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.
There are a handful of policy phrases that reliably trigger outrage among urban mobility wonks. “Sharrow” is one; “parking minimum” is another. I’d like to suggest a couple more: “first in the country” and “staying ahead of our rivals.” If you hear either spoken by your mayor or governor, head for the hills (or the next community meeting). More likely than not, your elected officials are basing mobility policy decisions not on cost-benefit analysis or strategic foresight, but on a classic modern insecurity: FOMO.
For the uninitiated, FOMO stands for “Fear Of Missing Out,” and it’s a common abbreviation in texts and social media chatter. If you’re frantically visiting stores to get your hands on the hot new smart phone that everyone is talking about, blame FOMO. Same goes if you feel a pang of envy when you see your friend’s gorgeous social media posts of her tropical vacation—and then hop online to check flights to the Caribbean.
What does FOMO have to do with urban mobility policy? Ideally, nothing. But in reality, quite a bit—especially with state and local officials swooning over autonomous vehicle technology and eager to show it off.
Consider Arlington, Texas, where in 2017, city officials unveiled an autonomous shuttle called Milo that transports people on a fixed route through its entertainment district. During the launch, a planning official seemed more excited about the novelty of the program than its potential value to citizens, gushing, “[Milo] will go down in history as the first time that a government, a municipal government, has really offered this as a service to the general public." No mention was made of whether the general public actually wanted the service in the first place.
At least Milo served a theoretical purpose; it’s hard to say the same for Colorado’s “first autonomous beer run” a few years ago, when the state’s department of transportation provided highway patrol escorts for an autonomous truck transporting cases of beer on I-25 between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. The stunt earned headlines and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, but it left no lasting impact on Coloradans’ lives.
Another Southwestern state also sought to dazzle with its early AV adoption—with far more serious consequences. In 2015, Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order that provided nearly unfettered access to state roads for autonomous vehicle testing, with an eye toward impressing tech companies from California (Arizona’s AV marketing blitz included a lengthy advertisement in the Harvard Business Review). It worked: Bay Area-based tech companies like Waymo and Uber brought their autonomous technologies to Arizona roads. Then, tragically, on March 18, 2018, a pedestrian named Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber autonomous vehicle whose safety driver was distracted as she watched a video on her phone. In the aftermath, the governor faced a firestorm of criticism for making his state the “the Wild West of autonomous vehicle testing.”
Other examples of FOMO-induced mobility projects range from the transit agencies racing to launch micro-transit pilots (with no clear success stories), to the Hyperloop proposal between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (now just the Loop, without the Hyper), to the $48 million the Las Vegas Convention Authority awarded to Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build an underground “people mover” for Tesla vehicles to link convention center halls—extending all of 0.83 miles.
The problem with these projects is that they are the policy equivalent of Instagram glamour shots, crafted to elicit admiration and envy rather than improve lives. And, like the mayor of Springfield in The Simpsons who is determined to get a new monorail before Shelbyville does, their backers insist on unveiling the shiny new technology ahead of anyone else.
But here’s the thing: not all mobility firms are like the Boring Company (or Phil Hartman’s slick monorail salesman in The Simpsons), attracted to FOMO-based opportunities like ants to a picnic. Companies can tell when policymakers are chasing a “wow” factor instead of real outcomes—and they respond accordingly.
Take May Mobility, an Ann Arbor-based startup providing autonomous vehicle shuttle services in cities including Detroit, Columbus, and Providence. Local leaders regularly reach out to the company proposing a deployment, but its leaders pass if they sense the offer is based in FOMO instead of substantive mobility goals. That’s because a FOMO-inspired pilot may grab headlines, but it will probably wind down when the spotlight fades (like Colorado’s autonomous beer run, which was not repeated). May Mobility’s cofounder Alisyn Malek says, “I have to invest in the community for a new project, and after a six month-pilot concludes, I have to find budget to stay on. We don’t work with communities operating out of FOMO.”
In fact, mobility policymakers would be wise to go in the opposite direction of FOMO, searching for unglamorous proposals offering the biggest bang for the buck improving mobility outcomes. Consider the lowly bus shelter, which, as Alon Levy has pointed out, is cheap to install and can make bus service more attractive by dramatically reducing perceived wait times between vehicle arrivals. It’s easy to find examples of local leaders excitedly announcing an AV pilot, but when is the last time you heard about a mobility plan trumpeting bus shelter installations?
So, to the local officials out there, fight the temptation to amaze your peers with a new, sexy mobility technology—and instead embrace whatever solutions can bring the most benefit to the most people. It’s your best chance to leave a legacy of improved lives—seize it!
After all, YOLO.