Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hosted the Iowa Community Transportation Forum in late September, a gathering that represents a shining example of addressing needs of people who lack transportation options while also embracing innovation and demonstrating a willingness to change long-held patterns. In the City of Cedar Rapids, one can see both the footprint of the past and current vibrant initiatives to reach a multimodal future. Iowans excel at collaborative efforts to serve people who are unable to drive, those not permitted to drive (with license suspensions), and those who cannot afford to drive, but Iowa also boasts new commuter transportation services and an autonomous vehicle testing ground at the University of Iowa. While cars may still dominate the transportation network, there are signs of a multimodal future all around. Everywhere there are sidewalks and bright green bike lanes with plenty of commuting bikers taking advantage of the separated lanes on beautiful fall days.
I felt a little guilty going to Iowa and even intimidated because I always learn more from Iowa’s mobility management and transportation professionals than they can possibly learn from me. While I made presentations about non-emergency medical transportation and innovations in transportation and mobility management, I learned about quality rural transportation in South Korea, collaborations between healthcare and transportation, employment transportation efforts, and a new commuter service. And that does not even mention valuable presentations.
Kristin Haar from the Iowa DOT Office of Public Transit shared practical information and concerns about the upcoming changes to the integrated settings rule that will affect people with disabilities and implications for transportation services. The possibility of serving many more destinations for the same number of people is a possible complication and cost concern. Terry Bergen, Linn County Mobility Coordinator, organized the forum and described wonderful coordination efforts and Transportation Advisory Group initiatives (such as the Transit Planning 4 All initiative inclusive planning project). He put together an eye-opening panel about local refugees, the services and supports they receive, and the short time line for those services and supports, which leave refugees and their families in need of assistance – particularly assistance with transportation (one coordinated effort is linked here).
Another presenter, Daniel McGehee, was from the University of Iowa’s autonomous vehicle (AV) testing ground and advanced driving simulator program. He made predictions about AV business models that will transform places like Iowa into shared-use transportation utopias. It helps to have a cute video from Sweden with Lego characters, buildings, trees, and streets to visualize the Scandinavian version of such a utopia. Though I believe there was hesitation among attendees to be fully convinced (particularly articulated by one attendee who could not quite imagine the trip to the soccer game and all of the paraphernalia that goes along with that), there was interest in how to accomplish a more accessible and equitable transportation network as we transform with the astounding and rapidly developing technology that is being tested and piloted in the US and around the world.
Though many transportation innovations are occurring in our large cities and metropolitan areas, the primarily rural and small urban state of Iowa, with a supportive state governance structure for transportation initiatives, is poised to embrace transportation improvement for all of its residents, workers, and visitors.