It's time to shift to mobility-centric thinking

March 10, 2016

Technological leaps are making mode-centric approaches obsolete

Think of any major U.S. city and type its name into Google Maps on your computer. Select the aerial Earth view. What do you see?

First of all, chances are that the density of the built environment in that urban area is so high that there is little room to add more of anything. From a transportation perspective, this means scant real estate for more highway lanes, or more ramps, or more roads or rails. Secondly, if you click the button to show traffic, you’re likely to see a flash of red and orange denoting congested roadways, accidents and construction sites.

This digital image is what transportation leaders nearly everywhere are grappling with continually. But, what’s more important, it’s the reality faced by commuters, families, professional drivers and visitors every day. Certainly, many states have made excellent progress to improve this picture. Investments in transit, particularly in light rail, have helped to shift some commuters away from the highways. But there, too, we know that such options merely make the pain of traffic congestion a little less acute.

That same Google Maps image, surprisingly, holds an important clue for solving many of our mobility challenges. This is because, unlike the wall maps at highway departments, or transit agencies or urban planning offices, a Google map displays everything together. It is truly mode agnostic. That is, from the average person’s perspective, the goal is always to get from Point A to Point B in the most efficient, predictable and pleasant way possible. The mode of travel is (and should be) secondary.

Since you already have Google Maps open, try entering a hypothetical trip. Pick any point A and B in your region. Depending on where you are, you might see travel options for driving, transit, bicycling and walking. If the distance between origin and destination is far enough, Google Maps even offers flight suggestions. If you had run this search several years ago, you would have seen your options solely for driving—this highway, this secondary road, this detour. That is, it was more like the map on the wall.

What Google and similar technology companies understand is that people want transportation options and information; they can make up their minds about which modes to use or avoid. Yet, many departments of transportation often continue to think in mode-centric ways: highways, transit, airport, biking, sidewalks.

It’s time to evolve from this mode-centric thinking to mobility-centric thinking. No doubt, this is something aspired to in virtually every DOT’s mission statement—to improve mobility—and is an action step in many strategic plans. But, while we have been refining on our plans, and while our transportation projects have been moving through their decade-long development processes, something fundamental has occurred: technology has leapt forward in revolutionary ways. And it presents a powerful, and so far underutilized, tool for making the connections among modes of transportation more effective and better coordinated.

Roughly two-thirds of American adults now use smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s an amazing statistic, especially when you consider that just nine years ago, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone prototype, which launched the modern smartphone era. In recent years, as a consequence, many DOTs have begun to offer travelers smartphone-enabled information. Real-time text alerts about traffic accidents, train schedules with track information and other mobile-enabled tools have been widely adopted.

Still, these tools themselves generally remain stove-piped. The traveler has to sort through multiple apps, emails and texts to piece together a game plan. From a DOT perspective, this presents an opportunity to integrate and present all transportation options (and real-time updates) to help travelers make decisions on the fly.

For example, highway traffic alerts are enormously helpful, but technology also could inform travelers about the relative efficiency of nearby transit options, too. If a driver is mired in traffic near a transit station, a push notification to the traveler’s smartphone, bolstered by roadside variable message signs, could announce that a train or bus to likely commuting destinations (based on vehicle location) is on time and available as an alternative. Taken a step further, the notification might even offer directions to a parking garage and (ideally) tell how many spaces remain vacant.

Delivering this level of detail may seem a bit far-fetched until you use the Uber app and watch the image of a cab wending its way toward you through the city streets. The provision not just of information but predictability and reliability are invaluable and exciting—and they are here now.

The underlying principle in these various approaches is the same: by thinking about the individual, and the mode-agnostic goal of getting from Points A to B, we can begin to establish technological connections that will make our transportation assets work harder and deliver more value every day.

How can a DOT begin to adopt a more mobility-centric approach? It begins by realizing that the answers cannot come solely from transportation experts. It takes a broader conversation to fully understand what mobility means to various interest groups.

Right now, the Texas Department of Transportation in Dallas is pursuing exactly such a dynamic conversation through its CityMAP project. In essence, a team is conducting an extensive listening tour to better understand what people—from urbanites, to commuters, to business owners, to community activists—view as a more exciting future state for mobility in the region. The project’s outcomes will inform transportation strategies that can pull together modes of transportation as diverse as high-speed rail and biking trails, and integrate them to create exponential value to everyone.

Across the nation, transportation officials must agree to work together more effectively. We must acknowledge that while DOTs and transit agencies may have unique organizational structures and differing funding schemes, the time has come to establish one, unified perspective and operating paradigm that can work to provide a more mobile environment.

Remarkably, with a mobility-centric approach everyone wins. When transportation modes are linked strategically and technologically every agency will get its share of the right users. And these users will be more willing to support their chosen modes of travel (whether through taxes, tolls or fare) because they provide outsized value for their investment and a predictable journey from A to B. 

About The Author: Prasad is senior vice president and national transportation practice leader for HNTB Corp.

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