Localities, Get in Front of the Transportation Revolution

An Amazon delivery drone — requires no additional investment in roads and highways.

After the General Assembly hashed out a deal this weekend providing the Washington Metro system with an additional $154 million per year in state funding, local Prince William County leaders expressed discontent that more funding for Metro means less money for roads and highways.

Lawmakers had to divert roughly $80 million from regional transportation projects administered by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to hit that dollar amount, reports Inside NoVa, “perturbing officials in counties without Metro stations.”

“This is hugely problematic to us,” said Vice Chair Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who also serves as chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to fund the sort of megaprojects we’re known for if we lose this money.”

My reaction to the road-builder lobby is the same as it is to the mass transit lobby. The United States is in the early stages of a transportation revolution in which Mobility as a Service will challenge traditional transportation modes such as mass transit and single-rider, owner-occupied vehicles. It is entirely foreseeable that time- and route-flexible shared ridership services in cars, vans, and buses will take away market share from route-fixed and schedule-fixed mass transit enterprises. Likewise, Mobility as a Service will be cheaper than car ownership. While affluent households will always want to own their own car, many will find the Mobility-as-a-Service option to be preferable.

Inevitably, we will see changes in driving patterns — changes that we cannot accurately predict. But committing ourselves to spending billions of dollars on road and highway projects on the assumption that the driving patterns of the past 50 years will remain the same over the next 10 years is nothing short of insane.

Prince William County, like every other jurisdiction in Virginia, needs to get in front of the Uber revolution and ascertain what kind of public investments (hopefully modest) will encourage mobility entrepreneurs to introduce new super-flexible shared ridership services to their locality. As a next step, they might explore how to reduce the number of automobile trips by expediting Amazon-like home delivery services. The transportation policy of the future should focus not on building new highway capacity but on reducing the number of trips.

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13 responses to “Localities, Get in Front of the Transportation Revolution

  1. I wish I had Jim Bacon’s confidence in forecasting the future. I’ve gotten up each and every workday for the past 37 years to go to work for a number of the leading companies in the technology industry. I see the changes that AI, cloud, blockchain, quantum computing, etc will bring. But damned if I can tell when those changes will reach a tipping point. Jim seems confident that we can cut way back on funding transportation and the delivery drones and robotic cars will appear before our lack of spending on transportation bites us in the butt. I don’t know about that Jim.

    • Don, the whole point is that I can’t predict the future. Neither can VDOT. It’s one thing to spend money on small projects with immediate, short-term benefit. It’s quite another to commit to massive, long-range projects based on assumptions that we know will be wrong.

      • 1970 – 1974: First AI surge ignited by Marvin Minsky claiming (in 1970) machines as smart as humans would exist in 3 – 8 years.

        1974 – 1980: First AI winter when overhyped expectations from the early 1970s fail to come true

        1982 – 1987: Second AI surge although the term “expert systems” was the name used

        1987 – 1997: Second AI winter

        1997 – 2002 Third AI surge ignited by IBM Deep Blue defeating world chess champion Gary Kasparov

        2002 – 2010: Third AI winter

        2011 – present: fourth AI surge ignited by IBM Watson defeating two best Jeopardy! players ever

        That’s 48 years of AI hype. Maybe now is the time that it all comes true. Or maybe there’s another AI winter coming.

        I’d keep transportation spending at historical levels for at least a few more years, including the initiation of some mega-projects. Yeah, we might waste some money but we might still be waiting for Bacon’s Transportation Revolution 48 years from now too.

  2. I’m a skeptic also… I’ll believe the “transformation” when I see it and so far.. it’s all talk and not much of anything else – and in fact, self-driving cars used for solo mobility would create an even worst congestion problem!

    Likewise – I don’t see Uber and Lyft really changing much because the transit-riding crowd is not the Uber crowd. Uber/Lyft have basically taken business from cabs… not from transit.

    But there are three big things for the pro-car folks:

    1. The part of the sales tax that is devoted to transportation – and thus fair game for transit brings in as much as the gas tax does.

    2. Smart Scale basically destroys new road capacity for solo-driven vehicles that are not tolled. The days of “bypasses”, “connectors” and “parkways” is over unless the locality wants to come up with the money.

    3. – which brings up the final point – which is that each locality in Virginia “wants” transportation money for their “needed”projects but almost none of them actually want to know how much transportation money they generate in their own region.

    They basically want RoVa to fund their projects and RovVa is not very understanding of that concept – even if RoVA actually generated substantial gas tax revenues like would be generated in NoVa or Hampton – it’s basically blood from a stone.

    In Prince Williams case, one has to wonder WHERE they would put more “mega” projects… where and who would it be moving? more solo commuters for I-95? bahahahah

  3. Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) hosted 3rd Annual Roundtable today on “Self-driving vehicles: Utopia or Dystopia.”
    Speakers were savvy enough to avoid predicting future, but they noted among other things:
    – average car is 11.5 years old, so the dream of highways with Level 4/Level 5 autonomous vehicles will involve many years with “mixed fleet” on the road
    – drivers weave out of their lane every 2.7 miles, but lane-following cars could allow narrower lanes and increased capacity on some major roads
    – initial benefits of automation will be improved safety rather than congestion reduction (94% of crashes are due to human error or judgment)
    – autonomous vehicles are programmed now to allow more space between vehicles than drivers do (though truck platooning has great potential for squeezing more vehicles on a rood)
    – current teenagers might find it easiest to adopt ride-sharing rather than own a personal car, but seniors with reduced driving skills will be first to get major mobility benefits
    – full-time truckers and transit drivers are at greatest risk of being replaced by autonomous vehicles (and most Uber drivers work less than 10 hours/week)
    – traditional investment in roads/transit could result in “stranded” infrastructure, but no jurisdiction is postponing construction projects yet based on changes due to automation

  4. During the dot.com boom, the death of distance was declared. Not so. The automobile is only needed for custom trips. In suburban development, every trip is custom, unless the adjacent neighbors have the same schedules and destinations. Thus, the car pool became more and more difficult to form. I-66 HOV started at HOV-4, then 3 then 2. Very difficult to get two people who live nearby who have the same schedules. In old days of manufacturing and shift work, common work hours, common destination. The road network is too big to be affordably maintained now, but it will not shrink. Drones add risk to the airspace, which is not completely controlled. All a failure of the population dispersion Cold War strategy. Read about it here: Why the low density, automobile dependent suburbs in the U.S.? Urban Vulnerability-Fear of Nuclear Attack led to U.S. Policies to Disperse Population in the 1950’s-Oops, that’s Sprawl

    • Tom, I agree that the suburbs will likely have the lowest penetration of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), precisely for the reasons you illuminated. That’s why I suggested that we’ll never see all people give up their private cars. But for those very same reasons, mass transit is a total non-starter.

      Conversely, in walkable urban areas, MaaS has a great future.

  5. re: “mixed” autonomous with non-autonomous….

    narrow lanes ….closer spaced traffic…??? hmmmm

    also.. consider – “platooning”… imagine trying to get on or off at a ramp and you encounter a 20-car or 20-truck “platoon”… what to do?

    Here’s a prediction that starts with a question.

    do you know what grandma and grandpa don’t drive on heavily trafficed high speed roads? You don’t need the answer – you already know it – but consider the “mixed” idea with human drivers treating autonomous vehicles as granny-type vehicles – timid, careful, and totally abused by other drivers…

    I predict a huge increase in human-driver/autonomous vehicles “encounters”…

    I can’t tell you how many times some smart-ass passes me on the left – at 80+ mph and then pulls back in front to make the next exit…. I can just imagine that same guy dealing with an autonomous vehicle…

    • The camera on the autonomous vehicle will record his stupidity and license plate and transmit both to the police in real time. Or to some database that can be accessed by insurance companies and plaintiff’s lawyers. Wouldn’t that get interesting…

    • I do agree with this. People not driving self-driving vehicles will attempt to exploit the rules by which they operate. Never under-estimate the power of human perversion.

  6. Unfort for Amazon, I think NoVA is drone-free zone for national security reasons. So we may still need those roads.

  7. Jim is waiting eagerly for that last patch of pavement to be poured, just like so many others expect the last ton of coal or last barrel of oil to come out of the ground. Not happening. Things will certainly change with driver-less vehicles becoming common, but the personal automobile is freedom in action and is not going away.

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