Visionaries, innovators and futurists of all sorts convened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 at the inaugural Frontiers Conference to discuss the future of science and technology in the country, one of which honed in on the future of transportation in urban centers.
In this particular talk, regulators and private-sector mobility experts touched on breakthroughs we're experiencing and how cities play a vital role in the process.
Perhaps the overarching theme of the talk was vocalized by Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and Internet of Things firm Veniam. When asked if she could change one thing about the current state of transportation, she said it would be for people to, ”imagine not owning cars and ... desire and yearn for a completely shared transportation system.”
The future of transportation is more than self-driving cars and smart traffic systems. Shared vehicles could dramatically alter city landscapes. Generally people’s second most expensive possession, their car, is only used 5 percent of the time. The other 95 percent of the time it's either parked at home or at work.
According to Chase, this is an enormous waste of space. For the past 50 years, cities have been designed around cars with parking garages and adequate street width. In an urban center where private car ownership is reduced, more space could be allocated for pedestrians and cyclists.
In the mind of Tim Kentley-Klay, CEO of autonomous car developing company Zoox, people will wake up and seamlessly order a smart clean-emission vehicle to shuttle you around to whatever your destination may be. After dropping you off, it would move on to the next user.
Pittsburgh serves as the ideal microcosm of what cities will need to look like in order to sustain the level of population growth they are currently experiencing.
Conveniently enough, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was at hand to describe how academia, industry and city government have come together to experiment with some truly innovative projects. One such project is the Carnegie Mellon University/Uber partnership on developing self-driving cars, which are being added to the network of sensors in the city's “smart spines” program that transmit information to balance traffic and move it through areas more quickly.
And it's projects like these that make Pittsburgh a “model of what it means to be a 21st-century city,” said Peduto.
And Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx offered another public perspective on transportation, lauding the level of collaboration in the Steel City and noting that the DOT has provided grants of more than $350 million within the last year for transportation projects nationwide.
This includes two grants that were awarded earlier in the week: A $56.6 million grant for the Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) program and an $8 million grant for mobility-on-demand projects.
The ATCMTD grants will help people, "harness new technologies to tackle hard problems like reducing congestion, connecting people to mass transit, and enhancing safety,” said Foxx.
The money will be distributed to eight entities:
A detailed list of the projects is available here.
The DOT will offer $8 million to 11 mobility-on-demand projects.
According to Foxx, the DOT is excited to be working with cities in helping them develop new transportation strategies.
“We’ve tried to be less prescriptive with our grants and give more room ... for cities to be the laboratories of transportation,” said Foxx, adding that each city comes with its own unique set of challenges, whether it be topographical or poorly designed neighborhoods. “Rather than us decide in Washington, we think the best place for [deciding on how to innovate transportation] is in the cities."
This revolution on regulatory thinking is welcomed by Peduto, who said that what people need to understand is the future is never fail safe; for too long, governments would only approve funding for programs determined to be 100 percent safe. The truth is, he said, that is an unfair standard.
And Foxx added that we falsely compare autonomous vehicle to perfection. "What we should be comparing to," he said, "is what we have today and there is a lot of evidence … that autonomous vehicles will be substantially safer.”
Though the government is generally risk-averse, open conversations between regulators and industry leaders is crucial to developing safe transportation solutions that work for 100 percent of the population, not just the upper class.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.