Innovative Mobility Solutions in Small Town America (Text Version)

This is a text version of the podcast episode Innovative Mobility Solutions in Small Town America from Dec. 29, 2021.

Mollie Putzig: Welcome to On the Go, an on-road transportation podcast with Clean Cities. In this episode, we're talking about strategies to address mobility challenges in rural communities. To kick us off, let's introduce our hosts. I'm Mollie Putzig.

Joanna Allerhand: And I am Joanna Allerhand. Today, we will be joined by three guests who have been working with the local community in Bastrop, Texas, to expand mobility options by providing an on-demand electric shuttle service. Rural communities typically have fewer mobility options than urban settings, and often rely on personal vehicles to get around. This electric shuttle helps people without a personal vehicle get where they need to go.

Mollie Putzig: Impacts of the pandemic were especially illuminating for mobility issues in these communities, where shared rides among friends, family, and neighbors are often the solution for people who don't have access to or ability to operate their own vehicle. Options like those explored in Bastrop can help people get to work, medical appointments, the grocery store, and they act as a community-building opportunity.

Joanna Allerhand: Our guests are Andy Duvall from the National Renewable Energy Lab, Valerie Lefler from Phoenix Mobility Rising, and Katie Kam from Wheels and Water. We'll also have Stephen Lommele from the National Renewable Energy Lab moderating the discussion. Let's get started.

Stephen Lommele: All right, hi, everyone, I'm so excited for today's podcast. We're gonna be talking about EEMS and rural mobility, looking at some innovative mobility solutions in small-town America. I wanna start out by introducing myself. I'm Steve Lommele; I'm a project leader at the National Renewable Energy Lab, and I work to connect the Energy Efficient Mobility Systems program at DOE, with our tech integration audiences. So wanted to start out with just a little bit of context about EEMS.

At its most basic level EEMS, or the Energy Efficient Mobility Systems program, is the research and development of technologies and practices that improve the efficiency and mobility of the entire transportation system. So, EEMS looks at both individual vehicles and how these vehicles interact, to get a complete picture of the transportation system. And many of the technologies that make the news are part of EEMS work, so things like connectivity and automation, micromobility, scooters and bikes, rideshare are just a few examples. So, why is EEMS important to rural mobility? Well, many of the challenges that rural communities face with mobility are universal, like the need for more efficient modes of transportation, more access to transportation, and less costly transportation modes.

So, EEMS technologies have been designed to meet these needs, but they haven't necessarily been tested or deployed, yet, in great numbers, in rural communities. So today we kind of wanted to dig into that a little bit and find out how EEMS technologies are playing out in the rural context. And one of the reasons why this is important is that DOE works with the Clean Cities Coalition Network, which is a network of nearly 100 coalitions around the country, and while a large portion of these Clean Cities coalitions represent urban areas, some of them, particularly the statewide coalitions, have rural stakeholders that they want to serve, as well. So, coalitions highlighted sort of this unmet need for efficient, affordable, and equitable transportation options in these rural areas, and DOE took that into consideration in funding the work that's happening with respect to EEMS and rural communities. And one of those projects is what we're gonna talk about today.

So, the main thing DOE wants to learn from these kinds of new mobility technologies that are becoming really popular in cities and suburbs, as supplements to personally owned vehicles, is how they work in rural settings. Things like what benefits do they provide to rural communities, what challenges do they face in these locations, and how can we make these technologies better for all Americans. So we've got a great panel of folks today who are gonna talk with us about some of the specific challenges that rural communities are facing, and an example of a project that is currently underway to bring EEMS-related technologies to rural communities. So, with that, I want to welcome everyone, and I'd like to just do a quick around-the-room and have you all introduce yourself. We've got Andy Duvall here at NREL, Valerie Lefler with Phoenix Mobility Rising, and Katie Kam with Wheels and Water.

So with that, Andy, if you could just start us out with a quick introduction, please.

Andy Duvall: Sure. Andy Duvall, I am a transportation behavior analyst and project lead at NREL, have been involved with rural mobility projects for some time, and actually come from a rural community in Wyoming, and so have some insight into some of the challenges and opportunities associated with rural mobility.

Stephen Lommele: Great, thanks, Andy, and welcome. Valerie?

Valerie Lefler: Hello, everyone. My name is Valerie Lefler, and I am the executive director and founder at a nonprofit organization called Phoenix Mobility Rising. And we specialize in creating mobility solutions for the health and wellbeing of every person in every community. And we work a lot in very rural communities and supporting them in creating new mobility solutions across the United States. And just really excited to be here today. Grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Nebraska and have worked in research and academia, as well as started my own business, did the tech startup scene, and am now running a nonprofit organization. And really excited to be here today and share insight.

Stephen Lommele: Great, Valerie, welcome, thank you. Katie?

Katie Kam: Hi, I'm Katie Kam. I'm the owner of Wheels and Water, a consulting civil engineering firm where we also do transportation planning and research. I've been actively involved with advocating for and conducting research and plans related to the use of low-speed electric vehicles. So I'm excited to be part of this podcast and the project that the podcast is discussing that we're doing in Bastrop, where we're using low-speed electric vehicles to provide service in a rural community. For that project, I'm helping out with the surveys, interviews, and data analysis.

Stephen Lommele: Great, thanks, Katie.

All right, so now I wanted to get into kind of our first area of focus, looking at some of the unique mobility challenges that rural communities face. So, Andy and Valerie and Katie, if you might just kind of go ahead and give us some context specific to rural communities, with respect to some of these new mobility technologies, that would be great.

Andy Duvall: Some of the differences between rural communities—and really, that's a phrase that kind of captures rural and small communities, typically, smaller than what would be considered part of an urban or a metropolitan complex. But if you think about the mobility opportunities that are available to people in smaller communities, they differ considerably from an urban setting. Typically, there is not the same level of public transportation, whether it's a bus or rail service. Typically, also, on-demand services that have emerged in recent years, such as Uber and Lyft, are not available in low-density settings. As well as shared micromobility is typically also not very available or even present in most smaller communities.

And so, these factors contribute to a higher dependance on personally owned private vehicles, cars, trucks, SUVs, that sort of thing. And so, the option to be able to get to the places where people need to go, without vehicle ownership, is fairly limited. This has effects on people, especially in low-income and other sociodemographic characteristics where owning or driving a private vehicle is not possible. So, there are definitely needs to ensure that people are able to get to their medical appointment, to get to their job, to get to educational opportunities, regardless of what their private vehicle ownership is. And unfortunately, many of those mobility needs are unmet.

Stephen Lommele: Thanks, Andy. Yeah, so, you mentioned lack of existing mobility services, reliance on personal vehicles, however, there are social and demographic challenges that potentially limit the community's ability to own vehicles. Valerie, what might you add to that?

Valerie Lefler: Yeah, I think, you know, just in terms of what does that look like in a lot of rural communities, in context. So, for example, you know, in a lot of communities where we support seniors and individuals with disabilities, in urban areas, there is public transit, there is a number of nonprofits that are all working together in the space. But when you look in a lot of rural areas, especially once you get into frontier, there are very few resources. And so, often, you know, a common example is an individual who's recovering from a stroke or is recovering from a major surgery, instead of them being able to recover at home where they can get to and from therapy, they're placed in a senior living facility. And so, that's an entirely different environment to recover in that kind of state, especially when you're young.

I'll never forget, we were working in a rural community in Nebraska, and there was a woman in her mid-30s who had spent three months in a senior living facility, 'cause she didn't have, you know, her parents didn't have the ability to travel, take her to therapy, and things like that. And so, she spent most of her time, you know, in this senior living residence, and it was such a different environment. Or veterans' resources in these rural communities, for transportation, is incredibly limited. And so, maybe I wanna go to the VA to hear the results from my chemotherapy, you know, testing, or from my cancer treatment, and, you know, the way that some of the restrictions are, the spouse cannot travel with the veteran. And so then, you're going to receive these, you know, really critical diagnosis or treatment, and you don't have a care partner to go with you.

Or, you know, just a number of these different examples where, in rural communities that need these type of resources, mobility is more than just—you know, lack of mobility is more than just an inconvenience. It's a dramatic change in the quality of life, for individuals to be able to get to and from, you know, therapy, treatment, but as well as employment and things of that nature. So it just manifests itself in a very much in a much more dramatic way in rural communities, when these resources don't exist.

Stephen Lommele: Thanks, Valerie. You mentioned two things, number one, frontier. Is that a particular type of community?

Valerie Lefler: Yeah, so, a lot of times, there’s a designation between rural and then very rural. And so, kind of an informal way that we refer to it in states like Nebraska is, like, there’s more cows than people in the county, where it’s low population density. I forget the exact percentage, but there’s rural where there’s maybe some urban centers that are within, you know, 30-, 45-mile radius of the community. And then there’s very rural communities, that are known as frontier, where you might have to go 120 miles to get to a major healthcare facility if you need, you know, more than just a prescription for antibiotics, or groceries, maybe, a minimum hour-and-a-half away. And so, those are more frontier rural, where your basic resources are hours away, not minutes away.

Stephen Lommele: Got it. And so the other thing that I wanna dig into a little bit is, I know Andy talked about reliance on personal vehicles, but historically, like, how have people gotten around when they don’t have access to their own vehicle?

Valerie Lefler: Yeah, it's generally you're relying on friends and family and neighbors and things like that, and as our society has evolved with reliance on Facebook for connection, that connective tissue, in a lot of rural communities, is limited. And especially as rural communities that have a very large crop base, that's an economic development initiative, a lot of times you get folks who, you know, travel across the country and harvest the crops. Well, when those crews are going through communities, whether that be in Colorado with the mushroom harvest or in western Nebraska with the beet harvest, you know, the whole family will travel, many times. And one of the members of the family, or sometimes both members of the family, are out in the fields working, and the children or the teenagers that are caring for the younger children, you know, they're reliant, traditionally, on, you know, neighbors and things like that.

But that's less likely in these new environments where there is no connective tissue with that local community. And so, social service agencies like community action agencies, things like that, are seeing completely new types of barriers for immigrants and refugees and individuals in poverty and low-income communities in rural areas just have even fewer, you know, wraparound services locally, based upon just being connected to their neighbors. So, those connections with their family and their friends is much more fragmented, and there's not this, like, neighborhood environment for individuals in rural communities to rely on as there once was.

Stephen Lommele: You're saying that the people that have been in these communities for a long time and have ties to the communities can potentially leverage friends and family to help them get around. But if you're new to the community or transient, then you don't have access to that, and so you're even more limited.

Valerie Lefler: Absolutely. And I think as we look at the demographics of our rural communities, there's a higher percentage of seniors in rural areas. And as those seniors are hitting retirement or now into this area where they need that additional support, maybe they don't feel safe driving at night, things like that, in the rural areas, their children have gone and are now successful doing things else, and they don't wanna be a burden. And so then there's that pride factor where, "I can take care of myself. I'm not gonna bother my neighbor." I remember talking to—we're working with a coalition in western Nebraska, and there was a woman who was an ER nurse at the hospital. And she was sharing about her own journey in recovery. She had a brain tumor and she had surgery and, you know, you talk about a rural community, somebody who has poured their soul into their local, you know, community, caring for them through car accidents and, you know, mom, baby, and delivery. And then, she's the one in the situation where she needs help, 'cause her husband was working in another state at the time, traveling, she needed to get to and from her recovery and treatment and appointments, and she said, "The first time one of my friends said no, I quit asking anybody." 'Cause it's a pride thing, you don't wanna be a burden. And so, these wraparound supportive services impact everybody, when there's that lack of, you know, being able to have that pride in, "I can't make these arrangements on my own," or, "I don't have—I'm not in the driver's seat."

Stephen Lommele: Got it. And so, you know, when we think about EEMS sort of in the urban and suburban context, there's lots of new mobility services. And there are traditional mobility services like transit, but people can use transportation network companies for on-demand transportation, they can access transit, sometimes there's paratransit shuttles, those sorts of things, you could potentially walk to appointments. So, what are, like, how is this evolving in rural communities? What are some of the new things that are coming online that are potentially connecting people to services and resources?

Valerie Lefler: There’s a variety of different things that are beginning to evolve in rural communities. We’re seeing rural electric carshare begin to happen where, you know—for example, I was talking with a community in Kansas who was getting ready or looking into launching a rural electric carshare for the students for the community college who were international who didn’t drive. And so then, in a rural community space, there’s this kind of Zipcar-esque type environment that traditionally is something that you would see maybe in urban areas but not something you would see in rural. In another community in California, there was a pilot where they established—it was kind of a very similar rural electric carshare, where individuals could type in a code, and then there was an agreement with the county transit agency to subsidize the cost of those electric cars.

And so, they were being rented out to individuals in the community for, you know, $5 an hour or something like that, where if they just needed to go—in this case, they established it so that individuals who needed to access the court system could get to the, you know, most recent town over, but they could also get groceries and other things while they were there. But it enabled mobility to happen in a kind of on-demand as-needed low-cost environment, for individuals to be successful in getting what they needed done. So there’s beginning to see some of those things, and we are working, at one point, with MIT University on the East Coast and on an autonomous vehicle that was electric that also would navigate the road as it was going down the path, based upon sensor information. And so, you know, rural electric autonomous vehicle innovation is beginning to evolve and become a thing, as well.

So those are three examples that I, you know, off the top of my head, I think that we’re beginning to see, but what we find, in a lot of very, very rural underserved communities, is the electric infrastructure in the city or the community isn’t set up to be successful in some of these new installations. And so, that’s something we’re looking at, for example, in the community of Mississippi, there are some barriers that, even though there can be Wi-Fi and we can get the broadband, the electric infrastructure is lacking. So, you know, as everything, it’s always a journey and we take one step at a time, but, you know, the desire for innovation in rural communities to see this be successful is happening. And we know that there’s autonomous combines already out there, there’s autonomous tractors that are operating, and so, it’s definitely been a very good proving grounds, that now we’re excited to see that go, you know, from the crops, you know, to the road.

Stephen Lommele: Got it. And Andy, I know you’ve done lots of research on EEMS technologies. What kinds of things do you think are translating well from kind of the urban-suburban environment to the rural environment?

Andy Duvall: Well, I think the idea of on-demand services is certainly appealing to a lot of rural contexts. Application is probably not quite there, yet. And that, I think, exposes a parallel challenge with communications technology in some rural areas, the idea of broadband phone service, 4G, 5G, that doesn't really exist, to a large extent, in very rural settings. The ability to make those connections to on-demand services is dependent on that communication network, so, that's a bit of a breakdown, at present. But I see a lot of opportunity, especially with emerging technology both in transportation and communications, to help start to fill some of those gaps. Though they're still maybe a year or so away from being widely available, electric pickup trucks, I think, could potentially be a gamechanger.

As Valerie mentioned, some agricultural equipment is shifting toward automated technologies that I think could be a good gateway into rural communities, and to see how the technology functions, how it could be useful and viable in specific settings. And the same goes, I think, for vehicle electrification in rural settings, where, often, renewables are fairly present, whether it's wind or solar, the ability to power a pickup truck or a tractor or other agricultural equipment with locally sourced renewable energy, I think, is appealing. And it certainly appeals to that sense of, like, self-sufficiency, self-reliance that Valerie was suggesting is prevalent in many of the communities that we engage with. I think the opportunity to ensure that aging populations, as they get older and maybe aren't as able to drive a vehicle themselves, if they're able to use automated technologies to get to their appointments or to their other mobility needs, it will allow people to continue to live in their homes for a longer time, rather than moving to assisted living, which is both more expensive and less available.

So, from a larger population context, the emergence, I think, of some transportation options, using new technologies, will be—will enable reduced costs, especially as we're encountering a large population of the Baby Boomers that will likely be less mobile in the near future.

Stephen Lommele: Got it. So, I think both Andy and Valerie mentioned that there is a lot of motivation to deploy innovative mobility solutions and support transportation electrification, there's the resiliency angle, we wanna ensure that people can continue to live where they live. I suppose there's probably some motivation—I know, Valerie, you talked a lot about healthcare. One of the things I've heard is that, you know, healthcare facilities are really interested in ensuring that people get to their appointments, because there's a cost associated with a missed appointment. So, is the business community interested in supporting this kind of thing, as well?

Valerie Lefler: Yeah, I definitely think that there are some foundations and some kind of tech startups that are beginning to look at some of these applications and how this can evolve. I think they're letting the automotive manufacturers and the regulatory framework to kind of mature a little bit before they get too engaged. But we were working with a rural health system in North Dakota, for example, on a proposal to the National Science Foundation, and that particular hospital system was very interested, because they do see the financial impact of that missed appointment, or that missed surgery, or the individuals who need to heal and get well but they can't because they don't get there. And we know that, for some particular populations such as individuals who have had kidney disease or kidney failure are now on dialysis, you know, that's a very, very tasking but regular reoccurring type of an appointment that, where autonomous vehicles could be set up on a route to go, you know, pick up this person, pick up this person, pick up this person, and then take them to their dialysis. And then, you know, four hours later, they go home.

You know, those routes that can be established, I think there's definitely some early adopters, because there's also, you know, if someone lives in a rural community and they don't have access to transportation, they may get to four dialysis appointments in a month as opposed to 12. And so, that makes a big difference in their recovery, their quality of life, the likelihood that they would have to have something amputated, the likelihood for them to develop other physical issues such as dementia or diabetes that accompany the dialysis or the kidney failure. And so, there's definitely a financial incentive, and the healthcare systems that we've talked to about it is very interested in this. I know there's a health system in Plano, Texas, kind of an urban but they have rural areas, but they're working on a pilot with autonomous vehicles with Toyota. And so, I think that there's definitely a financial business case, and certainly when it comes to the price of what these rural autonomous electric vehicles will cost, you know, we will need some big payor or sources.

And we know that, you now, such a large percentage of income and cost is associated with those missed appointments or missed surgeries. So, there's definitely interest, but I think—we're seeing a lot of them are, like, "Yeah, we'll come along and we'll provide our input and our feedback," but the technology maturity of where these things are at is certainly still in that early stage. And so, as some of those things become more firm, as there are more regulations that are established that are well understood, and as vehicles are maturing in their functionality, I think we will really begin to see them come to the table.

Stephen Lommele: Yeah, and I think that's a great segue, too, to kind of diving in on what's going on in Bastrop, Texas. So, you know, as these new technologies become available and they need to be tested, the U.S. Department of Energy has invested some effort in kind of looking at EEMS in the rural context. And so, Katie, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit what you're doing in Bastrop.

Katie Kam: We’re working with Electric Cab of North America and CARTS, and they are the rural transit provider for the central Texas area. And that partnership has resulted in the Electric Cab providing service within the community of Bastrop, and they deploy a low-speed electric vehicle, one which seats six and another that’s wheelchair-accessible. So you can actually, if you’re in a wheelchair, you can actually get into the vehicle. And so, they provide a service—they serve a service area that includes downtown Bastrop and a little bit around the downtown area. And it also serves the main transit center that serves as the hub for the buses that connect Bastrop to other rural cities and the city of Austin, which is the closest largest city.

And so, they started the low-speed electric service in December of 2020, and, you know, we had the pandemic and we had a snowstorm, so. But ever since then, the number of passengers using the service has been increasing. And as part of this project, we have been surveying passengers that take the service and taking advantage of opportunities to get the general public’s view of the service. So I went out to a couple of festivals in Bastrop that happened over the summer, back when the pandemic kind of took a little bit of a lull, and we were able to survey a lot of people about what they thought about the service, if they’ve ever used it. So we got a lot of valuable information from that, and I’m happy to share more about that.

Stephen Lommele: Got it, so these are low-speed electric vehicles, and they have a driver?

Katie Kam: Yes. So, a low-speed electric vehicle is a separate classified—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines a low-speed electric vehicle as a vehicle that can operate up to 25 miles per hour. It is not a golfcart; a golfcart's actually a separate class of vehicles. And they can operate, in Texas, on roadways that have a speed limit of 45 miles per hour or less. And electric have—uses—they have drivers, so we do not—this is not a driverless or automated vehicle service.

Stephen Lommele: Got it, and you said that they operate on a fixed route?

Katie Kam: So, you know, they're on-demand, so they respond to—you can either call in to CARTS or use the app, it's called the CARTSNow app. And you can say what your origin is and where your destination is, and then the low-speed electric vehicle will pick you up and take you directly there. And so far, the way they've been operating it is just one passenger or set of passengers going from one origin to the destination.

Stephen Lommele: Got it, so, and what community need is the project trying to solve?

Katie Kam: So, Bastrop doesn't really have—so, it's walkable in the downtown area, but it's not necessarily walkable for the rest of the community. So the idea was allowing people within this smaller town to be able to get around without having to drive, and also, to basically pick up where the CARTS fixed-route transit couldn't provide service. And so, that's the need is just to help those that come into Bastrop, either, you know, arriving in the transit center from outside the city and needing to connect from that transit center to their destination in Bastrop. So, the Electric Cab service provides that connection, the first-last mile. And also, to help those that are just trying to get within their community. And also, helping visitors out if they wanna venture from downtown to some other part of Bastrop. And so, that's the idea is to fill the gap in transportation service that's available in a rural community.

Stephen Lommele: Got it. And sorry, just so I'm clear, there's the Electric Cab, and then, CARTS, is that also part of this project or was that preexisting?

Katie Kam: So, CARTS is the rural transit provider for central Texas, and Electric Cab is working for them, to provide this low-speed electric service within the Bastrop area.

Stephen Lommele: Great, okay, so I get it, so there’s this multimodal component where you can connect to the broader transit service, but then also use the on-demand Electric Cab to get around the community of Bastrop, access services—and I think that’s neat, you said that there’s wheelchair-accessible, too, so people with limited mobility could also take advantage of these resources?

Katie Kam: Yes.

Stephen Lommele: Great. And so, what are people saying? What do they think about it?

Katie Kam: It's overwhelmingly positive. So, the survey that was given out at the festivals included—it was actually a pretty long survey, and I was impressed that I was able to get so many people to take a two-page or a, you know, one-page front-and-back survey. But we included questions in there about, you know, their perception of how important is it to have the e-cab—you know, e-cab's short for Electric Cab—service in Bastrop, and, I mean, it was overwhelming that most people said it's very or somewhat important. And what was interesting is, we had a question about how did they first know about e-cab, and most of them responded that they had seen the vehicles drive around, and that's—they're very distinctive-looking vehicles, they're not a golfcart, they're not a traditional-looking car. So, just having the vehicle drive around town definitely makes an impression on people.

And when—I would administer the survey in person, so basically, at these festivals, you have people waiting in line for something, they're sitting, they're resting, they're at a booth. So, I would just approach them with a paper survey and clipboard, and be, like, you know, "Do you mind taking a survey about this service?" And some of them would know about it from having seen the vehicle, and some would be, like, "I've seen the vehicle, but I've never—I don't know what it is." So then I would tell them about the service, and others had neither seen the vehicle or heard about the service. So, the administration of the survey was also like an opportunity to spread more awareness about the service. And, yeah, some other questions that were asked on the survey, we actually had a question specific to automated vehicles.

So, as I mentioned, these Electric Cab vehicles do have a driver, but we had a question in there of, "Some say automated vehicles will be prevalent in the future. Assuming automated is deemed safe, what do you think about having a driver or driverless e-cab service?" And most people responded that they prefer having a driver for this service. And what was interesting is, some people made comments that they like having a driver present, and one thing that Electric Cab emphasizes is that their drivers serve as ambassadors for the community. So, the driver's not only providing a service to transport people, but also to be as a source for information about the community, and just as a way to make it more of a community-building, I guess, mobility experience. So, the driver gets to know the passengers that are, you know, more regular, and also help out visitors to the city to know where to go and what to do.

Stephen Lommele: Well, that's exciting, it sounds like people are taking advantage of the service, and they are beginning to recognize it and they feel that it's bringing a benefit to the community. And anyone can use this service?

Katie Kam: Anyone can use the service, although, I think right now they still have, technically, I think they still have an age restriction, you have to be 18 or up. And so far, the service has been running mostly as a daytime service, so, like, early in the morning to early evening, and that's going to be changing to where it'll operate more in the evening and expand the service area a bit, to help with serving hotels. I think that's in the plans right now. So, that was one of the common—we had, like, an open-ended question of, you know, "Give us some feedback on what you'd like to see or what you like about the service," and one of the common comments received, both on the survey and also just in talking to people at these festivals where we had the surveying done, was they thought it was great to have the service, but they really wanted to see it happen in the evening, so that people that were going to downtown for, you know, drinking or eating, that they had an option to take the e-cab service home afterwards. Also, if people have different work schedules that require them to leave later. So, definitely, that feedback has been taken into consideration and service change is happening as a result.

Stephen Lommele: Well, Andy and Valerie, what has your role been in the project and what are your takeaways?

Andy Duvall: Well, the NREL role in the project, primarily, is looking at energy impacts of the use of the e-cab service. Data have been generated by the use of the service, and understanding, through questions of passengers and through the survey, the types of modes that it's replacing help us get a handle on the overall energy impact. That effort is still in progress, having not quite had a year of operation yet, but it appears as though at least a fair portion of the trips are replacing larger or private vehicles, and would represent a reduced energy footprint on a per-trip basis. I think, also, something that's of interest is just understanding how electric vehicles and electric drivetrains are perceived in a rural setting. And as Katie noted, the impression of that system is fairly positive, and the possibility, I think, of—the appeal for electric vehicles in rural or small-community settings is there.

Katie also noted that they experienced unusual snow, cold weather in Texas, and one of the stories that came out of that was the use of hybrid Ford F150 pickup trucks that were able to, at least in part, as a generator, power homes. And so, I think the interest in electric or hybrid drivetrains, with experience in these nonurban areas, is going to open up markets, open up interest in EVs overall.

Stephen Lommele: Great. And Valerie, what are some of your takeaways?

Valerie Lefler: I think, you know, in this project, I've kind of been on the outside, predominantly, just communicating at group meetings and sharing insight. But I think the learnings that have been had about this pilot and how it could be engaged in other communities is really intriguing from our perspective, because we're an integrator. And across the U.S., Phoenix works with communities to deploy a variety of innovative solutions, to meet the needs of, whether that be a transit agency, a hospital, an insurance company, you know, those kind of major funders. And this kind of service is something that is definitely something we could potentially approach another community about bringing on a fleet of vehicles of this nature to support those on-demand level of service. Because to Katie's point there, most communities do not have this Uber or Lyft type of service, and there needs to be kind of an innovative approach of how that on-demand mobility is established and framed within the community to be successful.

Because one of the reasons that Uber and Lyft or these on-demand modes are very rarely in these communities is because the ride volume requests are pretty low, and so then there’s not enough to keep a driver busy or to keep somebody busy who’s maybe either salary or hourly. And so, it’s kind of this very interesting framework of, you know, when you were deploying, you know, Uber and Lyft in an urban setting, the drivers will circle where there’s high demand for requests, event centers, things of that nature, airport. But in a rural community, there is very rarely hubs of activity, except for maybe, like, the county fair or major public meetings or school getting out. But it’s generally more, you know, you might have a couple rides at 8:00, maybe a ride or two at 10:00, a few rides at 2:00, and maybe one or two at 5:00. Well, that’s not enough rides, generally, that are gonna keep a driver busy.

And so, in deploying something of this nature alongside various organizations that will have regular reoccurring trips, it’s kind of a model where this could be deployed for success, and also maintain a low carbon footprint, perhaps even provide some economic development, and meet, most importantly, the needs of the residents in the community. So we’re just really excited to be kind of a watcher and a listener in this particular project, and see how we could work with other communities across the U.S. to deploy something of this nature.

Andy Duvall: Part of what makes this project exciting, I think, is just what Valerie touched on, that this might fill a gap that's somewhat between the on-demand services offered by transportation networking companies and traditional transit. This is something that might operate more efficiently from both an energy and financial standpoint and be viable for a wider range of communities that may not be large or dense enough for, say, bus transit operations. And also, not have the density of population sufficient to be appealing to the Ubers and Lyfts of the world, yet still offer a viable transit alternative, a public transportation alternative in specific settings. So, learning what we can from the Bastrop project and how it can be translated elsewhere, I think, is one of the things that gets our research group really excited.

Stephen Lommele: Yeah, and to that point, I mean, do we have any insights yet on how we make this sort of thing sustainable?

Andy Duvall: Well, I think it's probably a web of different funding opportunities. As was noted earlier, the costs associated with missed healthcare appointments or healthcare appointments that end up as emergency room visits if maintenance of health is not taken care of in time, along with economic opportunities, there are businesses that need labor and don't have access to labor pools. Thinking about how systems like this might be able to serve multiple functions, both for mobility needs of individuals as well as business needs, to ensure that people who want to work are able to access employment opportunities. There's probably a network, a balance there someplace, where funding makes sense to connect people to jobs and to other destination needs. One of the partners that I've worked with in northeastern Ohio framed it as a paradox where "no car, no job—no job, no car” is a challenge that a lot of people are facing. And especially in the recovery following the pandemic, ensuring that people have access to employment, and ensuring that employers have access to labor are some key societal needs that this can, in part, address.

Stephen Lommele: Got it. And Katie, I think you mentioned, as well, that the service in Bastrop potentially helped move visitors around. So, I assume that there’s a benefit to local businesses, and maybe another potential supporter would be a chamber of commerce or a local visitors' bureau, is that right?

Katie Kam: Yes, yes, actually, Visit Bastrop has been supportive of this service, and they actually added a vehicle route on one of the low-speed electric vehicles that says, "Visit Bastrop." So, yeah, they definitely see the value of this type of service for visitors. And I think, generally, just from, you know, the discussions with people that I've met with that wanted to take the survey and just, you know, members of the community that have been a part of this is they do see this as a community-building mobility option. It's not just a transportation service. It's an opportunity to really connect the community, to create a unique way to get around the city, for residents, visitors, and people coming in to work. So, it's something that it's much more than just a vehicle driving around the road. It can be something more.

Stephen Lommele: Absolutely. And I guess one other kind of series of questions is, in terms of the sustainability of services like this, is there the capacity, locally, to service these types of low-speed electric vehicles? Is that a need? What does that look like?

Katie Kam: Well, low-speed electric vehicles, unlike a full-size conventional electric vehicle, you can charge it 110 volts. You can just plug it into the wall of any building, you don't need any special electric infrastructure. They certainly make low-speed electric vehicles where you can get it charging faster, if it has, you know, a lithium battery pack and you can get the faster charging. So, the infrastructure to consider when implementing a low-speed electric vehicle service is looking at your roadway network to see if, you know, one, you look at the speed limits, it, you know, varies by state. In Texas, like I mentioned, they can operate on roads that are 45 miles per hour or less, and so that would define your service area. And also, looking at opportunities for the vehicle to have space on the roadway, to, you know, operate without perhaps getting stuck in traffic too much, or, you know, having an area to drop passengers off safely.

But they operate with the vehicles, so they just take the automobile lane like the conventional car. But they only go a maximum of 25 miles per hour, so. But the idea with this is, you know, you're trying to offer a service where people do not have to, you know, use their traditional car. And these are more compact vehicles, you know, they're electric, so there's a sustainability, you know, air quality benefit to having them used, they require less energy, less space to operate. And, yeah, I think, other than that, just considering that you have a community like Bastrop where it has, like, this compact downtown area and the older residential areas around it, and then you have the more traditional, like, suburban type development around there. And right now, the low-speed electric service is able to service both areas.

Stephen Lommele: Well, this has been a really interesting conversation. It sounds like, I mean, this is definitely a technology that could be deployed in other communities, I think we have a sense of some of the work that you might need to do to kind of understand the opportunity, that sort of thing. Are there any other final thoughts that any of you have on the project in Bastrop, or opportunities for rural communities with respect to EEMS?

Andy Duvall: I think that there's certainly a lot of opportunity to adapt technologies and practices that first emerged in urban areas for implementation and use in smaller communities and rural settings. So, I think we're only just now starting to understand what some of the possibilities are. There is rapid emergence of a lot of new mobility technologies that if, at the outset, there was a consideration for rural settings, we will likely be able to build on those opportunities even more quickly.

Valerie Lefler: Yeah, I think that, to just echo what Andy was saying, a lot of times rural communities get written off because, you know, a lot of times it's, like, "Oh, it's more complicated or it's harder," or, "Oh, well, who's gonna use it anyway, or how many people would go there?" And, you know, working and being in a lot of urban mobility innovation pilots, it's like they get to rural and it's like this fog comes up. And I feel like, as a society and a community, with such a large percentage of the land mass of the world, and particularly the U.S., being rural, you know, we really need to establish a culture, in this innovative space, that rural is a priority and that rural matters. And that, yeah, there might be 5,000 people in that city or 14,000 people in that city or 200 people in that city, but every single one of those lives is important, and individuals are eager and excited to support new things and innovations.

And as Katie was saying, you know, the visitors' bureau being excited about this innovation and this option coming to the community, I think innovators will find that same environment and same welcome receptiveness across the country. So, just really excited to see this innovation continue in rural communities.

Stephen Lommele: Absolutely, yeah, I think there's a lot of opportunity, and it's great to see that this is being tested and is being well-received. Katie, anything else you wanna add?

Katie Kam: Sure. I think one of the things is that is unique about low-speed electric vehicles is that people perceive it as, "Oh, it's just for university or corporate campuses," or, you know, maybe high-density areas like bigger cities, downtown, for instance, they operate in downtown Austin, servicing, you know, the downtown area. And what's been great about this project in Bastrop is to see that this particular vehicle is really very versatile, it can serve a wide variety of geographic and community settings. And that's been really fun to see in this project, and it's been great to see that the community has been so interested and has placed value on having this vehicle service in the community.

So that's been exciting to see as part of this pilot project in Bastrop, and so, yeah, it's one of those things that we just hope it continues. And I think we have a lot to learn from this, from so many things, from energy usage, from how it can really serve the community in terms of increasing mobility options for people, and, you know, really helping businesses and residents and visitors. So, it's not just servicing one population, it's serving a bunch of people. And I do wanna mention that the next phase of the research we're doing is to, you know, we've been serving the general public and talking to them, but we really do wanna get a better understanding of how businesses perceive of this. So, that's the next phase is to go and interview businessowners, to see what their perception is of it. So, yeah.

Stephen Lommele: Well, thanks so much, Andy, Valerie, and Katie. This was a great conversation. We really appreciate your time today, and we're interested to kind of stay tuned to see how the project at Bastrop develops, as well as other opportunities that are being deployed in rural communities around the country. So, thanks again, we really appreciate your time, and we look forward to more conversations like this in the future.

Andy Duvall: Thank you.

Valerie Lefler: Thank you for the opportunity.

KatieKam: Thanks.

Stephen Lommele: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Mollie Putzig: Thanks, Andy, Valerie, and Katie, for joining us and sharing how energy-efficient mobility strategies can help address mobility gaps in rural areas. As someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere, it's easy to see how expanded options for rural mobility would be transformative. Knowing that families like mine wouldn't have to juggle two cars amongst six people, or that my grandparents wouldn't have to figure out how they're going to get to the store would make a world of difference.

Joanna Allerhand: Before we wrap up, we want to share a quick transportation news tidbit with you. What do you have for us this time, Mollie?

Mollie Putzig: As you've probably heard, access to charging infrastructure is one of the challenges associated with EV adoption in rural areas. One way this gap is being addressed is by installing chargers on public land such as national parks. The National Park Service has been working with the National Renewable Energy Lab and Clean Cities coalitions to identify where these chargers should be built. So far, more than 150 EV chargers have been installed in our national parks. You can read more about this initiative, as well as other efforts by Clean Cities coalitions to expand EV charging infrastructure, in a recent article in Newsweek magazine. The article is titled "National and State Parks are America's Next Great Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Frontier." You can find a link in the description of this episode.

Joanna Allerhand: That's really exciting, and it's great to see coalitions getting national recognition for their work. Thanks for sharing that, Mollie.

That's it for this episode of On the Go. As we wrap up, I want to thank the U.S. Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office and our team here at the National Renewable Energy Lab for their support. Also, a big thanks to Brittany Conrad, our podcast editor. We couldn't do it without you.

Mollie Putzig: If you wanna learn more about Clean Cities and its partnerships to develop affordable, efficient, and clean transportation options, to accelerate the development and widespread use of a variety of innovative transportation technologies, visit us at