The future of transportation, viewed from Washington

I spent the last four days in DC, wearing a suit and locked in rooms with some of the nation’s most influential transportation people, who were also all wearing suits. As a fellow for the Eno Center’s Future Leaders Development Conference, I had the opportunity to join in discussion of the future direction of transportation. We met with top people of the DOT, congressional committees, big companies, local agencies, even some startups, and many former secretaries of transportation. 

I came away feeling both depressed about the ability of the federal government to solve problems, and optimistic about the commitment of the people involved and the potential of technology. Here are my takeaways. 

1. Funding for public infrastructure is a huge problem

Federal funding for infrastructure investment is constrained and is going to continue to be for the foreseeable future. The federal highway trust fund is insolvent and by 2026 is projected to have a $107 billion deficit. One of the most memorable conversations was congressional staffers recalling their greatest recent achievement: working 24 hours a day on the FAST Act, which essentially kept federal funding for transportation exactly where it has been.[1]  You know something is wrong when Congress’ “success” is little but upholding an inadequate status quo. 

We need to keep pushing for more and better funding though. Without a major change in how transportation is funded, we will barely be able to afford to maintain our current roads, bridges, and tracks, let alone build more. 

2. Private and public roles are changing, yet still the same 

This week reiterated for me that, although the real advances in transportation are coming from the private sector, that doesn’t mean government’s role is obsolete. Obviously autonomous vehicles pose safety problems that need to be addressed by government. But in my view the potential congestion problems arising from Uber and ultimate autonomous vehicles deserve more attention. 

Congestion is the kind of externality that will most likely only be solved through smart public policy, like pricing. The politically opportune time to introduce a pricing policy is when autonomous vehicles are new, when the safety regs are still being hashed out. Something like a per-mile or per-congestion unit fee on road use would go a long way to make sure our streets and highways stay relatively unclogged. Plus it would raise revenue to reinvest in road infrastructure, which, as I’ve said, are severely underfunded. 

3. We used to have too little data; now we have too much 

Everyone is talking about the overwhelming volume of data, at public transit agencies in particular. There’s an increasing need for solutions that can organize that data and use it to improve the product. Transit agencies can learn a lot from the big data analytics and UI/UX design now becoming standard in the tech sector. That could largely be the job of consulting groups like Remix, but transit agencies have to provide the data. There’s a potential role for government, in that a key step is standardizing data across transit agencies. 

[1] There are a few minor tweaks like making funding available for a wider range of modes, but this does not help the fact that the overall level of funding is insufficient and could even worsen the funding problem, since the money could be spread more thinly.