Highlight Series: Vignesh Swaminathan from Crossroad Lab
September 16th, 2019
This month, we hosted a micro-mobility safety roundtable at Scoot’s San Francisco headquarters, bringing together 30 leading Bay Area medical professionals, researchers, city agency representatives, and advocates.
The purpose of this working session was to gain a better, more data-based understanding of the safety risks and benefits associated with the growing use of shared e-scooters and e-bikes, and to identify new, actionable crash prevention policies.
The key narrative that emerged was that infrastructure is crucial to safety and that evolving infrastructure quickly is possible. One of our guests, Vignesh Swaminathan, PE of Crossroad Lab, played a large part in reminding us that this is indeed possible.
Scoot: Thanks for coming to our micro-mobility safety roundtable! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Vignesh: I have always been a transportation geek and growing up in the Bay Area, I have seen how transportation and housing work together. I originally wanted to work in construction management and studied Civil Engineering. Through school, I was interested in Parking Data and the culture of cities. I had my first job in the field with the City San Jose in Downtown Operations and it opened my eyes to how political and personal projects really are and that data is the last thing people think about.
One of my roles was to manage the city streets during events, concerts, marathons, and festivals. I was coordinating crews to physically shut down the streets with cones and barricades. You can quickly see how minor changes, such as lane modifications, street shutdowns or adding a walkway, changes both how a street looks and operates, and the culture of the city. I got really excited about the ability to reallocate space at the curb to add in bike lanes, parklets, and smart parking.
I started working for a highway consulting company and designed interchanges and road widenings. From there we learned about project delivery, and how to guide cities in delivering large infrastructure projects. A few of us started Crossroad Lab to focus on helping cities plan and design Active Transportation projects, specifically Raised Protected Bikeways. Our goal is to work quickly and efficiently for cities and avoid the triggers that delay transportation projects.
What can you tell us about the fascinating project you worked on in San Jose, that has set an example of how you can introduce new infrastructure swiftly and efficiently?
Crossroad Lab was brought on to design and deliver a protected bikeway network (called Better BikewaySJ) in San Jose, funded by the Knight Foundation and accelerated by NACTO. As we were planning protected bike lanes downtown in January 2018, the e-scooters started to rollout. It helped us build the case, as people wanted somewhere safe to ride. We were able to move quickly by communicating with all the city folks directly and having augmented staff at City Hall a few days a week plus a team of engineers in Bangalore, India. While complete streets are expensive, implementation with paint-and-post pilots are more feasible and can be delivered quickly through pavement maintenance. We started with a pilot project to showcase it to the right policymakers, and then delivered the protected intersections and network for the greater downtown area.
San Jose residents and visitors have been able to intuitively ride the right way on the right side of the street with an increase in comfort and a decrease in crashes. We’ve also seen a huge increase in e-scooter and bike usage. While the city has yet to formally release their numbers, I’ve heard there’s been a 50% increase in cycling downtown and 30% throughout the entire city, not including e-scooters/bike share. We built about eight protected intersections and 16 miles of roadway in 10 months, it was a fast process.
You mentioned in the roundtable how some of even the most minor changes can positively affect a city’s culture. Can you tell us more?
The biggest change is how people spend their money. Parking is a wallet delivery system. Downtown areas historically adjusted parking rates (or offered free parking) to encourage people to window shop and spend money at local storefronts. Now, you can look and navigate to a specific store, find parking nearby and visit that one particular store. Now, the only people delivering wallets to downtown by looking up and around are the folks biking, scooting or walking.
There is a cultural shift happening for many cities, as our aging population can’t move very far and our young people don’t want to move. Cities need to recognize these trends and improve and update the infrastructure to meet these new needs. City leaders can lead by example in using new modes of transportation and showing people that they have a choice of modes besides driving. When we have to look at each other as you cross a Downtown/Main Street it adds to social cohesion, and we need this now more than ever.
We should really thank the City of San Jose and it’s leaders for continuing to have a vision and being a hub for innovation. We worked with Peter Bennett, City of San Jose Project Manager, on championing the solution to all the appropriate constituents. San Jose has always been the capital of Silicon Valley but change isn’t easy, especially for America’s 10th largest city. It took guts, willingness to peel off the band-aid, endure the political valley, allow the system to normalize and continuous communication with the community.
What tips or guidance do you have for cities looking to move swiftly and efficiently?
- Approach quick build projects as part of your community outreach (not as an infrastructure project).
- It’s going to be a living, breathing, on the ground feasibility study. The best way to do this is as small pilots, whether it’s just an event, a week, one corner, or in front of a school.
- Prioritize safety over vehicle efficiency so you get it right from the start.
- Paint-and-post executions make the community feel less married to a solution. Plus, they get in the ground in hours and costs less to the taxpayer.
- Lean into the political scape (complete projects within political terms, use budget already allocated for maintenance, invite everyone for the ribbon-cutting).
Any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
The best way to see progress is to do it in small pilot projects — an event, a few days, a single corner. An installment at a single intersection can help community members to understand that there are other options out there. Plus, while the typical process takes a very long time, cities can start to build out and deliver on projects more quickly. It is the right time for innovation; the advocacy, community, politicians, technology and engineering are on the same page for the first time. Our design vehicle has never changed, we need them to understand that a new mode is here and it’s not going away.