Skip to main content

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

Share this story

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Not just you

Emma RothTwo hours ago
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma Roth8:01 PM UTC
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma Roth5:52 PM UTC
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.