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Tolling Points

Pandemic Opens Opportunity to Rethink, Reboot Transportation

By: 
Bill Cramer

In a long, wide-ranging post for Forbes, San Francisco-based transportation strategist Timothy Papandreou of Emerging Transport Advisors puts forward the provocative argument that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up an opportunity to rethink and reboot the transportation system.

“2020 has started off in nightmarish biblical proportions—droughts, fires, floods and a pandemic virus that has gripped the planet,” he writes. But "in some bizarre turn of events, our future ideal transportation scenario is being placed right in front of us."

Papandreou doesn’t downplay the massive change and uncertainty gripping the transportation sector. But he’s curious about how to learn from the pandemic experience and rethink transportation priorities. With a whole way of life put on pause by the coronavirus, “we’re in the middle of one of the greatest if not most important ‘what if’ transportation scenario experiments in well over a generation,” he says. “This is our moment to use this as an opportunity to futureproof our systems to be more flexible, equitable and resilient.”

Change on the Horizon

It remains to be seen what that future will look like for a transportation system built on the cornerstones of high demand, rising volume, and predictable commuter traffic. With multiple, still largely unforeseeable factors in play, it is far too early to imagine the post-pandemic world. But Papandreou points to some influences that could herald a new role for highways—and by extension, for the tolling agencies that help finance them.

“Our way of life is based on physical interactions, we’re social creatures—it's how we’re built, function and thrive,” he acknowledges. But “I’ve long argued that transportation congestion is not an infrastructure capacity problem, it's a work culture issue. People whose work requires a computer and Internet connection don’t need to go to the office every day. They do so because of outdated work culture and managers who organize their teams based on headcount, seats and desks.”

In normal times—or what we understood as “normal” until two months ago—“when these workers are required to drive to the office they are the root cause of most of the congestion in cities,” he adds. But now, a few weeks into the pandemic, “it seems that the office is not as critical as we thought for managing staff and existing client work. Managers and teams are starting to see how these measures can actually be better for everyone, including the company.”

It doesn’t mean the end of highways or commuting—Papandreou also writes about the essential service jobs that are utterly dependent on physical movement and access. But he notes that even a small-percent decline in traffic would shave much of the urgency off the need for new highway capacity, making scarce funds available for ongoing repairs and maintenance.

And if the net result for many would-be commuters is a better, more relaxed lifestyle, with an added measure of resilience against the next health or climate emergency, it may not be easy to coax former daily highway users back into their cars.

How Cities Use Transit

Papandreou connects highway use back to the life of cities, noting that many of the assumptions we make about transportation demand trace back to past decisions about urban design. He sees the post-pandemic recovery as an opportunity for a redo for countries that went back to business as usual after the last big societal shock—the OPEC oil crises of the 1970s.

“The oil shocks of the 1970s required society to rethink the size and use of cars and their impacts to our cities with a greater push for vehicle efficiency and cleaner fuels,” he writes. “Most countries moved on and went back to the status quo.” But “some, like the Netherlands, used that opportunity to redesign [their] road policies to focus on people, not cars, and prioritized the cheapest, quickest and easiest way to get around their cities and towns—mostly by bicycle linked with local and regional public transit.”

The result: “They have become arguably the greenest and healthiest commuters on the planet while their economy thrived. Many cities will be the first to say we’re not like the Dutch cities, but in fact, most cities are—just the 1970s, pre-shift version.”

None of this means the end of transportation demand, highway use, the daily commute, or the emerging, often very creative connections between tolling and other transportation services and modes. It may well mean a shift in business models, as demand patterns settle out and the dimensions of a new, post-pandemic reality gradually become clear. As IBTTA President Samuel Johnson said in early January, “The reality of ground-breaking technologies, micro transportation services and consumer influence dictate that transportation professionals think differently about the future. The tolling industry, in particular, has to give thought to new payment models, customer changes and its solid business model of delivering and maintaining infrastructure. Balancing these aspects in the new era may push our agencies to broader thinking and participation in the overall success of mobility, with user fees playing a central role.”

As those changes emerge, user financing will have so much to bring to the table: an established financial base, a track record for performance and innovation, a wide network of business relationships, and a proven ability to innovate and adapt to new needs and circumstances. As the conversation shifts from what the future looks like to how to make it work, the question for tolling agencies will not be whether we have a role, but what we can do for you today.

Don’t miss IBTTA’s “State of Transportation and Tolling During the COVID-19 Pandemic” Virtual Press Briefing, live Thursday, May 21 at Noon ET on IBTTA's YouTube page.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 10:00

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