Transportation is being changed by technology. But what about our transportation policies?

There is no doubt that our transportation system is undergoing a dramatic change and traditional transportation industry is keenly interested in understanding this new paradigm. These new mobility innovations are bringing new faces to transportation sector, from places like Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world. The introduction of new transportation innovations has been explosive in recent years, and this growth promises to continue at a rapid rate. With so much transformation in the private sector, it is time for the public sector to ensure that we bring our transportation policies up to par.

The new shift within mobility has been almost entirely led by the private sector. Ride hailing applications, such as Uber and Lyft, have upended taxi markets around the globe and the ability for technology to facilitate the sharing of cars and bicycles has begun to redefine how cities provide mobility options. New companies are developing applications that deliver affordable transit in areas with limited or poor services. The enormous expansion of data has enabled drivers to re-route around traffic or know when their bus will arrive. Freight movements are improving with increased computing power, expanded distribution options, and the possibility of aerial drone delivery. Further, self-driving cars, or at least those with some autonomous features, are coming onto the market and have the potential to further transform how we get around.

Prior to this technological boon, the last fundamental change in our surface transportation network was arguably the massive build-out of our highways and transit systems in the 1960s and 1970s. This government-led initiative built thousands of miles of freeways, among other roadways and modern transit systems, and can be credited with defining how modern Americans get around. While most of our transportation system has been funded and structured around moving vehicles, the widespread use of individualized technology has forced the transportation sector to focus on the customer.

That is not to say that the technology has no shortcomings. In some cities, the taxi industry and drivers have protested against technology firms. Lower income populations and rural areas often don’t have full access to new, private transportation options. Consumers are still concerned about the safety, privacy, and liability issues of self-driving cars and drones. There are unknown environmental and societal implications of new technologies. And importantly, these technological innovations have been happening primarily on the private sector side, with little involvement with the public sector. It is important to remember that public sector involvement is not only inevitable, but also that smart policies can help make the system even more effective, useful, and cost-efficient.

Eno began investigating this intersection of transportation technology and policy frameworks last year with a workshop organized in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration and ICF International. One of the key takeaways from this workshop was that there is a need to for governments to play an appropriate and balanced role in fostering technological innovation while protecting public interests.

Expanding on this effort, Eno launched the Digital Cities initiative, which is a multi-year program that will examine the expansive space of transportation technology with a focus on defining the appropriate policies at the state, local, and federal levels. Eno’s Digital Cities advisory board, which is comprised of policy makers, public sector leaders, academics, and industry experts, held a meeting in late January to kick-off the discussion as we begin to tackle this complex issue. From that meeting, and from initial conversations with players in the industry, there are three main policy ideas that will need to be explored in our work:

  1. There is significant potential for partnerships between private technology firms and public agencies. Whether it is appropriate sharing of data, or a contract to operate transit services more effectively, or expanding mobility options in areas that are hard for the public sector to serve, there is a lot to be gained by creating mutually beneficial partnerships between private and public actors. While the majority of transportation innovation has been occurring wholly on the private side, the public sector has much to gain by taking advantage of these tools.
  2. New policies should be focused on outcomes, not technologies. It is tempting to design policies that support the expansion of a certain technology. But with so much changing, a static public policy might not be able to react fast enough to change and could quickly be outdated. It is time to consider new metrics that a focus on encouraging broader transportation goals regional accessibility, environmental sustainability, and safety, regardless of the specific technology. And while the federal government plays a large role in infrastructure development, states and localities can also employ outcome-based policies for regulations, partnerships, and incentive programs.
  3. Transportation policies need to be implemented on a regional basis. Much of the policy innovation for transportation technology happens at the city level, and there are many examples of successful regulations and partnerships across the U.S. However, an issue that arises is that transportation users often have little regard for jurisdictional boundaries. Piecemeal regional rules create conflicts where you can use a transportation option in one part of the metropolitan region, but not in another. Instead, we need to think of transportation policy as a metropolitan or interregional problem, and perhaps not necessarily led by a city.

These takeaways are the beginning of what we hope will be a robust discussion, helping to define the proper role of the public sector and to identify best practices. There is much to be learned and discussed in determining the right policies for a new transportation world. Part of this conversation will be at Eno’s “Convergence,” a day-long transportation policy conversation held in Washington, D.C. exploring transportation technologies.

The transportation world is changing rapidly, and it is in all of our interests to fully understand this change and respond with sensible policies that can be use to shape transportation for the decades to come.

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