‘What Moves People?’ Drives NREL Mobility Behavioral Scientist To Find Answers

March 16, 2021 | By Kaitlyn DuBose | Contact media relations

Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Patricia (Paty) Romero-Lankao arrived in Colorado in 2006 and found her way to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2018 to grow a new mobility behavioral science capability.

“How people behave and make decisions are social science questions, not technical ones,” Romero-Lankao said.

Understanding what factors influence people’s choices—specifically energy and mobility choices, such as whether to carpool or buy a fuel-efficient vehicle—can inform policy, technology rollout, and ultimately influence individuals to make cleaner choices.

Woman standing on train platform.
Paty Romero-Lankao, NREL's lead behavioral scientist for mobility behavioral science, at Denver's Union Station in 2018. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Educated at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Universität Bonn in Bonn, Germany, Romero-Lankao has extensive experience as a sociologist working at the crucial intersections of energy and mobility, water systems, and the built environment in cities around the world. As a senior researcher in NREL’s Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences, which conducts pioneering transportation research for energy-efficient mobility technologies and strategies, she is leading the charge to intertwine social science methodologies with traditional R&D efforts.

Romero-Lankao and her fellow NREL researchers are taking a holistic approach to examining urban patterns. Her intrinsic knowledge of cultures, coupled with her deep sociology expertise, have primed her to bring fresh insights and humanistic aspects of energy, policy, mobility access, and climate justice to the energy conversation for the first time in the laboratory’s history.

A People-centric Approach to Technology Adoption

“I want to widen the field of view on this issue by shedding light on the complexity of the social and environmental problems that technological innovation intends to address,” Romero-Lankao said. “Oftentimes, there are underlying challenges to these ‘solutions’ that can be difficult to understand, ultimately inhibiting the effectiveness or adoption rates among specific groups. True transformation takes more than simply creating a technological innovation.”

For example, electric vehicles (EVs) offer a promising pathway for reducing emissions and decarbonizing transportation, but the cost of EVs—or any car, for that matter—can be prohibitive for many people. For a sustainable, equitable transformation to truly take hold, Romero-Lankao encourages a comprehensive review, at all levels, of the wider spectrum of mobility needs, including electrification of public transit systems and providing “last-mile” solutions.

“Maybe you only need to go three miles. Then a ride share is an option. But is it affordable?” Romero-Lankao asked. “You can afford one ride share trip a week, but can you do that every day for a week? Going and coming? Then that starts to affect your ability to pay for other things that you need, such as housing, bills, school for your children. These are the kinds of questions we need to consider before implementing new technological solutions or making changes to our mobility systems.”

Not only are those factors important for technology adoption and acceptance, but they also make up an essential component of decarbonizing the transportation sector—and creating a more resilient one. By diversifying mobility options and choices, people are no longer dependent upon a single energy source for their transportation options.

A Whole Energy Transition Requires a Whole Energy Review

In an addition to the recent SMART Mobility Urban Science Capstone Report  from the U.S. Department of Energy, Romero-Lankao emphasized the need for a diversity of mobility options and a holistic approach, further underscoring the sea change of more modern methods being applied to mobility research.

The report states, “As important as innovation through technologies and practices has been on inducing or supporting change in urban travel, there are notable sociocultural shifts that offer the possibility of realizing improvements to transportation energy efficiency at scale. Changes in the perception of mobility, most notably away from the ownership model and toward an on-demand or as-needed relationship with vehicles, have the potential to completely reframe urban travel.”

Understanding the most realistic options for communities, like affordable ride sharing or as-needed vehicles, adds a complex layer to the transportation decarbonization conversation, but a necessary one. The study goes on to state, “Moving forward, it is paramount to form a more holistic picture of energy use for transportation and mobility to include all segments of the population and the places in which they live.”

That reality, Romero-Lankao reasons, is the most important component when examining the social aspects of clean transportation. “There is no one-size-fits-all, but as I always say, there are some sizes that fit some,” she said.

Identifying those sizes that fit includes providing options for diverse communities and addressing the equity considerations of the energy transition. Put simply, this means empowering people to make cleaner choices, Romero-Lankao said.

Two men using electric scooters
Electric scooters are among the "last mile" options NREL researchers are examining to help decarbonize transportation. Image from iStock

"We need to start by understanding what people want, what their realities are, what their needs are, and then look for options, assets, and resources that can be provided to those people to do the right thing,” she said. “And that is something no technology alone can solve. Technologies can help us reduce emissions. Technologies, if they are not designed properly, cannot help us live better lives.”

If the technology and approach are properly executed, however, it can without doubt improve lives—an insight Romero-Lankao recently shared in her contribution to the “10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020” report. Her work identified urban electrification, in many forms, as a sustainable way to reduce worldwide poverty by providing over a billion people with modern types of energy and substituting clean energy for existing services that drive climate change and local pollution.

Published annually since 2017, the report is produced by Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme to synthesize the latest sustainability research for the international science-policy community. Romero-Lankao also serves on the report’s editorial board.

The Art of Energy

What can help us live better lives, according to Romero-Lankao, is to have a shared vision of the future.

In early 2020, authors and graphic artists in collaboration with engineers and researchers explored a vision for the future at a unique NREL-led workshop, organized in part by Romero-Lankao. Using a science-fiction lens to explore technology and the social and cultural aspects of a future powered by renewables, the group explored what electrified solar cities and solar-powered societies might look like.

The cross-disciplinary workshop group developed a book of inspiring art, short stories, and essays, titled The Weight of Light, Volume II, a follow up to The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, published by Arizona State University at a similar workshop. The new book will be available later this month. 

According to Romero-Lankao, art and imagination, like that explored in the workshop, bring a playfulness that allows space for having conversations about difficult topics and making connections with others in a productive, community-focused way.

“Art brings out aspects of human behavior that cannot be captured through models and numbers. These aspects are the feelings of joy, fear, care for your children, care for each other,” Romero-Lankao said. “If you can tap into those senses of connection, you are better able to engage in a conversation where you can ask, ‘What can we do?’ or ‘How can we work together?’”

Art gives space for a personal connection that does not often come from numbers and figures. Romero-Lankao believes stories can influence our hopes for the future in ways that can be valuable in encouraging the adoption of renewable technologies or addressing climate change.

“I feel that art, writing, creativity, help you tell stories, and we humans love stories. People like stories and narratives, not just numbers,” she said. “Making a whole energy transition is easier if you share a vision for the future, because visions create expectations and expectations direct actions.”

Mobility Behavioral Science

Romero-Lankao’s efforts have influenced a new, innovative approach to incorporating behavioral science into the laboratory’s technical research. Previously, NREL social and behavioral specialists were chosen on an ad hoc basis for projects. Now, the laboratory is taking a targeted and proactive approach to address the fundamental issues in this area.

Circular infographic with a triangle in the middle containing an icon of a human head with a gear-shaped brain and a heart at its center; under the head are a gavel, four people (one of whom is in wheelchair), a globe, and the words “Zero-Carbon Societies.” Around the main circle perimeter are three smaller circles representing the built environment, the grid, and e-mobility. The main circle is split into three arcs representing decarbonized infrastructure, decarbonized electricity, and decarbonized fleet. Inside each main circle arcs are icons representing an electric vehicle charger and solar and wind power feeding electricity into building with an electric vehicle charging near the building (within the decarbonized infrastructure arc); buildings in city, solar and wind power connected to utility grid and battery, and a solar-powered house (within the decarbonized electricity arc); and a train, heavy-duty truck, shuttle, car, battery, charging station, a solar panel, and a wind turbine (within the decarbonized fleet arc).

NREL's behavioral science efforts are a crucial component in reaching a zero-carbon society.

“NREL is poised to develop a leadership role in examining interactions among people, policy, and technology,” Romero-Lankao said. “Expanding the sociocultural, economic, behavioral, and policy aspects makes projects more innovative, inclusive, and successful.”

This innovative research improves the collective understanding of how people will respond to technology transitions and dynamic new mobility service offerings across spatial and temporal scales in diverse and varied communities across the nation. Ultimately, it sheds light on the way people will adopt (or fail to adopt) scientific, technological, and policy innovations and how that, in turn, affects urban sustainability and resilience.

Romero-Lankao’s research in mobility behavioral science focuses on four key arenas:

  • Urban Mobility Electrification: Examining the constraints of the built environment, equity, governance, and how electricity-powered technologies interact with building design, urban and mobility planning, and use of urban spaces.
  • Urban Climate Change: Combining an urban-systems framework with quantitative and qualitative tools when researching climate change.
  • Urban Mobility and Equity: Examining unequal socio-spatial contexts shaping mobility, energy use, and sustainability by combining an urban-systems framework with micro-urban social typology.
  • Science, Technology, and Policy: Exploring the collaborative actions that engineers, planners, social scientists, and others can take to harness the transformational potential of innovations while avoiding possible pitfalls.

“Expanding our center’s research to include the human element has long been a part of our strategy,” said NREL Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences Director Chris Gearhart. “Paty has been a dynamic and innovative force for integrating the social sciences into our more traditional engineering approach to mobility research.”

Growing Personally and Professionally

The work of understanding people does not only extend outward for Romero-Lankao, but also inward, specifically in the office. Her work brings together engineers, researchers, and scientists, who are comfortable in the realm of numbers and data, but often less comfortable with the layered, complex approach of the social sciences.  

“When you are dealing with people, you are dealing with what we call ‘multidimensionality.’ In plain terms, people are driven by multiple factors to do or to not do things,” Romero-Lankao said. “It’s easier to, say, get a pattern of temperature. It’s harder to understand human nature.”

Income, education, having a family, gender identity and its spectrum across the globe, and cultural identity, are just some of the factors that must be accounted for in the behavioral sciences arena. There is no single solution to addressing each of these factors, which leads to more difficult solutions than most technical approaches. 

Romero-Lankao views this as an opportunity to learn from her peers.

“If we are to understand the challenges of the transition to renewables, we need engineers, climatologists, sociologists, planners, and stakeholders,” she said. “We are all part of a bigger community that needs to come together to help each other, to have a sense of shared identity and shared purpose.”

A friend of Romero-Lankao’s shared with her that each researcher and scientist is a star.

“NREL is a constellation of stars, and I’m really proud to be a part of our constellation,” Romero-Lankao said.

Building that shared purpose and community is critical in Romero-Lankao’s research as well. Her mentorship of young behavioral scientists is helping shape the way NREL approaches technology adoption and innovation.

The depth of experience Romero-Lankao has as a sociologist working across disciplines, and at the science-policy interface, in the United States, Mexico, and many other urban locations internationally makes her well suited for mentoring. But she is quick to say, for a truly collaborative workplace, it must be one of openness and willingness to learn from all parties.

“When we create an atmosphere of mutual acknowledgment, mutual respect, when we really listen to each other, we will be more successful and effective,” Romero-Lankao said.

"Paty thinks about the whole person. For me that includes the path I have traveled to get to NREL, and how my skills, experiences, and values can be applied in new or different ways," Alana Wilson, a postdoctoral researcher at NREL, said. "Since I joined NREL over two years ago, she has been a co-mentor, supporting my vision for my future as a researcher." 

Romero-Lankao likens herself to a gardener, bringing out the best and encouraging growth.

“People are like flowers. I’m just facilitating these beautiful flowers that are growing,” she said. “I think that my role right now is to acknowledge them and really empower them to realize their research potential and become good citizens.”

Learn more about NREL's transportation and mobility research.

Tags: Transportation