The first local representative elected to the new “ATL” transit agency board is a vanpooling pioneer and former Georgia Tech professor who is suing Uber and Lyft for alleged patent infringement — and hoping a settlement can help make a new public utility to connect everything from toll lanes to MARTA in one cellphone app.
“The objective would be to make a public utility based in Atlanta where you could bring all these things together,” said Steve Dickerson, who was elected by officials on Oct. 24 to the ATL’s District 3 seat. “There’s a big advantage to having practically everybody in the same system.”
Dickerson won election over some notable competition: Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, and Sally Riker, an engineer who is also president of the Mount Paran-Northside Citizens Association in Buckhead and Sandy Springs. Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs, also was a contender, but withdrew before the vote; he is also one of the officials involved in electing the board member.
The ATL, or the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, is a new authority for 10 transit systems in 13 counties. It will have a regional governance board with 16 members serving four-year terms, who must be in place by Dec. 1.
As the District 3 board member, Dickerson will represent Dunwoody and large sections of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, as well as part of Cobb County.
Three other local districts are expected to hold elections — conducted privately by a group of officials — later this month, with the nominees, if any, currently unknown, according to an ATL spokesperson. They include District 1, which includes northern Sandy Springs; District 2, which includes the Sandy Springs panhandle; and District 5, which includes Brookhaven and part of Buckhead.
Dickerson was nominated by state Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs). “I think that he won because I truly do believe he has the most experience,” she said, also citing his perspective and availability. “He’s retired. He’s completely unbiased.”
Silcox has long known Dickerson as the father of her childhood friend in Sandy Springs. It was only recently that she learned about his transportation expertise and realized he could be a good ATL board member, she said.
A universal transportation app
Dickerson said he earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the relatively young age of 25. Besides his former Georgia Tech professorship, he worked for NASA and had a stint at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he reviewed university research proposals.
Dickerson’s academic expertise is in automation, but his interest is in transportation, and his ideas tend to combine the two fields.
His claim to transit fame is that he started the first “community-based” vanpool system in the U.S. in 1975 — the Peachtree City Commuter Bus, which later became part of the state’s still-operating shuttle system. Dickerson said he actually piloted the vanpooling idea in Sandy Springs in 1973, using a van with such attractive amenities as bucket seats and a mobile phone. According to the Association for Commuter Transportation, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group, 1973 is the same year that corporate-run vanpools were pioneered, partly as a response to the era’s oil embargo crisis.
Dickerson said the vanpooling experience got him interested in ways to automate the process of commuters finding a ride easily. In 2001, he filed a patent for a technology that would allow people to register for a ride in real time based on their location, with a payment system built in. The patent was held through Georgia Tech, but he recently got the rights to it himself.
Dickerson says his invention is the same basic idea used by today’s “ridesharing” companies. So in July, he sued Uber and Lyft for patent infringement.
He doesn’t aim to put those companies out of business, he said. Instead, he hopes to add their resources to his idea for a “comprehensive transportation service that is supported by a cellphone app.”
In fact, he’s already started a Sandy Springs-based company, RideApp, envisioned as a kind of universal transportation app. The company has no active product and is promoted as a precursor to a public utility.
Dickerson said his idea is that, with a single app, a person could do everything from ordering and driving a rideshare car, to paying toll-lane fees and public transit fares, to reserving parking spaces.
As for existing transit services such as MARTA, Dickerson said he’s less focused on their mode of travel than on making it easy and comfortable to boost ridership.
“I don’t have any objection to rail, but I think we should work on greatly expanding the patronage of the transit system,” he said, adding that rail in particular needs a look at cost-effectiveness before expansion.
Variable rates depending on the distance traveled, instead of today’s flat fee, would be one way to boost MARTA ridership, he said, as would a payment system that is the same across all transit agencies. “And be careful to make the vehicles very comfortable to ride in,” he said.
How does Dickerson travel the area himself? He said that when he worked at Georgia Tech, he usually drove to the campus. And these days, he sometimes uses Uber.