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Innovations in Transportation: Transforming Access, Mobility, and Delivery

Rockefeller Foundation managing director Michael Myers speaking on a panel about improving transportation access in cities. Photo credit: Erissa Scalera / Rockefeller Foundation

“How do we ensure transportation innovations reach poor and vulnerable Americans?”

Last week, I attended the “Transforming Access, Mobility and Delivery in Cities” workshop in New York supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Volvo Research and Education Foundations, Columbia University Center for Sustainable Urban Development, TransitCenter, and several others, where the theme of the week was ‘disruption.’ “The transportation sector is the next sector to be disrupted,” said Anthony Townsend, Senior Research Scientist of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, and indeed, many innovations in transportation were discussed at the workshop. We heard about product innovations such as Google’s self-driving cars, process innovations such as new ways of paying for transport, and market innovations like shared mobility.

It was fitting to have this conversation in NYC, where last week marked the announcement of the expansion of Citibike and the groundbreaking legislation to reduce speed limits to 25 MPH to improve safety. And it’s not just NYC that’s considering new modes of transportation—car sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, and SideCar are changing how people think about getting around outside of NYC as well. We are now seeing people in one of America’s most auto-centric cities, Los Angeles, abandon the car lifestyle and “adopting a more peripatetic lifestyle, like New Yorkers.” The Atlantic‘s “Future of Transportation” series—funded by The Rockefeller Foundation—highlights many more examples of how technology and behavior change are interacting with transportation infrastructure and policy.

But these significant signs of progress may also carry the unintended consequence of further alienating the population of Americans that stand to suffer the most from poor transportation. How do we ensure transportation innovations reach poor and vulnerable Americans, those that are disproportionately impacted by exclusive policies and practice?

Rockefeller Foundation senior program associate Amira Bliss speaking on a panel about what’s next for innovation in transportation. Photo credit: Erissa Scalera / Rockefeller Foundation

Transportation is the second highest cost for working Americans, and the highest cost for Americans who earn $20,000-$50,000 per year. When The Rockefeller Foundation began its Transportation initiative six years ago, this was the problem we aimed to address. The conversation was very different at the time, focusing on projects that would create wider roads and more highways—we sought to shift the discourse towards a more sustainable and equitable U.S. transportation system to provide people, especially the poor and vulnerable, with the options that connect them to more jobs and opportunity. One way we’ve done this in recent times is our focus on advancing options like bus rapid transit (BRT)—a bus system that delivers the permanence, speed, and reliability of rail systems, but for a fraction of the cost. High-quality BRT systems typically feature high-capacity vehicles, dedicated lanes, elevated platforms which are level with the vehicles, and off-bus fare collection—particularly important in NYC to connect low-income commuters in outer boroughs to job centers. In California, we’re working to ensure that as greater transit investment in low-income communities bring investment without displacement.

At last week’s workshop, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx’s keynote displayed an unprecedented openness at the federal level on which the field can build. New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg described the opportunity to integrate BRT into the city’s infrastructure to transform access for thousands of low-income riders in the city. Transportation riders are becoming engaged in conversation in a way that we’ve never seen before, and equity is entering the forefront. We must continue asking critical questions about equity to ensure better and more dependable access for all. Can shared mobility help low income people access opportunity? Does new transit have to reduce affordability for low income communities? Are job centers accessible to low-skilled workers?

While it may be too extreme to expect the future of transportation to look an episode of The Jetsons, with projects like the Hyperloop, we support the dialogue on innovations in transportation. We encourage more ideas beyond just product innovations and want to see how these innovations meet the needs of vulnerable Americans. Today, we’re proud to have helped catalyze transportation systems to serve the needs of 21st century America. But even more so, we are heartened by the strong actors in this field that will carry the work forward as evident by the energetic participation of so many in last week’s conference.

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