Technology can improve transit but not replace new network investment
By Saba Long
Driverless cars, repairing broken sidewalks, promoting transit for workplaces, public art and transportation.
That’s just a taste of the diversity of ideas discussed during the breakout sessions at the transportation nerd fest known as TransportationCamp. Even better, this year’s event, held a couple of weeks ago, also including a Govathon transportation-centric hackathon. Naturally, MARTA was the focal point for transit discussions.
Over the past several months, we have all watched the disruption of the taxicab industry, not only in metro Atlanta, but also across the country. A couple of smart phone apps, Uber and Lyft, have revolutionized the transportation industry, and in the case of Uber, have brought the black towncar experience within reach of the common middle-class individual.
Municipalities and state legislatures mostly seem to be in a sluggish, reactionary state to technology advances.
Transit agencies and others in the transportation industry ought take heed to how swiftly the marketplace can fulfill a consumer need.
The mode we choose to get from point A to point B is increasingly dependent on user experience – a point painstakingly made by Georgia Sen. Brandon Beach by his three-and-a-half-hour, transit-dependent trip from Kennesaw in Cobb County to Gwinnett County.
For the second year in a row, TransportationCamp showed there is a clear interest and capacity from the public to have access to data points collected by transportation agencies, improve data collection, decipher the data and deliver an outcome that will improve the user experience.
A few Georgia Tech students are working with Cobb County to develop a mobile app to help visitors navigate the forthcoming new Braves Stadium and development. Soon they will present a product to senior level Cobb leaders with the intent for a further pitch to the Braves. The user experience, powered by data, should be relatively smooth for patrons of the new stadium and surrounding development.
Yes, data is the bright light throughout the trip life cycle. However, regardless of how easy technology developers make it to determine how to get from one area of the region to the next, the reality is that we are still left with gaping holes in our regional connectivity.
The desire for transportation and infrastructure investment was evident amongst the conference attendees; nearly all were Gen X and Y.
While we may struggle with how to fund these necessary investments, we truly cannot continue to kick the transportation can down the road. A shift in political will is long overdue. And we have to stop penalizing elected officials when they show a modicum of leadership on these kinds of issues. In fact, we should rebuke remarks that are purely red meat with no substantive input.
Look no further than a recent debate between House Speaker David Ralston and his opponent, Sam Snider. Part of Snider’s rhetoric towards Ralston included this tidbit: “It is my understanding that he [Ralston] has a MARTA card, and that what’s good for Atlanta is good for Georgia.”
Mr. Snider, I encourage you to take a MARTA trip starting at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Pay attention to the number of diverse riders boarding at that station. Note how many you see wearing TSA, airline or other airport-related uniforms. As the train moves further north, get off at Peachtree Center, Midtown or Buckhead stations and take note of the thousands of employees that have access to transit. Talk to the transportation management associations that serve Perimeter, Cumberland and the Clifton Corridor. Ask the Georgia Department of Transportation to show you a traffic model assuming there are zero transit options in the metro area.
Red meat politics has no place in infrastructure and future-building conversations.
I suspect we will soon reaching a tipping point in which the public, both dependent and choice transit users, will campaign their elected officials and ask for improved transportation access. They may even ask people running for public office to show proof that they have a transit card.
In the interest of full disclosure: Saba Long is a freelance communications professional who currently is working for MARTA and other organizations.