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A roadmap for America’s transportation future

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Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx talks high-tech cars and infrastructure as a vehicle for equality

At the beginning of the Obama administration, it would have seemed fantastical to think the Department of Transportation (DOT), an agency popularly known for highways, would be navigating the tricky world of robot driving regulations or trying to invest in the future of urban technology. But with the rapidly evolving worlds of smart city technology and automated vehicles poised to reshape the urban landscape, the DOT has made it a point to help guide the conversation about how we make these technologies benefit everyone.

A big part of that effort to help realize a more efficient and evolved transportation system is due to the leadership of DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. Since being confirmed in 2013, Foxx has kickstarted progressive programs and embraced shifting technology, in addition to helping get the FAST Act, the first long-term transport bill in a decade, passed.

The Smart City Challenge provided seed money for American cities to test and develop next-generation safety and transportation systems, and while Columbus, Ohio, ultimately won, numerous cities have used the momentum created by the contest to develop smart sensors and advanced transportation networks. The Build America Bureau will streamline the process of creating public-private partnerships for new infrastructure investments. A proposed policy for automated vehicles will help shape and guide how this paradigm-shifting technology is introduced to American roadways.

“We’ve tried to build a new architecture for American transportation, and make it more relevant to today’s socioeconomic context,” says Secretary Foxx.

Curbed spoke to Secretary Foxx about his vision for the future, how he sees the country’s transportation technology and infrastructure changing and evolving, and why, no matter how technologically advanced things get, “you need to account for the human being.”

Choose inclusive transportation

“We’re awakening to the idea that the transportation system is involved in the larger story of America’s socio-economic inclusiveness. Transportation systems are built around societal attitudes of the day. In the 1950’s, when the highway system was being developed, socio-economic inclusion wasn’t on the top of the list of priorities. We’re paying a heavy price for that now, because we have areas that are suffering from the impacts of spatial discrimination. As we try and fix those challenges one project at a time, we now have opportunities, with new projects and technology, to build transportation infrastructure that does better, that shows that these communities matter and that economic mobility is important. That’s part of the challenge of the 21st century.”

“I’m very optimistic that in the 21st century, we’ll choose more inclusive transportation. As new technologies become available in transportation, we’ll think more about access points. The thought most people have about driverless cars in that the mobile phone or smartphone will be the connector. But what if someone doesn’t have a smartphone, or a debit card or credit card to access and pay for that technology? These are the kind of questions our Smart City Challenge posed to cities, and they came with some very interesting workarounds to help those who aren’t able to access the technology.”

“It’s remarkable to me sometimes to think how much previous decision-making solidified a kind of divisiveness that we’ve outgrown as a nation. The vestiges are still there, and as we bring them down project by project, the question is what replaces them. Hopefully, what arises are projects that say, ‘no matter where you live, your community is important, and that we’re going to support economic regeneration of your community.’”

Uber Self-Driving Car
Uber employees test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Pittsburgh.
AP Photo/Jared Wickerham

Automated vehicles can make transportation better for all Americans

“Driverless cars have great potential to dramatically improve our safety, and the ability of the individual to utilize their time differently than we do today. At the end of the day, we’re talking about the capability to save time, which we currently spend parking our cars and driving. Much of those processes can be automated, and we may be talking about a future where we’re buying trips instead of owning a car. I think that dramatically improves mobility. And for those who are disabled or elderly, it opens up an entirely new world of opportunity to get around and thrive.”

New infrastructure should look forward

“We need to be less nostalgic as a country. We have the most elaborate highway system in the world. We have the most complex aviation environment in the world. And there’s so much good infrastructure that we inherited. But going forward, we have to be clear-eyed and unemotional about how we invest the dollars, time, and policy in a stronger and more efficient transportation system. About 90 percent of the discussion in Congress about transportation is about how to pay for it. If that’s how the discussion works next time, the United States will miss the boat.”

“I’ve said this from the very beginning of my tenure: We need to go where the data tells us. America is becoming more urbanized, travel times are going up, frustration is going up, and our policy is stuck in 1956. We need to have a ground-up model and force transportation policy to prove itself worthy of funding. I think that’ll lead us to rethinking the 80/20 split in the highway trust fund (a majority goes toward highways, and the rest towards mass transit), to rethink whether the states are the only repositories of federal highway trust fund dollars, and whether there should be a broader split between regional and even local governments, to get done what the American people need us to do. I think there’s a lot of thinking about policy that needs to happen.”

Sustainability comes from smart city planning

“There are so many dimensions of autonomous vehicles that need to be understood. For instance, driverless cars may have the potential to increase sprawl. One of the things our Smart City Challenge will help us understand is how can a city, armed with the possibilities of this new technology, can best use it. How is land use and transportation related? How does individual mobility connect mass transit, biking, and walking? All of these things have incredible environmental implications. One of the ideas behind the Smart City Challenge was to figure out how these cities would meet these challenges, with sustainability as an important goal.”

Prepare for a rapidly changing future, don’t try to predict it

“Look, we don’t know exactly when the driverless car surge is going to hit. It could be 10-15 years from now, or it could be much sooner. I’ll tell you when I came on board, nobody thought the driverless car was going to get any attention for at least another decade or so. I’d be careful about predicting. I told my department that when someone will figure out a way to get driverless cars on the road, we need to have figured out a framework for how we’re going to approach the technology. The new automated vehicle policy framework gives the first indication of how the federal government will greet this technology.”