People in urban areas are finding lots of ways to get around other than driving their cars, according to a report released last week by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. They work from home, they bike to work, and they use transit. From 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America's largest urbanized areas, the report says. It reminds policymakers, as PIRG often does, that transportation isn't just about roads anymore.
There is a 'Duh' factor here. People tend to use the transportation options they have available to them, and those options are far more numerous in densely populated regions. Cities are a great place to innovate in transportation. For example, New York City didn't used to be a major bicycling city until Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted on installing bike lanes and bike share came into the city. Now, it is one of seven cities in the world (and the only one in the United States) cited for best bike-share practices by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Bike-share systems can be one of the most cost-effective mass transit modes available, according to ITDP. Washington D.C., for example, pays a private enterprise to run its Capital Bikeshare system, but the revenue the city receives from the fee collection completely covers the operating payments. In contrast, the city's Metro and bus fares only recover half of those systems' operating costs, ITDP says.
Let's not forget ride sharing, which is booming on the West Coast. This fall, the California Public Utilities Commission approved new guidelines for ride-sharing companies like Lyft, Sidecar, and UberX. There are still loads of questions about how the insurance requirements will apply, especially for traditional taxi companies, but the furor of the burgeoning business shows there is a lot of potential for it.
Finally, let's not forget our favorite innovative transportation tool—the Internet. The U.S. PIRG study found the most widespread increase in people who reported working from home occasionally between 2000 and 2010. Thank you, World Wide Web!
The Internet can also offer easier ways for people to get around, including smart phone apps that hail taxis, track traffic conditions, and tell you when your next train is arriving. Further advances in traffic monitoring could lead to even more data—and thus solutions—on reducing congestion. A new report from The Miller Center says the "Internet of Things" will be one of the best ways to advance a 21st Century transportation system. "If leveraged properly, policymakers have the opportunity to utilize these new technologies to create a smarter and better-connected infrastructure," the report says.
What's stopping all of this? Nothing. That's the beauty of it. The only onus on policymakers, as the Miller Center points out, is to make sure their talking points aren't stale. President Obama, members of Congress, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx need to "capture the national imagination" as President Eisenhower did when he was advocating for the national highway system.
What are the coolest innovations in transportation recently? Where are they? Are rural areas being left out? How can local and state governments encourage innovation in transportation? How could the Internet impact transportation in the future? If trends like ride share or bike share continue, what does that portend for car ownership? How should the narrative on transportation shift to reflect the new ways of getting around?