Monday, June 13, 2016

Bike Infrastructure as Disruptive Technology

After reading the excerpts from The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, I immediately thought of the innovation happening in cities across the country. New infrastructure and service needs, alongside evolving consumer preferences, are creating opportunities for disruptive technologies and emerging markets in cities. To cling to the status quo is to risk losing residents and taxpayers (also known as customers and investors) over time.

Transportation infrastructure is one of the biggest opportunities for disruptive technology.
For nearly 100 years, transportation planning has revolved around the car. Sustaining roadway technologies, such as traffic control devices and evolving traffic engineering standards have marginally improved safety and user experience for drivers over time. But as market forces change and a new generation of taxpayers comes of age, cities are racing against the clock to manage disruptive technological and market changes. While looking to the future, city leaders must also justify new technologies to the current customer, which is in many cases perfectly happy with the status quo.

Pittsburgh is investing heavily in bicycle infrastructure. Several market forces signal that this is a good investment: 1) fossil fuels are finite and volatile in price, 2) car parking is limited and expensive, and 3) the Millennial generation is said to appreciate living in cities and having access to multiple modes of transportation. Urban bicycle travel is an emerging market. Though it is still small, it is growing, and cities have the opportunity to get ahead of it. Though we cannot measure the City’s success with profits, we know that bicycle infrastructure is well-liked by young people we want to attract.

But, like a corporation developing a new, disruptive technology, cities have to make the case to existing investors and customers that bike infrastructure is a wise use of funds and space. In Pittsburgh, at least some taxpayers are unhappy with this new bike focus. In a time of scarce resources and low tax revenue, bike lane projects are in direct competition with traditional street paving projects for cars. Plus, bike lanes require a reallocation of roadway space, which in some cases means eliminating a travel lane or some parking spaces.

Much like a private corporation, Pittsburgh could potentially benefit from creating a separate business unit to build out bicycle infrastructure. That business unit could seek out foundation grants and other alternative funding sources to diversify investors in this disruptive technology-- investors who are less worried about competing with existing car-centric infrastructure funding.

Interestingly, the Healthy Ride bike share program took exactly this approach. Though it is essentially a public asset,  it is an entirely separate organization from the City, supported by corporate sponsors. From my perspective, Healthy Ride’s independence has made it more palatable to the car driving public. It is not seen as the reason that potholes are not patched. It is a disruptive technology, the success of which is only measured against itself. In this way, it will have the opportunity to grow and develop over time, without having to compete against car infrastructure for funding.

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