Disrupting Infrastructure Policy - TransitCenter
Governance Innovation Policy
June 3, 2014
Disrupting Infrastructure Policy
Source: Public Space and How We Use It

Source: Public Space and How We Use It

The recent New York Times leak about disruptions to the newspaper business got us excited thinking about the potential of disruptions in transportation policy. How would infrastructure policy discourse incorporate the idea of disruption in policy development and in the vectors that TransitCenter could choose to follow in enacting change? (Conversely, how could we help prevent institutions from becoming disrupted to the point that they lose relevance?)

One example is that of Uber and taxis. Vox’s clear explanation of disruptions got my colleagues and I thinking about the new transportation services that are giving the incumbent operators some unexpected competition. Disruptions are inferior products at first. Yet because many people today prefer using Uber to taxis because the service is more reliable, on-demand, and the ride improved, we initially thought that Uber no longer qualify as an inferior product, and thus wasn’t necessarily a disruptor.

But back in 2008, when the iPhone and the Android wasn’t as ubiquitous, the taxi companies weren’t threatened by these new services at all because using this new service wasn’t much better than simply calling a cab. In fact, one small company I became familiar with, Wheelz (bought in 2011 by RelayRides) had trouble selling their product to the livery services in 2009, although they offered a big potential technological improvement to dial-and-ride services. Instead of selling to livery services, the company struck out on its own and when smartphone adoption took off, the user interface and back-ends were improved (and gas prices rose unexpectedly) that these services torpedoed ahead of livery services. These disruptors didn’t stress out about the “completeness” of their product, knowing that they would constantly iterate and improve.

Around the same time as the New York Times leak, an in-depth report on Yahoo about Vision Zero and the needlessness of pedestrian fatalities due to motor vehicle crashes marked a tide change in our cultural perceptions of no-fault car “accidents.” Transportation advocates for years have known that such fatalities could be prevented by street design changes, but were obstructed by the powerful public perception that traffic deaths were simply a price to pay for driving a car and such changes didn’t merit their cost. This public opinion was buttressed by numerous industry practices carried out by politicians, traffic engineers, and departments of transportation.

Within the article, there was another was a small reference to a report published by advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives (T.A.) back in 2008 (full disclosure, I was the staffer on this report), perhaps another small example of how disruptions in infrastructure policy might work. The report, while rudimentary, offered design recommendations to improve safety on the streets and in fact it targeted the very street on which a recent New York City victim was killed. Mind you, back in 2008, there was no playbook for these suggestions. There was no NYC Street Design Manual or the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Street Design Guide.

Interesting side note, it took a new industry association –NACTO – to step in and help the city transportation agencies from being disrupted. By leading the charge and finding common ways to guide its members to embrace change, rather than reject it, NACTO integrates disruptions for its industry’s benefit.

It’s exciting that non-profit organizations can be disruptors as I think about how TransitCenter can change entrenched cultures.  The focus may not be on products, but on strategic approaches and services. T.A. has certainly iterated its work; it rarely produces street design reports any more, it’s moved on to other issues where it can continue to act as a disruptor, such as public health and safety.

While we as an organization respect the past and know that there are many experts out there that know much that we don’t know, I think that there’s something new – bottom-up, localized, and yes, disruptive – afoot that has the potential to make broad change. In fact, I’m not the only ones thinking in this way: a recent event I participated in at Brookings highlighted such innovations. We’re looking forward to making more disruptions happen.

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