The great democratization of transportation

The great democratization of transportation

Gabe Klein speaking at TEDxMidAtlantic
Gabe Klein speaking at TEDxMidAtlantic

Editor's Note: Gabe Klein is an advisor for the VERGE Transport conference at the upcoming VERGE 18. This article originally appeared on Medium.

As someone who’s been entrenched in our country’s great transportation revolution for the past 20 years — as an early ZipCar executive, then as transportation head for Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and most recently as an investor, author and adviser — I’ve witnessed firsthand how our current boom in innovation is not only introducing new technologies but also changing how old systems work.

There is reason to be optimistic about the evolution of our transportation systems. It’s clear, for example, that reducing single-occupancy travel at scale has a positive impact on the environment and quality of life — whether this takes the form of carpooling, rideshare apps or public transit. And the influx of companies such as ZipCar, Uber, Lyft and Car2Go are embracing technology to lower both the cost of adoption and the friction of sharing transportation.

But all of this innovation raises the question: How ought governments work with private innovators to drive change? U.S. cities with a libertarian bent tend to shout, "Let’s get rid of the train. Let’s have autonomous cars everywhere paid for by users and the private sector!" What they don’t understand is that such a one-sided approach won’t solve our environmental or quality-of-life problems. After all, people want to be in livable, walkable communities with a high degree of both physical and virtual connectivity.

To assure great outcomes, we need excellent policymaking in tight timeframes, public-private collaboration, idea exchange and testing on the streets. With the right policies in place and shared data to measure its impact, we can achieve a well-balanced system that works for both people and the planet.

Autonomous Futures

Data partnerships are key

When I was at ZipCar, a big part of my job was working with cities and transit agencies to get them to see that a private company that had a triple bottom line approach to doing business could be their arm for making change — that contracting with good companies could help them effect change much faster.

The thinking is that, if the private sector adopts a triple bottom line framework (social, environmental and financial), then the government can be more focused on higher returns. This, in turn, allows for more investments on behalf of their constituents that pay long-term environmental benefits, health benefits and so on.

Cooperation between the public and private sector is incredibly important in the creation of a more sustainable transportation model, particularly as technology plays a larger role. But in order for such partnerships to work, government agencies need robust data to inform policy and determine whether and how best to work with private innovators.

However, it can be very difficult to quantify the impact of technology if you don’t set up data sharing agreements from the beginning. Ultimately, it is the public sector’s responsibility to know what data they want, to collect it from the sources that they have internally and require it from the companies that do business within their cities. However, cities have to acquire the data in a responsible way. They should not collect it and put it a repository where anyone can file a freedom of information act request for someone’s personal details or travel patterns. Data must be anonymized and — when necessary — aggregated.

Technology is helping to solve this problem. Companies such as Stae are making it easier to collect and parse information by providing a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that makes sense of cities’ structured and unstructured data. The platform makes the data meaningful and then accessible as open data for citizens or curated data for companies. There’s huge potential in SaaS platforms servicing hundreds of cities with the same customizable product versus custom-building a million-dollar system for each city.

By smartly leveraging data sharing agreements and promoting open collaborations between public and private partners, we can pave the way toward a more holistic, sustainable and enjoyable transportation ecosystem in our great cities. The goal is to give people options and as much flexibility as possible — from autonomous vehicles to mass transportation to dockless bike sharing. As we’ll see, diverse transportation initiatives ought to be complementary, not mutually exclusive.

Seattle: A case study in transportation innovation

It turns out that the cities that are doing the best implementing new technologies are those that say, "Come play in our city, but here are the rules you have to follow." Seattle is doing a particularly good job because it's moving very fast.

When CityFi was assisting with the city’s New Mobility Playbook project, car-sharing company Car2Go felt that its system was not working as well as it could be due to limits placed by the city on fleet size, as well as parking requirements for buildings that it felt encouraged people to drive.


As a result of these conversations, the Seattle Department of Transportation very quickly raised the cap to 1,200 cars and dramatically increased curbside space access for Car2Go, which led to the success of the service for the city, company and constituents. Cities must be able to quickly create frameworks — for example, a new permit system — that can operate at the speed of the private sector as opposed to huge regulatory schemes that have to go through city council.

This is what sets innovative cities apart.

Of course, cities must couple private innovation with big investments in transit infrastructure. Transportation solutions are not replacements for each other — they are complementary. The cities where ZipCar, Uber, Lyft, bike share and Car2Go do best are the most transit-oriented cities.

Seattle is striking a great balance between making billion-dollar investments in transit systems while also testing new technologies. For example, Seattle is the first city to permit dockless bike sharing with partners such as Spin, LimeBike and Ofo — and they circulate close to 10,000 bikes. The program was built on the basis that there be a limit on fleet size and equitable distribution throughout the city, all of which was determined by leveraging a multiplicity of shared data sources.

You can read the entire article on Medium.