Co-Director, Transportation Sustainability Research Center; Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley; Director, Innovative Mobility Research
Interview location: TSRC office in Berkeley, California and the Royal Exchange Restaurant in San Francisco, California.
In one word, she describes herself as “innovative.”
Susan Shaheen on the UC-Berkeley campus in 2017. (Photo credit Laura Lee Huttenbach.)
Susan Shaheen climbs into the backseat of a white Prius in Berkeley, California and begins her research. As Co-Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Susan is an expert on the subject of carsharing. Today, on the first of February, we are using Lyft to travel from her office to the Downtown Berkeley BART station, where we will take the subway to have lunch in the Financial District of San Francisco. In transit-speak, Lyft is helping us solve the “first mile, last mile” problem, which concerns the methods in which a rider travels from their starting point to the place where public transit can pick them up, and vice versa.
Our Lyft driver is named Jeff, and Susan initiates her standard conversation, which sounds like small talk but is actually part of a large survey. Jeff has been driving for Lyft since 2013, a year after the company was founded. “I was one of the first few hundred drivers,” he tells us proudly. His friend Erin, another early driver for Lyft, recruited him. “At first, she was like, Why would I let people get in my car? But they convinced her, and she told me I should do it.”
“Do you also drive for Uber?” asks Susan.
“I do,” he says. “But I’m trying to drive more for Lyft this week. I’ve always loved Lyft more. I just feel like they’re a more authentic company.”
The conversation quickly turns political, to President Trump’s recent immigration ban and resulting confusion and protests at New York’s JFK airport and others across the country. (While the New York Taxi Union organized a one-hour strike, Uber continued to operate in the city, though they turned off surge pricing. Some people accused Uber of trying to profit from the travel ban. Within minutes, the hashtag #DeleteUber was trending.) “Who knows?” says Jeff, shrugging. “There’s a lot of protests.” He says he’s also aware that Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, is serving on President Trump’s Economic Advisory Council. “But I heard that he could do more good by being a part of it than staying outside of it,” says Jeff. “He’s just all about profit.” (The day after our ride, Travis Kalanick resigned from President Trump’s Council). Conversely, Jeff has fond memories of driving Logan Green, the co-founder of Lyft. “I actually picked Logan up from his house once,” recalls Jeff. “He’s a great guy. Very transparent.”
Susan Saheen in 2017. (Photo credit Laura Lee Huttenbach.)
A minute later, we are getting out of Jeff’s Prius in front of the BART station. Susan thanks him and closes the door. “It’s very cool to get their stories” she says. “What they’re doing, and who they work for.” I ask if she has a preference between Uber and Lyft. “I use both,” she says. “I don’t like to talk much about that, because of objectivity.” She reminds me that we are in the “founding territory” for both companies, which are headquartered in San Francisco, so it’s easy to bounce between the apps.
As we wait on the BART platform for our train, I ask Susan about a book, Cool Careers for Girls as Environmentalists, published in 2001, in which she wrote the introduction. (She is the author of 60 journal articles, more than 100 reports, seven chapters in books, and co-edited two books.) “I was talking about how women should consider the sciences,” she tells me. “I was explaining what a day in our lives look like. I think we forget, once we get established in our careers, what it feels like to be exploring different career tracks and not know what you want to do.”
As a kid—the baby of six—growing up in upstate New York, Susan didn’t experience much urban living; her family had a garden and grew vegetables. Though she rode the school bus and pedaled around town on her bicycle, Susan’s family primarily relied on their personal car for transportation. In 1988, she enrolled at the University of Rochester to obtain a Master’s Degree in Public Policy Analysis. While studying, she traveled abroad to Oxford, England and Paris, France. “In Europe, I saw how people lived who were not car dependent,” she says, taking a seat on the BART train. “I was able to walk places and meet people.” She reminds me that this was in an era before smartphones and GPS. “Getting in a car was a challenge,” she says. “You had to ask people for directions. Remember that?” I agree that it seems like forever ago. Susan continues, “To be able to explore a city by [using] a transit map and by walking or biking was very liberating to me.”
When she finished her master’s, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Energy and became multi modal—biking, walking, using public transit, and carpooling. In 1993, she moved to California to begin her PhD studies in ecology, focusing on the energy and the environmental impacts of transportation, at the University of California, Davis. “I was really intrigued by Davis,” she says. “It’s a bike city. I was able to continue that multi-modal lifestyle and ultimately take my car off the road for six years.” She occasionally borrowed a car from a friend, and this concept of sharing cars, before most people were thinking of such a thing, led to her dissertation. “My doctoral work was really about how we can introduce people to something like carsharing,” she explains. In that vein, she teamed up with fellow innovators to design and test a pilot carsharing program. CarLink was in business from 1999 to 2002.
We step off the train at the Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. “I’d almost forgotten about that book,” says Susan, referring to Cool Careers. “It was a while ago. But thanks for bringing it up. Usually people are just asking me, ‘What’s up with the Uber-Lyft study?’”
In November 2015, Susan and her team at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to launch an official study of Lyft and Uber (the Hewlett Foundation is funding the study). “It’s very complex,” she says, involving multiple data sets from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. “Cities were selected based on the level of market penetration of pooled services,” she explains over lunch. The “pool service” refers to UberPOOL and Lyft Line, where riders can pay less and ride together with others heading in the same direction. “We wanted to understand how the occupancy levels are changing,” explains Susan. “How many people are using Lyft Line and UberPOOL? What trips are they taking?”
Ultimately, the team wants to understand the impacts of an innovative transportation service. “How do people respond to these innovations in terms of travel behavior?” Susan asks. Do users of Lyft and Uber drive their own cars less? Do they get rid of them? Do they avoid buying new cars—or, in academic speak, does ridesourcing suppress car purchases? “We are also examining the impact on their use of public transit and other modes,” she continues. “Do they use these services to connect to public transit, like we did today?” Or, do Uber and Lyft take the place of a ride on public transit? And what is the net environmental impact of all these choices?
Susan Shaheen at the Embarcadero Station in downtown San Francisco in 2017. (Photo credit Laura Lee Huttenbach.)
To answer these questions, the team surveyed a sample population of more than 10,000 riders and about 5,000 drivers. They are currently in final discussions with both companies to release platform-associated data. “I understand there’s tension in getting companies to release that data,” I say.
“Yes,” Susan says, adding that such a release is complicated by two main issues. “One is the privacy of the individuals. When requesting data about individual trips, it’s necessary to ensure anonymity.” For example, if one were to request data at a level of analysis that reveals where a passenger is traveling, on a regular basis or overall, they might be able to identify the individual. “So you have to be really cautious,” she says, to keep the data anonymous. “The second issue is of a proprietary nature,” she continues. “There’s an additional complexity in the study because we only have two operators. When we request information, for example, on the market size,” she says, the other company will know their competitor’s market. “When we have multiple companies in an industry-level study, it’s easier to aggregate data.”
Data sets are still coming in, so Susan won’t draw any conclusions on the study until it wraps up this June. However, she will offer two predictions for the future based on her past studies. First, “a car is going to be a part of our lives,” she says, taking a sip of tea. “But its role, and our relationship with it, is going to change.” There will be automated, self-driving cars. There will be more carsharing or ridesharing services. But cars will be a part of the picture. Second, Susan says, “Users don’t respond to shared mobility in a homogenous way. It’s very context-specific to your lifestyle and your needs.” To illustrate, she uses an example from her own life: when she had kids and had to juggle car seats, relying on shared modes became more of a challenge. (She and her husband, who studies alternative fuels and drives a hydrogen-powered car, have two young sons.)
Within the market, the diversity of potential users makes the question of scalability a challenge. “There are [some] people using services like Uber and Lyft who don’t know what transportation was before the Android or iPhone . . . how do you study that? How do you determine, if these services were not present, how they would behave?” At the same time, there are other people who are wholly unfamiliar with Uber and Lyft. Ideally, Susan hopes that a rising tide will lift all boats. “If we can maximize the benefits of transportation with all these technologies so that nobody gets left behind and the environment doesn’t suffer, that would result in an ecosystem that is robust and sustainable.” This ecosystem requires “seamless connectivity like you and I just experienced,” she says. “How long did we wait for our Lyft driver? A minute, right? It was not long.” She is all fired up now. “As I look to the future, I think we’re at the most exciting time in transportation that we’ve seen in over a hundred years.”
Susan has to be back at Berkeley for a department meeting, so we hurry out of the restaurant and head to the BART station. At the University of California, she teaches a graduate course in Transportation Sustainability for the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. “It’s not just an engineering world,” she stresses, “but the connections among policy, technology, and behavior. How do all these things intersect?”
We wait about twelve minutes for the train, and Susan is checking the time. She sends a message to the meeting chair that she might be running late. “Along behavioral lines,” I say, “do you find yourself, as a transportation professor, to be more patient of the glitches in the transportation system?”
She smiles and nods. “As a person who’s aging, I’m more patient,” she says. “As a mom, I’m more patient. And as a person, I’m more patient about technology.” A consummate academic, Susan immediately moves from personal to aggregate. “We’ve found a lot of early adopters are very accepting and tolerant,” she says. She recalls that when she was running the pilot carsharing services, “I was very concerned that I was going to mess up somebody’s life because a shared car wasn’t there when it needed to be, and they were going to be late to work,” she says, shaking her head. “In the end, we found that we were more stressed than they were.”
Soon, our train is pulling into downtown Berkeley. Outside the station, we wait for the Lyft driver, Wanda, to pick us up in a gray Chevrolet Trax. She’s supposed to arrive in a minute, but Susan is on her phone’s GPS, watching Wanda drive in the wrong direction. Four minutes later, she is still several blocks away. “Now it says she’s two minutes away,” says Susan. “I’m not freaking out, as you can see.” She’s laughing at herself. “I’m just kidding. But if it’s much longer, I might be like, ‘Wanda, I’m gonna walk, because I can get there in fifteen minutes.’”
Wanda calls, and she instructs us to walk down one street and then back to where we were originally standing. Soon, we’re climbing into her car to ride for 1.3 miles. Susan is pleased to notice the two bowls of candy hanging off the center console. “Can I have a piece?” she asks.
“Of course,” says Wanda. “There’s bottles of water in the side pocket if you’re thirsty.”
“You’re spoiling us,” says Susan.
Wanda has only been driving for Lyft for one month, but she’s getting the hang of it. “It’s been pretty good,” she tells us. “I like to drive, and I didn’t have a job. It keeps me busy, gets me out of the house. I see a lot of streets and places I haven’t been before.” She can use the extra income, because she is expecting her first grandchild soon. “I’ve only had two passengers that were rude,” she says. “But I brushed it off, ’cause I’m only gonna see you for ten or fifteen minutes, and I’m not gonna judge people by their attitude.”
“Good for you,” says Susan.
“The gentleman was late,” continues Wanda, “and he wanted me to go through the cars and break the laws of the road. I wasn’t gonna do that. So he was upset. But if you’re late when you get in my car, you’re gonna be late getting where you need to go. There’s no way to make up that time.”
We pull up to the campus entrance and get out of Wanda’s car in a good mood, with candy in hand. “What we just did,” says Susan, retracing our multi-modal journey enthusiastically, “was not possible in 2007. But it’s possible now.”
People Who Move People is a web series profiling individuals who have made an impact in public transit. The series has been initiated and funded by RouteMatch Software, an Atlanta-based company who is passionate about transit and proud to record these stories.