How We Can Get Our Mobility Back

Government has a big role to play as we work to develop an intelligent, multimodal transportation system.
September 22, 2014
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Americans embraced the automobile in the 20th century as a way to freely travel when and where they wanted -- it offered us unparalleled mobility. Traffic congestion from that love affair, however, has made mobility one of the biggest challenges faced by our metropolitan areas in the 21st century.

Americans aren't alone. Global gridlock is what Bill Ford, chairman of the Ford Motor Co., predicts if there aren't significant changes to our transportation strategies. "Any business only exists to make peoples' lives better," he told an audience of government leaders and technology specialists recently. "At a certain point, shoving more vehicles into urban environments doesn't do that."

This column appears in our monthly Infrastructure email newsletter. Click to subscribe.

When the chairman of one of the world's largest automakers publicly says something like that, it's a wake-up call. So where are we heading?

For starters, elements of an intelligent transportation system (ITS) are already being developed and deployed. A wide array of technology is going into both vehicles and infrastructure to allow for real-time communications from vehicle to vehicle and from vehicle to infrastructure. Connected vehicles will improve fuel efficiency and congestion and, most significantly, reduce auto accidents.

Indeed, cars are becoming mobile information hubs, able to receive and send huge quantities of data. Telematics -- the convergence of wireless telecommunications and information technology in vehicles -- is at the heart of ITS. Telematics will reach well beyond the vehicle and will include information about all aspects of the urban transportation system (including public transit) and the environment it operates in. Much like the weather service, it will augment our ability to know now what will shortly be perceptible around us and our vehicles.

Predictive analytics will generate information on trending traffic patterns, offer alternate routes and recommend different modes of transportation that might work better for our current needs, whether bike-sharing, car-sharing, bus or subway. If fact, what's being called the new ITS will be capable of delivering a completely connected travel experience and could even include a single payment card seamlessly integrated across the different modes. (Imagine a single card that would allow you to rent a bike, hop on a bus, rent a car or ride the subway throughout a metro area.)

Getting to systems like those won't be easy, but there are lessons and best practices emerging from places around the country where projects large and small are developing the components of networked, multimodal transportation systems. Successful efforts not only provide the technological infrastructure but also allow people to innovate and experiment with local resources and needs in mind, encouraging collaborative partnerships with the private sector while not trying to pick technology winners and losers.

Government leaders will be hard-pressed to manage the deployment of these swiftly evolving technologies. After all, who foresaw the huge impact on the transportation scene of applications like Uber and Lyft just a few years ago?

There's a lot at stake. "Cars gave people a freedom of mobility to work, live and play," Ford told that assemblage of leaders. "That sense of freedom is under threat. We need to give people their mobility back."

The world of transportation is much more complicated than it was a hundred years ago, when Bill Ford's great-grandfather Henry provided the cars and government provided the roads. Even though technology may be the driver of this emerging connected, intelligent transportation system, governments have a critical role to play. People will get their mobility back only where government lays down the policies, regulations and guidelines to make it happen.