National Press Club

Changes in transportation come to American cities

September 27, 2017 | By Louise D. Walsh |

Web-based technology is driving major changes in transportation across American cities, said two transit experts at a National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker event on Tuesday.

“My job is to look at the future,” said Vincent Valdes from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. In a new transportation environment, cities are innovating their transit systems with public and private partnerships. Those partners are shaping the cities of the future, already producing lifestyle changes. Think Uber and Lyft. Now imagine ride-sharing in driverless cars.

Diana Mendes, mid-Atlantic division president and transit/rail practice leader of HNTB Corp., told the audience that the sharing economy is “alive and growing and will penetrate all aspects of our lives.”

“We’re at an incredible convergence,” she said, referring to the unlikely partnership between transportation, “one of the slowest-moving, plodding industries” and web-based technology, one of the most “innovative, unpredictable and fast-moving industries.” But consumer preferences, Valdes and Mendes agree, will drive technological choices.

Companies like Apple, Tesla, Qualcomm and Samsung are now vital players in the transportation sector alongside traditional firms like Ford and Nissan. Valdes, FTA’s associate administrator of research, demonstration and innovation, suggests that advances such as autonomous vehicles are “the biggest development since the internal combustion engine.” Major changes in the transport sector, he predicts, will be as significant as the shift from horse-drawn carriages to motorized transportation.

At a recent conference Valdes attended, he said that Nissan’s CEO predicted that in 10 years, his company would move beyond selling cars to providing "mobility services."

As for resisting change, Mendes cites newspapers in the early 1900s. Headlines predicted cars would be a disaster and would fail because horses were far more reliable. “Our capacity to imagine the future is constrained,” she said, noting it took about 13 years for cars to replace horses. But Mendes predicted a faster transition to driverless cars.

On transportation, Mendes asked us to “dream a bit” about an end to "dead time" (time spent stuck in traffic) in travel. We will have “the potential to travel with a precision that we haven’t experienced before,” she said. Aside from mobility challenges, the city’s landscape and land use will be very different from today. Transportation won’t be defined as it is now. “Cars could go get themselves inspected.” And what if cars become little mobile pods or rooms that don’t look anything like our cars today?” she asked.

Because products and services already come to us, Mendes imagines a transportation future that brings together economies that usually don’t connect. Valdes refers to a mobility-demand model. Consumers no longer plan their trip in separate pieces but would link parts together in advance: ride-share, then public transport, then bike share, as an example.

Left unanswered was technology’s impact on jobs, the future of the auto industry, insurance and liability, safety, cybersecurity, land use, the environment, rules and regulations, electrification and fossil fuels. As for the nation’s labor force, Valdes said the agency has been talking with organized labor because “we don’t want to see wholesale job loss.”

Mendes warns us about one dimension of change: “Timing is everything. History is littered with ideas that happened too early. Just look at [the first introduction of] the computer!”