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As the Assistant Director of Smart Mobility at the Austin Transportation Department, I serve as the City’s primary advisor on new and disruptive mobility solutions. We find ourselves in a unique time – in the midst of a paradigm shift in transportation. Connectivity, automation, and shared new mobility services are at the core of this disruption and you can see it happening in many different forms on sidewalks, streets, and highways today. How we get around is changing, and private sector solutions are beginning to offer elements of comprehensive, multidimensional, personal mobility.
The intersection of public and private sector mobility solutions and the infrastructure in which these services exist is where challenges and, more importantly, new opportunities, are found. The shift is affecting far more than transportation and automakers—industries from insurance and health care to energy and media are dealing with how new mobility is affecting their businesses and how they create value in this emerging environment.
Cities are grappling with how we take advantage of this rise in attention to our problems. These problems have existed for many years, but technology has brought a renewed sense that we may be able to innovate or iterate out of some of the challenges that we face. In order to embrace solutions that technology offers, we have to find ways to thrive in a disruptive environment. Transportation officials, policymakers and many others should be focused on how we enable the creation of new, sustainable ecosystems that deliver better mobility outcomes by leveraging the best that public and private mobility options have to offer.
"Cities have been on a steep learning curve trying to understand what innovations are out there and how to best utilize the rich technical solutions they promise"
This belief in innovation led the City of Austin to pass two resolutions that created the position I currently hold, as well as the Smart Mobility Office within the Transportation Department. The office comprises a cross-functional team of mobility, technology, policy, data, and user experience specialists to deliver outcomes that improve mobility, safety, equity, and access for Austin residents, visitors, and businesses.
New Perspective, New Process
The Smart Mobility Office strives to demonstrate, pilot, and prove out new mobility solutions as part of a nimble, revenue-neutral process. Rather than using traditional methods such as a Request for Information or Request for Proposal, our program works directly with interested mobility providers to determine what type of project they would like to launch in Austin and how that project meets the needs of our residents. The team guides companies through the process from the initial expression of interest through scope development and vetting. Approved projects are eventually formalized with a demonstration agreement. Each company may participate in the demonstration, pilot, and proving phase of our process. To date, the Smart Mobility Office has received 50 expression of interest forms.
This system provides a way of working with the private sector so that each partner assumes some of the cost. The city provides staff time, access to infrastructure and help navigating city processes, such as permitting. The private sector contributes its technology, solutions and hardware to test in the city environment. The process leaves both parties better off. The city is able to better understand how we would utilize the technology to raise capabilities to meet current needs, but also prepare to sustainably meet future needs. The private sector companies have the chance to test their technology in a live municipal environment while co-developing use cases that meet civic needs. Together, we have a better, more granular understanding of how to work together to deliver mutually beneficial outcomes. In the end, there is less effort and higher yield than with traditional processes.
Partnerships to Bridge the Gap
Cities have been on a steep learning curve trying to understand what innovations are out there and how to best utilize the rich technical solutions they promise. The problem is that, in the private sector, innovation happens at a blistering rate, in a way that only the private sector itself can keep up with and understand. This creates a tremendous gap in expertise and technology between the public and private sector.
Private sector providers also have access to seemingly infinite amounts of data that help those companies understand first mile/last mile issues, trends of travel and customer behavior. Cities like Austin would love to have actionable information generated by private sector data in order to understand what areas of the transportation network are seeing the highest demand. I find that a business partnership with these companies is the best way to move forward. Raw data can hold the keys to a company’s intellectual property and their customers’ private information. Cities should move away from this idea that we need to own everything – the problem and the cure. It takes government, the private sector and, most importantly, our mutual customer – you, the reader – to solve our mobility challenges. Partnering with companies whose outcomes align with a city’s goals offers a cost-effective way to expand services beyond the capacity that city could reach on its own and within a timeframe that meets market demands.
Accounting for Human Behavior
When discussing new technology and new mobility, we must always remember that people are at the center of the equation. Technology may work perfectly under controlled circumstances, but when that technology is released into a live environment, there will always be unpredictable variables to consider. Take automated vehicles as an example. In the near term, automated vehicles may travel on the road alongside traditional human-driven vehicles. When Waymo tested its automated vehicle in an Austin neighborhood, residents quickly learned that the vehicle was timid and human drivers took advantage of its cautiousness by refusing to yield at four-way stops, knowing that the automated vehicle would wait. During this transition, there has to be a prolonged period of education and iteration, where humans and automated vehicles learn to interact in safe and constructive ways.
Creating Sustainable Policies
I believe in pivoting with disruption. It is imperative that cities develop sustainable policies to help manage for the changes that emerging mobility creates. For example, we launched our dockless bicycle pilot and, within the same week, dockless scooters appeared on Austin streets, disrupting the pilot. With this experience in mind, I encourage other cities to expect the unexpected. Policies should be developed in a way that allows government to adjust with disruptive changes in the transportation network and customer behavior.
Bringing Governments Together
Cities are communicating and working together like never before. The disruption in transportation is happening so quickly that governments across the country are sharing lessons learned and trying to understand what each city is experiencing. For example, many of the rules that Austin has related to dockless mobility came from cities on the west coast like Portland, Santa Monica, and San Francisco because the private sector launched on the west coast first, as they typically do. Austin’s iterations of the rules were shared and iterated upon by east coast cities. Together, governments can collect and direct private sector disruption energies toward mobility outcomes that meet civic needs.
Hype vs. Reality
While new mobility is exciting, it is important to distinguish hype from reality. For instance, some believe that fully automated vehicles will saturate our transportation networks within the next few years, making parking a non-issue. But parking is going to be necessary for years to come as automated vehicle technology continues to develop and new vehicles on the road serve out their useful lifespan of 10-12 years. The reality of this situation is that cities need to find solutions that can serve the needs of today as well as tomorrow. Dynamic curb access, for example, allows cities to manage space for valet zones, taxi zones, ride-hailing zones, passenger zones, and zones for task solutions such as Car2Go and ZipCar. In the future, it can also accommodate new modes of transportation, such as automated vehicles, electric low-speed personal mobility pods, and whatever else the private sector may have to offer.