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L.A.'s Testing Ground for Transportation Efficiency

The city is at the forefront of the emerging concept of mobility management.

Forward-focused urban transportation departments are shifting their attention to a concept known as "mobility management," a modern approach that takes advantage of improvements in transportation technology and the explosion of available data. Managing mobility deals with the reality of how people move through urban space.

About 20 years ago, I attempted as mayor of Indianapolis to shift the city's approach to transportation into more of a mobility-management mode. The process failed due to a litany of federal rules, scarce availability of real-time data and few alternatives to traditional bus systems. I tried again in New York City five years ago when bus workers went on strike. I tried to find alternatives to help outer-borough New Yorkers get to their jobs. This process was stymied, at first, because of limited options in the mobility marketplace.

But the recent proliferation of on-demand ridesharing, improved infrastructure for cyclists and new ways of measuring roadway performance have advanced the mobility conversation. A new model of transportation that emphasizes efficiency, citizen experience and the role of the private sector has begun to emerge. Los Angeles — a city notorious for its congested highways and beleaguered public transit system — is proving to be a fertile testing ground.

Los Angeles is anticipating a big population increase, with an accompanying surge in road use and demand for transit, over the next decade. The city is responding by taking on a new posture for transportation, according to Ashley Hand, transportation technology strategist fellow at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "We are looking to make the role of the city that of a balancer, the facilitator of transit services, that ensures there will be equitable distribution and affordable options for community members," she says.

As mobility manager, L.A. is forming partnerships to improve citizen experience in the domain of transportation services. The city has partnered with Google's Waze, for instance, to extract data on where people using the popular navigation app are encountering congestion. A recent pilot with JCDecaux, the outdoor-advertising company, outfitted two of the city's bus shelters with Wi-Fi beacons, phone charging stations and civic information interfaces. And the city just announced a partnership with Xerox for the creation of "Go LA," an app that will collate both public and private transit options.

What's more, GeoHub, the city's new geospatial data visualization platform developed in partnership with Esri, is making its debut by showcasing several traffic projects. One of these, the "High Injury Network," emerges out of a research collaboration between the city and a team of University of Southern California researchers who studied data from the city's police and technology departments. The system maps the city's pedestrian and cyclist fatalities related to traffic events to identify risk factors and potential prevention strategies.

These partnerships are creating a growing awareness of the range of possibilities posed by a city's traffic and population movement data, including more surgical policy interventions and better outcome evaluation. The increasing precision of traffic data analytics has also catalyzed a shift in the city's transportation priorities: Better data, Hand says, is carving out more space for attention to ensuring safety, sustainability and affordability in the personal mobility marketplace.

Hand's role was specifically designed to address longer-term, higher-level issues facing the future of transportation in the L.A. metropolitan area. An architect by training, Hand is tasked with trend analysis and research in such areas as autonomous vehicles and the sharing economy to design a strategy that aims to build the future rather than simply responding to changes that are coming. "By being at the table earlier, we can advocate for our citizens to ensure a balanced approach in technology implementation," she says.

There are plenty of tools on that table. New smartphone apps are enabling better access to inexpensive rideshares. Better bike paths are making it easier for cyclists to navigate urban terrain. And the profusion of data from the burgeoning Internet of Things is bringing urban transportation and technology ecosystems into sync.

These developments present an opportunity to reimagine transportation infrastructure more broadly as the physical and virtual structures that keep a city connected. A forward-thinking local government can locate itself at the center of this hybrid infrastructure by balancing physical assets, data and strategic partnerships.

Craig Campbell, a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed research and writing for this column. This article was originally published on Governing.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as deputy mayor of New York and mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization.