Transportation planners need to use tech to catch up to public demand

Technology – from broad improvements like GPS to the autonomous cars still on the horizon – is swallowing many of the advances our engineers and planners have made since the invention of the Model T.

It’s scary, and perhaps a little disheartening, for cities and their transportation agencies. But it also presents a do-or-die opportunity for them to adapt, strive to catch up, and excel.

It’s a chance like never before to reshape all the bad mistakes that have led to the poor state of America’s current transportation network and the subsequent bad transportation habits forced upon our citizens.

Mobility Lab interviewed Tyler Duvall, a principal at McKinsey & Company, for the below video. He said:

“I think the smartphone, people’s willingness to participate in things like Waze and a lot of these other technologies, these are providing information and data sets that five years ago governments would have dreamed to be able to get access to.”

Relationships between cities and Uber and Lyft have often been cantankerous. A major reason for that can be at least partly credited to city leaders’ lack of preparedness, as researchers at the National League of Cities recently found:

“Only 3 percent of transit plans are even taking into account the impact of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft even though they already operate in 60 of the 68 largest markets in the U.S. That’s according to a content analysis of transportation planning documents from the country’s 50 most populous cities.”

That should be quite sobering.

Another one of the biggest motivators for engineers and planners to catch up should be the onset of autonomous vehicles. If we thought the animosity caused by Uber’s introduction into cities was bad,  what happens as driverless cars begin to mix into our 20th century infrastructure and policies? Now is the time to at least catch up to the trends, needs, and demands of today’s traveler.

The good news: the U.S. Department of Transportation has recently lit a fire for cities to get more competitive at transportation design. Nearly 80 cities applied to win a total of $50 million in the agency’s Smart City Challenge.

The other good news: Once the winners and losers begin to filter out of the Uber-type conflicts, new transportation companies that cities have struggled to plan for in the past could have more incentive to open their data – which they have thus far wanted to hide from competitors – in exchange for more formal agreements with cities for curb, street, and transit-hub access.

Planners and leaders need to examine today which companies, systems, and technologies fit best within their particular geographies and a whole new round of plans, policies, partners, and more will need to be developed aggressively and nimbly.

Technology ompanies working within the transportation sphere. Image from TransitScreen.

Technology companies working within the transportation sphere. Image from TransitScreen.

Older approaches centered on building our way out of problems have been yielding decreasing, and often harmful, returns. Duvall said:

“I think the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ debacle at the federal level was a real pivot moment where people finally said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right way to make these decisions. Maybe investing several hundred million dollars in a bridge that carried 50 to 75 people was not the right way to allocate scarce resources. Maybe there are better ways. Maybe data and facts should guide that.’ That is a big departure from where we were for many, many years, when it was largely an engineering decision, people were drawing maps, and it was unrelated to demand or to planning or economics or technology.”

So how can all this data – all these facts we now have easy access to – help us make better planning decisions?

  • Get up to speed on apps. Use them. Partner with them. If you’re not incorporating fascinating new applications like RideFlag’s “carpool on demand” and Waze Rider into your workplans, then you’re not meeting people in the palms of their hands.
  • Take all that data and turn it into stories. All the big data in the world means absolutely nothing if it’s not translated into information people can use. Service updates are a minimum, but getting the public engaged, excited, and promoting your brand should be the standard. Tell transportation stories at your websites.
  • Begin to consider the head-spinning influx of battery-powered last-mile solutions. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rob Cotter of Organic Transit in Durham, N.C., was quoted: “People talk about demand for batteries for electric cars, but about 60 percent of all battery production in China goes into e-bikes.” China is out ahead of this trend and ready for when demand spikes for last-mile solutions.
  • Government pilot projects that can often be done without a lot of money or approval, such as Santa Clara’s VTA Flex Pilot that offers microtransit public transportation to shuttle people between busy areas. This relatively inexpensive ($1.1 million) pilot will help bring in new riders from underserved areas, help unjam traffic, and offer a public model of flexible transit ridership that the private sector has been perfecting over time.
  • Information advances like TransitScreen, which is bringing real-time information to 40 cities by year’s end, and Sidewalk Lab’s “Flow” project, designed as kiosks for people without smartphones but also for governments to better understand the flows of the public’s travel behavior.

All of these exciting opportunities with data and technology won’t mean anything if cities don’t display bold leadership. Movers and shakers who want to get something done have no shortage of options.

This article is based on a presentation made to the 2016 Virginia Transit Association’s annual conference in Fredericksburg, Va.

Photo: A Metro rider checks the system map on a phone (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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