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Live from Transforming Transportation 2017: How Do Cities Make Disruptive Technologies Work for All?

Day 2 of Transforming Transportation 2017 explored disruptive technologies and their impact on mobility. This panel featured experts in mode sharing, electrification and automation of road vehicles. Photo by Luca Lo Re / WRI

Transforming Transportation (#TTDC17) is the annual conference co-organized by the World Bank and the EMBARQ mobility initiative of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. This year’s conference is themed Beyond Commitments: Sustainable Mobility for All, and takes place on January 12 and 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #TTDC17, by following @WRIcities and @WBG_Transport on Twitter, and tune in to http://live.worldbank.org/transforming-transportation-2017 for video streaming of select sessions.

New kinds of mobility—ride sharing platforms, electric cars and buses, autonomous vehicles—are creating disruptions in the transport sector. Thanks to big data and the widespread use of smart phones, personal transport planning around the world is increasingly becoming a continuum, where people can use a number of different integrated modes to make seamless, efficient trips, as Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar, explained. While the evidence is still mixed on the current impact, the hope is that all this will get people away from personal car ownership.

Emily Castor, Director of Transportation Policy at Lyft, pushed back against the idea that one technology alone will create positive economic and social impact. Instead, she pointed out, technologies need to be integrated to ensure that they work in a way that creates public good. When it comes to mobility, disruptive technologies like automation, electrification and on-demand ride-sharing need to be integrated in order to mitigate the individual technologies’ potential downsides, like greater congestion and traffic fatalities.

As Sam Parker, Director of Shell Foundation, noted, there are barriers to making new mobility technologies achieve social good. For many low-income populations, ride-sourcing apps like Uber and Lyft are prohibitively expensive given their scale. “We’re going to need to think about how we reach this population so that innovation works for them. Don’t assume the technology will do everything—success depends on the business model.” Emily Castor added to this by pointing out that personal vehicle ownership is currently cheaper than shared mobility, which will need to reach a viable price point in order to create benefits for all.

Getting to this point is going to require smart regulations and public policies. This is a huge challenge given that decision makers will need to balance a legitimate concern for safer and public good while also providing the private sector with the right enabling environment for investment and entrepreneurship. One of the biggest challenges here is the status quo—the lack of collaboration thus far between the private and public sectors to improve urban mobility for all.

 Heaven or Hell? Weighing Opportunities and Challenges in New Mobility

Are shared, autonomous, electric vehicles the silver bullet to a sustainable future? Referencing Robin Chase’s notion of “Heaven or Hell,” the following panel highlighted the opportunities and challenges of these mobility revolutions. While advances in mobility pose many benefits to the future of urban transport, they also call much into question. “There could be many efficiencies gained by autonomous mode shares,” said STEPS Director at UC Davis Lewis Fulton, “but we could also end up with single or zero occupant vehicles, leading to increased congestion and sprawl.” Furthermore, “automation is going to lead to lower per-trip costs,” he explained, but “if the cost comes down a lot, the appeal for sharing might drop as well.”

Peter Jones, Professor of Transport and Sustainable Development at Imperial College, additionally discusses the notion of “Heaven and Hell,” as he describes many of the challenges associated with autonomous vehicles. “Many cities are concerned that this development in technology will swamp the city unless people start thinking now,” cautioned Jones. These problems can been mitigated with early and comprehensive planning initiatives. These are political issues and that need to be discussed now: “If we think ahead,” concludes Jones, “there can be many real benefits.”

Will the mobility transformation have an impact on traditional transportation? Toni Lindau, Director of WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, seems to think it will. Lindau believes that autonomous vehicles will pose a great challenge the current transit market: conventional buses, bus rapid transit routes and other feeder systems will be at risk.

How Will 2017 Shape the Transport Agenda?

Moderator Melinda Crane opened the final plenary session of Transforming Transportation 2017 with a look at the year ahead. 2016 was the year of global agreements and shaping the agenda on climate, urban development and sustainable development. 2017, on the other hand, will be the year for joint action. According to Daniel Günther: “2017 needs to be about starting action on the ground, scaling up and implementing these agendas… Let’s start some transformative action.” Portugal’s Secretary of State Jose Mendez believes that “in 2017, we will get to know how strong the Paris agreement will be.” Like the global protocol, transforming transportation requires a global approach: “When you transform a sector,” said Mendes, “it isn’t a task for a country or a city. It is a task for many stakeholders.”

While global coordination may be difficult, Secretary General of SLoCaT Cornie Huizenga draws our attention to areas of progress on global coordination, proving that it is possible. “If we want to get the focus that our topic requires, to get the political attention and make the changes we need,” he said, “we will have to speak with one voice.”

In their closing remarks, EMBARQ Director Holger Dalkmann and Director of Transport and ICT at the World Bank Jose Luis Irigoyen emphasized the need for joint action as we enter the year of implementation. “The various goals have to be seen as one,” said Irigoyen, “you cannot have sustainable mobility unless you champion climate resilience, access, efficiency and safety and for all.”

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