Four Observations on the Future of Mobility

March 19, 2019 - (6 min read)

Last week, local leaders from all over the country traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for stronger federal partnerships on issues important to their communities. And for the second year in a row, NLC’s top legislative priority is legislation that helps rebuild and reimagine our nation’s infrastructure.

Although our advocacy focus has not changed, the policy environment has. Most notably, a new Congress was sworn in this January, altering the balance of power and creating a divided government — one where bipartisanship will be key to enacting legislation.

And it was my curiosity about these changes that led me to attend the recent Times Talk on technology and infrastructure  between Former Secretary of Transportation and current Lyft Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine and Siemens USA CEO Barbara Humpton. (Full disclosure, I was invited to attend the talk as a guest of Siemens USA.)

I went in with several questions: How has the mobility conversation shifted in the last few years? What can cities do to prepare for potential changes in federal policy? And how would the speakers relate the conversation back to sustainability and the reality of climate change?

American infrastructure is in a very strange place. On one hand, we’ve heard for years about rapid change: Younger generations are abandoning cars, ride sharing is bigger than ever and other technologies that will transform the way people and goods are moved — and big data that can help optimize it all — are all emerging.

On the other hand — and this was mentioned by many of the speakers — we’re accustomed to transportation moving at a glacial pace and the average commuting experience still seems unchanged. Auto ownership is higher today than before the recession, California’s high-speed rail plans recently crumbled, and most cities are still more concerned with potholes than the latest tech innovations.

It is this conflict between promise and reality that moderator Cecelia Kang, technology reporter for The New York Times, used to frame the conversation, asking, “If the technology is there, if it’s possible, can the U.S. actually execute on these huge moonshot infrastructure ideals?”

The conversation that unfolded led me to several broad conclusions about our current infrastructure debate that city leaders would do well to consider.

Cities need support to integrate planning between transportation, energy and technology.

Secretary Valentine made a strong point that mobility in Virginia is more than moving cars. Today her DOT is moving people, things and information. Around the country, major transportation projects are proving to be the ideal platforms for building out 5G, fiber and a whole host of sensor networks that can provide useful data. Simultaneously, auto manufacturers are making big bets on electric vehicles and current projections suggest that there will be 18x more EVs in 2030 than 2018, comprising seven percent of the total U.S. fleet.

But none of this is possible without the initial backbone of federally-backed infrastructure and coordination between these sectors. Transportation planning will require coordination with electric utilities and charging infrastructure will need to be factored into zoning and building practices, to name just a few evolving complexities. All of this requires new funding streams and new federally supported programs to integrate long-range planning between multiple stakeholders.

Cities should plan for the mobility systems they want.

Transportation forecasts aren’t written in stone. Instead, evidence shows that transportation infrastructure choices shape our cities’ futures. The panel highlighted one example of a projection that the U.S. will require 40 percent more freight capacity by 2040, raising the specter of serious bottlenecks at key locations. However, in 2017 coal accounted for 32 percent of all tonnage in class I railroads. A shift in U.S. energy policy could significantly reduce this tonnage and offset future demand.

Twenty-year projections for other local transportation needs are similar. It is not a law of nature that 80-90 percent of all trips will be made by car. Cities’ decisions to prioritize road capacity and prioritize the convenience of single occupancy drivers induces the demand for driving and limits the convenience, effectiveness and accessibility of other modes. Even my prior projection about the rise of electric vehicles depends as much on deployment of charging infrastructure as consumer demand. People will gravitate to transportation that is convenient and reliable. It is up to cities to determine what balance they want to build, but evidence continues to build that a far-flung, auto-oriented system is actually the most expensive to maintain.

More money and technology can’t fix a decision-making system that doesn’t work.

One area the panelists and NLC agreed on was the need for more funding and flexibility for local governments. Anthony Foxx pointed out that using rigid formulas, such as the one dictating an 80/20 funding share between roads and transit, or that distribute money to states regardless of growth and need, is not a strategic way to manage our infrastructure. Instead, he suggested that there should be goals for service and safety, and that state and local governments should work to meet those goals.

But even Secretary Foxx stumbled a bit when he said that, as a former mayor, he believed funding is needed for transit operations because fares don’t cover the costs. The comment inadvertently exposed how common assumptions about costs influence this broken decision-making. The dirty secret is that no transportation infrastructure pays for itself. Roads are similarly subsidized since the gas tax and other user fees do not cover their costs. But transit agencies actually account for their system-wide operations and maintenance schedules annually, while a few state DOT secretaries are only beginning to consider that their current highway systems might be impossible to maintain.

Climate change is still not getting the attention it deserves.

Transportation accounts for roughly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, but this fact was only directly mentioned during the Q&A portion of the event and it was Siemens CEO Barbara Humpton who raised it. Siemens has a remarkable global goal to cut corporate emissions in half by 2020 and be carbon neutral by 2030, but it felt like an afterthought.

NLC has called on Congress to pass a coordinated federal plan that supports community resilience, but all levels of government need to take climate change much more seriously to be good stewards of taxpayer investments and build for a sustainable future.

The infrastructure assets being discussed today will still be around in 2070 or beyond. Given the slowness of Washington and the mounting urgency to act on climate change, it is simply not possible to meet this challenge without a more deliberate effort to include sustainability in the conversation.

Cooper Martin smallAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the director of sustainability at the National League of Cities.