Paul Revere and the Transformation of Transportation
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Paul Revere and the Transformation of Transportation

Throughout history, there are not many “Paul Revere” moments; times when it’s clear that the British are coming, and we know how they’ll get here and what to do to prepare. That observation is probably no more evident than it is today in the field of transportation infrastructure.

We are at the forefront of substantial change.

In just the past year, we have seen more dialogue about the factors that will transform transportation. At the 2015 AASHTO Annual Meeting and Centennial Celebration, Greg Schwen compared the changes in technology and transportation over time — think in terms of cell phone size. At the Detroit Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress last fall, Honda demonstrated a car that could self-drive a freeway route, from on-ramp to exit, for miles.  At the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conference in January, a central theme was how to address changes facing the transportation industry, especially as re-authorization of a new federal transportation bill is considered.

Clearly there are substantial forces at work that we must understand as an industry so we can develop process frameworks and public-private partnerships to address critical issues. USDOT under Secretary Anthony Foxx put together a broad overview of these changes in “Beyond Traffic” released in February. In many ways, the federal role in transportation will continue to evolve to a policy and standards base, moving away from the substantial capital programs of the past. Conversely, to deal with demographic, technical and political change, it is clear that the role of state and local transportation agencies will be more important than ever.

In the next issue of Traffic Technology International, a new column by former Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT) Executive Director Don Hunt will launch and explore the affects of connectivity, “big data” and automation. In his own Paul Revere “moments”, he offers advice on how State DOTs and others in the industry can prepare for this evolutionary change. In addition to partnering with the private sector entering the public transportation space on data optimization and corridor communications infrastructure, he will also discuss active traffic management systems and the emerging technology of connective/autonomous vehicles. Don reminds us, rightly so, that the largest risk is to do nothing at all — that ignoring the accelerating change will be devastating to our credibility as organizations and as professionals.

In thinking about the changes already happening and those on the horizon, the private sector and the public sector must jointly take actions to adapt. We need to change the way we think about infrastructure; specifically how we decide what to build, and how we plan, design, and build improvements and operate our systems. That starts by knowing more about our existing assets and preserving what has been built. It also includes optimizing what we have using new technology and performance-based metrics to get the most value out of that investment.

This asset management approach will prepare us to respond as the transportation transformation accelerates and the demand for efficient and cost-effective mobility continues to grow. This will also support the integration of technology to create smart infrastructure — utilizing previous investments such as traffic signal systems and fiber communication networks — and connect new construction in a thoughtful program over the next decades.

A smart system should evolve naturally and be ready for Autonomous Vehicle/Connected Vehicle (AV/CV) advances from vehicle builders and user demands. Mobile technologies have empowered consumers to make choices about transportation options, requiring more robust attention to traffic management systems and operations. Innovative and adaptive management programs using capacity pricing with managed lanes will continue to help enhance mobility and provide for reliable movement of people and goods.

Unfortunately the transformation of transportation does not have one Paul Revere telling us when it will be here and how to respond. It will take an army of us to lead through this change. We will need representation from across the industry, both public and private sectors. And we will continue to look to professional organizations like AASHTO, ARTBA, APTA and many others to drive the leadership needed to help us prepare and act.

In many ways, the work we perform today to position us for the next 50 years will be similar to the early days developing the Interstate Highway program more than 50 years ago. Back then, the concept of an integrated system across the country linking economic centers, population centers and our vast natural resources was a series of maps and policy frameworks. Now we are engaged in the transformation for the next 50 years that will result in a similar broadly integrated network — but this time it will be more connected, mobile, adaptable and user-driven.

It is time to move beyond talking about this transformative change and to start preparing for how this change can improve how we manage our assets and optimize mobility. It could be the catalyst for us to create an innovative, globally-competitive system of transportation networks that is the envy of the world.

To do so will require not only a new way of thinking, but also a new way of doing. Let’s accelerate the continued sharing of ideas and start formulating what our next agenda is, how we will support it and how we will mobilize our vast range of transportation industry resources to make the transformation a success.