Infrastructure & Environment

Getting in Front of Communication and Transportation Investments

Government keeps adapting to how information and people travel.
by | October 2010

One day as I was about to drive to the bank, I remembered an option for depositing checks a colleague told me about. So instead of getting in the car, I took a picture of the check with my cell phone and wirelessly beamed the image to the bank. Suddenly what had been a routine transaction involving car travel, traffic and an ATM completely changed -- and I was amazed.

I felt like a 10-year-old who had been allowed to tinker with a bank’s financial machinery. But I realized that technologically it wasn’t much different than what I was already doing. Scanners, not rows of human tellers as I once imagined, are behind the old ATMs, beaming images of checks to the bank’s back office computer system.

Ultimately, communication and transportation are connected. The first transatlantic cable changed shipping in the 19th century by speeding the flow of information, which improved industrial production and the flow of people and goods. The federally subsidized Pony Express combined communication and transportation to make the frontier more livable and profitable.

It’s no accident that government tends to invest in both communication and transportation, since so much progress stems from each of them. And the boundary between them is blurry. Is a truck delivering a load of newspapers engaged in communication, transportation or both? Advances in one often affect the other, just as my cell phone changed my need to travel to the bank.

While the movement of physical bodies and goods improves at a plodding pace, if at all (do any of us get anywhere faster than we did 25 or 50 years ago?), the movement of words, numbers and images gets increasingly faster.

The challenge for the public and private sectors is to ride this tiger of change -- even direct it -- rather than be eaten by it.

And IBM is doing just that. The computer giant now bills itself as a transportation company, and it believes it can use its unique (and massive) computing capacity to process dozens -- even hundreds -- of real-time data streams to markedly improve auto traffic flow, air travel, baggage handling, rail and bus transportation, freight, and general security.

In Stockholm, where IBM helped design the city’s congestion pricing system, the company has put GPS sensors on 1,500 taxis to provide residents and officials with real-time information on traffic flow.

According to one IBM official, they can now predict traffic jams before they happen, allowing drivers to avoid sitting in gridlock. If enough drivers use this service, the predicted traffic jams may never occur at all.

So what is the public sector to do with this trend? It should try to get in front of it without making expensive investments in hardware or software systems that may quickly become outmoded. One avenue is to do what public agencies should be doing anyway: Release information quickly and encourage the public, including for-profit entrepreneurs, to make use of it.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which manages Boston’s bus, train and subway systems, has experimented with releasing bus arrival information -- based on GPS sensors -- to encourage independent software developers to devise apps, websites and even physical signs that would give riders useful transit information in real time. And it worked.

Now Boston’s bus riders can use privately produced apps like Catch the Bus on their smartphones to know when their bus will arrive -- and the agency spent almost no public money to develop this service.

When it comes to using communication to improve transportation, the granddaddy of apps is the E-ZPass system -- located in the Northeast and its environs -- which allows participating drivers from Virginia to Maine to merely slow down as they pass through tolls on bridges, highways and tunnels rather than make a full stop.

Electronic eyes read information broadcast from small transponders in the cars, and the money is deducted from drivers’ accounts.

The next step is to eliminate toll booths entirely, as has been done on some roads in Europe and Canada. In those systems, electronic transmitters and cameras mounted on gantries across the road read transponders or license plates as cars pass at full speed.

The final merger of communication and transportation might be Star Trek-style transporters that beam our physical bodies through space from one location to another, as my cell phone now transports sounds, words and images.

I don’t see that happening for quite a while. And moving muscle virtually will always be a different affair than moving information. I, for one, am going to take a bike ride. I’ll use my new cell phone app to judge the best route.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall  |  columnist
alex@rpa.org  | 

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