Op-Ed: Four Transportation Policy Predictions for 2019

Transportation in the United States is in the midst of major change. Last year brought a record number of airline passengers to skies increasingly crowded with drones. Freight shipments reached all-time highs, bringing challenges for transportation companies vying for curb space and looking for talent in a tight labor market. Public transit ridership continued to slide, as consumers in the U.S. bought a record 325,000 electric cars and a record 12 million trucks and SUVs. Dockless bikes arrived in dozens of cities, then were replaced by dockless scooters. Automated vehicle developers launched limited pilots, while others pushed back their product timelines.

The New Year will bring more changes and challenges with it. Here are four predictions for the ongoing transportation revolution in 2019:

New information will reset expectations of transportation technology

The next few months will be big for transportation technology. As pilot projects conclude and pressures for profitability increase, transparency will help reset public expectations on technology’s role in the transportation mix. Better understanding of the financial viability of certain products and their usefulness to the broader transportation network will help policymakers better target investment and craft regulations.

As major transportation firms like Uber and Lyft are publicly listed, they will be under pressure to turn a profit while everyone will have a much better understanding of their finances. These companies have reported losses for years as they grow, expand, and test new ideas, and public disclosure will help officials and planners get access to more information. To earn a profit, prices might rise, or the companies could change their products or markets. Either way, financial reckoning will greatly help transportation policymakers understand the long-term role of these services in the future.

Furthermore, policymakers will get a wealth of data as the dozens of autonomous vehicle pilots, microtransit pilots, and other experiments of 2018 end. These data will bring a host of new information about these services’ financial, safety, and ridership performance. With this information, planners will be able to make educated decisions about their long-term role in the transportation space instead of relying on gut feelings of whether the technology will succeed or fail in the long run.

Congested airspace will reach a tipping point, and require a new regulatory framework

Much like mobility on urban streets, new technology is disrupting the long-established rules of the skies. The number of drones for personal and commercial use has increased rapidly, and threaten safety of commercial flights. The privately-led race to space has congested skies, cutting off large swathes of airspace for launches. Automated technology is coming online, and the federal government does not have a way to safely integrate it into the national airspace system.

The new year brings about a rethink of the nation’s skies. Determining how unmanned and other new devices are integrated into the national airspace system is a critical imperative facing the industry and the federal government. Despite some recent legislative progress, a number of unanswered policy questions exist with no clear, objective recommendations to address them. Stakeholders will come together to answer how the federal government should comprehensively certify all unmanned aircraft and how governments can safely integrate them into the national airspace.

The transportation sector will be forced to answer tough questions about its climate conundrum

Warnings about climate change are becoming more consistent and dire. A recent Trump administration report says that climate damage is “intensifying” and extreme weather events are becoming more common. This year is when the environmental role of transportation sector becomes a more central, and the groundwork for nationwide action will be set.

While electricity generation and industry have reduced their overall greenhouse gas emissions, those from transportation continues to increase. Not only is transportation now the largest contributor, it is also the most difficult to decarbonize because of the convenience and cheapness of gasoline and diesel. Electric vehicles are part of the solution, but consumers are buying SUVs at a much greater rate and EVs still consume a tremendous amount of energy forproduction and charging. Even if they are significantly more efficient than gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, EVs alone are a very inefficient way to power the economy.

Some cities and states have recognized they need to act, and have increased investment in transit and eliminated inefficient policies such as parking minimums. Solutions need not be negative for the industry. Investment in public transit, more efficient freight, roadway pricing, and incentives for denser development can not only reduce environmental impacts, but also improve the transportation system for everyone by making it safer, healthier, and less congested.

State and local governments will lead in transportation policy

There will be rightly be calls for decisive action from Washington on major transportation policy initiatives like technology, airspace, and the environment. But political gridlock and a divided Congress means much of that work will be behind the scenes, preparing for the 2020 surface transportation reauthorization and implementing the laws set out by the last Congress. Those hoping for a sweeping infrastructure bill, federal automated vehicle legislation, or an increase in the gas tax should continue their work, but the path forward will be difficult in 2019.

By contrast, policy momentum will continue to be led by state and local governments, where voters are raising revenues and exploring innovative solutions to their transportation problems. The relative successes of local policies will be important tools for shaping the future of the transportation system. Keen observers will watch them closely.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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