities, again, everything is based on the technological developments and technology is really related to the adoption levels. Some people might not be interested in adopting a technology at first. Most people wait and see what is going to happen. And some people will just wait to the end of the game. So I’m more in the middle category. So I, I want to wait and see what is going on. Therefore, the first research topic I was thinking, well, this might really bridge some mobility gaps that we are observing today, but how are we going to really adopt them? Are they really going to be providing the service for me, for my needs? Do I need more money for that? Do I need to have more access to that, as we earlier discussed? Do I have to be located in a specific location? Will these services be really equally distributed or if they are vehicles, will be equally distributed geographically, for instance. This was more coming from a personal perspective.
Bernie Fette (07:29):
Right. You were exploring the possible research opportunities perhaps years ahead, just by looking at what would fit your particular needs and your particular lifestyle. Right?
Ipek Sener (07:40):
Exactly. Correct. So it is really about intent to use the vehicles, and intent to use is a primary indicator of the real use, actual use. But it may also be hindered by many other factors, really. So, what I was trying to understand, what will be the factors influencing individuals’ decision to use these services and what are the barriers to use these services? I personally also feel challenged sometimes to go around and to be more mobile because we are in an environment, really car-dependent, and these services were promising because they were telling me, well, you can really be more active in your life because now you have the opportunity to reach the destination and you don’t need to have a car. I didn’t have a car when I was a student, because I was going more to the school. I had a super shuttle that gave me a lot of flexibility when I started to work.
Bernie Fette (08:43):
That was public transit?
Ipek Sener (08:45):
Public transit operated by the school, by the university. But then, and this happens for most people when you start to work, your work location and your home location are so segregated. Even if you are in a short distance, there’s a highway crossing and you may not be able to cross that highway to reach to your destination, to reach your work location by different modes of transportation. So you may be really required to have a car. These mobilities will provide us an opportunity to be more car-free and more mobile. So that was actually a great thing to observe. But at the same time, I want to just tell, I was concerned. This is more from a research perspective. And I was a bit worried because there was a lot of disconnection between the operators or providers and officials, city officials, policy makers, and the public. So the technology was moving forward too fast, conceptually or in the real time, but we were not ready. We were not seeing any plans, any oversight, any policies to go side-by-side with these mobilities. So the environment was very chaotic. Let me give an example. Remember 2018, when we first had the e-scooters on our streets?
Bernie Fette (10:11):
Ipek Sener (10:11):
And remember how they just appeared on our streets almost like one night?
Bernie Fette (10:15):
Overnight — I think that that was not an exaggeration at all.
Ipek Sener (10:17):
Exactly. So by the end of 2018, we have seen e-scooters in more than a hundred cities across the United States.
Bernie Fette (10:28):
And in many cases, they appeared just as we were talking about, with no advance notice at all.
Ipek Sener (10:34):
Exactly, that is exactly the case — no planning, no oversight. And we observed almost 14 million e-scooter trips again by the end of 2018. So this just happened in one year, and this is very fast and we didn’t just know how to deal with it from a planning perspective. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing. This is a great mode of transportation, an alternative mode of transportation. But unfortunately, e-scooters quickly evolved from a great alternative mode of transportation to a transportation mode with a lot of safety concerns, because they were leading to a lot of crashes. And there were a lot of protests. Individuals with disabilities were concerned because the vehicles were left on the streets, on the sidewalks, and it was a hazard, safety hazard, for them.
Bernie Fette (11:30):
Yet another obstacle for a demographic group that wakes up every day facing obstacles.
Ipek Sener (11:37):
Exactly. Like you have your sidewalk, that you are free to really use. And then that is even gone with another mode which should have been supporting your mobility and accessibility. So these are the things that cause issues. So what I do believe needs to happen, needs to be researched more, how we can work together, how we can really bring every single voice to the table. From the very beginning, I’m not talking about public participation in a way that we will just finish a project and then go to a public meeting and make a presentation, gather their feedback, but just don’t have any time to really change what we are doing.
Bernie Fette (12:18):
Ipek Sener (12:18):
I’m really talking about: Start from the very beginning. Work together. That is the first question that we have. How are we going to achieve this because we all have different backgrounds.
Bernie Fette (12:33):
I sometimes ask experts like you, what’s the one thing that you’d like for people to remember about your work. When I was getting ready for our conversation today, one of the sentences in something that you wrote really jumped off the page for me, that I think relates to what you were just discussing. This is what you wrote: To ensure equity of transport systems, policies, and regulatory actions should start by considering people and their needs rather than technologies and their potential benefits. That really seemed like a very concise summary. As we continue our conversation, how do you think that we’ve done with that? And what do you think we’ve learned, specific to what I just read?
Ipek Sener (13:19):
So that’s actually a great summary, really. And the issue that we have been facing in our transportation ecosystem, this especially happened when we started to prioritize highways, we put the vehicles or the technology at the center, at the heart of everything, while it should have been the other way — the people should have been at the center and the technology and the vehicles and the roadways should be serving the people or the cities or the communities. So I can’t say that we are doing very well all the times, but I think we are really learning from our mistakes.
Bernie Fette (13:59):
I was wondering, are we doing better?
Ipek Sener (14:00):
We have a lot to do. I think we are doing much better. Especially recently a bit more focused on putting equity at the top of many things that we do. And making sure that people are really served and really emphasizing the importance of our streets and the connection of our streets. Emphasizing the cohesion of communities. Communities really have been fragmented. The neighborhoods have been fragmented substantially when everything was about cars and about vehicles. I’m not saying this was intentional. This is most of the times it was an unintended consequence. But right now we do really have an opportunity to start over because of this new technological development that we are going through and do much better. But this will require, as you mentioned, putting the people at the center — at the heart of everything.
Bernie Fette (15:02):
Well, when you say that everything has been about the vehicle, it seems that as we’ve watched, for instance, the autonomous vehicle progression, that one result of what you talk about has been that expectations were raised to a certain point that perhaps was somewhat unrealistic. Some of the promises or assumptions that might’ve been made about how soon self-driving cars would actually be a part of mainstream life for us.
Ipek Sener (15:32):
Yes. And that is a problem. Pushing those expectations, the wrong expectations, into public minds really causes an adverse impact on the potential benefits that we could get from these vehicles. Five years ago, when we were first working on intention to use automated vehicles, we were hearing by 2022, that they will be all self-driving vehicles on our streets. And by self-driving, we really mean there will not be any way to control the vehicle. The vehicle would do all the work. So that was very aggressive because that doesn’t only include the technology. Yes, maybe the technology is ready. Maybe the data analytics help or technological advancements help us to be in that position, but you have to have your people to make sure that that service is usable. That system is usable. And think about what a person on the road thinking about these vehicles and he, or she has been given all these promises, these vehicles will be just too safe and you will not need to worry anymore.
Ipek Sener (16:40):
Anything about traffic crashes or traffic problems, traffic congestion, and then you’ll have just one major crash, which changed the story in people’s minds. Well, you told me this will be safe. And then you see the vehicle just didn’t work. Of course, because we didn’t have enough training of the vehicle, or we didn’t have enough studying to make sure that the vehicle is safe or the vehicle collected all the information around its environment so it could recognize the environments. So that is one issue that we are observing when we don’t provide the information up front honestly. When we are not transparent with what we are doing from the very beginning, then we give wrong promises. And one other thing I want to add that was because of the confusion about definitions. So automated vehicles have different levels.
Bernie Fette (17:39):
Ipek Sener (17:39):
The top level is level five, we call, or self-driving vehicles, is different than the levels that you could see on the road soon, which will require individuals to get back to the vehicle and control the things.
Bernie Fette (17:54):
Ipek Sener (17:54):
Telling people you don’t need to do anything. This vehicle is just safe; just go and sleep or do whatever you want to do and the vehicle will do all its work, is not the correct way to communicate the information because we are not at that point yet. But you can’t really provide that information if you’re not transparent about what is going on, really.
Bernie Fette (18:19):
And that’s especially true, I’m guessing, for the underserved populations that your research specifically addresses, right?
Ipek Sener (18:25):
Exactly. Everyone is concerned, but they are also more concerned because of the safety issues. And it is a problem for them because these services are really promising them to be more mobile.
Bernie Fette (18:38):
Ipek Sener (18:39):
And these services are really telling them, you have been challenged with many transportation barriers. Maybe that affected your choices. You may have been captive to specific transportation modes, but now you will have a variety of different choices. That is what we are telling these people. And then they end up having a lack of trust in technology, lack of trust in safety, from crashes, but also safety from for instance, crime regarding these vehicles, liability issues and so on. So some of the barriers are, I think, global, regardless of which community or which population group that you belong to, but some of them are much more pronounced for underserved population groups.
Bernie Fette (19:27):
You had mentioned barriers. And I don’t know if what I’m bringing up now is a barrier, or maybe it’s just more of a complication. If we expand access and inclusivity, then at least to some extent, it seems that that would likely translate in part to more miles traveled in motor vehicles. And so more traffic congestion. And more tailpipe pollution. Can you talk just a little about how to balance the needs of access and sustainability at the same time?
Ipek Sener (20:01):
Yeah, sure. And that is a wonderful point, really, Bernie. What we try to do is, as you mentioned, really trying to balance things. With more modes of transportation, we have the opportunity to bridge the mobility gap, especially for our underserved population — for people of color, for low-income households, um, people living in rural areas or, uh, for our aging population. On the other hand, if we are not careful, and if we forget about the sustainability aspect of this, we may end up more traffic on our roadways. Think about the TNCs — Uber and Lyft — example. So if everyone occupies one vehicle by themselves, then we are again on the same road, but in another vehicle, or the vehicles are just running around empty and don’t have any passenger to pick up.
Bernie Fette (20:58):
Looking for new passengers, yeah.
Ipek Sener (20:58):
Exactly. So, what is important is to balance, and this gets back to the same point that we kept emphasizing over and over. We really need to promote sustainable modes of transportation. We really need to bring our public transit in a way that will complement all these different modes. And that will be acceptable by all population groups or walking and biking. Earlier it was more about biking. We had our personal bikes or maybe scooters. Now we have bike share programs. We have e-scooter programs. So we really need to find a way to encourage people to use the choices that will be healthy for their lives or individual lives for the communities, for the environment.
Bernie Fette (21:52):
And we’re more likely to succeed there if we go back to your earlier point about involving people in these planning steps at the center of things, more so than focusing so much on technologies and their potential benefits.
Ipek Sener (22:07):
Exactly. Because that will help us to understand why, for instance, they may not be able to use the modes that we like to promote. Like if we just say, okay, I have this bike share program. So, you’ll have it. You don’t need to own a bicycle, but instead you can just use this bicycle, which is owned by a public system. And then you don’t have to worry about really buying a bicycle. But then if you don’t provide them discounts, because maybe they are already burdened with their low salary or low income levels, or if you don’t provide them the infrastructure to feel safe when riding a bike, we are still not really doing good. So, they may feel like, well, I wanted to be able to use this bike, but I don’t feel safe because there’s no infrastructure for me. Then, I am again sticking to my car. Or, I just don’t have the service in my area. Micro transit is another emerging mode, which is almost like the traditional transit, but it is on demand. So, you can just really call the bus and you can use it in the next 15 minutes.
Bernie Fette (23:18):
Yeah. Your personal public transit.
Ipek Sener (23:20):
Exactly. But in order for people to use it, it should really be available in their, um, in their area or it should be available for their origin-destination routes. So, we have to make sure that whenever we are promoting a service, it’s a sustainable service. And then it’s reached the people. If it doesn’t reach the people, then we are not doing any good. And I really want to emphasize transportation policy is a health policy. Transportation is one of the most important social determiners of health because it impacts majorly every aspect of our lifestyles. That means we really have the opportunity to choose healthy options if those opportunities are provided to us. And if we can make sure that individuals walk more, bike more, or use shared modes — and shared mode meaning “shared of shared,” like it’s not only using Lyft service, but it is using the service with someone else.
Bernie Fette (24:32):
Ipek Sener (24:32):
So, the occupancy of the vehicle is not one, it’s just more than one, two people, three people. So, that’s what would really help for the traffic congestion or traffic safety issues that we are experiencing, or the air quality issues that we are facing today.
Bernie Fette (24:47):
And that’s how you can at least keep one eye on the sustainability need, right?
Ipek Sener (24:53):
Exactly. So when we are working with the mobility and accessibility issues, we always have to keep in mind, is this a good mode for people’s health? Is this helping them to be more active in their lives, more active in their transportation choices? Is this helping them to improve their quality of life in various different ways. This can be their physical health, mental health. This can be related to their social well-being or economic well-being. So, it really all these four elements. And let me repeat — social well-being, economic well-being, physical well-being, and mental well-being.
Bernie Fette (25:32):
Ipek Sener (25:32):
If we are helping people to fulfill and be well in whatever choice that they make, then we are doing a good job.
Bernie Fette (25:47):
Your enthusiasm for the work that you do is pretty obvious. I’ve noticed that as you talk about your research, that you smile a lot. For people listening, trust me, there’s a, there’s a big smile there. What is it that gets you fired up to come to work every day?
Ipek Sener (26:08):
I love transportation, Bernie. I think it is an amazing area to work on because it impacts every single aspect of our life. And I do find a chance for us to improve people’s lives and to really do something that will help them to make better choices. I’m not the one to tell them what to choose, but I can provide them an environment to feel better and to be happier. And to really think, “I like my life.” Yes, I have the options. Maybe life is not fair for sure. But as transportation researchers, we have the opportunity to touch their life and to make it better or to help them to make better choices that they feel happy about. And it’s really important for, for me personally, I really care what I do. I don’t feel like this is my work only. I can’t really say for instance, there’s a work/life balance in my mind, what I do is my life and because it affects people’s lives. And if I can do just a little bit better with my research and if it can improve someone else’s, even one single person to feel good with their transportation choices, that makes my day. I really love what I do. And I hope we can do much better for everyone. That is why I’m very, very interested in working on marginalized communities, but really for everyone. So, working with them, hearing them out, understanding what they need and responding to their needs. I think that’s an invaluable thing that we can do in life.
Bernie Fette (27:50):
Well, you not only did a wonderful job answering that question, I think that you just recorded a really great recruitment tool for people to get into the same line of work that you’re in.
Ipek Sener (28:02):
Thank you very much.
Bernie Fette (28:02):
Thank you for that. Is there anything that you wish I would have asked you about, but didn’t?
Ipek Sener (28:10):
It was just such a pleasure to talk to you. But one final thing I want to emphasize. Really, let’s work together. It’s very important that we include voices of community regardless of their ability, their race, their gender, their income level. If we want to develop a system that works for everyone with different abilities, with different demographic characteristics, with different socioeconomic status, we have to work with them side by side, shoulder by shoulder from the very beginning, let’s have everyone’s voices at the table. And I really enjoy thinking that as we do work together, we rise together. So, let’s do it together. I think that’s what I want to say.
Bernie Fette (28:57):
Ipek Sener, research scientist for TTI. This has been great, Ipek. Thank you very much for having this conversation with us.
Ipek Sener (29:07):
Thank you very much, Bernie. It has been a pleasure. Thank you very much for giving the opportunity to share our research.
Bernie Fette (29:12):
Our pleasure. Thanks again.
Bernie Fette (29:16):
Technology-driven travel enhancements have made life better in lots of ways for many of us. Although we call it “shared mobility,” the promise of mutual benefit is often beyond the reach of those who are disadvantaged in one way or another. Underserved populations can be marginalized even further if we focus more on the shiny nature of technology advancement than the practicality of use by those who may need it the most.
Bernie Fette (29:46):
Thanks for listening. And please join us again next time, when we visit with Joe Zietsman and Ann Xu about the rapidly expanding presence of electric cars on our streets and highways and the unintended consequences that may come along with their growing popularity.
Bernie Fette (30:02):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. We’ll see you next time.