DC suburban apps trying to cut emissions and increase equity get federal funding

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Qingbin Cui wants to change your ride – putting a dollar figure on acts of good conduct.

Backed by a new federal transportation grant, the University of Maryland engineer is trying to put a price on the exhaust pollution not emitted when a passenger takes the subway or a bus instead of driving. Next, he wants to make it easier to bundle individual emissions savings — from tens of thousands of transit riders — so they can be sold to businesses, colleges or other institutions trying to go green.

Electric vehicle maker Tesla has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in similar emissions credits, and “what we’re doing is trying to really copy those kinds of business models,” Cui said.

The project, which involves bolstering an existing app that Washington-area commuters can use to earn cash rewards when using public transportation, was funded by the Department of Transportation this month, in the part of $49 million in technology grants awarded to 14 states and the district. intended to promote innovation. In the Washington area, it will also mean creating a pilot ride-sharing program to support low-income workers.

Elsewhere, Washington State will design a terminal wait time system for ferry travelers. Chicago will give priority to buses at traffic lights. Kentucky will use a computer and video system to prevent wrong-way collisions.

The idea, according to Stephanie Pollack, acting federal highway administrator, is to fund technology projects “that others can learn from as national models.” Some are meant to push the boundaries of what’s possible and “test new innovations … that improve the lives of people in their communities,” Federal Transit Administrator Nuria Fernandez said in a statement.

166 infrastructure projects have received billions of dollars in federal funding

For years, Nicholas Ramfos, director of transportation operations programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, has overseen efforts to reduce traffic congestion and pollution by encouraging commuters to hop in a vanpool or on a train.

With the $250,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration, Ramfos said the regional group will create a pilot “microtransit” program in the DC area focused on poorer areas and limited access to public transportation. The organization includes 24 jurisdictions in the greater Washington area, spanning from Charles County, Maryland to Loudoun County, Virginia.

“The possibilities are endless,” he said.

A goal is to connect employers, such as hospitals, airports or landscaping companies, with workers struggling to find reliable and inexpensive transportation options to get to work, Ramfos said.

“Employers are struggling to hire people,” he said. “It’s partly because there’s not a good match between where the person lives and where the employers are.”

The project will focus on 364, or about a quarter, of the region’s census tracts the areas that the Council of Governments have identified as priorities for equity. These areas have a higher concentration of low-income residents or members of traditionally disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups, defined as black, Hispanic, Latino or Asian.

Ramfos said he and a team will try to connect people living in these areas with a flexible vanpool that will allow residents to book rides when and where they need them. It will cover areas across the region – not just in the urban center of the district, he said.

“Vanpooling has been pretty much decimated during the pandemic,” Ramfos said, though he said it started to rebound as some people came into the office more frequently. Van pools typically use private or employer-provided vans and have volunteer drivers, with ridership costs kept low through commuter benefits or subsidies.

As part of the pilot program, Ramfos and his team are looking to upgrade the Council of Governments’ CarpoolNow app and other tools to more easily connect users to existing carpooling routes and set up new routes where they are most needed.

At the University of Maryland, Cui is focused on upgrading another app, incenTrip, which she developed in partnership with the Council of Governments using previous federal grants. It has several thousand users who, with the support of the board and the Maryland Department of Transportation, earn points and money to switch or stay on cleaner rides. It uses real-time traffic data to try to influence consumer behavior.

With an $800,000 grant, Cui wants to build on this app while calculating avoided emissions when a commuter takes public transit. It would then present these findings to an internationally recognized registration body as part of the verification that the savings are real.

Transit agencies could then buy the emissions credits in bulk from riders, package them, and sell them to companies or organizations as part of pledges to achieve net carbon dioxide emissions to address the effects. of climate change, Cui said.

“The project will encourage individuals to use public transit and ultimately provide transit agencies with additional revenue through partnerships and innovative funding practices,” according to a summary from the Federal Transit Administration. .

The additional revenue generation could spur the app’s expansion to other parts of the country, Cui said.

Beyond generating tradable credits for emission reductions, the grant will allow researchers to extend the concept further, creating credits that seek to capture the “social equity improvements” that come with transportation by common, according to the project documents. Cui said the effort begins with unanswered questions, including how best to quantify and verify these improvements.

“It’s totally new,” Cui said. “We borrowed the ideas of carbon credits to try to create a mechanism for companies to invest in social justice.”

He said the work is in line with the university’s call to pursue “bold ideas.” The hard questions are “why are we going to do this research”.

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