This post, written by Eno President and CEO Rob Puentes and Senior Policy Analyst Stan Turner, originally appeared on Eno Transportation Weekly,
This year, Washington, D.C.’s image took a political hit in the national debate as a “swamp that needs draining.” For years it has also famously suffered from bleak news surrounding its transportation network.
The problems are well known: Traffic congestion here is often ranked as one of the worst, if not the worst, in the country. A recent streetcar project that faced intense scrutiny, delay, budget overruns, and criticism for years opened earlier this spring to lukewarm reviews. Week after week the drum beat of the subway’s death spiral continues, and there is even a weekly podcast called Metropocalypse, that gives a blow by blow details of the numerous issues facing the beleaguered system. And there continues to be a crisis for lower and mid-skilled residents having good access to jobs in the region.
Each of these seemingly intractable transportation issues present major challenges for the National Capitol Region and the need to deal with them is unquestionable.
But here’s something you may not know: the region is doing as much—if not more—than any other region in the country when it comes to innovative transportation technologies, practices, and policies. Today, nearly universal wireless network availability, an ever-growing array of mobile applications, and societal and demographic changes have created an environment in which information systems, shared vehicles, and on-demand services play an increasing role in metropolitan transportation. Nowhere is that more evident than in metropolitan Washington. For example:
- Smartest lanes in the country – Virginia’s I-495 and I-95 express toll roads are some of the smartest in the country with thousands of sensors and cameras. Its all-electronic dynamic tolling is based on real-time traffic conditions, and free for carpools and transit buses.
- Self-driving vehicle testing – The first 3D-printed self-driving vehicle, Ollie (above), was piloted in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The vehicle is equipped with IBM’s super computer, Watson (formerly of Jeopardy-fame), to operate on private roads around National Harbor. The District of Columbia passed one of the first laws back in 2013 regulating autonomous vehicles.
- Parking innovations – The District is also piloting dynamic pricing for parking to maximize efficiency by making it easier for people to find spots and preventing congestion caused by people circling to find parking. This is being tested in the downtown Chinatown/Penn Quarter area now.
- Robotic freight delivery – Starship Technologies is working with the D.C. Council to deploy sidewalk robots to deliver packages, groceries, and food deliveries within city limits. The service actually delivered a piece of legislation (on behalf of Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh) to the council secretary back in March.
- Shared economy – A plethora of ride sourcing companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via, along with carsharing companies like Zipcar and Car2Go, provide important mobility services throughout metropolitan Washington. The region also has the first and oldest bikeshare system in the country serving areas that are not easily served by traditional transit.
- Tech-enabled transit – Across the country, transit agencies are seeing the value of working with private sector transportation companies to help supplement and compliment their own services. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is taking next steps to enter in partnerships with ride-sharing companies and private paratransit providers to help augment their service. The agency recently released a proposal to partner with app-based ride-hailing services with potentially significant cost savings.
While a number of these resources and applications are being implemented in other parts of the country, no other place has brought together all of these innovations like the National Capital Region.
This is why Eno is focusing January’s Capital Convergence event on the existing projects and pilots here, along with other examples from around the country. From coast-to-coast we know public and private leaders are looking for these kinds of real-world lessons so they can scale and replicate ideas and best practices and tailor innovations to their own needs. That’s precisely what we intend to highlight at the conference.
Eno is also working to understand how these innovations can be broadly shared. As interesting as these projects are, many of these things rarely benefit low-income neighborhoods. The next step is to identify what purpose all of these transportation innovations serve and then to make sure their benefits are felt by everyone.
Photo: Local Motors’ autonomous shuttle, Olli, on display in National Harbor, Md. (Frank Gruber, Flickr, Creative Commons).