Things Aren’t Always Rosy In Cities

We hear a lot about cities and how much they contribute to GDP and innovation but there’s more to it than just business serendipity and hangouts for the Creative Class. Derek Thompson wrote a good piece on what’s happening in New York and what it says about larger trends.

“Urban planners and economists focused on creativity and networks have been singing the praises of the city-living since the Great Recession (or, perhaps, since forever). But local housing policy, limited family finances, and American geographical abundance—not to mention the pro-rural laws of U.S. representative government—are powerful centrifugal forces that push Americans ever-outward into suburbs with lawns, trucks, and cul de sacs. The last decade was a dream. It’s 2006, again.”

I Caught Up With An Austin Startup Providing Real-Time Transit Options

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Urbanites and UT students have a new way to get around asRideScout™ announced its formal launch in Austin this week. CEO Joseph Kopser and his team have built a real-time, mobile aggregator and comparison engine for ground transportation options. And with ties to the sharing economy and transit’s rising importance, they appear to be in a good spot.

Two big hooks provide the lure for the app. Its “best ride” ranking is an easy way to see pricing and estimated times. But the kicker is the breadth of options you get. Buses, transit, subways, taxis, limos, shuttles, car-sharing, and even pedicabs are included. The iPhone app has been out a month or so, and an Android version should be ready this Fall.

It’s been a quick ascent. Just last spring, RideScout was still embryonic before placing second at the HATCH Pitch Competition at last year’s SXSW. From there, Kopser and some of his West Point alums raised $350k  and started building in late July.

ridescout_ride_results_2Now it’s in a bit of a perfect storm. Cities are faced with infrastructure challenges everywhere, as traffic increases, roads are in need of repair, and urban populations continue to rise. The low-hanging fruit for many metros is to optimize what already exists. When buses or rail cars aren’t filled, those are idle resources that are funded with taxpayer dollars. That’s one of the pieces that’s caught the City of Austin’s attention.

“RideScout will push highly motivated citizens to alternative modes of transportation, helping to fill underutilized public transit capacity to keep more cars off the roads,“ said Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro.

Hemingson and other city planners have no doubt seen the light, or at least the data.
Here’s an excerpt from NextCity that pulled figures from the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ recent report. 

“Public transit ridership increased by 34 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to the American Public Transit Association, and the ASCE report states that access to transit across the country has grown by nearly 10 percent.

That’s the big upside. But here’s the other part.

“Although transit investment has also increased, “deficient and deteriorating” regional transit systems cost the national economy $90 billion in 2010.”

Until those crumbling pieces can be fixed, cities will need more innovation from the RideScouts of the world. A whole ecosystem needs to be nurtured around infrastructure. Part of it’s behavior, but as we’ve seen with other trends, unlocking data with the right technology can open up all sorts of possibilities. As Austin City Councilman Chris Riley puts it, “the default answer for transportation in Austin doesn’t have to be a personal car.”

Last week’s SXSW Interactive was a good test for the young company. Kopser struck deals with  AirBnB and some of the car-sharing companies in town and was able to refine some ideas they’ve been building on.

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However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

As SXSW ended, there were other indications they might be onto something. In SX flair, urban design firm Gensler challenged people to come up with ideas to improve the city. It solicited feedback using a physical installation (photo above) with the hashtag #designatx. What were the top things mentioned? Mass transit, traffic, and congestion issues,  things the firm described as “practical and things that could be implemented.”

“Austin has the perfect launch city mix: terrible traffic congestion and rapid population growth of technology savvy residents looking for alternatives to car ownership,” said Kopser.

Can’t argue with that.

First posted at AustinStartup.

Fighting Food Waste In Austin

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The last few months have been a whirlwind for food waste efforts in Austin. Our working group wrapped up our first event on January 23rd, which was the kick-off and stakeholder meeting for the Year of Food Waste Prevention in Austin. More than 60 people attended, and included city officials, department heads, industry leaders and community advocates. The goal of the meeting was to launch and formalize the city-wide initiative around food waste in Austin.

Local green advocate Brandi Clark Burton led the meeting, and presented much of the research we’ve compiled from a local and national perspective. The first half of the meeting included the speakers below, who pledged their support for the initiative:

Brandi Clark Burton, Founder & Chief Inspiration Officer Austin EcoNetwork and EcoCampaigns
Laura Morrison, Austin City Council member
Lucia Athens, City of Austin Chief Sustainability Officer
Bob Gedert, Director of Austin Resource Recovery
Dr. Philip Huang, Medical Director/Health Authority
Vince Delisi, Assistant Division Manager, HHSD
Skeeter Miller, Austin Restaurant Association President, County Line & Cannoli Joe’s Owner & President

Following the presentation, we broke into working groups by industry cluster to address some of the challenges each segment might encounter as food is diverted from landfills. The working groups also identified where innovation might provide a boost — and perhaps most important  —  what the vision needs to be as things progress.

Response to the event was very positive. Here’s how people responded to the evaluation:

“I found the content important” 4.88(with 5 being the highest)
“I found the content relevant to me”  4.75
“Collaboration was evident”4.34
“This event will positively impact Austin”   4.46
“The city of Austin can accomplish a radical reduction of food waste” 4.63

We’re very excited about the momentum, but realize this is an ongoing fight. We’ve scheduled our next meeting for March 20h, so let us know if you’d like to help.

Recapping CleanTX Foundation’s Solar and EV Event

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

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The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

 

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

 

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.
Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

 

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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