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South Florida Is Ripe for Transit Innovation, Experts Say

Transportation officials touted the state's enthusiasm for tech innovation during the recent CoMotion Miami conference. The state, especially the southern portion, prides itself as a place to try out pilot projects.

an aerial shot of Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Miami-Dade County, Fla.
Shutterstock/Celso Diniz
A lack of legacy big-city transit systems, mild weather, multiculturalism and a willingness to let private industry lead the way are what makes south Florida and the rest of the state an attractive place to grow next-generation transportation options, leaders say.

While Florida may not be the first place many people think of when considering transportation innovation, it has not been overlooked either.

“We are an environment, a testbed if you will, of different technologies. Because if something works here, it’s definitely a prototype that can work anywhere,” said Aileen Bouclé, executive director of Miami-Dade Transportation Planning.

“I think we have a lot to offer,” Bouclé said during a recent panel discussion during the CoMotion Miami virtual conference earlier this month. “We get approached a lot… in the spectrum of different technologies.”

For example, Miami-Dade is home to about a dozen on-demand transportation pilot projects focused on first-mile-last-mile solutions, she said. The region has also tested “popup park and ride lots,” where cities and neighborhoods have offered up vacant lots for temporary parking for commuters interested in experimenting with transit.

Greg Krueger, emerging technologies program director at HNTB, scoffed at the notion of Florida being just a testbed for transportation technologies, calling it "more than a playground" during the panel discussion.  

“We’re seeing real deployments. We’re seeing things that are happening, proof-of-concepts,” said Krueger, ticking off projects exploring automated deliveries of products from pizza to flowers.

“We’re seeing projects that are happening that really aren’t playground projects, they’re pilots, they’ve gone from this early demonstration where it’s happening off in the backroad someplace to really happening, and really being deployed, and working in Miami,” he added. “You would never hear Silicon Valley — the folks in Google or such — talk about them being in a ‘playground.’ They are deploying. They are there to generate and make things really happen.”

And the way to get innovation moving, and deploying, officials say, is to let the private sector take the lead. That case was made by officials like Jeremy Mullings, project director for South Florida Commuter Services, whose mission is to grow carpooling and reduce congestion.

“What we’re measuring is vehicle miles traveled reduction. And if someone in the private sector is really good at it, I think my role is to help empower them,” said Mullings. 

“Let the private sector lead. The folks in the regulation world will determine how far they’ll allow them to go. But let the private sector do their thing,” he added.

Krueger pointed to cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Fla., where chambers of commerce and economic development groups took a lead in smart city transportation initiatives to grow momentum.

And a lack of those large, aging and complex 20th-century transit systems — like those in New York, Chicago or Boston — may be another part of what makes the south Florida region attractive to transportation tech, offering up a clean slate to germinate new ideas.

There’s been a shift from years back, said Bouclé, when government took the lead to devise a transportation solution, to “private-sector led solutions coming to government for sponsorship of these concepts.”

“Funding is part of that; policymaking is a part of that; and sustaining these private sector in the long haul is part of what government would need to look at,” she added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.