Smart transportation systems need smart governance

Two EPFL researchers have just published a book highlighting the need for cities to adopt adequate governance mechanisms for their transportation systems. That will let them leverage and regulate the potential of modern - i.e., shared, automated, electric and fully integrated - mobility solutions.

We used to talk about means of transportation; now we have transportation systems. Today’s smart systems are built around four pillars: sharing, automation, electric power and integrated mobility. Professor Matthias Finger and PhD student Maxime Audouin, both from the La Poste Chair in Management of Network Industries at EPFL, have published a new book* describing governance mechanisms that can help cities make the most of these changes. We spoke with Audouin about why governance is important.

Why did you decide to study transportation system governance?

Transportation today is largely dominated by personal cars, and that has become counter-productive. Cities are gridlocked with traffic congestion - reflecting a major failure of their transportation systems. New solutions do exist, thanks in large part to advancements in information and communication technology, and they are generally based more on the usage than the ownership of the means of transport. They are paving the way to new kinds of transportation systems and making it possible to transition to a post-car, and potentially more sustainable, world. The transportation industry is being disrupted by four major shifts caused by the development of mobility solutions that are shared, automated, electric and integrated.

Why should cities be so concerned about governance?

Today’s mobility solutions are being driven mainly by the private sector, where the goal is to generate a profit. For instance, Uber wants to have as many customers as possible, which means having more cars on the road and therefore greater traffic congestion. By the same token, a car maker wants to sell as many electric - and perhaps one day driverless - vehicles as possible, but if nothing is done to encourage the sharing of those vehicles, they won’t improve traffic congestion and could even make it worse. So we must look at how cities can regulate these businesses so that they also act in the public interest. Our book gives some ideas, which would help cities realize the full potential of new transportation technology.

Through technology like ride-hailing platforms, such as Uber.

Yes, but policymakers haven’t always had the right responses to these platforms. Many try to make them comply with regulations that were developed for conventional transportation methods. Others just simply close their eyes or try to ban them. But the companies behind these new platforms are highly disruptive and will always find a way to get around the rules. So policymakers would be wise to get one step ahead and start integrating them into existing systems.

So what should cities do?

The longer they wait to adopt new transportation technology, the harder it will be. That doesn’t mean cities should throw out the rule book and consider new technology as the solution to all their transportation problems. Rather, it gives them a chance to improve the current situation. Digital technology can give cities an unprecedented amount of data on how the transportation upstarts operate - this data can be used to develop regulations that help incorporate new platforms into existing systems. Also, it’s essential that policymakers set precise mediumand long-term targets for cutting emissions and reducing traffic congestion. Smart transportation systems can help them reach these targets - but only if the targets exist.

You have identified automation as another pillar of smart transportation systems. How should cities respond to self-driving cars?

Policymakers often forget to include citizens in their decision-making processes. But how can they make laws governing how individuals use self-driving cars if they don’t even consult the individuals in question? Many countries are vying to be the first to have autonomous vehicles on their roads - but, ironically, the percentage of people ready to use such vehicles is much smaller than one might think. Even beyond safety issues, it’s vital for cities to pass regulations encouraging people to share these vehicles. If all conventional cars on the road were replaced with self-driving cars that are neither shared nor electric, traffic conditions would not change - or could even deteriorate.

*The Governance of Smart Transportation Systems, Eds. Matthias Finger and Maxime Audouin, Springer, September 2018.