Is the private sector taking control of our entire transportation network?

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Who is in charge of the transportation system? I know that this is kind of an odd question, but it got me thinking about the state of play of ITS today. Let me explain.

City street patterns emerged over a long period and many were designed, if you could use that word, for foot and animal traffic. Transportation technology entered the picture with automobiles and trains. Oh, and please don’t take this as well-constructed history, but rather as an allegory to illustrate an important point. The introduction of automobiles and urban trains (subways, elevated lines and trolley cars) then helped to define the functional shape of the cities.

After an early attempt at privatization, subways were purchased by local government. The suburban highways and interstate highway system were designed by government. You could say that for most of the 20th century, the transportation network, for good or ill, was a project of government. Just as the Interstate Highway System helped to define the key work and leisure routes of suburban American life, so urban arterial grids helped create the city and the mass transit routes that defined living and working patterns.

We didn’t have to like it and starting with Jane Jacobs [who campaigned against some insensitive urban renewal projects], the critics of road and highway building entered the public debate. For this discussion, where you stand on the issues is not important – the point is that the design of the transportation network was the product of a debate. There was the opportunity – through public hearings and votes on bond issues, not to mention elections – to affect the outcome. Local elections have been decided on transportation issues. One mayoral election in Houston revolved around buses versus trains for commuting. Buses won.

Fast-forward to today. We are no longer in the era of building new roads or transit, but, rather, in the age of system management to achieve maximum efficiency. With this shift, I fear, we have ceded control from the public to the private sector.

The levers of control today are real-time traffic and transit information, trip planning and payment. Of these the most effective is real-time information. The 511 helpline was created for government to provide these services, but governmental offerings have now been surpassed by private services. I spoke to the chief engineer of one very large and progressive state who suggested that governments should get out of the traffic information business completely and let private companies run it.

Beyond information is trip planning, and we are seeing global corporations contemplating building out their capability to offer much more than individual rides. They are offering ridesharing services and can address first and last mile challenges, but have yet to incorporate all the other paid transportation services. If and when they do, they will be the managers of the transportation network. Is this good or bad? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to see a public debate on it.

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