North Texas and Highway Transportation Innovation
by Thomas J. Bamonte
The North Texas region has a robust highway transportation system that will face real challenges from rapid population and employment growth. Is North Texas positioned to take advantage of emerging transportation and smart cities technologies to address these challenges?
Highway transportation systems have been in a state of relative stability for over a half-century. Our experience on the highway is much like the experience of our grandparents and great grandparents when they were our age. Speeds, travel time reliability and the vehicle carrying capacities of highways haven’t changed materially. You and I still have to physically operate vehicles. This stability in the highway transportation sector contrasts with the upheaval and creativity in other sectors of our economy (e.g., telecommunications), where innovation and change have been the norm.
This period of stability is coming to an end. Even many highway engineers recognize that attempting to build out of congestion with more unpriced highway lanes is a no-win proposition. Induced demand will fill new lanes soon after they are opened. The political unwillingness to raise gas taxes for transportation is driven in part by the public’s unwillingness to spend more on a system that delivers a circa 1965 level of service. Just as consumers have little interest in buying rotary phones, they have little enthusiasm for investing in a highway transportation system that they perceive to be just as outmoded.
Innovation is happening outside of state and local departments of transportation, however. Spurred on by Google, the auto manufacturers (OEMs) and others are building greater levels automation in vehicles. Waze, HERE, Inrix and others harvest vast amounts of traffic data and have created user-friendly trip planning and traffic information tools. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon and startups like the Dallas firm Vinli are creating “smart” vehicles connected to the cloud and able to do a variety of functions through suites of apps. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is pressing forward with connecting vehicles and ultimately vehicles and infrastructure using the Dedicated Short Range Communication (5.9 MHz) radio frequency. After years of skepticism, USDOT is now supporting the transition to highly automated vehicles. Shared mobility firms such as Uber and Lyft are providing consumers with attractive alternatives to personally owning an expensive one-size-fits-all vehicle that sits idle 90 percent of the time (or more).
These efforts are laying the technological and business infrastructure for highly automated vehicles. They promise to increase the carrying capacity of our highways by (i) smoothing traffic flows, (ii) increasing the number of cars that highways can handle by reducing the distance between vehicles because of the relatively fast electronic reaction times and (iii) raising the average vehicle occupancy rate through car pooling and van pooling via shared mobility services such as UberPool and Lyft Line. Higher speeds may be possible, with greater reliability. The current appalling number of annual deaths (over 30,000) and injuries (over two million) on U.S. roads alone are ripe for reduction. Approximately 90 percent of accidents are due to operator error of some sort. Vehicle automation should cut the accident rate significantly, netting hundreds of billions of dollars in saving annually.
Projected growth in employment and population over the next two decades will put particular stress on North Texas’ highway system. The region’s population is projected to grow from 7 million today to over 11.5 million in 2040. Employment is projected to increase from 4.6 million to 6.7 million over the same period.
North Texas and Highway Transportation Innovation
North Texas is a growing multi-modal transportation hub that some see as eclipsing Chicago as the nation’s premier transportation center in the foreseeable future. As shown in the region’s Mobility 2040 Plan, North Texas’ growth will put a real strain on the region’s transportation system. Is the region positioned to transition from today’s outmoded highway transportation system to one that better serves the region?
Texas has not been a leader in automated vehicle technology. OEMs and a variety of public and private entities in Silicon Valley, Detroit and Virginia have led the way in both vehicle and software development. The Texas legislature reportedly is not supportive of TxDOT innovating in this area, viewing such work as coming at the expense of building more roads—i.e., perpetuating the highway transportation status quo. Leadership will have to come from elsewhere.
Austin is demonstrating such leadership. It is a test bed for Google’s automated vehicles and one of the seven semi-finalists for a $50 million USDOT Smart City grant on the strength of its forward-looking application. The Center for Transportation Research at UT-Austin and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are devoting substantial resources to transportation automation research. Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio is a nationally recognized leader in automated military vehicles.
The North Texas region is not on the automated transportation radar screen at the moment. It does have ten elements that could allow it to advance into a leadership position:
- The weather in the region is generally favorable for deployment of automated vehicles—e.g., little snow.
- The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), the region’s metropolitan planning agency, has worked to get I-30 between Fort Worth and Dallas designated as one of the Texas test beds for transportation technology. NCTCOG appears generally supportive of transportation innovation.
- The Dallas Area Regional Transportation (DART) has shown leadership with its GoPass mobile payment app and its partnership with Lyft to give its customers last mile options. There appears to be growing customer demand for greater integration of transit and highway transportation options so they can put together efficient and cost effective trips, such as a combination of transit and use of a shared vehicle.
- The region has a new 511 system (511DFW) that aggregates traffic information from some of the transportation providers in the region (e.g., DART, TxDOT) but not others (e.g., NTTA). Automated vehicle developers and suppliers of traffic information such as Google Maps say they need reliable and complete information from transportation providers about things such as scheduled lane closures and major events that affect traffic and road safety. The North Texas region would gain a competitive advantage over other regions if its 511 system could aggregate all such data for the region and be the one-stop shop for third parties to access such information. Unlike public transit agencies such as DART, which share operations data with the developer community, some highway authorities still tend to be inclined against sharing their operations data with third parties, another unfortunate relic of an outmoded approach that adversely affects highway users and safety.
- The variable pricing on the growing TEXpress managed lanes network in the DFW region will acclimate the public to the use of pricing as a tool to help manage demand for highway usage. Flat (or no) pricing of roads in congested urban regions is a recipe for causing severe congestion during peak periods, which is unproductive and results in many accidents. Highway authorities managing tolled facilities could offer drivers a variety of pricing plans, just as utilities manage demand by offering their customers plans with significantly higher prices in peak periods and lower prices in off-peak periods. They could also learn from managed lanes by adjusting prices in real time to maintain speeds during peak period at a level that maximizes vehicle throughput (e.g., 50 mph).
- North Texas has established companies working on automotive technologies (e.g., Texas Instruments) and an AT&T IoT Foundry innovation lab that does work on IoT technologies, which could include things such as roadway devices to help support highly automated vehicles.
- Shared mobility providers such as Uber and Lyft are operating successfully in the region without the kind of continued legal and political skirmishing found in other Texas cities. It would be good to encourage them to offer shared ride services (e.g., UberPool; Lyft Line) along crowded corridors in the region modeled after their successful pilots in San Francisco and elsewhere.
- UT-Arlington, with its architecture and urban planning department, and UT-Dallas, with its technology focus, offer complementary strengths to support transportation innovation in the region.
- The DFW startup community has nurtured at least one connected vehicle startup (Vinli) and next generation tolling app (TouchTitans), and could be capable of more.
- Toyota’s relocation of its headquarters to Plano could be the catalyst to transportation innovation in this region.
These ten elements are useful but not sufficient. It will take the concerted effort of those focused on transportation innovation to convince both public and private decision makers in the region of the benefits of transitioning from our highway transportation system status quo to a more automated system that relies on emerging technologies and business practices to deliver more transportation more efficiently, cost-effectively and safely.
Tom Bamonte (@TomBamonte) is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law and focuses his practice on transportation law and policy with an emphasis on automated vehicle/highway technology. He can be reached at ThomasBamonte@gmail.com.