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Transportation must take the lead in this era of technological change

Every January, for the past 97 years, Washington DC has hosted the largest gathering of transportation professionals in the world at the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) annual meeting. This year, well over 13,000 people attended and I was proud to be among their numbers.

I can count myself as a TRB participant for only about a third of that time. I’ve attended the annual meetings, off and on, for more than 30 years and have seen many important trends arise and sometimes fade away. A fond memory – that many of you may share with me – is when the TRB met for its annual meeting at the three hotels near the zoo. There were just a few thousand of us as we shuttled between the hotels, where we would discuss everything from transit to highways to the new kid on the block, ITS. And the restaurants weren’t as crowded, or at least that’s how I remember it. It seemed for its size an intimate gathering because we all seemed to know one another. Maybe we’ve lost some of that.

The other thing I am nostalgic for, as a former public official, is when the government was in charge of the transportation system. The DOTs managed highways and signal systems, transit operators ran trains and buses and the vendors came to describe the latest advances in concrete and asphalt, and trains. They were public systems supplied by private companies.

Then ITS came along and shook things up. I remember well the wringing of hands when DOT engineers just wanted to build new roads and were indifferent to improving capacity on existing roads with ITS technology. But we persisted. We kept making the efficiency and safety arguments for our systems and eventually a new generation of public leadership embraced it – but not without paying a long-term price.

ITS began as systems for governments, as well as the consumer. It was the beginning of automotive automation and traveler information. That exploded after 2007 with the introduction of the smartphone. Today the two most important sets of ITS technology reside on the phone and in the car. Less and less is deployed on the roadside.

I have written extensively about how the government has practically lost the ability to procure technology, but there is an even bigger problem emerging: the government has lost control of the transportation system. Decisions about what goes into cars and how they interact with other vehicles and the environment are all made privately. Tools that the traveler uses are also provided privately. (How many public apps do you have on your phone?)

It seems to me that planning departments need to step up and assert their leadership in the emergence of the 21st century transportation network, because if they stay quiet for much longer, they will be silenced. Market economics may be best for product sales but I don’t think it’s best for a transportation system designed to serve everyone.

 

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