With the changing nature of work, new regional ecosystems flourishing, and massive domestic migration the demands to our infrastructure are changing and evolving. One of the most fundamental parts of this equation is the question of how we move people and goods from point A to point B. We have seen a surge in new technologies such as mass electrification and driverless vehicles and new modalities like delivery drones and even tunnels. Austin is becoming an epicenter for transportation tech both in terms of innovation and deployment. Today we talk with Meg Merritt and Joseph Kopser about where this industry has been, where its going, and how it fits into the broader growth of the region.
What moves Austin moves...What's next Austin?
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Michael Scharf: Austin is the new innovation powerhouse, not the next Silicon valley, but the first Austin, we are adapting to the future in real time.
Jason Scharf: I'm Jason Scharf, biotech, executive, and early stage investor.
Michael Scharf: And I'm Michael Scharf advisor and board member for multiple private companies.
Jason Scharf: You can call us optimists, abundance minded, up wing, and even solutionists.
We see a bright future ahead that can be achieved through innovation and entrepreneurship.
Michael Scharf: In this podcast, we explore Austin superpowers. The people in companies driving our growth. And the macro and micro trends that come together to create Austin today.
Jason Scharf: This is Austin Next
With the changing nature of work, new regional ecosystems, flourishing and massive domestic migration. Demands to our infrastructure are changing and evolving. One of the most fundamental parts of this equation is the question of how we move people and goods from point a to point B, we've seen a surge in new technologies, such as mass electrification and driverless vehicles, new modalities like delivery drones, and even tunnels. Austin becoming an epicenter for transportation tech, both in terms of innovation and deployment.
Today, we talked with Meg Merritt and Joseph Kopser about where this industry has been, where it's growing. How it fits into the broader growth of the region. Meg Merritt has 17 years of experience in managing major projects to bring transit and emerging mobility to communities Meg began her career in transit and land planning. Spent time with transportation technology, startup world, where she managed the multimodal mobile experience for private mobility companies and transit authorities. In 2020. Meg started her own firm to support clients with transportation policy and outreach, and is currently working with the Austin transit prior to ship on project connect.
Meg was awarded mass transit. Magazine's 40, under 40 in 2020, and has contributed her thought leadership to writers at city lab and the New York times. Joseph Kopser is a serial entrepreneur and expert in energy and national security issues currently serves as an executive in residence. The McCombs school of business, that university of Texas, in addition, he's the president of Grayline.
After he co-founded and served as CEO of rights scout before it was acquired by Mercedes. He served in the U S army for 20 years or in the combat action, badge army ranger tab and bronze star he's graduated west point with a BS in aerospace engineering and also received a master's from the Harvard Kennedy school.
In 2013, he was recognized as the white house champion of change for his efforts in energy and transportation. In 2014 ride scout, won, the U S department of transportation, data innovation award. He co-authored the book Catalyst. He's the chairman of the board of advisors, the clean Texas foundation and economic development and professional association for Cleantech,
Austin moves and adapts in real time. And so change happens between when we record and when we post the episode. So we're introducing the Austin next newsflash with updates on important developments to provide additional context to the show. In this episode, we briefly discussed the city of Leander proposition to maintain their partnership with Cap Metro or leave and use the sales tax for other city functions.
The election was held on May 7th and by 60 to 40 margin, the city voted to continue their partnership. Enjoy our lively discussion.
Meg, Joseph, welcome to the Austin next podcast.
Joseph Kopser: Thanks for having us
Jason Scharf: first off, Joseph, I want to say thank you for your service.
Joseph Kopser: Appreciate it. We all do our part. Of course, my family did the real hard work.
I volunteered to go do it. They didn't have a choice. So appreciate you recognize me and the families as well.
Jason Scharf: Not a problem. So we're going to start really broad and big. How do you define the transportation technology industry?
Joseph Kopser: Wow.
Where do you want to start Meg out? You want me to take a jump at it?
And then you come in. So the technology transportation industry is really no different than any industry that's out there. And really, if you look at society, technology is a tool and what it has done from the day that we figured out fire to the time we figured out around wheel, as opposed to that square wheel that we were using for so long, it really just makes life better.
And so in the transportation. Industry when technology is applied, if it's done well, it can do some really amazing things. But the problem is, is where technology and policy or technology and people intermix. There are some really weird things that happen and I'll just highlight one that is a transportation technology that people don't think of often enough, but it shares as a great guide to where we are now.
The elevator, the elevator moved people, not horizontally, but vertically in our world. And when it was first invented, nobody wanted to get onto it. Think of like an autonomous vehicle or any vehicle really that's on the ground. Nobody wants to get into those. Or at least they didn't at first, but as people became more.
As technologies around elevators made the braking guaranteed, made the floor selection easier to do. And then ultimately, and Meg always loved telling audiences this, ultimately once they put a woman's voice in the elevator to say going up, going down floor 1, floor, 2 people felt more comfortable. So technology is just a tool it's going to do massively great things in the transportation world and safety, especially.
But it is not a be all end all Meg, what do you think?
Meg Merritt: I think it has its place. And look, Austin is a pioneer and how transportation and technology intersect. When I say it has this place, I'm coming from a perspective of moving as many people as we can, as efficiently as we can and what we run up against in technology and innovation and transportation.
Is plain real estate real estate in the street. We can't expand our roadways beyond much of what they are. So we have to look at the carrying capacity of what we've got. And we started to look at how many people can we get through an intersection in a minute. Cars are not necessarily our be all end all.
And I think that we have old technology. That we can try to reinvent and make more modern through some of the battery technologies that are on the market. For instance, light rail in the middle of the road, carrying 70, 80,000 people a day that is in our horizon here in Austin with project connect. And I also think that we can make it cleaner than it has ever been from an environmental perspective.
Thanks. In large part to advances in the lithium back.
Jason Scharf: So it's interesting, as you say, the, you know, talking about light rail and bringing up to speed, some of these new technologies or these old technologies, obviously light rail is it is hundreds of years old. And as we think about the transportation technology, it really breaks down into two different pieces, right?
There's the actual technological innovation, right? Whether that's entirely new technology or as you said, kind of bringing in old pieces and then there's the. Deployment side where you can have, especially in a city like Austin, trying out these new, different types of things. So let's start off on the, on the development side.
How long would you say the sector has been here and how did it really get against.
Joseph Kopser: Well, if you're talking about ideas to modernize Austin technology, let's not forget rail and trolleys and street cars were a predominant part of our transportation, like so many American cities, and you can go back a hundred years.
In fact, in a lot of places, they first started with horses as the main mode cause to pollution in the streets, I E horse manure, but then they moved to trolleys. Many times they were horse drawn. And then when they got to the earliest days of taking trolleys most time on fixed rail to be able to be powered by either a chain that pulled them underneath the ground, electricity provided above via wire.
Or in the case of when they actually started move over to their own power, you had opportunities for moving people and so innovation, and we can get into the Jitney too, if we want Meg innovation and transportation's always been there. And the most dense cities, especially in the United States have been the ones that have had to pioneer at the most, because the Meg's point, you still have to move people.
And the map is what restricts, how many people you can physically get to an intersection. So I'd say it's always been there with us. It's how well we want to learn from history in that regard.
Meg Merritt: Yeah. And I, I agree with Joseph. I mean, Austin's, we all seen those old pictures, I guess you can say that is the beginning of.
The industry here in Austin, but I'd like to credit some of the tech innovators in the nineties for really starting anything of the Silicon Hills that we know today. Because it was an instant invitation to take things like transportation and other industries and innovate them through a technology lens.
So I guess to answer your question, I think it's probably the way that we think about it probably started really in the nineties, but in the mid I'll say two thousands. We had a, a lot, a lot of. Folks, like Joseph's starting to think about solutions and then you see the ride Scouts of the world start to pop up.
And what was that? Joseph? 20,
Joseph Kopser: 20 12, 13, 20 12,
Meg Merritt: 20 13. Yeah. And Austin was also one of the places that the scooter companies look to first around that same time. So I think we got to a critical mass around that 20 13, 20 15 timeframe. And then before you knew it, a lot of the autonomous vehicle manufacturers and software innovators started looking to Austin.
We have real, really, really different things here in Texas, that the autonomous vehicle manufacturers really like, for instance, our, our lights are sideways. Some of our stops. That's a real head scratcher for the computer. So they like to test out those use cases. We may not be the best human drivers here in Texas.
Another good one.
Jason Scharf: I feel like that's wherever you are. You always say that there, you know, the drivers is if someone has come from California and when it rains a little bit and all driving goes crazy, you know, I can, I can understand.
Meg Merritt: Oh, yeah,
Joseph Kopser: but you know, I want to bring up a point though. Remember at the beginning I talked about technology, transportation technology, or the technology of transportation, but it's also the policy.
And that era that Meg was referring to, you know, kind of the wild west between say 2012 you know, car to go got here in north America headquarters started and I think 20 11, 20 10, 20 11. And then you had, you know, the ride Scouts of the world when we popped onto the scene, but that's when also you had sidecar.
Which I like to remind people was the O original rideshare or, you know, car for hire service that appeared in the United States than Uber and Lyft right behind them. That's when the city council got involved in the taxi lobby industry. And like, it was all kind of the wild west on the streets of Austin until.
Sorta settled, but not really. Because then we had to do the bond initiatives to be able to actually make the larger infrastructure changes that Meg has been a part of. But anyway, I just want to point out it's not just the technology, but it's the policy and the people's side of it too.
Michael Scharf: I think one of the policy issues to go back a little bit.
I remember taking a ride on the red car in Los Angeles, and this is in the sixties. And if you know the story, the red car was destroyed. By the city of LA at the behest of tire manufacturers. Yeah. And so the red car was replaced by policy, not by technology with freeways. And we all know what LA freeways look like.
Joseph Kopser: I encourage listeners to Google the graveyard of streetcars or the piles of streetcars. May you know the photo I'm talking about stacks street cars, one on top of the other, because they're like, oh, we've got so much better technology. And it's a public bus and people don't realize that it was. As you're pointed the automobile and the tire industry is getting together to get policymakers, to poopoo those slowly moving, you know, rail bound, streetcars in favor of the bus.
But the irony of it is as the streetcars pushed the jitneys out of the way 20 years before that. We can go as back and far in history with me and Meg as you want, but let's, let's keep it on topic. That means it's all there.
Jason Scharf: There is the constant, you know, clash of the, you know, the technologies and the lobbies behind them.
When we think about today, what are some of the companies that we should be aware of? Both from a, you know, we talked about sidecar and some of these kind of the older says, but at this point, Who are the established players, who are the startups that we should be keeping our eyes on?
Joseph Kopser: Well, I'm going to take this a slightly different way.
I'm really encouraged by companies like AI fleet. So AI fleet is actually going in a slightly different problem, but related to transportation and it is the shortage and the. Management or better yet the inefficiencies of the trucking industry. So think about how the trucking industry right now are on our roads right now, part of the congestion.
And they're often running loads that more often than not are not full or even many times empty clogging up. Boom. Pieces of concrete, you know, on our highways and roadways. And then secondly, with our supply chain, as many problems as we have right now of COVID related supply chain and all these other problems, again, this is just a new technology.
Going after an older industry, trucking and shipping and just helping them do things more efficiently. Anyway, that's my first example of a innovative company right here in Austin, Texas, that is trying to help in a big way.
Jason Scharf: So I was going to say though, that I think it's an important is I know we were in the beginning of this conversation, we've been focusing a lot on the movement of people, but at least the way that I think about transportation, it's both right.
It's the movement of people and it's the movement of goods
Joseph Kopser: because we use the same space to move.
Meg Merritt: Look, there's Argo is probably the one that comes to mind first because we see it. We see those vehicles testing here on the street. I think you all are aware in San Francisco, we had our first police officer pull over a driverless, truly driverless car, that video, that that's a good chuckle.
I think we're not far off from seeing that here in Austin.
Joseph Kopser: And then it just drove away, drove away.
Meg Merritt: And then I put on it's a hands up flashers, a pair of,
Jason Scharf: we live in interesting times.
Meg Merritt: Oh, yes. And you know, I'll also point out that in public transit public transit manufacturers, folks that make the big bus fleets, they don't have the same R and D budgets as auto manufacturers.
So it's, it's interesting to see how they are starting to evolve their own plans for an electric. One company that's really making headway is Proterra. Yup. They, they're probably one of the industry leaders in trying to get public transit to be green from a bus standpoint. I think all of the rail manufacturers are starting to explore options with no catenary or relying less on overhead wire for electric.
And then there's other folks like us who are trying to revolutionize the way that we think about route planning using the latest innovations in AI. So those are three that I would put on my radar. If I were interested in getting in the space.
Joseph Kopser: I think I got the right word, inductive recharging, where all you have to do is pull over top and you just, you drive over top of the charging station and is charging your batteries and you don't have to plug anything in.
You don't have to add anything. It just happens through natural induction. Is that the right word? One of your listeners? It is. Okay. I wonder I'm looking up one of the companies that does that right now, but keep going, sorry.
Michael Scharf: I wanted to drill down a little bit in terms of adoption.. And clearly coming from California, we've watched the debacle.
If you will, of the high speed rail that was originally supposed to be from San Diego to San Francisco. And now it's going to be from one place in the central valley, about five miles to another. And it's gone from $10 billion to a hundred billion dollars. How do we adopt the right technologies here in the right way?
In order to, to leverage all these great companies with their products coming in.
Joseph Kopser: Yeah, well, I'm going to start with a little bit of a history lesson. I'm going to tailor it to Texas. And ironically, I said the word Taylor, but if you look at cities like Taylor and huddle, and there's a whole slew of Texas cities that exists today because they were along the designated railway.
That connected Dallas to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, but because steam locomotives back in the day needed to refuel, mostly coal back then 150 plus years ago, a hundred years ago that those cities developed because they were refueling points for enabling. Bringing on more coal. So the history of Texas and all these cool little small towns, we got all over the state.
And by the way, I like to remind folks, Texas has more rail and you can connect me, correct me if I'm wrong on this, but generally more rail than most, any other state in the United States, which is a heavily kept secret. But the problem with rail and adoption of new technologies, To get people to move to Texas.
We gave away so much land for free to the railroads in the right of ways and the easements on both sides of their rail. That is really hard to do anything next to their rail. And then worse. When we talk about high-speed rail, we've now forgotten because. Of eminent domain, everything else that we do still as a society have the right to eminent domain, to fairly buy land from people that own it today in order to provide for the common good that holding in the U S constitution, all these things of life, Liberty, and pursuit of happiness and promoting the common good.
Well, many people have forgotten that. So between policy and people and forgetting our history. There is real case and I'll end it by pointing out one other actor in high-speed railway are the airlines. They lobby big time to prevent high-speed rail between mega city regions in the United States. And there's just no reason for it because just like Meg started with it's math, you can only put so many people through an intersection and same thing.
You can only put so many people on an airplane and only put so many people on an airplane runway at the same time. So. Beat that dead horse. Megan, anything to add?
Meg Merritt: No, I think you're spot on about the airlines. Look, this is going to be really interesting. What happens with oil? Because in short haul flights, those flights that are 500 miles or fewer, those airlines are using a third of their jet fuel and take off.
I mean, that's, that's a lot, that's a, head-scratcher when you're trying to make the economics work. Right. So at what point does it make sense to invest in technologies and. Let's be frank, the infrastructure investment, the hard steel rails and the policy measures that are going to be required to make it happen.
I think we might get to that point there. We really have seen some starts and stops. California is a great example. Now we have Texas central as a, an example of. An effort that tried and is looking like it's not going to work.
Michael Scharf: Can you explain the Texas central for the, for the listeners
Jason Scharf: and us as well?
Meg Merritt: Yeah, sure. So probably about a decade ago, maybe a little bit less than that. The Japanese specifically, the folks that underwrote the capital for the shin. Kensen the high speed rail in Japan looked at city pairs all over the world and in the United States for a place to invest and. Houston to Dallas ranked one of their top city pairs.
Lot of inner city travel a lot of shuttles going between those two cities, but not altogether, very efficient, really the best you can do door to door. Even if you're flying is about three hours because you have to account for your airport time. So. They said, you know what? Let's go invest in Texas.
They need to have a great effort up privately funded effort. I might add, which is really quite deviates from
Joseph Kopser: how normally Texans like privately funded efforts.
Meg Merritt: You know, this is the head scratcher here, Joseph, here's the thing it's really, really expensive to provide a public good. And when we try to do it, you know, peoples like to think airlines are privately funded, but they're very, very heavily subsidized by where they pick off and land AKA the airports that we all pay for.
And so looking, looking at how we can make this happen. I mean, I think there's something to say about what Tesla's trying, but the technology alone will not. Elbow out the real swimming through mud issue. And that is just getting it done with public policy. We are a democracy. We don't just build high speed rail.
We don't just plow through people's homes. We spend many, many years building consensus. And that is, that is really what takes everything a long time. We are in a democracy. We try to make, make it right by people and in doing so and doing so ethically, it just is not something that technology alone is going
Joseph Kopser: Yeah. And I appreciate your point of talking about doing it right, because we all have to admit that a hundred years ago, as cities got bigger, we didn't do it right. When city planners a hundred years ago looked at where they could play infrastructure for interstate highways or new rail expense or whatever it was.
They always chose the poorest neighborhoods that didn't have the collective response to fight back and all too often, more times than we care to even admit. And though we should, it was based on race or ethnic background, and it was easier just to tear up those neighborhoods than it was to go into those white suburbs.
And it's something we have to call counting too, which is why this efforts like high-speed rail are going to take a long time because we have to do it right. And by the way we have to go from airport to airport. If we don't take that high-speed rail from the DFW connection down to one of the two major airports in Houston, it's almost going to be a workless project, not worthless, almost worth,
Meg Merritt: but I want to point out something about high-speed rail that naysayers used to say, unless there was a really good transit system on either end.
It would not be feasible. Well, I think Uber and Lyft and ride share programs have completely invalidated that point. Nope. So that gives, that gives the development of these big infrastructure projects. A lot more latitude for that first and last mile. Now, do I think a good transit system would be something that would make it more successful?
Absolutely. But it's not, doesn't need to be developed to some robust fashion of New York before you get there.
Michael Scharf: I want to go back Joseph, to your comment about the intra city high-speed rail has to be airport to airport, because I would have thought that given that airports are usually, like, if you look at Austin Bergstrom, it's.
Out there a bit for good reason. And it's the drive to get from the airport downtown or from the airport around Round Rock or wherever you're going. Why does it have to be airport to here?
Joseph Kopser: Well, I only have experience and what I've read to answer your question. So I'm not a hundred percent certain. It has to be, but I do know from
Michael Scharf: that's a good start it's okay.
Joseph Kopser: Yes. From what I have read it is about providing not just the access for people that are going from one city to another, but the couple stops along the way. More times than not. When they go into those big cities, they are going there for airport use. So that's what I have read. What I've experienced is in Europe, where if you're in a city and you're trying to find, you're trying to fly out of country, not, not inside, but out of the country to be able to take a train high-speed from whatever city that you're in, take it all the way into that city get dropped off at the airport and then grab a flight out of that country.
There are no words to describe the slick convenience of how all that comes together. And it's pretty phenomenal. So
Meg Merritt: I'm going to go with downtown and downtown.
Joseph Kopser: Ooh, why can't we have both? Why can't we have both? Yes. And yes. And see, that's why I like having Meg on this with us D all of the above.
Meg Merritt: We could definitely look at that in our hypothetical model.
Does it? Nope, no problem. But I mean, look, the more connectivity the better. So we'll say we agree there.
Joseph Kopser: Yes, we agree to agree.
Michael Scharf: Okay. So let's talk about Austin and let's talk about project connect. It's the, probably the largest transportation infrastructure program. That from my reading, at least Austin's looked at in a long time.
Where are we? And what's it going to mean for all?
Meg Merritt: Well, the project is in 30% design, which if you ever undertaken any project in your life, you know that that's still pretty nascent, but things are starting to look more certain. So at that juncture, the engineers have identified where the tracks should go in the street or in the case of downtown, where they should be going underground and where the tunnel will come back to surface.
Through what we call portals. So it's looking like one south of the river and south Congress and one just north of MLK. And the project is nearing completion of that 30% milestone. At which point they will submit to the federal transit administration for what they call the record of decision. And that is a very official document that says you have gone through environmental clearance.
You have. Been transparent with the community about your plans for this transit path and the record of decision states that you may proceed. And then there's subsequent design phases, of course testing and so on. All the, all leading up to a approximately 2029, we can all ride the train.
Michael Scharf: Okay.
Joseph Kopser: Record of decision being a very official document. I love that terms. They put it like in a power suit and they presented
Meg Merritt: God, the ride it's a lightning ride. You really, really need it
Michael Scharf: more likely. It's a set of DVDs with lots and lots of data.
Meg Merritt: Yes. A lot of appendices and a big document.
Michael Scharf: Yeah. I had to one time actually look at the law of the Colorado river.
Which the bureau of land management delivered to me on a CD or excuse me, on a DVD. Cause it was like four gigabytes of data. So I'm assuming our record of decision will look much like that.
Meg Merritt: You can bet that it would.
Michael Scharf: So what are the technologies that'll be included in project connect? We we've heard about the rail.
We've heard about the tunnels. How does this all tie together and how does this work in our.
Meg Merritt: One of the tenants of the program is to pursue innovation. And that's coming through fruition through exploring an all electric fleet and not just for the trains, but which is implicitly electric, but also for the buses.
So capital Metro purchased one of the largest purchases of electric fleet vehicles. Recently, I think it was 186 buses. You know, those, those take quite a long time to manufacturer. They're a industry leader in making sure that interconnectivity between trips and their app is something that is a priority and user-friendly, and then I think we can start to see some of the vehicle manufacturers of the light rail vehicles.
Try to look at ways to extend battery life so that there may not necessarily need to be Catenary. On the overhead system at all times, what that looks like I think is under development, probably all around the world. And it's just like anything else, a race to see who can get it done the best fastest.
Joseph Kopser: Is that what those wires are called?
Meg Merritt: Doesn't that sound? Weavey it is
Joseph Kopser: I I've. I learned something from you every time I talk to you, Meg, and now I've learned yet another.
Meg Merritt: Yeah, that's a, that's a real dweeby term. You can drop it. Another dweeby transportation term. I like to teach people is, you know, when, whenever we're getting off of the plane, we'd like to say we're deplaneing.
That's not actually a word. We just made it one. Right? So the technical term for getting off of the transit vehicle is a lighting the vehicle.
Joseph Kopser: What was it?
Michael Scharf: Lighting
Meg Merritt: a lighting, just like a bird would be perched on. On your hand and would fly away. That is a lighting.
Joseph Kopser: Well, for the listeners, you've also got explained one more.
My favorite transportation terms, which is headways headways,
Meg Merritt: a headway is a very important one. And this is what keeps a lot of people from not taking transit. If the headway is too long, that is the distance or the time between when a transit vehicle picks up and drops off. Or rather if I'm waiting at a.
And I met, I saw the bus leave and then the next one comes 10 minutes. Like 10 minutes later, it has a 10 minute headway. And that will probably keep me as a transit rider. But if it has a 30 minute headway, then barrier to entry might be a little bit higher
Joseph Kopser: headways catenary, and a lighting see. For your listeners today?
Boom. That's like a triple for the price.
Michael Scharf: So at this point, all I can say is mine the gap, right?
Joseph Kopser: Oh, that's another good.
Michael Scharf: So we've got this program going on. It's going to change how Austin moves. We hope that's what we want.
Joseph Kopser: Oh. And by the way, regardless, it's going to change the way Austin moves. If they get to do everything they want, it's going to help us in a big way.
If we keep chipping away at it and refusing and slow. It's going to change the way Austin moves because our parking lot's known as MoPac and I-35 are going to get thicker and thicker. Anyway, sorry. I just had to point that out. It's going to change the way we live.
Michael Scharf: No, no, no, because that was my next comment.
For those of us who don't like spending all day on MoPac or I 35, what are the things we have to look out for? What are the good points that people should be talking about with, regarding to this adoption? And, and what are the downsides that we have to worry about?
Joseph Kopser: Yeah, I'll go with some of the human side and that maybe people aren't thinking about that maybe they could, and then Meg, I'd love to hear what you're thinking.
So here's what I'm thinking, which is we spent two years for the most part those knowledge workers that could stay at home. Did those keen essential workers that had to still go to work to provide all the things that everybody else is sitting at home. Still went to work and we saw the images of them on our transit system.
We saw the images of them waiting for headways that were too long and that's unacceptable. So you have to go with the premise that we, we absolutely need the infrastructure and public transit, for instance, as part of the overall connections. And the more connections like Meg said are better. That being said, A lot of people learn how to work in a different way.
So what I hope going forward as it takes time for the rod to be fully developed, implemented, approved, and there's a lot of things that we can still do in the meantime. Like what I'm adopting is no in-person meetings before 10 o'clock. Especially if I got to go downtown, just I'll zoom you all the way up until 10 o'clock.
But before that, please do not ask me to get on the road. And we can just do shifts like that in our behaviors that will lessen the impact because Austin is still one of the fastest growing cities. So that as these new opportunities come on, then we can better, more easily adopt them. So know, Meg, what are your thoughts?
Meg Merritt: I mean, the, the most exciting thing that this project is going to bring. Is taking the use case. Joseph just talked about and say at, let's say he wants to come into downtown at 10:00 AM. He's got more options. He doesn't have to drive. He can, if he wants to stay late and do a work dinner, he can take light rail home or take light rail to a park and ride.
And the thing that we don't talk about enough is that in re visiting how the streets surface should look. Project connect is going to greatly expand the bike and PED infrastructure on either side of the street and people who may have been skeptical about the adoption mass adoption of bike riding in Austin might feel differently for two, two reasons.
And this is the nexus of everything we've talked about. One, they will have an all ages and ability infrastructure, meaning. Everyone will feel comfortable because it will be very elegant design that makes you feel separate from cars and to the mass adoption of electric bikes. I mean, game changer. I mean, that is a technology innovation that has changed everything.
I will admit. I used to be what we would call a fair weather cyclist. But now in 102, as long as I have a hunt, as long as I have an electric bike, I'll use it because I'm not working on the way to the meeting and I'm going 20 miles an hour. So the breeze is hitting and we're, we're all good. So this is really exciting mode shift potential to really get folks out of their cars and into something that will help them lose their pandemic 25.
Joseph Kopser: Yep. The pandemic 25.
Jason Scharf: I want to ask you to pull that thread a little bit about what people actually want and the demand side. And we've talked a lot about this being, you know, light rail, right? But I there's two counterexamples that, you know, one in California and one here that asked the question. So one in California they've spent, and especially in LA, they spent billions of dollars on the subway system in LA and the market share of person miles in LA for the, for the subway is lower today than it was in the 1980s.
And the second I know at the time that we're recording this, I think the vote will have happened by the time that we released this episode. Leander is looking at getting off of Cap Metro. And what was interesting, there was this long piece in ABJ that I looked at the, you know, they showed you the ridership and ignoring the pandemic for a moment.
But from 2012 to 2019, ridership was flat and Leander is exploding. So it clearly was not meeting the needs. And so I wouldn't be, I don't know how the city is going to vote, but at least from that chart alone, I can understand why the discussion is coming up.
Joseph Kopser: The thing to consider is when you take, let's say.
If you get to the terminal point and you then in Austin, Texas have to walk five blocks, four blocks, maybe in 110 degree heat. You are going to be what we would say in the military, combat ineffective. You're going to be sweaty. You're going to be tired. And it's not going to be helpful. And a lot of people just avoid that all too.
In fact Meg and I in our early days at ride scout, worked on sponsoring a rebirth of the Armadillo, which was a downtown circulator because for people coming to downtown, we needed to get them to their offices in a way that didn't have them walking four or five blocks. In 110 degree heat. So the story of LA, the story of Leander has far more to do about the connections when you reach your almost destination last mile, last thousand feet.
I don't know Meg, anything you want to add to that?
Meg Merritt: Yeah, I was, I was just going to say that, you know, back then the thought of investing in a big infrastructure in Austin was kind of a glimmer of hope. There would been previously failed rail reference. And to answer your question about LA you know, that's a, that's a totally different approach.
LA has taken a different approach. To mass transit. These projects don't usually see the return on investment for a long time, but what we're not remembering is the ridership even instances where it's not impressive is carrying essential workers. These are folks who can't afford to get to work any other way.
But the thing that was probably the most frustrating about. The pandemic was hearing people say, oh, there, there are people riding the bus. I'm like, get on them. There are their jaintors they're nurses. They're relying on public transit to get to work. And they're risking at that time, you know, they're risking everything to get out there and do it, the orange line and the blue line, the, the big light rail investments in Austin are a little different from the red line because the red line is a commuter train that runs on existing freight lines.
It is not optimized to be catering to high-frequency passenger because it shares with freight, which is a really unusual. Instance, but the oranges blue lines are high capacity transit on existing corridors. So before the pandemic, that 8 0 1, which is a rapid bus, the orange line will be replacing, was delivering something like 11,500 people a day, students, government workers, and really the whole gamut of society.
. Yeah. It was packed. And that service could only probably get a little bit more juice for the squeeze, maybe up to like say 15,000. And a lot of people say, why aren't, why didn't you invest in buses enough? Well, we are to augment the spine of the orange and the blue, but the orange, the blue lines would tap out at 2040 if they were buses.
And that's primarily why the group city council and at the time Capitol, Metro came together and really decided that the locally preferred alternative to serve the needs of the growing population is going to be light rail. And the numbers are insane and it has a lot to do with the fact that at the moment we're a region of 2 million, we're going to be 4 million people in 20 years.
I mean, that kind of growth is really hard to get in front of. And so making these investments we'll see that ridership gain. But not necessarily in the short term that we would like to see those of us used to a technology.
Joseph Kopser: And Meg for the listeners that maybe don't know since you and I, we live in this space.
Can you explain why a bus and a rail car carry a different amount of people because of the design of the vehicle and how it's able to put more people per square feet? You mean more seats, more butts in seats? Can you just explain that for listeners who are scratching their heads?
Meg Merritt: Yeah. You know, buses really are the workhorses of, of any transit network because they're connecting people outside of the high-frequency lines, which often are on arterials, but they don't carry nearly as many people, primarily because with a light rail vehicle, you can add more light rail vehicles.
Through here's another door determined the day coupling. So bringing the vehicles together and with one route, you can service several hundred.
Joseph Kopser: Yeah. And, and, and the one thing I just want to highlight, sorry. So what is describing is there's like the backbone, which is the rail system that you can couple together, many, many cars carry hundreds and hundreds of people along big trunk lines.
That's another one for you. If you're playing bingo at home, a trunk line carries a lot of people. And then for these arterials, Where the buses run, but there is a need. And I'm working with a startup called Fetty, F E T I shameless promotion, the company called Fetty. That's going to be great at that last node, which is not a 40 passenger bus, not a thousand person rail car, but the 15 passenger van to get that last little group and take them to that other node, then take them to the larger node.
So anyway, it's all an ecosystem. It's all gonna work.
Michael Scharf: Well, let's take a look at that ecosystem, but pull out a little bit, we've talked about large inner city, inter city kind of things we've talked about. What's going to happen in Austin. We've seen from a number of folks talking about the super regions and whenever they do it's ASA, it's Austin, San Antonio.
How does the tech to transportation tech and the policy we're talking about support that regional development?
Joseph Kopser: I have a slightly controversial answer to that, that people don't like when I say we have to buy out the quarries between Austin and San Antonio, the quarry makers, the rock crush. And move them farther east, not west into the hill country, farther east and figure out a different way to do it.
Because right now, Meg made reference earlier to the red line that has to share the existing rail with freight. And that goes back 150 years ago when we gave the railroad companies, private companies, all this free Texas land, we said, oh, by the way, if you invest, we'll give you this right away. Infinitum forever.
So now passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio, they're going to use existing rail, have to stop if a big, giant truck carrying or train carrying all this rock from the quarries they're being used to grow Texas. I'm not saying don't have. We just need to move it between these two giant cities. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, drive between I 35, when you're going from Austin down to San Antonio at night, look to the right.
And those giant complexes that you think are like nuclear power plants. They're just crushing rock and we need to move them off those lines anyway. Sorry, Meg.
Meg Merritt: Yeah, you got it. I mean, heck I agree. I mean, we are blessed with a route that already has right of way between Austin and San Antonio. It is not very efficient for free railroads to dogleg twice like they do in downtown Austin.
Joseph Kopser: Dogleg. That's another great word for this podcast.
Meg Merritt: And y'all know what I'm talking about. If you're sitting at Seaholm having drink, you hear that giant free training coming through and then make a 90 degree turn. I mean, it's not quiet, but. We, this is where there's public perception, issues and political will.
I mean, we just need to educate more folks on if they want these things, they've got to have the political will and ask their elected to go pursue it. Cause there just ain't a lot of it right now.
Joseph Kopser: Here's a sign of hope as these quarries have gotten bigger between San Antonio and Austin, they've had to go find more places to buy more rock.
And as they've done that, they've creeped closer to San Antonio. They've done it in such a way. And maybe the camp company's name is Vulcan, but I don't want to point out any single company, but they've done in such a way that they gotten so close to existing neighborhoods. And now they're pissing off Democrats and Republicans together.
And hopefully by this joint frustration, they might go to their lawmakers and say, We got to have a better solution to create a bond. That's buy out these companies so that we can move them over. I'm not saying take away their Providence and I'm not saying take away the companies just saying move them because they're in a spot that no longer is conducive to moving.
One of the nation's biggest mega regions between San Antonio and Austin.
Jason Scharf: Joseph Meg this has been a lot of fun and very informative just from the number of new terms that I've learned today.
Joseph Kopser: New terms, my bingo card is full.
Jason Scharf: So we always like to end with the same question. So Meg, Joseph what's next austin.
Joseph Kopser: Well, what I'm thinking what's next for us is we are going to be a global city and I mean, global city, like when you ride off London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Austin is going to get its place in that.
If we do it right, firstly and what's next for Austin is we have to acknowledge our past, especially when we talk about transportation and what we did to so many communities, especially communities of color and just cut those communities up and literally move them where, you know, they then wanted them to be, which is out of the way of what they saw as growth in Austin next.
So I hope that Austin next remembers its past as it's building Austin next.
Meg Merritt: I love that Joseph I'll add that Austin is doing a great job in truly tackling its transportation problems. We've got technology at our fingertips. We've got this great project. That's really going to solve a lot of our problems.
We're going to see a lot of mode shift in the next 20 years, and we definitely got to crack the nut for inner city. Getting to our neighbor, Texas cities. But what's next for Austin? I think the big thing we're really going to have to start pursuing as a region is how can we fix this housing supply shortage?
We have got to change it. It's going to affect everything. Why build a great transit system. If you can't have the housing density to support that lifestyle that so many people say that they want. And additionally it's becoming really inequitable here. I mean, just the other day. The Austin airport was backed up for 10 hours.
And a lot of that has to do with the fact that they cannot hire TSA folks because the TSA folks have nowhere to live. It's too expensive. And the bifurcation of wealth is really quite that. So we've got to really tackle, use the same prowess that we use to tackle our transportation problems and admit that as a region, we've got a major housing problem, and we, we really need to start thinking about policy measures that are going to change that
Jason Scharf: Joseph Kopser Meg Merritt. Thanks for joining Austin. Next.
Joseph Kopser: Thanks for having us.
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