To save its infrastructure, America needs more toll roads

The sun shines on the Los Angeles freeway. Image: Getty.

In today’s America, we have come to take for granted the sad state of the national transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 report card gave the nation a D+ grade on its roads, bridges, and ports.

There was a time when a D+ was not acceptable. There was also a time in the US when A+ was the standard. Now failing is the standard. This D+ rating left the news cycle faster than an average commuter gets home on our overly congested highways.

As I write this piece, I’m sitting stalled on Amtrak headed from Washington, DC to New York’s Penn Station due to a derailment in Penn Station. As a Nevada Department of Transportation board member and long time transportation advocate, I am all too familiar with this experience and storyline.

We all know that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and congestion is at an all-time high. Americans have been forced to just accept long commutes and spending less time at home with their families.

It is also simply accepted that the deterioration of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure is due in large part to the fact that our Congressional leaders no longer have a vision for the infrastructure that moves our $18.5trn economy and over 321m Americans. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had the courage to force Congress to invest and begin building the Interstate Highway System we have today. Unfortunately, today’s congressional leaders would rather stop progress than make progress, and Americans go on suffering. 

But there is hope. Many regions are passing their own transportation referenda to fund transportation investments and improvements. Voters approved more than $200bn in transportation ballot initiatives this past November, and many regions are increasing the use of toll lanes and roads to reduce congestion to pay for infrastructure.  

Yet, this is not enough. Fuel revenues are decreasing due to the increased investments of electric and hybrid vehicles, and overall higher fuel efficiencies in today’s vehicles. If governments does not routinely raise fuel taxes and/or index them to inflation, and if some mechanism is not implemented to capture the increased number of electric and hybrid vehicles road usage, then America’s infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

One way forward is the increased usage of toll roads. As we move to a transportation system that will include electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and connected or autonomous vehicles, we clearly have the means to ensure all road users can help directly fund the roads they use every day – not just the ones that burn lots of gas.


Americans clearly see the need for investments in greater mobility to help our economy grow. Take, for example, the recent passage of Measure M in Los Angeles. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA Metro CEO Phil Washington courageously made sure the ballot measure passed with over 71 percent of approval by Angelenos.

Why? Angelenos are fed up with congestion and lack of Congressional leadership. Measure M is the first ever transportation initiative with no sunset provision, creating an endless funding stream for LA Metro to invest in transit, local streets and roads, bridges, buses, and highways.

Another example is the recent opening of Express Lanes on State Route 91 in Riverside County, California, one of the nation’s most congested commutes. SR 91 is a critical route for the regional economy because it moves the workers for Orange and LA Counties from their homes in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Toll lanes now run from the City of Riverside all the way to southern Orange County. The toll lanes are now working at near capacity due to the great need for mobility improvements in the region. 

Toll lanes work and more regions and states should begin to initiate the inclusion of these lanes to reduce congestion, improve mobility and improve the driving public’s quality of life. 

There is no magic formula to funding our infrastructure. We need every tool available to improve America’s surface transportation infrastructure, and toll roads belong as part of that multifaceted toolset.  

Tom Skancke is chief executive of TSC2 Group, a management consulting firm, and is executive director of the Western Regional Alliance, an association of western transportation and metropolitan planning organisations. This article reflects his own views, not those of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

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What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.