Friday, June 13, 2014

Transportation in Transition, Again and Always

In 1982 Milton Pikarsky and Christine Johnson published a paper titled "American Transportation in Transition."

Here are the opening paragraphs:
Today, the United States is in a transportation crisis which is of a chronic nature. It may not be sudden like the gas lines of 1974, but it is consistent and the pressures of this crisis are deepening. And because its gradual nature allows people and institutions to adjust, the crisis changes the transportation system more fundamentally than transitory gas lines or transit stop pages.

The current picture of public transportation is bleak. Indeed, each new wrinkle in the financial problems faced by the transit industry brings warnings that a breakdown of public transportation service could initiate a domino effect resulting in an urban economic collapse.
And the conclusion:
Private citizens will have to adjust to the fact that traditional transportation is likely to cost more. To reduce some of those costs, they may have to become vanpool riders or drivers, participate in neighbourhood auto mobile cooperatives, or occasionally rent automobiles or use taxis as alternatives to purchasing second cars. A variety of private transportation providers may once again become party to the transportation social contract. There is evidence that developers, too, may become party to the contract. In an attempt to make their suburban residential and commercial space more attractive, many developers are underwriting bus or shuttle services or arranging van- and carpools.  
Given the position and needs of the various principal actors, it is likely that private employers and providers will become much more involved with the direct provision of surface transportation in the future. In the best and worst of extremes, an individual could face a variety of options and a maze of prices depending on the mode, time of travel, destination, and the number of people travelling. The solution to these new transportation problems may define the future role of the public sector. Rather than owning and operating systems, the public sector may become more of a travel information broker, a facilitator, a technical adviser, and a manager of a set of service contracts.  
There is little question that the process of renegotiating the transportation social contract has begun. Each party is slowly exploring and carving out a new niche. The process will be long and progress slow. We feel certain that at the outcome, when we speak of public transportation, our concept will have grown to include a range of services and providers; rapid rail, bus, vanpools, commuter clubs, subscription services, taxis, jitneys, apartment shuttle, the private automobile, and the rental auto mobile, each serving the trip length, type, and density that is most cost-efficient. 
This piece is over 30 years old. I agree with just about all of it, and I argue many of the same things today. With all of the excitement about ridesharing and transportation network companies it is worthwhile keeping in mind such services are neither revolutionary or new ideas. Perhaps they are finally here to stay, or perhaps not. (I suspect they are, likely with different companies than exist now, but I'll save my reasoning for another time.)

Public transit's demise has been predicted for a long time, as well, and transit operates in a world of permanent financial crisis. Transit finance may not be ideal, but our transit systems have survived and many have improved. Overall, though, transportation is still in transition, and we are still expecting the next big thing to show up.

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