Innovation for Who? Reclaiming Public Purpose in the Urban Transportation Pilot

Arielle Fleisher and Chris Chou

Hidden beneath the buzz about how technology is transforming urban transit is a quiet revolution in the way that cities approach the management of their streets. In the face of rapid change, cities and transit agencies are increasingly relying on pilot programs to manage the introduction of new modes of transportation and new uses of the right of way. Pilot approaches have spread through all regions of the country and are utilized by cities of all sizes and for numerous applications including dockless bike share, autonomous buses, micro-transit, delivery robots, and smart streetlights.

It’s important to appreciate how the pilot approach departs from how cities typically regulate and manage urban transportation problems. The public sector often makes slow decisions and avoids risks. But that stability can be a disadvantage if it ossifies and can’t accommodate changes to the system. Without compromising cities’ ability to use public funding, exercise regulatory authority, and pursue the public’s interest, pilots provide cities and transit agencies with flexibility. They give cities a safe space to try new approaches while managing the potential chaos of new technologies.

Yet pilots today are too often centered around technology alone. Continue reading

Riding the Bus to a Green New Deal

Riding the Bus to a Green New Deal

Richard A. Marcantonio –

In a recent video, “A Message From the Future,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s voiceover imagines a time when climate collapse has been averted. Now a seasoned member of Congress, she rides the bullet train to the Capitol. It’s a whimsical opening to a compelling narration. But it raises two important questions: first, will the Green New Deal (GND) come all at once? And second, will it come riding high-speed rail or the lowly city bus?

The two questions, it turns out, are connected.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution is structured around five goals: (A) carbon neutrality and a just transition, (B) creation of millions of good-paying jobs, (C) investment in sustainable infrastructure, (D) achievement of a healthy and sustainable environment, and (E) “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression” of “frontline and vulnerable communities.” 

The first thing to say about the logic of these goals is that every dollar of massive new public investment spent under a GND policy framework, whether at the federal level or at smaller geographic scales, would deliver public infrastructure or services, while simultaneously creating good-paying jobs, cutting carbon pollution, and addressing historic oppression of “frontline and vulnerable communities.” (I’ve written separately about the significance of the resolution’s definition of “frontline and vulnerable communities,” and a framework for addressing their historic oppression in the context of a GND).

These principles should apply to local investment as much as to federal funding. Indeed, the GND resolution should be understood not only as a comprehensive federal program, but more immediately as a policy template that working people, through struggle, can strive to apply to any large source of funding. 

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Transportation Justice: from Civil Rights to the Right to the City

Kafui Attoh-

In the year 2000, the writer Joan Wypijewski visited Montgomery, Alabama, to observe the 45th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Her findings were notable: “Montgomery’s transit system isn’t segregated anymore. It barely exists.”

As Wypijewski told readers, the 1990s had not been kind to transit. After two decades of local Republican leadership, and following the elimination of federal transit operating assistance in 1996, Montgomery’s transit system had become a shadow of its former self. In 1997, the situation reached its nadir when the city decided to scrap its fixed route bus service altogether, replacing it with a cost-saving dial-a-ride service called DART. DART provided door-to-door service to local residents upon request, but required that these residents schedule their trips 24 hours in advance. As Wypijewski reported, the system was hardly popular. Not only were there dropped appointments, longer commutes, and overworked drivers, but it marked the end of what had been a “‘family of riders,’ the easy culture of transfers and [a shared] culture of urban mobility”. When Wypijewski published her exposé in 2000, Montgomery’s new Democratic leadership was already in the process of re-establishing a fixed route bus service. Even with change on the horizon, Wypijewski’s larger argument remained an important one. Here we might quote her directly:

“Today’s system is a spawn of the New South, which is not so much new or distinctly southern as it is an accommodation to the all-American way of racism—bigotry muffled for the sake of business, white privilege wrapped in the language of investment. As elsewhere across the country, whites in Montgomery abandoned the urban center and its services. With budgets shrinking, neglect of city schools, hospitals and transit could proceed as a ‘cost benefits decision.’”
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