Urban Planning and Design

The transformative potential of real-time transportation coordination

This technological shift is forcing cities to rethink how they manage road space, address transport equity, and approach public-private collaborations.

By Kevin Webb

Los Angeles at night

Richard Schneider / Flickr

Editor’s note: Kevin Webb spent 2016 as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Sidewalk Labs, exploring the impact of digital communications technologies on transportation.

For all the heavy partisanship of this election season, the one area of near agreement was over the need to improve America’s transportation infrastructure. Whether or not President-elect Trump’s infrastructure ideas see the light of day, the subject remains front and center on the policy stage. Even in the wake of a $305 billion infrastructure bill passed in late 2015, it’s become clear over the years that there’s not enough money to fix all of America’s crumbling roads and rails while also building new ones.

The phrase “transportation infrastructure” conjures up visions of concrete and steel structures: roads, bridges, runways, rails. But infrastructure isn’t just something we build. At its core, it is a form of coordination. Think of early civilizations traveling through thick woods, clearing paths as they went. These paths made the journey easier for everyone. In modern transportation systems, we pool our money to lay paths between important places in the form of roads and rails — an act of social coordination that improves our collective travel experience.

New technologies reduce the reliance on physical infrastructure in coordinating how we travel. Instead, transportation technologies built around wireless communications, and location technologies like GPS, are forming the basis of an entirely new type of coordination. Data is replacing concrete as we shift from the often-glacial process of coordinating people through the design and construction of new physical infrastructure, to people coordinating the use of existing physical infrastructure in real-time.

Let me offer some examples. Vehicle routing with real-time traffic data is already changing the way we use roads. Digital co-pilots like Google Maps and Waze help drivers coordinate the use of primary and secondary roads in real-time, and shave seconds or minutes off of journeys by discovering bottlenecks and underutilized routes (though sometimes to the detriment of those who live along once-sleepy side streets).

Just as maps coordinate roads, ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft allow us to rethink how we coordinate the use of vehicles. These services move us from today’s status quo where we buy and drive — or more accurately, buy and park — our own vehicles, to a world where we buy access to shared vehicles when needed. We’re still in the early stages of developing the business models for shared transport, but already we see signs that this kind of coordination can reduce dependence on personal vehicles. That trend only stands to accelerate with autonomous vehicle technologies.

The transformative potential of digitally mediated, real-time coordination is hard to overstate. These technologies expand the toolbox available to address longstanding transportation challenges. Better coordination could potentially help governments make the most out of existing roads instead of building new ones, expand access to jobs through more effective transit service, and reduce the need for vehicle ownership.

At the same time, reimagining the way we coordinate transportation is fundamentally reshaping the political and economic underpinnings of our transport system. These technologies are forcing us to rethink how we manage road space, address longstanding questions about transport equity, and develop new approaches to public-private collaboration. Despite the potential benefits of new coordination technologies, we lack the appropriate policy and analytical frameworks to understand and successfully manage this transition.

Transportation sticks and carrots

The mechanics of transport coordination fall into three general categories: information, incentives, and enforcement.

We’re already well on our way to exploring the potential of communications technology to provide new forms of information-based coordination, which includes everything from digital maps to carpooling. The value of real-time traffic or transit information is already becoming an integral part of most journeys. And we can now facilitate shared rides more easily than ever, with companies like BlaBlaCar, Lyft, and Waze reinventing carpooling for the digital age.

But information isn’t enough to ensure more coordinated use of transport infrastructure, particularly when the quickest choice for an individual (often driving) is at odds with what’s most efficient for everyone else. We need other mechanisms to resolve conflicts and contention for limited resources. That’s where incentives and enforcement come into play.

Today, incentives are limited mostly to commuter benefits, like tax-advantaged parking and transit passes, and subsidies to specific groups of travelers, most often seniors and people with disabilities. Some communities offer real-time monetary incentives for shifting travelers away from driving alone; others have offered dynamic tolling, with fares that rise or fall based on roadway conditions. While the early results have been promising, there’s still substantial unexplored potential.

Enforcement includes things like compulsory tolls, usage-based road and parking fees, and regulated access to things like HOV lanes, bus-rapid transit lanes, and parking spots. Construction of “managed lanes” and per-mile roadway pricing pilots are already underway in many states, too. The U.S. can expect to see an expanded focus on enforcement mechanisms if Trump’s stated infrastructure policy goes through, as it depends on pricing to support privately financed transport investments.

With further refinement, it’s possible that well-designed real-time coordination systems could have a significant positive impact on how we travel. In combination with information tools, real-time incentives or enforcement for roads could help shift trips onto more space-efficient transit services, rather than squeezing more cars down already crowded streets or overbuilding physical infrastructure to support rush-hour travel needs.

But what’s exciting about these opportunities for coordinating travel should also give us pause. These changes represent a dramatic shift in how we fund and operate our transportation system. Without thoughtful execution there is a risk of further exacerbating the already serious problem of affordable access to transportation.

Pricing, subsidies, and transport equity

The economic rationalists among us immediately see the elegance of establishing market prices for infrastructure, with its potential to address over-consumption of scarce roadway space. But there are equally obvious and serious downsides to this approach. Because we don’t all have the same financial standing, or flexibility in when and how we travel, we don’t all respond the same way to pricing signals — and that’s before we consider the impact of pricing on those who simply can’t afford to pay.

The social implications of using pricing to coordinate travel are significant. This realization played a role in the decision not to charge drivers to use the U.S. highway system when it was first built. The 1939 report “Toll Roads and Free Roads” recognized that tolling could reinforce existing inequity between rural and urban communities, whereas a “free road” system — funded through national fuel taxes — could bring roads to lower-income rural communities that otherwise might not be able to afford the tolls required to support them.

This approach to building a unified national highway system skillfully avoided the question of individual entitlement to transportation by obscuring both the beneficiary and the per-traveler cost carried by society. Today, as we consider new approaches to pricing our roadways, we are forced to confront once again these same equity questions. If we change how we charge for road use, how do we manage the economic consequences for rural and exurban communities built around subsidized infrastructure? Are communities that depend on expensive, perhaps financially unsustainable roads still entitled to redistributive forms of support?

Developing new pricing structures for roads will be challenging. The question of how we fund and charge for mass transit in the emerging world of digital coordination is even more complex.

As cars gained in popularity, and transit (particularly buses) transitioned from a private (and once-profitable) business to public-sector control, subsidies ensured essential services for people unable to afford or otherwise meet their transport needs using personal vehicles. New forms of dynamic coordination may enable us to vastly expand the reach and timeliness of shared transit services, particularly in locations that even subsidized forms of scheduled transit struggle to connect. But the shift to on-demand transport upends the model through which we subsidize travel, and requires that we confront the question of individual entitlement to affordable transportation.

Today, we embed operating subsidies into transit systems by essentially placing money onto buses and trains. If you board a bus with too few passengers to cover the cost of the trip, you effectively receive a portion of that operating subsidy. Just like rural and urban road users, we pool money and distribute the cost of transit across our communities. We attempt to ensure the equitable distribution of those funds through the design of transit routes.

In the U.S., “Title VI,” the non-discrimination clause of the Civil Rights Act, prevents the design of federally funded transit service from placing “disproportionate burdens on minority or low-income populations.” As a result, high-performing routes often provide a cross-subsidy to less productive and more costly ones to ensure equitable transit access. Even with this reallocation of fare revenue, nearly all transit systems require additional subsidies from non-fare sources to cover the total cost of operation — just as roads often require injections from the general taxpayer fund.

Point-to-point, on-demand transit services work differently. There are no buses arriving with embedded subsidies, and no timetables or route maps to determine where and when service is available. This distinction forces us to fundamentally rethink subsidy delivery. If we replace or augment fixed-route transit with dynamic systems, we are confronted by the question of what right each rider has to transportation. When I press the request button on my phone or call for a ride, am I personally entitled to travel? If so, at what price?

The technical solutions to these questions are easy to imagine: the same systems that allow us to dynamically dispatch transit or charge for road use can target subsidies to individual travelers. Put another way, whereas the current system subsidizes every rider regardless of need, on-demand systems can provide subsidies to people who need help most. That’s potentially a great tool for improving the fairness of our transport system.

The political implications of this shift are far less clear. No existing policy framework for allocating transport funding provides an answer to an individual’s entitlement to mobility. Even policies that currently attempt to ensure access, as Title VI does for low-income and minority communities, don’t provide answers as to how much subsidy an individual traveler receives, or the source of funding. Those conversations happen community by community, and what we’ve allocated to date falls far short of the need.

Smarter and more responsive institutions

By forcing us to rethink existing policy frameworks, emerging coordination technologies should be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent public institutions — not only to include new modes of travel but also new ways of distributing the cost of travel.

To successfully manage this transformation, these institutions—many of which began as “public works” or “highway departments,” or as attempts to support ailing urban transit systems—must develop a more holistic view of transportation need, and a greater understanding and authority over emerging services and technologies. This change is especially important as new business models for transport services cause us to revisit the line between public and private responsibility.

Cities like London, Vancouver, and Los Angeles are already building integrated mobility authorities capable of managing the impact and opportunity of current and future modes of transport. Broadly speaking, these institutions are moving from being road builders and transit operators to orchestrators of transportation outcomes. And places like Mexico City are laying the foundation for new ways of thinking about transport equity by declaring affordable access to transportation as a fundamental right that guides how they manage and fund their transport system.

Creating an integrated authority to manage transport depends on developing an integrated understanding of how it works. Yet we’re entering this moment of significant opportunity and change with a frighteningly weak set of tools to navigate the political and technological challenges ahead. Recent attempts to integrate privately operated shared services into public transit system have been stymied by lack of data and analysis methods. As the pace of change and private-sector investment has accelerated, the “insight gap” has only grown between innovators and the public institutions responsible for managing their impact.

Fields like public health invest substantial resources into understanding the social and behavioral dimensions of things like disease transmission and treatment response. They also require that experimentation be grounded in rigorous understanding of impact, and guided by monitoring of known risks and unintended consequences. Despite the profound impact that transportation has on society, as a field it has not developed the same kind of tools for understanding the impact that policy and technology decisions have on actual people. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve not yet developed strategies to ensure transparency and accountability for the data created by private companies, particularly those with a vested interest in the derived insights.

Overcoming this challenge requires building new capacity within public-sector institutions to understand and manage data about our transport system. It also requires building new types of partnerships with private-sector entities collecting increasingly important and sensitive data, often in the context of consumer applications and services. The World Bank’s OpenTraffic initiative, a project I helped create, collects and anonymizes data from millions of vehicles operated by taxi companies and other fleets to help government better understand and manage their roadways. Such partnerships demonstrate that it’s possible for public and private entities to work together in creating a shared understanding of our transport system, while at the same time managing very real concerns about business and customer privacy. (Uber announced its own traffic analysis platform this week.)

The details are crucial as public and private entities work together to understand what’s happening on our streets, because the data produced by digital coordination platforms are transforming how we govern our transport system. Traffic data doesn’t just help alleviate traffic jams, it is the foundation for future transport policies like road pricing. Travel demand data enables thoughtful integration of public and private transit services, and smarter allocation of subsidy dollars. As private-sector responsibility in transport expands, data is key to ensuring actions and incentives are aligned with the public interest — especially when questions of equity and affordability are concerned.

Realizing the unprecedented opportunities ahead depends on innovation, both in developing new technologies and business models, and on creating new policy and governance structures for our transportation system. Armed with better data, clear mandates, and transparent and accountable private-sector collaborators, public institutions will play a critical role in helping us realize the benefits and manage the risks of emerging technologies. If we get this balance right, new forms of digital coordination could go a long way toward creating a transport system that works for everyone.