What does the future transportation system look like? The digital age of innovative infrastructure is here and now.

The U.S. transportation system has evolved from paved roads and concrete bridges to sensors, data, software, and algorithms. With advances and rapid deployments in automation, connected technologies, mobility on demand, and sustainable and resilient technologies, a future of transportation – the digital infrastructure age – uses technology and innovation to advance future mobility that is safer, greener, smarter, and provides more opportunities for all.

This new era links the physical world to a digital layer, allowing us to communicate, share, store, analyze, and use information in real-time to save lives, provide faster emergency response, help mitigate impacts of extreme weather, improve resiliency, reduce emissions, enhance mobility, and distribute services equitably. Digital infrastructure is the operating system for the future of mobility.

Last month, we hosted an event that brought together stakeholders from agencies around the country, leaders in intelligent transportation and technology, and advocates for safe, sustainable transportation to talk about the future of mobility. Here’s what we discussed:

Where are we now?

Tech is the future of transportation – USDOT’s Intelligent Transportation System Joint Programs Office celebrated its 30th birthday this year and reflected on our collective history to help us look to the future. We’ve learned to evaluate our programs and train our amazing professionals to harness this future, as visioned by USDOT’s Innovation Principles. As Managing Director Egan Smith noted, “We need purpose-driven innovation that is data-driven and evidence-based.” That innovation must put people and communities first, as evidenced in ITS America’s Inclusive Principles for Future Mobility, because “it’s about the user, addressing their needs, and how we can help the transportation system run smoothly.”

Trends show we have fundamentally transformed into the ‘digital infrastructure age’ – The question isn’t whether we’re ready to modernize transportation, but how we make it easier. “Making it people-centric is key,” notes Rahul Gupta, Accenture’s Managing Director – Consulting, Cities, Transport and Infrastructure, North America. Accenture predicts that by 2026, investing in climate technology will present a 6:1 return on investment, whereas investment in digital infrastructure shows a 4:1 ROI.

Tech works, it saves lives, and it’s the best return on investment we have – Humans can’t see through walls. Drivers get distracted. Communities are hesitant to reimagine roads without strong data. These challenges have been overcome by ITS America members like Velodyne, NYC DOT, Pennsylvania DOT, Rekor, and Lacuna. Velodyne’s LiDAR can predict walkers and cyclists around buildings that human drivers can’t see and it shows public agencies gaps in their systems – it is using technology to make better design decisions.

Tech leads to real outcomes we can scale! — New York City has invested close to $1B in digital infrastructure. Using ITS bus telematics, it manages transit signals to give priority to buses, resulting in 5-14% more efficient bus speeds to move people more effectively. This data helped to convert lanes for buses, increasing ridership by 14% and reducing injuries. Incredibly, NYC used ITS data and sensors to make the business case to convert a lane on the Brooklyn Bridge to a bike and pedestrian path, increasing walking by an overwhelming 80% without impacting traffic into and out of the largest city in the country. This information was invaluable – it allowed the city to make decisions based on real-time data instead of relying on older pedestrian trends. Pittsburgh’s autonomy sector employs more than 6,300 people, creates $651M in income, and raises $34.7M in state and local tax revenues and $126.7M in federal tax revenue. The city’s AV economy alone generated an additional 8,604 full or part-time indirect jobs. ITS pays and advances economic prosperity.

‘We don’t have a data problem; we have an insights problem’ – As Rekor CEO David Desharnais noted, a coffee cup contains 1 gig of data. 2022 will create 175 zettabytes (that’s a lot of coffee). What do we do with this data? Using Rekor’s connected vehicle data and powerful AI system in Nevada, the company detected 43% of crashes faster than 911, reduced crashes by 18%, reduced speeding by 43%, and decreased emergency response time by 9-12 minutes! When every minute saves lives, the tech becomes incredibly important to approaching Vision Zero.

Tech investments provide excellent ROI – Investing in concrete or pavement to build a road or bridge benefits only one community, but investing in technology innovation benefits all. Code is the new concrete. In Utah, FlowLabs showed that every dollar invested in technology like connected signals offers a $413 return on investment. A 413:1 ROI and accurate performance measures show a scalable way to digitize transportation from an analog world.

Where do we go from here?

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity. — Gupta noted, “We’re building for the 22nd century for the AI and data world where it’s data, intelligence, and knowledge.” Digital infrastructure is a powerful multiplier and “the time is now for cities to evolve”. The new future of smart and innovative mobility is about user experience defined by community needs, integrated and seamless interactions, and providing real-time information through digital twinning.

We need to orchestrate a new public-private tech ecosystem — Solutions are no longer being built solely by the private sector; the public sector wants to partner to co-create solutions. Public leaders must shift to more agile, nimble processes to allow us to fail and learn, and move forward together. This also requires private equity and capital to seed fund our investments for our future infrastructure, because even with the IIJA, the current infrastructure funding gap is $1.5T.

We need to make it easier for cities to benefit – By 2027, this sector offers over $2B in economic opportunity for communities. There are nearly 20,000 cities and towns across the country, but it’s unrealistic to expect companies innovating these solutions to work in 20,000 different ways. But, with innovative models like the Open Mobility Foundation’s mobility data specification, these open-source (e.g., non-trade secret and non-proprietary) digital infrastructure platforms allow cities to manage their communities in partnership with industry. Mobility specifications are simple, free software code that allows communities to understand where rideshares, scooters, and other mobility services are, which allows them to then manage how they want to work with these vendors.

Democratize tech to make it simpler and more accessible – “Bring the power of poetry and art in a way that’s accessible.”- Google’s Monali Shah. As poet Amanda Gorman notes, we need to welcome all to conversations to think creatively and artistically about the future. In the tech and innovation sectors, we use terms like data, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning – but that’s intimidating. Let’s democratize the use of tech to make it simple and accessible.

We need a license to innovate – In America, we don’t holistically track near-miss crashes. By using connected vehicle data and automation, Detroit found that 33 of 37 crashes in its downtown area could have been prevented. “It’s not just about investing in tech, it’s about proactive engineering,” as Michigan DOT Director Paul Ajegba notes.

Let’s stop talking about the 21st century and start talking about the 22nd century. We’re a quarter of the way through it and already two generations have been born. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has an innovation lab – the Go! Mobility Lab – to help public agencies work within and around existing laws to innovate. Tech is just as important as concrete and steel in our transportation system.

So, what’s the answer? Digital infrastructure.

Digital infrastructure democratizes transportation. With the advent of mobility technology, the private sector disrupted transportation with ridesharing companies and micro-mobility. Smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity in the palms of our hands suddenly opened the door for companies to offer transportation services directly to consumers. Mobility shifted to the private sector, and this led to private companies using public spaces – like curbs, sidewalks, and streets – in ways we never imagined, leading to unsafe, unsustainable, inequitable outcomes. Companies optimize for individual efficiency, not collective societal goals. Los Angeles has the worst air quality in the country despite California purchasing half of the EVs in the United States; cities like Los Angeles began to think about what the future would look like. And while in the physical world we have broad agreement about what’s public and what’s private, we don’t have a clear consensus in the digital world. The Open Mobility Foundation developed data specifications for mobility technology – the transportation ‘metaverse’ in a digital world. The mobility data specifications help more than 140 cities address the unintended outcomes of tech, helping them manage their communities with simple tech that re-mobilizes transportation to drive community goals.

It’s going to take new and innovative ways to move us all forward. Conversations across our industries, with all kinds of stakeholders, will help us build the future we all want – a safer, greener, and smarter future for all.

Kristin White is ITS America’s Chief Operating Officer

Kristin White, J.D.