It wasn’t that long ago public agencies were the primary buyers of the transportation technology we’ve got used to calling ITS. It was never easy but it was straightforward. The public official secured the budget, had staff prepare an RFP and then selected a provider. Whatever they bought, well that was it – traffic signals, freeway management systems, toll collection… After quite a few years they thought about a refresh and repeated the public procurement process from scratch: design, bid, build.
Recently we have seen two dramatic changes. The first is that technology does not sit for years until it needs refreshing. It’s moving so fast that the procurement cycles cannot keep up. Imagine writing tech specs today, bidding next year and installing a year after that. We are talking instant obsolescence. But that’s not the only problem. The other is that consumers buy more technology than government. With our cellphones and multiple transportation apps we have become walking ITS systems. Who needs an official 511 system (do you remember?) when we have Google Maps, Waze and Weather.com?
These two combine to make the provision of technology by government a huge challenge – but one that must be met. The safety and security of the transport system is not an outsourceable option. Government has the responsibility to manage the transportation network as well as the expectations and needs of the traveling public. The private provision of traveler information operates by different metrics – how popular the app is. And that flows from how well an individual can manage a trip by using it. Automated and connected vehicles on the horizon won’t make it any easier on government.
Let me suggest two areas they ought to explore to get out of this technology trap. The first involves partnership. Most public agencies make traffic incident, accident and travel speeds data available for free to all companies asking for it. That makes sense because having an informed public is their job. On the other hand, how many government apps do you have on your phone? If government would enter into partnerships with app providers to fuse all the private data with public data then maybe they could offer information services that can generate some traction with the public. At a minimum they could manage the network better with a fuller picture on operators’ screens.
The second area is more pressing. Government will continue to buy and deploy technology as long as it owns the roadway network. It needs to figure out how to get ahead, or at least not fall years behind, the technology curve. To do this it is going to have to change how it buys technology. It needs to let providers offer the best technical solution and a plan for keeping it current for the life of the contract. The suppliers know how to do that; they need the right contract vehicle to provide it. There is not enough room here to flesh out what this performance-based solution would look like, so I’ll just say: stay tuned.