Nurturing Our Networks: An Op-Ed

Nurturing Our Networks: An Op-Ed

May 23, 2019  | Patricia G. Hendren, Ph.D.

May 21, 2019

The future of transportation and our role in that future is rapidly changing. Three current forces are converging and helping to shift how we will travel in the future. The expectations and desires of drivers, technological advancements, and funding shortfalls are all pushing us towards major changes in the years ahead.

Our industry needs to adapt to shifting customer expectations. Across the globe, people have more choices than ever for how best to get to work, school or a friend’s house.  The average age of teenagers applying for a driver’s license continues to get older as cars can be hailed with a few taps on their phones. People’s demand for information about modal options is rising, along with an overall increase of data consumption from devices that seem to do everything from controlling the temperature of our homes to reporting on how many steps we walked that day.  Our phones now have more computing power than what was used to send people to the moon.

Similarly, the pace of technological advancements in transportation is astonishing. The vehicles of today have come a long way from cruise control, and now feature blind spot detection, collision avoidance and even some fancy parallel parking. Autonomous vehicles are not a question of “if” but “when” and ramp metering seems like quaint infrastructure technology when faced with traffic signal coordination across large metropolitan areas.  A Morgan Stanley analysis stated that it took Toyota more than 70 years to become a 250-billion-dollar company and predicted it will take less than seven years for a ride-sharing company to equal in size. The intersection of these two changes, customers and technology, is a new dynamic for transportation.

As our customers’ demands and technology advancement are converging and interacting in new and exciting ways, transportation funding has been left out in the cold. That is why the I-95 Corridor Coalition is working at the local, state, and national levels to understand what may come next in how we fund investments in transportation. Can we collect fees based on how much a roadway was used rather than how much gasoline was purchased? How will people react to viewing transportation more like a utility? What logistical and privacy issues will need to be addressed? Tackling these and other similar technical and policy questions must be based on listening and responding to the driving public—both passenger vehicles and motor carriers.

What can help guide us during the time of unprecedented change? Our network. No, not the network of roads and bridges (although we know those are key), but our network of transportation professionals. Throughout my career, it has been the connections I have made that have most informed how I see and understand the critical issues facing our work. Each class in school, program like the Eno Future Leaders Development, or conference session is an opportunity to connect with people who bring varying perspectives to these challenges. Understanding what the future may hold requires different voices from varied backgrounds. I was reminded over the weekend driving out of the city that even in a densely populated state like Maryland, there are many areas where there is no GPS, limited mobility choices, and dependence on vehicles that burn through a lot of fuel. Addressing the needs of both rural and urban communities is essential and will challenge our profession.

During this season of graduations, we are reminded that the foundation of our knowledge is often born out of books and hard work. But those best prepared to embrace the opportunities the future presents are not necessarily the smartest among us. They are more likely to be the ones who build trust by cultivating and valuing their relationships and expanding their outreach. This is not easy. It takes work and thoughtful purpose. My challenge to you is to reach out to those who don’t agree with you and hone the skills to listen to them so that your ideas get better and the solutions get stronger. Reflect on how your thoughts turn into viable answers through the path of colleagues, neighbors, relatives, naysayers, and supporters.

The strength of our field is you, the professionals dedicated to creating connections.  To creating opportunities. This is truly an exciting time to be in transportation. As our customers, technology and funding are being transformed, into a future we can define together. Let our human networks be a source of strength and inspiration through these rapidly changing times.

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