Momentum: Issue #43

April 13, 2020


By Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO, ITS America

People are consumed – understandably – with the question of when our lives will get back to normal.

We have experienced world-changing events – we have lived through some, our parents and grandparents lived through others. As difficult as it is to see it now, life-altering events often bring about positive outcomes. In 1919, a young Dwight Eisenhower was part of a convoy that drove from Washington, DC to San Francisco. The trip, which took 62 days, is said to be a key reason he pushed for a nationwide system of paved roads. After World War II, despite the negative impact on many urban neighborhoods, the U. S. Interstate System opened up an unrivaled century of prosperity that connected people across the country to jobs and services in a way that could not have previously been imagined.

As we grapple with this global pandemic, we are anxious to get back to normal – but we’re beginning to understand life won’t be the same as it was before. This new normal will include massive increases in remote work, a significant shift to online shopping, and an increased focus on the resiliency of freight systems.

What will be the post COVID-19 era innovative equivalent of the interstate system? We have an opportunity now to help shape what the new normal will look like by making smart investment choices that can have a positive impact on mobility and commuting patterns in the United States. In addition to strengthening the 20th century interstate, we must also build the critical network for 21st century mobility.

At ITS America, we talk about safely moving people, data and freight. Right now, what this pandemic has shown us is that while we don’t want people to move, it is vitally important that data and freight move seamlessly. What are the infrastructure and technology investments, whether that is autonomous freight movement or deployment of broadband to increase connectivity in rural areas, that we can make now to ensure that when the threat subsides, people, data and freight are being moved in the most effective, efficient way.

First, we need to use big data to understand what the system looked like before COVID-19, what it looks like now, and what it can look like after. For example, we know transit ridership is way down – how do we pair that data with the increased use of telework software to determine how much work can be done remotely and then use that information to better model transportation mobility options and ultimately invest in those systems?  

When the economy is in trouble, infrastructure is a smart investment due to its multiplier effect – it puts people back to work, increases the demand for materials, and stimulates local economies where workers spend time at project sites. In addition to these benefits, we end up with a stronger, more resilient transportation system.  

Finally, we should be analyzing how our ability to manufacture, transport and consume goods is shifting. Freight systems are the backbone of keeping people fed across the country during a crisis. How do we couple the hard work of U.S. truckers with technology improvements such as autonomous distribution systems to better ensure we can move critical freight without putting lives at risk?

A quick topical note related to the autonomous movement of critical goods – to minimize human exposure, the Mayo Clinic (in partnership with ITS America member Jacksonville Transportation Authority) has been using autonomous shuttles in Florida to move COVID-19 tests and medical equipment from its drive-through testing sites to a lab facility. 

Later this month, we will launch “Between Two Futures – How We Map Toward Safer, Greener, Smarter Transportation,” a series of online conversations with industry thought leaders to look at the impact of COVID-19 on transportation – Mobility on Demand, freight movement, automation and connectivity, big data, cybersecurity, equity and accessibility, and sustainability. Seleta Reynolds, head of Los Angeles DOT and ITS America board member, will help us kick it off to discuss how COVID-19 transforms a large-city DOT and what that will mean once the crisis subsides.

From ITS America’s perspective, we want to ensure that whenever we arrive on the other side, the new normal doesn’t include the negative outcomes that defined the pre COVID-19 America: 37,000 roadway fatalities each year; 100 or more hours sitting in traffic congestion every year; and the transportation sector being responsible for 28 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In creating this post-COVID-19 roadmap, we have a unique opportunity to make great strides toward our vision of a better future transformed by intelligent mobility – one that is safer, greener and smarter.