David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
The current management of transportation in American cities is, to put it mildly, balkanized. Powers to regulate, tax, and allocate budgets for modes like transit, automobiles, and taxis are divided across numerous transit authorities, state agencies, and city departments. The predictable result: organizational friction and confusion about who is ultimately responsible for achieving policy goals such as equity, safety, and the reduction of pollution and congestion.
This situation is not sustainable, especially in an era when new mobility services like ride-hail and scooters have made the pursuit of regional mobility goals more challenging—and more important—than ever before. It’s time to consider a dramatic step: consolidation of all mobility oversight into a single regional authority.
Transit agency leaders have been among the first to experience the problems inherent to the mobility status quo. To understand their challenge, consider the following scenario: Mary lives in an urban neighborhood. With no good public transport route to her work downtown, she has been driving her car those few miles each day. But Mary dislikes the congestion and hunt for a parking spot, so when scooter-share comes to her neighborhood she decides to scoot to and from her job. Mary’s decision takes one car off the road during peak times and marginally reduces congestion, a stated goal of her regional public transit agency.
The question: is Mary’s decision to switch from driving to scooter-share a “win” for that transit agency?
It could be, since her shift from a car to scooter-share will contribute to reducing congestion and pollution. Or is it irrelevant because she is relying on a private company, rather than the transit agency’s bus or train to move her?
The answer to this thought experiment has profound implications for the management of urban transportation. If Mary’s decision is indeed a small victory for the local transit agency, then the agency should evaluate its success with metrics that reflect it, such as the percentage of commuters who opt not to drive alone to work, regardless of whether or not the transit agency moves those commuters.
Not all transit leaders see Mary’s decision as a win for transit, but many agree that it is. Nathaniel Ford, the CEO of Jacksonville Transportation Authority, is one of them. "Transit agencies exist to help people move affordably, safely, and quickly through a city,” he said. “We clearly have to take into account the powerful impact that alternative modes like ride-hail and bikeshare have on those goals."
If agencies do treat Mary’s decision as a win, they are moving beyond their traditional role as operators of assets like buses and subways to become mobility authorities, with a mission that encompasses all modes of mobility. This expansion of a transit agency’s mission makes sense, but there is a problem: The majority lack oversight of ride-hail, scooter-share, and other such services—and it’s generally cities rather than transit agencies that regulate the sidewalks and streets that private companies (and public buses) rely upon to move passengers. It doesn’t make sense for transit agencies to pursue a broad mission if they lack authority to execute on it.
The situation in my home region of Washington, D.C., is typical. Here, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) operates most buses and trains, but the District of Columbia and neighboring jurisdictions oversee streets, curbs, Capital Bikeshare, and private services like ride-hail and scooter-share.
In its Metro 2025 strategic plan WMATA cites reduction of road congestion as a central goal, but the authority has few tools to pursue it beyond operating its own buses and rail. It’s the neighboring states rather than WMATA that regulate ride-hail, and it’s local jurisdictions that have started to set aside parking spots as ride-hail drop-off points.
So transit agencies like WMATA have a misalignment between their lofty mobility goals and the limited assets they manage themselves. How can it be resolved?
A solution is to combine the transit agency with existing city and county departments of transportation, public works, and for-hire vehicle oversight to create a regional transportation authority. After all, most cities already manage the curbs and streets used by new mobility services (as well as a transit agency’s own bus fleet). The new authority would use its regulatory and pricing powers to pursue overarching goals like equity, safety, and congestion reduction.
David King, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, predicts such consolidations would be big wins for cities. “If we integrate transport responsibilities into a single agency, we’ll end up with a more efficient use of space that balances roads, parking, transit, ride-hail, bikes, et cetera,” he says.
This kind of unified transportation management is unusual in the United States today—but it’s not unheard of. Like most American cities, until 20 years ago San Francisco divided its mobility responsibilities across a Taxi Commission, a Department of Parking and Traffic, and a Municipal Railway (Muni). But in 1999 voters passed Proposition E, which consolidated all those agencies into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), with jurisdiction over the city’s streets, curbs, taxis, streetcars, and bike lanes. That makes it easier for SFMTA to allocate scarce street space to the modes that move the most people like BRT, the bus rapid transit system. However, SFMTA’s power has boundaries: the agency does not control bridges and tunnels and it cannot alter the cost of driving by implementing charges like congestion pricing.
Just north of the United States border, the Vancouver metropolitan area goes even further. While SFMTA’s powers are limited to the city and county of San Francisco, the jurisdiction of Vancouver’s TransLink extends to rail, bus, for-hire vehicles, roads, and bridges in the surrounding metro area. Today fewer than half the total trips within the city of Vancouver are taken by automobile, and, unlike almost all American transit agencies, TransLink’s ridership is growing.
TransLink’s leaders can use their budgeting and regulatory power to balance the needs of modes like automobiles, transit, and for-hire vehicles in a way that’s hard to imagine in an American metropolitan area—at least at the moment.
If America did want to unify regional transportation planning, regulation, and budgeting, how could it happen? Such an effort would be a heavy lift politically, as states, cities, and towns probably won’t be enthused about ceding their direct control. But it’s not impossible.
One option is to work through Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO’s), which are federally mandated to develop long-term transportation plans for any region with over 50,000 residents. MPO’s currently have limited powers focused on long-term planning; they seldom allocate significant transportation revenues to individual projects or modes, and they lack regulatory power over actors like taxis or ride-hail. But the federal government granted MPO’s significantly expanded powers in 1991 when it passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA); Congress could conceivably give MPO’s a much bigger booster shot by assigning it taxation and regulatory powers akin to those of Vancouver’s TransLink.
No one claims this kind of a policy shift would be easy. But pursuing societal goals around urban mobility is going to be even harder if cities and transit agencies wait. A host of new services like micro-mobility and autonomous transportation are just beginning to hit the market, often blurring the line between public and private transportation and creating potential new competitors—and compliments—to core transit service. It’s unreasonable to expect transit agencies (or city transportation agencies) to navigate this uncertain future on their own, with their limited tools.
If we want to move the maximum number of people as cheaply, cleanly, and efficiently as possible through our cities, we need a mobility governance structure supporting that mission. The sensible way to do that: placing management of trains, buses, streets, and private mobility services under one roof.