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Still Waiting for the Transportation Revolution

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to new transportation technology. But how much has actually changed?

BERKELEY, CALIF. — The future of transportation could very well be unrecognizable compared with today’s system: self-driving pods packed with carpoolers, electric motors, multi-modal journeys, invisible conversations between machines.

But that’s the future. And while some of these things are beginning to creep into society, Susan Shaheen isn’t ready to fly the banner of the future just yet.

Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the future of transportation for two decades. Speaking to government and private-sector transportation workers on Sept. 7 at the Bridge SF conference, her message was this: We’re still waiting for the revolution, but there are some very interesting changes in the wind.

Crunching numbers from large data sets such as the American Community Survey from 1990 to 2009, Shaheen has found that transportation behavior in the U.S. really hasn’t changed all that much. Measuring person miles traveled — which captures non-motorized trips, as opposed to the more commonly used vehicle mile travelled (VMT) — private vehicles provided about 88 percent of transportation in 2009. Exactly the same rate as in 1990. Transit accounted for 1 percent, down from 2 percent in 1990. Everything else has hovered right around 10 percent.

It’s old data, and Shaheen acknowledged that things might be changing. But as transportation officials in the room were quick to note, congestion remains. New car sales remain high. Parking spots remain full. Transit still struggles to penetrate the market significantly.

Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, speaks to an audience Sept. 7 during the Bridge SF conference. Ben Miller/Government Technology.

Some of the more recent data suggests only mediocre changes as well — vehicle ownership per capita dropped .04 from 2006 to 2013, for example.

“Things are changing,” Shaheen said. “But maybe not as dramatically as one might think.”

As for electrification? The trend is still very new. Battery-electric vehicles have only been commercially available in the U.S. for a little more than five years, and still make up only a small fraction of new car sales.

Yet Shaheen’s speech wasn’t pessimistic. The old standards may yet change, she said. In fact, many of the tools that might bring about lasting change exist today.

Many of them involve the somewhat recently burgeoning concept of sharing transportation. Services like car2go and ZipCar offer people a way to rent a car as opposed to owning one, and Shaheen has found that they can have a real impact on how people get around. Examining five cities across North America, she found that each car2go replaced between seven and 11 vehicles, leading to a drop in both vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions. That was largely driven by a small minority who made big lifestyle changes, selling their cars or putting off a car purchase because the car sharing service gave them an alternative.

The services impacted public transit too.

“What we tend to see is that if you put something in a place that has a lot of public transit gaps, a lot of times these modes just suck up a lot of passengers. And they’re really complementary to public transit because basically there wasn’t much,” Shaheen said. “Now, if you look at urban locations, there tend to be what some people might call competition.”

Going forward, Shaheen said, government would do well to take a more holistic view of how to address transportation needs. Much of the focus today is on the commute.

And yet, she said, commuting is far from being the most common type of transportation need Americans have. By her measurement, commuting accounts for 16 percent of all trips. Family and personal errands account for 42 to 46 percent, and social and recreational activities account for about 27 percent.

So transportation officials need to have an answer for those needs as well.

“Perhaps the commute isn’t the thing we really actually should be thinking about,” she said. “We have to think about how to get those social and recreational trips, which by the way, Uber and Lyft do a really good job at … and the personal and family trips. How do we get kids to school?”

Further, she said, some technological innovations might address multiple problems at once. For example, some of the sharing-based alternatives to single-person travel might help cut down on congestion.

“You make a 10 percent shift [off the highway] in a peak period, you’re going to increase traffic flow dramatically," she said. "So if I get 10 percent of people to sell their car, that’s going to be enough to tip these modes in favor of VMT reductions, [greenhouse gas] reductions overall, for the whole system."

Ultimately, the government may or may not be the sector providing those services. As Carlos Cruz-Casas, assistant director of the Division of Transportation Strategic Planning in Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works put it, he wants to be a mobility manager.

“More transit is better transit, and we really don’t care who provides it,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter to the user, either, as long as it’s seamless.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.