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Fast Forward: Driving Smart Local Decision-Making on Innovative Transportation

If I had a nickel for every media story asserting how autonomous vehicles *will* change our cities, I could afford a nice long ride in an autonomous Uber, if not an Autopilot-equipped Tesla of my very own.

But there is really no way to know what the effects of autonomous vehicles *will* be – only what they “might,” “could,” or “should” be. Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase put things in their proper perspective a couple of months ago: “Self-driving cars will improve our cities,” she wrote, “If they don’t ruin them.” Her point was that the impacts of innovative technologies on society are not pre-determined. They’re conditional, and they depend on the decisions we make – including at the public policy level – about how they will be deployed.

Today, we’re proud to release Fast Forward: The Technology Revolution in Transportation and What it Means for Transportation, a white paper we produced with Transportation for Massachusetts, a diverse coalition of organizations working for safe, convenient, climate-friendly and affordable transportation in the Commonwealth. Fast Forward surveys the lay of the land for innovative mobility technologies and tools in Massachusetts, explores their potential impacts, and makes a series of recommendations for local, state and federal policy-makers.

At Frontier Group, our interest in tech-enabled transportation innovations stretches back to our 2013 report, A New Way to Go, which envisioned how a combination of shared mobility tools could free more Americans to live car-free and car-light lifestyles, with transformative benefits for our cities and the global climate. Getting to that future will not be easy, given the policy hurdles and path dependencies at play. And as we explored in our May 2016 report, A New Way Forward, there is likely no one-size-fits-all approach to deploying innovative technologies – cities with different histories and transportation needs might choose different strategies to get the maximum benefits for social equity, the environment and quality of life.

Fast Forward is a path-breaking work, less because of what it says than how it came to be. Over the course of the last year, Transportation for Massachusetts organized several roundtable discussions and reached out to experts and practitioners in the innovative mobility field to shape the report and its recommendations. Leaders in Massachusetts business, government, academia, the non-profit sector and community-based organizations all took part in the process and shared their opinions. It was a collaborative effort of a kind that I’m not sure has occurred in quite the same way anywhere else in the country.

And critically, Fast Forward did not limit its scope to Boston or its urban neighbors but rather explored the potential benefits and challenges of innovative mobility throughout the Commonwealth – in the suburbs, in Massachusetts’ economically struggling Gateway Cities, and in rural areas of the state.  

At the very first roundtable discussion in February, one attendee said that “this is the discussion we’ve been waiting to have.” For the last five years at least, cities like Boston have been on the receiving end of a wave of transportation innovation the likes of which we have not seen in decades. And yet, there have been very few opportunities for those who are affected by those innovations to talk about their implications– to process their meaning, to envision better outcomes, or to have the hard discussions about policy priorities that can ensure that these technologies leave us better off in the long run, not worse.

We hope that Fast Forward provides a platform for leaders throughout Massachusetts to better understand the implications of new transportation technologies, weigh their impacts, and develop enlightened public policy that serves the public interest. I also hope that it sets an example for the kinds of conversations that could happen in cities around the country.

By taking the time to consider the implications of innovative mobility where we live, citizens and public officials can be equipped to ensure that new technology improves our cities and doesn’t ruin them. But the rapid pace of change means that there is limited time for citizens and policy-makers to get out in front of these innovations. If we are to make the most of new technology and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the time to begin these conversations is now.