Let’s talk about the stigma of the bus. Public transit in the United States is not particularly robust or well-funded compared to its European or Asian counterparts. The American bus system in particular is stigmatized; Americans associate the bus with poverty, crime, and filth. This stigma is not entirely unwarranted, but it has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. About 40% of buses in the U.S. are in disrepair. 

In Los Angeles, for example, the bus system is painfully underfunded but is in desperate need of a revamp, which has created a cycle of neglect and a decline in middle class users leading to a $861.9 million federal bailout in 2020. Though Los Angeles transit has been in rough shape for a while, the pandemic has sped up the problem since city and county governments temporarily suspended the bus fare, which has been referenced as America’s largest free transit experiment.

Some frequent complaints about the public bus systems are that it is inconvenient, unreliable, unsafe, inaccessible, inefficient, and has poor network integration with other modes of transportation such as the train or micromobility. Moreover, these problems do not impact all communities equally. Continuing with the Los Angeles example, 92% of users are people of color and users had a median income of $12,000 in 2012 and $17,000 in 2019. For readers who are doing the math, not only is $17,000 well below the poverty line, but it’s insidious when compared to the increased cost of living in the city. Coupled with the fact that the bus is in worse shape than other modes of local transportation, it is clear that low-income nonwhite people have worse access to transportation on average and the horrific bus infrastructure is partially to blame.

So, what do we do about the bad reputation of the bus? This question may be related to two blogs the Journal of Law and Mobility has posted recently. On December 23, I wrote about the role of recreation transportation in inspiring creative technology. Then on February 8, Research Editor Namjun Park wrote a blog about clean energy credits and electric vehicles (EVs). It may sound outlandish, but perhaps this is an example of recreation transportation inspiring new ideas about our daily mobility needs, and electrification is a piece of that puzzle.

Though recreation, EVs, and decrepit infrastructure sound like three different ideas, each touches on something important about the bus: the transportation industry has been buzzing about electrifying buses, and people love a “fun” bus. Even the above-linked article from The Atlantic mentions “bus lines of the ‘party’ variety”. Is it possible that electrifying public buses and somehow making the busing experience more enjoyable could increase ridership in a meaningful way? Is it even reasonable to assume that increasing bus ridership is a net positive for public transit? Though it is outside the scope of this blog, it may be important to consider bus fare and what LA’s accidental free transit experiment means for the future of accessible transit as bus fares generally contributes to the infrastructure budget.

First of all, electrifying buses may be a successful strategy for a few reasons. The cleanliness, accessibility, reliability, and network integration complaints could be reduced when new electric buses are introduced and the current units are replaced. With the passage of the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the United States has $89.9 billion (yes, with a ‘B’!) guaranteed funding for public transit projects over the next five years, which is long overdue considering the Biden Administration estimates there are 24,000 buses in the U.S. in need of replacement. Relatedly, the Biden Administration has placed particular emphasis on electrification as EVs after Biden’s lofty campaign promises regarding the climate crisis and manufacturing jobs. Aside from being politically flashy, electric buses can help combat environmental injustice, which disproportionately impacts poor communities of color; offers a smoother and quieter ride for users, which may promote ridership; and will eventually have lower operating costs than diesel buses, which justifies permanently eliminating bus fare to promote accessibility. 

If revamping and replacing the old, rundown buses with new EV technology does not increase ridership, perhaps local governments must also make the ride more enjoyable for the user. The Atlantic may have mentioned party buses in jest, but the concept has gained popularity in recent years. It seems that people love to watch TV, play video games, socialize, make coffee, or enjoy a cocktail while they are mobile. But the transportation industry has known this for a long time– one of the many appeals of automation has been using time in the car to do productive or recreational activities while the car drives itself. The allure of doing so is relevant to those who rely on public transportation as well. Although arguably those who use the bus have an opportunity to enjoy their coffee or watch a movie on the way to work unlike those who currently drive their own car, the chaos and dilapidation of American public infrastructure is certainly not luxurious. It would be disingenuous to suggest that riding the bus in LA is more relaxing or prestigious than driving one’s own vehicle simply because people on the bus have time to safely watch Netflix on their phones. 

The intersection of all these thoughts forces us to consider whether the stigma around the bus ultimately implies that those who rely on the least expensive means of transportation are simply less deserving of leisure than those who will be able to afford a fully automated vehicle. On the other hand, maybe cities could not eliminate the bus fare if we started advocating for televisions and mini bars to be installed in public buses. The value of a free, accessible bus system for communities with a tight budget certainly outweighs the excitement of making every bus a party bus.

I cannot help thinking, however, there must be a reasonable middle ground. The idea of having luxury options on a free bus is not completely farfetched; we already have movies, video games, lattes, and cocktails for purchase on planes– why not the bus, too? Perhaps there is a way of including optional creature comforts at bus stops or even on the bus itself. If the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is truly going to provide for electric buses, why not install televisions in the back of the seat as we already have for decades in airplanes and allow users to choose to pay a few dollars for use? Could we not provide the option to buy a coffee at the bus stop while waiting? Could the proceeds of these luxuries not be collected in an infrastructure account the way traditional bus fare has been for decades? 

As a lawyer, I will not agonize myself (or the reader) by analyzing the tortious nightmare of making every public bus a true party bus, however I will maintain that there could be a feasible way to abolish bus fare while simultaneously making the bus a more pleasant experience for those who have the privilege of choosing to drive their own car. I believe the recent infrastructure legislation, though still not enough money to completely solve the transportation crisis in the U.S., may offer momentum to chip away at the bus stigma. If we can make the bus a cleaner, more reliable, and dare I say even fun experience, maybe ridership would increase so greatly that the inherent value of investing tax dollars in free transit will become undeniable.

As we electrify buses, perhaps every public bus could be a bit more like a party bus. 

Recreation transportation is an entire industry. We seek different and exciting forms of transportation all the time, and often it’s just for fun. Whether it’s ATVs, jet skis, horseback riding, biking, or walking around a new city to see the sights, transportation is part of all of our recreational activities. This blog will explore how amusement parks design transportation systems, how transportation throughout American amusement parks as a microcosm of innovative transportation policy, and if any lessons can be learned by society from amusement park transportation for implementing new transportation technologies. 

Earlier this year, Vox published an article about how the story of amusement parks is the story of America. Many American amusement parks were inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. For the sake of context, the 1893 World’s Fair was specifically organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage and eventual ravaging of North and South America, not the culture of Colombia as the term “World’s Fair” might suggest to many people. The fair was held in Chicago in no small part because Chicago was accessible by railroad. 

The focal point of the Columbian exposition was the White City, which was a huge exhibit of buildings depicting an interesting and (at the time) futuristic community obsessed with transportation, electricity, manufacturing, and living on the go. With all the white and gold structures showcasing technologically advanced processes, “[t]he Columbian Exposition, like the amusement parks and theme parks it inspired, was inspired by the America for which its people longed, not necessarily the America they encountered”.

Amusement parks are a unique recreational experience because they offer an opportunity for people to test their individual limits in a safe, confined, and regulated environment. It’s a form of entertainment that requires participation by those seeking amusement. Margaret King, the director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, stated, “Theme parks are all about us…. It’s the museum of us, of America. It’s a distillation of the qualities we most value and like about ourselves. [Visiting the Disney Parks] is like going back to your hometown. It’s the hometown that is shared by everyone in the country”. This explanation is eerily similar to how Americans describe driving a car.

This blog has previously considered how to make transportation more equitable, so it is important to briefly note that this feeling of Disney World being the hometown of all Americans is far from reality. Racism, elitism, and exclusion are at the heart of many American pastimes, including visiting amusement parks. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters by Victoria W. Wolcott explores the history of amusement parks prohibiting Black patrons and the subsequent civil rights initiatives. 

Walt Disney has been accused of being a violent antisemite and passionate racist. Although there is no single example of Disney being a bigot and many claim he was a “product of his time”, it is undoubtable that Disney’s legacy has inspired modern conversations about problematic imagery in the parks. (Though specific attractions are outside the scope of this blog, I encourage any readers who are interested to read a few newspaper articles about the Splash Mountain controversy). Likewise, transportation inequality is an undertone of innovation even when the technology’s inspiration is fanciful. 

Circling back to what amusement parks mean for recreation transportation, the most iconic example may be the Disney monorail. Before Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Disney dreamed of building a city of tomorrow full of futuristic transportation called Project X, which eventually became EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). When Disney World was being constructed in central Florida, transportation infrastructure became a bit more complicated than its California predecessor, Disneyland (which was the first ever American monorail), because the parking lot and the Magic Kingdom park were separated by a lake. Though a boat was probably the obvious choice (and a boat exists today), Disney felt the pressure to deliver an exciting, innovative transportation experience on a monorail. 

Before Project X could be actualized, Disney died and “EPCOT Died Ten Minutes After Walt’s Body Cooled” as newspapers headlined.  On his deathbed, Disney cautioned his successors to make use of the lake so the purpose of the monorail could be to make people feel like they were leaving their real life behind as they were transported into the amusement park. 

Believe it or not, the monorail system in Las Vegas is the same as the one in Disney as the city contacted Bombardier Transportation to build an identical system to the one in Orlando. All this to say that the monorail concept is clearly beloved by vacationers and recreation companies.

If everybody loves the monorail because it’s such an efficient, enjoyable way to travel, why do we not have a larger scale version of the monorail to serve communities’ daily needs when they’re not on vacation? Well, first of all, building the monorail was not as simple as it might seem, even though Disney already owned the land. Difficult construction will never be made easier by a densely populated urban center, for example; adding a monorail in the middle of San Francisco would be quite the feat. 

While there are monorails that operate outside the wonderland of recreational settings, most of those monorails are located in urban centers throughout Asia and can only seat a couple dozen people at a time. Additionally, because a monorail is only a single track, it is difficult for users to switch tracks. For short lines, the monorail works but is not ideal for complicated, city-wide commutes. 

Maybe more importantly, transportation agencies do not like systems that are more expensive than they are useful. A monorail, as stated before, is only one track that runs circularly. For large cities, it makes much more sense to invest in a large, multitrack fleet train. (In all fairness, we still don’t see enough trains in the United States, but that is a different blog). It is more efficient and cost effective to maintain traditional buses or multitrack train fleets that have the same maintenance needs, rather than several single track monorails with different nuances. 

The ultimate question is whether the concept of the monorail would serve the general public’s transportation needs, or if the monorail is best suited for recreational services. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (known as the Infrastructure Bill or IIJA) approportioned $1.2 trillion to repair and reimagine the deteriorating American infrastructure. This includes $39 billion for modernizing public transit and $66 billion for railways. 

The idea of these two earmarks is to modernize infrastructure, improve accessibility, service Amtrak in the Northeast corridor, and bring rail services to the rest of the country. While the Disney monorail has long been a symbol of Tomorrowland, Walt Disney’s original concept of futuristic transportation is ironically outdated. By nature, tomorrow becomes today which becomes yesterday. The monorail that Walt Disney imagined, which became an iconic symbol of leisure and whimsy, is not necessarily the modern transit system the IIJA is meant to inspire.

Because of the aforementioned shortcomings of monorails, maybe a monorail system is not worth trying to force into typical American infrastructure after the hardfought IIJA has brought some hope back to the transportation industry. A monorail may serve its purpose in Las Vegas and Disney World, but perhaps it is not innovative enough for daily life. However, transportation recreation is valuable for the joy it brings vacationers, even if its utility probably ends with the thrill of escaping reality. 

One thing is for certain: transportation innovation and amusement parks clearly have a long, intertwined history beginning with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Its clean, white city full of futuristic transportation concepts that inspired amusement parks to become a place where we can live in the future and the past at the same time. Recreation transportation is an opportunity to experience the excitement of innovation even when that innovation isn’t practical because it gets us excited about all the potential of transportation.

This blog post is the second in a series about facial recognition software in various forms of public and private means of transportation, as well as the greater public policy concerns of facial recognition tools. More posts about the relationship between transportation technology, FRS, and modern slavery will follow.

Volume II: Beginning to Think about Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking

This blog post is the next in our series about facial recognition software (FRS) in transportation technology. This time, we will begin considering whether facial recognition software can be a meaningful tool for combatting modern slavery and human trafficking. The two most pressing questions regarding this topic are: first, is FRS an impactful tool in combating slavery and trafficking and, second, what are the relevant slavery risks?

Before we begin to think about either of these questions, let’s think about what slavery and trafficking mean in the context of transportation technology. It is important to understand that there is disagreement among experts about the best working definitions of slavery and trafficking. The definitions we will use here are not absolute. When we use the term “modern slavery”, we are generally talking about the exploitation of humans for personal or financial gain using deceit, force, or abuse of a person’s vulnerability. Modern slavery could be in the production of our clothing, manufacturing of our cars, harvesting of our food, or in forced sex work, for example. Human trafficking, though often conflated with modern slavery, is defined by the United Nations as “transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit”.

Turning to the effectiveness of FRS, the short answer is that FRS has helped identify and rescue survivors of slavery and trafficking. There are tools such as Spotlight, which use image processing to scan missing persons’ photographs and search through databases of online sex ads. Spotlight is owned and operated by Thorn, which is an organization that seeks to use technology to promote safety. Thorn focuses primarily on combatting child sex trafficking and child pornography.

Spotlight has helped identify victims 60% faster than searches that do not include FRS and has identified over 17,000 missing children since 2016. The idea is that sex work is often advertised online, and Spotlight is able to match photographs of sex workers with photos in databases of missing persons to identify which ads include children. In the case of adults, such FRS services could identify people who may be participating against their will based on who has been reported missing.

Hypothetically, using FRS in different means of transportation could help identify missing persons more quickly because recognition could occur during transit rather than after a person has already been forced to perform labor or has been advertised for sex online. Additionally, as society moves towards automation, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking will have less and less contact with other humans during transportation who may have otherwise been able to identify a problem. Consequently, FRS could not only replace that safety net, but also do so more quickly and accurately. However, this hypothesis assumes many things about the technology, such as which database the FRS uses, how the images in that database are collected, the accuracy of the analysis, and the ability to intervene. 

Thorn has partnered with Amazon Rekognition to power Spotlight as it has become a tool for law enforcement agencies. Frankly, this partnership is the first consideration of our second question. Because the implementation of FRS in the transportation sector for this purpose is speculative at this point, it is important to consider the relevant risks to vulnerable communities.

This is where things get complicated. Amazon has a long history of serious allegations about abusing employees ranging from labor law violations at best to modern slavery at worst. These claims include factory and warehouse employees urinating in bottles during their shifts because they were discouraged (or even not permitted) to use the restroom. Reports also note at least one person dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration. 

Amazon’s alleged treatment of its employees is troubling because it creates a difficult dynamic; actors who have contributed positively to the fight against slavery and trafficking may also be participants in these egregious practices. Modern slavery and human trafficking are so prominent that an estimated 40 million people are currently enslaved, and almost every individual consumes goods or services produced by slave labor. Each of us has a slavery footprintbecause many companies upon which we rely have slavery somewhere in their supply chain. But what does all of this mean for the impact and risks associated with facial recognition in vehicles?

Truthfully, upticks in slavery have been deeply correlated with every major transportation innovation from roads to ships to rubber tiresVolkswagenPorscheGeneral MotorsMercedes-Bens, and BMW each capitalized on the Holocaust by producing wartime material for Nazi Germany or utilizing forced labor from concentration camps. These are concepts that will be explored further in later blogs. For now, the important question is what does the dark history of these companies have to do with using FRS in different modes of transportation?

Well, put simply, FRS in various modes of transportation could be a great tool to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, but there will be obstacles related to public opinion, the right to privacy, technology racism, agency rulemaking, and legislative drafting. Relatedly, the issue of unethical labor practices by technology and car companies may leave a poor taste in the mouths of consumers who could be left wondering if investing in FRS is simply a public relations stunt when thousands of workers have historically been exploited at the hands of the very same companies. 

For this reason, transparency will be important from both private companies as well as municipalities interested in implementing FRS in public transportation. It is also important to note that most of the aforementioned companies have not only become more transparent about their role in the Holocaust, but also paid reparations (see thisVolkswagen example). 

This point is important because by pointing out this complicated dynamic of entities that have facilitated and now want to combat slavery and trafficking, we are not embarking on a witch hunt to find hypocrites, but rather shedding light on the very complicated web of how modern slavery that has touched nearly every facet of society. Recognizing this relationship does not mean those entities cannot be part of the solution, but it does mean we must anticipate some standoffishness from the public, particularly affected communities, and should be used as something of a lesson about the potential role of the private sector in fostering a solution.

We will address potential legal avenues throughout this series, but one option is federal legislation. Federal human trafficking laws and regulations are nothing new in the United States and date back to The Mann Act of 1910 (which was problematic in its own right, but the beginning of this story nonetheless). The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) has been reauthorized three times since it was originally passed in 2000, and was expanded upon in 2005 and 2008 in light of more available research, including technological advancements and the power of the internet era.

State and federal agencies could also regulate FRS as a tool to combat slavery and trafficking. Many federal agencies have invested in FRS studies for various purposes, including a Department of Transportation study on eye tracking to gauge the safety of commercial drivers, train conductors, and air traffic controllers. Interestingly, the Department of Transportation has also proudly led the Transportation Leaders Against Trafficking initiative for nearly a decade. The purpose of the initiative is to connect transportation and travel industry leaders to maximize the industry’s impact on trafficking through training, public outreach, funding, and pledges, meaning the relationship between executive agencies, legislatures, and industry is clear. All three are working to develop FRS, combat slavery and trafficking, and implement transportation technology; it is time for these seemingly unrelated initiatives to overlap.

This blog is merely here to introduce the complicated intersection between transportation technology, FRS, and modern slavery. Various perspectives and further analyses of the legal history and potential legal solutions will follow.

This blog post is the first in a series about facial recognition software in various forms of public and private means of transportation, as well as the greater public policy concerns of facial recognition tools.

Volume I: An Introduction

What is the point of facial recognition software in vehicles? For that matter, what is facial recognition software? We use it to unlock our iPhones and tag our loved ones in photos on social media, but facial recognition software can also serve a variety of functional purposes throughout society, such as identifying suspects of violent crime or survivors of modern slavery. One of the most sensational questions surrounding facial recognition software in vehicles is how we can protect individuals’ privacy.

Facial recognition software is a form of biometric security. It is used to determine people’s identity using their faces from photos, videos, or even real time. Put simply, a camera scans the face and, once the face is detected, the software begins to analyze the image. Analysis converts the image to data based on the person’s facial features; think of this as turning the face into a type of equation. The software then tries to find a match by comparing the face to images in a database.

Though the technology may make people uneasy, it is important to conceptualize that this technology has been public for a while. Mercedes-Benz first introduced the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) at the beginning of 2018, which is considered one of the most comprehensive automaker-created infotainment centers to date. Among other features that enhance the driver experience, MBUX includes facial recognition that senses the driver’s fatigue or discomfort, in which case the system will change the music or climate control features to prevent falling asleep behind the wheel. 

MBUX also has a voice recognition feature called “Hey Mercedes”, which is very similar to the in-home listening devices such as Alexa and can help drivers dial a phone call or input a destination into the navigation system without removing their hands from the steering wheel. Jaguar Land Rover has been using facial recognition since 2019 to similarly read driver fatigue with the ultimate goal of implementing machine learning to track the driver’s alertness and patterns of discomfort. 

In addition to personal vehicles, facial recognition software may be used to monitor rideshare vehicles to offer a safer experience. Uber has already been using facial recognition to determine if drivers were wearing their masks throughout the pandemic. The Uber app previously used facial recognition to identify the driver before each ride began, and the mask verification was an extension of that feature. Experts have also talked extensively about the potential safety benefits of facial recognition on public transportation. Companies such as FaceFirst aim to use facial recognition on or around public transit to identify domestic terrorists, child abductors, missing persons, survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking, people on ‘Do Not Fly’ lists, and deter petty theft. 

All of this is to say that facial recognition software in vehicles may be used to create a safer and more comfortable transportation experience. But what are some potential concerns of facial recognition technology, and how do we reconcile those concerns with some of the potential benefits? 

It is impossible to explain the huge variety of concerns people have about introducing more facial recognition, but one major concern is data breaching. Clearview AI, for example, is a facial recognition software company that touts itself as “the world’s largest facial network”, which currently sells its product to law enforcement agencies to “generate high-quality investigative leads”. Last year, Clearview was breached by hackers who were able to obtain access to about 3 billion images (some of which were scraped from social media which is a distinct violation of most social media platforms’ terms of service). This instance has raised serious concerns about how individual’s photos are obtained, how the images are stored, and who has access to those images.

A second concern is racism. Tech racism is a very large topic that certainly deserves its own blog post. As an overview, it is important to note that facial surveillance is largely used by law enforcement agencies, which is already a dynamic loaded withracial bias. Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru’s 2018 research concluded that facial recognition software misidentifies Black women approximately 35% of the time but only misidentified white men 0.8% of the time. A false match can result in a wrongful arrest, a wrongful conviction, or even violence. Moreover, facial recognition used by police rely on mugshots databases for identification, which exacerbates racist policing patterns of the past because Black people are the most likely to be arrested due to over-policing. Because Black people are disproportionately likely to have mugshots in existing databases, current facial recognition software being used by law enforcement is more likely to get a match for Black faces. Coupled with the fact that the software is less likely to correctly identify Black features, the disproportionately high number of Black mugshots in the databases ensures that Black people are matched more frequently with less accuracy. This could especially be a problem for instances of traffic stops and crowd control.

Finally, there are many unanswered constitutional questions about the right to privacy and freedom of assembly. A handful of police departments, including Pittsburg law enforcement, have used facial recognition software to scan crowds of protesters to identify who in the crowd has outstanding warrants and arrest them accordingly. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver described this practice as “the most insidious way” to prevent people from exercising their First Amendment right to assemble freely. Moreover, there are countless privacy questions about facial recognition in public spaces, including rideshare services and public transit that remain unanswered. Ultimately, people may not want to be under surveillance when using public or private means of transportation for a variety of reasons, and public policy will have to reflect the balance to be had between intelligence and privacy.

The aforementioned uses and concerns are far too abundant to address in a single blog post. As such, this blog post will be the first in a series of pieces that consider the role of facial recognition software in transportation technology and how we can reconcile its incredible potential as a safety tool and the relevant civil rights issues. In this series, we will seek to parse out some of the nuances of facial recognition software in privately owned vehicles, rideshares, and public transportation to consider how to best implement the technology widely.