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Infrastructure Week: Keep People, Not Cars, at the Center of Planning, Design

The former U.S. Secretary of Transportation joined other transportation leaders during Infrastructure Week to discuss the future of mobility and provide a few things to keep in mind.

Although there seem to be few arguments about the country’s infrastructure needing a reboot, a consensus about what the future will begin to look like is much tougher to reach. While there is a trend toward autonomous vehicles, will this act as an incentive to live further away from urban centers, or could fleets of self-driving vehicles lure more people to live in cities?

While no infrastructure crystal ball exists, experts from government, industry and nonprofits gathered on May 16 during the AtlanticLIVE Mapping the Future of Mobility event in an attempt to shed some light on what the future holds for mobility.

One thing Michelle Quadt, infrastructure adviser for McKinsey and Company, believes we could see relatively quickly is a widespread multi-modal wayfinding app. “They’re not that far away,” she said. “We just need to connect the systems of data that exist now.”

The idea is that some days, travelers may want to hail a ride sharing vehicle from their house to a metro station, then at the last stop either reserve a shared bike, or walk the last leg. With a fully integrated app that allows users to request rides or reserve light rail tickets, human mobility could be greatly expanded beyond the current constraints of personally owned vehicles.

Perhaps the largest hurdle in making that method a reality is overcoming the data sharing agreements between privately owned companies. Companies like Uber and Lyft possess troves of data about when and how people move within cities, but often require the cooperation from local governments to continue operating. One compromise that could be reached between transportation network companies and public agencies would be to define the policy goal first and foremost, then requesting specific datasets.

Linda Bailey, executive director for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), expressed that cities need to enter into partnerships or they risk missed economic opportunities. Cities should come to a consensus about specific plans, and then approach partners requesting “relevant data sets,” such as traffic flows, safety data and ridership demographics.

Connected vehicles also present a unique opportunity for city planners. As long as the appropriate data-sharing provisions are laid out, “every vehicle could essentially act as a probe,” explained Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Research Associate Reginald Viray. Connected vehicles driving through streets could help identify potholes, severe road cracks or litter, and “crowd source” a map for cities.

It is hard to imagine a much worse state of roads, explained co-founder of CityFi Gabe Klein, who previously worked as transportation commissioner for Chicago and Washington, D.C. “We fail on every measure,” he said, referring to the failing grade the United States earned on the state of infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Infrastructure disrepair however, is not exclusive to cities. The onset of automation could have a profound effect on where job centers are located and how people access them. What we need to keep in mind, explained former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, is that technology is not the be-all, end-all solution to our current problems.

From Foxx's perspective, the current dialog about infrastructure is unsophisticated, as the conversation primarily revolves around the source of funding, “but that is putting money into the system from 50-60 years ago.” Data must be allocated to the appropriate resources that will push us further into the country we are becoming, he explained. “But we can’t leave rural America out of conversation.”

The country needs to have a much broader conversation about the role automation will play in the next couple of decades. If not managed correctly, automated truck drivers and advanced robotic manufacturing could yield disastrous returns for labor. That, Foxx said, is something to think about when designing infrastructure.

“Putting a road in some place isn't going to create a job necessarily, beyond the job to build the road,” said Foxx. “We need an initiative in rural america that is much more sustainable.”

Transportation should be thought of “as connective tissue to opportunity,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. The state of infrastructure disrepair is a prime opportunity to rethink how cities and communities have been designed over the past 100 years. By keeping people, not cars, at the center of planning, infrastructure can more efficiently move people for the next 100 years.

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.