Diverging Private and Public Tracks: Transportation Policy and Practices in 2015

Photo by Me, while in Zurich for the Swiss-U.S. Energy Innovation Days

This year was eventful in the transportation world!

First, the biggest news: We have a 5-year transportation law. As noted in my analysis of the final product, it's a messy collage of provisions meant to please lobbyists, and the ones who are undoubtedly most pleased are highway agencies and contractors hungry for assured federal budget payouts. The reaction of most other transportation advocates has been muted or critical. While there are concerns about investments, much of the criticism focusses on the financing of them from sources other than gas tax receipts. To cover its $300-plus billion price tag, about $70 billion is siphoned from other sources. A year ago, the Eno Center for Transportation unveiled a report shockingly sounding the death knell for the policy model of a highway trust fund filled with the gas tax as a dedicated source of revenue. In light of the scramble for money in the new bill, relying on 10 years of fiscal tricks to fund 5 years of expanded highway spending in lieu of asking users to pay more at the pump, groups from the right and left joined the funeral procession, with longtime analyst Ken Orski issuing a "Requiem for the Highway Trust Fund."

This has potentially large, but as-yet-ill-considered, policy implications. First of all, as this reporter notes, when combined with the highway spending that dominates the bill and the sales of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, this bill arguably harms energy security. Second, and this would help solve the first issue since they use less oil than cars, with highway users funding a lower and lower proportion of the bill more funding should go to other modes of transportation such as commuter rail and bus rapid transit.

Meanwhile, Washington's fiscal folly is being counteracted by trends elsewhere. As Rob Puentes of Brookings notes, tolling of roads is on the rise. And states are raising money for their own highway trust funds. There will presumably also be no letup in successful ballot initiatives to fund public transportation, many of which were successful this November.

While the public sector struggles to fund transportation, shoveling money out based on legacy formulas and modal silos (e.g., road vs. rail), in 2015 we also saw accelerating disruption of the transportation world by private sector startups and younger companies. Many of these entrepreneurs gathered in Chicago in September for the latest Shared-Use Mobility Center conference, with animated discussions of lessons learned about the rapid growth of companies including Zipcar, Lyft and Uber. The smaller of the three, Lyft, offers rides in 63 U.S. cities and is pursuing partnerships with transit agencies starting in Dallas. Thanks to advances in technology and data analytics, mobility choices can be rolled up and viewed in the palm of your hand. And it's not just startups driving the growth in these new options - big automakers are getting into the act as well, and they see not just profit but the potential to reduce carbon pollution.

And this is where these practices intersect with public policy. Thankfully, the National Academy of Sciences just issued some reports on policy implications here and here.

But as-yet-unexamined is the question of the carbon pollution reduction potential of this explosion of shared-use mobility services. Our study Moving Cooler found some potential from carpooling and carsharing but its 2009 publication date makes it long-in-the-tooth given rapid growth of these and more services. Carsharing, bike-sharing, ridesharing, even "microtransit" (jitney-like shuttles operated by Bridj, for instance) as well as private intercity bus service which is growing rapidly too, all supplement and perhaps compete with not just private cars but public transportation. So what's their potential to reduce carbon pollution? My colleague Amanda Eaken is leading a study that will help answer that very question, as she describes on her blog.

Also worth considering is a policy tool that could help expand these services more equitably: Mobility vouchers that could be honored by such services. Our bipartisan Mobility Choice group advocated for their use in this report, and versions were actually deployed this year in Seattle and Gainesville, FL.

Yet public policy, most demonstrably city planning (see the excellent National League of Cities assessment of 68 plans here), badly lags the accelerating disruption. And I haven't even broached the topic of autonomous vehicles, which are very likely to turn the transportation world on its head in the coming decades, and unevenly so, with arguably freight and public transportation benefiting from automation first. The public sector needs to harness, not get run over by, these rapidly evolving businesses and technologies.

For book-readers out there, there were some worthy volumes produced this year. Gabe Klein's Startup City is especially readable and refreshing (and gives some indications of what a fruitful public-private convergence could look like). David Levinson and Kevin Krizek's The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport is also quite good, with a useful focus on increasing the efficiency of car and road use (the former sit idle 95% of the day on average, for example) through innovations including automation and shared-use services. Sam Schwartz's Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars is a fun read and a reminder that solutions such as gridded-streets while not new remain crucial to effective urban design, and transportation policy reformers are all standing on Sam's shoulders based on what he accomplished during his tenure as New York City Transportation Commissioner.

The upshot from transportation in 2015 is that public policymakers are looking one way - often backward - while private entrepreneurs are looking ahead, sometimes way ahead. Here's hoping for more convergence in 2016!

Happy holidays, everyone!

About the Authors

Deron Lovaas

Senior Policy Adviser, Urban Solutions

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