The increasing pace of change is a defining feature of our times. This is one of the most discussed topics among consenting adults, right there with the ongoing debate about what exactly constitutes a recession. Far more than those who lived during the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution, people are self-consciously aware of the transcendent characteristic of this period in history.
Americans truly live in an age of innovation. Even the most conscientious technophobes find it difficult to ignore the waves of technological change that are rolling through the global economy.
One challenge to implementing technological advances is outdated regulatory structures. The pace of change far outstrips government’s ability to serve the public interest by managing and regulating these new developments. Government at all levels needs to rethink the application of old-style bureaucratic tools to today’s fast changing high tech industries, especially when it comes to transportation.
A healthy transportation system is the lifeblood of American commerce and industry and is central to America’s ability to compete with its economic competitors, particularly China. Indeed, there is a robust link between the level of transportation investment and the nation’s ability to increase its productivity.
Technological innovation is transforming the transportation system. In addition to the number one trend – the move to electric cars – there is autonomous driving – not just for cars but for low-cost micro-mobility – ride-sharing; in-vehicle connectivity; 5G wireless technology; companies like Uber and Lyft adding to the concept of on-demand mobility; robotics, such as robo-taxis that are currently operating in Phoenix and San Francisco; and mobility technology, to name just a few salient trends.
Consider mobility as a service the holy grail. Ideally it would offer customers the ability to plan, book, and pay for transportation services by digitally connecting to a variety of public and private transportation options across all transportation modes.
The future of transportation is being shaped by a convergence of these trends – a huge set of disruptive forces to reckon with. While it is extremely difficult to predict when these new technologies will be ready for prime time and their rate of proliferation and adoption, it is important to understand and consider the impact they will have on mobility and the transportation system.
Such improvements could help reduce the costs of traffic congestion, which some experts believe cost the economy over $120 billion per year; road accidents, which killed nearly 43,000 Americans in 2021; air pollution, which contributes to health problems like respiratory ailments; improving mobility for seniors and individuals with disabilities; and other societal benefits.
Underscoring the discussion about the rate of technological change is the major implications advances in mobility will have for urban centers as they determine how to tailor new mobility approaches within each city context.
Just as the Federal Communications Commission manages the airwaves for the public good, so, for example, must cities manage their streets and public transit. Their challenge is to become mobility managers, leveraging all the new technology to provide better and safer service to their riders.
There are opportunities and threats that cities have never encountered before, presenting a daunting challenge to the current crop of public sector managers. They might not be willing to buck the status quo and reimagine the future of mobility, especially in their quixotic quest to improve mobility, particularly in cities where transportation assets are reaching the end of their expected life span after suffering from decades of benign neglect.
The challenge for providers of transportation services is to leverage current assets while wisely exploring the development and deployment of new technological innovations that indeed may cannibalize existing core assets. Just how many public sector managers and leaders are capable of being ambidextrous is problematic when operating in a political environment.
But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, when the times, they are a-changing, you must too.