Promoting Transportation Innovation: Champions of Change

Yesterday I participated in an uplifting ceremony at the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building – the latest installment in the Obama Administration’s “Champions of Change” program, with a  special focus on transportation leaders across the country. While politicians down the street engage in discouraging, partisan fights about the nominee to run the EPA, entrepreneurs at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue described their leadership of cutting-edge projects that are improving lives, saving money, and reducing pollution at home.

You can see a description of some of their remarkable work on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s blog here, and I want to point to a few of the more interesting recipients.

First, Michael Pack of the University of Maryland’s CATT R & D lab. As director of the lab, Michael has overseen some remarkable work to make reams of data accessible and usable for policymakers, traffic engineers, transportation planners and emergency responders. I saw him demonstrate one of his team’s visually striking products which plots out various accident-response activities along a timeline, helping to get a handle on the traffic dynamics and response time frames (e.g., how long did police cruisers have to bracket an accident while it was cleared?) when such incidents occur. You can see this demonstrated in an interactive format for a stretch of I-95 between Columbia and Baltimore (just up the road from my home) as well as a couple of stretches along I-270 in neighboring Montgomery County on the CATT website here.  And below is a screenshot of a visualization from another product of theirs, the Regional Integrated Transportation Information System (RITIS), which gives an overview of transportation system performance and conditions in real-time.


Jeralee Anderson runs a nonprofit organization out of Redmond, WA called “Greenroads.” To someone focused on car dependency and traffic generally, this sounds oxymoronic. However, given our more than 4-million-mile road network (eclipsing transit and bike networks) and the expansions of capacity happening regularly, it stands to reason that roads just like any other transportation project should be as green as possible. Created 6 years ago, the Greenroads team has certified a variety of projects based on a scorecard that resembles the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, including the LEED-Neighborhood Design standard which NRDC co-created about a decade ago. There is a point system with 118 total possible points which determine whether or not a project is “certified,” “bronze,” “silver,” “gold” or “evergreen” level.

So far, they have certified six projects To learn more about them, see their web site here.

One of their silver-certified projects seems to merit the designation based on the description and photo, and I especially like the ingredients-style summary given for projects (making the information more digestible, ha ha).


Ms. Anderson was one of the recipients who piped up readily when I raised my hand and noted the greenness of many of the activities highlighted, and asked what the federal government could do to encourage more often-risky innovation such as that highlighted by the recipients. She noted that starting a nonprofit to rate projects, or achieve other missions for transportation, is really challenging. She suggested that seed funding and technical assistance aimed at nonprofit formation and incubation would be helpful. In reply to another question, she also noted that opening the floodgates and releasing all the data federal agencies collect would be helpful too.

James Crites, who works at Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, was also quick on the draw when I asked my question, pointing out the environmental benefits of Next Gen air traffic control systems which he works to fund and deploy. I agree, and in fact testified favorably about Next Gen several years ago before the now-defunct House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee chaired by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts (testimony in pdf here). The reasoning behind it is simple – more efficient routing of flights enabled by satellite vs. ground-control should reduce time they spend in the air which should reduce emissions. With more airspace open up – as would happen if more pavement were available for surface transportation – more flights could eat into these gains, yet the analysis I’ve seen still shows measurable pollution cuts.

Possibly the most memorable contributor to the discussion was John Hillman, a civil engineer who founded and presides over his own consulting firm. He has worked, as he put it, for 17 years to push a particular boulder up a hill, specifically by developing a hybrid-composite beam for bridges which is lighter and stronger than other materials. He was frankly reminiscent of the Hank Rearden character in Atlas Shrugged, who invented (fictionally) a stronger, cheaper form of steel. Rearden was tenacious and thrived on outside-the-box thinking which drove the cartoonishly evil bureaucrats in Rand’s dystopian novel nuts. Hillman similarly talked about what it takes to succeed as an inventor and successful entrepreneur. He noted that Edison’s claim that genius is “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” understated the necessity of the latter. He talked about facing weekly fears that his firm might go under, and pushing through nonetheless. And he implied the drive to succeed had to be a bit beyond sanity, causing me to phrase my question by asking “so how can the feds promote more such insanity?” Mr. Hillman’s bracing entrepreneurial spirit was fully on display yesterday, and DOT staff must have been happy to hear that he thinks showcasing success stories via “Champions of Change" is one of the more helpful things the government can do to “promote insanity.”

Other than Mr. Pack whom I met in passing, that I’m most familiar with Mr. Jose Holguin-Veras of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This understated, very smart scholar is a member (as am I) of the Mobility Choice coalition which focusses on transportation solutions that can reduce oil dependence. His innovation is startling in its simplicity, and leverages substantial pollution reductions and fuel savings: Develop a system for making off-hour freight deliveries in Manhattan, using GPS and smart phones. Moving trucks off streets during congested daytime hours speeds flows and boosts efficient use of limited road capacity. He gave a presentation about his work at a Mobility Choice roundtable almost exactly three years ago (pdf here) in which he estimated economic savings alone of this new way of delivering goods of between $100 and $200 million in reduced travel time and pollution cuts. And that's just for Manhattan!

All in all, this is a remarkable class of innovators, and the Obama Administration and the U.S. DOT deserve credit for shining a national spotlight on their work.

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