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Innovation for Who? Reclaiming Public Purpose in the Urban Transportation Pilot


Arielle Fleisher is SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director.

Chris Chou is an associate attorney at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass focusing on land use, infrastructure, and other regulatory issues.

Hidden beneath the buzz about how technology is transforming urban transit is a quiet revolution in the way that cities approach the management of their streets. In the face of rapid change, cities and transit agencies are increasingly relying on pilot programs to manage the introduction of new modes of transportation and new uses of the right of way. Pilot approaches have spread through all regions of the country and are utilized by cities of all sizes and for numerous applications including dockless bike share, autonomous buses, micro-transit, delivery robots, and smart streetlights.

It’s important to appreciate how the pilot approach departs from how cities typically regulate and manage urban transportation problems. The public sector often makes slow decisions and avoids risks. But that stability can be a disadvantage if it ossifies and can’t accommodate changes to the system. Without compromising cities’ ability to use public funding, exercise regulatory authority, and pursue the public’s interest, pilots provide cities and transit agencies with flexibility. They give cities a safe space to try new approaches while managing the potential chaos of new technologies.

Yet pilots today are too often centered around technology alone. By allowing technologies to be deployed before all the impacts are known and by avoiding political accountability in favor of bureaucratic administration, pilots do provide an expedient route for technology companies. Cities benefit from this approach because they can implement controls to mitigate some of the technology’s potential impacts and reduce the risk of invasion—by pogo sticks, scooters, dockless bikes, and all the technologies yet-to-be-imagined. But this reactive approach narrows pilots to implementing new technology, not innovating approaches for the broader policy goals of the transportation system. Even though many pilots have admirably prioritized city goals and policies like equity, access, and environmental justice, these goals are often ancillary to the pilots’ primary purpose of integrating the new technologies.

To help cities in their mission to support mobility, achieve safer streets, reduce traffic, facilitate higher-density growth, and improve quality of life and public health, pilots need to progress from the current orientation around technology to a focus on the city and its people. Rather than idly waiting and reacting to change, pilots can empower cities to steward the emergence of a new transportation ecosystem by setting terms, conditions, and goals for using new transportation infrastructure. It is not the job of cities and transit agencies to do product testing for technology companies, nor should it be their goal to merely signal the city’s relevance in the face of rapidly changing technology.

To move from today’s technology focus to pilots to that are centered around the city and its people, cities and transit agencies should evaluate how each stage of a pilot can be designed to better serve city and community interests.

  • Frame pilots around the city’s goals and don’t assume technology is the answer. Pilots often assume technology as the solution to the question. They can be limited in scope from the outset and do not necessarily address systemic issues or test non-technology Sometimes pilots aren’t even built around a question. An app or smaller vehicles may be the answer to a vexing problem of getting people to and from train stations, for example, but so too may be different fare products or more legible maps. Yet the staff designing the pilots do not necessarily have authority over the other pieces of the transportation ecosystem; their purview limits them to technology-based solutions. Furthermore, pilots do not absolve the transit agency of the need to foster innovation in its own regulatory and organizational structure, which may also be a source for new solutions. Pilots may emerge in response to technological trends, but they are nonetheless situated within a city and its existing efforts and affairs. should integrate the city’s goals and this broader context from the pilot’s conception.
  • Design pilots to have people-centered metrics and parameters. Many transit agencies have placed equity at the forefront of their pilots by mandating affordable and equitable service—particularly for cost-burdened communities of color. They are refusing to let new mobility leave anyone behind. This is commendable, and a prime example of how cities and transit agencies can design a pilot’s parameters and metrics to meet their needs and expectations. Safety, accessibility and fairness to riders should be other non-negotiables. Cities and transit agencies should also think critically about and consider how to design them so that people—and not technology—are at the center of the experience. For example, performance measures that prioritize total ridership and those that prioritize the transportation experience will beget very different pilots. Pilots provide an opportunity for cities to move from a pure transportation-as-utility focus to one that accounts for people’s ambitions and needs.
  • Refinement, iteration, and the perpetual pilot. Pilots are by their nature temporary, and are most powerful when refined and reevaluated with each successive iteration. Cities should aspire to a stage of perpetual piloting. By licensing use only for a finite period, this approach could also limit vesting, entitlement, and entrenchment of private interests. At the very least, cities and transit agencies should be given a certain amount of leeway to make incremental, responsive changes without seeking permission from legislative bodies. This can ensure pilots stay true to their flexible intentions.

This new era of urban transportation is in its infancy. Transit agencies and cities are just beginning to make sense of it all through pilot programs. But just as cities are beginning to experiment with these regulatory tools, they are already under threat from preemptive state laws that threaten to strip cities and transit agencies of the flexibility they need to discover innovative approaches.

Instead of taking away cities’ ability to innovate, states can find ways to support and foster innovation. To succeed as stewards of a new transportation ecosystem, transit agencies and cities will have to take on a new role: that of facilitator, innovator, coordinated planner, and quick-response, proactive regulator. This new role requires not only new skillsets, but new mindsets as well. Since not all cities have the resources to broker good contracts and create substantial pilots, mechanisms for learning and sharing findings are just as important. Therefore, states and regional agencies should focus on supporting and partnering with local transit agencies. State-level innovation initiatives are imperative to providing cities the flexibility and resources they need to meet the expectations and demands of a changing transportation landscape.