Disrupting transportation: The birth of new mobility authorities

In 1997 Kodak posted its highest ever quarterly profits. By 2012 it was bankrupt. This was not the result of fewer photographs being taken, indeed billions of images are taken every day now, but a systemic failure of Kodak to adapt to the disruption created by digital cameras. Kodak denied the existential threat of free, perfect and instant online image sharing and refused to believe their global dominance could be challenged. This is far from the only industry giant being on the wrong side of technological history and, unless transit agencies change radically, it is a trajectory that could all but wipe out traditional mass transportation.

Transportation planning grew out of the need to predict and accommodate growth in the demand for mobility resulting from changes in land use and population. The allocation of transportation capacity whether by building roads or train tracks then had impacts on land value and settlement further tightening the transportation-land use relationship. The underlying premise was growth – more and more capacity linked to economic prosperity in a constant search for speed. The political focus on fast, individually owned car-based travel rather than the ‘socialist’ option of mass transit, has shaped the developed world.

We continue to use the same growth-based forecasts and capacity-growing models albeit relatively recent environmental policies that have diversified the outputs to include transit, cycling and walking. Long-range strategies are commonplace that suggest huge rises in demand resulting from urban migration, to be met by investments in the capacity of transit, cycling and walking rather than driving. While some cities have made significant progress with shifting the balance of travel behaviour, overall the decades of auto-based development have proven extremely stubborn to change when considered at the scale of the metropolitan area.

The outcome is increasing congestion, wasted resources, lost time and damage to the environment. The traditional toolbox of effective interventions available to the planner include the glacially slow process of land use policy, and the politically toxic short-term option of congestion pricing. Technology is now however presenting a third way, one that could either decimate the edifice of traditional transportation or transform it for the better.

It is an established fact that when a household buys its first automobile transit use can reduce by half or more with similar falls in other non-driving modes (Goodwin et al). The sunk-investment and the invisibility of the many variable costs of vehicle ownership compared to pay-per-use transit, also tend to increase personal mileage travelled. Average automobile use in the United States is now around 294 hours per year (American Automobile Association, 2016). While widely reported as an indictment on congestion, this also shows that average use is less than one hour per day. Coupled with largely unchanging average vehicle occupancy of just 1.59 people per vehicle (US Dept of Energy, 2010) automobile use is hugely inefficient and hence an opportunity.

Mass public transit has struggled to meet this opportunity in an affordable way due to the dispersed demands created by land use. More recently, trends in consumerism enabled by personal, connected technology have further highlighted how fixed schedule transit is out of step with modern on-demand services. Coupled with falling investment in the upkeep of facilities and services, it is unsurprising that the US DoT’s National Transit Database shows transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major US metropolitan areas in 2017.

This stalemate between inefficient, but locked-in automobile use, and inadequate transit alternatives presented a commercial opportunity for tech companies who saw how they could use their experience with platforms, social networking and user experience design to turn transportation into an on-demand service. New interfaces, data collection and assignment algorithms revolutionized car sharing from a cumbersome phone-based booking system to an instant short-term hire option and gave rise to the idea of ridehailing services, that provide a platform for directly connecting empty car seats with passengers. 

The asset-lite model and growth demonstrated by ridehailing’s ‘Transit Network Companies such as Uber has generated an explosion of investment for innovative start-ups. Among the most disruptive ideas, is dynamic pooling, in the form of shared ridehailing or ‘micro-transit’. These services use AI to match different trip requests into a route and allow the passengers to share the cost. To date, micro-transit has struggled to find a successful commercial model, but it is only a matter of time. Alongside, improving computer power, two likely routes to profitability include public subsidy by progressive agencies, and private investment in automation to remove driver overheads.

The investment, pace and innovation enabled by technology is overwhelming government’s ability to respond or adapt. Rather than embrace the opportunity, many authorities have attempted to maintain the status quo through restrictive legislation. Others have adopted an official position of believing these services can be contained to support existing strategies that envisage traditional transit and active transportation as the solution to urban mobility.  Both of these strategies have been tried before in other industries facing disruptive technological development and both have failed.

While it is tempting to see an approaching cataclysm for the transit industry, the outcome of technology in transportation is neither certain nor clear. While privatization and increased auto dependency may out-compete transit with all the negatives this could imply, it could also provide the illusive means to decouple ownership from mobility and in so doing, enable demand to be managed effectively and fairly through price.  To achieve this outcome, it will be important to create a market for shared mobility, to encourage shared mobility services to meet demand, and to introduce mobility pricing once sharing has eroded private ownership to a tipping point. 

We know how to change mobility behaviour, transportation demand management (TDM) programs such as the UK Sustainable Travel Towns (2004-08) produced sustained shifts of 10% or more from driving at low costs. Major investment in TDM coupled with new mobility services could be expected to create much larger shifts. The evidence for this thinking is the effectiveness of multi-channel preventative health care that routinely invests heavily in preventative techniques alongside medical treatments to improve health outcomes.

During a sustained period of TDM allied to the refinement of new mobility services, the legislative and regulatory changes could be put in place to secure a new mobility culture. New bodies would be formed from operational transit agencies that would become central data warehouses for all licensed or franchised services, this data would permit fine-tuned public policy tools using dynamic pricing and incentives for mobility behaviours that match the physical, social and environmental capacity of the system. This architecture would be invisible to the user behind an automated trip planning, payment, and fulfillment platform (Mobility as a Service). Over time, purchase of a private vehicle could be increasingly taxed in parallel to the expansion and refinement of a mobility alternatives ranging from bicycles, to city vehicles, micro transit, long distance hire vehicles and high-quality mass transit. Perhaps all of these services would be operated by the private sector under franchises that paid corridor or operator rents or per-trip taxes for the upkeep of publicly owned infrastructure.

This future is radically different to today and assumes centralized mobility authorities with the mandate and skills to operate MaaS platforms and coordinate all mobility across a city or region. It requires a dramatic change away from long-term predictive strategies towards adaptive demand management plans based on experimentation and research. It also requires new powers and political decisiveness to allow data-sharing and collaboration with new service providers to solve the big challenges of sustainable mobility. It requires higher levels of government to support automotive industries and labour organizations in transition to shared fleets and automation. Most of all, it requires us all to accept that technology will irreversibly change transportation and possibly within a single generation.