Aug 29, 2018

Transportation 3.0

The New Transportation Revolution
Jennifer Huddleston Skees Research Fellow, Trace Mitchell Research Assistant

Transportation options used to be simple. You drove your car, you walked or biked, or maybe, if you lived in the city, took a bus or a subway. Sometimes you’d choose to arrange a carpool with a friend to save gas or time. If travels took you far away, you would spend hours on a plane. But we are now seeing more and more options for transportation appear through new innovations and arrangements of capital. These developments could put us on track for a renaissance in transportation similar to the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T.

Companies like General Motors and Waymo are bringing driverless cars out of the realm of science fiction and into reality. Bird, LimeBike, and Spin are challenging the way we think about urban transportation by introducing electric scooter rentals as a cheap and convenient alternative for short distance traveling. Boom is developing the next generation of supersonic aircrafts that have the potential to reduce flight times by up to 50 percent. Uber is beginning to develop vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircrafts (essentially “flying cars”) that could make individual flight a key aspect of the transportation technologies of the future.

 We tend to talk about these technologies in isolation. In reality, they are part of an emerging reimagination of the transportation ecosystem, particularly in urban areas. This new era of transportation innovation, kicked off by ride-sharing a decade ago, is culminating in even more options for consumers. Perhaps this integration is most obvious in the recent investment by ride-sharing giant Uber in e-bikes and scooters. But even when operated independently of one another, consumers are already integrating many of these technologies into their daily lives. In fact, CityMapper has developed an app that helps individuals determine the fastest routes using multiple modes of transportation for one trip in cities within Europe and Asia. Some of these choices may turn out to be fads, but having a variety of options for transportation allows customers to balance trade-offs like price, efficiency, and speed to determine what options best suit their needs.

Just like our current technologies, these new transportation options will vary in terms of when and how they get deployed in different regions. Some options like electric-scooters are likely to find more consumers in densely populated urban areas where walking or biking are currently common. Autonomous vehicles and VTOL aircrafts may make commuting from faraway suburbs a more enjoyable and less stressful option.

Entrepreneurs often have the best local knowledge of what a community needs and wants. For example, in Michigan one entrepreneur launched an “Amish Uber” ride-sharing service using horses and buggies. But transportation technologies don’t have to be tied to a particular region or individual. Flight-sharing is a promising opportunity when it comes to long distance transportation. Companies like Blackbird offer a convenient way for private airplane pilots and potential passengers to connect and coordinate schedules. This is a fantastic option for people who want to fly, but don't want to incur the cost or stress that is associated with traditional air travel.

Regulators often express fear of cutting-edge transportation options, beloved though they may be, and a regulatory technopanic is brewing for new transit opportunities in the sharing economy.

But this has happened in the past with technologies that we consider benign today. As the Pessimists Archive Podcast recently pointed out, the subway systems developed at the turn of the 20th Century in cities like Boston and New York were subject to skepticism, including claims that they would release dangerous air underground. Today, while people are asking for better and cheaper options to alleviate congestion, some complain that the options offered to them are a nuisance or they are hesitant to entertain the idea of safety-improving technology like driverless cars. Coupled with precautionary regulations, our fears of new transportation innovations could prevent us from having the best array of transportation options in the future.

Today we tend to think in terms of a single option to get from one point to another. But with our cornucopia of new transportation choices, this is rapidly ceasing to be the case. In cities especially, consumers are able to integrate multiple forms of transportation into a single trip. Some of these technologies may turn out to be more of a fad than a transformation, but the way we move will never be the same again.

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