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Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct (Photo Courtesy Flickr user Tony Webster / cc2.0)

Technology has changed so many sectors of our economy, but most regional transportation systems in the U.S. remain locked in the middle of the 20th century. As cities and suburbs continue to grow disproportionately compared to the overall population, at some point we’ll need to upgrade our infrastructure and thinking before we grind to a halt.

Several speakers at TechfestNW on the campus of Portland State University Thursday addressed the need for more sophisticated “smart transit” options as smartphone use becomes nearly ubiquitous and autonomous vehicles loom in the distance. Ideally, this represents a mix of options including both public and private transit, with a decision-making process geared around data yet mindful of the needs of underrepresented parts of the population.

But local, regional, and state governments tend to be slower to understand that old ways of fixing traffic problems are, well, old.

Nat Parker, CEO, moveel North America (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

In Oregon, former Portland-area Metro Council president David Bragdon bemoaned, state leaders stuck in a supply-side mentality are about to force a highway-widening project on Portland that studies show might actually make the notorious I-5 rush hour traffic worse. Instead, local governments should be taking cues from the private sector that show how you can use “tech to not only forecast demand, but to shape demand,” he said.

“You can’t necessarily build your way out of congestion,” said Nat Parker, CEO of moovel North America, a Portland-based next-generation transit company owned by the original transit company, Daimler.

Instead, cities need to be focused on ways to find more efficient ways to use existing transportation infrastructure while being open to ideas from private-sector companies focused on the connections between connectivity, mobile devices, and public transportation, he said.

In many cities around the country, public transportation infrastructure is decaying while the explosion of growth in nouveau taxi services like Uber and Lyft is removing incentives to take public transit. As a result, 41 cities out of 44 studied by moveel saw “precipitous declines in public transit use,” Parker said.

Transit agencies can’t just lay the blame at the feet of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, as tempting as that might be.

“They’re not our riders,” said David Block-Schatcter, chief technology officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves the Boston metropolitan region. “Those people are leaving transit because they are getting better service elsewhere,” he said, in reference to the ride-sharing companies.

The Pacific Northwest actually fares a little better compared to the rest of the country when it comes to modern transit options, according to Parker, which might surprise anyone who has tried to navigate downtown Seattle during the evening rush hour over the last year or so. But Seattle has seen very strong growth in public transit ridership over the last two years in part thanks to data-driven investments in its bus networks.

(L to R): David Block Schachter, MBTA; David Brogdan, TransitCenter (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

While there’s no way cities and private companies can design next-generation transportation systems without data, they need to be responsible stewards of that data; centralized tracking the movement of a population is a frequent aspect of dystopian science fiction. Real-time information on movement (or lack thereof) on their roads can give cities extremely valuable data on how and where to make transit decisions, but it can also be abused if not properly anonymized, and that data is also a gold mine for private interests looking at investment decisions without necessarily considering the public impact.

“The data that you provide (on your movements) is the currency of the future,” Parker said. “And you need to have rights around your own data.”

This is a tricky part of the next-generation transit system. Without proper data on how cities are moving, transit designers will fail to capture the real opportunity. And if efficient transit options are then only designed around the needs of the young and rich, a whole segment of the population won’t share in the benefits of modern transportation.

Nicole Rennells of Tektronix pointed to efforts by Columbus, Ohio, to link a much-higher-than-average infant-mortality rate in Columbus to a population underserved by transit options that could get them to pre-natal care. The city-run service to give expectant mothers an Uber-like way to hail public transportation options from their phones has its problems, but the project shows how making transit options equitable across a regional population could have far greater benefits than simply easing traffic.

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