Government needs to respond wisely to the new way we all move around.
For many years, the way we addressed transportation challenges like traffic congestion, access and information was to build more. More roads, more rails, more runways. Yet today, with financial resources strained and an overwhelming need to simply fix our nation's crumbling infrastructure, we need a new model.
Fortunately, we are at a time when transportation and digital technology are converging in such a profound way that a new model is beginning to emerge. And it is fostering a reconsideration of how our nation moves people, goods and ideas.
New applications on handheld smartphones enable travelers to hail taxis and personal cars at the press of a button. Other apps provide real-time data on traffic conditions to route drivers around problems – a helpful convenience for the general public as well as an enormous cost savings for truck drivers and potentially life-saving benefit for emergency workers. In dozens of cities, both cars and bikes are able to be shared by swiping a credit card, changing the way we think about both car rental and car ownership. Next generation navigation systems are streamlining air travel, making that system safer and more efficient.
But these technological advances also bring challenges.
The kinds of partnerships needed to deploy this new technology are emerging, but they are slowly causing growing pains between the public and private sector. For example, organized labor has been sometimes uncomfortable with arrangements that upend hard-fought negotiations with public entities. There is also concern that the privately-driven technology market is largely serving wealthier users, with less services provided in low-income, minority and rural areas.
Despite these challenges, new technology-driven mobility is here to stay. Now is the time to determine how government should respond and what kind of leadership is needed to ensure the right level of regulation in areas such as safety, insurance, privacy and liability.
In the short term, city councils, state legislatures and the federal government need to establish a coherent regulatory environment, not as a roadblock for innovation, but a permissive one that provides clarity and assurances for the private sector. For example, ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft need cities and localities to give them the legal authority to operate. Similarly, firms developing technology for driverless cars have been pleading with the federal government to create uniform standards for safety, security, privacy and liability.
In the medium term, government will have to address thorny challenges such as labor contracts with drivers, fair pay for drivers and reasonable rates for consumers. Rules that manage how public agencies contract for services also desperately need updating. These policies – initially designed to prevent graft and corruption – are woefully archaic, overly burdensome, and a major barrier to establishing partnerships with innovative companies.
The longer-term view of transportation is difficult to determine because so much has not been fully developed. There is still vast disagreement on what self-driving cars will be able to do, let alone when they will be marketable to a broad consumer base. Technologies such as drone delivery are likely to not materialize in the way they are currently being discussed, such as packages arriving by drone in a matter of minutes.
The technological changes of today require us to rethink the fundamental structure of our transportation system. The federal government has long portioned out money to states and localities to build more and more roadways, and transit operators continue to run buses on the same routes as they did decades ago.
Technology-enabled mobility breaks that mold and blurs traditional lines between roads and rails, between public and private, and between what is shared and what is owned. These changes mean we need to think more strategically about the purpose of these new investments and applications, whom they are intended to serve, and what kind of transportation system we want to have in the future.
Paul Lewis is vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation.