In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Technologies for Aging
March 15, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 1

An Interview with . . . Veronica O. Davis, PE, Transportation Engineer and Entrepreneur

Monday, March 11, 2019

Author: Veronica O. Davis

An Interview with . . .

Veronica O. Davis, PE, Transportation Engineer and Entrepreneur

RON LATANISION (RML): Hi, Veronica, this is Ron.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): And this is -Cameron. Nice to meet you, Veronica. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with us.

VERONICA O. DAVIS: Nice to meet you both. Everyone has a Ron in their name.

[Laughter]

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RML: Did that just occur to you right now?

MS. DAVIS: Yes. I wrote down the names and saw that everyone has a Ron in their name.

CHF: Do you usually see patterns in things?

MS. DAVIS: I do. I love puzzles, like Sudoku and all that stuff.

RML: Tell us a little about yourself. I know you’re a civil engineer. Where did you study?

MS. DAVIS: The University of Maryland, College Park.

RML: I’ve always thought that civil engineers are, among the engineering population, the folks who have perhaps the most interest and engagement in things that are more oriented toward public policy. I sense in your involvement in transportation that you have the same character in terms of your interest in things that affect the community and urban planning issues. Tell us about how that evolved.

MS. DAVIS: I was born into this: my dad is a civil engineer. The fun fact is that my mom went into labor at the US Department of Transportation building, the old massive building at l’Enfant Plaza. I was meant to be in transportation!

My dad worked at the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) at the time and then we moved to New Jersey when he went to work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Then he went to work for Sealand and stayed through its transition to CSX before becoming deputy executive director and then executive director for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). So that’s how I ended up in that world.

My dad used to say that civil engineers have done more to save lives than doctors, for example in terms of disease prevention—the fact that we have clean drinking water and sanitation automatically provides a level of health.

As a child, a lot of my toys were transportation -related. My dad bought me a Lionel train set and I set it up in the basement. I don’t know if you remember toys called the Little People? They were like little wooden dowels with heads, and there was a whole town that I set up around my Lionel train set—a house, a daycare, a farm, an airport, a parking garage, an airplane…. I still have them all. You can’t get them now.

I also had My Little Pony, so I made My Little Pony Land; they were the protectors of the town to make sure everybody was good. And I had GI Joe and Star Wars, that was my military. I created this whole world and I think that’s where my parents started their “training.” And my mom works for New York City Transit Authority, in training and development. If I didn’t have school, I was at one of their jobs which was transportation related. So I think it was just fated, as much as I tried to run from it.

CHF: How did you try to run from it?

MS. DAVIS: My parents started me in dance school when I was 18 months old. I was trained in ballet, modern, and tap, and I thought I was going to go to Juilliard. I was good. I wasn’t Juilliard good, but if I’d focused and not done sports and all the other stuff I probably would have been.

When I realized I wasn’t going to get into Juilliard, my dad said, “Why don’t you look at engineering?” I was like, “No, dad, that’s boring. I don’t even know what that is.” But I was naturally good at math and science.

In my junior year of high school I took a senior -physics and junior AP chemistry, just because—why not? My dad encouraged me to do civil engineering. I didn’t know what else to do with my life since -Juilliard didn’t pan out, so I applied to Maryland and other schools. I just put “engineering, undecided.”

The University of Maryland has a summer bridge program. When I was there it was specifically for minority students in the STEM fields, to get acquainted with the school and adjusted and to make sure we were all prepared for engineering.

Coming out of that I thought I wanted to do chemical engineering. My first semester I took Chem 133, which is chem 1 and 2 in one semester for engineers. When I walked out of the first exam I thought, ‘I never want to take another chemistry class.’ That’s when I declared civil engineering as my field.

Between both my sophomore and junior year and my junior and senior year I worked on a construction site. I realized I didn’t like construction but my junior year I met my professor, Dr. M. William Sermons in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. He’s no longer at Maryland but he taught the introduction to transportation planning and I thought, ‘This is awesome. I love this. This is really cool, to think about how you align a roadway, how to weigh all the things you have to think about—the environment, people, access, transportation, safety.’ I thrived in that class.

And that’s when I got interested in planning. With Dr. Sermons’ encouragement I started looking into planning schools for master’s programs; I got my master’s and ended up specializing in transportation.

RML: Do you speak to young people, and especially young women, about your path to where you are?

MS. DAVIS: All the time. There aren’t a lot of women in the leadership of transportation, so naturally people gravitate to the few of us. I have a bunch of mentees right now.

RML: That leads to what I read about your founding Nspiregreen. I understand that the intention or the motivation there is to help women find their way to leadership positions. How does it work?

MS. DAVIS: Here’s a brief history of our company. We’re largely women—we do have men working for us now—and women came to us for our perspective as a woman-owned company. We are also a minority-owned company. People reach out to us and want to work for us. A lot of them start part-time until they earn their full-time job.

RML: Are the staff focused on engineering leadership positions or broader-based leadership?

MS. DAVIS: Most of them are transportation planners.

RML: When did you found your company?

MS. DAVIS: In 2009. We just wrapped up nine years.

CHF: Congratulations.

RML: That’s great.

MS. DAVIS: Thank you.

CHF: And how many staff do you have?

MS. DAVIS: There’s nine of us.

RML: Tell us about Black Women Bike. I read about it on the web and am intrigued. This seems typical of your response to things: You find something that is of concern and find a way of attracting people to understand the cultural issues and the societal issues.

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MS. DAVIS: Black Women Bike just kind of happened. It started from a conversation between two friends talking about biking. This was around the time of the DC mayoral election and bike lanes became like a code word for stuff white people liked. Then one night I was biking to meet a friend for a movie and this little girl saw me and she was so excited: “Mommy, Mommy, look at the black woman biking!”

My friends and I started using the hashtag #Black Women Bike. Then we started a Facebook group, and it grew organically from there. We do monthly rides and have events. I’m probably less involved now than I was in the past just because of life. But it’s been great.

I would say the growing group of people getting on bikes is young retirees. A lot of people in this region were either under the old federal system or the old DC government system and able to retire at age 55. They’re still young and they want to be active. So probably our largest group is women between 55 and 65.

CHF: When you say it’s grown organically, have you heard from women in other cities?

MS. DAVIS: We have. There’s another group, Black Girls Do Bike; they’re a for-profit company, so they have a different level of focus and chapters all around. We’re a little different because we’re not just a bike club. We advocate for bike infrastructure in your neighborhood and try to get people to think about biking as a form of transportation, maybe to get to work or for lots of other trips of less than a mile that you could use a bike for and it would be quicker.

CHF: That seems increasingly easy in Washington, with all of the GoBikes springing up. Is that your experience, that more people are biking because they’re taking advantage of these pay-as-you-go bike stands?

MS. DAVIS: Absolutely. It’s been interesting to see the adoption. I haven’t dug into the data but I would say anecdotally that I think the most surprising group in terms of adoption of both the bikes and the scooters has been teenagers, particularly black and brown teenagers in DC.

RML: I also understand from reading about your history that you’re interested in public service. You won election as a committee woman. Are you still serving in that role?

MS. DAVIS: No. My four years are up and I did not seek reelection because of reprioritizing my time. I definitely understand that you’re limited to how much time you have, so I’m no longer there, but I am involved in the Metropolitan Women’s Democratic Club. I’m working to do a health symposium in the spring, around urban planning issues like active transportation, food security. I’m also on the board of America Walks.

In terms of my aspirations, when I was 22 years old, I saw Secretary Norman Mineta in a press conference, and I thought, ‘This is a job you can have? Why didn’t anyone say this?’ Then I went to work for the New York City Department of Transportation the following summer, 2002. My office was maybe two blocks from Ground Zero. I worked in the Office of Private Ferry Operations because everything else in the transportation system was shut down and ferries were the way to get people across the river, out of the city. Even a year later, people were riding the ferries, because they felt like if something happened, at least they’re “above ground,” above the water.

Then I got a chance to meet Norman Mineta and I went to work for the Federal Highway Administration. Mary Peters was the federal highway administrator—she is, like, the greatest person ever. It was at a US DOT holiday party but because there were a lot of people and the room only held so many, it was like a lottery system to actually go. Somehow I ended up there. I was a GS-9, near the bottom of the totem pole. But I’m kind of a bold person, and when I saw Mary Peters I decided to introduce myself, because I worked for her and I thought she should know that. That was my thought process.

So I walked up and said, “Hi, Administrator Peters. My name is Veronica, I’m a GS-9 in planning, blah blah blah.” And she said, “It’s so good to meet you. What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “Secretary of Transportation,” of course. She hugs me, runs me across the room, pushes Norman Mineta’s Secret Service out of the way and introduces me to him.

RML: Tell us about your vision of transportation going forward. Let’s suppose that in 2030 or sometime in the future you are in a leadership position in the Department of Transportation. Do you have a vision of where you think transportation will be in 20 years?

MS. DAVIS: I think it could be something different if we do something different. The situation now looks like the definition of insanity: We have old tools and old thinking, and we’re expecting a different result, for example in how we model institutions—the transportation demand model hasn’t really changed much in the last couple of decades.

I’m of the opinion that we need to change how we do planning. Instead of spinning something in a model and saying, “This is what our future will be,” I think we should start to define our future. We have to say “This is what it should be,” for example whether it’s going to be autonomous vehicles.

I will say, though, that no matter what happens with our technology, we’re still going to walk. That’s something that will be a constant.

RML: Let’s take the case of autonomous vehicles just for reference. I personally like driving my car very much and I know the technology is available and evolving and there will likely be autonomous vehicles on our highways and streets. What do you see in terms of the benefits and the downside of autonomous vehicles? Do you think they are useful or are you concerned about them?

MS. DAVIS: My concern is that right now the technology companies are driving the conversation. And even for cities that are “preparing” for them, it’s from a place of defense and not offense. I’m on the ASCE Policy Committee and even as we grapple with these things, there’s so much we don’t know. But there seems to be a hesitancy to set parameters around safety and how cities want the new technologies to fit in the transportation system.

Like I said, bikes and pedestrians aren’t going anywhere. The bicycle is a transportation mode that has stood the test of time and basically functions the same as it did 100 years ago. And we’ll always have our feet; for those of us that are able bodied, our feet aren’t going anywhere. And wheelchairs are a mobility device.

I think there’s an opportunity with autonomous vehicles if we set the vision and define what it looks like. And it could be anything. It could be support for AVs but you have to be able to operate within these constraints.

But I don’t think anyone’s really thinking like that. There are small cities that still want to invest millions of dollars in parking. Why are we investing in this infrastructure if we don’t need it? I think it’s because people are thinking, ‘Ron, you’ll have your AV, and Cameron, you’ll have your AV, and I’ll have mine.’ We’re not thinking in terms of a shared economy model for AVs. If we share vehicles we don’t need as much roadway infrastructure.

RML: No doubt that that would affect the congestion on our streets as well.

One of the things that concerns me as a technologist is unintended consequences. We have a great example of that in the internet. It’s being used as it was -intended—to provide a platform for information to be available to just about everyone, everywhere—but it’s also being used for purposes that were not intended, like the recruitment of terrorists, for example, and false news and information. I don’t think that was anticipated.

I wonder whether concerns about unintended consequences might apply to autonomous cars. For example, what would prevent someone from loading up an autonomous vehicle with an explosive and driving it to the entrance of a building in Washington? How do we control that? We know it’s possible. There’s no reason why that could not happen and, in fact, the danger is that it will. What kind of parameters do we construct, from a transportation point of view, to minimize that potential or to eliminate it? How do you see that—do you see any avenue for making sure that we anticipate some of these unanticipated consequences and deal with a real threat?

MS. DAVIS: Well, I’m sort of on the optimism side. I think if cities define their vision and make the tech companies meet that vision, AV use could be phenomenal because it allows us to reduce the amount of pavement and roadway and to make more spaces for people, more clean spaces, more infrastructure for biking and walking, and better public transit systems, because we’re still going to need mass transit to move a lot of people at a time. I think it will improve air quality. There’s so much that can come from it—if we define our vision.

Also, I’m really into sci-fi, like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Sci-fi makes an interesting commentary on who we are as people in a fictional way that is very thought provoking. One of the sci-fi movies I loved as a kid is Maximum Overdrive (1986). It was probably hot stuff back in the day, but it’s definitely a B horror movie now. Essentially, something fries the system so everything that’s electronic begins to operate -autonomously—-drawbridges just open and people fall off, a semi truck chases people around town. And there’s obviously Terminator 2 and Skynet. If we don’t think about what the dark sides could be, we don’t plan for them.

RML: Yes. From the point of view of transportation, do you see anything that will really change? Autonomous vehicles are one change. Do you see anything that will change the way we travel in terms of new approaches to mass transport?

MS. DAVIS: I think change will be limited by how we envision the future. Right now the way we fund transportation isn’t set up to think about the future. Because even now a lot of our funding is from the gas tax alone, and we’re not even thinking about other revenue sources.

We need to invest in public transit. Some people think that transit should make money but no one looks at the intrinsic value of transit. I think that we’re going to get to a point where the government, the US DOT, is going to have to shift funding streams, but until that changes, I think we’re going to end up with city road blocks. The way we’re funded is limiting technology.

RML: If you look at gas prices and gas taxes in much of the rest of the world, US gasoline prices are still a bargain compared to Europe or Japan or any of the other industrialized nations. It could make a considerable dent in the national debt, I think, although it may be politically difficult to do, if US gasoline prices were similar to those in Asia and Europe. That would make a big difference in our revenue stream, no question. And the funds could be used for purposes that would be of benefit to the country. We just don’t have the political or probably the personal will to do that. No one wants to pay higher gas taxes even though it might serve the common good. Would you advocate for that?

MS. DAVIS: Absolutely. ASCE updates its policies every three years and now has one on innovative financing for infrastructure. How do we pay for what we need? For a variety of reasons, I don’t think we’ve leveraged the private sector enough.

I’m working with one city that doesn’t have a lot of funding but as we were going around the city, I noticed several million square feet of development coming and asked, “Why aren’t the developers building your bike lanes? For them to add it on to their project, it’s -another $50K. That’s an underground parking space.” That’s where you negotiate. I understand that you have to put in a certain number of parking spaces; let’s reduce that by half and build bike lanes. You’ve got to leverage that, otherwise you’re never going to get these systems built. With developers, the private sector is okay with it as long as it’s predictable. They know that their property becomes more valuable when there’s high-quality, frequent, reliable transit, when there are bike lanes and bike infrastructure and walking infrastructure. Developers have been involved in the Urban Land Institute long enough to know that that’s where they really get the value out of their building. They want to build as little parking as possible.

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RML: I see. Well, Veronica, what’s next on your -agenda? I’m curious about political life. You strike me as someone who has the inclination and motivation and vision to serve very effectively in an elected, or maybe an appointed, political position. What are your thoughts on that? Secretary of transportation would be one such position. What about elected office?

MS. DAVIS: I would be open to the idea. For an appointed position, I would need very strong -champions because I think that if you put a dynamic, visionary person in a position and don’t provide them the support to implement, nothing’s going to get done. I’ve worked with a lot of really great people who ended up getting burned out because there was no champion. You need someone who understands that change is hard and we’re going to get through this together, who understands that people get upset in the face of change but who can help explain that it’s important for a neighborhood to have sidewalks, it’s important to have trees and benches, and that, even as you age in your community or as the community changes, we can meet needs.

Let’s plan for a person with disabilities from the beginning and not just accommodate them. Let’s actually build a city where they can move seamlessly versus, after the fact, putting in a ramp and patting ourselves on the back. But I think in order to do that, whether you’re a mayor or other elected official, you need people that are willing to support it.

The other thing you realize when you are the person who is going to lead change is that you have a very limited term so you have to be effective.

And you also have to understand that eventually there will be a course correction. I think we’re seeing that now with our national government. The system always kind of corrects itself. It might do so in the wrong area but it always happens.

For example, I was on my condo board and was brought in to be the change agent implementing the residents’ vision. We got everything done and we got a lot accomplished. We invested in the community. We got everything in tiptop shape. But then all it took was a couple of people who didn’t want all of that and now we’ve course corrected and our condos are losing value. Those things happen. Everything is cyclical.

CHF: Yes, it’s part of human nature. What I’m hearing from you, Veronica, with your verve and vision, is both the civil engineering and transportation perspective but also it seems to me a systems perspective, because you really are looking at myriad dimensions of daily life and quality of life. Is that an intentional component of your approach? Or how do you see yourself going forward using that?

MS. DAVIS: I’m always a student and there’s always an opportunity to learn. For example, I’ve learned about the public health side of cities, and it’s helpful to have that language and understanding. I was in Salzburg, Austria, talking about building healthy and equitable communities; I’m always thinking about infrastructure, but there I heard about the impact of cities on mental health.

I’m always evolving, always learning and understanding the bigger systems and how things relate to each other and how we can “multi-solve.” As long as we’re trying to solve one problem at a time, it’s going to take forever to solve any problems. But if we can solve several things at one time, we can get somewhere quicker.

For example, in a community with a lot of people who have asthma, if we can put in green infrastructure and trees and reduce the number of vehicles in that area to make the air quality better, you not only help move people and provide or improve access for people to get to jobs and schools, you make it safe for people to be able to walk and bike. And on top of that, we’ve cleaned the air so now people can breathe better. That’s why I think we have to get into this view of multi-solving.

RML: That certainly sounds like a systems engineer to me and I think you’re exactly right. I’m going to venture to say that you’re going to provide some important leadership going forward. This is one of those moments where 10 years from now we’ll look back and say, “I talked with her when she was just starting.” You’ve got a lot of the kinds of instincts that I think are of tremendous importance to this country and, in fact, to people all over the world. I hope you will continue to travel that path and find ways of making your vision and your thoughts come to fruition for the people who will benefit.

MS. DAVIS: Thank you. I appreciate that.

RML: One last thing, Veronica, is there any particular message you’d like to pass on to the members of the NAE and other readers of The Bridge?

MS. DAVIS: I think as we move forward as a country, we really have to think about how to make sure the transportation system is affordable, reliable, safe for all users. This means really being thoughtful about every type of user, bringing them into the conversation, having them at the table when we’re thinking about it, whether it’s the technology side of the vehicles or the infrastructure side—all users. I think that the more diverse voices we can have at the table the better our cities and rural areas and suburbs will be in the future. Because the reality is that we have blind spots. I really think that is what we need for the future. We need to set the vision and the parameters versus trying to model something that may or may not exist.

RML: Thank you, Veronica. I’ve enjoyed this conversation enormously.

CHF: I have too. I can’t wait to hear more about where you go and what you do, Veronica.

MS. DAVIS: Definitely let’s keep in touch.