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How Our Data Will Help Revolutionize Transportation For Good

Evan Burfield

Cofounder & CEO, 1776

I rely on my smartphone constantly, whether I’m on campus at 1776 in D.C. or traveling abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Almost anywhere I travel, I can use a startup-built platform to help me get where I need to go.

Of course, an app that can seamlessly call a cab is only the beginning. As the world’s population continues to urbanize, innovations will reinvent the way people get around thanks to a major, data-driven transportation revolution.

It didn’t used to be this way. Traditionally, local and state governments conducted long-range planning studies on how people were going to get around places. Based on their findings, contractors then built giant fixed infrastructure. It existed and this was the way you went someplace. You had fixed modes of transportation: cars, or various forms of public transit.

That was the old-school, fixed-infrastructure way of solving these problems. Now, though, we’re experiencing a generational and structural shift back from the suburbs toward cities. According to the United Nations, half the world’s population already lives in cities—and that percentage is only expected to increase.

In an economic era that prizes creativity and collaboration, urban city centers are hugely valuable: There’s benefit to society when people live close to each other. Yet, many of these cities already face a fixed amount of space to build infrastructure. Our future transportation solution won’t be to build more roads.

City dwellers increasingly are approaching their commutes with super-lightweight solutions. Myriad opportunities empower them to make smarter decisions—and tradeoffs—when it comes to how they get around cities.

How? Data.

Every new mode of transportation has its own particular flavor of getting around cities and regions, but they’re all generating data—massive amounts of it. Now, each rented bike reports back to a bike-sharing system when it’s checked in and when it’s checked out. Shared-car companies know where each member of their fleet is at any given time.

Even more impressive: Each of our phones reports our locations back through Google Maps at any given point; as a result, Google and Apple are able to tell us about traffic flows. Every one of us is a sensor—and our data are blowing up transportation.

The problem is, cities aren’t ready for us yet. Cities are used to doing five-year studies on 30-year projections. Suddenly they can have access to massive amounts of real-time granular data. They’re not equipped to use this to make our existing infrastructure much smarter and more responsive.

Cities face a second challenge as well: It’s easier to get government money to build more roads and highways than it is to get funds for more bike lanes. Unfortunately, federal transportation policy is still stuck in a big infrastructure world, but that’s not the way transportation innovation has been oriented for quite a while.

Policymakers are still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that we don’t need more highways connecting up our suburbs. As a result, cities and the federal government alike face entrenched inertia around existing funding formulas.

These challenges are about to become even more significant as transportation innovation takes new forms. While city regulatory bodies are still trying to come to grips to dynamic ride sharing, autonomous vehicles already generating discussion among entrepreneurs who want to capitalize on opportunities they see for entirely new software. In just a few years, electric and hydrogen refueling will reshape the way we think about travel, and drones will take our concept of “roadways” to an entirely new dimension—literally.

It’s up to policymakers to  overcome inertia, and catch up on the conversations that startups and entrepreneurs are already having: What do you do with sensor-enabled cars? What about drone delivery? How do all these modes share data with dynamic infrastructure and with citizens? Those are complete game-changers—and they’re coming soon.

Much of the data about transportation innovations will be provided by startups that are thinking of entirely new ways to interpret existing information. They’re asking the right questions: How do you help people to more effectively use the modes of transportation available to them?

As they come up with the answers, one thing becomes clear: This vision of cities as highly interconnected meshes of devices that communicate with each other to help people get where they need to go isn’t a pipe dream. It’s here.

Evan Burfield

Cofounder & CEO, 1776

Evan Burfield is an entrepreneur, investor, successful author and regulatory hacker. He is the founder of four companies including 1776 and has helped build startup ecosystems on six continents (and…