Anthony Foxx, Robert Moses, and the Future of Mobility
May 19, 2017
“I just read the Power Broker,” former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told a packed room in Washington. “And I want to be the 21st Century’s Robert Moses who can figure out how to untangle the web of things that connect us.”
The audience at The Atlantic’s event for Infrastructure Week rustled uncomfortably as Foxx smiled knowingly. “He did some good and bad things,” he conceded, peering across the crowd. Nevertheless, he said, Moses’ ability to untangle the complex web of relationships and connect people was a valuable model.
In the decades since Moses dominated the landscape of transportation in New York City, his controversial legacy has turned his name into a curse word amongst transportation and urban planners. (Ed. Note: Robert Moses opposed the creation of a U.S. Department of Transportation, saying that “No possible advantage to the public can be secured by attempting to consolidate Federal planning and supervision in [different modes] merely because they are both forms of transportation.” And ETW found Moses’ secret plan for covering America with toll roads in the Eisenhower Library – read it here.)
During his tenure, Foxx took a proactive approach to incorporating new transportation technologies into the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) long-range plan for mobility in this century. The former secretary is a product of his time – a visionary who saw the tremendous potential in the rapidly developing technologies supporting automated and connected vehicles, drones, and data-driven planning.
This culminated in Beyond Traffic 2045, Foxx’s tour de force and USDOT’s final report that presented a framework for eliminating the 42 hours that Americans lose every year to roadway congestion and the 35,000 lives lost to traffic-related incidents annually.
It was therefore fitting that Foxx made his bold proclamation at an event titled Mapping the Future of Mobility, which was hosted by The Atlantic and underwritten by the tech behemoth Uber. His speech was the capstone of a morning of presentations discussing the changing roles of local, state, and federal government entities as the private sector continues to redefine mobility as a service rather than a product that is bought and sold.
Earlier that morning, Linda Bailey, Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, discussed how transportation network companies (TNCs) like Lyft and Uber have helped to lower the cost of mobility – providing urban consumers with a price point that lands between the costs of taxis and public transit.
“If you told us when we started several years ago we’d be discussing infrastructure today, we might not believe it,” said Andrew Salzberg, Global Mobility Lead for Uber.
The benefits of TNCs extend well beyond cost, said Salzberg. He noted that cars are left idle 97 percent of the time and, moreover, a significant part of the build environment is dedicated to parking. He noted that, while the precise number is unknown, estimates suggest there are somewhere between 500 million to 2 billion parking spaces for the 260 million registered vehicles in the U.S. This amounts to $10 trillion spent on parking infrastructure nationally – an amount that could be significantly reduced if Americans embrace ridesharing, adopt autonomous vehicles, and seek out other forms of transportation beyond driving and parking cars alone.
Salzberg argued that a marginal increase in average vehicle occupancy from the current 1.08 people per car to 1.2 people per car would yield $9 billion in savings while reducing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
But innovation for the sake of innovation is not enough, indicated Gabe Klein, Co-Founder of CityFi. “We get so focused on technology that we forget about people,” he said. Klein said that a better approach is to examine both the benefits and negative effects of new technologies on people when solving problems, citing a recent CNN Money article that discussed how electric and connected bikes “will eat cars” if consumers opt for them.
“Technology and transportation should serve the city, and not the other way around,” said Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Yet she argued that the relationship “seems to be going the other way” as cities eagerly open their doors to tech firms with their own plans for developing new technologies and services.
Instead, Reynolds suggested that cities should look to harness innovation to benefit their entire populations. “Transportation has a tremendous amount to do with equity” by providing access to jobs, opportunities to participate in the gig economy, and allowing people to travel more easily.
Foxx echoed these concerns in his keynote speech, insisting that transportation should be thought of as the “connective tissue” for a country as large and diverse as the United States. The U.S. must move beyond traditional approaches to transportation funding and projects, Foxx said, suggesting that all levels of government should be prepared to adapt to diminishing public investments and new technologies.
“Putting a road in some place isn’t going to create a job necessarily beyond the job to build the road,” Foxx cautioned. Instead, roads should be built with the certainty that they will provide people with the opportunity to access jobs, visit with their families and friends, and enjoy the ability to travel across their own country.
Foxx concluded that he is still undecided on the next step in his career and is actively looking for a new job where he could have the largest positive impact.
“I think Robert Moses would turn over in his grave if he knew I wanted to be the new Robert Moses,” Foxx laughed.