Talking Michigan Transportation

Road user charges in Washington, e-bike battery fires and slower driving in Chicago

July 20, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 149
Talking Michigan Transportation
Road user charges in Washington, e-bike battery fires and slower driving in Chicago
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Regular Talking Michigan Transportation podcast contributor Lloyd Brown joins this week’s conversation to talk about a number of topics in the news. Brown is formerly the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and now a Phoenix-based senior strategic communications consultant for HDR, Inc.

 Among topics discussed:

 ·       Road user charges.
 A simulation in the state of Washington featured 70 percent of 1,000 drivers participating saying they were satisfied with the process. Not surprisingly, some drivers expressed privacy concerns.

·       E-bikes.
 As they grow in popularity, there are increasingly unnerving reports of electric bike battery fires. Are cheaper batteries to blame? Could higher production quality bikes be the answer? A TechCrunch story explains the issue and some of the root causes. Brown talks about a future where electric vehicle repair and battery replacement become commonplace. 

·       Slower driving in Chicago.
 A recent report from Streetlight Data ranked large U.S. cities by speeds driven on major pedestrian roadways. More than 60 percent of Chicago’s major pedestrian roadways have average vehicle speeds under 25 mph. The national average is 36 percent.

 Also discussed, an inspiring story from Alaska where students in the community of Angoon built and launched a dugout canoe to honor their forebearers, recalling the havoc wreaked on the Tlingit peoples by the U.S. Navy in 1882; and an Axios story about how AI grabbed the South Park director’s chair.

Jeff Cranson:

Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. This is what I call a riff episode. It's been a while since I got together with my friend, Lloyd Brown, who was for many years the director of communications at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That's how I got to know him. He's now with HDR Incorporated consulting firm. He's based in Phoenix, of all places where it's just a little hot right now. Lloyd, we haven't talked in a while. I thought maybe this would be a chance to just catch up on some random transportation topics because, like me, you're interested in a lot of things and you read a lot and take in a lot. Thanks for taking time to be here. Let's start first by talking about how the Tigers are the best nine games below 500 team in baseball and why your Dodgers are apparently in first place.

Lloyd Brown:

They did make a climb toward the All-Star break. I was happy to see that the young players are coming forward and doing a good job for them. But explain to me how the Tigers can have that combine no hitter and then continue to struggle the way they are.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, it's really not about the pitching, it's about the hitting. It's just a nimic offense. They've got a few young people that I think are going to turn out to be big-time ball players. A couple of them are starting to really shine, but they've got a lot of journeymen. Any given day they don't score.

Lloyd Brown:

Baseball is better when the Tigers have a good team on the field. I hope they're able to continue to grow that.

Jeff Cranson:

Well we appreciate that, and I kind of wondered, since you're a lifelong Dodgers fan, how long it is you'll be in Phoenix before you adopt the D-backs, because they're playing pretty well too.

Lloyd Brown:

When the Dodgers come to town it's like a Dodgers home game around here. The legacy of Vince Scully and the old AM broadcast coming across the desert into Phoenix lingers here and the fan base is really, really strong in Phoenix for the Dodgers. I actually feel sorry for the Diamondbacks when the Dodgers come to town because it can be overwhelming at times in the stadium to see all the Dodgers fans kind of drown out those that are there to root on the Diamondbacks.

Jeff Cranson:

All right, any of you kids listening to the podcast. I'll have Lloyd talk to you later and explain what AM is. So first story that really caught my interest this week was what Washington State is doing with road user charges. That's been much discussed in Michigan and other states. Everybody knows that we're going to have to do something as we transition to EVs. I mean already it was a problem just relying on gas taxes because we're driving more efficient vehicles. Since you're lived much of your life in Washington State, do you think that there's something culturally there that makes people more amenable to this than maybe some other states? Is that part of what's going on there?

Lloyd Brown:

I think some of that is the case under the current governor and even the previous governor, Gregoire. There has been interest in investing in transportation and trying to make the economy function better with a good transportation system. So there have been several gas tax increases. There also was a carbon tax that's either been floated or I think it's just getting off the ground now. So they're investing in infrastructure. But still, if you're up in the Northwest and driving, especially the Puget Sound area, there continue to be choke points and troublesome spots in the region that I think can be troubling if you're looking into the future for growth and the economy and the environment up there. So, yeah, they want to continue to invest.

Lloyd Brown:

And what you're seeing, too, is the influence of Oregon. Oregon had a road user charge study going back as far as the mid-2000s. They started looking into this and have done several pilots and have implemented different versions of it real early in what I would call the evolution of a road user charge or vehicle miles tax. But yeah, I think that's pretty much what's there. There's another influence as well, and it's the influence of the technology industry. Microsoft is there and other big tech firms are based there, and so you have this marriage between an interest in trying to resolve transportation issues, how it affects the environment, and then also bringing in the technology, and so it makes it a natural hotbed or place for this kind of analysis and research.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah. So that's what I kind of meant by the cultural component of this, that you are more likely to trust the technology, Although it was interesting to me that they said the data that they found in this pilot was that 70% of the people said they were satisfied with the process, the road user charge, but the same things came up there that come up everywhere else. And the first thing people cite is privacy and location, which still kills me because we all carry a phone that tracks us anyway. So why they're worried about it in their cars? I mean, you've been dealing with this longer than I have and this funding issue. I mean, as a journalist, I puzzled about it and explored it and wrote about it and I mean, what do we do as a society as long as people say, I know we need to spend more on roads? And then you say, okay, how about if we do this? Nope, I don't want to do that. Well, how about if we do this? Nope, don't want to do that. So I mean, are we going to acquiesce behind this eventually?

Lloyd Brown:

Well, you and I have spoken a lot, Jeff, about the words we use to talk about various aspects of the transportation, what we do in transportation. For instance, when we talk about crashes and people want to say they are accidents and you and I both agree that there are no accidents, they're crashes and it's important that we call it that way. I think too, that there's a little bit of a language disconnect in how we talk about the transportation system. When we talk about tolled lanes versus non-tolled lanes, they're often called well, they're free. Well, they're not free, you're paying for them. You've paid for them at the gas pump in most cases, and the reason why the gas tax was so popular when actually Oregon was the first state to institute a gas tax, was because it was an efficient way of collecting that tax. It did not cost the government very much to collect a fee in the gasoline manufacturing and at the pump. So it was very efficient to collect that gas and so gas tax. So a lot of that money went directly back into the highway funds. I think part of what we're facing is people have this idea that what they have existing is paid for, and then it was free, and now you're going to ask them to pay more for something, and if they're going to pay more, they need more, and so you see a lot of instead of HOV lanes, now you see high occupancy toll lanes. They're giving you an additional service. To go along with it, there's an added feature, there's an improvement that is being paid for with these toll collection projects. That, I think, ultimately, is where we are.

Lloyd Brown:

by the way, road user charge vehicle mileage traveled, it's great.

Lloyd Brown:

Lloyd Brown:

Technology is continuing to evolve and I think that you're going to see rapid evolution of this here in the next four or five years, because the technology is becoming so sharp and the vehicles themselves are becoming even smarter than they already are.

Lloyd Brown:

But I don't think that people understand how much it costs to actually collect that fee. There's more overhead, there's more paper processing not paper in the real sense but there's more financial processing that goes along with that, and so that efficiency that was in the collection of the gasoline tax isn't necessarily there in some of the vehicle miles traveled. So while we try and replace dollar for dollar, it's actually going to cost us more, which is ultimately going to mean that we have to collect more and not as much as going to get back into the transportation system. So it's what we need to do for a lot of reasons. Equity is one of them. It also allows us freedom away from a carbon-based fuel system and gets us into something that's more appropriate for a non-carbon-based fuel environment, but it's not without its risk and challenges as we go forward.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, I think the most fundamental point you made, though, is about the misperception about what free is, and probably because in the earliest days, we had toll roads, and if they weren't a toll road, they were called a freeway, and it reminds me of debates in Congress about free college tuition. It's like, well, it's not free. Nothing's free. The professors wouldn't get paid if it was free, so I think that's right.

Lloyd Brown:

We've done focus groups I think you and I've talked about this before, Jeff where we've done focus groups. We've done focus groups back in Washington DC when I was there and we would ask the question about vehicle miles traveled or collecting a fee for miles traveled, and the focus group would immediately shut down. And then as we began to explain the program in the next three or four follow-up minutes, then all of a sudden there was more openness to it and then there were more questions about it. So there really is a steep learning curve. Even with my own wife I was explaining it to her years ago she says well, I'm not going to do that and I go. So we talked about it and what she misunderstood at this core level was that we were going to put a vehicle miles tax on top of an existing gas tax, not that they would replace. And when I said that, no, it would just replace dollar for dollar, she goes oh well, then I don't care, as long as I'm paying what I'm paying now, I don't care.

Jeff Cranson:

So can you talk to 3 million or 30 million people?

Lloyd Brown:

Yeah, well, that would be the way to do it. Maybe if we had a budget the size of some of our major brands out there, we would have a fighting chance, but so far no one's wanting to fund that kind of public engagement outreach program.

Jeff Cranson:

No, I mean, it really does come down to those kinds of conversations, though. It's like just sit down and explain it and, yeah, knock down the misperceptions. So another thing that's interested me, but I've been paying attention to it and I think this is on the periphery for a lot of people, but they're really not tuned into it. E-bikes are really taking off around here and I'm sure it's probably true there, although not as many people probably want to ride a bike right now, whether it's electric or not, in Phoenix when it's 112 degrees. But you're a cyclist. Have you given any thought to an E-bike?

Lloyd Brown:

I have seen a lot of e-bikes. I was out in the desert recently when the temperatures were much cooler, so apparently it wasn't that recently. It was a few months ago and I'm riding along and this person came just zooming by me and I realized that they were on a very fancy, tricked-out mountain bike that had an electric motor on it. So I've seen them. They look fun and I understand the value of it. They can really provide some mobility for people who maybe can't still pedal or perform at the same level that they used to, or wouldn't try it without some sort of assistance. I think that there's real opportunity there. It's not ever going to replace completely those of us who like to get out on the roads and pedal our legs off, but I think that there's good reason for why people want to use them.

Jeff Cranson:

So that brings me to the issue of the day, which is these increasing reports of the fires, and a lot of it seems to be linked to cheaper batteries and battery care, but I don't know. Are you hearing much about that in the West?

Lloyd Brown:

Not in the cycling community per se, and I spend a lot of time reading about bicycles and cycling and that sort of world, so it's not something that has bubbled up per se, because I think the people that are cycling seriously and are using battery assistance are probably paying more of a premium for those bicycles. The article that you're referencing points out that a lot of the fires are anecdotally being blamed on cheap batteries and low-cost bicycles and electric vehicle options coming over from manufacturing in Asia that maybe are lower value, lower production quality and leading to some trouble there, Not unlike the hoverboards we saw maybe 10 years ago or 12 years ago. Some of those came over and people were, Christmas trees were going up in flames and that sort of thing.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's a good point. That's a good point and that's what that tech crunch story pointed out why they're more likely to explode in their lower quality manufacturing and I thought it was interesting instead of the battery company's cut corners or used cheap materials, it's more likely to be a defect that can lead the cells to expand and bulge. So if they bulge, they burst, which can cause thermal runaway, which is a good way of saying fires.

Lloyd Brown:

So, Jeff, extrapolate that out just a little bit. I also am an old gearhead and I really used to like to work on combustion engines, cars, and under the shade tree with my stepdad we very likely would grab used batteries and throw them in an electric vehicle if we had one, just to get them back on the road. I think as the electric vehicle market matures, you're going to see more electric vehicle repair, battery replacement services and things of that nature. So what I thought when I read that article in Tech Crunches boy, we should be watching the electric vehicle, the car market as we get into used cars and we get into people looking to extend the life of their electric vehicles. They're going to be more, more shade tree mechanics, more people offering services and perhaps some issues going on there.

Jeff Cranson:

You know. That reminds me that in the earliest days I remember a guy named Jay Hakes who was the head of the Energy Information Office in DC and later he went to work for the Jimmy Carter Library, ran the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta really smart guy. And he wrote a book probably 20 years ago called A Declaration of Energy Independence and talked to them about the possibility that we would just pull into the version of a gas station, a battery station, and just swap out our battery and keep going and then you wouldn't have a lot of time charging. But that idea never really seemed to catch on and hasn't caught on.

Lloyd Brown:

There recently was an article about a pilot project coming to the United States. It's something that's been tried. I know there's been some VC capital invested in the idea. I think over in the Middle East and Europe they've had some demonstration projects of that very type of thing. You have to get into a kind of manufacturing environment where you have a standardization of battery. The batteries themselves are easily accessible. So there's some systematic manufacturing concepts that would need to be in place for it ultimately to work very well. But it's an idea with merit and people certainly are interested in it.

Jeff Cranson:

So the next thing you'd be talking about is uniformity in cords that charge our phones. Oh, Apple. We will continue the conversation right after a quick break.

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Jeff Cranson:

The other topic that I thought was really interesting that was in the news this week transportation news was that study on slower driving, and it's not surprising that pedestrians fare better on roads where people drive slower. But what was stunning to me because I spent a lot of time in Chicago was that Chicago drivers were cited as tending to drive slower, as they said out of this data that more than 60% of the city's major pedestrian roadways have average vehicle speeds under 25 miles per hour compared to the national average, which is 36%. So I don't know what did you make of that, and I know it leaves some questions to be answered, but I got to believe pedestrian advocates are saying, yes, you know more, more curves, more, more pinch points. You know anything that calms the traffic, please?

Lloyd Brown:

Absolutely. And what you're seeing is some of these major cities New York, D. C., San Francisco, Boston, all were equally also showed equal percentages of, you know, 60% or higher where their surface streets had the slower speeds. There are a few things that contribute to the severity of injuries for pedestrians One is the speed of the vehicle that they get hit by and the other is the size of the vehicle that they get hit by. And you know the vehicle manufacturers are continuing to make larger and larger vehicles, and so even battery powered electric vehicles. They're heavy because the batteries themselves weigh so much. So that's not necessarily something that cities and communities can make a difference on in the short term, but they can change their speed limits.

Lloyd Brown:

And so DC I don't know, it's been a number of years ago, five or six years ago just said if it's not an arterial road, it's going to be 20 miles per hour, if it's not posted, then it's going to be 20 miles per hour. And the whole goal was to try and calm traffic and slow people down, especially through neighborhoods. And if you've driven in Chicago, you know there's some pretty narrow streets. You probably shouldn't be driving over five to 10 miles an hour anyway on some of these narrow streets, through some of the neighborhoods, people park on both sides, kids are playing. It can be pretty crazy. So why would you have that at 25 or 30 miles an hour when you know it just makes sense to go, you know, slower?

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I just I think that some, some changes could result from this data. I mean, some changes are already happening. People are focusing on this, and there's the distracted driving element too, you know, pedestrians are. Well, I guess there's distractions for everybody, there's distractions for pedestrians too.

Lloyd Brown:

Have we just given up on the distracted driving Jeff, jeff? Because I tell you, either I'm either on bicycle bicycle or or walking. I tend to walk to work, unless it's 100 and whatever it is outside in Phoenix now nowadays but but you look over and somebody's on there on their phone every time and I don't understand why. Here we are. It's 2023. We've had cell phones for 20 years at least, ubiquitously. You know they're everywhere and people still continue to be on their phones. What? How have we just completely abandoned our moral outrage over that?

Jeff Cranson:

Well, you probably saw that Governor Whitmer here in Michigan signed recently legislation to ban handheld devices in vehicles, joining putting us what is we're in the mid 20s now in states that have done that. So you know, that's something you know the hardcore advocates would say. Even that's not enough, that even Bluetooth you're still distracted and that's true, but I don't know that are you more distracted by using your phone on Bluetooth than you were over the years? You know, flipping in CDs or tuning your AM radio or eating french fries? Yeah right, exactly All those things.

Jeff Cranson:

So, yeah, there's been some kind of distraction since vehicles you know were made so. But but you're right, I think that we accept that you just do that. And you know, when Ohio passed theirs, they built in a grace period where if police saw it as a primary enforcement issue, they would issue warnings for the first few months. I have not checked in now that it's been it's been several weeks since that legislation took effect here how various law enforcement agencies are handling it. So that's something I'll have to look into. I'm curious about, I know, does Arizona have that law? I'm guessing they don't.

Lloyd Brown:

It does. It has a hands free law here in Arizona.

Jeff Cranson:

Okay, so it's one of the states, and yet you still see a bunch of people holding their phones. It sounds like.

Lloyd Brown:

Absolutely. It probably most often not up to the ear on speaker or texting at a stoplight, I think, is another thing I see quite a bit yeah.

Jeff Cranson:

I wonder if there's confusion about the speaker thing, because it's still handheld but they might think that's okay somehow. You know it's not.

Lloyd Brown:

Yeah, when you put it up to your ear, that's when you get really distracted. If you're just talking onto a speaker, it's not a problem.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, exactly. So I mentioned to you that I wanted to do something. Some of the podcasts I listened to do this and I used to do this with talking Michigan politics years ago when I was a journalist and launched that before everybody and their dog had a podcast we do at the end of a segment, my partner then at Golder and I would each bring a conversation starter or a story that we had read, something that you know might have gotten by a lot of people, that we just thought was interesting. So you got one.

Lloyd Brown:

Oh, you're putting me on the spot.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, think about it a minute and I'll tell you mine.

Jeff Cranson:

It's this, this story I heard about because it was a listener Submission on Slate's political gap fest.

Jeff Cranson:

So then I looked it up In the Alaska beacon of all places, and it's this incredible story about students in Angoon who worked their butts off with a professional carver over the course of a year to build a dugout canoe and launch it, and part of it was that it was a war style canoe, reminiscent of the late 19th century, when the Tlingit people, people's of the region, were bombarded by the US Navy. It's one of the more oppressive, repressive things that in our country's history and they've never been properly apologized to. So the students did this and launched it, got the whole community involved and it is a ceremony just to kind of, you know, honor that memory of what happened there and then honor their culture and their history. And it's just was really cool, it was a chilling and moving story to read and the students, you know, did their cultural dances and songs as part of the ceremony. And I don't know, I just I found it really moving and it's got a transportation element right because it's a canoe.

Lloyd Brown:

Well, and our Navy attacked them. That is also something that you just don't see very often or hear about very often. Yeah, one of those lost chapters of history.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, exactly, and it was. It was this interesting history, so.

Lloyd Brown:

I think when I read this morning, Jeff was actually out of Axios, and it was how There's an AI showrunner Application that has just been rolled out and the demonstration of the AI showrunner Allows somebody to type in a prompt and the AI bot will produce a South Park short based on that story idea. And South Park was not part of that. It was not.

Lloyd Brown:

It was not, and the showrunner developers promise that they are not doing a South Park, that this is just part of their demonstration, but it raises all kinds of interesting issues around what does it mean to actually produce content? And it's in the context now of the ongoing strike with the actors and with the screenwriters and all that Hollywood is embroiled in regarding streaming and creative development and really the whole structure, the financial structure of Hollywood is wrapped up in that. It just got me just turned around the flagpole on that one. I just couldn't quite get my whole brain around. What is this really going to look like in four or five years?

Jeff Cranson:

Say, it's like anything right, how do we harness it for its best and minimize the worst? And that's going to be a very difficult thing and it's going to create a lot of ethical dilemmas for a lot of people.

Lloyd Brown:

I don't want to be a downer, but I haven't seen a lot of evidence lately that we have the capability to kind of rein these things in, especially when a movie like Oppenheimer is getting ready to run through the theaters and what was started there and what it's become, I don't know. We hope for the best, I guess, and look for opportunities to kind of use it in its best intended purpose.

Jeff Cranson:

Are you saying that we're not as advanced on our Darwin scale as you'd like us to be? Is that what you're suggesting?

Lloyd Brown:

Something like that, Jeff yeah.

Jeff Cranson:

I'm very excited about seeing Oppenheimer too. I think it'll be. You know it'll be probably hard to watch for a lot of reasons, but it's an important, important history, important to understand what was going on in the times and try to extrapolate from the context of the times to where we are now. So thanks as always, Lloyd, I appreciate it. Always fun to hash things out with you.

Lloyd Brown:

Any chance I can get to hang out with you, Jeff, I'll take it, so really appreciate the invite.

Jeff Cranson:

I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debber, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

Transportation Funding Challenges and Road Charges
Electric Vehicles and Slower Driving Challenges
Vehicle Size, Speed, and Pedestrian Injuries
Advancements on Darwin Scale and Historical Understanding