17: Sustainable Transportation

23 June 2022


Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of 30 For Net Zero 30, where we're speaking with 30 change makers around the globe on steps to take now to reach 2030 goals. I'm Anna-Marie Slot, global ESG and sustainability partner at Ashurst's, and today is the special day, I'm joined by John Slot, chief innovation officer at Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, also known as Lynx, who also happens to be my brother, so sustainability kind of runs in our family. John's joining us today from his office so if you hear any background noise or strange traffic sounds he's been in the office through COVID as an essential service, but today without a mask joining us from Florida. John, could you maybe just give us for the listeners a few moments around your history, your background, how you come to be here today, and your position at Lynx.

Thank you Anna-Marie, it's a pleasure being here today. As you know my background is varied both in the public sector, as well as the private sector. Currently I serve here at the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority as the chief innovation officer, and really responsible for figuring out and thinking strategically about the mission of the agency, and then executing it today. So the types of groups that I'm working with allow us to keep in the forefront our zero emission future.

Before being here at the agency I also served 25 years in the private sector in management consulting, consulting globally, both in Mainland China and of course in the United States And also here at the agency I have served for about two years as well as the chief operating officer. So understanding the day to day operation is extremely helpful as I think and work with our teams, and share with our teams our journey moving forward.

So we are our all focused on that essential mission that you referred to, and really just getting people safely, reliably, and at a cost effective manner to their destinations each and every day.

Moving forward, what we are looking for and what the direction of our local state and federal leaders here in the United States have directed is a zero emission future. So one of the biggest things we can do as a transportation agency is really focus on emissions, and focusing on our fleet vehicles, as well as of course our facilities.

So we have three main facilities, 15 super stops or transfer centers, so we do have facilities but the major part of sustainability from a standpoint of air quality is focused on transportation and clean, zero emission or low emission vehicle fleets. So that's been where we are focused.

You've had that job for a little while now, have you seen any shifts going on within that role, within how people are looking and talking about that, particularly now we're post COP26, are you seeing any changes in how people are addressing these things?

Absolutely, absolutely. I think if you look back maybe five, six years ago I think the general momentum in zero emission and sustainable transportation was really about if we were going to move to zero emission within the United States. I think there's been a staged change in that behavior, and now it is when and how fast. So everything from our federal agencies all the way through state and local, that has been a mind shift due to probably administration change, funding changes, as well as I think the community within the United States, especially the pubic sector, we are all servants of the public good, so we're looking to improve our communities. This just stands in our mission, it's just the right thing to do. So we see this as a really neat opportunity, and the mind shift was almost instantaneous.

So one day everybody talking about whether, and then the next day everybody talking about, okay, we're on board, let's deliver, which kind of the focus of the podcast as well. I mean, what specific actions do you think need to happen? Who needs to take them? Where do we really push on to get that game changer in the next kind of two to three years so that we can deliver on net zero?

I think the key part is as with many initiatives, especially with climate change, this is not one organization, one group, this is not a governmental problem, this is not a private sector problem, this is a human problem. So we as an ecosystem have to come together to solve the problem. And that is everything from our government policy and legislative statute through our private sector and their investments and research. And here in the public sector, in the operations have said to be able to every minute of every day say are we procuring and operating the appropriate vehicles to align to a net zero future? So it is all about that ecosystem. So I think we're starting to see the right moves in the legislative side that enable that.

We're starting to see the moves in the standardization in the private sector, in the research and development to simplify the zero emission future. We're starting to see the technologies have parity between what was the traditional ice or in our case a compressed natural gas vehicle, so we're starting to see parity in the technologies. And then finally we're starting to see the commercial side of the equation build and supply the vehicles that we can utilize for the mission. And that mission is in the United States probably similar to the UK. We have our daily mission of moving people reliably, safely, and with an eye to cost effective transportation, mass transit.

We also have a emergency mission that here in Florida if we have a hurricane and so on we are called upon as a emergency support function to move people en mass out of harm's way, and we do that mission on a yearly basis. So we have to have a fleet that is resilient, sustainable, and successful at both of those missions. So we need those other two major entities, the private sector and governmental sectors to give us the legislative overhead and guidance, and then the technologies and the commercial sector apply it so that we can actually execute on the mission.

And you've recently added to your fleet I think, what have you brought in?

We've done a couple different experiments and we're currently doing a pilot. So as an agency half of our fleet right now, so we have a little over 300 vehicles in our fixed route fleet for an example, that fixed route fleet, roughly 150 of them are now compressed natural gas, so we're moving away from diesel and have been on that journey for the last four years. So trying to get out of that combustion engine and emissions as quickly as possible as zero emission technologies become more mature.

So what we're doing on the zero emission side is through a federal program here in the United States we did a low no grant, which is a low no emissions grant, and we were able to win this competitive grant that allowed us to bring in electric vehicles. And a little bit different from other agencies within the United States, we did a public, public, public, partnership to build the charging infrastructures. So the idea there being is we as an agency, our capabilities and competitive advantage is all about operating and maintaining a mass transit fleet, not understanding how to build a gas station, and especially not an electric gas station. So the idea that we could do that and do it on our own may have been a fools errand.

So we as a very tight community of business leaders got together and said how can we do this? So we brought our local utility in, we brought our city in. The city gave us a strategic direction and guidance. The utility brings the experience of electrification and building the charging infrastructure. And of course we know how to operate and maintain buses. So we brought those three together and built a public, public, public, partnership to build the charging infrastructure, basically to build the gas station. And in that model we've been quite successful rolling out. We have this summer a hundred percent of our bus rapid transit service in downtown Orlando will be zero emission. Now that's the first part of the pilot. So now the question is how do we scale? So our plans show us moving to 150 zero emission vehicles in the next five years. That question of how we scale is the question we're trying to answer now.

Yes. How do you get all of the tourists to see Mickey Mouse on a zero emission mode? There's the challenge in everyday words. Now I always ask this question, so this is your job, this is how you deliver through your work life. What are your own commitments to net zero over the next 12 months? And bear in mind I can check on these.

Yes, you can. Basically my commitments and personal commitments are around choice. I currently live downtown, my commute is less than a mile. We actually have some great infrastructure built around the bike trails, so my intent is to park my car on a very regular basis. So at this moment that is something that's a high priority for me. So the ability to commute via bicycle, and since I'm less than a mile I will hit the health side of the equation as well as the emission side.

Well, being something we talk about a lot in other forums around the social aspects of ES&G, and sometimes there's conflict there, but that sounds like in this case alignment between the E and the S on that one.

Last question just to round it out. You've talked about some really interesting stuff you're doing, we're talking good decent numbers there and how do you kind of refit how people move around a city, and in what mode? If you could have sort of one takeaway, here we are beginning of 2022, what do you think that takeaway would be for people listening in?

I think at all levels of our society be impatient would be the one thing. Be impatient, push our industry for standards. So when you plug in a electric vehicle it shouldn't require six different standards to figure out which vehicle can plug into that plug. Simple activities like standardization, push for transportation solutions that meet a mission, right? So the idea that electric vehicles, if they don't have the range is okay we'll build charging infrastructure around our countries to meet a minimum requirement. Please don't. Let's use our scientists, let's use our engineers, and let's build a group of transportation solutions, vehicles, that actually meet the mission. We can figure this out. If we can put people on the moon we can sure as heck figure out how to make a vehicle go a thousand miles and charge in 15 minutes. Figure it out, be impatient.

We also need to do comparability. So the folks that are moving toward an electric future right now are the early adopters. We are not at scale yet. So the idea to get those folks that would not naturally move to move, that requires comparability. So electricity is fuel, you have no idea what you're going to pay for that gallon of electricity until a month later, you reconcile your bill, you divide it by the number of miles, and then you have an actuary check all your numbers to make sure that you've done it right. We need to figure out a business model that allows at least in the United States electric utilities to have a different rate structure for transportation. Not a commercial rate, not a residential rate, but something that says this is the cost before I pump, before I fill that tank for transportation purpose, this is what it's going to cost me. And given that, then people will have certainty, especially fleets, especially the consumer side of the equation, on what that vehicle costs to operate. And that uncertainty stops people from moving.

The other part of it is when you have that uncertainty we all have to build our own gas stations. So the public sector in the United States is building gas stations right now. They're being put all in parking lots all over the country, and they're being put in other areas. This is a commercial problem, this is where the ecosystem has to really come together. It has to have standards and statute, but then it also has to have the private sector feel like there is enough value there to actually build the station, because the private sector will make sure that pump is operating because they're going to want to maximize revenue. Where in the public sector our premise is we installed it, is it in a state of good repair, and will it last for the 20 years that it is in the amortization schedule? We're not going to try to enhance that charger.

And the way that installations are going and technology is changing, that charging infrastructure is changing every year. So we need the private sector to step in and say I want to make more revenue based on an enhanced charging infrastructure. They're going to make sure that pump works every single day. And that type of charging infrastructure needs to be put out in the world, not necessarily a public sector agency putting a pump in today.

Excellent, all great ideas. And thanks for joining us today. I think key takeaways that I'm hearing are thinking really with your innovation hat and that absolute connection between sustainability and resilience, and future proofing your business and future proofing how you're thinking about how you're putting things together today, to where they will look like 10, 15, 20 years from now, whether or not that's going to fit.

Key points around standardization, that's a huge one, how does industry come together and create something that everybody can use rather than individual solutions that bifurcate the market.

So thanks very much, John. Appreciate having you on today.

Thank you Anna-Marie, much appreciate it.

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