Podcast Transcript 301: Bringing Back the Carpool

November 8, 2020

This week we’re chatting with Dani Simons, head of Public Sector Partnerships at Waze. Simons chats with us about Waze’s focus on carpooling, how the company uses data to support its users, and her impressions of other country’s transportation progress.

This episode originally appeared at Streetsblog USA and a full transcript is below.

Jeff (0s):
You’re listening to the Talking Headways Podcast Network. This is Talking Headways, a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and urban design. I’m Jeff Wood. This week, we’re chatting with Dani Simons, head of public sector partnerships at Waze. Danny chats with us about Waze’s focus on carpooling, how the company uses data to support its users and her impressions of other countries’ transportation progress. Stay with us. Today’s podcast is brought to you by The Overhead Wire Media’s production of Raymond Unwin’s “Town Planning in Practice.” If you want to purchase our recent audio book production of this 1909 classic, go to raymondunwin.com and click on the link to Awesound.

Jeff (42s):
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JW (1m 48s):
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Jeff (2m 24s):
Dani Simons, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Dani Simons (2m 29s):
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jeff (2m 31s):
So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dani Simons (2m 34s):
Sure. I don’t even even know where to start. (Laughs) My name is Dani. I am the head of public sector partnerships for Waze, which is the world’s largest crowdsource navigation app, and recently launched a service called Waze Carpool, which is a peer to peer carpool matching platform, really taking from the idea that Waze has a global community of millions of drivers around the globe. If we can nudge a small percentage of them to drive with someone else, we could have a pretty big impact on reducing traffic prior to Waze I’ve spent about 20 years working in sustainable transportation. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked for city government, and I worked for a private company that I’m sure no one’s ever heard of called Citi Bike and Motivate later and help do government relations and communications across all of their bike share systems across North America.

Dani Simons (3m 25s):
And I am super excited to be here and have a conversation with you. I’ve been a long time listener and reader of your newsletter, and I’m just really excited to get to chat with you today.

Jeff Wood (3m 36s):
Thanks for reading and listening. We appreciate that. How’s the pandemic treating you.

Dani Simons (3m 41s):
You know, I feel super lucky in some ways I feel very grateful that Waze, and Waze is owned by Google, has been an incredibly generous employer in this time. And I just feel very appreciative of that. And we have great tools in terms of being able to work remotely and collaborate with our teams and our team was already globally dispersed. So I already had a little bit of practice working with people from a remote perspective in the past, but you know, the day to day, that is tough. We have a three year old, we didn’t have childcare for awhile. We’ve been juggling all of that stuff, trying to figure out how to keep him safe, our older parents safe. And, you know, I think everyone’s just going through a lot right now.

Jeff Wood (4m 19s):
Yeah, for sure. Where does your love of transportation come from?

Dani Simons (4m 24s):
My love of transportation I think I can trace back really to my first job out of college. I was an AmeriCorps Vista member in Providence, Rhode Island, and even taking a step back from that as an undergrad, I studied a lot of GIS and remote sensing. I was very fascinated by how you could use computer technology to get a better understanding of where you might want to place nature reserves. And I got really good at being able to tell you where an aggregation of pixels of a certain type would suggest there might be intact forest, that you might go and design a nature reserve around. And as I got closer to the end of my college experience, I realized that I had been a complete dummy because my college actually wasn’t focused or specialized in that topic at all. My college had a huge focus on working with local communities and had a huge tradition, actually of working really deeply with the Providence community, a lot around lead poisoning and things like that.

Dani Simons (5m 13s):
And they really wanted students to be out in the community, doing projects that help benefit the greater world around them. Meanwhile, I spent all my time locked in the computer lab, looking at these satellite images of places in Vietnam. So I decided when I finished, I wanted to really understand how you would work with community members and how you would do some community organizing, because I thought like, it’s cool. You can see what the computer tells you, but it’s really important to understand what people want. And I was an AmeriCorps Vista member with the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project in Providence, Rhode Island. And the concept was to build a greenway along a strip of river that would connect downtown Providence with the West side of Providence, which was very economically depressed and had been an old industrial base and a lot of industrial manufacturing jobs there.

Dani Simons (5m 55s):
And obviously those went away through the sixties, seventies, eighties, and had left the West side in pretty rough shape. And it was really fascinating to learn what people wanted and didn’t want through that experience and to really see how something that was fundamentally, you know, I thought of it as a transportation project, but how it started to touch on so many different aspects of people’s lives in terms of economic development, in terms of public health, the river while I was there got declared a federal Superfund site. There was all sorts of health disparities in those neighborhoods, partly because of the housing stock and the lead paint, partly because of the environmental toxins still are there because of the industrial legacy.

Dani Simons (6m 36s):
And partly because people didn’t really have access to healthy physical activity. And then you had all sorts of things layered on top of that. And I started to get fascinated by this idea of how transportation is so multifaceted. It touches so many different aspects. It seems like it can never get boring whenever you’re working on it. There’s always a way to kind of turn it over and find a new angle or a new way in. And for me, it just started kind of a lifelong fascination with it. And it also really ties, I think something I really thought about just from that beginning experience and then meeting people like Enrique Penalosa and meeting some other really amazing leaders in this field, the mandate to try to provide safe and affordable transportation for people at all different sectors of society feels really essential to me.

Dani Simons (7m 19s):
If you can’t get to opportunity, if you’re cut off from opportunity, how are you going to do anything else? Like how are you going to be able to carve out a better life for yourself and your family? And so for me, that’s sort of been a centering factor I think in my work in transportation is really thinking about how we can create a safer and more equitable transportation system for everyone.

Jeff Wood (7m 39s):
Yeah. And you mentioned Enrique Penalosa and you worked at ITDP and it has a more international focus. I’m curious, in your opinion, how do other countries see transportation differently than we do it here in the US from your experience working in that realm?

Dani Simons (7m 51s):
I think I was really grateful to have the experience at ITDP and it gave me a real comparative view, I think, onto how different places approach transportation. I think at the end of it, I probably learned more about how and thought more about how people use public communication and community organizing a little bit differently in all of those places. I was really thinking about how we can work with the field staff in each of our different field offices to kind of shape hearts and minds around different transportation projects, kind of taking what I had learned at New York city DOT and trying to figure out like, how do you actually make that appropriate in India, in China, where the press works totally differently in Bogota, Colombia, and just places all around the world.

Dani Simons (8m 33s):
And I think I learned a lot about how those frameworks worked. I think in terms of transportation, you know, some of the cliches are true. Being in China one month and talking to the mayor about a possible BRT system and then going back six months later and the entire center of the town has been dug up and there’s a line going in because someone thought it was a good idea. It just turns around like, that is pretty amazing. And it’s not just a cliche where we’re like, “Oh, they do it faster in China.” It was like, actually getting to see, like when they decided to do something, they just did it. There’s a downside to that obviously they’re, you know, don’t have as robust environmental impact process and things like that. And I think things can go sideways, but it’s also kind of amazing to look at places where they’re just like, “Okay, yeah, that’s the right thing to do.

Dani Simons (9m 18s):
We’re going to do it.” And to kind of think about how long sometimes it takes here to even get a single bike line put in and whatever hand-wringing process that can be. So that was also something that was kind of amazing to get to see firsthand. And I think in places like Bogota getting to see some of the projects that Enrique Penalosa talks about, getting to see them up close and personal and firsthand was really meaningful to me to see the neighborhoods where he talks about having made a commitment to invest in the infrastructure for biking and walking and just leaving the cars to be driving in the dirt path on the side is very powerful to see that firsthand, like what that looks like when you actually to say like, “You know what, we’re going to build the streets for the people who use the most and in our community, it’s people who bike and walk and we’re going to make sure that those investments are actually seen in the physical infrastructure.”

Dani Simons (10m 2s):
That was pretty amazing as well.

Jeff Wood (10m 4s):
And now during the pandemic, there’s cities all over the world that are doing some really interesting stuff. Have there been any that impressed you specifically?

Dani Simons (10m 10s):
I’m going to say, first of all, I think that city leaders have been so stressed in this time. And I think heads of transportation departments, I think have faced incredible challenges. You know, we were just talking briefly about like, “Oh my poor personal struggles” and trying to juggle childcare and things like that. But you have heads of big agencies who have lost staff members. They have staff members who have lost family members and are grieving. You have people who are, you know, never work remotely and never use video conferencing. Everyone has had to figure out so much, so quickly. So I think it’s just incredible that they’re doing all of that. And they’re also figuring out how to quickly turn around permits for open dining and open streets and things like that.

Dani Simons (10m 55s):
It’s pretty remarkable. I think that the places that, you know, I’m looking to the most and then kind of feeling the most impressed by are places that are really putting in real robust biking infrastructure, taking advantage of this time to put in place better bus lanes, taking this time to think about how they’re, you know, restructuring bus service to accommodate people who really are fundamentally reliant on the bus and prioritized service for those essential workers right now. I think that it’s been interesting. I don’t know that anyone sort of has a silver bullet and has done it completely right. I would say Milan’s program to create more cycling space like on a per capita per street mile basis is really, really robust and exciting to see.

Dani Simons (11m 38s):
London has made some really remarkable commitments to biking. I think San Francisco and Los Angeles both are trying to take a really interesting approach with their bus service and really prioritizing essential workers. I think it’s unfortunate because I think that that’s coming right on the edge of massive service cuts for all bus riders. And that feels really frightening to me. I think that New York has done incredible work with the open dining program and it hasn’t been perfect, but it’s just, you see it everywhere. And it’s remarkable when you think how many permits had to be issued, how many inspections had to be done and just the enormous sort of pivot of an agency to try to keep restaurants in business and try to give them enough rope to kind of continue to make some money, to make their way through this very challenging time.

Dani Simons (12m 19s):
So I think all of that is really interesting. I think there’s a lot that hasn’t been done. And I think that there’s some opportunities that are being missed right now. And I think when you think about, I’ve been looking at this for New York and looking at what they did after 9/11 and during the transit strike in 2005, and they had a very robust plan for managing traffic during those times, and to really prevent this city from just totally tipping over towards being so dependent on single occupancy vehicles. After 9/11, people didn’t really want to get on public transportation and there was 9/11, and then there was the anthrax scare that happened shortly thereafter. And I think people were really nervous about getting back on public transit.

Dani Simons (12m 60s):
The city put in place a very robust system that first forbid any cars from South of Canal Street and second, limited single occupancy vehicle entry into Manhattan from South of 63rd street from 6:00 AM. I think it was started to be from 6:00 AM to 11, and then it was relaxed from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM, but no single occupancy vehicles were allowed to enter Manhattan South of 63rd street. And that lasted for months. And it really helped, I think, nudge people into carpooling. It nudged them into, some of them getting back on public transit and it nudged some people to commute at slightly off peak hours and have more flexible work schedules. I think all of which would be highly desirable right now and would help more people get back to work that were comfortable going back to work.

Dani Simons (13m 46s):
And you just don’t see that kind of bigger picture thinking yet. I think that a lot of cities are kind of first and foremost and understandably so, I think people are really freaked out about what’s going to happen with transit and the funding for transit. And that seems to be for sure their priority beyond just like taking care of their staff and making sure that their staff are healthy and safe. And I can understand that, but I think we have to like continue to go farther faster on this. I think in addition to thinking about HOV restrictions and an HOV network, you would also be great to see cities doing more. And I think San Francisco has started to do some of this, but really reclaiming street space for bus ways and bus lanes. New York is going to start to do more of this. There’s a new J street bus lane that’s going in the end of August.

Dani Simons (14m 29s):
And the city is trying to ramp up a few more, they’re getting a lot of pushback. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but really trying to take this time when there are fewer cars during rush hour driving, at least to reclaim some of that space for other modes is really important.

Jeff Wood (14m 42s):
You mentioned carpooling. That’s something that Waze is really focused on. I’m curious how that came about. I know about the anthropomorphic bubble cars that travel around inside the program when you’re driving, but why carpooling?

Dani Simons (14m 54s):
So the mission of Waze used to be basically that we would all share information as we’re driving to share reports about what going on on the road in real time. And that together we could all help each other save a few minutes and traffic and reduce traffic a little bit. And I think that’s amazing. And when you look at what comes in through our user reports on a monthly basis, and what comes in through the data that we get from our map editors, we have, you know, 12 million users that submit reports every month. We have map editors that are making about 53 million map edits every month. That’s incredible. And that information really does help drivers save a few minutes here and there on their trip. But at the end of the day, the problem isn’t about like, how can we save a few minutes?

Dani Simons (15m 38s):
It’s that there’s too many of us all together on the roads every day and there’s too much traffic and it’s us. We are the traffic. And so our CEO Noam Bardin started to think about, well, how could you tap into this community? And it really is a community. This is something that I think really makes Waze different and something I don’t think I fully understood until I started working here, but people are very passionate and engaged with our app in a different way, because there is the idea of, you know, crowd source reporting and this idea of thumbs up when you see something that someone else has reported, if it’s still there. I think it’s figuring out how you tap into that passion and then use it to make less traffic and carpool kind of grew out of that to say, we know that everyone who is using Waze is using Waze cause they’re sick of traffic.

Dani Simons (16m 21s):
They think traffic sucks. And so let’s engage people and empower them to do something about it beyond just reporting. When they see it on the roadways, like great, there’s a traffic jam. I clicked the button. Let’s actually give them a tool that they can use to make less traffic in the first place. And so that was sort of the genesis for Waze carpool. It’s a peer to peer carpool app. So the idea isn’t that we would have private drivers, the idea is that, you know, you’re going somewhere and you can offer someone a ride in your car and we could make that an easier and more seamless experience. I think my dad used to carpool to the Smithsonian when I was a kid and it was a very analog experience. He would ask around his office to try to find someone to carpool with, you had places and office places that it would have like a bulletin board that you would tack something up and ride sharing boards kind of sprung out of that and took it online.

Dani Simons (17m 8s):
But it was essentially the same experience that didn’t really change since the seventies. This adds a new layer of technology. And I think really makes it easier for people to find other people to carpool with. There’s no blind matching. You can choose who you want to ride with. You can choose to do it one day a week. I think that was something from my experience in biking. And I would often hear it from women that would say, “I would love to bike, but I don’t think I’ll be like a bike commuter. Like that seems like a, you have to do it five days a week if you’re a bike commuter, I don’t, you know, I can’t do that. I can do it one day a week.” I’m like, you’re still a bike commuter. Like you can still commute by bike. It could be, you know, flexible and it could fit into your lifestyle however you want it to. And I think the same with carpooling, this makes it easy to say, you know what, like meatless Mondays, I’m going to do carpool Fridays and that’s going be the day that I’m going to ride with someone else or give someone else a ride.

Dani Simons (17m 53s):
And I think it helps kind of people ease into a new type of behavior. And I think it makes it feel more flexible and modern. And it’s sort of in keeping with the other transportation experiences that we’re having today.

Jeff Wood (18m 5s):
I think sometimes as advocates, we are really focused on the cities and the mobility options that are available to us. I grew up in a suburb of Houston and it was very different obviously. I mean, my dad took the bus to work downtown, but it seemed like carpooling was a better option because if you weren’t going downtown, there was nowhere the bus took you. And actually I took the bus downtown recently from my friend’s house. And he was like, “Why are you, why are you taking the bus?” And I was like, “I want to take this bus line. My dad took for so many years,” and he and his wife just couldn’t understand. They’re like, “Are you sure, I can drive you downtown?” And I was like, “No, I want to take this bus line.” But I’m curious about like outside of center cities, outside of places where there’s a robust transportation network, how does carpooling fit in?

Dani Simons (18m 46s):
I think it’s super important. And I think too many people are too focused on the short distance commute, and there’s a lot of them, right? Like if you look at the number of trips that are being taken in Midtown Manhattan, that’s a lot of the trips that are being taken in New York city period. And that’s one of the reasons that when you look at the kind of program design for CitiBike, they started with densely pack stations in the core of Manhattan because they knew that would serve a lot of trips, but it serves a certain type of trip. And we know that as our cities have gotten more successful, the way that our sort of center cities look have really changed, and it tends to be wealthier, whiter people that now can afford that real estate in our center cities. And we see that people who are poor and Black and Brown are getting pushed further out and have longer commutes and more complicated commutes, maybe multi-state rides in many transfers or transfers between different modes.

Dani Simons (19m 35s):
And I think we don’t spend enough time thinking about how we’re serving those folks and what modes we’re making available for them. I think carpooling fits really well because it is so flexible. I think longer term, we want to think about land use reform and changing structures of how we provide affordable housing and how we incentivize people to live more densely so that all commutes could be shorter. It’s better for the planet, it’s better for our mental health, all the things that you know and your listeners know, but in the interim, what do you do? So you can choose to run more bus lines that might or might not be affordable and make economic sense, depending upon how much you’re able to aggregate.

Dani Simons (20m 16s):
Carpool can be super, super flexible in terms of what it’s doing and how it moves. And it can respond to the demands in different locations in a way that fixed transit, even if it’s bus fixed transit, really can’t. And I think it can scale incredibly quickly and it is fairly affordable for people to take, especially when you compare it with like owning your own car or taking ride hail places or taking taxis places. And I think that it’s a solution that feels like it fits. And it has an important role in an interim world where we’re sort of working towards bigger expansions of transit or changing land use policies. Like this is something that could be there now and be a real lifeline for people who are trying to, you know, coming out of this pandemic I think looking for new job opportunities that might not be on the same bus line that they were on before.

Jeff Wood (21m 0s):
In the seventies, it was much bigger than it is now, carpooling. And I’m curious if you have looked into why it’s been reduced since then.

Dani Simons (21m 8s):
I think there’s a lot of reasons it’s been reduced since then, but like one of the things that I know that we are well positioned to address is the thing we just talked about a few minutes ago, which is that the experience of carpool didn’t really change in the seventies. You had the word of mouth to find a carpool partner, or maybe you had your bulletin board at the office, or maybe that bulletin board went online and it’s digital. It wasn’t a great experience. I signed up for some carpool services that are being provided by some MPOs in cities when I first started at Waze just cause like I’m a nerd and wanted to do my own kind of cultural anthropology and–

Jeff Wood (21m 44s):
As you do. (Laughs)

Dani Simons (21m 44s):
As I do. But what I got back from a lot of them was a list of names. Some of them had email addresses. A few of them had phone numbers and it was like, these are the people that you might want to carpool with. And I was like, now it’s on me to call or email 15 random strangers. Some of whom have AOL or like EarthLink accounts, which seem super current. (Laughs) And ask them randomly, if they want to carpool with me. That doesn’t feel like the same level of convenience. It’s just like I push a button and two minutes later, some guy comes to pick me up to take me anywhere in the world I want to go. Like, that’s just not, it’s not what we expect today in terms of our transportation experience. So I feel optimistic that with a platform like Waze Carpool and with the user base that we have of drivers that are already very passionate about Waze , we’re asking them to make a pretty small change.

Dani Simons (22m 35s):
Our app tries to optimize and minimize the deviation that you might make from your regular route, either as a driver or a rider, we try to make it really easy for you to know something about the person who might be getting in the car with you so that you don’t feel like you’re riding with a complete and total stranger. We do that both through profiles and you can actually communicate with the person you want to match with through the app without exposing your phone number or your EarthLink account. And we try to make it feel like a friendly, modern experience. That’s sort of like, someone from Waze is going to come afterwards and yell at me for saying this, but I feel like it’s like a combo between like a ride hailing service and a dating app put together and you can find your perfect match and decide to ride with them. And then maybe you become friends and maybe you talk about work and maybe you’re networking, or maybe you’re just meeting people in your community you wouldn’t have met before, but you’re doing something that feels, I think empowering because that’s sort of putting the power in your hands to reduce traffic.

Dani Simons (23m 28s):
And it also feels like it’s not a pain in the butt like some of the other carpooling matching programs have been in the past. Like, it feels like easy to do. And so it feels like there’s real potential there to nudge people into this more sustainable mode. And I, you know, we’re really interested in nudging people who are driving alone today, or maybe people who are transferring between three buses and taking three hours to get into work. And that doesn’t seem great for them either. Like we want this to be for people who do not have good access to transit or people who have just been traditionally driving alone.

Jeff Wood (23m 59s):
There’s other companies that do something similar. I’m curious if you took a look at them as well, not just the MPO operations. So companies like Scoop or, you know, other ones that are doing similar things. I know Scoop’s a little bit different in that I think that they operate to like employment centers and that they match people in kind of similar destinations. But I’m curious if you’ve taken a look at the others and seen what the differences are.

Dani Simons (24m 20s):
I played a little bit with Scoop, to tell you the truth it’s been a little while and I think they have an interesting product. They definitely work more directly with employers. We have a program within Waze Carpool where we actually work with employers also. And I think it’s important because employers are aggregators of trips. So I think that that’s like an important audience to reach with products like these. We also have partnerships with some of the platforms like RideAmigos and Loom, where they’re actually helping people choose modes on a more multimodal basis. And with RideAmigos especially actually rewarding and incentivizing different types of sustainable transportation behavior.

Dani Simons (24m 59s):
And so I see RideAmigos used both by cities and by employers. Loom seems to be more used by employers, but they might have city partnerships as well. And so a city might say, we have a goal to reduce driving alone by X percent. And so we’re going to give people, you know, 10 points every time they take any type of sustainable commute mode. And so RideAmigos will actually let you log trips that you’re taking, whether it’s on bike or bus or carpool, we integrate with them so that your carpool trips are automatically logged in their service. And so you can be earning any kind of rewards that are on offer, whether it be from your city or from your employer. And those rewards translate into sometimes it’s cash.

Dani Simons (25m 41s):
Sometimes it’s giftcards, sometimes it’s t-shirts and swag and stuff like that. But I think that that’s sort of another interesting tool that’s being used more now to try to directly incentivize people to keep it up with sustainable commuting.

Jeff Wood (25m 53s):
You know, Waze in the past has also had some controversy in that places like LA had situations where people along streets that didn’t get traffic before, even though it was a public street, were getting more traffic because of people using Waze to take different routes that they had not maybe known before. I’m curious if that still happens. I don’t see as much news about it anymore. It seems like something that came at one point it was a big fire and then it kind of died out a little bit.

Dani Simons (26m 18s):
Yeah. I mean, I will say we definitely do hear routing concerns from time to time. I think we try to work with cities and we have a very robust program that works with cities called Waze for Cities. And we have about 1600 government partners around the globe that are part of that program. And the program fundamentally is a two way data sharing program where a city shares with us road closure information and information about hazards that are on the roadways, any sorts of major traffic events, they can share with us crisis data like evacuation zones and shelter locations. And we in turn share back information that’s being generated by Waze users on the roadways. So same incident, data, traffic jam locations, unusual traffic events, back to cites.

Dani Simons (27m 1s):
What really comes out of that program is an open dialogue with cities about what’s going on in their cities, how are they using our data? What types of projects are they doing? How can we be maybe a better service to them? Or what concerns do they have about our service? And I think in places where we have those partnerships, it’s great because the city will just let us know like, “Hey, we’re doing this new thing. Can you guys support that in Waze?” And so we’re getting that, you know, in the case of New York city, we’ve worked with them on the 14th street bus way, and we’re working with them now with the J street bus way. With a lot of cities now that are doing open streets, we’re trying to take in their data about open streets and make sure that that’s in the app. We try to make sure that real changes to the road network are reflected very rapidly in Waze.

Dani Simons (27m 45s):
So that we’re reflecting what the current situation is with laws and whether that’s directionality or left turn restrictions or speed limits that that all gets reflected quickly and accurately in Waze. At the same time, our algorithm does route people along any publicly available street. And if our algorithm is detecting huge slowdowns on the arterials, it will start to look for ways around for our drivers. And that’s, I think where you start to get people seeing traffic on their residential streets. I don’t think that that’s unique to Waze. I think whether you’re using Waze or Google maps or Apple maps, or TomTom, or any of the number of other, like in-car OEM proprietary navigation services that exist now, that’s going to happen.

Dani Simons (28m 30s):
And I think that that is really where I come back to Waze Carpool, it’s like there’s too many cars on the street. We were creating, I mean, at least pre COVID, we were creating too much traffic. And the issue isn’t necessarily a navigation app or any one navigation app. The issue is that there’s too much traffic and we want to be active partners with cities and figuring out how to reduce the overall amount of traffic so that those spillover effects don’t happen.

Jeff Wood (28m 56s):
You’re talking about data collection, I’m curious if Waze users are more, are they more willing to share their data? Because they know they’re in this community, that that’s part of the deal. They share their data with the company and their friends and other drivers who are using that data to aggregate versus say, other folks who are worried about their data being used in nefarious ways, or non nefarious ways, but just worried about privacy, et cetera.

Dani Simons (29m 21s):
So I will say first off for Waze for cities, all of the data that we’re sharing is aggregated data. So we never share any data about you, Jeff, like where you’ve been drivin. (Laughs) We share data about where traffic jams occurring in cities, which is based on all of the different speeds that we’re detecting going over a road segment over a period of time. When we’re sharing hazard data, we’re sharing that like Waze users have reported a pothole here or 10 users have reported a pot hole here. So it’s nothing that could be tied back to personal data. So I think that that’s really important. That said, I mean, I think that our users are making these reports because they want other drivers around them to benefit from them.

Dani Simons (30m 3s):
They want another driver to know that there’s an object in the roadway, so they don’t smash into it and cause danger to life and limb, and also probably a huge traffic backup. I think they also report it because, and I hope that Waze users know this and I think, you know, talking about this, hopefully we’ll get some more people to know about it, but when they’re reporting it, in a lot of cases that data is being looked at by a government and the government is using that for response. And so we have some great examples from places like the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority uses our data and they’re able to incorporate it into their traffic management centers for the turnpike. And they’re able to see when incidents are coming in, they’re often getting incidents from our users faster than they would be able to detect it from cameras, which are obviously just placed at fixed points or their own 311 call centers.

Dani Simons (30m 54s):
They’re getting it from us faster. So it’s being able to improve their response time to go out when there is a crash or when there is an object in the roadway to clear those things and to get the roads back to normal operation quicker. We also have some amazing work that’s being done with researchers now from the University of Virginia is one example, but we have researchers from several other places that are interested in this, looking at where our users have reported water on the roadway, which is a type of report you can do. And they’re looking at that, pairing that with weather data and topographical maps, to be able to look at whether or not our data is helpful in helping create models that would predict when roadways would flood under different conditions.

Dani Simons (31m 40s):
And as we have, you know, a world with increasingly severe weather events, that becomes super important for places to be able to give drivers an advance alert when there are going to be heavy storms and tell them these roadways might flood or potentially even practically close roadways in places or plan which roadways are going to need retrofitting according to different climate forecasts and different flood prediction forecasts that are being adjusted for climate change. And I think that that’s all really interesting. And I think if users know that that’s where their reports are sort of going and the type of work that their reports can empower, like I hope that people will make even more of those reports on the roads and they’ll feel like their data is going towards these interesting projects that will make their cities better places.

Jeff Wood (32m 21s):
Have you been following the mobility data specification… I don’t want to call it an argument, more like a discussion.

Dani Simons (32m 27s):
I think when I first came to Waze, I was very fascinated about it and I was reading a lot about it. I feel like I haven’t tracked it as much since the pandemic started, probably because I’ve been tracking a lot of pandemic related stuff instead.

Jeff Wood (32m 42s):
Too much maybe, pandemic related stuff? I know that’s me too. It’s not a rare occurrence for sure. I only ask because of your past in bikeshare and thinking about, you know, micro mobility, it’s just something that’s been interesting, especially here in California because of the laws and stuff that people are trying to pass or trying to block and feel like they should be on your side, but they’re not on your side and there’s tensions. And I can’t quite articulate it correctly because it’s such a kind of a nebulous thing still to me. But I was just curious if you had any thoughts on that.

Dani Simons (33m 12s):
I think that the framework that Salita has when she talks about code being the new concrete is really fascinating. And I think the ability for cities to be able to give better direction about how to use street space or curb space or sidewalk space in real time to operators based on data flows coming in and out, I think that’s super interesting and I think it feels important and it feels right. The devil’s in the details in terms of like how you do that without compromising people’s personal information. And I think that there’s ways to do that. And I think that there’s a tension that I’ve perceived and I’ve been on both sides of this when I was at New York city DOT, and this is going back now, it feels like kind of a long time ago, but I was part of a cohort of people that was trying to actually open up city data sets for the first time, MTA data sets.

Dani Simons (33m 59s):
And Sarah Kaufman, who now is at the Rudin Center, was at MTA at the same time. And we were sort of peers, both inside of our agencies trying to get our agencies to be able to release more data to people in the civic tech world that wanted access to it because they thought that they could make interesting things with it. And this was like sort of as Google’s transit feed specification was being, which is now just the general trend, that feed specification was being developed. And there was a lot of hand wringing about how we could do that and what the legal terms around it would have to be and who was going to be liable and this, that, and the other thing. And it was tough. And so I was on that side of it and then going and being at CitiBike and bike share. And we were, you know, from the very beginning, we had to share a tremendous amount of data with the city of New York.

Dani Simons (34m 42s):
I felt that very much firsthand in the beginning our system was such that I had to actually be inside our office at 5:00 PM every day to be providing reports back to DOTC cause the data lived on a secure server that I did not have remote access to. So every single day, no matter what else I was doing, I had to drop everything and make sure I was back in my office by a certain time. And that was something that was so important, I think, to be able to tell the story of that program and to be able to monitor the impact of that program. And I think a big part of why I came to Waze in addition to Waze Carpool was that we had this approach of like here, like of course, like “Take this data. This should be yours.” Our users are generating it because they’re using public infrastructure. They’re driving on the roadways”

Dani Simons (35m 24s):
like you should have the information that we’re getting back from them to improve those public roadways and to create that virtuous cycle. I think what I’ve noticed in the past couple of years going to conferences is like cities have been trying to pull more and more data from private companies. And now they’re sort of at a point where they’re saying, Oh wait, wait, we’re drowning in data. We have so much of it. We’re not really sure what we’re doing with it. We’re not really sure how we’re going to use it.” And I think we’re sort of at an interesting intersection point where like, I think cities might need to like take a beat and just say like, okay, what problems are we trying to solve? What questions do we really need to answer? What’s the sort of simplest and most elegant way we can get there. What’s maybe the least possible amount of data we can take in to answer these questions and solve these problems so that we’re not so intrusive and things that might be, you know, personal to people and be not just flood their staff with numbers and stats and streams of data that might become so much as to become useless.

Jeff (36m 22s):
It’s so interesting. You know, when I was at Reconnecting America, some of the last things that we did before at the organization disappeared were a bunch of equity atlases, and I was starving for data, I was trying so hard to get health data. I was trying to get information about what the cities are doing, streets, bus networks, et cetera. And, you know, it was really hard. I had to go dig really deep or even make it myself. There was a number of times where I had to make frequent bus route maps myself, and have to go through the schedule and look individually at each line to see if it matched a 10 minute headway or not. And now we have too much and, you know, to some people it might be too much. And it’s interesting to see how that pendulum has swung over that amount of time. I mean, this is 2012, 2013, and now here in 2020, there’s so much, and there’s so much we can do.

Jeff (37m 5s):
And maybe we are a little bit overwhelmed by it.

Dani Simons (37m 7s):
Yeah. I think it can be, There’s the joy of much too much. And then there’s just much too much. Like it just becomes so overwhelming that you get kind of data paralysis. And I think two things can help with that. I think one is for the questions to be framed properly and people to be really clear about what they want the outcomes to be instead of just going on like a data fishing expedition and trying to get everything in the world. I think so many cities now have data repositories. I met someone from the Mexican government who called it a data lake, they were building a data lake and it was like, sounds like a cool and delicious place to take a swim. But I think framing the questions correctly so that you’re able to then pull the right datasets and ask the right questions of the data is really important.

Dani Simons (37m 48s):
And then I think the standardization question is also really important that something that’s important to us, we have standard formats that we would like cities to use to provide road closure data and to provide hazard data. We are pushing one standard of, you know, several different options that cities have. But when that data is standardized, I think it’s helpful for both cities and for data consumers as well, because you’re able to then compare data sets across different geographies or against different subject areas. And there needs to be some way to kind of join up this data together to be able to have a larger impact. And so I think in some ways the mobility data standard work is interesting because at least it will create kind of that framework when they get it right, which I’m sure that they will over time.

Dani Simons (38m 36s):
But I think having those standards is helpful. It also, you know, it helps industry like a bike share. It helped us know like, okay, this is what we have to provide. Like this is the standard and it wasn’t having to negotiate a different set of data with each different city. It was really like, okay, this is, these are the five points we can give you. And now we can build a system to deliver that efficiently to you so that I don’t have to be at my office every day at 5:00 PM, pulling it from like a SQLFury by myself on a secure server.

Jeff (39m 3s):
I hope you don’t have to do that now.

Dani Simons (39m 6s):
Actually, I got to go, this is… (Laughs) it’s coming on 4 gotta, gotta set up right now. No, thankfully I do not do that now. Thankfully we have amazing people who do data analytics and business intelligence for us, and now I can rely on their dashboards for all sorts of interesting insights.

Jeff Wood (39m 22s):
Nice. I have two more questions for you. The first one is I’m interested in walled gardens and the idea that a company like Uber or Lyft or any of these other organizations, even around the world that are kind of bringing all these services together to kind of dominate a market. I’m curious what you feel is the future of transportation in that sense, do you think that there will be ultimately walled gardens or do you think that we can become a society where transportation is a public service and a utility of sorts and move in that direction?

Dani Simons (39m 56s):
I believe that it’s going to be the second. I think that what we’re seeing now through the pandemic is the exposing of a lot of the underlying financial instability for some of these mobility companies that have existed for a long time and existed before the pandemic. But the pandemic has kind of exacerbated some of that. And when you’ve seen the rounds of layoffs from some of the, for hire vehicle companies and from some of the scooter companies and even some of the bike share companies, it really shows you that some of these businesses don’t actually make a ton of sense from a, from a purely private profit point of view. And I think some of the race to the walled garden is like, you have a need for diversification because the fundamental thing that you started your business with isn’t necessarily that financially sound.

Dani Simons (40m 42s):
And so you’re bringing all of these other lines to try to make profit in different ways. And then you want to keep your users within that universe. I’m just not sure that that works in the end. Like I think that so many things in transportation require subsidy and I think that’s okay. I think we should figure out where the private sector can both add value and they can generate some profit. I think we shouldn’t expect those profits to be 20 X Silicon Valley crazy profits. Right? Like I think that Motivate before it was acquired by Lyft was like going to be a good lifestyle business. Like I think it was going to be profitable. It wasn’t going to make people into gazillionaires like it, wasn’t going to get people their, like, you know, house on Mars, but it was going to be a business that was going to be able to pay its employees a decent wage and be able to help people move around cities in a fundamentally different way.

Dani Simons (41m 33s):
I think the problems come in when people think like, Oh, like we can somehow 20x our returns in transportation. And I just think that that’s kind of fiction. And so I think at the end of the day, like public private partnerships are going to be important to all of these businesses. I think fundamentally like cities shouldn’t allow there to be walled gardens. I think that cities and metropolitan areas, and maybe even larger entities should be thinking about how we manage transportation as more of a public resource and a public good and making sure that we are adequately serving all parts of the population and figuring out where it makes sense to have a private provider do some of that, which is like not a new thing, like private bus services have existed forever.

Dani Simons (42m 14s):
Like it’s really sort of, kind of figure that out in this modern context with different types of mobility options, kind of coming into this space.

Jeff Wood (42m 21s):
I feel like with each of the interviews that I’ve been doing recently, I’ve been becoming more and more frustrated with unregulated capitalism, just because of what’s going on in the pandemic and all this other stuff. And I feel like it just keeps showing itself as something that’s really frustrating, especially here in San Francisco. So I appreciate your answer.

Dani Simons (42m 40s):
Yes. Hopefully, no, one’s going to troll me, cause I do work for a Google owned company, so please don’t troll me.

Jeff Wood (42m 46s):
I think there’s, there’s something to be said for, you’re hoping for a house on Mars comment. I don’t think that you’re in it for that. So I’m not worried about you. What’s the future for Waze?

Dani Simons (42m 56s):
That’s a great question. I think if you’d asked me this question pre COVID, I would have said a hundred percent the future for Waze is carpool. And I still feel very bullish on, on Waze carpool, obviously this year when people aren’t commuting as much, it’s really challenging I think for that to be showing as much momentum as I would like it to be right now, but we’re definitely still looking at how we can provide the service for essential workers and really make carpooling work for people who do need to continue to go to work right now. I think the other thing for Waze that’s really important is really becoming more of a planning tool for people. And I think that that’s really important because we want to be able to encourage people to leave a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later if they can save a lot of time in traffic by doing so.

Dani Simons (43m 37s):
And we think if people start to use it in that way more, we can also have a better chance of encouraging drivers and nudging them more to carpool when it would make time sense or financial sense for them to do so. And we think that’s a huge potential. And so our partnerships with cities and getting more data from cities and getting more data from our users is a really important part of that. Because if we can actually present to drivers the reasons why we’re recommending that they might leave 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later in any given day. And we can say, well, because he’s closer to plan or because there’s a big event planned that day or the Pope’s come into town and going to visit, people will believe it. And people will follow up on those recommendations and take them to heart and kind of behave in a way that we think will be better overall for traffic, hopefully better for people’s sanity and ability to kind of cope with their commutes and hopefully start to drive more people towards the idea of carpooling and really taking advantage of some of the infrastructure that exists with HOV and HOT lanes and really taking advantage of the opportunity maybe to help a neighbor out who needs a ride.

Jeff (44m 35s):
Awesome. Well, Dani, I want to let you go, but we want to thank you for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Dani Simons (44m 46s):
Thank you so much. It was so great to talk to you and wonderful conversation, and I really appreciate it.

Jeff (44m 51s):
And thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of the Overhead Wire, on the web at theoverheadwire.com. Sign up for a free trial of the Overhead Wire Daily, our fourteen-year-old daily cities newslist, by clicking the link at the top right of theoverheadwire.com, and please please please support the pod by going to patreon.com/theoverheadwire. Many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Overcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. And you can always find its original home at USA.streetsblog.org. See you next time at Talking Headways.

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