Don’t Count on the Government for a Quicker Commute

Question: Where do you see intelligent transport systems fitting in?

Michael Schrage:  Well, they already are.  The issue about intelligent systems is almost like the question associated with governance, which is where do you want the power?  Do you want intelligent transport systems defined by centralization or decentralization?  It's like, do you want to consolidate power in Washington or do you want to distribute it out to the states, to the cities, to the individual people?  Are we going to end up with more efficient and more effective transport systems by giving people who are traveling more intelligence?  Or by giving the highway engineers or the tollbooths or the city center people more intelligence and control?  Again, that's a political question, that's not a technology question.  So I'm going to circle back to the way I began this, which is the real battle that we're going to have, the technology is incidental to the politics, to the aspiration.

Question: What role should the government have when it comes to transportation issues?

Michael Schrage:  Yes, I think the federal government should buy up, in addition to buying up the automobile companies, it should buy up the cities—no.  I am not a government person.  I'm more of a libertarian kind of guy.  I believe that the role of the federal government should be to facilitate opportunity and choice for people who wish to travel.  And the real challenge that the federal government in that kind of context has is, who do we subsidize, who do we tax?  Do we really want to penalize motorists in favor of subsidizing people who take light rail?  Or more public forms of transport?  Or can you make the roads, the cars, more environmentally effective, improve through-put, improve efficiencies, have the right kind of congestion in a manner in which you have an economic balance?  You strike a balance that the commuters are comfortable commuting and the people taking busses and trains are comfortable.

And that leaves out other variables, which is perhaps one of the roles of local government is to facilitate carpooling kind of arrangements, where we didn't have mobile devices a few years back.  What kind of self-organization can there be for the future of carpooling?  For the future of group travel?  I haven't a clue, but I'll tell you this--neither does anybody in the government.

Question: Should we copy London’s congestion pricing system? 

Michael Schrage:  I think London is an excellent example, as is Stockholm, of how not to do congestion pricing.  It is the laziest, most punitive form of taxation, regressive taxation, around.  It's operating, it's doing arthroscopic surgery with a machete instead of a laser beam.  I think the principal of congestion pricing, the principal of pricing for managing congestion, or access to space, to minimize or smooth peak times, completely logical, completely reasonable, completely rational, and consistent with the fact, you know, of my background in economics and computer science.

However, as is always the case, politics intrude and I think cities have become less interested in congestion pricing for improving the quality of life or improving the quality of traffic than as a means to raise revenue.  So I'm afraid we've come full circle back to the pathology of politics.

Question: What are some tangible examples of people working on very promising advancements?

Michael Schrage:  I'll take the path of least resistance, the easiest examples of incrementalism come right out of Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law, that is to say leveraging our enormously effective investments in digital media, virtually every car coming off the line, be it in Japan or Europe or in America, comes with a GPS system.  But you know, if you don't have a GPS in your car, you probably have one on your phone, so you can have GPS for a bike. 

I remember flying into Sydney, Australia, and there was a taxi driver, based on my interactions with him, I'd been in the country longer than he had, but he was using the GPS to navigate Sydney. He was a recent immigrant.  In theory, there is no reason for anyone to be lost.  In fact, not only is there no reason for anyone to be lost, there's no reason for anyone not to have the most efficient route to where they're going, to budget their time better and accordingly.  When you put that power of being to do route planning and time management in every single car, every single bike, every single bus, you would think that we're going to end up with not just incremental improvements and congestion, but disruptive, dramatic improvements.  People can make more intelligent decisions based on better quality of information.

But wait!  It gets better!  Once we start putting sensors on the roads and link them to the traffic lights, we can now create a different kind of an ecosystem where we can further improve efficiencies.  So these things can all build on one another.  Unfortunately, I am not clever enough to figure out what the ultimate impact is of these very complex interactions, but my bet is that that's where real innovation is going to come from.  Not just from discrete breakthroughs in technology, but from the interoperability of those breakthroughs.

Recorded on January 22, 2010

The role of the federal government should be to facilitate opportunity and choice for people who wish to travel.

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