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We can’t forget about mass transit when we talk about the ‘future of transportation’

We can’t forget about mass transit when we talk about the ‘future of transportation’


It can’t just be flying cars and jetpacks

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Tax Break For Mass-Transit Close To Being Extended By Senate
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Maybe it was the smell of oil and machined metal coming from the jetpack on stage, or maybe it was because I was listening to the 10th different speaker in under three hours. But I was a little dizzy by the end of the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Transportation event that took place on Wednesday in Manhattan. When I got back out on the street and cleared my head, though, the first thing I thought to myself was: “wait a minute, did no one really talk about the future of public transportation?” 

Don’t get me wrong, it was an engaging morning full of bright minds with relative disciplinary diversity (gender not so much — there were just two women guest speakers to eight men), ranging from space exploration to the aforementioned jetpack to the head of General Motors’ global program for electric vehicles. But for an event that was supposed to be about the “future of transportation,” and part of a broader week-long festival about the “future of everything,” it was oddly focused on personal — not public — transportation. 

When we think about the capital F future of transportation, we often skip right to the stuff of dreams

That’s a shame, because this has been a problem for a while now, and it doesn’t seem to be changing much. After all, across the country at the very same time Uber was kicking off the second day of its second-annual “Elevate” conference, which is dedicated solely to the idea of air taxis capable of vertical takeoff and landing. (Or by another, more contentious name: “flying cars.”) More broadly, this has been a demonstrable trend for years. When we think about the capital F future of transportation, we often skip right to the stuff of dreams.

Why is that? 

Maybe it has to do with the obstacles that stand in the way of making public transportation better. Typically, public transportation involves citywide systems that are complex and require a lot of money to be operated. They’re already deeply embedded — literally, in the case of New York’s subway system — in the infrastructure of cities, which makes optimization and electrification and disruption and all of the other buzzy “-tion” words that Silicon Valley and the tech industry love more difficult. Fixing public transportation requires cooperation, planning, and the acceptance of the community. Ideas are voted on. Careers are wagered. That sometimes makes it hard to separate the ideas from the politics.

Meanwhile, flashy “future of transportation” ideas enjoy the freedom of being removed from those burdens. They’re usually proposed with the caveat that mundane problems like “regulation” or “funding” will naturally be solved along the way if the idea is good enough. But most of these companies are incentivized to frame it this way. It’s solving the technology that’s the real problem, the technology companies tell us. Of course the regulators will work with our ingenious idea, the engineers say. And if not, we’ll just show up anyway and force their hand.

Another problem, perhaps, is that the best ideas for improving public transportation are simply not flashy. “More buses,” a crass distillation of the more intricate idea of a bus rapid transit system (which is arguably one of the better ways a city can improve the flow of its citizens), is just not as scintillating an answer as “fleet of self-driving cars,” or “flying cars,” or that blasted jetpack. Neither does mobile ticketing, which seems like something that could have been widely implemented years ago, but has still not been adopted by some of the biggest transportation systems in the world. Upgrading existing systems — hell, even our roads — would go a long way in making transportation better in this country. Just good luck raising venture capital for any of these ideas.

“More buses,” roughly, is a great way to improve the flow of cities. It’s just not as exciting a solution as “self-driving cars.”

So if we’re going to have to drag our cities into the future, we need to be vigilant in remembering public transportation when we talk about the flashy stuff. We all share that burden. The people who are raising funds to create these wild ideas, the people who are trying to execute on them, the people who live in and have to move around in cities, the media that cover all of this — all of us could stand to benefit from daydreaming a little bit less. If this week proved anything, it’s that there’s obviously not a dearth of fantastic ideas already on the table.

To be fair, the WSJ event did feature Lime, one of the companies trying to push bike and scooter sharing as a solution. You can argue with the companies methods for expansion so far — and many are — but at least CEO Toby Sun mentioned public transportation.

But the most salient point about public transportation came from someone who was showing off a product that isn’t even meant to move people: Sasha Hoffman, the COO of Piaggio Fast Forward, a robotics wing of Italian scooter giant Piaggio. “Autonomous cars are coming,” she said. But, she continued, “whatever theory you’ve heard around how many years they are away, please feel free to double it, possibly triple it, before it’s actually prolific anywhere in our society.”

In the meantime, she said, there will be an increase in the number of cars on the road thanks to ride-hailing services — and, eventually (or potentially), autonomous ride hailing services. The result of all this? “It will actually be much worse before it gets better.”

That sounds like a problem worth solving.