The great democratization of transportation

Open data is revolutionizing how innovators and cities manage the environmental and social effects of urban transit.

As someone who’s been entrenched in our country’s great transportation revolution for the past 20 years — as an early Zipcar executive, then as transportation head for D.C. and Chicago, and most recently as an investor, author and advisor— I’ve witnessed firsthand how our current boom in innovation is not only introducing new technologies, but also changing how old systems work.

There is reason to be optimistic about the evolution of our transportation systems. It’s clear, for example, that reducing single-occupancy travel at scale has a positive impact on the environment and quality of life — whether this takes the form of carpooling, rideshare apps or public transit. And the influx of companies like Zipcar, Uber, Lyft and Car2Go are embracing technology to lower both the cost of adoption and the friction of sharing transportation.

But all of this innovation raises the question: how ought governments work with private innovators to drive change? U.S. cities with a libertarian bent tend to shout, “Let’s get rid of the train. Let’s have autonomous cars everywhere paid for by users and the private sector!” What they don’t understand is that such a one-sided approach won’t solve our environmental or quality of life problems. After all, people want to be in livable, walkable communities with a high degree of both physical and virtual connectivity.

To assure great outcomes, we need excellent policymaking in tight timeframes, public-private collaboration, idea exchange and testing on the streets. With the right policies in place and shared data to measure its impact, we can achieve a well-balanced system that works for both people and the planet.

Data Partnerships Are Key

When I was at Zipcar, a big part of my job was working with cities and transit agencies to get them to see that a private company that had a triple bottom line approach to doing business could be their arm for making change — that contracting with good companies could help them effect change much faster.

The thinking is that, if the private sector adopts a triple bottom line framework (social, environmental, and financial) then the government can be more focused on higher returns. This in turn allows for more investments on behalf of their constituents that pay long term environmental benefits, health benefits and so on.

Gabe Klein speaking at TEDxMidAtlantic.

Cooperation between the public and private sector is incredibly important in the creation of a more sustainable transportation model, particularly as technology plays a larger and larger role. But in order for such partnerships to work, government agencies need robust data to inform policy and determine whether and how best to work with private innovators.

However, it can be very difficult to quantify the impact of technology if you don’t set up data sharing agreements from the beginning. Ultimately it is the public sector’s responsibility to know what data they want, to collect it from the sources that they have internally, and require it from the companies that do business with in their cities. However, cities have to acquire the data in a responsible way. They should not collect it and put it a repository where anyone can file a FOIA for someone’s personal details or travel patterns. Data must be anonymized and — when necessary — aggregated.

Technology is helping to solve this problem. Now companies like Stae are making it easier to collect and parse information by providing a SaaS platform that makes sense of cities’ structured and unstructured data. The platform makes the data meaningful and then accessible as open data for citizens or curated data for companies. There’s huge potential in SaaS platforms servicing hundreds of cities with the same customizable product versus custom-building a million-dollar system for each city.

By smartly leveraging data sharing agreements and promoting open collaborations between public and private partners, we can pave the way toward a more holistic, sustainable and enjoyable transportation ecosystem in our great cities. The goal is to give people options and as much flexibility as possible — from autonomous vehicles to mass transportation to dock-less bike sharing. As we’ll see, diverse transportation initiatives ought to be complementary, not mutually exclusive.

Seattle: A Case Study in Transportation Innovation

It turns out that the cities that are doing the best implementing new technologies are those that say, “Come play in our city, but here’s the rules you have to follow.” Seattle is doing a particularly good job because they’re moving very fast.

When CityFi was assisting with the city’s New Mobility Playbook project, car-sharing company Car2Go felt that their system was not working as well as it could be due to limits placed by the city on fleet size, as well as parking requirements for buildings that they felt encouraged people to drive.

As a result of these conversations, the Seattle Department of Transportation very quickly raised the cap to 1,200 cars and dramatically increased curbside space access for Car2Go, which led to the success of the service for the city, company, and constituents. Cities must be able to quickly create frameworks — for example a new permit system — that can operate at the speed of the private sector as opposed to huge regulatory schemes that have to go through city council.

This is what sets innovative cities apart.

Of course, cities must couple private innovation with big investments in transit infrastructure. Transportation solutions are not replacements for each other — rather they are complimentary. The cities where Zipcar, Uber, Lyft, bike share and Car2Go do best are the most transit oriented cities.

Seattle is striking a great balance between making billion-dollar investments in transit systems while also testing new technologies. For example, Seattle is the first city to permit dockless bike sharing with partners such as Spin, LimeBike and Ofo — and they now circulate close to 10,000 bikes. The program was built on the basis that there be a limit on fleet size, equitable distribution throughout the city, all of which was determined by leveraging a multiplicity of shared data sources.

Democratization and Decentralization

There’s a ton of smart city infrastructure that cities are ready to implement. At CityFi we work with these companies and cities to figure out the right model for this new paradigm we’re facing. We’re looking at how to monetize the new assets and systems fairly, make services equitable throughout cities, and ultimately benefit constituents.

For example, 5G will be hugely important to the roll out of connected vehicles, but there are sometimes tensions between cities and states on how to handle this change. There are preemptive issues around privacy, who controls the poles that the 5G network will be physically built upon, and how the system will be monetized. Telcos want to avoid a separate negotiation for every municipality in the U.S. to get the systems built, and those municipalities want to maintain control over the local infrastructure for safety, access and monetization.

Earlier this year, the Mayor of San Francisco announced the city would create its own network to provide free Internet to everybody. This conversation of whether Internet is a basic right, a utility like water or electricity, is coming to a lot of cities and is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are a number of exciting technologies that may play critical roles in the future. For example, I’m incredibly excited about the the potential of blockchain technologies to remove the central arbiter from a system and allow true peer-to-peer transportation to take place across many modes. To get there, we will need a lot of leadership from the public sector in an area that they may not initially understand, and a start-up community that is willing to educate consumers on the technological merits. It could be the great democratization of transportation.

Microlocation will also play a big role. Humatics has invented a way to microlocate to a couple millimeters, which is the precision you need when you have autonomous vehicles functioning next to cyclists. Predictive analytics will also be increasingly important. Through machine learning, we can detect patterns and improve safety such as notifying the car of a cyclist or a pedestrian’s likely presence, then verify with microlocation.

Transportation for the People (and the Planet)

Ultimately, technology for technology’s sake accomplishes nothing. We need good public policy and solid business models with shared outcomes for cities and companies. Then we layer on technology to reduce friction and makes things safer and easier to use, and lower cost.

There’s a huge opportunity for people to take back control of the systems — and shed personal automobiles in the process — but we still need large public investments in high-quality, high-capacity transit systems. We need infrastructure that is biased towards local, active transportation in addition to regional and super-regional high speed rails. This, combined with much improved land-use policy and real-world pricing of our transportation system to users, is the recipe to reduce single occupancy travel and fossil fuel consumption.

Without high speed connections between cities (and suburbs too), we will have yet another barrier for even city dwellers to give up cars. Many seem to think we can’t afford to build high speed rail. This is misguided: we cannot afford not to build it if we want to remain economically competitive and maintain a place for our children to live and breathe safely.

Think of it this way: metro rail and bus-rapid transit systems create a node around which a neighborhood can be built and services locate. You don’t get that with a completely free-floating system of cars and roads. These free floating systems should be designed to complement fixed systems that are the backbone of our transportation network. And those systems should be complimented by alternate options like dock-less bikes, ride shares and buses.

But to get there, we need governments to work hand in hand with entrepreneurs, technologists and citizens to create a system that works for both people and the planet.


Environmental Defense Fund works with businesses, government & communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious enviro problems. #FourthWave