How The FAST Act Will Bring America’s Transportation Infrastructure Up To Speed

Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, FAST Act for short, is not your ordinary highway funding law. The Act accelerates new innovation and technology, propelling America forward in the process. The US Department of Secretary,Anthony Foxx, has commented how when it comes to transportation infrastructure in America, “for a while, we’ve been wandering into the wilderness.”

The FAST Act along with the current US administration is supporting high tech advancement, which will provide best practices for America and the rest of the world to learn from. The renewed innovative focus puts America in the ring with the innovative countries like Finland, England, and Norway who have audacious goals to design better cities.

The $305 billion funding is the first long-term transportation bill in over a decade, focusing on improving the nation’s roads, bridges, transit systems, passenger rail network and adding more bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. The most interesting aspect of the bill is the heavy focus on technology to not only enhance safety, but to bring America up to speed by turning to tech companies as key stakeholders in accelerating change.

Smarter American Cities

Obama hasn’t been shy in gifting funds to make American cities smarter and more innovative, with the introduction of the White House Smart Cities Initiative. In addition to funding for the FAST Act, Columbus, Ohio, the winner out of 78 cities, will receive $40 million from the US Department of Transportation to accelerate game-changing technologies from self-driving cars to smart traffic lights, to vehicle communications.

Despite Columbus winning, cities like Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Portland, and San Francisco, who also proposed technology solutions to solve real-word problems, will receive help from the federal department. From self-driving shuttles, to smart sensors to accelerate freight delivery and improve safety, the 78 cities that entered will get assistance in finding industry partners and additional cash to implement the plans.

It’s a no brainer as to why the current administration has been at the forefront of developing smarter cities. Revolutionary new transportation technologies and the smart use of data provide us with the potential to save lives, reduce traffic congestions, reduce our environmental impact, and provide access and opportunity to a greater diversity of Americans. The Smart City Challenge calls on cities to envision new solutions to transportation issues in order to close the gap between rich and poor, and meet the needs of all city residents. Despite their age, everyone should have access to transportation, not just those that are tech-savvy. This game-changing act has shown that the city of the future will see tech companies become stakeholders in the urban planning process.

Columbus’ Smarter City Plan

Columbus plans to implement technology to help all of its residents move better and access opportunity. Industry and philanthropic partners have raised an additional $100 million in non-federal resources, providing a total of $140 million worth of cash, resources, and research to develop a series of transportation technologies.

One of the initiatives pioneered by the Columbus city will focus on disconnected neighbourhoods, like the suburb of Linden. The area suffers from high incarceration rates, low employment rates, and high infant mortality rates – all while being cut off from good public transport. Many residents, in fact, do not have debit or credit cards. The isolation, both geographically and technologically,makes it extremely difficult to find a job or access basic healthcare. Ride sharing services like Uber, which are quickly becoming ubiquitous and connecting passengers in many cities throughout the world, don’t particularly like servicing the area due to its remote location.

These barriers present an enormously complex problem, however the city of Columbus has proposed creating a card or app that will allow anyone to use a ride-share service or a bus. Much like London’s oyster card system, customers can use cash to add to their accounts at a kiosk. For those that aren’t fortunate enough to live near a bus stop, the city wants to use autonomous vehicles, providing a shuttle service for the last mile of their journey. The economic opportunities this initiative provides is enormous to the neighborhood of Linden, residents can seek employment opportunities elsewhere and access much needed basic healthcare services.

IBM Watson’s ‘Olli’ self-driving electric shuttle have offered to supply them to the city of Columbus.

Self-driving cars

The new legislation also factors in autonomous vehicles, which companies like Tesla, Audi, and Google are currently developing. Grants will be available for “technologies associated with autonomous vehicles, and other collision avoidance technologies.”

One of Columbus’ areas of focus for the Smart City Challenge was to reduce accidents by 15 percent in the next 20 years, using technology called Mobileye Shield. The invention involves a camera and screen that can detect pedestrians and cyclists who may not be in sight of the bus driver.

The city’s CEOs will switch to electric vehicles with charging stations at their office locations. Columbus also plans to test “platooning technology” for its freight industry, first seen in Nevada. To save on fuel costs, vehicles can ‘platoon’, where they cut wind resistance by travelling in close formation.

America isn’t the only one testing and focusing on alternative transport methods. Norway is currently on an anti-car roll. After announcing a plan to ban cars from the Oslo city center by 2019, it will be introducing a slew of measures designed to make owning and driving gas-powered cards much more difficult. In their place, Norway hopes to make alternative vehicles a more attractive option.

Air pollution in cities is a huge issue, and it seems the best way to fix it is to get rid of the major cause – cars. Shockingly, 75 percent of global energy consumption occurs in the world’s cities, and 80 percent of gas emissions that contribute to global warming also come from our cities.  Around the world, cities are jumping on the environmental bandwagon, with London looking into electric delivery vehicles, and Paris banning old cars from entering the city on weekdays. Norwegians have plans for a billion-dollar network of bike highways to promote healthier and environmentally-friendly modes of transport. Helsinki has plans by 2025 to eliminate the need for any resident to own a private car. By combining private and public transport providers, citizens can choose the cheapest or fastest mode of transport. From payment to route planning, – including ride-share services or on demand buses – every element of the system will be accessible through a mobile device.

New era of mobility

The FAST Act not only stimulates growth infrastructure growth, but technology will have an integral role in ushering in new innovations. Many of the forward-thinking initiatives in the FAST Act and the White House Smart Cities Initiative are undeniably linked to the technology industry. The introduction of innovative transport systems paves the way for a new era of smart mobility driven by technological innovation. Transportation isn’t just about physical infrastructure like cars, roads and bridges anymore. Mobile is changing how we interact, making the whole process of getting from A to B much more collaborative. Technology like sensor-powereddynamic pricing, where the price can be adjusted without human intervention in real-time; social transport apps, ridesharing and carsharing can help tackle traffic congestion in our cities. The new era of smart transport options will make it safer with fewer traffic accidents, better air quality and no parking hassles.

Despite a lot of innovative technology already available, most are operating in silos separate from each other. It seems logical that the role of government could be to integrate these transportation technologies to provide residents with multimodal options. Digital innovations are solving real-world problems, not just in the transport industry.

Cycling and walking is the future

The FAST Act has been welcomed by the cycling community, which alots budget for the promised bike lanes, bicycle parking and walking trails, among other things. Funding will increase to $850 million annually for the next three years. The new funding will be a breath of fresh air – literally, for all Americans. Historically, US cities grew by expanding outwards, making it more convenient to use cars to get around. More recently, city planners have been focusing on denser development, encouraging residents to walk, cycle or use public transport. A report by Smart Growth America conducted a study to investigate the most walkable cities in the US – Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago came out on top. Not only do walkable cities drive down transport costs, they allow residents better access to employment.

The FAST Act has been a welcome piece of legislation in America to support much needed change and growth in the infrastructure sector. The growth is not only financially, but also technological in nature. The surge in funding creates an ideal moment for countries to test successful technologies that have been experimented with in other parts of the world. The FAST Act is more than additional bike lanes and futuristic self-driving cars. The Act encourages cities of the future to have integrative and intelligent technological solutions that give residents equal access to opportunities. America, and the world, is in an age of exponential change, and Linden, Ohio is a great example of how cities of the future will operate with forward-thinking legislation to support the advancements.