Memo to new UTA leadership: You have a difficult and uncertain job ahead

I earn my living mostly by writing, and it often gets boring sitting in my office staring at my monitor.

So, I’m looking forward to the day when I can call up a fully autonomous electric vehicle and use it as a traveling office. That way when I get tired of the city I will tell my car to drive over the Mirror Lake Highway loop. I will get inspired by nature and enjoy the scenery as I write a column or a briefing paper for a client. I will stop at Trial Lake for lunch, do a little fishing, work as I travel home, and have a very productive day.


So what does this have to do with governance of the Utah Transit Authority?

A lot, actually. We’re staring at a veritable revolution in transportation technology. UTA will need to figure out how to navigate it.  Old transportation systems are going to be disrupted, and only the innovative, fast and flexible will survive. The transportation system of the future will look nothing like today.

Gov. Gary Herbert is going to appoint new UTA leaders later this month. Most observers believe the No. 1 job facing the three-member UTA board will be to restore trust and confidence in the agency after some rocky times.

That is very true, but along with restoring trust, they will immediately confront the impacts of a worldwide transportation revolution. They will have to figure out how to keep public transit relevant, and help reduce congestion on the highways, in a world of ultra-convenient, on demand resources like Uber, Lyft, dockless scooters and e-bikes, autonomous and connected vehicles, and nimble private transportation startups – all as Utah’s population doubles, which means a lot more vehicles on the road.

The Economist magazine recently noted that in many cities across the country and the world, even in the face of population growth, public transit ridership is flat or declining. In Los Angeles, which has invested untold billions in public transit, ridership has dropped by 19 percent in the last five years.

The Economist writer speculates the decline is because of Uber, Lyft, cycling, electric scooters, and cheap cars. Some people think smart transportation entrepreneurs will figure out how to solve our transportation problems, while old, staid public transit will become irrelevant.

A whole segment of critics thinks that costly rail transit, in particular, will become obsolete. The New York Times quoted Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley technology guru, saying, “Infrastructure plans for 2030 are sure to be obsolete.” Frank Chen, with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, says, “Don’t build a light rail system now. Please, please, please don’t.” He worries that transit advocates will lock in the wrong future.

“I expect by 2030, most transit agencies are going to be zombie agencies that exist mainly to collect taxes from people to pay down their debt,” Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, told the Times.

Convenience and cost have always been the holy grail of public transit, and a lot of people think nimble startups will be able to more quickly make transportation more convenient and cheaper than public transit agencies. Shared vehicles that run most of the day instead of sitting in a parking lot will be a lot more cost-effective than today’s model of ownership.

There is a problem, however, in betting against public transit, especially in Utah. First, we are mostly speculating what will happen in the future. No one really knows. Second, a likely outcome of the transportation revolution is going to be more vehicles on the roads.

The example I used about jumping in an autonomous vehicle and cruising around all day is relevant for many reasons. If traveling is cheap and easy, more people are going to do it, for longer periods each day. Instead of meeting at a café, you and your friends might decide to jump in an autonomous car and go cruising somewhere fun while visiting. Elderly and disabled people are suddenly going to become very mobile.

Certainly, autonomous vehicles may be more efficient, allowing more vehicles to be on the roads. But as Utah’s population doubles, and the population becomes more mobile, we’re looking at total gridlock in Utah. We’re not going to double the size of our highways.

Published reports note that highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. That might be quadrupled with all-autonomous vehicles. But the country’s best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour, according to the Times.

Utah planners believe in an all-of-the-above approach, suggesting that public transit will still be needed – and need to be expanded – even as advanced technology transforms transportation.

Most experts agree that one critically needed element will be a common platform tying all forms of transportation together, providing a common interface to purchase tickets or time, schedule rides, check schedules, and find an e-bike or scooter.

With a seamless platform, the new technologies can obviously help UTA solve the first-mile, last-mile problems and make public transit more convenient. Providing that platform could be a job for the UTA, unless a private company gets there faster.

One thing for certain, while a lot of these technologies are speculative, they are coming. The old adage is true: we overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, but we underestimate it in the long term.

All of this is going to be dropped into the laps of the new three-member board appointed by the governor. They will need, more than ever, to collaborate with UDOT and private transportation companies, and be fast and flexible.

Good luck to them, whoever they are.