Brace Yourself for the Next Transportation Revolution

Bill Ford with the new B-MAX, which supports cellular phones and portable media devices for hands-free operation.

by James A. Bacon

In articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Fort Motor Company, has unveiled his new vision for how automobile technology can improve traffic safety and reduce traffic congestion. “Urban mobility is going to be an enormous challenge if we do nothing about it,” Ford told the WSJ. “We can sit back and let it happen to us, or we can start to present solutions and create business opportunities along the way.”

Ford Motor is investing in systems that will help cars avoid traffic jams, reserve parking spaces and even drive themselves. It is expanding the use of crash-avoidance technologies and broadening collaboration with car-sharing companies like Zipcar Inc. In his “Blueprint for Mobility” Ford envisions a future in which automonous cars are connected to datases that coordinates automobile travel with public transit and other transportation methods and parking.

While other car companies have not articulated the same expansive vision that Ford is promoting, many are moving in the same direction. There is considerable momentum, for instance, behind the development of common standards that would allow vehicles to signal one another to avoid collisions and support systems geared to minimizing highway congestion.

Let me make it crystal clear: I don’t see automotive technology as a panacea for urban congestion. Insofar as the technology is adopted, it could reduce the number of crashes and increase the capacity of the existing road/highway network. But it would be expensive, increasing the price of automobiles and making them more unaffordable than they already are. To provide mobility and access for all Americans, there is no substitute for shared ridership systems or for more compact, walkable human settlement patterns that reduce the need for automobile trips.

My purpose in highlighting Ford’s ideas is to show how new sensors, GPS technologies, wireless technologies and database technologies are beginning to transform transportation. We are in the early stages of a revolution — possibly the greatest revolution since the introduction of the automobile, certainly since the building of Interstate highways — in how Americans move from place to place. As citizens, we must anticipate these new capabilities, encourage their proliferation and design communities that optimize the benefits that flow from them.

A secondary point is to note where these innovations are coming from. They are not coming from Congress, nor from the federal bureaucracy, nor from think tanks, nor from money-losing, monopoly, government-run mass-transit enterprises. They are emerging from the profit-driven private sector.

Government-run transit monopolies were relatively harmless when transportation technology was stable and predictable, and the field didn’t change very fast. Stodgy monopolies didn’t innovate but at least they could keep up with the slow evolution of technology. That may longer be the case. Just as the U.S. had to bust up the old ATT telephone monopoly and deregulate (at least partially) the telecommunications industry to reap the benefits of new fiber-optic, wireless and satellite technology technologies, Americans — and Virginians — need to re-think their commitment to such organizational dinosaurs as the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority (MWATA) and a host of local bus and light rail authorities across the country.

Does it make sense  in an era of prolonged fiscal austerity to double down our public commitment to mass transit systems that not only require enormous up-front investments but lock in operational deficits forever? We need mass transit and shared ridership systems because automobiles are becoming increasingly unaffordable. But the government-owned, unionized mass transit model has proven a massive failure.

A transportation revolution is coming. Do we really want that revolution to be dominated by the automobile industry? Do we really want the transportation systems of the next  century to be defined by Bill Ford and his counterparts at Toyota, Mercedes and BMW? Well, it will be unless we replace monopoly models of mass transit with entrepreneurial models.

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  1. For a moment there I thought I was reading another article by EMR. So after checking, I remembered that James has bought into a bit of this philosophy himself. Here is my take, mass transit doesn’t work for the majority of us the majority of time. It works if you have a schedule, with a specified time to be somewhere, go and to that same place, same time. It’s completely ineffectual for normal life outside a predictable schedule. It’s weekend and you want to do something be it across town or to another state; mass transit fails – in a major way. You have school functions at night or infrequent school games or church worship services or mid-week evening function – mass transit is a major fail. In answer to your question, do I want the future transportation to be dominated by the automobile industry – in a word YES. I get maximum freedom and its worth the price.

  2. Accurate, You’re missing a key point. The cost of owning and operating automobiles is increasing — not just the cost of gasoline but the cost of meeting the fuel-efficiency mandates and all the new gew-gaws and add-ons that Bill Ford envisions. Meanwhile, incomes for lower- and working-class Americans are stagnating. Automobile ownership is increasingly unaffordable for more and more Americans. We need to preserve shared ridership options for those people, otherwise their opportunities will be severely restricted.

    I hope that you appreciate the fact that my solution to the problem isn’t dumping more tax dollars into failed mass-transit models — my vision is to reinvigorate that sector through innovation and competition.

    Regarding you point about the fact that mass transit has no flexibility, therefore it can’t meet the needs of people with eradic home/work schedules. You’re absolutely right. But the lack of flexibility is a function of the inability of monopoly, government-owned transit companies to keep pace with the times. We need to open up shared ridership services to companies like Uber (which I profiled a month or so ago) and jitney services. The ability of transportation providers to communicate directly to people with GPS-enabled cell phones opens up a world of opportunity.

  3. ” It works if you have a schedule, with a specified time to be somewhere, go and to that same place, same time. It’s completely ineffectual for normal life outside a predictable schedule.”

    Accurate is dead on. Fixed rail on fixed schedules might have melded with the work world at one time… and undeniably it still does for those jobs that are still done in one place at one time.

    I’m not convinced that the majority of jobs are now actually done at different times and places but for those who have those jobs transit is not a good match.

    OTOH – we ALSO KNOW that a ton of people DO PREFER to drive SOLO every day at the same time for most days and refuse to carpool or vanpool or ride a bus MOST of the days that they ARE doing the same trip to the same place.

    But we’re pretty much coming to the end of the “free ride” in most urban areas as tolls are increasingly putting a real price on that solo commute and in some respects highlighting why transit can’t be free either but now the playing field is becoming more level.

    Building more highways in urban areas is no longer effective at reducing travel time at rush hour because in many if not most places, increased capacity is done in a spot – not the regional system so you get a quicker trip …until you run into the next congestion clump.

    there is no more room for cheap expansions. It’s now very costly and state DOT budgets can’t cover it.

  4. Golly, a smart phone on wheels. In a world where people can’t pay their bills. This should work well.

  5. The claim that mass transit provides mobility and and access is simply not true.

    It provides access to fewer locations. As for mobility, it has strict schedules, and considering any kind of cargo, it is a total loss.

    It cannot support itself without the revenue from auto drivers and parking.

    Mass transit has a place, and beneficiaries. Let us figure out what they are without patently transparent untruths.

  6. People prefer to drive solo because it is cheaper than the alternatives.

    That is not obvious, but it is true. You want more car pools, then pay people, to operate them. Or allow them to operate jitneys.

  7. re: the “inflexibility” of fixed rail transit.

    I totally agree. It walks and talks like an anachronism but now we’re told that we should target development near it. Basically to use it as a land-use tool.
    I’m not yet convinced… that it “works”.

    re: pay people to carpool, operate jitney’s

    HOT Lanes do that, right?


  8. roads direct land development also. I-95 forever changed land development patterns along it’s corridor – as well as those places NOT on the corridor.

    Other major State Roads like Rt 29, Route 7, Route 1 ALSO have influenced land-development.

    when you compare roads vs transit in terms of mobility and flexibility – it seems that often the pro transit/pro TOD folks – demonize road-directed land-use.

    besides being totally non-responsive to the realities already in place – it totally ignores what happens to those who cannot live or work or more precisely – live AND work near fixed-rail transit.

    it’s like those folks don’t exit, don’t count, are on their own, but not be considered in any land-use/transportation framework.

    Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who frequents here KNOWs that I believe in people who commute paying those commute costs and I fully support tolling and HOT lanes and commuting options like carpooling, van pooling, buses and VRE (with serious reservations) and I also support BRT and I further support wheeled transit that dynamically responds to real-time origin/destinations rather than fixed schedules and routes.

    the big problem with transit is that we consider it subsidized if it cannot operate on farebox alone.

    to me that’s like saying that schools are subsidized if they cannot operate on parental fees alone.

    it becomes a conundrum about what basic infrastructure is needed and paid for by everyone whether they use it or not.

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