An open letter to metro’s leadership – Carroll G. Robinson

New innovations will soon be the new normal

By Hon. Carroll G. Robinson, Esq

As cities across the country race to implement new regulations in a shortsighted (and unwinnable) effort to stop this newest wave of inevitable transformation being driven by technological innovation such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Bitcoin and driverless cars, I am writing to encourage and implore Metro to harness change and transformation to help modernize public transportation in our region–rather than joining the forces trying to fight the future.

As Metro prepares its “MetroNext” plan for the future of the agency-and most importantly the future of public transportation in our region-to bring to local voters for our approval, I want to remind Metro that the future of public transit is no longer a debate over “more Buses vs. Light Rail”.

Yes, we need Light Rail from Palm Center to Hobby Airport and on to Galveston for emergency evacuation, and from Downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport out 59 North or 45 North to enhance the attractiveness of our region as a convention and tourist destination but these two projects are not the next toughest or most important challenges ahead for Metro. (See generally, Metro Solutions, 2003, http://www.metronext.org/about/solutions.aspx; and Traffic Engineers, East End Mobility Study, https://www.houstontx.gov/planning/transportation/CMP/EastEndMobilityStudyFinalReport.pdf.)

The reality is that the next great challenge for public transit agencies, nationally and here in Houston, is adapting to private sector companies and entrepreneurs focused on modernizing and advancing innovative business models for more efficient and less costly point-to-point shared rides (See John Zimmer, The Road Ahead, Medium, September 18, 2016, https://medium.com/@johnzimmer/the-third-transportation-revolution-27860f05fa91.)

The push for driverless cars will help lower the cost of shared ride and shared car services for consumers. Prices will become low enough, in the not too distant future, to compete for Metro’s core ridership; low to moderate income working class residents of our region. Metro’s Park-n-Ride business/ridership could also very well be cannibalized by driverless shared ride services.

Continuing improvements in mobile payment platforms will help make it easier and more convenient for even people without a credit card or bank account to pay to utilize modern shared ride or shared car options. This change will also help draw riders away from Metro once the cost of shared rides begins to decline (See, e.g., Ingrid Reisman, LVmonorail, Las Vegas Monorail unveils mobile ticketing with google pay, March 19, 2018, https://www.lvmonorail.com/launches-mobile-ticketing-with-google-pay/.)
Consumer convenience and payment options are continuously being improved and modernized. (See, e.g., Christina Bennington, How Apple plans to win the mobile payment way, Slate, July 14, 2018, https://slate.com/technology/2018/07/apple-pay-can-apple-beat-paypal-venmo-in-mobile-payments-war.html.)

Metro must figure out how to modernize its fare card to make it and a Metro app universal payment methods for all shared ride and shared vehicle providers and options, including shared bicycles that require rental, in our region.

At its foundation, “MetroNext” must accept and acknowledge the fact that Metro is a shared ride provider that now needs to modernize its business model, diversify its vehicle fleet and invest in more public-private partnerships to remain relevant to the needs of consumers in a changing market place. Metro is, and has always been a shared ride service provider that is now being out innovated and out modernized in the same way that Amazon surpassed eBay and Walmart, through the more innovative use of technology to envision a new and more modern business model. Metro must now do this same thing.

In a few years, people will be even more unwilling to walk to a bus stop or train station to wait in rain, heat or cold for a ride. This will likely happen faster if Metro does not build modern full bus stops and Light Rail stations that offer more than just free wi-fi and protection from the weather. Riders want (and deserve) as many full service stops as possible as well as smaller Metro vehicles that can come into neighborhoods without blocking streets and traffic and that utilize technology to coordinate individualized pick up and drop off similar to what FEDEX and UPS now do with packages. Metro needs to become the Amazon of transportation with a state of the art just in time pick-up and delivery system. (Chris Teale, How AVs could be a boom to transit equity and efficiency, Smart Cities Dive, June 18, 2018, https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/autonomous-vehicles-transit-equity-efficiency/525921/.)

Metro must also figure out how to be the primary emergency evacuation transportation provider for people in our region without access to a private vehicle or who are senior citizens living in wellness care facilities and high-rises.

In other words, a significant part of the vision of “MetroNext” must be how Metro can build a coordinated network of cooperation through Mutual Aid Agreements with Harris County, local cities and governmental entities, including cities and communities South all the way to Galveston, that ensures that Metro and its partners are fully prepared in an emergency, natural disaster or man-made, to not just evacuate people–but to also help save lives. (Carroll G. Robinson, City of Houston, Harris County- we could do better, Guardian, April 4, 2017, https://www.guardiannewsusa.com/op-ed-city-houston-harris-county-better/.)

Peter Drucker once wrote that the world changes every fifty years. In 2019, it will be less than a decade to Metro’s Fiftieth Anniversary in 2028. “MetroNext” must be a bold and foresighted plan that lays a foundation that prepares and will carry Metro into its second half century of existence and service.

Drucker also wrote that “Fifty years later a new world exists. And the people born into that world cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. Our age is such a period of transformation.”

It will not be enough for “MetroNext” to simply be a plan that focuses on getting car owners out of their cars, building two new Light Rail lines and buying more buses even if they are smaller and electric powered vehicles. This is not enough for the future needs of working-class riders, economic growth, equity and shared prosperity across our region. (Lester King, Houston Sustainability Indicators Report, Issuu, October 2016, https://issuu.com/sustainablehouston/docs/snbrreport2016final.)

Metro is a life line whose importance to our region grows every day with the growth of our region’s population and the economic and geographic dispersion of that growth.

“MetroNext” must meet this moment and truly be a plan that builds an interconnected public-private system that will take our region, residents and Metro’s riders into the future.

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Hon. Robinson is the former Chairman, City of Houston Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee; Former Vice Chairman, Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council (H-GAC TPC) and Associate Professor of Public Administration, Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University

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