One of the reasons I find calls for increased infrastructure investment so depressing is that we are on the cusp of major system-level breakthroughs in transport. The obvious reason to roll your eyes at infrastructure investment as panacea is that the United States is notoriously bad at transforming infrastructure dollars into financially productive infrastructure assets. The less obvious one is that the advent of self-driving vehicles and larger mobility-on-demand systems suggests that what we really need to do is rebuild our infrastructure for an era in which we’re able to deploy existing capital assets more efficiently, thanks to more advanced road pricing tools that can allow for variable pricing to help direct the flow of traffic and sharing economy tools that will allow for more efficient use of vehicles. In 2012, Josh Barro observed that the cost of roads represents a subset of the larger cost of driving:
That total cost includes not only public spending on roads but also a host of private purchases—of cars themselves, maintenance, gas, and insurance. The total cost of driving also includes public and private expenditures on parking. To get an apples-to-apples comparison with transit, you have to include all these costs. We’ve grown accustomed to a system in which transit agencies buy many items for straphangers that drivers buy for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore those items when you’re comparing the total costs of the two modes of transportation.
It follows that if, as Barro reports, $1.08 trillion was spent on road travel in 2008 of which the public sector accounted for $181 billion, developments that greatly reduce private sector expenditures associated with owning and operating automobiles without compromising mobility are actually enormously important. Tyler Cowen points us to a new effort in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, to transform public transportation:
Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here.
Moves in this direction in the U.S. will, I suspect, have to work around traditional mass transit agencies, which tend to resist cooperation with private sector paratransit services. The new Helsinki scheme brings to mind the “jobs-to-be-done” framework, popularized by the management theorist Clayton Christensen:
Customers rarely make buying decisions around what the “average” customer in their category may do — but they often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve. With an understanding of the “job” for which customers find themselves “hiring” a product or service, companies can more accurately develop and market products well-tailored to what customers are already trying to do.
What exactly is the “job” that we hire a mass transit agency or an automobile or Uber to do for us? If the job is to have a perfectly private ride during which the wind is blowing in your hair and you’re left without distractions, a private automobile, preferably a fast convertible, is your best bet. If it is to get from Point A to Point B as cheaply as possible, other options might suit your purposes just as well. Transportation planners who fixate on, say, high-speed rail neglect the possibility that virtual “trains” of self-driving vehicles might be a better, more cost-effective way of achieving their goals.