An Interview with Catherine Strode
Cars that drive themselves. Autonomous cars that appear on your front doorstep when ordered on a cell phone. Autonomous vehicles equipped for all kinds of riders, including those with companion dogs or those in wheelchairs. That is the vision for transportation in the state being promoted by State Senator Kent Lambert. A bill he is sponsoring (SB17-011) will bring together technical experts and transportation providers to discuss ways to create an accessible and economically feasible statewide transportation system.
In an interview with Catherine Strode, Senator Lambert says such means of transportation can change the economy and can give people with disabilities more employment opportunities.
How did you get the concept for this bill?
“We were talking about bus transit for people with disabilities. I thought we ought to look a couple of years in the future because the technologies are just going so fast. We need to understand better how they can serve the disabilities community. That’s across the board: whether it’s wheelchair access, or (rides) to work, to the grocery store, or to the doctor, because the technologies are changing the economy. The first thing that sparked my interest was some economic discussions moderated by Dr. Russ Roberts at the Heritage Institute who has mentioned the future of going to ride sharing or to autonomous vehicles. It is very revolutionary, especially on inner city transit. It changed the economy. It’s an on demand type of thing that is very flexible. We haven’t had that type of flexibility before.”
What is your vision with this technical demonstration?
“My vision is let’s not fight against the direction the economy is going. What I’m trying to do is to say, ‘We are moving into – we’re already in – the ride sharing technologies.’ Transportation is very key. That’s part of the demonstration we want to get on the table. We did an Amendment to add the Department of Transportation, at their request. What they said was, ‘We want to think about the future, looking at autonomous vehicles.’ They are operationalizing them now in some cities, doing test projects. Bus routes and rail routes are constricted in where they can go. They’re on a very closed, rigid, geographical coverage. Some of our 501C3s do something similar to that. With autonomous vehicles, you don’t have to wait along the bus route. You go to your telephone and say, ‘I need a pickup’ and the vehicle should meet you there.’ It’s already here. It’s just that people have not fully thought about the access (for people with disabilities) part of this.”
What impact can this have on employment for people with disabilities?
“Research studies have been done around the country on the difference in access for people to jobs whether they have a car or public transportation. The estimates I’ve seen are six times the number of jobs that are accessible if you have a car. If you have a disability it’s probably closer to 20 because after you get out of the bus, you’ll have to get somewhere else. That’s what’s driving the economics of this if it is a for profit corporation and there is a market for people to go to their job, back and forth. It’s going to need to be profitable for those individuals who are providing the service. I talked with some representatives from the UBER company. If you go into settings, you can identify what your special needs are. If you have a disability, I think we need to be concerned about how does that pickup work? I am blind. Or, I am not able to lift my bags. Or, I am in a wheelchair. Or, you have a companion dog. That should be part of their knowledge data base. As soon as you call them, they know.”
How would the companies receive payment?
“Typically, bus services are about 80 per cent subsidized. In the future, maybe it’s part of a tax credit. Maybe it’s part of the actual work agreement. If Labor and Employment ( through a Work Force Center) is trying to help somebody get a job, maybe part of that contract with the employer would go through a non profit. The employer would say, ‘We’re going to make a donation to this non profit and set up a system where we will authorize 10 to 15 dollars a day from your residence to your place of employment and back. We’re going to cover that.’”
What will the demonstration project undertake?
“We can’t do this without the technology. It’s the ground floor right now. We’re inviting the companies to come. We’ve asked the Department of Labor and Employment to chair these meetings with the Department of Transportation, with the Department of Human Services, collect the information, and discuss the requirements. Let’s understand what people need, understand the accessibility not just to the vehicles, but to the electronics, the applications they can use. We need to know where the barriers are that stop it from working and then focus on some of those things. Let them have until the next Session to suggest pilot programs.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.