The Big Spend

Think Covid Changed Our Desire for Travel? Think Again.

Think Covid Changed Our Desire for Travel? Think Again.

Denise Berger: It looks like remote work will be sticking around. How do you think this will change the modelling of daily transportation for New York City?

Rick Cotton: Travel trends and commuting trends will come back to a significant extent. I mean, if you look at travel and take air travel, as an example, it’s approaching 75% of pre-COVID levels. So that domestic travel is clearly coming back quicker than international travel, and leisure travel is coming back faster than business travel. So the discussion is not if, but when, we expect travel to resume, we expect it to return to pre-COVID levels.

DB: Explain to me what Design-Build means for port authorities?

RC:  Design-Build is putting the architect and the designer into a consortium with the construction company. You accomplish two things, at least from a public agency point of view. First of all, it's one procurement and that's no little deal. So you've shortened the time that's required in terms of getting from conception to procurement for an actual construction project. The second thing is by putting the builder and the designer into the same consortium, you avoid the finger pointing later on if problems arise. But the other thing, even beyond that, is you benefit from the creative tension that you force prior to the bid and prior to the start of construction, between the designer and the builder. 

DB: What role does technology play in Port Authority’s operations? 

RC: Well, I think technology is at the base of the passenger experience. I think one of the great difficulties for big organizations, and especially public organizations, is that change in the outside world frequently exceeds the change that occurs within the big organization.

That could not be more true in an area like technology. Agencies have to really make a conscious commitment to look at what's happening externally and keep up with it. Sometimes that's relatively straightforward. Sometimes it's a big challenge because it requires different skills, but the fact is it's what the public expects.

Just to use a somewhat small example: digital countdown clocks on the subway. You can’t meet public expectations without embracing at least digital countdown clocks, as well as free and fast wifi, and free access to facilities for everyone. A larger example: building your new terminal with electric facilities and vehicles as much as possible. The technology ambitions have to be extremely large. It's simply what the 21st century is about. It's what customers expect and agencies and transportation operators need to extend every effort to embrace it.

DB: What are your sustainability goals?

RC: Climate change is one of the most defining crises of our time. So during the prior presidential administration, when the country rejected the Paris Accord, we were the first public transportation agency to step up, embrace it, set targets, and move toward achieving them. 

We adopted a dozen different initiatives —  the clean dozen. We followed through on those, but frankly, that action is not aggressive enough. President Biden has set out new targets, faster targets. Public agencies at every level of government and private organizations should be responding to that, and should be embracing those new targets. . . . . You have to step up and ask, “what can you change about your operations? What can you change in terms of your purchase policies for electricity?”


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