How IT Is Revolutionizing America’s Transportation Systems

New_way_to_goby James A. Bacon

Recent innovations in technology and social networking are transforming America’s transportation landscape, concludes a report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, “A New Way to Go.” Smart phones and mobile connectivity have made possible a whole range of new services that allow people — especially the young people who most fervently adopt the technology — to rely less upon automobiles to get around.

Among the services flooding the marketplace: carsharing, bikesharing, ridesharing, taxi hailing, real-time transportation information and apps that allow people to plan trips using several modes of transportation. Little of this is new to Bacon’s Rebellion readers. I have been chronicling the proliferation of these services for years. But the PIRG report provides an excellent summary of what’s out there, documents how it is affecting transportation and recommends policy changes. What becomes clear is that the whole is greater than sum of its individual parts.

Some factoids:

  • Mobile phone ownership. The percentage of adults who own a cell phone now numbers 88%. Roughly half own smart phones, which did not exist a decade ago.
  • Carshare. As of 2012, more than 800,000 Americans were members of carsharing services such as Zipcar and City Carshare, sharing a combined fleet of more than 12,000 vehicles. New peer-to-peer networks enable individuals to rent out their own, unused vehicles to people looking for a car.
  • Bikeshare. More than 30 U.S. cities now have programs where subscribers can access bicycles by the minute or by subscription. New York City’s Citibike program has enlisted 70,000 annual members.
  • Real-time transportation data. The majority of U.S. transit systems have apps that allow riders to track the progress of trains and buses in real time.

Each carsharing vehicle replaces nine to 13 privately-owned vehicles, and carshare participants reduce reduce their driving by 27% to 56%. One quarter of them sell a vehicle after joining a carsharing group; another quarter forego vehicle purchases. A Chicago study found that the introduction of real-time bus location information increased weekday bus ridership. A 2013 survey of Washington, D.C., bikeshare riders found that one quarter had reduced the number of miles driven, and 5% had sold a personal vehicle.

No one service is  decisive but the multiplicity of services is transformative. The creation of  a wide variety of options — over and above the buses, rail and streetcars — makes more people feel comfortable about jettisoning a car or going entirely “car free.” A big motivator: households can reduce spending on transportation, which accounts for roughly one-sixth of all consumer spending.

All of these innovations have arisen without government assistance, I would note, and getting government involved could be the kiss of death if it leads to unnecessary regulation. However, PIRG suggests there are some ways that government can help:

  • Facilitate the use of IT by providing open access to transit scheduling, ensuring wi-fi or cellular network access on all transit vehicles and creating multimodal connections with the emerging transportation services. (Example: Install bikeshare stations near Metro stops.)
  • Modernize regulations to accommodate carsharing, bikesharing, ridesharing and other transportation services. (I would add: bust up the transit and taxi oligopolies and encourage jitney services.
  • Embrace a multi-modal future by breaking down outdated, mode-specific silos in transportation agencies and financing.

Question One:

Is anyone in Virginia state government dialing back forecasts of Vehicle Miles Traveled on roads and highways in recognition that these new technologies are changing driving behavior? Or will the bureaucratic leviathan lumber onward, pushing expensive transportation projects conceived ten, even 20, years ago?

Question Two: Out of the roughly $800 million the Commonwealth of Virginia will be able to spend yearly on transportation construction thanks to the McDonnell tax increase, how much will be steered to roads and highways, how much to transit and rail, and how much to supporting these new technologies? Is anyone analyzing the Return on Investment for supporting these IT-driven services vs. the ROI on new roads and rail lines?

Question Three: Every car/bike/ridesharing entrepreneur is setting up shop in the Washington region, which is one of the nation’s largest (and most congested) markets. Are transportation planners in Richmond, Hampton Roads and other regions doing anything to invite the new services to their regions?

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


14 responses to “How IT Is Revolutionizing America’s Transportation Systems”

  1. The Tysons Partnership is working with Fairfax County, VDOT and WAMTA to provide real-time transportation information in Tysons. Not sure of when they expect it to be live, but good information will become available.

  2. I’m totally on board with all of it but let me give you a slice of at least some in the Frdericksburg Area which has become of all things a hotbed of conservatism and the irony is that many of them are long-distance commuters to Govt jobs in NoVa!

    First, they will tell you that not only do they have “no choice” but to commute 50+ miles a day but they also have “no choice” but to do it solo – AND that’s it’s government’s “job” to provide them with the necessary infrastructure to facilitate their commute – AND it has to be free.

    Furthermore – we are “wasting” money on transit, bike and ped trails, sidewalks , etc and they do not want their taxes being spent for those things..

    these are folks after at least one part of Jim Bacons conservative beating heart …. !!!

    ” we don’t want no stinking non-auto spending” more free roads to commute on solo at rush hour – or we’re going to hold govt hostage !

    that’s today’s report from the Conservative exurban capital of Virginia!

    1. Now that we are paying for transportation beyond the gas tax on a broader basis, I think all modes of transportation should be considered for funding. But they must all show benefit to the public and not some landowner.

      Fairfax County is striping many streets for bike use and putting up way finding signs. This is a pretty cheap addition. What I’ve found to be incredibly expensive is putting in sidewalks where none exist. $300,000 for a short stretch near a McLean elementary school. I’ve suggested more sidewalks could be built if residents would accept a service district and an extra bit on their real estate taxes. If they want sidewalks, paying a bit more is good idea. If they don’t want them, sidewalks may not be as desired as some argue.

    2. billsblots Avatar

      “AND that’s it’s government’s “job” to provide them with the necessary infrastructure to facilitate their commute – AND it has to be free.”

      I have worked in the transportation field for 16 years, and been alive for 6 decades, and have never heard anyone say that. It seems like your comment today is a somewhat bitter, politically based ran, rather uncharacteristic from your normal logical comments.

    3. billsblots Avatar

      “AND that’s it’s government’s “job” to provide them with the necessary infrastructure to facilitate their commute – AND it has to be free.”

      I have worked in the transportation field for 16 years, and been alive for 6 decades, and have never heard anyone say that. It seems like your comment today is a somewhat bitter, politically based rant, rather uncharacteristic from your normal logical comments.

      1. billsblots Avatar

        wow, just because it was posted twice doesn’t make it any better !

      2. not bitter – just what I DO hear from folks who commute the I-95 corridor.

        there is much complaining over the govt not building more lanes as well as the upcoming HOT lanes…

        it’s matter of fact.. I sit on an MPO advisory committee, I read papers and blogs, I go to transportation hearings.. and it’s a common complain from commuters.

  3. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    One thing government can do (though this admittedly isn’t as big a problem in Virginia… maybe in DC??) is clear a path for these rideshare startups through the Unions:

    SF Taxi Unions fight Rideshares. Big surprise, taxi unions in taxi-heavy cities do not like this new form of competition.

    Recall reading something about this in NYC as well but can’t find the article at the moment.

    My favorite use of technology in travel: real-time traffic via Google. Turn my smartphone into a GPS, zoom out to look at my commute/trip, and see a color coded (green/yellow/red) map of where the tie-ups are, what’s causing them, and what alternate routes are still un-congested. I’ve been able to bypass many a traffic jam thanks to private sector technology.

    1. Neil Haner Avatar
      Neil Haner

      Here’s a link to a similar fight against the Unions in Seattle.

      Here’s the story out of NYC, which it seems is a judicial ruling (not the Union fight I originally recalled), though you can imagine there’s political pressure there anyways.

  4. I have the same attitude towards unions and taxi’s as I have for other standards and regulations.

    When you take a Taxi – are you assured that the guy is qualified, competent (will have his license yanked if he is not), is the car in good repair? is there liability insurance?

    I have no problem at all with the competition as long as it has to abide by the same requirements OR if we think the ones that we have are unnecessary then remove them for ALL competitors – AND let the public have a say in it via pubic hearings and explicit notices that disclose the status of the driver, the car and the insurance.

    how about that? how about on each car – a “notice” showing the drivers record, the cars maintenance and a statement of insurance?

    level playing field – for all competitors…and some level of protection for the public – at least disclosure.

    1. Well stated. Too often, government puts its finger on the scale for one group of competitors.

  5. Darrell Avatar

    I was reading an article today about these wacky little ideas by the Millennials. Turns out the biggest roadblocks to these schemes are local ordinances and insurance companies. You take your life in your hands if you rent out your car, because your insurance is effectively null and void. And if you are a ride share driver, you are required to have a commercial license in many locales.

    As far as real time transit, down here in Tidewater it can get real time frustrating watching the little bus blip take more than an hour to get within ten blocks of where you have been waiting in heat, humidity or downpour at a rollaway bus stop signpost. But not to worry, because there is no real time anything in Hampton Roads. Especially bus locations.

  6. as usual Darrell gets it.

    It amazes me that folks do not understand “insurance” and liability when it comes to things like car sharing.

    perhaps we do need to change some laws or regs but as Darrell suggests if you really want to screw yourself up – try using your car as a rental business. There is a reason why rental cars are not cheap.

    and same deal up this way with local transit – Darrell.

    TWICE, I thought it would be a cool idea to drop my car for service, return home then go back and get it via transit when it was ready.

    in one sentence – it’s a very, very and I mean very – marginal service. There are far easier ways for me to drop car for service than use transit.

    1. Yes, indeed, it boggles my mind to think the Millennials think it’s OK to operate a business renting personal vehicles. Besides the insurance/liability issues, Virginians doing this could lose their eligibility for car tax relief. If either 50% of the mileage or 50% of the depreciation is business-related, car tax relief goes away. And what happens if you claim this anyway? Tax fraud?

      Transit is extremely expensive. It requires significant ridership (density and/or people without their own cars) and taxpayer subsidies.

Leave a Reply